Thursday, March 23, 2023

Better than a Poke in the Eye from James W. Ziskin

Which do you find harder to cope with, success or failure? In either event do you have ways to keep the world's view of your work from affecting your work?

Victory, 2017 Macavity Award                                     Defeat, 2017 Edgar Award

Success is easy. At least it should be. I haven’t experienced every shade of success in my writing career, but I can’t complain. Sure, my books and stories have been well-enough received critically, and I’ve been fortunate to have won a few awards, But sales have not made me rich. Even if I’m not in the writing biz to make pots of cash, I wouldn’t mind it if I did.


Failure is another matter. It’s inevitable in this and any other field of endeavor. All star hitters in baseball only get hits a third of the time. That means they fail two out of three at bats. Yet they somehow learn to be happy with that percentage. 


When I was searching for an agent fifteen years ago, I received about forty-five “declinations.” That’s the term my former agent—the one I managed to land out of forty-five—used to refer to rejections. I appreciated his attempts to soften the sting. Or perhaps ennoble it. Anyway, one for forty-five is a pretty poor batting average for a baseball player, but a damn fine one for an aspiring writer. And, of course, it took a few years—and a second book—before my agent was able to sell something for me.


Writers fail much more often than baseball batters. At least when we’re starting out. Just ask a writer how many agents rejected their work before something got accepted. The same is true for publisher rejections. But once you break through, things can get a little easier. After my first novel, I sold six more books to my first publisher until we—the publisher and I—parted brass rags and went our separate ways and I started all over again. Lucky for me, my new agent placed my latest book, Bombay Monsoon, with a new publisher and I am happy to claim that as a success.


Success and failure are opposite sides of the same coin. And sometimes a failure is a success with a wart. Or at least a blemish. I’ve been lucky enough to see my books and stories nominated as finalists for twenty-one important industry awards. Those nominations were without a doubt successes, even when I didn’t win the day. I managed to sneak off with four of those twenty-one awards. That’s a middle-of-the-road batting average in baseball, but—again—a fantastic haul for a writer. I don’t look at my also rans as failures. That would be the height of petulance. I’m proud of those honors, even if our own Catriona McPherson stuffed the prize-winning hardware into her bulging suitcase on a few of those occasions, thereby denying me bragging rights and you all a victory dance you could never hope to wash from your eyes. Be thankful for small mercies. Congratulations, dearest Catriona.


No, I can’t complain. Rejection and failure are part and parcel of the bargain we’ve signed on for. Neither affects my work. My satisfaction, perhaps, but not my work. A success puts a smile on your face, while a failure leaves a scar. Scars can disfigure or distinguish. I like to think of my declinations, losses, and disappointments as having left marks of character on my face. For me, a black eye is a badge of honor. 


Then again, a victory is better than a poke in the eye, which, of course, can cause a black eye.




Wednesday, March 22, 2023

On circling the drain

Which do you find harder to cope with, success or failure? In either event do you have ways to keep the world's view of your work from affecting your work?

by Dietrich

When success comes knocking and things are going my way, there’s no struggle, it’s all good, and there’s just an open road ahead. Who doesn’t love that feeling?

Of course, it doesn’t always feel that way. That open road to acceptance, nominations, awards, and other accolades can sometimes seem dotted with potholes of criticism and rejection — the stuff that wants to shake up any writer’s conviction. And sure, we’ve all been told there’s something to be learned from a flop, how we ought to bounce back, come to terms with life’s ups and down, put things in a better light, garner something from a bad experience, accept that it makes us wiser and better at dealing with it, possibly even avoiding the same pothole the next time around. And like Brenda said, “Failure makes success even sweeter.”

“Life has become immeasurably better since I have been forced to stop taking it seriously.” ― Hunter S. Thompson  

Starting out, I worked at writing something worth putting on a page, and along the way I learned how to deal with self-doubt. Since writing was something I had wanted to do from when I was in my teens, I dared myself to keep at it until I thought I had something worth sending out. The next step was finding somebody willing to publish it, and by then the self-doubt was starting to fade. Although for a moment it wanted to peek over my shoulder when that first review came in, but I managed to ignore it.

“Life's as kind as you let it be.” ― Charles Bukowski

It’s definitely easier to deal with success, and maybe the best thing about that feeling of failing is it isn’t permanent. I really do think it all boils down to a choice in attitude.

Coming June 6th. Check it out.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Coping with Reality


Terry Here. Our subject this week is whether we find it harder to cope with, success or failure. Also, if the world’s view of our work affects us. 

For years I was embarrassed to say I was trying to get published, because regardless of my hard work, I kept getting rejections. I kept beavering away, first on a yellow pad with a pen, then on a computer keyboard. All my friends knew I was writing mystery novels, and they’d always ask how I was doing with the writing. Early on they would ask with excitement, then as I continued to be unsuccessful at finding a publisher the questions would be more tentative. And finally, they would ask in the same tone of voice you might ask if someone had died. They were right: My hopes and dreams were dying. 

During those years, I kept sending out my manuscripts, and I got one great agent after another—well-known agents, “selling” agents. They show great enthusiasm, I’d get “almosts” from publishers, and then the boom would drop again. Sorry, close but no cigar. Sorry, loved the characters, didn’t like the plot. Love the plot, not the characters. Too bad, we just signed a new author who work is too much like yours. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. 

And as much as I am an upbeat person, generally positive, as the years of writing with no published book to show for it, I couldn’t help feeling like a failure. 

Thank goodness for writer friends who would encourage me, tell me it was a hard business and it was just a matter of time, and I shouldn’t give up. I tried different subjects, eventually writing six books and chapters of others. I guess I coped okay, because I kept writing, but I felt pretty bleak at times. At that time “success” looked like nothing more than getting a novel published. Period. 

 And then I got "the call." A two-book contract with a decent advance. I felt like someone who had been wandering in the desert—or in the woods—or in the wilderness—homeless, and bereft, and suddenly I had come home. I suppose there are people for whom success is a double-edged sword, who feel as if there must have been some mistake and that any minute their contract will be snatched away (oops, sorry, wrong author). But all I felt was enormous relief, excitement, and vindication for my persistence. I felt as if I had finally gotten good news, and that my books would find an audience. 

 What I had not factored in was that the book would be a winner, winning accolades, fans, and awards. It was stunning. After that point, my goal of “success” changed. I felt greedy for the next book to do as well. And it did. And for several years, things zipped along happily. I discovered that I loved public speaking, loved coming up with new ways to market my books, loved getting fan mail, and loved knowing that my books were finding readers. 

 The one odd thing about “success” is that it’s a moving target. From thinking of success as publishing a book, I now think of it as writing something that catches a larger audience. I’m starting a new series, and am eager to see how it goes. And I’ve written a standalone that I hope will gain a larger audience. The one thing I know is that for me, success was much easier to handle than failure. 

The last part of the question is not one I think much about. It doesn’t mean I never think of it, but it doesn’t affect me a lot. Or at least, not until recently. I’m hatching a book in the Samuel Craddock series that has a potentially very serious back story. I’m torn about whether to tackle it or step away. 

 A few years ago A Reckoning in the Back Country dealt with the issue of dog fighting, a horrific subject. I didn’t get terrible backlash, but I did have some readers who said they wouldn’t read it, in spite of the fact that reviewers said it was handled well. I understood their reluctance, because I had the same reluctance when I wrote it. But I felt I had to be true to myself, and that meant dealing with a subject that is “true.” 

 Can I face another such subject? It’s troubling. I’m almost there, and have had conversations with other authors about it. Oddly, the question of "success" is more personal in this case. Can I do justice to a hard subject? Will I feel good about having written it? If the answer is yes, then that will be success. And I'll cope with the fallout. 

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Those Special Moments

Which do you find harder to cope with, success or failure? In either event do you have ways to keep the world's view of your work from affecting your work?


This is an easy choice. Failure is much harder to cope with than success. Yet even as I acknowledge this, I also must admit that the failures have their own importance in maintaining balance. Ultimately, failures make the successes even sweeter.

We're all told as authors starting out to expect rejection in bucketfuls. Others have been through the tough road to getting published or slogged through the roadblocks to having a book noticed once it's in print. Their warnings are meant to build resilience, to prepare a new writer for the hope-dashing reality of what is to come.

Perhaps, it's necessary to define failure and success, which I believe are constantly shifting. My evolving idea of failure (or success) might not be everyone's. I consider myself successful for having completed and released 24 books, continuing to find the joy in the process of writing, making friends with other writers and readers, being invited to book clubs and libraries, handling myself okay on panels and giving well-received presentations. I've decided that the big pay cheque, or fame of the Louise Penny or Michael Connelly variety is a goal but not my yardstick. 

My first books were a series of four mysteries for the middle grade market. I was with a small Toronto publisher who did what she could to get the books noticed, which wasn't all that much in the big scheme, publicity budgets being what they are. I attended a children's book conference around the time my first book came out and an author got up onto the stage and said, "Don't expect getting a book published to change your life. It won't." Harsh? Certainly, but her words lessened the sting of -- not failure exactly -- but not raging success either. It let me temper my expectations, and still does if truth be told.

Failure is less easy to gauge. It can be a bad review or comment. Being overlooked for awards. Not being invited to a book festival. Being turned down by an agent. We each have our own painful moments, and they always sting. Experience keeps them more in perspective though, maybe even lets you laugh. My recent favourite toss-off, bad review was when someone wrote that the first half of my book was too 'wordy'. I mean, huh?

As for handling success, I've learned to savour and appreciate the moments. Last year when Cold Mourning and Butterfly Kills audiobooks made the top ten library loans in Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and some library systems in the U.S. and Canada, even receiving media attention, I knew the hoopla wouldn't last, but boy, I enjoyed it while it did! Not for a moment did this success go to my head; I was simply grateful for the reader support. 

Success is really just a spaced-out series of moments, filled in by hard work and dreaming of the next story. Failure is also fleeting, and neither need define a writer or their work. The trick is to stay grounded, believe in yourself, and keep on keeping on.


Facebook & Instagram: BrendaChapmanAuthor

Twitter: brendaAchapman

Friday, March 17, 2023

Five Pieces of Advice and One Anecdote, by Josh Stallings

Q: What is the best advice you received from an agent, editor, publisher, writer, or florist? For bonus credit what was the worst?

Me trying to come up with an answer.

A: “Be furious in your quest for the truth.” As a young writer I gave myself that advice. This quest has led me to understand that truth is personal. Truth depends on one’s perspective. No I’m not saying I believe in “alternate facts”. There are historical and empirical facts, but human truths like the answer to “am I a good person?” Or “am I a complete fraud?” Or “Did my mother love me?” Those truths — the ones a character is made from — are personal and subjective. Villains rarely think they are bad people. Tyrants are sure they do what they do for the good of others. All the really good people I’ve met thought they had hidden monsters inside that must never be let loose. And as a writer it is these human truths I keep struggling to understand and capture.

Charlie Huston

Charlie Huston gave me several pieces of advice, if I wanted the words to rip and roar I needed to, “Write with velocity.” Literally type as fast and powerfully as humanly or dyslexically possible. Our old craftsman home used to sway on its foundation as I pounded words. I discovered that if I was typing at the outer edge of my thinking speed, I had no time to second guess or qualify. It was a way to connect my subconscious directly to my hands, bypassing the critical and logical part of my brain.

Another from Charlie came when I was up for an Anthony. “Awards mean everything, unless you don’t win, and then they don’t mean anything.” No that wasn’t the advice that mattered but it made me smile. What he said after hearing about my award nominations was, “That’s great, but what are you working on now? Awards are for something you did last year. They’re in the rearview mirror.” Keep my eye on the present or I'm guaranteed to crash.

“You will only be as great as you are willing to fail.” - Some Famous Actor. I read it on the wall of The American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I never do good work from a place of fear. The hard part of any creative’s life is that we will be told many times that we just aren’t good enough or current enough or salable enough. In the face of these slings and arrows we must be bold and have the unmitigated audacity to believe in ourselves.

Ian Ayris

I recently sent Ian Ayris a bleak letter full of why bother, and who cares. Here is his response:

“I fully believe writing is more than books on shelves. Writing is a communication in words of the darkness within, teaching us who we are, giving us the chance to express in words that which we are so fearful to utter aloud. Then when we see it written down, its power over us is diminished and we feel that little more whole for it. And we move on with our torch a little brighter further into the darkness... If we as writers can find the courage to put words to our own darkness, there will be someone who reads those words who will recognize the darkness they have inside them. And their torch will burn a little brighter because of it. They still have the dark path to tread - as do we all - but they will no longer feel so alone. And stuff like that, Josh, that goes well beyond books on shelves. Write your truth, my friend. That is all any of us need to do.” - Ian Ayris


Tell your truth.

Write with velocity.

Keep your eye on the present.

Never fear failure.

Tell your truth. (Yes I said that one twice.)

I’ll leave you with this, 32 years ago when I first got sober I asked my sponsor “If I slay my dragons, what will I write about?”

He laughed and laughed and finally explained, “Slay them? Oh no, at best you may learn to tame them just a little bit.”

For More About Charlie Huston

For more on Ian Ayris

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Guest Post, by Liz Milliron

Catriona writes: It's lovely to welcome back a good friend of the blog, Liz Milliron, who is celebrating the launch of her fourth Homefornt mystery - THE TRUTH WE TELL. I'm a huge fan of this beguiling series about blue-collar hero Betty Ahern in 1940s Buffalo. By day Betty does her bit for the war effort in an aircraft engineering works, by night she sleuths; hence the "Sam Spade meets Rosie the Riveter" log line! 

Just like Betty, Liz is pitching right in today, answering the question of the week, about the best and (for bonus points) worst writing advice.


And now, Liz Milliron

Thanks, Catriona, for having me back on Criminal Minds.

Advice. There’s a saying or a song lyric out there about free advice. Something about it being worth what you paid for it. Unfortunately – fortunately? – there’s a smorgasbord of advice to choose from when you are an author. No matter what point in your career you’re at, someone has an opinion.

My grandfather had a saying about those, too, but this is a G-rated blog.

The best advice I ever received wasn’t actually directed at me, personally. It came from author Jonathan Maberry. He of the Joe Ledger series, some comics, an epic fantasy Kagen the Damned, and a bunch of other things. Yeah, not my genre, right? I met him a couple of times at the Pennwriters conference. Pennwriters is another writing organization I belong to, a multi-genre one for Pennsylvania writers. They have an annual conference which is one of the best for your buck if you are trying to make a career out of this writing gig.

But I digress (slightly).

Jonathan was the keynote speaker several years ago at that conference. In his speech, he said, “Writers do best with their own species.”

Now, if you aren’t a writer, you might think he’s saying we writers aren’t quite human. And since he writes both sci-fi and fantasy, hey, that’s a valid thought. But that isn’t what he meant.

His point is that writers need other writers. In other words, “find your tribe.” If you’re a writer, that means your tribe is, well, other writers (duh). You may have many tribes, but one of them ought to be writers. Otherwise, well, it’s a lonely, lonely world out there as you battle rejections, smaller-than-expected royalty checks, tiny turnouts at events…you get the picture.

But if you have a tribe, there are other people to commiserate with, give pep talks, buy you another drink, whatever you need. Maybe it’s a genre-specific tribe (this is where I give a special shout out to Sisters in Crime, but there are others for crime fiction authors). If you write sci-fi/fantasy, there’s an organization for you. Ditto romance. Same for children’s authors.

Again, you get the picture.

Or maybe it’s a multi-genre group, such as Pennwriters. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter.

Just get together with your own species.

Bonus points: Worst advice

I’m sorry, Stephen King. I really am. I know he’s adored by legions and his book, On Writing, is a must-have for writers. But I’m going to take umbrage with “Never use adverbs.” Actually, I will expand that to any advice that includes the words never or always.

I’m just not a fan of absolutes because it rarely applies to everyone. Adverbs are a fine piece of language. Just use them wisely, okay? And not everyone has the luxury of writing every day. I have one of those pesky “day jobs” and sometimes I’m too spent. (Although it does a fine job of paying those other pesky things called “bills,” so I won’t complain too much.)

So, I’d have to say the worst advice I ever got is anything that includes an absolute.

Except when it comes to personal hygiene. Always wash your hands after using the bathroom.

Liz Milliron is the author of The Laurel Highlands Mysteries, set in the scenic Laurel highalnds and The Homefront Mysteries, set in Buffalo NY during the early years of World War II. She is a member of Pennwriters, Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers and The Historical Novel Society. She is the current vice-president of the Pittsburgh chapter of Sisters in Crime and is on the National Board as the Education Liaison.  Liz splits her time between Pittsburgh and the Laurel Highlands, where she lives with her husband and a very spoiled retired-racer greyhound.

May 1943. Betty Ahern is studying for her private investigator’s license when a new client—Edward Kettle—hires her to clear his name after he was dismissed from his job at the American Shipbuilding Company. When Edward is brutally murdered, the dead man’s sister hires Betty to finish the original job and find the killer. The job hurls Betty back into the world of wartime espionage, but with a twist ... Betty must unravel the mystery, uncovering truths that others would prefer to keep hidden despite threats to her morals her beliefs, and her life.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

It's about the writing...and the gnarly bits by Cathy Ace

Business - What is the best advice you received from an agent, editor, publisher, writer, or florist? For bonus credit what was the worst? 

 Personally, I prefer to focus on the positive, so here goes:


Best advice from a writer: Thanks to Ann Cleeves
Best advice from a writer

Context: I’d been dumped by a publisher, who wouldn’t sell me back all my rights (they eventually allowed me to buy them all, except the print rights, which puzzled me, but there you have it). My other publisher had been bought up, and they’d sent their new standard contract to my agent, which I didn’t like, but she said I should sign it (I didn’t, in the end, and walked away from them, and her, too).

Where & when: At Bouchercon in Toronto, 2017. I was Chair of Crime Writers of Canada at the time; one third of our members were attending the convention and I was organizing a LOT of events…and I was on antibiotics, due to a head/chest thing. Feeling awful, hardly sleeping, trying to do my best. Pretty low all round (though I hope no one noticed this at the time). I was sitting at a table having a moment (not a happy one) and Ann Cleeves asked if she could join me, as she hung around between her own “bookings”. She’s a talented, supportive, and sympathetic person, and I told her what was going on as we chatted.

The advice: It’s all about the writing (we chatted for ages, but this was the essence of it).

How it’s helped: In 2018 I set up my own company to publish my own writing, and haven’t looked back. Still haven’t got an agent, still enjoying the writing. There’s an awful lot about earning a living as an author that isn’t “about the writing”, and whenever that’s getting me down, I remember what Ann said. Given her current fantastic success it’s hard to believe she, too, has faced uphill struggles in terms of being published. Her first book came out in 1986, 26 years before my first was published; she’s seen so many changes in the business that her advice really resonates.

Thank you, Ann Cleeves.


Anna, on the left 

Best advice from an editor

 Context: I’d had one substantive editor, and three different proof editors, at my first publishing house, then met a new editor at my second publisher.

Where & when: at a lunch my publisher set up, in London, so my new editor and I could get to know each other before we worked together.

The advice: You write you, and I’ll sort out the gnarly bits.

How it’s helped: shortly after we’d met, this editor left the publishing house, but was still used by them as a freelancer on my books. She’s now edited all ten of the books I’ve published through my own company. I still write me, and I always hope there’ll be fewer gnarly bits.

Thank you, Anna Harrisson.


Worst advice?

Publisher: Set your books in the Cotswolds, not Wales.

Agent: Just sign the boilerplate contract.

Florist: Keep the vase in a sunny spot.

My 7th WISE Enquiries Agency Mystery 


 (which is set in Wales, not the Cotswolds, and edited by Anna, through my own publishing company) 

is AVAILBLE NOW in hardcover, paperback, and for ebooks.


Tuesday, March 14, 2023

It was the best Advice, the worst Advice by Gabriel Valjan


What is the best advice you received from an agent, editor, publisher, writer, or florist? For bonus credit what was the worst?


Prescriptive advice is like One-Size-Fits-All clothing. It’s generic and safe. I’m not a fan of How-To books because I prefer to teach myself the What and Why I like someone’s writing and analyze How it works for me. I’ve also not had any luck with agents, so the advice that I’ve received has been haphazard and varied.

I’m a literary delinquent. I dislike monolithic THOU SHALT NOT statements. I do, however, believe it is foolish to ignore the expectations that accompany genre. Crime fiction needs a crime; romance, a relationship hoped for, or frustrated, etc. Once you know the Rules, it’s fun to test them.  

I feel most alive when I write, so there’s an indescribable joy that comes with the translation from what is inside my head onto the page. Nonetheless, I have heard or received unsolicited advice. Sarcasm Mode is ON.



Don’t chase trends. Like bell-bottoms and other fashion trends, there are fads that have their season in the sun. They live, die, and return, not unlike vampires, dystopias, and the PI who has a drinking problem, yet is stupendous in bed and can take a licking (fights meant here, not sex).

Beginnings matter. The pressure to connect with readers hard and fast is real. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, ‘There are no second acts in American lives.’ First impressions matter, but there is no pleasing everyone. Some readers permit you one chapter, while others are your ex disguised as a judge for the Olympics who doesn’t want to see you stick the landing. It’s easier to criticize than create—and lest we forget, writers are notorious for both Inner Critic and Imposter Syndrome, so why beat yourself up when others will do it with glee. Do the best you can at where you are as a writer.

In medias res. Latin for ‘in the middle of things,’ in medias res is another way of saying Beginnings Matter. Throw the reader sans lifejacket into the deep end.

Sink or swim, mon lecteur.

            It’s sound advice, except when there is no context for what is on the page. There’s no romance and no foreplay. It’s great and memorable when done well; not so much when it isn’t. In medias res should address some or all of the 5 Ws: Who, What, When, Where, and like the vowel, sometimes Why.

            I like ‘in medias res’, but not when the advisor gets the Latin wrong and writes ‘in media res.’

Kill your darlings. I think Faulkner’s counsel meant not to fall in love with your writing at the reader’s expense. Delete or edit anything that doesn’t move the story forward. I’m a ruthless editor and I’ll cull the herd, but it doesn’t mean I’m not humane. I take what I have removed and place it in a shelter, where it’ll be adopted and placed in another story.

Where this advice doesn’t work for me is when you need to give your reader time to think about what has happened.  It’s not a call for filler, but an opportunity for jazz, to alter the rhythms of pacing and plot and offer insights into your characters and their world.

Let it go. By far the best advice I’ve received on craft. I cringe at what I wrote ten years ago, but that’s a good thing. I have either learned from my mistakes or honed techniques and narrative strategies. I’m not that guy who churns out formula, which might be safe, monetarily successful, but ultimately is bland as cornflakes. There is something to be said for growth, for sweat equity, and for Trial and Error.



Listen and observe. Be slow to anger and speak with respect. This was life advice, given to me by an unlikely source. I apply it to social media, and it’s how I conduct myself in the writing community.

Social media is a cesspool. It’s a mashup of both Big Brother and Gilead. The court of public opinion is swift to cancel people, with little or no justification. Trolls exist. There are attention seekers. Anonymity makes keyboard warriors of them all. Don’t hand them the gun and the ammo.

The heart of this particular advice is that you’re accountable, 24/7/365. What you say on the internet lives forever. Writers watch, as do agents and publishers. Behave in a way that you don’t have to fear walking into a room with someone behind you.



You need to have something published every month. Context: Since I was first published in 2012, I’ve written two novels a year. I have not submitted all of them for publication because I’m particular about what I put out in the world. The advice here meant that I would not enjoy success (in this case, financial) because I’m not constantly in front of readers.

            I’ll leave that one on the back burner.



Monday, March 13, 2023

It's All About the Work

 Q: What is the best advice you received from an agent, editor, publisher, writer, or florist? For bonus credit what was the worst? 

-from Susan


I’ve gotten some gems – good advice that has influenced my fiction writing career since it began in earnest in 2008. But the very best might sound simplistic: Never submit a manuscript to an agent or an editor unless it is the absolute best you can produce. 


It sounds easy or “duh,” but it’s not. Before you have an agent, you have a lot to prove, and it’s so easy for overburdened agents or their interns to find a flaw and use that to stop reading. After all, there are 200 other manuscripts piled up in front of them. Why waste time on a writer who hasn’t resolved a plot problem, or whose writing is flawed in some obvious and correctible way? If the writer is making more work for the possible agent even before she or he has been accepted, it suggests there will be more time and attention required later on, so why take that on?


Of course, my absolute best today may not be the same in six months, but it means being honest with myself, reading the manuscript more than once, digging out the typos and the tense flaws, listening to the dialogue, searching for an overabundance of adjectives and adverbs, being truthful with myself about places where laziness has crept into my writing. It‘s a lot of work. 


It was my first agent who told me that right after she signed me. She said that my manuscript was ready to send out to editors, and that it gave her confidence in me as a client. 


I hear often about writers who rely on their agents to come back to them with suggestions when they turn in a new book later on, so they don’t worry too much if something hasn’t been worked out quite right. I’m still leery of that. I know more now, I’ve been in an agent’s office and seen the massive stacks of manuscripts, and heard about computer folders that are just as packed. There’s an almost desperate attempt to get things out of the way. The last thing a writer wants is to be tossed on the discard pile - or dropped as a client -  with a sigh of relief because the writer gave the reader an excuse.


I have twice been given advice that I don’t like and find difficult to accept. “Editors aren’t buying [fill in the sub-genre] so you shouldn’t spend time on it.” The problem with that, and I see it on bookstore shelves in a year or so, is that what they were buying or not changes. All it takes is for one good book in that unpopular genre to rocket onto the bestseller list and everyone is buying manuscripts like it! 


The other is “Choose the publisher that will give you a hard cover first run, because the prestigious print reviewers won’t touch it otherwise.” Well, that ship has sailed! Now that hard cover books cost around $30, it’s hard to sell out a print run of 2500 copies. And I’m happy to see at least some trade paper books getting reviews in places like the NYT Book Review Crime column these days. Now, if they would only publish it every week…

 Sorry, the florist thing escapes me. I can’t even remember asking for advice from a florist unless it was about the chances of my getting a parking ticket if I didn’t refill the meter in front of her San Francisco store. Answer: Yes!

                             New book out this week - currently available in hard cover (ouch) or e-book.  

“The quirky village residents make this an appealing series debut… recommended for fans of M.L. Longworth, Martin Walker, and Serena Kent” – Library Journal

Thursday, March 9, 2023

On the Shoulders of Giants

 Are there books you love so much that you find their tone creeping up in your work? Where is the line between homage and plagiarism?


By Abir


There’s an old adage that to be a writer you need to first be a reader. Most writers, I think, are voracious readers. It goes with the territory after all. Reading not only widens our horizons, but for a writer, it also helps us better understand the craft and the possibilities of language, setting, plot and character. A lot of writers were first inspired to write after reading a particular book that touched them deeply, maybe a book that made sense of the world for them, or which took them on a journey of plot twists and adrenaline highs. 


For me there are certain authors and certain books which stand out: books which influenced my views; books I became engrossed in; books in which I saw myself and which helped me understand myself a little better. The ones that stand out are George Orwell’s '1984', Jhumpa Lahiri’s 'The Namesake', Martin Cruz-Smith’s Arkady Renko series, Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels and Ian Rankin’s Rebus books. These writers and works have, in different ways, brought me joy and informed me about the world and about myself. They’ve all influenced me in different ways. My love of crime fiction may not have started with Gorky Park, but it was certainly cemented by that book; and I’ve said many times that I would probably not have written my Wyndham and Banerjee books if I hadn’t read Philip Kerr’s work.


Yet I don’t write like them. I can’t write like them. I’m not sure I would want to. Writing in the style of another writer might seem like a guide when you first start writing, but I think it quickly becomes a straightjacket. I’d worry that it would limit your ability to experiment, to adapt and to grow as a writer. I imagine the vast majority of writers feel the same. That’s not to say we don’t learn from our heroes; of course we do. Our favourite writers show us what is possible; what we should aspire to, and with enough luck and talent, what we should hope to one day eclipse. And if we ever do reach that point, we would have done so in large measure because of them and their works, because they are the giants whose shoulders we’re standing on.


Badfinger and the Beatles from James W. Ziskin

Are there books you love so much that you find their tone creeping up in your work? Where is the line between homage and plagiarism?

No, I do not imitate my favorite writers. 

At least I don’t believe I do. Could be wrong, of course, but I doubt it. The reason why is because, when it comes to writing, I follow my own linguistic idiosyncrasies—semantic and syntactic—with utmost zeal and devotion. I love language, from the teensiest morphemes and phonemes to the long-windiest monuments of rhetorical invention; from punctuation to capitalization; malapropisms to spoonerisms; etymology to entomology. (Well, maybe not entomology. Bugs give me the willies.) I’m fascinated by both prescriptive and descriptive grammars, enjoying—as one does—an inadvertently funny dangling modifier nearly as much as I appreciate the correct usage of “beg the question” or “crescendo.” Yes, I love it all. Which is why, in my writing, I agonize over each word, every clause—the subordinate as well as the sassy insubordinate ones—aching to achieve something approaching adequate. Or perhaps memorable. But language is so nimble, too elastic for us ever to run out of alternative possible phrasings. Yet even if we could find the ideal words, more possibilities would be lurking, tempting, beckoning us to try—just once more—to improve on them.

I labor on the words I put into my stories and novels. The plots, too. Everything has to fit into the puzzle in my brain. Of course I fail sometimes, though it’s not for lack of trying. Everything has to ring pure and true in my ear. And I don’t know any other writer’s tone anywhere near as well as I know my own.

So, no, I don’t believe I could or would ever imitate another writer’s work.

Oh, wait… Forget what I just said.

I wrote a short story a couple of years ago that was a finalist for the Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards. It was called The Twenty-Five-Year Engagement, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. In writing that story, I did everything in my meager powers to conjure echoes of Arthur Conan Doyle’s tone and style. In some respects I may have succeeded. But not really. Sure, I used only words and expressions I knew were in use in England during Conan Doyle’s time. And I lifted a few tried-and-true phrases from the Holmes canon. But, I’m sure, under cursory scrutiny, my story could never pass for a lost manuscript of Doyle’s. Because Doyle had his style and I have mine. I can try to wrestle mine into submission, but only for so long. Eventually my own voice will escape the half-Nelson and re-assert itself for a count of three slaps on the mat.

So, never mind my retraction above. I’ll go back to what I said before. I don’t appropriate or imitate other writers. 

Except when I do. Kind of like Badfinger and the Beatles.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Badfinger. They recorded some great songs. And they certainly suffered unjustly from inevitable comparisons to the Beatles. And there was great tragedy, too.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Finding true north

Are there books you love so much that you find their tone creeping up in your work? Where is the line between homage and plagiarism?

by Dietrich

The first question had me considering a list of favorite authors and the fiction that I grew up with, books I’ve cherished over the years. And that’s likely where every writer starts out — by reading when they were kids. I think that’s what a great novel does — it entertains and stays with us, even years later. For writers, it also inspires us to find our own authentic tone, rhythm, and pace, and to set the bar just a little higher.

Consider that Ray Bradbury found inspiration reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, J.K. Rowlings found it in the pages of Jane Austen’s Emma, and Jane Austen enjoyed reading Lord Byron. Stephen King’s biggest influences included Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker.

For me, there’s something special in the works of Elmore Leonard, his economy of words and his tone. He named Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck among his biggest influences. Another favorite of mine was George V. Higgins — to me nobody wrote dialogue like that. And Charles Willeford had a way of putting humor with violence and making it all work, and James Crumley wrote the most amazing characters. Then there are Carl Hiaasen and Tim Dorsey who often have me laughing out loud as I read their zany stories. 

“I always introduce my work by explaining that I am a bastard child of Raymond Chandler. Line by line by line, image by image, he always has hold of the reader.” — James Crumley

Arthur Laurents wrote the book West Side Story, adapted for the musical by Jerome Robbins, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The story is a homage to Shakespeare, based on the outline of Romeo and Juliet.

Another way to pay homage is to write another author into the story as Joyce Carol Oates did in the story collection Wild Nights! in which she used the voices of five famous authors on their final days.

Robert B. Parker wrote forty Spenser novels in his lifetime, and Ace Atkins paid tribute to the author and the series by penning ten more after Parker’s death.

Coming up with a great story involves being inspired by other works, then drawing on one’s own creativity and from everything else around, then turning it into something original and special.

As for the second question: Where is the line between homage and plagiarism? Homage and plagiarism are simply worlds apart. One is about tribute and respect, the other is simply theft.

Coming June 6, 2023, from ECW Press. Check it out on their website.

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Ta Da - Book Launch Day!

 My thanks to Terry for letting me take her Tuesday spot. Today’s the official launch date for MURDER VISITS A FRENCH VILLAGE and I wanted to celebrate with my fellow Minds and readers. It’s a new series, but with benefits. Thanks to my new publisher, characters from the last two French village mysteries have been allowed to slip into the new series. The new protagonist is Ariel Shepard and here’s how her new life begins: 

The sound of a key turning in the lock made her turn. With a quick glance at the large mirror in the foyer to pull any stray lengths of hair into the trendy style her new Madison Avenue stylist had insisted on, Ariel opened the door.


“Hey, sweetheart,” Dan said, giving her a tight hug. He sighed and held on to her for a long moment. “I hope you know the best part of my day is opening the door and seeing you.” He dropped his briefcase on the big glass-topped table in the foyer and ran a hand through his silver-streaked hair. “Whew, it’s warm in here. They keep this building too hot. Even the heater in the car seemed way high, although Luis swears it’s like it always is.”


“Tough day?” Ariel said. “You look kind of pale. Are you feeling okay?”


“Fine, not to worry. Just tired.”


“How about a glass of wine to relax before dinner?”


Dan ran a hand roughly over his mouth. “Maybe I’ll just sit for a minute. I probably shouldn’t have had that steak frites lunch.” He tried to grin.


“Then, let’s just sit and look at the view,” Ariel said. “Dinner can wait.” She turned toward the living room but spun around seconds later when she heard a loud crash behind her.                                    


The new widow finds out her husband bought a rundown château they had seen on their honeymoon four years earlier. He meant to have it restored as a surprise gift and now, left with the proceeds of the sale of their posh Manhattan condo, she decides to take up the challenge herself. Sadly, Christiane, a lovely scholar she meets in Noyers who offers to research the château’s history, dies shockingly in the property’s dry moat, and the reasons why are a complete mystery.


Château de Champs-sur-Serein, my imaginary château, is a kilometer outside the real Noyers-sur-Serein, one of France’s 100 Most Beautiful Villages, a walled medieval town clustered below the ruins of an ancient fort. I’ve visited many times and I love the place. Noyers is in the Yonne district of the province of Burgundy, a pastoral region decorated in season with neon yellow rapeseed flowers and white Charolais cattle. The first two French village novels I wrote were set in an imaginary town that, in my mind, was near Noyers, so it makes sense that Katherine and Pippa, two other ex-pats and the protagonists of the first two, become her first friends and then her co-investigators. 


Part of the challenge of writing this was learning more than I ever wanted to know about drainage, electrical engineering, the matrix in stone walls, roof repair, etc. I kept reminding myself this wasn’t a how-to manual, I only had to avoid (fingers crossed) the most egregious errors so my imaginary château didn’t collapse! 


 Anyway, the book’s out today in hard cover and e-book formats, with the promise of a paperback sometime in the future. I’m so happy to be back in the Burgundy countryside, with a cast of new characters and some welcome friends from before. I’m deep into the follow-up, which is such a treat.


“The quirky village residents make this an appealing series debut. Characters from Shea’s “French Village Murder” series also appear in this book. Recommended for those who enjoyed the author’s previous series and for fans of M.L. Longworth, Martin Walker, and Serena Kent.” – Library Journal


Noyers-sur-Serein town center
Bon voyage even if it’s armchair travel!