Friday, November 30, 2007

The Way In

By Nina Wright

For three years I was glued to my chair writing one book after another on deadline. Six books, six sales. Very satisfying.

In recent months, however, my goals and my pace have changed. I’ve researched, contemplated, and started a half-dozen fiction projects unrelated to anything I’ve done before. Since I write for younger readers as well as adults, I’m continuously monitoring trends in several markets at the same time that I audition new ideas. Although the “market mindset” is necessary, I find it also potentially distracting and, worse, discouraging. Thus I’ve concluded that it’s time to stop obsessing over what sells and simply write from my heart.

Finding "the way in" is different every time. I vividly recall walking through a cemetery in Tecumseh, Michigan five years ago when I imagined a girl who saved a key from every apartment she lived in with her troubled, itinerant mother. At the time I was facing a move that seemed both inevitable and ill-advised. Notes for Homefree traveled with me and found their way into a draft that endured many revisions and submissions before it was published in 2006. The notion of the saved key survived but ended up a sidebar rather than the center of the story.

When I wrote Whiskey on the Rocks, the book that launched the Whiskey Mattimoe series, I was sharing my rural home with Lucille, a dog rescued in late pregnancy by my then-husband and me. Not remotely an Afghan hound, Lucille was a mutt with fast legs, a scary snarl and bafflingly high self-esteem. Like Abra, she had no apparent maternal instincts and a libido that wouldn't quit. She also had a propensity for chasing anything that promised misadventure. Given the slightest opening, Lucille would take off running full-tilt toward the nearest tavern, which lay on the other side of a vast soybean field. She'd ignore our calls for at least 24 hours before—I swear—she came home stinking of whiskey and cigarettes. I could never figure out what the bitch was up to. So my creativity kicked in. An old friend from college had an energetic Afghan hound; mentally I morphed the two dogs into one and added a healthy dash of imagination. The result was Abra.

What inspires me these days? Mostly, things that go wrong. Or could go wrong, or at least madly off course. Example: While I was grooming my father's cat, the feline kicked a wadded up paper toward me. It contained a confusing partial message written in a cramped hand; my father claimed he'd never seen the note before. Who wrote it, and why did the cat have it? That incident went straight into my notebook of potential story ideas. Since I’m inclined to use the most recent notions, I periodically review older entries to see whether any of those ignite sparks. When they do, it’s the lonely writer’s equivalent of Christmas.

Other ways in: Because I favor visual stimulation, once I get an idea working, I look for photos to feed it. Dozens of pictures of St. Augustine, Florida (for my teen books) and Afghan hounds (for the Whiskey books) fill my walls and computer files. My screensaver is always a slideshow related to my current projects.

Music provides another access point. Whiskey and Water, the fourth Whiskey Mattimoe mystery, was fueled by a Barenaked Ladies soundtrack. Imagining Whiskey’s first marriage set to those tunes made the writing not only easier but a helluva lot of fun. My close friends benefited, too; they got copies of BNL’s Greatest Hits.

Now and then I track my dreams, and whenever I do, something intriguing shows up. A Southern woman named Picket Pie came to me in my sleep. She explained that her name was short for Elizabeth Bye and promised she’d be back. Months later she appeared on the page as a leading character in my play Cherchez Dave Robicheaux.

All writers know that the way in is both simpler and more complicated than I make it sound here. I eavesdrop shamelessly; free-associate wildly; take lots of photos; go for long walks, swims, and bike rides; brainstorm exhaustive lists and alternate scenarios; and draft interviews, monologues, dialogues, and character bios. Sometimes I bounce ideas off friends.

What’s your way in? The key, I think, is to get out there and in there and turn off your mental critic. Put another way: “Travel boldly, listen closely, and carry a bright light.”

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Who Do I Have to Sleep with to Get My Manuscript Read? by Jess Lourey

Midnight Ink, the Minnesota-based mystery imprint of Llewellyn Worldwide, hosted an MWMWA meeting  at their Woodbury offices on November 15. A delicious catered meal and the promise of having their burning publishing questions answered drew a crowd of over 30.  publishAt the meeting, Midnight Ink publicity director Alison Aten and publicist Brian Farrey answered the audience’s top ten publishing questions:

10. Does Midnight Ink (MI) ever take on a series begun at another publisher? Yes, but this is not necessarily true at other publishing houses. Midnight Ink, which shipped out its first books in the fall of 2005, produces 20-25 books a year. Initially, to build credibility, they took on authors whose series were started elsewhere, such as Richard Schwartz and Elena Santangelo.

9. What mystery genres does MI plan on publishing? MI publishes a little bit of everything, but with some notable exceptions, cozies have been their best sellers.

8. Do you recommend being represented by an agent for manuscript submissions? Yes. Agents are good for getting through dizzingly complicated business contracts and allow writer to focus on the creative aspect while the agent focuses on the business aspect. MI accepts both agented and unagented authors, but as their reputation grows, they’re getting and signing on more agented authors. If you do submit your manuscript without an agent, make sure to read and follow the publisher’s submission guidelines.

7. What is the publication process a book goes through at MI? If the book is on an extra fast track, it will go from the contract stage to being on the shelves in a year. But fast tracks are very rare. First, if the acquisitions editor likes it (and it takes 3-6 months to decide this), she takes it to the weekly editorial meeting. If they also like it, the book goes to sales and marketing, where they discuss whether there is a market for the book. If it’s okayed, it goes to a vision and launch program, where they discuss the best release date, maybe do preliminary cover art, and discuss title, series potential, etc. Next, the book hits the cover designers (who are in-house at MI, which is a rarity) and the product editor for copy-editing (also in-house at MI, and copy editor sometimes does developmental/substantive editing as well).

Shortly after, galleys are made (MI makes galleys for every title, which is also unusual). Sales reps take the galleys to face-to-face meetings with buyers at Baker, Ingram and Taylor, Borders, Amazon, independent mystery sellers, and Barnes and Noble. Also, publicity sends galleys to reviewers and the foreign rights rep shops them abroad. This stage is done 3-5 months before the book’s release date.

Also, once an author signs a contract with MI, s/he receives the agreed-upon advance, which ranges from $500-$5000. MI has an average first print run of about 5000 books. They are pleased with any book that sells through that initial print run in its first year, and thrilled if it sells through 10,000 in its first year. In 2004, Llewellyn Worldwide, which includes MI, had $15 million revenue.

6. How many books are part of a typical contract for a mystery writer? If the writer is unknown, a one-book contract is standard, though there are exceptions. MI has signed two- and three-book contracts. It’s important for authors to understand that contracts are not the same from publisher to publisher, and they’re all negotiable.

5. What is the acceptable length of a synopsis? Always follow the submissions guidelines. If they’re not clear, probably two pages max, and three is pushing it. “Ms. Snark’s now-retired blog has a wealth of great information on crafting query letters, writing hooks, and composing synopses, among other things. One specific hint offered by Ms. Aten, head of publicity: “Don’t use the word ‘unique.’ Everyone is using that word. If you call your work ‘unique,’ it isn’t.”

4. Who do I have to sleep with in order to get my manuscript read? That guy. He's the acquisitions editor at Random House. No, really, despite mystery author Pat Dennis’ sleazyguy assertion that sleeping with people would reduce her chance of getting published, the presenters made clear that sexual favors do not usually play into publishing decisions. Pre-published writers are better off composing a solid query letter (view Ms. Snark’s blog for info on what that entails), and/or crafting a two-sentence pitch for their book and shopping it at conferences were acquisitions editors and agents are there for just that purpose (MWA and Sisters in Crime are two great sources for mystery conference listings; for other genres, check out RWA, SFWA, and SCBWI). With either option, writers should research the agent/publishing house beforehand to find out what they represent. Publishers Marketplace and Literary Market Place are good places to start. Be prepared to hear “no” a lot, and always be professional.

3. How are foreign rights deals made? Foreign rights reps at MI go to international conventions at London and Frankfurt, among other places, and sell the rights. These deals are often lucrative for authors, who can get 50% of the advance and royalties, as opposed to the 5-15% royalties they usually get with their initial publisher. The contract MI signs with the foreign publisher is similar to a publisher-to-author contract, except it is a publisher-to-publisher contract. The more regional a book is, the less likely it will have appeal overseas. But books the feature international plots often sell well in terms of foreign rights.

2. What is the future of publishing, taking into account advances on the Internet and self-publishing? The publishing industry is in a state of flux. Different models being discussed include going digital, and currently, academic publishers are selling some chapters of books digitally.

  • Self-publishing exists, but if an author chooses this route, s/he must know it’s a full-time job—you are not only the writer, but the publisher, marketer, publicist, etc.
  • Co-op publishing, for example AuthorHouse and iUniverse, is a step up in that you’re buying into publishing your book instead of doing it all yourself. However, authors should still be leery of this route. The books are not necessarily on shelves, and you are still your own salesperson/marketer. Also, if you self- or co-op publish your first novel, it makes it difficult to sell your second novel to a traditional publisher.
  • Custom publishing is another option that may be more readily available in the future. Currently, there is a prototype device called the Espresso Machine, similar to a bionic Kinko’s printer. Consumers type in the title they’re looking for, and the Espresso prints it and binds it while the person grabs a cup of coffee. The book box stores are considering putting them in all their stores to save on distribution and warehousing costs.
  • The idea of the paper-based book is still popular in the U.S., but in Asia, people are reading books digitally. Innovations in the U.S., such as’s newly released Kindle, 8-trackmay change that.

Basically, the publishing industry is in the same phase the video industry was when deciding between  BetaMax and VHS. The music and newspaper industries are going through similar growing pains, but publishing is further behind.

1. Why is it so darn hard to get published? Every year, 190,000 new books are published. According to a 2004 report, Nielsen Bookscan, the go-to source for book sales info, tracked the sales of 1.2 million books and found that:

  • 950,000 sold fewer than 99 copies
  • Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1000 copies
  • Only 25,000 sold more than 5000 copies
  • Few than 500 sold more than 100,000 copies
  • 10 books sold more than 1 million copies
  • The average book sold 500 copies.

Thank you to Midnight Ink for sharing their time, space, and invaluable insight!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Drinks with Jennifer Aniston

Tom Schreck, author of On the Ropes, A Duffy Dombrowski Mystery

"Wow, so your book is out?" Jennifer Aniston said. She took a mini sip of Pinot Grigio.

"Well, yeah, it officially came out September 1st but the publisher released it in August," I said. We were at this small place called Supper in Alphabet City.

"An author, a real author..." Her blue eyes sparkled and she looked at me so long I started to get uncomfortable.

"Hey, I'm no Tim Maleeny."

"What's it about?" Jenn toyed with her wine glass running a slender finger along its rim.

"Oh, come on. I don't want to bore you." I paused and looked at her. "What about Friends and your movies," I panicked slightly not being able to remember any of the movie titles.

"Please..." She said and scrunched up her face in that adorable Jennway. "Tell me what its about."

"Okay," I sighed. Before becoming a big deal published author I dreamed of beautiful women asking me about it. Now, frankly, it had become tiresome.

"It's called On the Ropes, A Duffy Dombrowski Mystery and there's this social worker about to get fired from his job because he never does the paper work. He's also a bad pro boxer who lives in a trailer. He winds up trying to solve the murder of one of his down and out clients and save her step daughter from an internet porn ring. In the meantime he has to adopt his client's obstinate Black Muslim basset hound, Allah-King. Then--"

Jenn interrupted.

"What's obstinate mean?"

"You know, disobedient." I say.


"So anyway, then Duffy, the main character, uncovers a terrorist plot, corrupt doctors and maybe a plot to blow up Yankee Stadium." I was glad my description was over. It's so tedious going over the plot again and again.

"That sounds soooo cool. Where can I get it?"

"Most bookstores, though I prefer the independents."

She tosses her hair and looks away. Then she puts her hand over her mouth and sort of giggles. She shakes her head.

"What?" I say.

"Oh...I don't know. it's just..." She looks away again, frowns and her eyes seem just a little wet.


"It's just that the guys I know...the guys I'm used to... they're so...I don't know...shallow. But're an author," she says.

I feign a smile. I get this a lot lately.

"Will their be others?" Her playful giggle is gone and in its place is a kind of sad intense look.

"Sure, TKO comes out in June and then there's Out Cold which I'm working on now. After that there will be one where Duffy and Al go to Las Vegas. But--"

I didn't get to finish.

"I didn't mean other books."

She looks down and I can sense she's embarrassed. "I meant... oh, never mind."

Her eyes well up again only this time I was almost sure a tear would escape.

It was awkward.

Being a big deal author often was.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Ready, aim...

Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. This post would have appeared sooner but the tryptophan hadn't worn off. Today I was thinking of some of my favorite targets. Not individuals but institutions. Not specific villains but a pattern of behavior. The evil of committees, the casual denial of the bureaucrat.

Crime fiction appeals because unlike real life, it has a clear moral compass, with characters willing to do the right thing regardless of the sacrifice, the limits of law or the constraints of society. Often the protagonist, whether PI, rogue cop or regular Joe, is the one standing up for the underdog, taking on the powerful and the corrupt on behalf of the little guy. As you think about your own writing or favorite authors, it's interesting to consider if you have any favorite targets.

I often find myself gravitating towards novels unafraid to go after organizations that act above reproach but all too often are picking your pocket with one hand while patting your back with the other. Politicians and the media are easy targets, especially today. Dig below the surface of any major criminal enterprise and you’ll probably find someone using your tax dollars to subsidize it or leveraging the media to put a spin on it. I think crime fiction can bring some perspective to both that hypocrisy and our contradictory nature, that we live in a society in which we’re all in on the joke and yet the same scams keep happening. That’s a very human condition, which makes it perfect fodder for fiction.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Interview with Donna Andrews, Part I

By G.M. Malliet

Q: Your writing career took off when /Murder with Peacocks/ won the Malice Domestic/St. Martin's Press Best First Traditional Mystery contest, and went on to win the Agatha, Anthony, Barry, and Romantic Times awards for best first novel. It also won the Lefty award for the funniest mystery of 1999. Subsequent books have also received Agatha and Lefty nominations. Did you have a background in writing—or were you an “overnight success?”

A: I'm the very opposite of an overnight success. I began writing in grade school. In college, I did a double major in English and drama with a concentration in writing. With the exception of a year and a half stint in secretarial jobs, I've always earned my living by writing--though before /Murder with Peacocks/ was published, it was from nonfiction, or corporate fiction, whichever term you prefer. For a long time, I thought I'd lost my way, spending all those years writing stuff that wasn't my own, but in retrospect, I realize it was excellent training. I learned a lot of tricks and techniques for writing even when I didn't feel inspired. And I learned a lot about professionalism, discipline, and work ethics that has stood me in good stead now that I'm writing full time.

I suspect many people groan when I talk about writing in terms of professionalism and discipline--I think they expect to hear novelists talk about inspiration and creativity. Well, yes, those are important--but they're a lot easier to come by. All too often, the difference between an aspiring writer and a successful, published one
isn't a matter of inspiration and creativity--a lot of people are creative and get great ideas for books. I've read a statistic that only ten percent of people who begin a novel actually persevere to complete it, so anyone who has a finished manuscript is already in the minority. And an even smaller number of people, after finishing their draft, do the revising needed to turn it into a really good book, and then do the research required to learn about the publishing industry and persevere through what can be a long and grueling quest to land a good agent and a contract with an established publisher.

So in retrospect, the years I spent quietly working away in the corporate world were exactly the training I needed. I just wish I could have figured out how to transfer the skills and knowledge I was building to fiction a little sooner, but better late than never.

Q: What made you choose to write a mystery novel, as opposed to a mainstream novel?

A: Partly because I think it's important to read the genre you write, and write in a genre you read. I grew up reading a lot of fantasy and science fiction, but my college roommate introduced me to many of what are now my favorite mystery writers, and I began to find that while I was buying and borrowing both speculative fiction and mysteries, the mysteries were getting read much faster. Looking back, I think that at the time, the mystery genre was going through a wonderful period of expansion and diversification, with the debut of many writers who have become giants of the genre, while the speculative fiction shelves were heavily populated with bad Tolkien clones and worse Star Wars ripoffs.

I'm not saying everything in the science fiction and fantasy field was rotten--at the same time I began to discover writers who are still among my favorites, such as Barbara Hambly, Lois McMaster Bujold, Steven Brust, Tanya Huff, and Terry Pratchett, to name a few. But back then I found a lot more to love and admire in the mystery field.

And I also think I write mysteries partly because it's the genre that still respects things like a well-constructed, comprehensible plot and engaging characters. I'm not the only mystery writer who sometimes feels baffled when reading books in the mainstream or literary fiction genres--and they are genres. One writer friend jokingly said that she got halfway through a critically praised mainstream book and felt so frustrated that she wasn't sure she was going to finish it. "It wasn't the fact that I hadn't seen a body yet--I could live with that," she said. "It was the complete absence of any hint of a plot." I understand what she means.

I also find myself mildly annoyed when someone talks about a book "transcending the genre." Sounds a lot like the written equivalent of "overcoming his unfortunate upbringing." If I read a mystery that really blows me away--Laura Lippman's Every Secret Thing or To the Power of Three, for example--I don't feel obliged to say that it transcended the genre. Just that it's a really great book. Period.

Q: Do you ever think of writing a mainstream novel, or a novel in any other genre? Or will you be staying with the mystery?

A: I won't be abandoning the mystery, but I've already strayed beyond the boundaries into science fiction and fantasy. (Heck, some people think the Turing series WAS science fiction--I disagree; it's a traditional mystery with a slightly science fiction-tinged protagonist.) One of the first short stories I sold was /to Powers of Detection/, an anthology Dana Stabenow edited for Ace, in which each story has a murder in a fantasy or science fiction setting. It was promoted mainly to the speculative fiction market. There's a sequel volume, /Unusual Suspects/, in the works for 2008, and I've also had a story accepted by Charlaine Harris and Toni Kelner for a werewolf-themed anthology that will be a followup to their New York Times bestselling /Many Bloody Returns/.

My first two (unpublished) novels were a fantasy and a coming of age story--though I realized later that there was a mystery subplot in both. And while a lot of the ideas I get fit easily into the framework of the humorous mystery, I'm marinating a few that aren't funny or aren't mysteries--or in some cases, aren't either. So time will tell how many of them I manage to write and my agent manages to sell.

Q: Which books or writers do you feel have most influenced your writing?

A: I hate trying to figure out what my influences are--there are probably too many of them. Can I leave it at one book? Freddy the Detective, by Walter R. Brooks. One of my favorite books in grade school. Freddy the Pig has read Sherlock Holmes and becomes a sleuth, with the help of his friends, Mrs. Wiggins the cow and Jinx the Cat. I enjoyed it as a child, and when I recently reread it, I found that it was also a great pastiche of the Holmes books and a funny, funny book. So that probably started me off early along the path that eventually led me to writing humorous mysteries of my own.

Q: Humor writing can be the most difficult of all. I realize the process is hard to describe, but do you have any tips for “writing funny?”

A: I think the biggest tip is that if it doesn't come naturally to you, maybe you shouldn't try it. Some of the worst writing I see from good writers happens when they make the mistake of thinking they can just dash off something light and funny--that because it's light, it will also be easy. Ever seen the movie /Punchline/, with Tom Hanks? There are scenes were he's slaving over a routine, working over and over to get the timing just right. You have to be willing to work that hard if necessary, and accept the fact that sometimes even working that hard doesn't produce something that's funny.

I just try to come up with things that amuse me. And then I tweak and polish, agonize over whether other people will find the same things funny, and never know for sure whether any of it works until some of my critiquers weigh in. One of the worst experiences of my life was when one of my usual critiquers read the draft of one of my books--/We'll Always Have Parrots/--while she was not in a good place in her life, and didn't find a single line funny. Fortunately I had a couple of other people reading it--otherwise, who knows? My writing career might have come to a sudden, abrupt, self-inflicted end.

I've learned not to take it too hard when some people don't find my books as funny as others do. Humor is such a personal thing that what has one person laughing out loud will leave others cold. That's another reason why it's so hard to write humor. Not a game for the thin-skinned.

Stay tuned for Part II of the Donna Andrews interview, appearing December 26. In the meanwhile, Happy Thanksgiving, all! GMM

Monday, November 19, 2007

Literary Road Kill

It's that time of year up here in the land of beer and cheese. The boys and girls in the blaze orange hit the woods and the deer start to lose their minds. And, if my drive home from Milwaukee from a fantastic book conference last weekend was any indication, deer have not evolved enough to gauge the speed of 4000 pound hunks of metal rolling along at 80 miles per hour. I started counting the deer along side the road, but lost count somewhere around Madison. So I popped in a Bob Marley CD and wondered if deer believe in everliving life and are followers of Jah. I've never seen a deer with dreadlocks, but they do eat a lot of grass.... Yes, thus are the musings of a writer alone in a car on a long road trip.
And not so unlike those deer on the side of the road, I too am on the side of the road with my current work. Meaning, I'm at a stage in the process where I think, "Who in their right mind would want to read this drivel?" Yes, I'm at the stage of Literary Road Kill. And like the deer going nuts every fall, I too know that I will go through this stage in every single novel I write. I will second guess myself. I will peer out from the bushes at the Mack trucks that scream by thinking, "Should I go now? Shit! Too late! Okay, should I go now? Will this be the right time?" To be perfectly honest, I won't ever know. Again, like the deer, I fear I will never evolve enough to figure out how to time it just right. I'm just hoping that my timing is good enough that I don't end up Literary Road Kill.


My first rejection—hmmm. That brings back painful and embarrassing memories. At that time I was writing historical fiction—about 2500 years ago in the Florida Everglades. (Later, thanks to Jean Auel and CLAN OF THE CAVEBEAR, it got it’s own genre name of pre-historic fiction.) I sent out at least thirty query letters to agents and had already decided that I would send the manuscript on a first come, first serve basis. Whoever responded to me first would be the lucky agent to first get to read (and of course then represent) my gem of a book. To my surprise and dismay, agents were not quick to respond, and it was all I could do to keep from calling and ask if they had received my query. I am so thankful now that I resisted. How bad would that have been? Finally, responses started appearing in my mailbox. Most were in the form of pre-printed cards that all said basically the same thing, no thanks, and then ended with a note wishing me well. After about ten of these notes from the unimaginative, mistaken agents, I had grown some thick skin, even though my ego was in drought mode. I began collecting the rejections in a scrapbook because one day I would have the chance to wave their missed opportunity in their faces. And that would feel so good.

After more rejections my hurt feelings were finally coupled with reality. I think the one rejection that really struck home was the one from an agent who sent the traditional “no thanks” card but felt so strongly against my “jewel” that he scribbled a note about how bad and asinine my idea was. Wow, somebody really hated it that much! Luckily it wasn’t my first rejection or I would have given up.

It wasn’t long after that when the first couple of letters showed up requesting to see the manuscript. A trickle of self-esteem began returning. Then, at last my “baby” found a home.
I still have that scrapbook. It keeps me humble. And when a yet unpublished writer asks my best advice, I tell them to keep sending it out, sending it out, sending it out. So many give up after the first rejection. There is no magic bullet to getting published. It takes hard work and determination. Very rarely is it because you know someone in the business. For most of us it is doing our homework and being persistent. Writing is such a personal thing and rejection does hurt, but it doesn’t stop us. Writers need to write, so we keep on.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

1930s whodunits

My name is Jerry Anderson, and I am the author of Death Before Dinner, which was published by Midnight Ink last March. When I was in college, I used to become disgusted with my dad, who insisted on reading mystery novels while I was trying to force him to read my favorite Thomas Hardy or Joseph Conrad of Dostoyevsky or some such literary gem. I gave up on this project to improve my father's literary tastes, to our mutual benefit. Then, oh, it must be about a hundred years ago now, I was doing research in London. I was living in a flat near Earl's Court Road, in a building right out of "Upstairs/Downstairs." It had once been the London home of some tof gentleman, and had now been divided into twenty-one flats. I was living in a basement flat, where once some miserable footman perhaps plied his trade. 
Anyhow, so here I am with a flat that I had to pay for in advance for the summer. As a graduate student, I had very little money, and while the swinging London night scene had a great deal of appeal, I did not have the pounds and pence to make it happen. I had a little transistor radio and that was it. My research concerned the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), the British Union of Fascists (BUF) and the national government of Ramsay MacDonald and Stanley Baldwin. At issue was the whole question of civil liberties versus public order in the 1930s. That is, at what point does it seem necessary to infringe on traditional civil liberties to protect the people against civil disorder. During this painful decade, mas demonstrations were threatening the civil fabric of London. Well, weighty stuff, right? I thought I needed to know more about the lives of people in the 1930s before I could properly write about their political dynamics. There was nothing to do in that cold basement (that month of June was the coldest January of my life!!) exceptr to read. The libraries and public records offices all closed about 5:30 in those days. However, I discovered a used bookstore only a block away. I could buy a paperback book for ten pence, and if I brought it back he would give me five pence for it. Heckuvadeal!! Well, I saw a couple of Agatha Christies there and so I thought I'd give them a try. Two days later I was back for two more. I read them eating lunch, I read them while riding in the tube, and I read them at night. Then it was on to Dorthy Sayers. Then Ngaio Marsh (alright, so maybe she was more 40s and 50s, but by this time I was not concerned too much about academic things). Perhaps my favorite, though, was an American writer. One of the reasons I am writing this is to acquaint readers with the work of John Dickson Carr. Carr wrote some books under that name, but he also wrote them under the pen name of Carter Dickson. Although born and raised in the South (I think South Carolina) he became an American expatriot in the 1930s and all of his books are set in England. He became the master of the locked door mysteries. His slueth, the unforgetable Dr. Gideon Fell, would easily solve how someone could be murdered in a roon where all the doors and windows were locked (No, no trap doors, secret passages or a large chimney) and the corpse was the only occupant of the room. 
Well, one gets hooked on this stuff, as I would guess many of the readers of this blog will allow, and when I came back to America, I pretty much put in a claim for my Dad's paperback collection. Serious, academic literary pursuits have taken a hit ever since. 
Death Before Dinner is the first of the Palmer Knutson novels. Murder Under the Loon will come out in March, and Death by the Prairie Chicken will follow the year after that. Palmer Knutson is a Norwegian American sheriff of Otter Tail County and is the type of character found on the Prairie Home Companion. In a future blog, I will wax on about Scandihoovian Minnesota.
Jerry Anderson

InkSpot News - 17 November 2007

Felicia Donovan, author of THE BLACK WIDOW AGENCY will be signing copies at Barnes & Noble, Newington, NH on Saturday, November 24th at 3PM.

Cricket McRae will be signing Lye in Wait, the first in her Home Crafting Mystery Series at Epilogue Book Company, Steamboat Springs, CO on Friday, November 23rd from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Brothers and Sisters

by Felicia Donovan

I rarely (and I do mean rarely) watch TV. It's not that I'm in anyway morally opposed to TV, I just don't have the time. If I watch an hour a day, that's about it. On weekends, I try to catch up on a few shows I've digitally recorded, but there's one show I never, ever miss.

It's Brothers and Sisters on ABC starring Sally Field and Calista Flockhart. I don't know what compelled me to start watching this show, but two episodes into the ongoing saga of the Walker clan and I was completely hooked. My fascination with the characters and storyline keeps me glued to the TV every weekend as I replay the previous week's show. And now here I am blogging about it.

What makes the show so intriguing? The characters are well-acted and the scripts are tremendous - a blend of drama and comedy that can only manifest itself in an extremely dysfunctional family with love at the core. My beloved show may now languish with no new episodes due to the writer's strike, but that's okay. I'll hang in there and not complain in support of the writers.

But in the meantime...I can't stop thinking up new plots in my head. What if Nora and Holly fell for the same man yet again? What if Nora had a cancer scare and needed to not be so strong for once? It goes on and on and I can't seem to shut it off.

I'm attributing this near-obsession to an overactive imagination. Trouble is, I've got the next book in THE BLACK WIDOW AGENCY series to finish and somehow the characters on-screen are getting in the way of the characters in my head.

Am I the only one out there that has television episodes floating around in her head? Does anyone else rewrite episodes? Would I be cured by forcing myself to sit down in front of the screen for hours on end subjecting myself to the painful medicoracy known as prime time? Do my fellow authors even watch TV? If so, what shows are "must sees?" I remember reading one author's interview in which she declared that most of her inspiration for her books came from TV. Maybe I'd better watch more...

Jessica Seinfeld and Me

Keith Raffel here.

Norman Mailer, who died this week, aimed to write the Great American Novel. When I’m writing, nothing could be further from my mind. I want to write a book that can be enjoyed on a beach chair or airplane seat. A major thrill comes when people say they read my Dot Dead: A Silicon Valley Mystery at one sitting because they couldn’t put it down. One friend sent me an email whose subject line was “Damn You.” Apparently, she’d started reading the book just before bedtime and stayed up till three or four in the morning to finish it. The result was a bad day at work. Forgive me, but I loved it.

Of course, a second reason to put my ass in a chair and rap away at the keys is the cash. Despite the psychic satisfactions mentioned above, this author gig – well, it’s a business. As Dr. Johnson said, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."

Have you read about the Jessica Seinfeld’s new cookbook, Deceptively Delicious? She explains how to slip vegetables into kids’ meals without them noticing. You know, some puréed cauliflower in the mac and cheese or sweet potatoes in the pancakes. Well, I try to sneak some good-for-you “vegetables” in what I write, too.

When Dot Dead starts, the hero is obsessed by making tens of millions from those stock options he's been granted by the start-up where he works. After all, who are the avatars of Silicon Valley if not the billionaire entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs or Larry Ellison? In the course of the narrative, I try to “slip in” the notion that pursuing justice, belonging to a community, and establishing a loving relationship just might also be goals worth striving for. Now, I explained all this to one bright friend and she said, “I loved the book, but I didn’t notice.” Perfect! She probably wouldn’t notice zucchini in her oatmeal either.

What subversive messages do you put in your books or do you notice other writers putting in theirs?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Monet and the Overall Impression

by Julia Buckley
On this day in 1840, Claude Monet was born. Now known as the "father of Impressionism," Monet inspires us still with his beautiful art; the images here are two of my favorites.

It's interesting to note, though, especially after Joe's blog about rejection, that the term "Impressionism" was initially used sarcastically in a review panning Monet's work. Yet now we look at the entire Impressionist movement and see paintings that move us, that elicit real emotion with their beauty. Unlike the critic Louis Leroy, who wrote a satirical review of Monet's Impression, Sunrise in the journal Le Charivari, we see greatness when we look at this art.

And so all art is subjective, although perhaps our definition of greatness can change with time.

In honor of Monet, perhaps we can all share our favorite piece of art, or pieces of art which inspired us to write.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Croton Rejection

By Joe Moore
I wrote my first novel over 20 years ago. I would get up a 4 AM, sit in a dark corner of my living room and type on something called a Magnavox VideoWriter. While my family slept, I worked away until it was time to shower and be off to my day job. For over three years I put in every spare moment, taking away from my family, friends, everything. The day came when I finished my masterpiece, an action adventure novel that I felt would knock readers on their butts. I could easily see my name on the bestseller lists just above Clive Cussler, Dale Brown, Jack Higgins, Tom Clancy, and all my heroes. It was just a matter of time before the critics would call me the next Clive-Dale-Jack-Tom guy.

I picked the biggest NY publisher of action adventure blockbusters I could find and spent countless hours tweaking my query letter. Finally, off it went. And to my amazement, I got a reply back from one of their editors asking to see my entire manuscript. Man, this writing thing was way too easy!

I printed the manuscript, packaged it up and sent it overnight costing me more in shipping than I could afford. Then I sat back, basking in the glow that my plan was on track. I was about to be rocketed into the action adventure stratosphere and worshiped far and wide.

A week went by. Two weeks. Three, then a month. I theorized that they must be passing my baby around to all the editors, marketing guys, cover artists, and publicists to see who wanted to work on the next major bestseller.

Then one day, I was working in my yard. I had thick crotons growing up against the front of my house, and it was time to trim them back. As I clipped away with the hedge cutters, I noticed a stained, yellowed shipping envelope shoved back behind the crotons. It was addressed to me and was from that big NY publisher. The mail carrier must have put it there to protect it from the weather. Checking the postmark, it had been mailed back to me less than a week after I sent the manuscript out.

I went inside, opened the package and pulled out my weather-worn, damp, rumpled, moldy pages. Written across the front of the title page in red were three words: Not for us.

I had spent 3 years working on that book and over a month fantasizing what I would do with that 6-figure advance. But with just three short words, my dreams ignited like a piece of magician's flash paper. It hurt. Even thinking back on it today, it still hurts.

Somewhere out there is a guy who decided to write “not for us” on the front of my manuscript many years ago. I’d like to thank him. Looking back, that book was not for primetime. And anytime I need a reality check, all I have to do is walk out my door and look at those crotons. They’re still growing and, hopefully, so am I.

What was your first rejection like? How did you deal with it? How long did it take to get over it and back on track?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Forensic University of St. Louis

My writing has suffered because I've been busy co-chairing Sisters in Crime’s first ever Forensic University of St. Louis, this last Nov. 1 through 4. The conference began as a crazy idea my friend Michelle Becker and I hatched. The national board of Sisters in Crime thought it worthwhile and supported us--in ways too numerous to count.

ForU attracted 114 attendees and showcased 16 presenters. Fifty folks who came in early Thursday traveled to the Bull’s Eye Shooting Range to shoot indoors. The conference proper spanned two and a half days with 30 different “classes” being offered. We also raised about $4,000 for the Crime Lab Project Foundation.

On Sunday, after we pronounced the group officially “graduates of the Class of 2007,” a member from our local chapter came up and embraced me. Her own writing schedule had precluded her from helping out. But she whispered in my ear, “I had no idea of the scope of what you were trying to do. This...this is just fabulous.”

Which begs the question, “What exactly WERE Michelle and I trying to do?” Besides have twin nervous break-downs, spend all our waking hours on conference related “stuff,” drop all our own writing entirely by the wayside, rope other people into this…this madness, and run around like a couple of chickens with their heads cut off?

Well, we had a vision. We thought the writing world needed a different sort of conference. Michelle and I wanted access to more information about the crime portion of our craft. We figured other people might need the same. And we were just crazy enough to think that two meeting planning novices could pull this off.

And we did. People are saying it was the best conference they ever attended. Don’t take my word for it. Check out Libby Fischer Hellmann’s post Donna Andrews’ comments at and Meg Chittenden’s comment posted on DorothyL: “I've been attending conferences and conventions connected with writing and/or mystery for over 30 years, and I have to say that this one was way up there.”

Yeah, I’m still digging through paperwork, finishing reports and answering emails. So, it's true: This took up a lot of my available energy and writing time. But to have a dream and to see it come true, well, that’s incredibly empowering. Besides, there were other compensations. Turns out, the bigger the gun, the better my aim. My husband and son have new respect for me. (Or maybe that's FEAR in their eyes. Who can tell?)

I’m curious. What cuts into your writing or creative time? Is that interloper worthwhile? Do YOU think I wasted my time?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

InkSpot News - 10 November 2007

Benetech adds Bill Cameron's Lost Dog to its huge and growing library of online books for the community of visually impaired and otherwise print disabled individuals. As the About Us page explains, "This online community enables book scans to be shared, thereby leveraging the collections of thousands of individuals who regularly scan books, eliminating significant duplication of effort. takes advantage of a special exemption in the U.S. copyright law that permits the reproduction of publications into specialized formats for the disabled."

Felicia Donovan will kickoff the Portsmouth, NH Public Library's Book Talk series on Monday, November 19th at noon. Please visit for more details.


Tom Schreck will be at Murder and Mayhem in Muskego, WI and moderating a panel on Minnesota Mysteries.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Going to the Cave, by Jess Lourey

I've begun writing a non-mystery. The research has consumed the last six months of my life, including field research, Internet research, and secondary source research. That last month of researching (October, to be specific), I realized that I was no longer truly researching. I was hiding from writing.

The novel will be about a Lakota (western South Dakota Sioux) girl captured from her home and forced into an Indian boarding school in the early 1920s. I didn't go looking for this story, and the last few weeks, I've spent a lot of time wishing it hadn't found me. It came to me in a dream, as a few of my story ideas do. I was visiting a friend in Wausau, Wisconsin, with my kids. In the middle of the night, I sat up in the futon bed, pushed her cats off of me, and looked down at my son and daughter, who were sleeping on the floor. They were safe. What had woken me up?

When my heartbeat slowed, the dream I had been having flooded back to me and played on the far wall of the bedroom like a movie. I was watching a girl with black hair and skin the color of sand. She was in a kitchen, hungry and looking for food. An older woman came in and argued with her. She sent her back to her room, which was really a dormitory with bed after bed after bed of dark-haired girls. The dream moved in real time, so the girls tossed in their sleep, some of them cried, all of them were lonely. With this movie still playing out of my head, I started writing down the details. And then I went back to sleep, and after a week or two, the vivid dream shuffled into the gray area in the back of my mind.

Several weeks later, I came across an article on the boarding school experience of a Lakota boy. I realized that was what I had seen in that dream in Wausau--an Indian boarding school, and judging by the furniture and nightclothes, it had been around 1900. My curiosity piqued, I started researching, and the more I found out, the clearer the story of the girl in the kitchen became, like a sculptor removing wood to find the shape that lies underneath.

Researching is enjoyable to me, and I immersed myself in it. My kids and I traveled to South Dakota to visit existing and closed boarding schools. I bought and read book after book on the subject. I visited websites created by Lakota individuals and groups. I learned bits of the language. Last month, however, it became clear to me that I had enough research and was just scared to start writing.

My biggest concern was what the Lakota people would think of me writing this story. Native Americans have had their culture appropriated in every way imaginable, and I would just be one more person stealing their history. Even if I could overcome that hurdle, what if I couldn't pull off a story of this scope? I write mysteries, which are challenging but also familiar. This would be historical, literary fiction, which is a whole other beast. If I could even get the blessings of the Lakota to write the novel, and if I could even pull off writing good literary fiction, what if I couldn't get a publisher and all that stress and time was for nothing?

And then finally, there is the simple act of writing, which is invigorating but is also emotional work. Isabel Allende, one of my favorite authors, calls this work "returning to the caves of dreams and human memory." It's thrilling, but it's also lonely and sometimes scary. It can be hard to make yourself go into the caves every night.

So that's where I am. I've written six pages, and I like what I've written, but that was a week ago, and I've been afraid to go back. I have a full-time job, I'm raising two kids, my house needs cleaning, I could volunteer more in my son's classroom, shouldn't I put the storm windows on? That's what I tell myself, but the truth is, I'm afraid.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

A Little Help From Our Friends

By Sue Ann Jaffarian

For the most part, writing is a solitary venture. But this past week I was reminded how important it is for writers to bond with one another. I’m not talking about career networking or about having drinks with writers you only see at conferences. (Although that can be a hell of a lot of fun.) I’m talking about real bonding, becoming friends and mentors. Writers sharing quality time one-on-one with other writers, discussing dreams, hopes, and problems, and brainstorming together to get over the humps and bumps of the frustrating business of writing.

In the past week, I had dinner with three fellow mystery authors. Last Tuesday, it was promotional brainstorming with Morgan Hunt. Friday, Tim Maleeny and I swapped goals of writing full-time and plotted some joint marketing ideas. And this past Sunday, I spent a couple of hours over a chicken pot pie with short story author Kate Thornton, who is finally sitting down to write her novel. I came away from each dinner high on writing and filled with new ideas and a fresh outlook on some old ones, and I hope they did, too. And, then, there’s the laughter. When writers get together, there is always laughter.

We all have friends and family who lend us support in time of emotional need, but unless they are also writers, they cannot really understand our passion when hashing out plot glitches or publicity frustrations. I’ve seen the eyes of many a friend glaze over and can almost hear them say: “There she goes again.” Neither do they fully understand what drives us to sit hour after hour alone pounding a keyboard. And seldom do they appreciate the “other world” that exists and flourishes inside our heads without wondering if we should seek professional help. After all, isn’t what we do a bit psychotic? But in a nice way, of course.

But another writer, that’s a different story. Another writer understands when we discuss poisons and dismemberment, kidnapping and blood spatter patterns. Another writer understands when we curse the evil and chaotic business of publishing, yet cling to the desire to be a part of it. Another writer understands our particular type of psychosis, because they suffer from the same affliction.

So in the next week or so, make sure you get together at least once with another writer, even if it means taking time away from your writing. Think of it as psychotherapy for the price of a meal … and it’s a lot more fun.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Plug and Play

Last night I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much – such a classic, and with many of the elements that are touted within the “how to write a screenplay” texts (e.g. Robert McKee’s Story and Christopher Vogler’s Writer’s Journey). Reversals and gaps, plot pacing, character arc, conflict, etc. But this and a ton of other fabulous classic movies came out long before these “instruction manuals” graced a single shelf.

Gosh, how did they manage?

Well, there are older texts, certainly. Much of McKee’s story theory can be found similarly stated in Aristotle’s
Poetics. Think Hitchcock read the Poetics? Maybe. But probably not.

And, of course, there are a ton of books that tell novelists in general and mystery writers specifically how to craft a [commercially] successful story. Should be easy, then. Just plug your idea in and you're good to go, right? What’s the big dang deal?

A couple of years ago when I was working on
Lye in Wait, I took an intensive workshop on character development from Stewart Stern, who wrote many screenplays back in the day (and to the best of my knowledge continues to do so with verve and passion), including Rebel Without a Cause and the teleplay for Sybil. His take on the how-to books was crystal clear: good writers understand instinctively what a good story needs. The how-to folks find the commonalities among existing stories that really work, whether in movies or books, distill them and hand them back to aspiring writers as surefire formula.

Then I stumbled into story writing software online. Oh my. I would love to know of any published novels that were written using such software.

Now, I have nothing against books on writing. I have three shelves of the things. They provide both inspiration and information when I need it. And of course we have to understand the elements of storytelling, whether by instinct or by study (though I would argue without at least some of the instinct the study isn’t going to do much good), just as we have to know grammar, have an ear for dialog, and be able to get into the psychology of a variety of characters.

But surefire formula? No way. I say take the best and leave the rest.

How do you develop your own stories? Do you have a set structure? Write by the seat of your pants? Do you have any books on writing that you go back to again and again?

Saturday, November 3, 2007

InkSpot News - 3 November 2007

Keith Raffel will be appearing at the following events this week:

Sunday, November 4, 2007
Noon to 3.00 PM
Book Signing
1010 El Camino Real
Menlo Park CA, 94025

Wednesday, November 7, 2007
11.00 AM
Speaker at Jewish Book Fair Luncheon
Cypress Lake Country Club
6767 Winkler Road
Ft. Myers, FL 33919

Saturday, November 10, 2007
4.00 PM
Discussion with Rabbi Larry Raphael on Jewish Detective Fiction
Congregation Beth Am
26790 Arastradero Road
Los Altos, CA 94022

Keith wishes everyone Happy Jewish Book Month!

Friday, November 2, 2007

A Venue to Die For

It appears that I'm tardy for this post, and I apologize but, frankly, I've been "on the road," jetting home from my camel-ride at the pyramids just in time to board another plane to a speaking appearance in Bellingham, Washington--the Washington State Emergency Nurses symposium, "Learning From Murder." I was the keynote speaker. And for me--an ER nurse for three long decades--this was a dream come true--a venue to die for!

Aside from the fact that these folks paid to jet me from (barbecue and Tex Mex) San Antonio, Texas to (Starbucks and seafood heaven) Seattle, and put me up at the fabulous waterfront Hotel Bellwether--I had the goosebumpy honor to address a roomfull of folks that I consider to be contemporary American heroes: nurses. Trust me, they are in scare supply these days. Plus, though I've spoken to countless groups assembled in libraries, book clubs, ladies clubs, and churches, it was SO COOL to be surrounded by people who truly speak my lanuage--just as I said at the opening of my speech: "

. . . a roomful of nurses; this is so great! It's like I've finally landed in a country that speaks my languge. You know know what I mean. Right now I could say something awful about, say . . . gallbladders, and not a single one of you would turn pale and drop your bagel!"

Plus, there's the very nifty fact that the heroine of my mystery series, Darcy Cavanaugh, is an emergency nurse herself. And because of that, I could tell these gathered nurses, in all sincerity, that they are the heart of Darcy Cavanaugh, that I write my books to honor them--a golden moment for this author, trust me. Not to mention that my just-released book, MAI TAI TO MURDER, is based on the premise that nurse Darcy Cavanaugh is teaching teaching a writers' workshop at sea, entitled "A Nurses Guide to Murder." A perfect match for the WA nurses' "Learning from Murder" theme--and a segue into the book excerpt that I shared:

" . . . We'd spent the last hour re-hashing the subject of strangulation and then reviewed diagrams of a human torso with the location of vital organs, and the estimated quantities of blood loss from wounds to the various sites. We fielded questions about how fast a victim would die, what it looked like when intestines protruded from the belly, how purple and puffy a face might get, and well . . . a smorgasbord of pre-lunch trauma. I was fairly certain there'd be a run on the vegetarian lasagne."

And my keynote welcome was followed by fascinating presentations from a nurse-turned-coroner, a pallilative care nurse, and an introduction to "club drugs 2007." Sort of CSI, House, Grey's Anatomy, ER, and Scrubs . . . with continuing education credits. There were laughs, life-saving camaraderie, and--for me--an impressive new glimpse into the dedication of these folks who hold our lives in their able hands.

I ended my keynote with one other book excerpt--Darcy's epiphany at the end of Mai Tai to Murder:

"And truths I didn't tell her, too, like the fact that I love being a nurse. Even if it means long hours and gritty realities--with no luxurious respite of afternoon tea. And that I'm going to do my damndest to bring as many new folks onboard this profession as I can, because we need them. And because nurses are heroes in my book . . . "

I meant it. Cross my heart. And I thank the Washington State ENA for allowing me the opportunity to be surrounded by my peers once more--and to applaud them for the heroes they are.
Oh, and just to prove these folks' heart: the crime scene murder tape (above) depicting a dog, was amended with a little note that said that the animal died "of natural causes."

So, who would your dream audience be--what is your "venue to die for?"