Friday, October 29, 2010


Inserting the element of surprise into a scene is crucial and yet some of the ways to introduce it strike me as phony. Phrases such as "just then," "all of a sudden," or "out of nowhere," smack of amateurism, and yet how else do we change the tempo and go for the startle factor?

I struggle with this as I create suspenseful scenes. I'll use one of the trite phrases and then rack my brain for ways to improve the writing, all the while keeping the shock and awe.

A sound can do it. "Bang!" The crack of gunfire. A ringing phone. The roar of an engine.

Employing phrases that are not so obvious can work as well, although sometimes when I reread things like Almost immediately or All at once, they grate on my ear. Am I just super picky?

Of course, surprise can be introduced almost matter-of-factly, and maybe that is the most powerful way to do it.

As I write this, I'm leafing through The Da Vinci Code for some illustrations for my point, when I come across this piece of narration on page 275:

A sudden movement behind him caught his attention. Out of nowhere, a crushing blow to the head knocked Langdon to his knees.

Out of nowhere? Hmmm. I don't think any of us would call Dan Brown an amateur.

What are your thoughts? Any tips to share on this topic? How do you transition to surprise?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Mise En Place – Gesundheit!

Mise En Place by Christopher M
I love cooking shows. Not the shows where they show you how to cook things, but competitive shows such as Top Chef, Chopped and Iron Chef. I love to watch trained chefs running around making good eats from odd ingredients under time limits. For some reason, this is high level entertainment to me.

I learn a lot from these shows. Really, I do. For example, I’ve recently learned the following :

Buddah’s hand – a type of citrus fruit that looks like over processed dreadlocks;

Molecular gastronomy – the use of science in the preparation of food (don’t most fast food chains fall into this category?);

Chiffonade – to slice leafy veggies or herbs into long, thin strings;

Mise en place – French cooking term meaning “everything in place;"

Rocky Mountain oysters – bull’s testicals; I kid you not;

Gastrique - a reduction of vinegar or wine, sugar, and fruit used as a sauce, not  what your tummy feels when you eat too much spicy food.

Rocky Mountain oysters may make you giggle and/or gag, but the real gem here in mise en place. Mise en place is the pre-preparation – the draining, chopping, measuring, even chiffonading, that goes on before the actual cooking begins.

I’m currently in my mise en place phase of writing. That’s the few days to a week before I begin writing on a new novel. Here’s my list of dicing and slicing before I sit down and start at line 1, page 1, chapter 1:

Clean apartment thoroughly – it’s a ritual because it probably won’t be cleaned again beyond a lick and a promise until book is done;

Clean off desk – important to start with a nice tidy surface because I won’t see the top of it again for a long time;

Update web page, calendar, catch up on correspondence – see reason under clean apartment;

Decide on time frame of new book and print out blank calendar page relating to that time period;

Post any research photos on front of desk within my view;

Jot character names and notes (outside of usual series characters) on large white board posted to side of desk, along with any short notes on plots and sub plots;

Update notes and back story on returning characters;

Fill freezer with frozen dinners.

Don’t be too alarmed by the first item. Since I write three books a year, the apartment gets a thorough cleaning every 4 months.

Bad boy celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain has called mise en place his religion. For me, it’s more like giving myself a hearty, warm breakfast before setting out on a long journey on a cold day. If everything I need is in its place and all is right with my little world, I am free to throw myself into my writing unencumbered by the daily details of my life, at least for awhile.

And, in case you’re wondering, I do utilize mise en place when I cook. Although, in my kitchen it means piercing the plastic on the frozen dinner before shoving it into the microwave.

Sue Ann Jaffarian
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Wednesday, October 27, 2010


You may know some people who are Christmas Elves—the kind that eat, sleep, and breathe Christmas from November 1 through January 31. I’m not one of them. I’m the evil broad whose house has a homemade graveyard, hidden light-up eyeballs, ghosts dancing around my apple tree, and a shrieking doormat. Oh, and bloody words in the windows. And that’s just the outside.

So, even though The Day is still a few hours in the future, I’m starting the celebrations now. And I’d like to thank the chocolate companies for those lovely "$1.00 off 2 bags of candy" coupons that appeared in the Sunday paper all month. My waistline doesn’t thank them, but nothing’s perfect.

A trunked novel of mine has a huge Halloween party, but I don’t see one happening in a future book, yet. As a writer, I love the challenge of a crowd scene. How to keep the focus on your MC. How to bring in the right kind of characters for color and effect while making the party move the plot along. How to rein in the party-ness of the scene while making the reader hear the music, the conversation, the overall noise; smell the perfumes and the food, feel the breeze from the open windows and inhale the scent of late October: leaves, earth, that underlying chill that says the “s” word is right around the corner.

In the Northeast, “snow” is definitely a four-letter word. Especially by March. But that’s another post. Cabin fever, anyone?
Now, however, it’s my favorite holiday of the year. Bring on the monster movie marathons. The cheesier the better, although I do own some truly frightening movies for late at night.

I love fun “scares” but I also love edge-of-your-seat scares. The kind that make the reader turn on a few more lights while they finish a chapter. I once said that my writing goal was to create a character as enduring as Dracula or Sam Spade. What are the most memorable scares and characters you’ve read?

While I wait for your answers, I’ll just be outside putting a few more ghoul effects in my graveyard. There are cute little neighborhood kids to scare.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Darrell James
Growing up working on my brother-in-law’s farm, the idea of “work” conjures images of something like toting barges and lifting bales. (For the record, while I have lifted bales, I’ve never actually toted a barge, or for that matter seen anyone else do it.) Still, being a writer has its own kind of grind. There’s long hours of brain numbing plotting. The continuing tedium of pounding a keyboard. And the excruciating madness of fitting just the right words to a scene, just the right scenes to a story. And, of course, there are the dreaded deadlines that can provoke hives, night sweats, and other yet unnamed mal-physical reactions. But the part of being a writer that isn’t so much work is the part where we get the chance to meet and talk to readers, and share camaraderie with other writer friends.

One of my favorite events of the year is Men Of Mystery, held annually in the fall in Irvine, California. This event is hosted by the ever-lovely Joan Hansen and the Orange County Writers Guild. It features some fifty male mystery writers and attracts more than five-hundred attendees. It’s a hands-on (so to speak) chance to engage with readers. Each author hosts a table of ten guests and also gets the chance to speak in round-robin fashion to the entire assembly. Which usually turns out to be something more like “Last Comic Standing” or maybe “The Writers Roast”. It’s great fun with each author trying to best the author to his left or right.

(And just in case you’re wondering, the O.C. Guild also hosts a mystery event for women authors too.)

Men of Mystery will be special for me this year. I have been participating for the past three years or so on my credentials as a short-story author. While I’ve had the pleasure to present Body Count: A Killer Collection of fifteen of my short stories to the audience, and the occasional additional anthology where my stories have appeared, I’ve always felt something of the step-child syndrome around all the fabulous novelists. Short stories, as masterful as they might be, and as difficult as they can be to write, just don’t seem to buy you the same respect.

This year, I’m pleased to report, will be my first chance to publicly announce a three book contract with Midnight Ink and foretell the coming release of Book One in the Del Shannon series of novels.

It’ll be great! It will! It’s something I have worked long and hard for.

Still, as much fun as it will be to show up with some bragging rights this time, I’m mostly looking forward to hosting a round-table of wonderful readers (mostly women, gotta love that!) and having the chance to socialize with all my great writer buddies.

The always noir Gary Phillips will be there, as will Bob Levinson (Robert S.), Michael Mallory (M2), James Scott Bell (Jim), and of course our very own Midnight champion, Keith Raffel (Mr. Silicon Valley himself). And headliners have included the likes of Vince Flynn and Michael Connolly. Just to name a few.

So, during those long days, weeks, and months of grind, alone, with my feet propped up in the recliner, hammering laboriously away on my laptop, I’ll think back on Men of Mystery, and all the other great writer events, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll manage to toil my way through to the end of another book by New Years.

Ahh, that ain’t workin’!

What about you? As a reader or writer, what’s your favorite event? And as a writer, what’s the best part of being one? Leave a comment.

Men of Mystery is an annual fall event in Irvine, CA bringing 500 mystery enthusiasts together with more than 50 male mystery writers from the US and beyond. The event is coordinated by a large and dedicated volunteer committee led by Joan Hansen. Whose mission is to promote mystery reading and writing and literacy while having tremendous fun! This year’s MofM will be held Saturday, October 30th at the Irvine Marriott.
To attend go to:

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Writing Process

Earlier this month I saw writer Aaron Sorkin on The View, talking about his new movie The Social Network. I really appreciated his descriptions of his writing process.

When asked offstage how he created the opening scene of his movie, he said “sometimes you’re thinking about it for months and months and months, you’re pacing around, you’re climbing the walls, but once you know what you’re going to write…you write it in the amount of time it takes you to type it and you hope that energy and speed makes its way onto the page.” Later he said onstage that he takes six to eight showers a day to hit his mental reset button when his writing isn’t going well and that driving around, arguing with himself, and watching a lot of ESPN also get his creative juices flowing.

I can relate to that.

For the past two months I tried to take the more disciplined approach to writing that others have described. I set a goal of writing five days a week, at least two thousand words a day. I started the Monday after my children returned to school, when the house was silent and needed to be filled with words.

Some days the words flowed, some days…not so much. I combined my new process with my old process: walking the dog, doing the laundry, cleaning out the refrigerator, and, oh yes, watching The View. That’s how I stumbled on Aaron.

He said although his writing process looks an awful lot like him watching ESPN, his brain is working all the time. I’m sure that’s true. Sometimes I think my brain is working on a story, percolating it, and I don’t even know it, sort of like ‘let’s sleep on it.’ A lot of my best ideas seem to come to me in the shower—but sometimes they leave even before I have time to dry off. And sometimes I write so long and so fast that I don’t snap out of it until my son gets off the bus and knocks on the office window, scaring the bejesus out of me.

I did find with the more disciplined approach, I could read a book at night after writing during the day. That’s never been possible for me in the past, so it’s promising to have it all compartmentalized now. It may be a natural step in my ever evolving writing process.

It’s been thirty days to date, and I’ve written 79,565 words, including ‘THE END.’ The crooks of my elbows feel sore from being bent so much while I type. I’m taking NaNoWriMo off to work for a weekly paycheck—gotta love those in this economy.

Of course, I’d like to write a novel that generates as much buzz and is as popular as Aaron’s television show The West Wing or his movie The Social Network.

Who knows, maybe I’ll evolve to that.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Muddle in the Middle

I'm in the middle of the rough draft of the current manuscript I'm working on--the third book in the Claire Hanover gift basket designer mystery series. And that's always where the writing bogs down.

In the first third of a mystery, the goals for the writer are fairly straight-forward: start off with a bang--usually a body hitting the floor, introduce the sleuth, commit the sleuth to investigate the crime, introduce most if not all of the suspects, start the subplot(s) rolling, and end with the first turning point (big surprise). There's the excitement of starting a new project and discovering my characters. So, I usually can plow through the writing of those scenes in my outline fairly quickly.

Similarly, the goals for the writer in the last third of the mystery are fairly straight-forward: in an ah-ha! moment the sleuth makes the final determination of who-dunnit, the villain is confronted and captured, subplots are resolved, justice is served and everyone (except the villain) lives happily ever after. Also, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and the excitement of nearing the end keeps me motivated and moving forward. So, again, I can plow through the writing of the final scenes in my outline.

The muddle in the middle, though is a whole different story. Hidden motives and relationships between the characters are revealed, the stakes are raised, more turning points occur where the sleuth realizes she's been heading in the wrong direction. The sleuth mucks around talking to suspects, discovering clues, changing her mind from one minute to the next who the killer might be.

And I muck around, too. This is where it's important for the writer--and the sleuth--to remember who was where when and who knew what when. So, I'm constantly scanning back in the manuscript to remind myself of these things or to discover whoops, I didn't set them up or define them and I have some repair work to do. The writing slows down. The motivation ebbs.

That's when I need "a little help from my friends" to keep me churning out those pages. My critique group helps, as does setting weekly goals and reporting on those goals to people who will hold me accountable. And, knowing that I've eventually found my way out of the muddle in the middle five times before in prior manuscripts helps. But, none of that takes away the agony, self-doubt, backtracking and just plain hard work it takes for me to muddle my way out of the middle.

What about you? If you're a writer, when do you tend to lose that motivation or get bogged down in the writing? And if you're a reader, is the middle of a mystery when you start to get confused and the reading slows down? Do you find yourself going back in the book to remember things, as I often do?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Darian Ray, Who Are You?

I recently needed to track down the ISBN for September Fair. high res september seemed the quickest route, so I logged on, searched for my book, scrolled down, highlighted the ISBN, pasted it where I needed it, and went on with my life.

If you’re an author, you’ve already caught the lie in the above paragraph. It’s in the last phrase: “went on with my life.” You’d have to be a superhero to leave your Amazon book page without at least skimming the reader reviews.

My self-involvement is not the point of this post, though. It’s the springboard. You see, in my skimming, I found six generous reviews and one slam. The slam was by a reviewer named Darian Ray. Stick with me. I’m going somewhere with this, and it’s not where you think.

I clicked on Darian Ray’s name to be brought to his/her other reviews. Curiosity, let’s call it, because we’re polite and don’t want to draw attention to my insecure defensiveness. What I found was that Darian is a self-proclaimed mystery author with no publications who has reviewed at least four mysteries a week since 2006 and not liked a one of them.

(Let’s take a break to acknowledge that there are legitimate reasons to post a critical review of a book, including one I’ve written. Now back to the interesting stuff.)

That’s over a thousand mysteries Darian Ray has reviewed, and image apparently every one of them, from Laura Lippman’s bestseller to the little POD author trying to make a go of it, stunk to high heaven. And Ray went to to tell the world, sometimes daily.

I considered that maybe Ray really was a mystery author and, under a pseudonym, a mystery reviewer who thought the best way to raise his/her boat was by sinking everyone else’s. I quickly discarded that notion, though. If you’ve spent ten seconds in the mystery community, you know there is no match for its supportiveness (check out this recent article by Harlen Coben for a roundabout example of that: “Return of the Class of ‘80”).

But what explanation does that leave? Why would someone who apparently liked mysteries only slightly more than heart attacks spend so much time reading and reviewing them? (And I really think this person read them, based on the facts s/he dropped in her reviews.) image And what does this say about reader reviews in general? I take them to heart when online shopping, but can they deliberately be used to harm a product or person? Are there similar stories out there, or was this an isolated case?

I appreciate your input on this because I really have spent some brain hours on it, and just can’t find a logical explanation. And as an update, I recently contacted to suss out the story on Darian Ray. They removed all of his/her reviews a week later, on what grounds I’m not sure.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Bouchercon – Another Perspective

by Kathleen Ernst


I’m back from my fourth Bouchercon, in San Francisco. I’ve attended a variety of mystery cons over the years, and honestly? I’m more at home at smaller gatherings. (Keith, I’m in awe of your networking ability!)

That said, though, I did enjoy the convention! Here are my top reasons why:

1. First and foremost, meeting readers. The opportunity to connect one-on-one is terrific. It often takes place informally. I try to strike up conversations with people I’m in the elevator with, sitting next to while waiting for a panel to start, waiting for the trolley.


I’d never been to San Francisco before, so I took advantage of the tour on Thursday morning. I enjoyed getting an overview of the city, and had fun chatting with some of the other travelers.

2. Meeting long-time writer-friends. In our biz, we’re often isolated geographically from our pals. I have friends I only see at these conferences, and it’s great to catch up.

3. Meeting new writer-friends. Names I’ve connected with on Listservs or blogs are now real people.

4. Being a MInker! It was fun to spend some time in the MI booth, with the wonderful array of titles spread out to entice passers-by. I think Steven Pomije could have sold cartons of books if that had been permitted.


Being in the booth also reminded me that while so many publishers are cutting their mystery lists, MI is going strong. Lots of people who stopped by had great things to say about the imprint.

5. Seeing—from a distance, usually—some of my own stars in the mystery world. Where else can you hear what Sara Paretsky has to say about maintaining tension, or listen to Dana Stabenow interview Laurie King, or attend a party thrown by Lee Child?


6. Meeting, or hearing from, industry professionals—reviewers, magazine publishers, editors and agents. It’s a great chance to hear what people in the biz think is hot, or not.

What was a bit more of a bummer: Not getting to see some of the people I’d hoped to introduce myself too. That includes some of my fellow MI authors! Bouchercon is so darn big it’s easy to miss folks. And I wish I’d had more time to explore San Francisco. (Chinatown was pretty cool.)

I’ll always find Bouchercon a bit overwhelming. But every time I go I make a few more contacts, and a few more friends. If you see me wandering the halls next year, be sure to say hi!


So…what’s your favorite conference, big or small?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Thanks to the media obsession with celebrities, most people think that authors are rolling in dough. I’m here to tell you that although most authors may occasionally plunge into a bowl of cookie dough ice cream, they are definitely not cavorting around in Olympic sized pools filled with the likes of Ulysses S. Grant and Benjamin Franklin. (Okay, so maybe JK Rowling, James Patterson, and Stephanie Meyer are, but there are exceptions to every rule.)

It seems a week doesn’t go by that we don’t read about another celebrity -- or parent, spouse, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, cousin or next-door-neighbor of a celebrity -- being handed a huge chunk of money to write anything and everything from tell-alls to memoirs to diet to exercise to fiction to kids’ books. Even fantasy. What else would you call a parenting book by the mother of Britney and Jamie Lyn Spears?

The latest
celebrity -- and I use that term loosely -- to land a book deal is Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, one of the stars -- and I use that term loosely, as well -- of Jersey Shore. Snooki, who has admitted she’s read all of TWO books in her life (Twilight and Dear John) is writing a romance novel. Title of the book? A Shore Thing. According to Simon and Schuster, the book will include “big hair, dark tans and fights galore.”

Of course, celebrities really don’t write their books themselves. That’s what ghost writers are for. But the only items that make the gossip pages are the 6 or 7 figure advances the celebrities are getting. Someone told me Snooki’s receiving over half a million dollars in advance for her literary masterpiece (or should that be messterpiece?), but I can’t verify that.

So it’s understandable, I suppose, that the vast majority of the population would think the rest of us writers are doing equally well. After all, we’ve written real books. They come complete with covers and pages with words, and they’re sitting on the shelves at Borders and Barnes & Noble and independent bookstores across the country. So of course, we’re making gobs of money -- NOT. At least not most of us.

I know authors who have made it to the NY Times bestseller list. Most of them can’t afford to quit their day jobs, but few people are aware of that fact and even fewer believe it when you tell them. (“Oh, I thought you still worked at the diner because you love being on your feet eight hours a day, serving burgers, fries, and shakes to your adoring public!”)

So every time I read about someone like Snooki being handed a fortune for “writing” a book, I get a little steamed. Can you blame me? And just to add insult to injury, she and her
Jersey Shore cohorts -- only one of which is actually from New Jersey -- are adding to the stereotype of my state. You should come visit sometime. We’re really nothing like what you saw on The Sopranos or see on Jersey Shore. Well…at least not most of us. There are those Real Housewives of New Jersey, but they’re probably not really from New Jersey, either. At least, I hope not.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Bouchercon 2010: The Picture Book

Keith here.

Bouchercon 2010 was in San Francisco, 32 miles north of where I live in Palo Alto. The tariff for parking was $60 on a weekday, so I hopped a train on Thursday, October 14. I meant to go to panels that morning, but somehow I kept getting waylaid.

One of my favorite things about Bouchercon is a catch-as-catch-can lunch. I had no plans. I bumped into pal Carla Buckley and by the time we'd made our way to the restaurant next door to the hotel, eleven of us were sitting around a table. Clockwise from the left, that's me, Andy Peterson, Dennis Pozzessere, Sharon Rowse, Rebecca Cantrell (or is that Bekka Black?), Alex Sokoloff, Kelli Stanley, Heather Graham, Josh Corin, Carla Buckley, and Steve Steinbock. Next day the same thing happened. Went out with a dozen friends. Sat next to the very busy and talented Robert Gregory Browne and old pal Stephen Jay Schwartz whose terrific second book is just out.

Thursday afternoon I showed up at my assigned panel, "The Most Deadly Species: Female Protagonists." The room was chock-full.

They sure as heck weren't there for me. Cornelia Read moderated. Can you see her down there at the far end? Tasha Alexander, Ronald Tierney, Larry Light, Meredith Anthony, and I were the ones responsible for answering her probing questions. When I told my agent I was on this panel, he asked why. I pointed out that my Smasher had a female protagonist. He said it didn't count since she spent over half the book in a coma. Good point, Josh. Anyway, I put in a plug for the 1930s Nancy Drew as a great prototype for female protagonists. She packed a rod and sure as hell did not wait for Ned Nickerson to save her.

Here's a photo from Thursday night's welcome reception that includes three glamorous crime fiction award winners and some balding joker. (From left, that's G.M. Malliet, Baldy, Hank Phillippi Ryan, and Lee Child.)

I went to Friday's panel on ancient Greek and Roman mysteries to meet Lindsey Davis. I came up with the name of my Child #2, now 18, when reading The Silver Pig, first in her Marcus Didio Falco series. I didn't ever get the chance to say hello, but hey, Lindsey, thanks!

I love the people who love to read crime fiction. Mary Jane Sheffel stopped me to tell me how much she loved my books. So shocked to hear this were fellow scribes Sharon Rowse (far left) and Shane Gericke (far right) that they joined Mary Jane and me in a photo.

Friday night Lori Armstrong (left) and Karen Olson (right), whom I met three years ago at SleuthFest in Florida, left the hotel looking for a bite. We discovered that in the Financial District not much was open on a weekend night. After wandering hither and yon for half an hour, we found ourselves at bar/cafe about two blocks away from the hotel. The three of us had a ball reminiscing and catching up. Only hope that what's said in San Francisco stays there.

. After dinner, we joined the raucous crowd at Lee Child's party for all Bouchercon attendees. (Lee is one generous guy.) That's IPPY winner and fellow Silicon Valley denizen Mark Coggins on the right with New York super-agents Josh Getzler and Donna Bagdasarian.

I wanted to see the panel on East Coast versus West Coast mystery writing, which quickly turned into a comparison of New York City and Los Angeles as settings from crime fiction. In the photo above, flanking one of my mystery-writing idols, Walter Mosley, are old pal Naomi Hirahara on the left and S.J. Rozan on the right. During the question period, I asked the panelists how show business in LA and the financial business of New York City influenced their books. I managed to get into a little verbal sniping with Mr. Mosley who didn't like my question at all. Naomi helped bail me out.

Saturday night I watched the Giants-Phillies game in the bar. Marcus Sakey didn't much care who won, until I promised him a drink of whatever he wanted if he'd root for the orange and black. So now he had a strong interest in the outcome and I had a lot of faith in his powers of persuasion. The Giants won. Gentleman that he is, Marcus tried to explain that his cheering did not affect the outcome. Bullshit. I bought him some old single malt. Best investment I ever made.

After the game was over, I hung with Midnight Ink's Terri Bischoff, the aforementioned Josh Getzler, Tyrus Books' Ben Leroy, and Denver's Linda Hull.

Damn. I drove in on Saturday and the garage where I parked closed at midnight. I left the bar (sober) at an early 11:45 and left Bouchercon behind. There were a couple of more panels on Sunday morning as well as the awards breakfast; however, my brother was visiting from Ohio....

It was great hanging out with old friends and making new ones, but the three days of camp were over. Sigh. Back to the salt mines.

Friday, October 15, 2010

A Book in the Hand is Worth Two on the Shelf

Cricket McRae

box of books

First off, greetings to all you Bouchercon attendees. Wish I could be there this year, but it didn’t work out. Enjoy and give us the lowdown on the convention when you get back, eh?

Before my Home Crafting Mysteries hit the shelves, before they’re even officially released, there are always a few available on Ebay. I’m not sure where they come from, though I suspect they’re review copies. Not uncorrected Advance Reader Copies, which go to the big reviewers like Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus and Library Journal earlier in the publishing process, but the final printed products Midnight Ink sends to newspapers and certain online review sites.

Does the availability of used (though I doubt they’re very used) copies of my mysteries prior to their actual release bother me? A little, I’ll admit. But on the other hand, those books are getting into the hands of readers. That’s good.

Sure, I’d like to hit the big bestseller lists and make a gazillion dollars from writing. The IRS would probably like it better than the earnings shown on that return I e-filed recently, too. But that isn’t going to happen – to me or to anyone else – unless there’s buzz. And buzz comes from lots of people reading a book and liking it enough to pass on to their friends or recommend it to perfect strangers via sites like Goodreads and Shelfari and Amazon book reviews. I figure the more people who read my books, the better – no matter how they get them.

Is it a good and moral thing to buy used books? After all, the author receives no money from those purchases. Is it a form of piracy?

Or simply frugality? There are plenty of people who love to read and can’t afford to buy new all the time. I love libraries, but their collections can’t possibly encompass all the good stuff out there. In the current economy, it’s hard to fault readers who are getting their hands on material any way they can.

I do buy used. Not all the time, but sometimes. Books I need for research come to mind first. Plus, the independent bookstores in my town sell both new and used books. I’m more likely to try a new-to-me author at a discount. Then, if I like them, I’ll buy their other books brand-spanking new. And, with a nod to the karma gods, I gladly shell out full price for books written by friends.

Sometimes I pass those books on, however. After all, I know and like a lot of authors. I can’t keep them all on my shelves. Like Deb (see yesterday’s post) I recently purged my office. That meant books had to go, too. So I held a contest on my blog, and this afternoon will haul a big box of paperbacks to the post office. They’ll go to someone who’s truly excited about receiving them. That makes me feel good. My hope is that the winner might discover a new author or three – and might even pass those books on yet again, or recommend a few to others.

How do you feel about used books? Do you buy them? Feel guilty? And what about the trend toward electronic publishing? On one hand it’s harder to hand an electronic book to a friend, yet on the other it might open up a whole new arena for the piracy of intellectual property. Thoughts?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Shedding the Past

By Deborah Sharp

Uhff! Pant, pant, pant. Bump, bump, bump, bump, bump. Uhff! Drag. Pant. Drag. Uhff! SCORE!!!

Man, that felt good. What was that, you ask? No, fellow author and Inkspot wise guy, Keith Raffel. It's not an X-rated scene from my new erotic novel. (Reality alert: I'm a Lutheran. I can barely say the word S-E-X, let alone write an erotic novel.) Rather, it's the sound of me hefting a giant black trash bag filled with junk from my office, pushing it down the stairs, tugging it to the curb, and -- UHFF! -- tossing it into the garbage.

Okay, not really ''tossing.'' More like struggling to roll it as high as my knee, so I could boost it to chest level, then lean my whole body into the bag until it finally tumbled over the lip and into the trash can. I admit, I'm not as fit as Beth Groundwater, another fellow Midnight Ink author, and Colorado outdoors woman. Then again, it was a really, really big trash bag.

It's been almost seven years since I quit my reporter's job at USA Today to try my hand at mystery-writing. I don't know why I'd held on to so many notepads, interviews, source lists and the like. It's not like I'm going back into newspapers. Just about everybody I knew in the business has lost his or her job as print outlets continue their slow, depressing, drain-circle toward obsolescence. When's the last time you saw anybody under 45 years of age reading the daily newspaper? (I'm not talking online, where ad rates don't support the cost of news-gathering.)

I just handed in the manuscript for my fourth book in the Mace Bauer Mystery series, Mama Sees Stars. Normally, I tidy my workspace between books. But this was less tidying and more purging. Shedding my old skin. I was like a woman possessed, tossing out those yellowing file folders from long-ago news stories. Some of the reports and statistics I'd collected for articles were so old, the print on fax paper had faded to barely there. Ghost images of forgotten words.

Remember faxes?

I can't even tell you my thought process in deciding which research folders would go, and which would stay. I can tell you that watching the pile grow was satisfying. Bombings? Bye-bye. Gainesville Serial Killer? So long. Riots and Riptides? Out and out. But Seminole Indians and Santeria? Hmmmm, those two will stay; just like Moms Who Kill and Monkeys. You never can tell what kind of trouble my books' Mama character might run into in Florida. If she runs into a monkey on the loose in the Seminole casino, I'm covered.

How about you? When you shed the past, does it feel like you're betraying the person you used to be? Or, do you happily discard things you no longer use? Do you clean your office between each book or big project? Or do you put it off until you can stand the mess no longer?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

On Critical Thinking

Tom Schreck, author of the Duffy Series

I found a new favorite podcast. Skeptoid is a debunking website by a guy named Brian Dunning.

Once a week he does a fascinating fifteen minute podcast that skeptically examines something in popular culture. He produced an excellent 40 minute video called "Here be Dragons" on how to examine things.

It's terrific.

I showed it to my Addiction class last night before doing a lecture on the causes of addiction. I wanted them to know what it means to use the scientific method and what real research was.

The video looks at psychics, vitamins, new age medical treatment and conspiracies.

Dunning does a scene where he argues with himself about 9/11. One voice says things like:

"What about the fact that no steel building ever collapsed/"

"What about building seven collapsing and housing the SEC?"

"What about George Bush's brother being a landlord for one of the WTC floors"

etc, etc, etc

Dunning answers all of the questions by countering with "Who flew the planes?"

His point was that everything else is a red herring. That when you looked at it there were a dozen or so guys who hijacked these planes and crashed them. There's no evidence for anything else.

My class revolted. They argued about new age science, defended acupuncture and generally said that you couldn't trust any research.

Dunning says people like conspiracies, easy answers and magic.

I know I do. I now know my college class does even more.

But could it be that the FDA, the CIA, the military and the government in general conspires against us? If they do what's their motivation or reasoning?

Watch the video when you get a chance.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Writer’s Block

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         There are, from what I’ve seen and heard before, two types of writer’s block.

There’s the “I don’t want to sit down and work on that book right now!” type of block. This is basically procrastination and just not wanting to make time for a difficult activity.

There’s also the second type…and I know they do exist because I received an email from one of them recently…of people who are staring at a blank screen with panic. And I think the problem is that they don’t know why their block is happening or what to try to do to fix it.

I’ve heard it said that there isn’t any such thing as writer’s block. That handymen don't get handyman's block and doctors don't get doctor's block. That’s true, but they’re not building worlds in their heads. I’ll admit that I don’t get writer’s block—but there are some days when I do hesitate a lot while writing. I know it’s all coming out wrong. I know it’s going to have to be fixed. I know it’s bad writing.

But I just keep on spewing out crappy writing because I know I’ll fix it later.

I think, though, that people who genuinely see a blank screen and freeze up for long periods of time are really just afraid. They’re afraid of failure. They want so badly to write something well that they just choke up.

I think the best way to deal with those feelings is to continue writing. To give myself permission to completely fail while expressing my ideas on paper, with the knowledge that I will make it all better with revisions.

These are some helpful posts on writer’s block that I’ve come across in the past:

21 Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block
Writer’s Block—the Pros and Cons of just writing through it
A resource roundup to solving writer’s block
Overcoming Writer’s Block
The underlying cause of writer’s block—fear of failure

If you’ve gotten blocked before, how did you work through it. If you don’t get blocked, what advice can you offer folks who do?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Interview with Reed Farrel Coleman


Reed Farrel Coleman has been called a hard-boiled poet by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan and the noir poet laureate in the Huffington Press. He’s published eleven novels—two under his pen name Tony Spinosa—in three series, and the stand-alone Tower co-written with award-winning Irish author Ken Bruen. He’s won the Shamus Award for Best Novel of the Year three times, has won the Barry and Anthony, and twice been nominated for the Edgar Award. He is a co-editor of The Lineup and was the editor of the anthology Hard Boiled Brooklyn. You can reach Reed on his website, Facebook, or Twitter.

Reed is one of my favorite authors and it is quite a thrill to interview him for the blog.

Q: The sixth book in the Moe Prager series, INNOCENT MONSTER, was released October 5th. With the continued success of the series, have the expectations—of your publisher, of readers, of yourself—changed? Do you feel more pressure now to deliver a certain kind of novel? Was INNOCENT MONSTER easier or harder to write than the first five?IM_FNL_06

RFC: Oddly, I feel much less pressure than I used to. Writing Moe is  like hanging out with an old friend. It’s easy and relaxed. Because I know Moe so well, I can go along for the ride. I know how he’ll react to any given situation and I know how I can make it entertaining. INNOCENT MONSTER was pretty easy to write— relatively speaking—because the basics of the plot just popped into my head once I had the title. I had a lot of fun with this one.

Q: The plots in your books are great, but what adds depth and emotional resonance throughout the series are Moe’s personal struggles. Did you map out these book-to-book-to-book character developments ahead of time?

WalkingPerfectSquare RFC: I don’t do any mapping at all, I’m thrilled to say. What makes it fun for me and, by extension, the reader, is that it’s immediate. What comes to my mind as I’m writing goes directly down on the page. It’s fresh to me, so I hope it’s just as fresh for the reader. Even when I was writing WALKING THE PERFECT SQUARE, the first book in the series, and I laid out part of the series arc, I did it because it occurred to me as I was writing it, not because it was part of some grand scheme. I think Moe’s struggles resonate, because they are resonating to me at the very moment I’m writing the words.

Q: I love wise-guy/angst-ridden PIs, like those written by masters of the genre Robert Crais, Robert B. Parker, Michael Connelly, and Dennis Lehane. To me, your Moe Prager books fit right in (and it’s not just my opinion, you’ve won the Shamus award three times, and been nominated for multiple Edgar and Macavity awards!). Who are some of your writing role models/influences? What living writer would you want to be stuck in an elevator with?

RFC: Last part first. I’ve been very fortunate to meet most of the people I admire in the mystery writing community. When I was the executive VP of MWA, I served with Janet Evanovich, Linda Fairstein, Lisa Scottoline, Charlaine Harris ... I’ve met Nelson DeMille and Stephen King. I’ve done signings with Michael Connelly. I’ve had some interesting conversations with Lee Child. I’ve written a book with Ken Bruen. They’re all pretty fascinating people, but if I were stuck on an elevator, I think I’d like to be stuck there with SJ Rozan, Daniel Woodrell, Philip Kerr, and Peter Spiegelman. As far as influences on my writing, I’d say Chandler and Hammett, of course, but the biggest influence on the Moe books was Lawrence Block, hands down.

Q: You’re an adjunct professor at Hofstra University, teaching writing. If you could go back thirty years (give or take!) and have yourself as a student, what lessons would Reed the Instructor be sure Reed the Student mastered?

RFC: Harden your heart against the hardships because there’s nothing you can do to prevent them, and keep doing what you’re doing.

Q: You co-wrote the critically-acclaimed novel TOWER with Ken Bruen. Could you describe the process? Was it easier or harder than writing solo? In what ways?

tower RFC: The process was like water-boarding, only worse. Not that I don’t love Ken. I do. It’s just that he did this Zen thing with me. He sent me half the book and then left it up to me to figure out how to do my half and make it work. We never discussed how to do it. It was like I had to find my way to be the other hand in the one hand clapping metaphor. It nearly killed me, but it made me such a better writer because it was so hard. Much much harder than writing solo.

Q: A few years ago, you served as the Executive Vice President of Mystery Writers of America (MWA). You also teach, appear at conferences, and promote your new releases. What’s your secret for balancing writing with all these other commitments?

RFC: Drugs.

Q: You’ve written both novels and short stories. Preference? Aside from the number of words, what’s the biggest difference between the two forms?

RFC: When I teach I describe the difference this way: A short story is like a road flare. It has to burn brightly and be intensely about one thing. A novel is like night sky, full of stars, some shining more brightly than others. Or, if you prefer, it’s like the difference between red and white wines. Red wines tend to be more complex and, depending upon grape variety and vintage, can change as they age. White wines are less complex and tend to be about one thing. Short stories and novels are different beasts and require different talents. Lately, I’ve been pretty enamored of short stories. SoulPatch

Q: Which of your books is your favorite? Why?

RFC: REDEMPTION STREET and SOUL PATCH are tied. They both hit very close to home emotionally.

Q: What can we expect in the future? More Moe Prager? More Tony Spinosa-penned stories? Another stand-alone collaboration? A series about a wise-cracking, follicle-challenged guy from Brooklyn who likes to play basketball and is a hell of a writer?

RFC: I’m writing a new Moe book right now called HURT MACHINE. I don’t think there will be any new Tony Spinosa books, though there might be the occasional story out of him. I want to do a few more collaborations because TOWER was such a challenge and made me a better writer. A stand-alone of mine is being shopped now. I guess we’ll see.


Thanks, Reed, and best of luck with INNOCENT MONSTER.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Inkspot News - October 9, 2010

Three Midnight Inksters will be appearing on panels or other programs at Bouchercon in San Francisco, October 14-17, 2010:

Thursday, October 14, 4:30 p.m. - The Most Deadly Species: Women Protagonists
Cornelia Reid (M), Tasha Alexander, Meredith Anthony, Larry Light, Ronald Tierney, Keith Raffel

Friday October 15, 11:00 a.m. - Continuous Conversation

Camille Minichino, Catherine Astolfo, Lou Allin, Kathleen Ernst, Cindy Sample, Cathy Pickens.

Saturday October 16, 3:00 p.m. - No One Would Ever Do That: The Concept of Plausibility in Mystery Fiction
Cathy Pickens (M), Sophie Hannah, G.M. Malliet, Diana Orgain, Stefanie Pintoff.

Come up after the panels and say hi if you're a reader of InkSpot! Also meet Midnight Ink authors at the booth in the dealers' room.

Finally, the Anthony Awards Brunch is on Sunday, October 17 at 10:00 a.m.  Midnight Ink author G.M. Malliet is a nominee for Death and the Lit Chick.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Want to Be a Writer-in-Residence? Try Crossing the Atlantic

Keith here.

In Sunday's post, Carol 'fessed up to her dream job -- being a writer-in-residence. It sounded so sweet that I did a little looking around. St. Peter's College, Oxford has selected Joanna Kavenna (photo below) for a two-year stint as its first WIR. Previously, she held writing fellowships at St Antony's College, Oxford and St John's College, Cambridge. She won the Orange Award (worth 10,000 quid) for emerging writers in 2008. I lived two years in Oxford and would love to try it again.

What Ms. Kavenna has would be tough to beat. How about this though? WIR at the Savoy Hotel in London. Children's book author Michael Morpurgo got three months in a room that cost other guests $1600 a night. Here's what he had to say about it:

"It's like living in another world. I'm a country boy, I've lived on a farm for the last 30 years, and suddenly here I am living in the Savoy, talking to people, meeting people who care about books, and I must say, selfishly, the best thing is I can go to the theater when I feel like it, to the movies, to concerts. It's a prolonged treat."

How did he get that gig? He was chosen by the directors of the Hay Festival held in the book city of Hay-on-Wye.

The UK's Orion Publishers have set up a WIR program with a boutique hotel chain for its authors, but it's only for a two-day stay. Still, a crime fiction writer was slated to be one of the first WIRs under the program. Who? R.J. Ellory.

Is there any hope for us Americans? Maybe. One hotel consulting firm is recommending a WIR program to its clients.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Secrets To Happiness

The great Robert Louis Stevenson compiled this list of things that were (to him) the key to happiness. It's ironic to me that RLS, ill for much of his life and often suffering, wrote so many things that were positive, including one of my favorites, A Child's Garden of Verses.

How To Be Happy

By Robert Louis Stevenson

1. Make up your mind to be happy. Learn to find pleasure in simple things.

2. Make the best of your circumstances. No one has everything, and everyone has something of sorrow intermingled with gladness of life. The trick is to make the laughter outweigh the tears.

3. Don't take yourself too seriously. Don't think that somehow you should be protected from misfortune that befalls other people.

4. You can't please everybody. Don't let criticism worry you.

5. Don't let your neighbor set your standards. Be yourself.

6. Do the things you enjoy doing, but stay out of debt.

7. Never borrow trouble. Imaginary things are harder to bear than real ones.

8. Since hate poisons the soul, do not cherish jealousy, enmity, grudges. Avoid people who make you unhappy.

9. Have many interests. If you can't travel, read about new places.

10. Don't hold postmortems. Don't spend your time brooding over sorrow or mistakes. Don't be one who never gets over things.

11. Do what you can for those less fortunate than yourself.

12. Keep busy at something. A busy person never has time to be unhappy.

(cited from True Wealth, ed. Gary Morris).

What do you think of Stevenson's list? Perhaps he wrote great literature because he was a highly perceptive human being. He died at only 44, probably of a cerebral haemorrhage, but shortly before he died, Wikipedia tells me, he reflected the same spirit manifested in the list above:

"Sick and well, I have had splendid life of it, grudge nothing, regret very little ... take it all over, damnation and all, would hardly change with any man of my time."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Bullying's toll

I'm usually a fairly happy-go-lucky person. I don't dwell for too long on the bad stuff in life, and I think I have pretty solid coping mechanisms. When I heard the news that Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi committed suicide after an encounter he had with another man was put up on the web without his knowledge or permission, I shuddered.

Then came Ellen's plea on TV about anti-gay bullying, and I began to pay more attention. On the heels of these two tales, the Minneapolis Star Tribune just had a front page story about schools struggling with how to deal with anti-gay bullying after seven, yes SEVEN, students committed suicide IN THE LAST YEAR in one metro district alone.

Double-take. WHAT?! I certainly don't live with my head in the sand, but holy cow, I was, and still am, shocked. So. What does this have to do with writing?

As writers we use words to evoke many emotions, and have the ability to make people feel certain ways. One writer, Julie Ann Peters, uses her stories as a launchpad for numerous social issues. One of her books, By The Time You Read This, I'll Be Dead, directly addresses the issue of youth bullying and suicide. I know there are many other books out there that take on bullying of all kinds, and I applaud those who use their writing magic to expose issues like this, issues that are so easily overlooked.

This unfortunate situation serves to remind me that, as an author, the topics we pick and the choices we make in our stories can make a huge difference to our readers, and can go so far as to be a tie-breaker between death and life. As I travel along my writing journey, I'm going to remember that. No one needs to feel like they are going through this kind of thing alone. There is help and there is hope.
Bingo Barge Murder May 1st, 2011

Sunday, October 3, 2010


Writer in Residence, what a great gig! How can I get one like that, you're asking yourself. You get paid, you get to get away from your cluttered house and your demanding family to a place where you are looked up to and admired. Most writers in residence spend a few weeks at a public library giving talks and critiquing patrons' manuscripts and of course working on their current WIP when they get a moment. But I want a residency like Alain de Botton (pictured here) who spent a week at Heathrow Airport as the Writer in Residence. Look at the exposure! Look at the book he wrote while sitting in the Departures Terminal - a slim, attractive volume called A WEEK AT THE AIRPORT which is filled with his "witty, erudite musings."

I can see myself in that position. Actually I would prefer the airport at Papeete, Tahiti at this time of year when the fog comes rolling in to my real residence. Lots of fog at Heathrow too, I hear. There in the tropics I would be the witty, erudite person I always knew I could be. I would be gracious and charming to the hordes of curious passengers who wonder what I am doing there sitting at that desk with a plumeria lei around my neck. "Writing a cozy mystery," I'd say, "a slim (very slim) book which will be filled with my musings as well as murder and mayhem. Any ideas, anyone?" I'd also be happy to autograph my books and to give or take travel or literary advice. De Bottom said a big part of his job was giving directions to the loo. Hey, I can do that too.

You too can be a Writer in Residence. But where? Airport, library, Cape Cod cottage, Macy's window? And what will you write whilst residing?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Inkspot News - October 2, 2010

On Saturday, October 2, 2010, Midnight Ink author Beth Groundwater will appear at the Author Fest of the Rockies
The Cliff House
306 Canon Avenue, Manitou Springs, CO 80829
From 2:45 - 3:30 pm, she and Laura DiSilverio will present a workshop on "Getting Serious about Series Writing," then she will sign copies of her books at the Authors Showcase book signing from 4:30 - 5:30 pm.
TED began in 1984 as a conference to bring together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, and Design. The first TEDx conference in Silicon Valley will be held next Friday, October 7 with the theme "People, Passion, and Possibilities." Keith Raffel is one of the dozen speakers. The event will be Webcast. Click here for details.

G.M. Malliet was a guest at the Barnes & Noble Online mystery book club Sept. 30. Her topic was Agatha's Haunts - some of the places where Agatha Christie lived. She's included photos of some of the author's favorite places, like Winterbrook House and Greenway. Midnight Ink author Lois Winston also guested during this month-long celebration of the life of Agatha Christie (it would have been her 120th birthday Sept. 15). Please stop by.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Paying it Forward

I felt so lucky this summer. Great press for A HOUSE TO DIE FOR, including a televised interview, several engagements at book clubs, three or four library events, and the opportunity to speak to the Maine Women's Network as part of their "Amazing Women" series. Really, can there be any bigger thrill for any of us than talking about our writing?

Last week I answered my own question. What's more rewarding than discussing our books? Sharing our story with an aspiring scribe.

With me in the photo above is Nicole Glidden, an eighth grader from Cushing, Maine. We're in the library of her school where she interviewed me about being and becoming a writer.

It turns out that Nicole, who pens science fiction, is quite the Katie Couric. Her questions ranged from the basic (When did you first know that you were a writer? My answer: From the minute I could grasp a pencil) to the specific (What do you do when you get writer's block? My reply: I shift gears and work on another part of the story.) She asked me about my major in college (Comparative Literature) and my minor (French) and whether I was a New York Times Bestselling Author. (Ummm...not yet.)

We talked about the process of writing: plotting, creating characters, and writing believably gory scenes. Nicole struggles with the same things we do, and feels the same satisfaction when she gets it right. She asked me who reads my fiction first, and I told her about my husband, my agent, and my good friend Lynda. She nodded and told me about her friends' reactions to her stories. She told me that her mom is a loyal reader, despite her preference for romance.

The experience of sitting at the little table with Nicole was different than addressing book club attendees, or getting up in front of a group at the library. I was talking one on one with a writer, someone alot like me many moons ago. I urged her to keep plugging away, to persevere despite the many obstacles life would throw in her way -- the same advice we have all found one way or another.

I inscribed a copy of A HOUSE TO DIE FOR to this determined young woman, and then I wished her all the luck in the world. Because when it comes right down to it, even Katie Couric needs a little luck.