Wednesday, June 29, 2011

We didn't have a contract

For months I had been telling my paper publisher for my second mystery, Whose Hand? A Skeeter Hughes Mystery, that we did not have a contract. He replied repeatedly that we would work under the same terms we had used for my first mystery, Where's Billie?,  that he had published. I pushed on.

After I had written, revised, revised and revised, I hired an editor to work on Whose Hand? I called my publisher and left messages that I was working on the book, but WE DIDN'T HAVE A CONTRACT. He did not return my calls.

Last January, after I was happy with Whose Hand? I put it on Kindle and Nook. Sales were pretty good, and boosted  interest in the first book as well.  My publisher decided to delay release of Whose Hand? from spring to fall 2011. Given that WE DIDN'T HAVE A CONTRACT, and it was doing ok in epub, I went along, even though that meant the second book would be released two years after the first, which is too long.

Whose Hand? is set to release in August. Last week I told my publisher that WE DIDN'T HAVE A CONTRACT. "That's not good," he said.

He invited me to his office, and mentioned nonchalantly as the contract printed out, that it had changed a bit. "I'm going to be doing the Kindle and Nook publishing now," he said.

"No," I said, fully prepared to walk out of his office without a contract for paper.

Our first contract specifically said that I retained electronic rights to the work. I wasn't about to let go of those rights for the second book.

"What percentage would you give me?" I asked, curious only to hear what he'd say. "I get 70 percent from Kindle and 70 percent from Nook."

He was dumbfounded. He had planned to send the file of my work to another vendor, who would put it up on Kindle and Nook, then pay him 50 cents for each copy sold. I get $2.10 per book now, I told him. Shock and awe.

"How do you get it in the Kindle?" he asked.

"I read the directions," I replied.

"Maybe I should have you put all my other books on Kindle," he said.

In the end, we signed a contract identical to my first with him, including a sentence that says I retain all electronic rights. 

My paper publisher's family is now in it's third generation in the business. He's a savvy man, in the print world. But like many publishers he's caught in a very steep learning curve of the rapidly changing world.

So what's the lesson in this tale? We're all learning. But we indie authors have to stay with every bend in the road, or we're going to get run over. And never, never, never sell your electronic rights for less than a bizzilion dollars.

Have you had an experience like this?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Multiple Personalities?

A guest post by Clare O'Donohue.

Clare O’Donohue is a freelance television writer and producer. She has worked worldwide on a variety of shows for Food Network,the History Channel, and truTV, among others. Missing Persons* marks the debut of the Kate Conway mystery series. She is also the author of The Lover’s Knot, A Drunkard’s Path, The Double Cross and The Devil’s Puzzle (Oct. 2011) in the Someday Quilts series. O’Donohue lives in Chicago, IL.

My first three books, all part of the Someday Quilts series, were light mysteries. People were murdered, sure, but it wasn’t anything to get upset about. My main character from that series, Nell Fitzgerald, is nosy but she’s polite. She makes quilts, she hangs out with a multi-generational group of woman, and she’s dating a guy that anyone would be happy to bring home to meet the folks.

My fourth book, Missing Persons*, features Kate Conway. Kate is nothing like Nell. In fact, my guess is she wouldn’t even like her. Kate is sarcastic and a little bitter. She covers her vulnerability with cynicism, and she isn’t afraid to lie or manipulate if it gets her what she wants.

One of the comments I’ve heard from friends, reviewers and fans of my first three books is that it’s hard to believe both series are written by the same person. If characters are extensions of the writer’s personality, my friends say, then I must have multiple personality disorder.

I’m fine with that. Just as I don’t think most actors want to play the same part their whole careers (except maybe Susan Lucci), I don’t think most writers want to write from the same point of view all the time. Even a series that goes on for years grows and changes, and the author introduces new characters that bring different life experiences, different attitudes, different methods of getting rid of a body….

And isn’t that the fun of it? I love my Nell character, and her genesis may be in my years of quilting and my fantasies about small town life, but she isn’t me. Kate shares my profession (TV producer) and a tendency to make a joke out of everything, but she isn’t me either.

My characters live in different places (Nell in the fictional small town of Archers Rest, and Kate in the very real Chicago) and they have different interests (Nell quilts with a group of close friends, Kate tries to avoid human contact through TV and take-out).

The fact that these women see the world through very different eyes, isn’t the hard part. It’s the fun part. Through my characters I can have new experiences, or relive old ones – I can be 26 again, worried about my career and sharing a first kiss, or I can be facing down the cop who thinks I might be a killer. I can be rude, virginal, angry, generous… I can be smarter than I actually am. And much, much braver. One mystery series couldn’t do or say everything I want, so why not have two?

Like a pretzel dipped in chocolate, the opposite tastes actually improve each other. Which only makes me wonder what perhaps a third series, with another new character could bring to the mix. Or a fourth….

My friends may be right. Maybe I do have multiple personality disorder.

*Tomorrow on Stuff and Nonsense, a review of Missing Persons. I also have a copy to give away to one person who comments here or on tomorrow's review. U.S. entries only, please. Deadline is midnight on Saturday, July 2nd.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Redemption vs. Worthiness

By Peg Brantley, Writer at Work, Stumbling Toward Publication

A very large—and long—discussion regarding the Edgar awards and gender bias on the SinC (Sisters in Crime) loop kind of drilled down (in my mind anyway) to this theory I find intriguing.

Men, because they pretty much know they are dogs and capable of doing horrible things, write about a human who seeks redemption.

Women, on the other hand, consider themselves underdogs and write about a human who seeks affirmation and worthiness. Legally Blonde or Stephanie Plum fit in here.

If all things are equal—quality of writing, characterization, etc.—one story will feel serious while the other feels fluffy, and the deeper one is more likely to garner positive attention from judges of the serious minded awards (such as the Edgars). And often, that attention translates to readers as well.

Another element that I think could easily impact an author's natural tendency to either write redemption or worthiness is the age of the author. A young person would probably lean toward a character who must prove himself. An older writer might lean toward redemption.

The loop discussion morphed rather quickly from the gender of the author to the gender of the lead character, which is an entirely different animal.

I know this is painting with a very broad brush, but I find the idea of an author's gender influencing his or her natural development of their characters intriguing.

What do you think?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Authors are not the Enemy

By Andrew E. Kaufman

There’s no question that author BSP (blatant self-promotion) is alive and well these days, and there’s no question that it annoys readers. Quite honestly, it annoys me, as an author and as a reader.

I get that. Not only do I get it, I sympathize. But what I don’t understand, and what concerns me, is the increasing hostility some readers have toward authors, along with the notion that we’re the enemy.

We’re not.

I recently dropped out of a very popular online group for Kindle readers because the contempt seemed to be reaching epic proportions. It made me uncomfortable and felt unfair, if not insulting. When the group tried to organize a monthly post where authors could list their work—a sort of online book fair—there was a huge uproar. Many simply wouldn't have it. A very adamant and heated discussion ensued, during which, one member said she didn’t want it because it was a DISCUSSION group, not a MARKETING group. Then she compared us to door-to-door salesmen who drop by and force her to watch a presentation of their product.

For me, the comparison seemed deeply flawed and unfair. A door-to-door salesman is a stranger. The authors in the group were not. Most owned Kindles, most read books on them, and most participated regularly in the discussions. Besides, nobody was "forcing” her to see anything. Hence the reason it was placed in a separate thread and offered only once a month. If she didn’t want to read it, she had the option of simply ignoring it.

What some people fail to realize is that authors do read. In fact, many of us do so in a voracious manner. We're also human beings with feelings—although, in reading comments posted in various online discussion groups, it would appear some are unaware of this. Here’s just a small sampling:

The only reason authors send friend requests on Goodreads, FB, or follow on Twitter is so you'll buy their book. The only reason they're nice is so you'll give them good reviews.

Authors shouldn't comment on reviews because it makes readers feel like they can't give an honest opinion if they know the author is lurking out there

I don't want authors contacting me. All they want to do is pimp their book.

I don't like authors taking over my threads. It keeps people from saying what they really want to say.

I don't want to talk to authors unless I initiate the conversation.

Authors shouldn't be allowed here. It's for readers who want to discuss books.

Authors send me friend requests all the time. I tell them to go f*#k themselves.

I liked this book until I saw what the author looked like. I'll never read another one of their books.

And it's not just the readers who perpetuate this attitude. Many websites, in their attempt to crack down on BSP, are enacting strict rules. And they should. But some, it seems, go a little too far. I recently got this email from Goodreads:

I am once again asking all authors (and regular members as well) to remove any signatures they use to advertise their books at the end of their posts. By "signatures" I mean links/urls at the end of your posts linking your books/website/blog that have no relation to the topic you're posting in. Any posts like this will be subject to deletion.

This is in an effort to keep the amount of author promotion to a minimum so that those members who aren't interested in reading the self-promotion aren't beaten over the head with it. Many members have expressed their displeasure with the promotion, and this is my way of cutting down on it without eliminating it.

Beaten over the head? With a signature line at the very bottom of the page that has a title or website? Even non-authors put website urls in their signature lines. It’s sort of become a standard practice, a way of telling people who we all are.

The point I'm trying to make here is this: We are not the enemy. We write books, ones that readers read, and last I checked, that isn't a crime. At the very least, we deserve respect.

We’ve worked long and hard to earn it.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Writing a Killer Thriller, Part III

by Jodie Renner
More techniques for writing a compelling suspense-thriller…or any other page-turner.
In Part I of this series, I passed along some tips for creating a compelling opening, complex characters, and a tight point of view. In Part II, I discussed creating a riveting plot with lots of conflict and suspense and a tight, to-the-point writing style. This final post in this series covers tension, dialogue, pacing, passion, and crafting a satisfying ending.
Put tension on every page.  
This applies to all fiction, but even more so for thrillers. As Jack Bickham says, “Virtually all the high points of most stories involve conflict. It’s the fuel that makes fiction go. Nothing is more exciting and involving.”
Bickham continues, “In fiction, the best times for the writer—and reader—are when the story’s main character is in the worst trouble. Let your character relax, feel happy and content, and be worried about nothing, and your story dies. Pour on all sorts of woes so your poor character is thoroughly miserable and in the deepest kind of trouble, and your story perks right up—along with your reader’s interest.
          “The moral: Although most of us do everything we can to avoid trouble in real life, we must do the opposite as writers of fiction. We must seek out ways to add trouble to our characters’ lives, putting just as much pressure on them as we can. For it’s from plot trouble that reader interest comes.”
In his chapter called “Tension All the Time,” Donald Maass emphasizes giving your protagonist (and other characters) conflicting emotions and inner conflict.

All dialogue needs tension, too.
As Ingermanson and Economy say, “Dialogue is war! Every dialogue should be a controlled conflict between at least two of the characters with opposing agendas. The main purpose of dialogue is to advance the conflict of the story.” So definitely leave out the “How are you? I’m fine. And you?” blah-blah-blah, and cut to the chase. Unless of course you’re trying to show seething resentment or subtle tension boiling up from under surface politeness. As Donald Maass says, “Conflict in dialogue can be as polite as poison, or as messy as hatchets. The approach is up to you. The important thing is to get away from ambling chit-chat and get right to the desire of two speakers to defeat each other.” So follow James N. Frey’s advice: “Decide you will have fresh, snappy dialogue and not a single line of conversation.”

Vary the pacing.
Although thrillers are generally fast-paced, it’s important to slow down the pacing from time to time, to give your readers a break. As Jessica Page Morrell says, “because readers need to put down a book from time to time, and because pacing can’t be as relentless as a runaway train, you need to bring down the temperature and tension in a story at intervals. A win for your character, as well as a slower or interlude scene, provides the pauses and quieter moments needed.”

Give your scenes conflict, intensity and intrigue.
Start and end your chapters and scenes with questions and intrigue. James N. Frey’s advice is to end each scene or section of dramatic narrative with a bridge, a story question to carry the reader to the next one.
Every scene, according to James Scott Bell, needs a degree of intensity. A moving force in the scene is trying to make something happen. Opposition or obstacles are keeping the POV character from meeting his objective. And the outcome is often not entirely satisfactory. In fact, Bell advises us, “Design your scenes, for the most part, so the lead is in a worse position after the scene is over.” This will keep the reader reading to find out how the protagonist tackles the new challenges and survives her new predicament.

Put passion into your writing.
Donald Maass, in The Fire in Fiction, feels that the key ingredient to a page-turner is passion. “What do I mean by passion? … A passionate author has us in her grip. Passionate fiction is not bogged down, wandering, low in tension, or beset by the many bugbears of by-the-numbers novel writing, like stereotypical characters, predictable plots, cliché-ridden prose, churning exposition, buried dialogue, and so on.[…] When the purpose of every word is urgent, the story crackles, connects, weaves, and falls together in wondrous ways.”
          How to develop that passion as a writer? Maass believes in learning from others. “Everything we need in order to understand the techniques of passion lies within the covers of novels that you will currently find on the shelves.”

Create a thrilling, satisfying climax.
Frey points out, “In almost all damn good thrillers, the hero is nearly killed in the climax, but then manages to kill or capture the villain and to foil his evil plot. Audiences find this motif satisfying….” An effective, satisfying climax has a surprise or two, good prevails over evil, and often the hero discovers something about himself or gains insight into the human condition. Don’t disappoint your readers by having a nebulous, wishy-washy, or tragic ending. Leave that to literary fiction, not your killer thriller!
James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing
James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Thriller  
Donald Maass, The Fire in Fiction
David Morrell, The Successful Novelist
Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us

Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER (Silver Medalist in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013). Both titles are available in e-book and paperback.
For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.

Friday, June 17, 2011

An Insider's Look at Screenwriting

We're excited to post a Q&A with scriptwriter, novelist, and journalist Karen Lin, winner of many national screenwriting awards and competitions. For more about Karen, see her bio at the end.

What should readers expect from a good screen adaptation?
First know that the screenplay will usually be different than the book. It should capture the essence of the story and main characters but not the step-by-step moments. There are exceptions such as Holes, which is YA – just the right length to lend itself to following the story exactly. Movies that try to stick too closely to the books usually end up dragging and boring. If you need something for the story, make it up. If too many subplots or characters are in there, nix some of them. As to the nitty gritty: Grab the audience’s attention with opening image. Introduce your protagonist right away. We want to know early. Don't overwhelm your reader with dozens of names in the first ten pages (each page is a minute on the screen). Limit details that don't move the story forward. Focus the reader's attention where it should be. Give us the clues we need to "get it” as early as possible. Many other things go into making a great adaptation, but those are the bare bones.

What are some examples of crime novels that made great movies?
The Godfather (1972) very effectively and seamlessly stripped subplots way back and it is consistently listed as one of the best adaptations. Similarly, The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – streamlined the plot line. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) would have been a bit short if 100% true to the novella, but just the right amount of meat was added. As to true crime: William Goldman (arguably the greatest screenwriter of all time) believed that in historical screenplays, one doesn’t need to be accurate about the people involved, only to the historical event and the result of that event. Example: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He wasn’t even true to his own novel, Marathon Man (told in the head of the kid). In it the only scene that stayed the same when he adapted it to a script was Olivier in the diamond district.

Can you name some failures and tell us why the novel didn’t adapt well?
Most scripts fail when trying to stay too true to the book. They aren’t well acted or directed or edited or visually successful. This is true even for a great book. One example would be Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Have you seen it? Some books are brilliant but are hard to pull off as movies. One recent example of that is The Time Traveler’s Wife. A great effort was made but it still didn’t touch the book. How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Dune and many others don’t work. Interestingly, Stephen King didn’t like the feature-length adaptation of The Shining but he liked the other adaptations. In my opinion it was the reverse of that. The Shining, partly because the vision didn’t remain 100% true to the book, was the best. The others stayed more true but were duds on the screen. Hope King doesn’t read this. Adaptation is NOT being true to the original. There is controversy over fidelity. But altering the author’s original vision may be required.

What value is there for a novelist to learn the craft of script writing? Can it enhance storytelling abilities?
It helps tremendously. I’ve written over a dozen screenplays, a few of them shorts. I can tell you that my prose has greatly improved because of it. I learned to write tighter, less on-the-nose, with snappier dialogue and to pick and choose the most telling details in the “direction” of the narrative. It improved my storytelling skills and gave me an important lesson in writing visually. It also gives a sense of completeness much quicker so it’s a great boost to the self-confidence.

What is the hardest adjustment for writers to make when moving between the two genres?
First, film is collaborative. They will change your script; believe it, accept it. Most painful when you go to sell, it’s a who-you-know industry. There’s lots of business acumen and rules about it: Outright Sale versus a Development Deal (your script is a lure to pitch your ideas), Auditions (sample script secures you an audition for writing assignment), Options (usually 6-12 months $0-$20,000) at the end of the stated time, the producer pays purchase price or passes.

Then there are differences between who represents you. Agents are Writers Guild-signatories, 10%, no reading fee, 90 day termination clause. Managers (not WG signatories, they nurture your career but can’t sell without attorney, often 15%). There’s the Hip Pocket Deal—when an agency signs someone only to sell a spec script (not to get the writer any other work) It's better than nothing but you want an agent that believes in you as a whole and not just one of your scripts. The bigger agencies tend to offer only this to newer writers.

As to adjusting to the writing of a script: it will to be shorter if adapted from a novel. Since Voice Overs are somewhat frowned upon (Forest Gump is an anomaly), you must be prepared to tell the story without lots of internals. Show Don’t Tell is definitely the rule for screenwriters. And you can’t boss around the director or actors. Avoid camera directions like Close Up – unless it is essential for the plot. Avoid telling the actor to speak sarcastically; this should be evident from the dialogue. If not, improve your dialogue. And don’t put into your directions things that a director can’t portray—like a quick thought backstory that won’t ever come out on the screen. Try to avoid Dawn and Dusk scenes because capturing the moment in several takes is difficult. Film is a more restricted venue. But on the bright side, working in a box is easier for many people. It makes the structure and rules less of a guessing game.

If novelists can visual their story as a movie, should they go ahead and write the script or does it make more sense to shop the novel?
Good question. That depends on who you ask. My entertainment attorney told me to write the book first because more money comes that way, since selling the rights to a movie is more lucrative and easier than selling a spec script (assuming it is a popular book). Personally I didn’t wait to finish a book to write it as a spec script because a producer told me that if I turned it into a screenplay he’d take it on. It never sold (the young producer died before having a chance at it), but it sent me down a detour from my novel writing that I don’t regret at all. After my solo stint, I teamed up with a few other writers on different projects, got an agent (who took scripts to Sonnenfeld, Cameron, HBO, Showtime, and Sci-Fi), and I finally had a co-written short produced. I ended up having to terminate my agent and am looking for another. In the meantime, I have irons in the fire for features, webisodes, and made for TV movies. While I market, I’m back to writing novels with my new skills well in place. How can I regret writing spec scripts?

Do you need a Hollywood agent to sell your novel/screenplay or are there websites and services that put authors directly in touch with production companies?
Yes and no. If you are willing to go the indie route you can team up with small budget director/producers through lead services such as Inktip, learn about the business and what’s hot through e-newsletters like MovieBytes, join local groups like Colorado Actors and Screenwriters Assembly, go to festivals and pitch, and gain attention through contests. When you are starting out, I suggest contests like BlueCat and ScriptVamp that offer great feedback on your work. When you are ready and confident, try The Nicholl Fellowship—cream of the cream—if you even make quarterfinalist you’ll get attention. There are many other great contests. Do your research. Be sure the contest gets your work into the right hands if you final.

What resources do you recommend for a writer who is just breaking into the genre?
Read the trades like Variety and Hollywood Reporter. Read directories like Hollywood Creative Directory. Lead services like InkTis (One service is free; their more complete services cost.), MovieBytes on line.

Don’t be intimidated by the format. There is great software out there like Final Draft and MovieMagic but I wrote most of my scripts using Word…easy…thanks to tabs. I believe has on-line screenwriting software for free.

To learn the nitty-gritty on formatting, start by reading The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier. For foundations: Syd Field’s Screenplay. For story development: Story by McKee. For understanding the industry: The Writer Got Screwed by Brooke Wharton and Hello, He Lied by Lynda Obst. For taking it to the next level: Linda Seger’s Making a Good Script Great. There are also many on-line sources for learning the art and business of screenwriting:
  • CASA:
  • Learn the difference between coverage and consulting here.
  • Good site to learn more about the construction of a pitch by Christopher Lockhart.
  • Excellent site for articles on screenwriting by Michael Hauge.
 Most importantly, dive in and try. I suspect you’ll be glad you did.

Karen is a novel, screenplay and nonfiction consultant and editor. But her own writing is her first passion: novels, literary cookbooks, magazine and newspaper articles, and screenplays. She’s garnered international, national and regional awards for feature length and short screenplays (solo and collaborative) including: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and Pikes Peak Writers Contest.  One of her co-written short scripts has been produced. She has been represented by a Hollywood agent, an LA entertainment attorney, and a top NY literary agent who sells book to film. Learn more about Karen and her writing at her website.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

My intern, Sven

My intern, Sven, who reminds me of Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, only cuter, wanted the morning off. He had to finish his application for the Rhodes Scholarship. I was inclined to give it to him, especially since he has come to work every morning for past week at six to make sure the coffee was fresh and scones just out of the oven for me when I came in to work.

I'd hired him at the end of his spring semester at MIT because he could type. He auditioned for the job by giving me a foot massage. How could I not hire someone so dexterous?

He's worked out well so far, even if he's only here mornings. He's written checks to the cottage industry I employ- typesetters, editors, cover designers - and balanced my checkbook. He's already called a dozen television and radio shows and has me booked to talk about Whose Hand? A Skeeter Hughes Mystery when it publishes in mid-August. He even lined up a caterer to make tiny crepes stuffed with goat cheese and asparagus tips for the launch party Aug. 24, 7 p.m. at Once Upon A Crime Mystery Bookstore in Minneapolis. He ordered a case of Chardonnay.

"Tell me again why you want tomorrow off," I said.

"I hate to leave you in a lurch but if I don't get my application in right away I may have to wait another year and that's just too much," he said.

"What's your sport?"

"Discus throwing."

"You certainly have the muscles for it," I said. "Well, ok, if you must you can go, but I want you back in 24 hours, you understand?"

"I wouldn't leave you longer than that. Who knows could happen?"

What will I do when he gets the Rhodes? He'll be gone for a whole year. I guess I'll just have to hire his identical twin, Ben.

So... fellow writers. What's your fantasy?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Welcome back, Irene!

Disturbance by Jan Burke.*

Reviewed by Marlyn Beebe.

We last saw Irene Kelly in 2006's Kidnapped. She's finally back, and facing an old nemesis, Nick Parrish (to whom we were introduced eleven years ago in Bones). In the earlier novel, serial killer Parrish developed an obsession with Irene when he was temporarily allowed out of prison to lead a search for one of his victims. In this book, Parrish has recovered from the paralyzing injuries he sustained during his earlier escape attempt, thanks to an enterprising surgeon.

Although he's still incarcerated in a maximum security facility, Irene worries that Parrish will seek revenge. Despite friends' assurances of her safety, she's still afraid of the Moths, Parrish's rejuvenated online "fan club". She is certain they are the ones behind the terrifying "pranks" that occur when she's at home alone. But when the corpse of a young woman is found in the trunk of a car parked outside her house, the body painted with images of moths, Irene's suspicions are confirmed.

Meanwhile, the Las Piernas News Express is folding, and Irene has to find a way to keep from sitting around the house worrying about Parrish and the Moths.

Jan Burke's skill continues to increase with each novel she writes. Her characters are well-described and the plot is so gripping and suspenseful that this reviewer was forced to read through the night to finish the book.

One caveat: it does help to read the Irene Kelly books in sequence; the impact will be so much less otherwise.

Hop on over to Stuff and Nonsense, where I have a Q & A with Jan Burke! One lucky reader of Crime Fiction Collective and Stuff and Nonsense will receive a copy of Disturbance courtesy of the publisher. Please comment on any or all of the blogs by midnight on Saturday, June 18th to be entered in the contest.

*Many thanks to Simon & Schuster's Galley Grab program for the opportunity to review this book before publication.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Twenty Short Stories: $3.99. Feeling Good: Priceless

From time to time, my world gets extra shiny things. When I find an author who makes me want to read everything he or she has ever written—it's a shiny thing. When I discover an author (who, in this case, I want to be when I grow up) who writes about tough things in a humanitarian and compassionate way, and also walks the walk . . . well, he's not only the pot of shiny things at the end of the rainbow, but the rainbow itself.

I'm very proud to turn my posting day over to my friend, Tim Hallinan. He has something important to share.

~Peg Brantley, Writer at Work, Stumbling Toward Publication

Timothy Hallinan is the Edgar-nominated author of the Poke Rafferty Bangkok Thrillers, which Publisher's Weekly called, "razor-sharp, convincing, and heartbreaking." He is also the author of the highly-praised Simeon Grist mysteries and the e-book original "thrillers with a laugh track" featuring L.A. burglar (and private eye) Junior Bender. Junior's debut, Crashed, is available on Amazon now. Hallinan's story, Hansum Man" was recently anthologized in Bangkok Noir, a collection of sotries about The Big Mango by twelve well-known writers. He lives in Santa Monica, Bangkok, and Phnom Penh. He's online at

I've never edited anything in my life.

I've always figured that the editing gene and the writing gene are two completely different things.

And now that I'm officially the editor of the Kindle e-book SHAKEN; STORIES FOR JAPAN—a collection of 20 original short stories by 20 more-than-original mystery writers—I've still never edited anything in my life.

Before I explain that, let me say that the twenty writers who contributed to the collection, the writer who designed the cover, the poet who let us use her internationally-praised translation of haiku, the e-book producer who converted the whole thing into a beautiful e-book and put it online—well, they all got paid exactly the same amount.

Nothing. Zero.

SHAKEN: STORIES FOR JAPAN is, I think, the first e-book ever conceived solely as a fund-raiser. One hundred percent of all royalties go directly to the 2011 Japan Relief Fund administered by Japan America Society of Southern California, which has already raised more than $1 million in disaster relief. And they've pledged that every single penny that comes in will go straight to the areas devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, many of which are also still under threat of nuclear contamination.

So for $3.99, you get twenty great short stories, 21 haiku, and a chance to help people who really need it. SHAKEN: STORIES FOR JAPAN is available now through Amazon. It's never been easier to contribute.

So why haven't I really edited anything?

Because the stories don't need it. The writers are first-rate, and they were all working on tiptoe for this project. In alphabetical order, they are Brett Battles, Cara Black, Vicki Doudera, Dianne Emley, Dale Furutani, Stefan Hammond, Rosemary Harris, Naomi Hirahara, Wendy Hornsby, Ken Kuhlken, Debbi Mack, Adrian McKinty, I.J. Parker, Gary Phillips, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Jeffrey Siger, Kelli Stanley, C.J. West, Jeri Westerson, and me, and I didn't have a single important question about anything any of them wrote.

In fact, they were all so good that I went back and rewrote my own story.

Kelli Stanley's “Coolie,” set in the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake, opens like this: “Alfred woke up coughing, the black, oil-charged smoke searing his throat, smell of burning velvet curtains in Barbary Coast whorehouses, fruit stands and bowler hats, Palace Hotel and the Old Poodle Dog kitchen.”

Wendy Hornsby's “The Emperor's Truck” brings a young Japanese-American woman home to San Pedro for the first time after years spent penned up in World War II relocation camps: “Everything seemed familiar, and not. Tricks of memory, Eunice Toyama thought. How many times during the last four years had she imagined coming home to San Pedro and finding everything exactly the same as she pictured it in her mind's eye?”

And Cara Black's “Mosquito Incense” gives us another homecoming, across the sea, in the present time: “No more, he promised himself, as the bullet train edged into Tokyo Station. The last time had been the last time. He dumped Eddie's letter into the porcelain toilet hole, flushed it down the white tiles, as loudspeakers blared in Japanese.

He left the station, slipped into Tokyo as easily as a rubber glove. “

I mean, what's to edit?

The big problem, sequencing the stories was solved by haiku. Adrian McKinty's nonfiction opener is an elegiac remembrance of how he followed the 17th-century poet Basho up to the Sendai area, now almost completely destroyed. I thought that haiku would be a good way to bridge the stories and also to remind the reader of the rich Japanese cultural tradition. And I got permission—free, again—from Jane Reichhold, whose 2008 volume, Basho: The Complete Haiku, has set a new standard.

Two more gifts—Gar Anthony Haywood, one of my favorite writers in the world, surprised us all by designing what I think is a brilliant cover. And Kimberly Hitchens of donated her services to assemble, convert, and beautify the final product.

And now you get to give—to the effort to help battered communities and broken families – by buying the book. I hope you do.

Peg, here. For a current update from the International Atomic Energy Agency, click here.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Dead Stuff

By Andrew E. Kaufman

I’m in the process of finishing my new novel, a psychological thriller that centers on the case of a three-year-old boy who was kidnapped and murdered more than forty years ago.During that time, I really had to dig down deep in order to portray the depth of emotion parents feel when this kind of tragedy occurs. It hasn’t been easy.

And several times while doing this, I also found myself asking the same question: why do we find murder so entertaining when really, there’s nothing entertaining about it? An odd question from someone who makes a living writing about it, but I'd never really given it much thought—until now, that is.

One look at the primetime television lineup clearly illustrates the point. Shows like CSI and Criminal Minds are more popular than ever, as are books of the same genre. It seems serial killers—and killers in general—are the villains we love to hate.

But why? Why are we so fascinated with the thing that should horrify us the most? After much introspection, I came up with a few theories:

We love a good puzzle

And is there any bigger puzzle than a murder? Crime solving has always been fascinating business. Even more intriguing are the modern-day advances in forensic science. It never fails to amaze me how much they can determine from so little. For me, the best mysteries seem to be ones that appear the most confusing—that is, until the investigator cleverly pulls it all together in the end. It’s the aha moment that’s the payoff.

The “Good to Know that Somebody has it Worse than me” Theory

Death is the ultimate dose of bad luck. It really doesn't get much worse than that, and no matter how bad things are in our own lives, we can always look at the guy who got whacked and think, “Wow, and I thought I was having a bad day.” It’s a form of relief, something that helps us put things into the proper perspective. Also, I think, humans are for the most part a compassionate species, and many of us feel a certain degree of sympathy for the victim, thus drawing us in even more

Justice, Media-Style

We love to hate the bad guys, but we also love seeing them pay for their deeds, and quite often in the world, that simply doesn’t happen. It makes us angry. Seeing justice served on the screen or the pages in a book tends to fill that void. We know it’s not real but still get to sample that emotion on some level,which restores a sense of decency to our world.

Morbid Fascination

Having said all that, there is a dark side to all this. Simply put: we like morbid. I'm not sure why, but we do. We may cringe or cover our eyes (then peak between our fingers) but there seems to be something about the truly bizarre and grotesque that fascinates us. Maybe it's as simple as this: it's human nature to be curious, and the more disturbing something is, the more curious we seem to become. We don’t really want to know, but we sort of do. It's the reason people slow down to look at a car wreck on the side of the road.

What about you? As always, I'm interested in hearing any theories you may have on this. Comments?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Writing a Killer Thriller, Part II

by Jodie Renner
Some key techniques for writing a compelling suspense-thriller…or any other page-turner.
In Part I of this series, I offered some tips for creating a killer opening; staging intriguing, complex characters; and engaging your reader quickly through an up-close point of view. Those techniques, used well, will set the stage and grab your readers early on, making them bond quickly with your hero and start worrying about his plight.
How to keep your readers involved right through to the end of the book? Plan for conflict, tension and suspense on every page, and deliver it with a tight, to-the-point writing style. Don’t allow your reader’s attention to wander for a moment!
Devise a riveting plot, with lots of conflict and tension.
Conflict drives all fiction. And more conflict and higher stakes are of course necessary for a successful thriller. Put your protagonist in hot water right away. Then up the stakes and create more problems for him. Then more.
As James N Frey says, “Have your characters in terrible trouble right from the beginning, and never let them get free of terrible trouble until the climax. Keep the clock ticking and the excitement mounting right to the climactic moment.”
Unlike some other genres, in a thriller, you need high stakes and an urgent mission, and you need to keep the plot moving along briskly. Don’t bog it down with explanations and digressions and backstory. Add those in in small doses, marbling them into your story only when needed. And color any exposition (internal monologue) with plenty of tension, anxiety, inner conflict, questions, all expressed with a distinctive voice and lots of attitude.
Jessica Page Morrell, in Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us, has this advice for creating effective conflict:

~ Give characters opposing goals, agendas, and strong motivations.

~ Make sure the stakes for each character are high.

~ Stage confrontations as if they’re happening/unfolding in real time.

~ Embed dialogue with tension, subtext, and power exchanges.

~ Know your protagonist’s deepest fears.

Stir in lots of suspense.
As Morrell says, “Suspense forces a reader to stay engaged and is part anxiety, part curiosity. Suspense unsettles the reader, plunges him into nail-biting angst. … Suspense builds and satisfies when the reader desperately wants something to happen and it isn’t happening.”
Suspense is usually caused by threats, when the protagonist whose head we’re in is in danger, his life is about to become a living nightmare, and we have to keep reading to find out how it all turns out.
Some techniques to use to increase the suspense are subtle foreshadowing, delaying information, subterfuge, threats to the protagonist, time running out, inner conflicts, surprise twists, and cliff-hangers. All of these techniques involve delaying the resolution of the hero’s problems, piling on new challenges, and hinting of even worse dangers to come.

Use a tight writing style. Make every word count.
In a suspense-thriller (or any compelling fiction), it’s important to write economically. As Steve Berry says: “Shorter is always better. Write tight. It makes you use the best words in the right way.” Succinct, to-the-point writing produces the predominantly fast pace demanded by thrillers.
Don’t meander or ramble. Don’t wax eloquent. Don’t use highfalutin words that sound pompous and will send your readers to the dictionary. Direct, sensory, evocative words are much more powerful. As Jessica Page Morrell says, “Simple words are close to our hearts and easily understood.” Avoid the convoluted, erudite sentence structure popular in previous centuries. And don’t say the same thing three or four times in different ways – we got it the first time! Also, stay away from those stale clichés.
As Harlan Coben says about writing his thrillers, “I want it to be compulsive reading. So on every page, every paragraph, every sentence, every word, I ask myself, ‘Is this compelling? Is this gripping? Is this moving the story forward?’ And if it’s not, I have to find a way to change it…. No word really should be wasted.”
See Part III for more tips on writing a riveting thriller, and Jodie's book, Writing a Killer Thriller.    
Steve Berry’s 8 Rules of Writing, Writer’s Digest, September 05, 2008
Harlan Coben, in an interview by Jessica Strawser published in Writer’s Digest, “Straight Talk with Harlan Coben,” November 29, 2010.
James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Thriller – A Step-by-Step Guide for Novelists and Screenwriters.
Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us, A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing Is Being Rejected

Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER (Silver Medalist in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013). Both titles are available in e-book and paperback. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.

Friday, June 3, 2011

I've Seen the Future and It's Not That Scary

by L.J. Sellers
The changes in publishing are happening so fast and furious, it’s almost surreal. If someone had predicted this stuff even five years ago, people would have scoffed and called it social-science fiction. Here’s a recap of the last two weeks:
  • Amazon launched a fifth publishing imprint, Thomas & Mercer, which will focus on mysteries and thrillers. Its first four titles will be available on the Kindle, in print and audio formats at as well as in bookstores.
  • Amazon hired former Time Warner Books CEO and current agent Larry Kirshbaum to head Amazon Publishing’s New York office, putting Amazon in direct competition with NY publishers.
  • Amazon has asked publishers to start submitting books in epub format, paving the way for standardization of digital books. Readers and authors rejoice!
  • Liberty Media, a cable conglomerate, offered to buy Barnes & Noble, and most analysts say it’s on the strength of the retailer’s e-reader (Nook) and plans to expand into global digital markets.
You’ll note that three of those announcements involve Amazon, and all of them involve e-books. As someone who’s currently writing a futuristic thriller, I've been thinking a lot about the future 13 years from now. In addition to the dystopian elements I’ve included in my novel, I try to imagine realistic changes in business and commerce. The one thing that seems inevitable is that Amazon will become a huge, media and retail conglomerate that wields mega power. In my current reality, my husband and I survive on the royalties I receive from Amazon for my print and e-books sales.

What does all this mean? For starters, if you can, buy stock in Amazon. ☺ And if you still want to sign a contract with a publisher, Amazon should be your first choice. I also think traditional publishing will consolidate to the point that there may only be two or three main presses, and I expect Amazon and B&N to be the dominant forces because they control distribution. B&N is likely to follow Amazon’s lead (as it has done with Nook and PubIt!) and enter the traditional publishing business, signing with authors to release books in all formats and also with e-book exclusivity clauses. This could be a negative for readers because some titles will be available only on Kindle, and some titles will be available only on Nook.

The good news for readers is that there will eventually be more standardization of e-book formats. A few years from now, any e-book you buy will be readable on every device you own... unless it was published by the competition.

For writers, it means you either get picked up by one of the Big 3, with a much better deal than any Big 6 press ever offered, or you go it alone and promote like hell. Small presses will likely disappear too.
I also believe e-book prices are going to drop significantly in the near future, driven by Amazon’s dominance as a volume retailer and by self-published authors drive to gain readership. As a reader, this is good news. As a writer, this is the one thing that makes me the most nervous.

Where do you think the industry will be in five years? Ten years?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

From the time I started as a journalist at 16 -- paid five cents a column inch, thank you very much -- I've been asked how I get ideas for stories. When I switched to writing mysteries about 10 years ago readers asked the same question.

The short answer is, I don't know. Frankly, I wish I did. Many ideas come to my subconscious, roil around there for a while, then pop out when I'm least expecting. Others are the result of semi-disciplined record keeping.

In an effort to sort this out for myself, I'll try to explain.


At a recent book club meeting a reader asked me how I got the name Skeeter for my protagonist, a newspaper reporter. Other times when I was asked this I replied that it just popped into my head. But a few weeks ago I was watching the last of the Harry Potter movies. Surprise, the newspaper reporter in the Harry Potter series was named Skeeter.  That particular Potter book came out just as I was writing the first Skeeter Hughes mystery, "Where's Billie?" Hmmm. Is that where the name came from? When I pointed out the "coincidence" to my husband he reminded me that he'd told me about it two years ago.

Other times a short sentence can launch a whole book. Peter Bognanni, a St. Paul, MN author, told a book group recently that a guy at a party had told his wife that he "lived in a geodesic dome with his grandmother." That image so fascinated Bognanni that he wrote a charming book called The House of Tomorrow based on that one idea.

Why did that so captivate him? Who knows? But the point illustrates how ideas work in the subconscious.  The concept bumped around in his brain and he couldn't seem to get it out. He began researching geodesic domes in Iowa. He researched Buckminster Fuller. Then the idea morphed into punk rock bands and a kid who'd had a heart transplant. Read The House of Tomorrow. I think you'll like it.

Semi-disciplined record keeping

As a former newspaper reporter, I'm a news junkie. I read mostly online newspapers, watch both NBC and CBS evening news -- despite the ads for Ciallis and Bonina -- and my car radio is set permanently on Minnesota Public Radio/National Public Radio.

We had a saying the newsroom, back in the day, that "you can't make this shit up." Whether it's Bernie Madoff, the lady who tried to mail her son a live puppy or the earthquake that hit Japan, news is always better than fiction. That said, I write fiction, and keep a file on my desktop titled, "You can't make this shit up."  It's crammed with links to all the wonderful stories that I can embellish. I try hard to make nonfiction into believable fiction.

David Housewright, a Minnesota writer on his 11th or 12th mystery, I can never remember which, keeps a file of overheard snippets. Standing in the grocery store line, pumping gas, ordering coffee, whatever, he sometimes hears strange little quotes and jots them down. A year later he may pull the perfect line from the file that exactly conveys a thought in words better than he could have written  himself.

That's a good idea that I should adopt, but I haven't, which is why I call it semi-disciplined record keeping.

What was the source your best ideas? Comment here so we can all do what we do, better.