Friday, May 14, 2021

Bumbling through

 By Abir

What comes first, the book or the pitch? Put another way, do you develop the larger idea of a book to test out with your agent/publisher, before writing the book? Or do you write the book and then look for the pitch in it? Or?




Friday again! If you live in the UK and you’re wondering what happened to the weather in the last fortnight - how did it suddenly go from unbroken sunshine to clouds and rain and snow and general misery? -  well the short answer is that it’s my fault. A week last Wednesday, I finished the first draft of a new novel, and at 1pm I emailed it to my editors. Naturally at 1.01pm, the heavens opened and it’s been pissing it down ever since.


You’re welcome.


Good question this week, and as usual, I have the benefit of answering on a Friday, and can glean from the wisdom of my colleagues who’ve answered it already. It’s interesting to see the range of answers, from James’ short pitch for every book, through Brenda and Dietrich’s writing the novel first and then coming up with the pitch, to Terry’s quick chat with her agent.


My experience is different again.


I’ve been lucky. For the Sam Wyndham series, I’ve only ever written one pitch – a two page synopsis that accompanied the first five thousand words of a specimen draft which I submitted for a competition. I was fortunate enough to win that competition and it came with a publishing contract – hooray! 


That first book, A RISING MAN, was received favourably and to date, my wonderful publishers have offered me new contracts to write a few more whenever I’ve started annoying them by asking what I should write next:


Me: Please, please, please, please can I do more of the writing for money, pleeeeeeeease? I’ve had a great idea involving killer dolphins who invade Mexico! No one’s ever looked at it from the dolphin’s point of view before.


Editor: Okay, how about this? I give you a contract for another two Wyndhams and you stop e-mailing me for another two years.


Me: Hooray!


Editor: I meant starting now.



In general, they tend to give me contracts for another two books at a time, and I’m comfortable with that. One book is a bit short to give me certainty, and three is probably too many, should I wish to write something else. They never ask me for a synopsis or a pitch of a new idea, but like Terry, I always have a conversation with my editor and my agent before starting a new novel, just to let them know what I’m thinking and to get their input.


The pattern has changed though in the last eighteen months. As I’ve mentioned here before, after having written four Sam Wyndham books in four years, and with the fifth one underway, I was keen to try to write something a bit different. I’d discussed this with my UK publishers who basically extended me carte blanche, telling me they’d back me to write whatever I wanted to (I was thinking of  trying my hand at Up-Lit), but they’d prefer it if I stuck to crime fiction, given that inexplicably, some people seemed to like what I was writing, and that yes, they were as surprised by that as I was.


Then things flipped again. Through my agent, I was contacted by a US editor who told me he’d liked my work (and for a Brit, there’s nothing quite like an American telling you they like you – just ask Prince Harry). He said that if I was to ever think about writing something more modern, that he’d be keen to talk.


We spoke on the phone a few times and I told him how wonderful America and all Americans are, and how I show my love for all things American by eating too many Big-Macs, and while rambling something about rodeos and baseball, I must have come up with an idea cos he said he liked it. I wrote a two page pitch: the first paragraph was the elevator pitch, and the rest was a short outline of the idea. I sent it to my agent, who didn’t hate it, and then on to the US editor. On the back of that, he asked for a partial – the first fifteen thousand words and a detailed outline of the rest of the novel.


I set to work on both, essentially giving him Act I of the book, and then put together a ten page document, describing why I wanted to write this book; what I hoped to achieve; an outline of the major characters; and a scene by scene overview of Acts II and III. I was honest and said that the ending was still hazy in my mind, but that I’d work it out by the time I got there (which turned out to be a lie).


I sent it to him, and to my UK publishers, and they both inexplicably liked it. This made my agent so happy that he started taking my calls again. He then sorted things out so that the US editor got US sub-rights and my UK editor got to bring it out here. That book, provisionally titled HUNTED, will be out next year.


So far I’ve never had to write a book without having a contract in hand, and I’m conscious of how fortunate I have been in that regard. I’m not a rich person (unlike James ‘Bezos’ Ziskin, or Terry ‘Weekends in the Hamptons’ Shames) and writing to contract gives me a degree of financial certainty which has, over the space of five years, allowed me to give up my day job and concentrate on the writing. I also know that this is a state of affairs which could change pretty rapidly. You’re only as good as your last book, they say, and the publishing industry can be a cut-throat place.


Fortunately the Wyndham and Banerjee books have developed enough of a following whereby my publishers are always keen to have me write a few more, and as long as readers enjoy the series, that’s great for me. It gives me a degree of financial certainty while allowing me the freedom to develop my writing in new ways by experimenting with other books, like Hunted, in between.


So there we go. Five days this week and the full gamut of the writer experience. 


(Gamut is a strange word isn’t it? Gamut. Saying it makes it sound even weirder. Gamut, gamut, gamut. See? Wonder where it came from?)


Anyway. Till next time. Have a great weekend, look after yourselves, and keep writing.



Thursday, May 13, 2021

To Pitch or Not to Pitch? from James W. Ziskin

 What comes first, the book or the pitch? Put another way, do you develop the larger idea of a book to test out with your agent/publisher, before writing the book? Or do you write the book and then look for the pitch in it? Or?

With the exception of my first Ellie Stone book, I’ve always written a short pitch for my editor before starting work on the novel. But the pitch was little more than a formality. Something to show to the publisher to ensure the story wasn’t something awful or inappropriate. In fact, for the third Ellie Stone novel, Stone Cold Dead, I sent the first fifty pages to my agent and editor for their OK, even after the publisher had signed off on the pitch. I wanted to be sure the crime in the story wasn’t taboo, Both my agent and editor told me not to worry. The storyline was fine.

Since my agent wanted to proceed one book contract at a time with the publisher, this pattern of a paragraph or two as a proposal continued through the seventh book with no hiccoughs along the way. But now I’m trying to branch out and write another series  or two, so I’m back to square one. 

For my latest book—a throwback thriller set in 1975 India—I had to pitch it to my new agent. In truth, the pitch was basically one line: “Graham Greene meets Gatsby on the Subcontinent.” She read the manuscript, offered some suggestions. Nothing major, but it was extremely helpful input that improved the final version. Then I had to write something compelling to entice editors. My agent and I worked on it for a while and came up with this. 

A literary thriller set in 1975 India, Bombay Monsoon is “Graham Greene meets Gatsby on the Subcontinent.” Danny Jacobs, an ambitious, young American journalist, arrives in Bombay for a new assignment and gets caught up in the chaos of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency.” His enigmatic expat neighbor, Willy Smets, is helpful and friendly, but the man’s secretive business dealings trouble Danny. The reporter falls hard for Sushmita, Smets’s beguiling and clever lover, and the infatuation is mutual.
 "The Emergency," a virtual coup by the prime minister, is only the first twist in the high-stakes drama of Danny’s new life in India. The assassination of a police officer by a Marxist extremist, as well as Danny’s obsession with the beautiful and inscrutable Sushmita, conspire to put his career—and life—in jeopardy. And, of course, the temptations of Willy Smets’s seductive personality sit squarely at the heart of the matter. 

Bombay Monsoon is out on submission now.

Next up is what I hope will be a winner of a stand-alone. I’ll only give the tentative title here: Arctic Hopscotch. It’s set during the Cold War in a frigid place. You’ll have to wait for the pitch, however, to know more.

And finally, I’ve got an idea for a new series starring two of my favorite secondary characters from my Ellie Stone books. If you’ve read Heart of Stone and Cast the First Stone, you may remember Nelson and Lucia Blanchard, the lovable but shamelessly licentious couple who try to lure Ellie into their bed at every turn. This will be a humorous series with a killer title. Can’t share that yet. But a suitable teaser description might be “What if Nick and Nora Charles had been swingers?”

I plan on writing pitches to my agent for these two projects soon.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Which way to go?

Photo: Andrea Kalteis

What comes first, the book or the pitch? Put another way, do you develop the larger idea of a book to test out with your agent/publisher, before writing the book? Or do you write the book and then look for the pitch in it? Or?

by Dietrich

I like to start with the easy part, writing the novel. It grows from an idea to a first draft, to a second draft, then to a third. Timelines and facts get checked, then the whole thing gets polished until it’s ready to send out.

Then I write the pitch. And for me, this is the tough part, boiling several hundred pages down to just a few lines. 

I learned to have a pitch ready the hard way when I went to my first Bouchercon. Another author came up and asked me what my debut novel was about, and after stammering out a more fizzle than sizzle answer, I realized I just sounded like I didn’t know what my own story was about.

Since that time, I have the spiel ready as soon as the novel reaches completion. Whether I’m pitching to an agent, publisher, or a reader, and whether it’s written or spoken, it needs to be fresh and compelling if the pitch stands a chance of being followed by a hit.

I avoid writing an unnecessarily long one, the kind of thing nobody’s going to remember. As I said, getting it down to a paragraph is a challenge, and condensing it down further, to just a line or two, is even more so. There’s a lot to be considered here: main characters, desire, conflict, what’s at stake, does it have a hook — something to leave the reader or listener wanting more.

When I think I have it right, I bounce it off my wife and son. They’ll let me know if it’s any good.

And while it’s often good to keep to a formula, making sure the key ingredients are in the pitch, sometimes it pays to think outside the box. I read somewhere that when a young James Cameron was pitching the sequel for Alien, he stepped into the boardroom to sell the project to the studio execs who he knew weren’t excited about it and were set to turn it down. Instead of getting into his spiel, all he did was walk up to the chalkboard, and he wrote the word ALIENS, drawing a vertical line through the S – ALIEN$. Then he turned to the room and grinned. The studio green-lit the project that day.

Since we’re on the topic of pitching, let me give you the long and the short for my latest, Under an Outlaw Moon — it’s coming in early November.

The long: The novel’s based on the true story of depression-era bank robbers, Bennie and Stella Mae Dickson. He’s a few years older and he’s trouble. She’s a teenage outsider longing to fit in. They meet at a local skating rink and the sparks fly. Soon they’re planning their new life together. 

They marry and Stella dreams of a nice house with a swing out back, while Bennie figures out how to get enough money to make it happen. Setting his sights on the good life, he decides to rob a bank. Talking Stella into it, he lays out his plan and teaches her to shoot. The newlyweds celebrate her sixteenth birthday by robbing a local bank. 

They pull it off, but the score is small, and Bennie realizes the money won’t last long, so he plans a bigger robbery. What lays ahead is more than either of them bargained for. After J. Edgar Hoover finds out they crossed state lines, he declares them public enemies number one and two, making Bennie and Stella the most hunted outlaws in the country — wanted dead or alive. So much for the good life. The manhunt is on, and there’s little room for them to run.

The short: Meet depression-era newlyweds Bennie and Stella. He’s reckless, she’s naive. Longing for freedom from tough times, they rob a bank. Soon they top the FBI’s ‘Most Wanted’ list. So much for the good life.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Listen to This

Terry Shames here: The question we’re on about this week is, “What comes first, the book or the pitch? Do you develop the larger idea of a book to test out with your agent/publisher, before writing the book? Or do you write the book and then look for the pitch in it? 

 I’ve always wondered how the first stories got developed. It’s pretty easy to imagine hunters sitting around a fire telling those who stayed home the story of their great adventure. How they found their prey, how they stalked it, how it fought back, and how they won in the end. 

But somewhere along the line someone decided to embellish the story a bit. From there, it wasn’t such a great leap to suddenly tell the story of something that really didn’t happen, except in the mind of the story-teller. I imagine that first person who made up the story as saying, “Listen to this. I’ve got a story about...” And his listeners either said, “Ooo, that sounds good! Tell us,” or “That sounds stupid. Shut up.” Thus, the first pitch was born. 

I have been spoiled, in that with the Samuel Craddock series, both my agent and my publisher never asked for anything more than a paragraph of what the next book was about. I didn’t pitch anything. I simply told my agent and editor what the book was about and they said to go for it. The funny thing is that after the books are written, I often find that the premise that I presented bore no resemblance to the finished book. 

Now that I have left my original publisher, things have changed. I have had to write the next book, and my agent wanted it to be dynamite before she would shop it. She sent it back to me twice to tighten and revise.
I had an agent and an editor for a long time before I discovered that they would actually work with me on developing a book. I thought I had to think of an idea, write the book, and turn it in as well-written as possible. Then one day my agent mentioned that she had been working with a client for six months on a story. I said, “Really? You do that?” She was surprised I didn’t know she would. Same thing with my editor. Someone said that the editor helped him figure out a plot. Again, I was totally surprised. I thought I had to work it all out before I showed to the editor. 

I’m still surprised when an author gets a book contract on spec. My agent has never offered to do that. She wants the complete book before she shops it. I don’t know whether that means other writers have more casual agents; whether their writing is better than mine and agents and publishers trust them to come up with a good book; or if they convey their ideas so well that their books get snapped up pre-written. Or maybe they just have better ideas. If someone has an established publisher who publishes all their books, and their books sell a lot of copies, I can understand that. But I’ve heard of authors whose books didn’t sell particularly well, but who pitched their publishers on a new concept without writing anything more than a synopsis—and got a contract. 

 I’ve also heard of authors being recruited to write a series based on something a publisher thinks will sell. 

That may be fine for some writers, but I can’t figure out how someone comes up with characters and a plot that didn’t come out of their own imagination. Again, maybe they are better writers than I am. 

 For me, a book goes through several iterations of character/plot development before I even know what the story is. So the idea of pitching it full-blown seems impossible. As I mentioned above, the finished product rarely looks like the book I had in mind to begin with. Whether that would matter to an editor, I don’t know. I suppose it would depend on how good the finished product was. 

 I’m curious to know how other writers respond to this week’s question. Stay tuned.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

The Chicken or the Egg?

What comes first, the book or the pitch? Put another way, do you develop the larger idea of a book to test out with your agent/publisher, before writing the book? Or do you write the book and then look for the pitch in it? Or?

Brenda Chapman getting this week started.

Good question.

I'm one of those 'pantsters' who wing the plot on the first go-around. I usually have a crime and motive pinned down, but not much else when I sit down to start a new manuscript. Thus, it would be hard for me to pitch my story to a publisher or agent at the start of a project.

I recently completed a manuscript that I'm hoping will be the first in a series. I sent the draft to my beta readers for their critique and have heard back from three of the four, all with positive feedback that gives me hope. Since all the agent advice warns not to submit a manuscript until it's polished and as ready as you can make it, I've held off on querying. The act of writing that query letter is almost as hard as writing the book (okay, I exaggerate but only by a smidgen) since the need to 'sell' the idea takes thought and precision. 

A Zoom webinar with three agents that I sat in on gave some other 'rules' for the query. They ask that you compare your book to other recent books, say up to five years ago, wanting to know that the author has a handle on what's new and in demand. My problem is that I can compare the latest manuscript to other books and characters but from a while back. The other issue is that I've been reading a lot of domestic thrillers and literary fiction that mine is nothing like.

I do wonder about the need to have one's book similar to recent other works since not all readers like the current thrillers or mysteries. Also, a good story well written should be marketable even if it's not aligning with a current 'fad'. For instance, a few years ago, vampire fiction was huge, but now? I'm not certain that the genre is still on the agent and publisher wish lists, but I'd wager that it has a huge fan base that hasn't gone away. I can see the domestic thriller genre falling out of favour at some point as the market becomes saturated. So, is it wise to require an author to write what is current?

Back to the pitch. The agents also say that if the nugget of a book can't be distilled into a hundred word synopsis, then it needs rewriting. I search for this nugget after I've finished the manuscript, but I'm also cognizant of the need to have a core focus now as I'm writing. Distilling a book to a sentence or two is a difficult exercise. Even the synopsis is to be pared down to a page or a page and a half. 

So, basically, the goal is to come up with the elevator pitch for a book -- what we'd say to sell it to an agent on an elevator ride to the lobby (hopefully from higher than the second floor). We have to sell the book by pitching what makes it marketable ... and this is only to get the agent or publisher to read a few pages to decide if they want to read the entire manuscript. I suppose this mimics readers deciding if they want to read a book or put it back on the shelf.

The more of these books I write, the more I see the value of the pitch and the need to get it right. I just wish writing one wasn't so darn hard!


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Twitter: brendaAchapman

Friday, May 7, 2021

Why would I write a police protagonist in 2021? By Josh Stallings

Q: We are living in interesting times. How has the social unrest and societal perception shifts changed your work?

A: Epic fantasy writer Tad Williams once said that he maps out these huge multi-volume stories while leaving himself wiggle room for who he will be six years down the road when he’s finishing the last book of the trilogy. 

Leaving room to grow as a human, and letting that affect the work is vital. And complicated.

I write entertainments, fast moving crime novels. But Josh the human is an ever evolving socially conscious man. I was raised in the counter culture, think hippies meet the Quaker peace and freedom movement. I am drawn to subjects that have social relevance, and then I try and forget that and concentrate on story.

More than a few readers have asked me if I was still writing and if I was, why haven’t I published anything for several years? I was writing, just not the part where I type words into sentences. To be able to write Tricky, I needed to discover how I felt about policing in America. That meant lots of research, reading interviews, talking to folks on both sides of the law, and the toughest part, personal reflection and honest inventory of a lifetime of interactions with the police. 

My grandfather was a LA Sheriff for most of his adult life. My father was arrested and jailed for anti-war efforts. I have been arrested. I have known cops. I have known criminals. I lived through the Rampart scandal and the Rodney King uprising. There was a pile to unpack.

This journey led me to some clear ideas on where we got it right, and where we got it wrong. Having done all the research, I tossed it out and wrote the story of Detective Madsen and Cisco, a cop and an intellectually disabled former gang member learning to see each other beyond the labels and preconceptions.

The book was done, sold to Agora, waiting on final edits when George Floyd was murdered. The Black Lives Matter movement is amazing and long overdue. And it led me to question if it was appropriate to write a police hero in these times? 

I don’t write heroes. I write flawed protagonists, doing the best they can with what they’ve got. I am interested in deeply flawed people who are trying to be better. Even in these politically divided times, we need to keep the conversations going.  

Detective Madsen isn’t me, but we share some core values and we are both works in progress. 

Young Americans was set in 1976. The focus of the novel’s action is a heist, but the story speaks to sexual identity and the fluidity of affectional orientation. Things I knew about coming of age in the SF bay area during the ‘70s, and a subject I dug deeper into when teaching sex ed to Unitarian Universalist youth. I know it upset a few people that I was writing about a transgender woman in the 70’s, as if that was anachronistic. It wasn’t. Valentina is based on a woman I was friends with at the time.

Quick diversion: “We kissed like we invented it.” From Elbo’s Mirrorball is the best description of a teenage world view I’ve ever read. 

To write the books I want to write I must keep doing the hard work of confronting my own biases and honestly look at how my privilege formed my world view.

Then toss the personal work out and write a fun yarn.

SHORT ANSWER (The Cliff Notes) Everything around me affects my writing. Everything.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

A Walk on the Mild Side, by Catriona

CRAFT : We are living in interesting times. How have the social unrest and societal perception shifts changed your work? 

Aren't we just? 

I've been rolling those two phrases around my mind for a while, as I was thinking about this blog - the social unrest, societal perception shifts - because there are so many things each one might mean. 

"The social unrest" might mean people taking to the streets of Minneapolis to protest a filmed murder that didn't look like being punished. Or it might mean people taking to the streets of Orange County over being asked to skip a beach trip.

These strike me as two very different categories of outrage. But neither one has changed my writing: I've had a pretty settled view of justice, morality, community and hypocrisy for a while now (thanks, Mum and Dad). 

Of course that view colours the tone of my work. I'm squarely in the camp of "dignity culture", believing that all people - all beings - have intrinsic worth beyond their wealth, status or productivity and I'm not much interested in tales that depend on "honour culture" for their moral force. Which isn't to say I'm uninterested in stories about honour culture: toxic masculinity, corrosive loyalty, respect fixation . . . fun times, right? 

But for today I'm going to concentrate on those societal perception shifts, because I have been on a journey when it comes to how to write about one particular kind of lived experience different from my own.

As a beginning writer I conceived of a story with a mysterious character - a film producer - trying to adopt a child from Russia through unusual channels. She's had a lot of plastic surgery and the Scottish narrator has never met anyone like her.

‘You don’t think I’m up to making an action adventure?’ said Patrice. 

‘Sorry,’ I said. 

‘Don’t be,’ she answered and she smiled. That was a sight to behold. Her top lip curled away from her teeth, which were large, perfect and many in number. It kept going until she got that crease under her nose, like Julie Roberts when she's really grinning, that crease that reminds you your mouth is one of the places your insides begin. Her bottom lip spread out across her chin in a movement unrelated to what was going on above. Nothing else moved a millimetre, but her eyes shone, and some of the carefulness disappeared from her. Somehow, I had passed some test that I didn’t even know I was sitting. Something had changed and it never changed back again. It wasn’t a big change; Patrice never got normal. But from that moment on she got with the rest of us – in normal’s orbit.

Two hundred and fifty pages later, we find out that Patrice is adopting, and is watchful, and has had plastic surgery, because she's trans. I never thought twice about it in 2005. It was a good twist as far as I was concerned. She's a sympathetic character and she gets a happy ending. No problem.

But things change.

Over the years as I met and got to know more trans people, as I read and considered trans characters, I learned that the trans plot twist is annoying at best and depressing at worst, even when there's no hate-as-entertainment in the story. It's up there with 'The professor is Black!' and 'Joe the plumber is Jo the plumber!' and 'He's married to another guy!' and all the other ways people's identities can (but maybe shouldn't) serve as punchlines. 

Patrice bothered me more and more. Look, I know progress isn't a straight shot for anyone but trans rights are particularly fragile and patchy. And they're under current attack, enraging and bonkers though that might be. (Holly Woodlawn hitch-hiked her way across the USA in 1962! And everyone was fine!)

Anyway, a couple of years ago I finally put a note on my website - here - and vowed to do better. 

I'm trying to do better right now. This year, in another book (Last Ditch Motel No. 4) I've got another trans character and although this is a comic novel, his identity is not a punchline. The punchline, after less than a page of set-up, is the assumptions we make, no matter where we're making them from. So, right at the start of the book, Della (a Mexican woman) is talking to Todd (a gay man) about the new, post-divorce, arrival at the motel: 

His ex-wife’s . . .” Della was saying. “I don’t know how much I can say.”

“Unfaithful? Addicted? Abusive?” said Todd.

“She punched him when he caught her making out in a taxi with her coke dealer,” said Della. “So, I think, all three. Only, he’s very religious so it was taking a lot of work to get him ready to leave.”

Todd and I exchanged a look. I said it. “Very religious? How is he with ‘the gays’? Not that we all have to hang out or anything but if he’s going to be a pest . . .”

“Oh, he’s good,” said Della. “I mean, I think. I think he would be good.”

“Why?” said Todd. “Why so breezy, Dells? I’ve never met a man religious enough to make divorce a problem who was ‘good’ with any other kind of fornication. Which is totally what he’d call my long happy marriage where no one makes out in taxis with coke dealers.”

“I don’t want to gossip about him when he’s not here,” Della said. “But believe me, he’ll be okay.”

“Oh really?” said Todd. “Have you ever actually broached the subject? Has it come up? Why would a hardcore Catholic macho-man who’s too embarrassed to admit his wife hits him be such a willing volunteer for the rainbow coalition?”

“He’s Muslim,” Della said. “And trans.”

I think it's different. I hope so. I've still got time to change it. Cx

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Me, Myself, and...Why? by Cathy Ace

CRAFT: We are living in interesting times. How have social unrest, and societal perception shifts, changed your work?

To be honest, because of what I’m writing at this time, I don’t think it’s made much difference at all. I hope/believe that’s not because I’m insensitive to the turmoil and tragedy that’s being experienced on both the personal and societal level around the globe, but, rather, it’s due to the fact that what I write truly exists independently of current events in the real world. Also, not every story is mine to tell; I have a tough enough time trying to get the voice of a working class Welsh woman who’s migrated to Canada heard (and, yes, you’re right, I could be talking about either Cait Morgan or Cathy Ace with that statement) let alone speak on behalf of others whose stories are equally less listened to/accepted.

At the moment I’m focused on the tenth Cait Morgan Mystery which will be published on June 3rd. No, “focused” is the wrong word…I’m currently completely immersed in the book, as I should be, because it’s a big deal for me. The Cait Morgan Mysteries are traditional, closed circle, puzzle plot mysteries, with a contemporary setting. There’s no gore, sex, or foul language on the page – so already you know I’m not dealing with the real world. There’s also a denouement at the end of each book which allows our professor of criminal psychology/foodie/sleuth to unmask the killer/s with a flourish, allowing us to all settle down to sleep knowing justice has been served, and there will be comeuppances. Again – if there were any doubt in your mind, this should confirm that I write fiction.

My Kindle reader - full of books that are about un-reality

I know the real world doesn’t operate this way, but the worlds I create in my Cait Morgan Mysteries do. That’s not to say I believe my readers don’t understand, or have knowledge about, the way the world really is – no, I believe my readers are intelligent, well-informed people, who gather their insights about the global political and societal issues of the day by methods of their choice; they will each have their own views about what they are experiencing (which will differ enormously, depending on where in the world they live) and what they see happening in the rest of the world.

All of that being said, I will mention one specific topic: the pandemic. Yes, I dared to type that word. A year ago, there was a flurry of commentary/discussion about just how authors would “cope with” the pandemic…not in terms of how we’d manage to survive it with bookstores and libraries closing their doors (though there was a fair amount of terror in that regard) but in terms of how we’d include it in our work, if at all.

My exact view when the pandemic was confirmed

I was sitting on a cruise ship in the Caribbean (yes, I know…lucky me) when the world went into lockdown, and the book I had published in June 2020 reflected that fact only within the Acknowledgements section. Cait Morgan Mystery #10, The Corpse with the Iron Will, has been written since the pandemic was recognized. It doesn’t mention the pandemic, nor will any of the Cait books. But…for the first time ever…Cait Morgan has a murder to solve that’s almost literally on her doorstep, because I wanted to write a book that – while not being a “pandemic” book in any way – allowed me the opportunity to consider the meaning of “home”, “security”, and “community” through the eyes of my characters. I’ve been much more fortunate than most in my experience of the period of March 2020-May 2021, but I know I’m not alone in realizing that the concepts of “home, security, and community” have a different tonal quality in 2021 than in early 2020 – and I think that shift in perception will persist for many, for a long time. So that’s what I’ve tackled in this book, but from the perspective of a Welsh Canadian professor of criminal psychology facing a puzzling death next door, rather than from the perspective of a Welsh Canadian author facing a global pandemic.

You can pre-order THE CORPSE WITH THE IRON WILL now: click here to link to        

And you still have a month left to catch up on any of the first nine books you might have missed: click here

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

The Ride-Along

CRAFT : We are living in interesting times. How has the social unrest and societal perception shifts changed your work?

From Frank

I don't know that it has changed my work, per se. Or if these times are responsible any more than me getting older or more experienced as a writer. But there have been changes.

I use less profanity in my writing than I used to. I don't know if my speech has changed but I do know that I've migrated to a less is more approach to profanity use in my fiction. Now, given that much of what I write is gritty, even dark, stuff, my threshold is probably considerably lower than some authors out there. But I've noticed that people are very accepting of things like profanity, violence, or sex in a book, TV show, or movie if it seems organic to the story. If it's gratuitous, not nearly so much.

And that's cool. It's how it should be. And I'm the same way, believe it or not. Some, if organic, has an impact, and that's the point, right? 

Also, there are a few words that I've come to avoid altogether. I'm sure anyone reading this can surmise what some of these nuclear words are - the 'n' word is the best example. I won't say I never use these words anymore in my writing but I will say that I won't unless it is absolutely critical to the story.  For a while, I'd argue with myself that it was okay to use such terms if was in keeping with the character. But I've migrated away from that stance for the most part. At present, it's gotta be not just a character who has a deep-seated need to say such things, but a story impact need as well. That's a change, because eight or ten years ago, I was pretty casual with characters using slurs. 

That change is partially a response to the same less is more dynamic I mentioned above but mostly in response to my increasing awareness of everything to do with race in our society. It's an awareness level that I think we've all experienced.

Part of this question is about social perceptions. One of the things that has bothered me is how polarized those perceptions seem to be amongst people. For instance, I don't see a conflict in my ability to see the law enforcement profession through the prism of my experience and say that the majority of cops I knew or even interacted with were dedicated, hard-working men and women trying to do the right thing every day... while also saying that I firmly believe we need police reform in this country. 

Unfortunately, this is too nuanced for some. You have to either "back the blue" or call for us "defund the police."  If you don't "take a side," then you're a "coward" who is either "enabling the liberal agenda" or "assisting racist institutions."

Sorry to be crass, but that's bullshit. Some things in life are cut and dried. Most are more complex than that. And dealing with complexity requires a clear and open mind, and it requires people to LISTEN TO EACH OTHER.

I don't mean wait your turn to speak, or listening with the intent of savaging whatever point is being shared, or searching for any piece of the opposing argument that somehow validates your own belief. I mean truly listening.

Because there are points to be raised by all sides of the discussion.

Because a complex and longstanding problem takes a fuller understanding of the dynamics in order to fix it.

Because, you know what? Listening is the human thing to do.

But I don't see much listening going on and that frustrates me. So, since I'm a writer, here's what I'm doing about it.

I'm writing a book.

It's called THE RIDE-ALONG. The premise is simple. There's a good cop who bleeds blue. There's this good citizen, a teacher who is a member of a police reform movement that is gaining traction. She goes on a ride-along with him one night. Sparks fly (not the romantic kind - the argumentative kind) but they find a form of detente early on. And throughout the night, they both learn from each other. They listen.

Now, because this is a novel and because I am who I am, there is more. Things happen after the bulk of the listening takes place. But that's for another discussion.

My point is that since I'm seeing so little of it in the world around me, I decided to write a book about how this kind of listening might actually happen.

I'm in the first draft of this novel but it is moving along well. Whether it sees the light of day or not is anybody's guess. But when the officer in this story is able to share some of the reality of policing with a citizen who never saw it before, it is catharctic. And when that citizen shares a reality with that officer that he's never considered, one that forces him to question his own preconceptions, too? Well, that is is catharctic, as well.

If anyone else ever reads it, maybe it'll be the same way for them.

******************BSP ALERT**********BSP ALERT*************

If this post was too heavy for you and you want to read something less so... well, then this forthcoming anthology maybe isn't for you. But if you're looking for a great lineup of crime writers, a cool premise that loosely connects all of the stories, then The Eviction of Hope is exactly what you want. 

It’s eviction day for The Hope Apartments. The residents have known about it for over a year. It’s too bad they ignored all the warning signs.

More than a century ago, developer Elijah Hope constructed a state-of-the-art hotel. As the generations passed and tastes changed, The Hope spent two decades as an underutilized office building before conversion into a low-income housing project.

Rundown by years of human occupation, The Hope has become a hollow shell of its once great self. It is home to drug addicts, petty criminals, and those hiding from others. The city has long turned a blind eye to The Hope as surrounding neighborhoods gentrified and pushed their disaffected in its direction.

But now The Hope is preparing a return to its original glory. The current owners plan to convert it into a boutique hotel. The only thing standing in their way is the eviction of over one hundred units.

Each resident knew this fateful day was coming, yet most chose to believe it would never arrive. They ignored the posted signs, the hand-delivered warnings, and even the actual notices.

Many stayed until the bitter end.

These are their stories.

My contribution to this Colin Conway-edited anthology is “The Rumor in 411,” a story of loyalty and the power of rumors.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Pandemic, What Pandemic?

 Q: We are living in interesting times. How has the social unrest and societal perception shifts changed your work?

-from Susan


I’m old enough to say I have been alive for more than one interesting time, and that whatever’s going on sort of drifts into my work like smoke under a closed door. My protagonists try to see people as individuals, even if a few are individual villains. I’m not above writing a bad cop (MIXED UP WITH MURDER) or a tone-deaf me-firster (LOVE & DEATH IN BURGUNDY). Before I realized I had work to do on my own perceptions, I created a Black woman nicknamed Teeni for my Dani series (MURDER IN THE ABSTRACT). She is smart, well-educated, ambitious, and a work friend of Dani’s. I didn’t do too badly, I guess, because I was invited to speak to a book club of smart, well-educated, ambitious Black women and they thought she was pretty great. 


As to today’s horrific, staggering, tragic environment, I have to steel myself to read the daily stories of Black men, women, and children being shot to death by a cadre of uniformed police officers who (unlike most cops, I know) seem to have been transported from earlier, vicious times. I don’t write crime fiction dark enough to permit characters who behave half as ugly as some of the the real life people I read about. 


A few of us were talking about whether or not we intended to write this pandemic, even a smidgeon of it, into our current books. I’m not. I’m going to give myself and my readers the luxury of escaping reality for the time they spend with this book. We need a break as a reward for wearing masks, washing hands twenty times a day, and staying six feet away from the people we love the most for over a year.

Check out the American music producer in LOVE & DEATH. 



Friday, April 30, 2021

Don't Make Me Punch You in the Face

 by Abir Mukherjee

When a reader takes the time to find your email address and compose a letter telling you they don’t like your books, how do you respond? How would you like to respond, if that’s different?



Morning. Friday again. Lots to do, so let’s run through this quickly. 


No one has ever written to me saying they don’t like my books. This is understandable because really, life’s too short to go to the trouble of looking up some hack author’s e-mail address and writing them a mail telling them how bad they are. I mean, why would you? I don’t look up Eddie Murphy’s e-mail address and write him a missive saying why did you bother with Coming to America 2, and exactly what happened to you after the eighties? No. I don’t do that because I’m not a nutter and I have better things to do, at least most of the time. 


That’s not to say I haven’t had bad reviews (Oh Lord, have I had bad reviews), but that’s fine, cos they are on forums like Goodreads and Amazon and I don’t look at them any more cos one bad review can destroy my confidence for about a week.


But I have received some reviews (and these are all real) which I am proud of, including:


    “This book reads like it was written by a bank teller.” 1 star

    “Package arrived quickly and in good condition.” 5 stars

    “I didn’t order this and I will not read it.” 1 star


    “This book was the perfect thickness to balance the wobbly leg on my table.” 

    5 stars


At least they tend to balance out.


Occasionally, someone will write a bad review and tag an author on Facebook or Twitter, and in my opinion that’s pretty bad form. It’s been said before, but an author’s book is like their baby. You don’t like it? Fine. But don’t feel the need to tell us about it. How would you like it if an author tagged you on a tweet that said your toddler looked like Alfred Hitchcock had a fight with a frying pan?


What readers need to realise is that most writers are borderline crazy – many would be certifiable if they ever left their houses. We are people who spend the day locked up in basements or attics concocting ridiculous lies in our heads which we then try to pass off to people as being believable. Do you really want to pick a fight with the likes of us?


Here’s a couple of examples of authors tracking down people who gave them bad reviews:,%2C%2018%2C%20at%20her%20work.



Seriously, authors be crazy.


But some kinds of authors are more mental than others. If you do fancy taking your life into your own hands and writing an e-mail to an author telling them how one dimensional their characters are, or how you don’t think their hero (let’s call him Wam Syndham) would ever act that way, then here’s a handy guide to which authors are more or less likely to cause you grievous bodily harm or hunt down members of your immediate family.



Literary fiction authors – because of the zero-sum nature of literary fiction (in that people only buy these books if they’ve won prizes or are praised to the sky by Julian Hamptons-Smythe in the New Yorker or the London Review of Books), your pathetic criticism of their masterpiece means nothing to them (unless you’re a Booker Prize judge or Julian Hamptons-Smythe). They are far too busy bitching about other literary authors in the hope that it’ll improve their own chances of winning an award to care what you might think about them. Just go back to your plebian little life and let them get on with their navel gazing and existential angst.


Authors of biographies – These guys have the will-power and perseverance to write a thousand page hardback on the life of Pope Gregory the Ninth. You think your five line, poorly punctuated and grammatically incoherent e-mail is going to phase them? Seriously? These guys will send you a fifteen page reply that will bore you to death.


Ghost writers – They really don’t care what you think about a book they wrote for minimum wage for some gormless, illiterate celebrity who gets all the credit for their work. They’re phoning it in while working on their techno-thriller about a sentient toaster that destroys mankind that will make them famous one day.


Crime fiction – These are idiots who literally spend their days coming up with new and ingenious and /or gruesomely horrific ways of murdering you and getting away with it. But arrogance and their need for an audience means these authors WILL get caught for murdering you because they want the world to know about their crimes. Seriously, do you really want your life to end up as a plot point? No? Then don’t criticise them.


Romantic fiction – The most violent sort of authors. Don’t be fooled by all the love they show on the page, these people are pure nutters who would scratch your eyes out if you even looked at them funny. 


Sci-fi authors – ‘Mostly Harmless’



So there you go. If you really feel like you have nothing better to do than upset an author, make it a sci-fi author, cos they’re the nicest of the lot and probably won’t kill you. But I don’t really need to tell you that, because you’re not the sort of person who would do that in the first place. 

Because you’re lovely.