Friday, September 30, 2011

A Writer's Best Friend

By Peg Brantley, writer at work, stumbling toward publication

Every time I open the cover of a book (literally or figuratively), I'm filled with anticipation. It's a brand new journey, sometimes with old friends in a familiar setting, and sometimes with brand new characters in a place I've yet to discover. Usually, I'm not disappointed.

I used to give all of the credit for great reads to the writers. That was before I began to write.

About a year ago, I downloaded a free book written by a man who has co-written with other novelists in the past, and I figured on another good read. The plot intrigued me, but the way the story was put together? Not so much. Because this book was published by a big New York publisher, I assume an editor was involved. Well, "involved" might be too strong of a word. The story was a mess.

A few weeks ago, I downloaded another free book written by a woman whose work I've read in the past and enjoyed. I've met the author. She's smart, approachable, and completely prolific. Published by a different big New York publisher, I know she's experienced the edit process. I think, for this one, she decided she was smart enough not to have to pay for an editor. She was wrong. It was a DNF. (Did Not Finish.) An interesting story, but not one I cared enough for to put up with the junk I had to wade through to get to the story. Know what I mean? I guess maybe she isn't as smart as I thought she was. Either that, or she should ask for her money back.

Both of these books are currently available, but no longer free—$7.99 and $4.99 respectively in the Kindle Store. At least one of them sports an entirely different cover than the version I'd downloaded earlier. Maybe they've been edited. Maybe not.

I don't disparage "free" at all. That's how I discovered Joe Finder (Paranoia) and Tim Hallinan (A Nail Through the Heart). Both of these authors have lived up to the anticipation I have for a new book time and time again. I'm quite certain they each have a wonderful editor. An editor who truly cares and takes the time to work with them to turn their pretty good stories into much, much better stories.

The next time you read a book and love it, consider that there is probably one terrific editor in the background who helped nudge the writer to a better story.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The New Gal Confesses All

by Gayle Carline
First of all, let me thank the Crime Fiction Collective for inviting me into your cult. I can't wait to learn the secret handshake. In the meantime, I thought I'd let you know how I got into writing mysteries. It's not a pretty story, but I promise to spill all.

I've written all my life, but I didn't think about doing it for publication until I bought my first horse. My girlfriend, who had also been my technical writing instructor, introduced me to her editor at Riding Magazine, and before I knew it I was covering horse shows and interviewing horse folk. It was fun, but I wanted more. I like to write humor, so in 2005 I queried my local newspaper and ended up with a weekly humor column in the Placentia News-Times.
My dream, however, was to write a book.

I love to read mysteries, but I thought they'd be too hard to write. The best mysteries have a bunch of threads that weave together until you have a big, fat rope at the end, tied into a hangman's noose. I couldn't possibly write anything as complex as that, so I decided to write literary fiction instead.

Let's think about this for a moment. Picture, if you will, Herman Melville, telling someone, "I really wanted to write westerns, but I thought they'd be too hard. So I had this idea for a whale story."

The lovely part about naivety is that it comes with such a large side order of audacity.

So I wrote a 90,000 word tome. It took me over a year to finish. I now refer to it as my beautifully written piece of crap. I knew it was bad after I'd gone through two rounds of edits. The words are luscious, it has a beginning and an end, but it doesn't go anywhere and doesn't do anything. I'd tell you what it's about, but I don't know, and I wrote the damn thing. It did teach me a lot, however. Not only did I learn that pretty words are not enough, I learned that I could write 90,000 of them. I just needed them to tell a good story.

I turned back to the mystery genre. I had won a flash fiction contest with the tale of a seedy little man hiring a P.I. to find an ice cube tray in his own freezer. It was a kind of comic noir piece. I started to think… what else could you find in a freezer? Something you wouldn't suspect was in there? How about a body part?

Freezer Burn was born, my story of a housecleaner-turned-detective, who is roped into helping a former client clean his freezer and finds a severed hand inside, wearing an expensive ring. My P.I. is a 50-year old woman named Peri Minneopa, whose name is mangled by others as a running joke, one of the ways being Peri Menopause. The client is an annoying little man who is using his inheritance to buy Dean Martin memorabilia on eBay. I started out wanting to keep it noir, but sooner or later, the humor took over.

I'm such a nerd, I used an Excel spreadsheet to make certain the right clues were found by the right people in the right sequence. I kept the plot fairly simple, so I didn't have a lot of threads, but I wanted them to weave together in the end, even if it wasn't a very thick rope.

Freezer Burn
was picked up by Echelon Press and published in July 2009.

My next book in the Peri series wasn't published until May 2011, mostly because it was a petulant child and refused to be constrained by spreadsheets. One day, as I was dutifully following my outline, I got a little bored. If I'm bored, I know the audience will be. So I hit Peri in the head with a golf club. At that point, I left the outline and went rogue. The book turned out to be a fun, if terrifying, writing ride for me, and I swore not to do that again. Or maybe I just swore.

In Hit or Missus, Peri is hired to investigate a wealthy, possibly cheating wife, but the wife's girlfriends have other ideas. After all, a friend will help you move. A good friend will help you move a body.

The third book is humming along. I'm now trying something a little different, and doing journals on my characters to help me with their motivations. I'll still do an outline, but give myself permission to leave it as long as I promise to return.

Thanks again for inviting me, and I hope to keep you entertained every other Thursday. As an example of my humor, I'll leave you with the book trailer I made last summer for Freezer Burn:

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Where the Hell Do You Come Up With This Stuff?

By Andrew E. Kaufman

A question people ask me a lot is, “Where the hell do you come up with this stuff?” The short answer is severe head trauma at a very young age, but the long one is… well, kind of long.

As a kid, my teachers used to yell at me a lot for being in my own little world. See, I had this imagination, and no matter where I was or what I was doing, there always seemed to be a Party of One going on inside Drew’s head. I liked it there, but my teachers, well, not so much.

The proof of that came when I'd get my report card. Year after year, the comments always seemed to be the same. They went something like this: Andrew is a bright young man, but he has a difficult time paying attention in class.

Problem? I didn't see one.

After reading this, my mother would ask me what exactly I was doing all that time, to which I’d shrug and say, “Just thinking about stuff.”

What none of them knew—and I doubt I realized it at the time, either—was that there was a storyteller inside me, one who was desperately trying to punch his way out, and that “stuff” was likely the beginning of my life as a writer.

I think as authors, that storyteller is what drives us, inspires us, and is likely the source of all our ideas. I know that’s where mine come from. Some like to call it “The Muse” while others refer to it as their “Inner Voice.” But whatever name we attach to it hardy matters because really, it's whether or not we choose to listen to it that counts. The ideas are always within us. We just have to grab hold of them.

Want proof? My first novel, While the Savage Sleeps came to me one night in a dream. Seriously. I literally woke up one morning and had a working novel ready to go, then I wrote it. Where did it come from?

Inside Drew's Party of One.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Why CSIs Hate Tidy Paramedics

by Tom Adair, forensic scientist
First responders such as paramedics and firemen are heroes. They rush into dangerous and chaotic circumstances at great risk to themselves all for the sake of providing aid. But, as much as I appreciate paramedics and firemen, sometimes they really piss me off. It's the tidy ones that get my goat. You see, when they rush into a shooting scene you expect them to tear open their gauze, unpack needles, and attach defibrillator leads, dropping all their packaging trash on the ground. They can make a huge mess, but it usually pales in comparison to the blood, brains, and other nasty fluids.

Since the scene is already a mess you'd think they wouldn't feel compelled to pick up their trash. Most don't, but every once in a while CSIs run into an anal retentive garbophobic EMT or hose-dragger hell bent on picking up their trash. Taking the US Forest Service mantra, Leave No Trace, literally to the point the CSIs want to kick them in the coconuts. Pardon my French. If it were up to me I'd pass a law requiring fire departments to only hire slobs and employees who clearly demonstrate they prefer to litter.

Why you may ask?

CSIs don't like other people picking up things in our crime scenes; we're kind of selfish that way. We know that if you're picking up "trash" you might also inadvertently pick up things like hairs, fibers, cartridge casings, and who knows what else! I could care less about the packaging to your gauze pad but a spent cartridge casing? That, I care about. You might be thinking that it would be impossible for these professionals to pick up a bullet and not realize it but you'd be very, very, wrong.

I was investigating a double homicide one time, and it was clear that the victims were dead long before paramedics arrived. But they have to be sure and they went through the motions of attaching their defibrillator leads and stuff, creating some trash. Before I got to the scene they declared the victims deceased, gathered up their trash, and headed back to the station house. I'm accustomed to seeing a bunch of medical trash on the ground surrounding homicide victims. I really don't mind it at all. So when I arrived at this scene and saw the tidy appearance I was a bit miffed. A quick count of the bullet holes in my victims (five each) and the lack of the same number of cartridge cases spiked my heart rate to say the least.

To shorten a long story I called them back and found the missing cases in their trash and one casing wedged in the tread of one guy's boot! It all worked out in the end in this case. But what if it hadn't? Scenarios like this are not unheard of in real life. People, even trained professionals, can develop a kind of tunnel vision when performing common tasks. If paramedics respond to ten non-criminal calls in a day and routinely pick up the trash, should we be surprised if they do the same on the 11th call at a homicide?

As an author, you might consider using this reality to create challenges for your characters. Imagine a strand of the killer's hair that was accidentally picked up with the trash and is mixed in with the trash of ten other calls? It would potentially lose all of its legal weight right? Investigators may still use that information to form their own opinions but it may not be admissible in court. It may also create tension between your characters, which can make for some exciting dialog. Play around with some ideas and see if one works for your story.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Heightening the Suspense, Part I

by Jodie Renner, editor & author

Whether you’re writing a thriller, romantic suspense, mainstream novel or any other genre of fiction, your story needs plenty of tension and conflict, and also a certain amount of suspense, to keep the readers turning the pages.

As Jack M. Bickham says, “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.”

According to Jessica Page Morrell, “Suspense forces a reader to stay engaged and is part anxiety, part curiosity. Suspense unsettles the reader, plunges him into nail-biting angst.” And all this curiosity and worry keeps him turning the pages, of course.

What is suspense, anyway? Hallie Ephron relates this story: “Alfred Hitchcock was asked to define suspense. He told the interviewer to imagine two people sitting at a table at a café. Under the table is a bag. In the bag is a bomb. The characters don’t know that the bomb is there but the viewers do. That, he said, is suspense.”

And as Steven James said in his excellent workshop at Thrillerfest, “Suspense needs apprehension. Apprehension is suspense. And impending danger creates apprehension.” James says that suspense is about first “making a promise” (setting reader expectations that your characters and story are going to intrigue them) and then providing a payoff. “The bigger the promise, the bigger the payoff,” says James. “Give the reader what he wants or something better.”

What are the main elements of suspense?
Jessica Page Morrell likens writing suspense in fiction to dancing a striptease, because effective storytelling requires teasing the readers initially with a tantalizing opening, an intriguing story question and an inciting incident, followed by hints and foreshadowing of trouble to come, which creates a feeling of unease. Then add in some delay and subterfuge to keep readers on edge, waiting for the layers to be peeled off to find out what’s going to happen next, or what that deep, dark secret was.

Of course, you need to seduce the readers first by piquing their interest in your protagonist, so they’ll start identifying with him — otherwise, they won’t really care what happens to him. As William Bernhardt says, “If people don’t care about your characters, nothing else matters.”
Tantalize, but build slowly. This initial delay, according to Morrell, “creates unbearable suspense, and suspense manipulates readers’ emotions. Once the inciting incident threatens the protagonist, the writer’s job is to prolong this trepidation for as long as possible.” As a result, “suspense builds and satisfies when the reader desperately wants something to happen and it isn’t happening.”
Suspense is about exploiting the readers’ insecurities and basic fears of the unknown, their inner need to vicariously vanquish foes, thwart evil, and win over adversity. The readers, if you’ve presented your protagonist effectively, are in her head, fighting right in there with her against her cunning adversaries and other dire threats.
Hallie Ephron outlines a typical arc of suspense. As she says, “You can build it gradually, teasing the reader with possibilities. The climax and resolution should feel worth the anguish of getting there.”
Here are the stages of the suspense arc, according to Ephron (my comments in parentheses):
1.    Establishing and foreshadowing (set the stage, hint at danger to come)

2.    Suspense begins (conflict and action start)

3.    Tension escalates (danger looms), then loosens (slight reprieve, breather)

4.    Turning point (critical point — can increase or release tension)

5.    Sometimes a false payoff (false alarm)

6.    Payoff (good or bad: resolved, moves to the next level or “to be continued”)

Repeat as needed throughout the book, always providing some reprieve between these tense, nerve-wracking scenes.
As Ephron says, “Think of a suspenseful scene as if it were a pressure cooker. First you increase it a little, then release it a bit, giving your readers and characters a little breathing space, then tighten again, raising the pressure even higher. Repeat until cooked.”
Part II of this theme discusses a number of specific techniques for creating and heightening suspense in your novel.
Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes
Hallie Ephron, The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel
Steven James, "How to Write Thrillers That Actually Thrill", Craftfest, Thrillerfest 2011
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. 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, September 23, 2011

7 Fun Reader/Writer Resources

by L.J. Sellers, author of the bestselling Detective Jackson mysteries

As fewer authors set up book signings and other events in which they meet readers face to face, creative types have come up with new ways for authors and readers to interact online. Here are seven fun resources and venues for readers to connect with writers:


This site lets readers sign up to receive a personalized book signature for an ebook. It’s a great way for readers to collect author signatures without having to attend book signings and buy print books. About 1700 authors are signed up, and I expect that number to grow. I’ve signed up and receive signature requests weekly. One caveat: You have to sign in through a Twitter account. They plan to change that soon.

This site provides Amazon Kindle price drop alerts, watches your favorite titles to let you know when they are available for Kindle, and gives you a regularly updated list of all non-public domain freebies on It also offers a search engine that lets readers search the Kindle store by genre and keyword, but also define the price range, reader age, language and more. In addition, Authors can buy sponsorships to announce their e-books.


Created by Amazon, this feature is in beta testing with only a handful of authors. In essence, you can email the author directly with questions about their book as you’re reading it. So far, I believe only authors published with Amazon Encore are available, but I expect it will expand.

Goodreads Recommendations

This is a new feature that works much like Netflix suggestions, finding books you’ll enjoy based on what else you’ve read and how you rated it. But it’s more complex than that, and here’s what the blog says: “The Goodreads Recommendation Engine combines multiple proprietary algorithms which analyze 20 billion data points to better predict which books people will want to read next.” Try it!

Stop, You’re Killing Me
This site is for crime fiction fans and offers complete lists of authors works and the order the novels were published in. It’s very useful for determining the order of a series, so you don’t miss anything or read out of order. It also lists books by character name (very cool) and posts reviews.

An innovative platform for readers and consumers of art to fund projects so artists can be creative. Investors receive something equal in exchange: tickets, art photos, books, etc. Here's an example of an author with a finished book, looking for support money for a cover design and formatter. I know of this author but I'm not familiar with her work. Out of curiosity, I'm tempted to list my next Jackson book and see if 300 fans will kick in $3 each to fund the production of the ebook. They would receive a copy of the book the moment it was ready and likely a bonus as well, such as a short story. It would be nice to cut out Amazon's profit on a few copies too. :)


This site is similar, but is focused exclusively on books. Here’s the site description: “Authors submit ten pages and a summary of their book. We then let you (readers)  browse the submissions based on your preferences. You read a brief overview, and if it strikes your fancy, you click through to read a more in depth description. If you’re still interested, you read an excerpt. And if that leaves you wanting more, you support it (which is essentially like preordering the book)! You don’t get charged unless the book is published, so there’s no risk. And for every book we sell, we’re donating a book to a child in need.”

Do you have other interesting, unique or fun reader sites to add?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

After My Car Was Firebombed While I Covered a Riot...

by JudithYates Borger

It was a hot August night in 2002 when I was a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press dispatched to Minneapolis because it looked like a riot was erupting. Police had tried to issue a warrant on a drug house when someone unleashed a pit bull on the officers. They shot at the dog, the bullet ricocheted off the sidewalk and hit a youngster in the arm. Word went out in the neighborhood that cops had shot a kid.

I normally covered the Minneapolis mayor's office and city council. I'd never worked a police beat in my life and didn't have a clue how to handle a simple burglary, let alone an explosive situation. Nonetheless, the paper wanted all west-of-the-Mississippi reporters on the scene. I got lost on the way, and by the time I arrived, the cops had pulled out, leaving a TV van with a damaged antenna dangling like a broken arm, some torn down yellow police tape and a lot of broken glass. People stood around in groups talking in low murmurs.

I pulled my red Honda Civic del Sol, a gem of a two-seater convertible, into the parking of a convenience store, which was lit up like a surgical suite. Wearing shorts, a T-shirt and my 15-year-old Birkenstock sandals, I got out of my car, locking my purse in the trunk. Several people standing around eyed me, the only white person in sight, with curiosity. I looked like a lost soccer mom, except for my reporter's notebook, pen and cell phone.

I seldom worked nights and my first thought was to wonder what time was deadline. Clearly I wasn't going to have time to write a story, so I called the newsroom and started to dictate what I saw. I was in reporter mode and it didn't occur to me to be frightened.

I saw someone run away from a car and moments later a fire kindled inside. The crowd saw it too, and began to gather around while the fire grew. Soon the car was fully engulfed and I was afraid the branches of a huge maple tree the tree would catch fire, and then the house behind it. People watched like it was the Fourth of July as the car exploded. Fortunately, the fire burned out without touching the tree.

As I stood in the parking lot the manager of the convenience store walked up to me and asked, "Who are you?" Then he told me he had dragged a man who had been beaten into the store. Mohamed Somebody, the manager, had called 911 a couple of times to say the man needed medical attention, but no one was coming.

We were standing under the bright lights of the parking lot when we heard gunshots. Bang, bang, bang. It sounded like they were feet away. That’s when I realized I was in danger. I looked at Mohamed, he looked at me, and we both hustled into the store, careful to stand away from the windows. I envisioned spending the night surrounded by Blue Bunny Ice Cream.

Inside the store, I met , a StarTribune reporter, a competitor who had taken a brick in the back of his head. He was incoherent, asking me over and over again, "Who are you?" He asked where he was, and how he had gotten there. I answered his questions and then he'd start them all over again.

After what seemed like a very long time, three or four police cars pulled up in front of the store, blue and red lights flashing. Officers with shotguns and a big dog poured out like the cavalry coming to the rescue. One came to the door of convenience store, talked to the manager, looked at incoherent reporter, then asked me, "Who are you?" I was beginning to get used to the question.

She escorted the two of us to the back seat of the patrol car and shut the door. I looked out the window and saw my car parked next to the convenience store. I'd already seen one car firebombed that night and knew mine was next. When I knocked on the window to get the officer's attention — you can't get out of the back seat of a patrol car — she told me to forget about my car for the night.

"Get it in the morning," she said. I'll just bet, I thought.

The next morning, I got another reporter to drive me to the lot outside the convenience store to pick up my car. When I got there, the bricks on the side of the store were scorched, and a man with one tooth was outside with a broom and dustpan. I learned later that the fire department had already hauled away the husk of my car, including the charred remains of my purse, which had held $200 cash, a spare cell phone and all my credit cards.

"That was my car," I said to the man who was sweeping up the last bits of metal.

He reached into the pile, pulled out the "H" hood ornament, wiped it off on his pants and offered it to me.

"I'm sorry," he said.

KnightRidder, which then owned the Pioneer Press, refused to replace my car, saying it paid reporters 36.5 cents a mile to cover gas and my insurance. Besides, I was told, if it paid for my car it would have to pay for every car that got firebombed. I wonder where else that happens. Miami?

The Pioneer Press paid for my deductible on my car and homeowners insurance – for the cash, cell phone and other stuff toasted in my purse – and an airline ticket to Chicago, where I bought another cute little convertible identical to the one that was torched. Because the cause on the claim on my homeowners’ insurance was fire, I got a letter from our company telling me to be sure to check my home’s furnace.

Ten months later I resigned the paper, not because my car was firebombed, but because it was clear management did not have my back.

Like the fiction I write these days, this story has a satisfying conclusion. My protagonist is … wait for it … a newspaper reporter whose car is firebombed. Superb detail in that passage, if I do say so myself. She has lots of adventures while juggling career, family and her passions for both. I love making this stuff up.

Where’s Billie? and Whose Hand?, both Skeeter Hughes Mysteries, are doing very well in trade paperback and ebooks, available at all bookstores, Kindle and Nook. I’m working on the third mystery right now, title to be determined.
I’m deliriously happy and feeling safe in my work. Life is good.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Fragrant Crime Writer

Guest post by Denise Hamilton.

I’ve never been a ‘girly’ girl. 

In childhood I was the short-haired, freckle-faced tomboy who climbed trees, rode bikes with the neighborhood boys and went out for track, not cheerleading. As an adult, I don’t read fashion magazines or follow trends. I abhor shopping. My one concession to make-up is lipstick and I keep my nails blunt and unpolished.

So you can imagine how perplexed I was, some years ago, to find myself sliding, almost despite myself, down the fragrant rabbit hole into the world of perfume obsession.

Wait, I remember thinking. This is so girly. It’s not like me at all! What on earth has come over me? But I couldn’t stop.

It was like a fever. A journey of discovery. A secret that I didn’t want to confess for fear people would think me shallow and silly. I still don’t talk about it much outside of those who share my obsession. I’ve learned to beware of the overly bright smiles, quizzical looks, lets-humor-her nods and slow backing away at cocktail parties.

But I don’t mind admitting it here. My name is Denise, and I’m a perfumista.

I refuse to say how many bottles are in my collection. The bald truth is that I’ve got so many I have a hard time keeping track.  But I cherish each one and I’m conversant on notes you’ve probably never heard of: galbanum, petitgrain, oud, indole. When I bring out my perfumes - often for curious friends – I feel like Gollum caressing his precioussssss. It is both a source of pleasure and shame for me that I covet and lust after these perfumes with the same intensity of the dragon Smaug lolling atop his gold treasure.

Perfume is a simple fix of pleasure in a world that grows ever more complex and dark.To put it in words that any three-year-old can understand, perfume makes me happy.

How did I get here?

Well, my mother was a French-Russian émigrée who always kept a shelf of perfumes in the bathroom. As a kid, they were a source of endless mystery and exoticism to me. Many an afternoon, I would take each bottle down with great reverence, examining its curves and labels, then spritz and dab to my heart’s content.

So, from an early age, perfume imprinted on me. I was curious about smells and found I had a good – and sensitive nose. At 16, I was bewitched by a boy who wore Aramis and followed him around like a heartsick puppy just to sniff him. I always wore perfume too, but in a haphazard way: Anais Anais because I’d smelled it on a girl in an Amsterdam hostel; Grey Flannel, a (gasp!) men’s cologne, because it smelled good on a boy I knew; Chanel No. 5 and Cristalle as hand-me-downs from my mother; Halston and Obsession and Fendi because they were popular at college and later.

But it wasn’t until I found a bottle of Donna Karan’s Chaos at the Goodwill some years back that I embarked on studying perfume as an art form. Spraying a bit on, I found it too spicy and rich. Back home, the smell wafting from my wrist intrigued me so I googled it and was shocked to find that Chaos was discontinued, highly sought after and fetching hundreds of dollars on ebay.

So I ran back and bought it, but instead of selling it, I grew to love it and avidly researched the notes to see why this mysterious perfume with notes of oud, cardamom, cinnamon, lavender, wood and incense had captivated so many people.

That plunged me into the online world of perfume blogs and encyclopedic review sites like The more I researched and learned about perfume, the more captivated I became by its art. Here was something that engaged me both intellectually and sensually. Not only that, but there were sites online where I could buy tiny samples of rare, niche, discontinued and vintage perfumes and experience the world’s great classic perfumes — or the newest niche offerings—without breaking the bank.

When I sat down to write Damage Control, I decided to make my protagonist Maggie Silver a budding perfumista.

I gave her the Chaos-at-the-Goodwill story from my real life. I found myself writing about the smells of Los Angeles – the tantalizing garlic and chicken whiffs from a Cuban restaurant; the rosemary and sage-scented hills; the smoky forest fire odors that often wreathed L.A.; the salt tang of the sea; the coconut oil aroma of suntan lotion. And I made perfume a clue that would help Maggie solve the murder. For several weeks, I congratulated myself on this cleverness. Smell is the most overlooked of our five senses, and I’d found a completely unique way to incorporate it into my crime writing!

So imagine my surprise when a bit of research showed that crime writers as far back as the late 1920s had done the same thing. Authors such as S.S. Dine, Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming and Ruth Rendell have all written magnificently about perfume. (And then of course there’s the novel Perfume, which I highly recommend.

For a while, I was devastated.  My clever little plot twist was anything but. But eventually I got over it. If so many authors have done it, they must be on to something good. Besides, everyone tells their tale a different way. My plot, my voice, my denouement, would all be different.

And so I relaxed. And I kept sniffing, and writing about my perfume.

Eventually, the Los Angeles Times Magazine gave me a monthly column in which to muse about the world of perfume – for which I’m extremely grateful.

I’ve found a wonderful community of kindred spirits online and in real life. In fact, several other Mommies and me meet regularly outside my son’s middle school an hour before classes let out. There in my family mini-van, we open vials and huff and roll our eyes with pleasure as we pass around the Carons, Guerlains, Diors, Chanels, Serge Lutens, Dawn Spencer Hurwitzes and other treasures that we’ve stumbled across.

Lord knows what the neighbors, joggers and dog-walkers think. I fully expect to see a policeman peering into the window one day, asking us what kind of drugs we’re doing.

“Here,” I’ll say, handing him a vial of Creed’s Russian Leather.  Or maybe Gendarme by Carriere.
“What do you think?” I’ll ask. “Is it you?”


Denise Hamilton writes the nationally best-selling Eve Diamond crime novels featuring a reporter who solves murders in contemporary multicultural Los Angeles. Hamilton is also an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in Wired, Cosmopolitan, Der Spiegel and New Times. She writes a monthly perfume column for the Los Angeles Times called Uncommon Scents.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Some Days

by Peg Brantley, Writer at work, stumbling toward publication

Some days . . .

. . . I feel stuck, the words all clogged up somewhere beyond my reach. The story that was so clear to me yesterday is suddenly a tangled mess of impossible plot lines.

. . . my vision is blurry and my nose is stuffed, which seems to effect my cognitive abilities as well.

. . . I feel like I have too many things that need taken care of, but if you asked me to tell you what they were, I couldn't name more than three. I just FEEL like they're there are dozens out there, waiting for me fix them/clean them/cook them or otherwise deal with them.

And then some days, well . . .

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Price of Integrity

By Andrew E. Kaufman

As if Amazon reviews weren’t already the subject of intense scrutiny, here’s something else guaranteed to make your skin crawl. There’s a new breed of fibbers in town: they’re called review factories, promoters who will speak well of your novel for a fee. And it doesn't end there. More and more, individuals are offering the same service.That’s right. Apparently, rave reviews are no longer something you have to earn—they’re something you can buy. Cheaply.

Here’s an example. I randomly pulled these ads from, a website where you can offer any service for five bucks:

  • I will write two Amazon reviews from two different reviewers for your product or book for $5.
  • I will give your book a glowing five star review on Amazon for $5
  • I will vote Amazon reviews as helpful or unhelpful and report a review as inappropriate for $5


Okay. We all know this is wrong. No-brainer, right? And we also know that engaging in this sort of activity does nothing but adulterate the review process—that is to say, render it useless. And it no doubt hurts those of us who work hard to actually earn our good reviews.

But on a much deeper level one has to wonder: is it really worth it? Seems like a shallow victory to me. I know, I know, anyone who engages in this sort of behavior probably doesn’t much care about fulfilling a dream or chasing their passion. More than likely it’s all about the money.

Not that there’s anything wrong with making a buck, but if that’s the case, I’m thinking there are much easier ways to go about doing it. I speak from experience here. I’ve sold a lot of books, and when you consider how long it takes me to write one, I’m absolutely positive I could have earned the money in half the time doing any number of other things. Seems to me that writing books just for the purpose of making money is sort of like trying to dig your way to China with a plastic pail and shovel.

What about the props? Is that what it’s all about? Bragging rights? I doubt it, but on the slight chance that’s the case, here’s a question: how about just writing a damn good book? And if they can’t do that, if they don’t have the ability, why are they wasting their time writing bad ones? I mean, they have to be bad, right? If they were good, they wouldn't have to pay someone to say so.

If I sound a little angry it's because I am. But what about you? What do you think? Authors: how's it make you feel? And readers: does it make you want to take reviews less seriously? Not read them at all?

Talk to me.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Homicide Investigation School for Crime Writers

by Mar Preston, crime fiction writer
I’m a real straight-arrow so I never get to meet the “nose-pickin’, booger-eatin’ morons” that Sgt Derek Pacifico talked about in his Homicide Investigation School for Crime Writers last weekend in Covina, California.

For a long time I’ve been collecting “stupid criminal stories”, but Derek topped them all. I just never meet AHs (figure it out) who shoot somebody in the face and think they don’t die.

A group of us at the California Crime Writers’ Conference in June 2011 heard him give a four-hour presentation on Interview and Interrogation Techniques and were spellbound. We wanted more and he dished it up for us.

Pacifico was funny, serious, thoughtful and thought-provoking. As a law enforcement trainer, he’s traveled the country teaching the same material to cops. He’s worked Homicide Detail as well as all the other facets of police work and is now a Sergeant with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office.

He liked us because we wanted to learn and didn’t sit there, arms crossed, giving off testosterone fumes, and the attitude of “Yeah, dude, go ahead. Teach me something I don’t know.” He was honest and forthcoming about what really lies behind the crime scene tape.

We liked him because he’s just plain likeable. From video clips we saw he’s got a line of jokey, rapport-building bullshit with criminals in the interrogation room that got him a lot of confessions. I can see why.

The case studies were particularly interesting because they provided a reconstruction of what first just looked like confusion—and probably was. We learned how tedious it is to string a scene analyzing bullet trajectories, interpreting blood spatter, collecting maggots for testing, and sifting the dirt where the homicide occurred. It's not nearly as exciting as it is on TV, where a crime scene is “done” in 30 minutes instead of 36 hours.

Pacifico is talking about setting up a conference of some length just for crime writers, bringing in experts he teaches and works with. Where? To be decided.

I can’t wait.

Mar Preston, author of crime fiction No Dice, is today’s guest blogger, filling in for Jodie Renner, who recently edited Preston’s second police suspense-mystery, Rip-Off, also set in Santa Monica, California. You can email Mar at, and find out more about her two Detective Dave Mason police mysteries, No Dice, and soon, Rip-Off, at 


Thursday, September 8, 2011

Do Everything Syndrome

Posted by L.J. Sellers, author of the Detective Jackson mysteries

When I heard about Amazon’s new feature—@author—I got excited and posted a comment on Amazon’s blog, hoping to be included when they expanded out of beta testing. Essentially, the feature allows readers to post questions to authors as they read their books on Kindle. It seems like a really great author-reader connection. Then I started thinking about it. I love answering readers’ questions about my novels, but being a relatively unknown author, I only get a few a day, and it’s still time consuming. What if I suddenly got dozens a day? How much time would it take?

Then I realized my reaction to the news was a classic symptom of what I call Do Everything Syndrome. As a struggling indie author with no marketing support and no distribution network, I’ve had to do everything humanly possible to reach as many readers as possible. I’ve been in that mode for four years. Every time I saw a new website that reviewed indie authors, I made note of it or put it on my to-do list. Every new marketing idea I saw other writers implement went on my list. Every well-trafficked blog got added to my list of places to guest blog. And so on. It was overwhelming.

For a while, I even thought I had to join every new social networking site at least to have a presence. Then I finally realized I can’t actively work them all, and just having a page up with no activity doesn’t really benefit me. In fact, I’ve only recently come to accept that I not only can’t do it all, but that some of it, even if I had more time, would not be cost-effective. I’ve started checking in with authors and asking: Did that iPad giveaway work for you? Did that exclusive reader book club get good participation? Often, the answer is: not really.

Don't get me wrong. I think this idea from Amazon is intriguing and if they ask me to participate, I probably will. But all those activities take time away from writing. And I hear from readers all the time who simply have one question: When is your next book coming out? I’ve come to realize that most of my current readers have only that one expectation—that I write new books as fast as I can. Also, in the last month, I’ve read several blog posts indicating that full-time authors should be producing three or four books a year. In my case, that means writing and also publishing, but it’s still doable.

So I’ve shifted my priorities. I’m learning to ignore things that look like great ideas but probably aren’t. I’ve reconfigured my browser so all those reader forums don’t open automatically. I’m keeping my to-do list at a minimum and my writing time at a maximum. It’s not an easy adjustment. My natural mental state is to think I can and should do it all, and most authors I know share that overachiever, driven mentality.

Of course, I want to keep reaching new readers. But my new mantra is: Just write another great story and they will come. I think I’m going to be a lot happier…and so will my loyal readers.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Email, Blogs, Skype and Face-Time: We authors must talk among ourselves.

By Judith Yates Borger
I had my two best e-selling months ever in July and August. I suspect that was because there was a lot of non-epublicity, mostly TV and newspaper, about the launch of my second book in paper, Whose Hand? A Skeeter Hughes Mystery. In another post I'll talk about how I guess -- no one knows for sure -- that paper publicity can work for ebooks.

But for now let's discuss the Kriswrites blogger, who says paper authors who have been fairly successful in the last five to ten years did not do well at all in August. Kris writes a lengthy piece to explain that some authors are thinking hard about ending their writing careers because of the terrible state of paper publishing. Here's an excerpt:

"The editor must do her publisher’s bidding or lose her job. And eventually that wears the editor down. Either she doesn’t care any more or she gets angry at the writers (and their agents) who are the only people she can safely get angry at and still have a job.

But the editor can talk to her colleagues and realize that they’re going through the same tough times. The agents see this happening to client after client and know it has nothing to do with the agenting, so it must be the writers themselves.

But the writers—oh, the writers—they work alone. And often they have no one to talk to. Many writers don’t tell their writing colleagues because these writers don’t want to be perceived as failures. When the writers tell their fans that the next book in a series won’t appear, the fans blame the writer."

It's a fascinating piece and I recommend it. Kris makes two key points: Writers need to talk to each other, honestly, even if they work alone in coffee shops, the library or at home. Being alone doesn't have to be ALONE. There are emails, blogs even Skype and face-time. Writers just have to take advantage of the technology.

But not just in communicating among themselves. Epublishing, Kris points out, may be wrecking paper sales, but boy is it good for authors who embrace it.

Like I said, I had a great July and August.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Scents of Memory

Damage Control by Denise Hamilton.*
(Release date September 6, 2011.)

A review by Marlyn Beebe.

Maggie Silver's profession is damage control. She gets paid to clean up, or hide messes made by famous people. When we meet Maggie she's on her way to the home of an actor who has been accused of sexual assault by his children's nanny. Maggie's job is to spin the incident to make the nanny seem dishonest and mercenary in order to take the appearance of transgression away from the actor.

Before she has a chance to do much, however, her manager calls to tell her they have an even more important client back at the office. When she gets there, she's surprised to see someone she once knew very well: the father of her high school best friend, now a respected Senator.

When Maggie realizes what she is expected to do, she briefly considers resigning, but she knows she can't. She has a mortgage to pay and a cancer-survivor mother to support, and so she must recall of the unpleasantness that ended her friendship with Anabelle Paxton.

It takes some time before Maggie allows herself (and the reader) into the place where those memories are hidden. The gradual revelation of those memories begins with smells: sand and salt water, barbecue-flavored potato chips, patchouli. It's already been made clear that the olfactory sense is very significant to Maggie. In the first chapter of the book Maggie describes dabbing her wrists with perfume just before meeting a client:

...clean, crisp notes of citrus, bergamot and verbena. Nothing cloying or clobbering...Just a subtle scent amulet to infuse me with secret grace and power.

Ms. Hamilton skilfully describes Maggie's reactions to sights, sounds, and smells to increase the already strong empathy the reader has with her through the first-person point of view. We become so attuned to Maggie's senses and emotions that we can almost feel the heat of the sun on her arms, the dizziness caused by watching a record spinning on a turntable.

This is one of those books that (as I probably say too often) you will want to read slowly and savor, yet at the same time rush through to learn what happens. And what happens does not disappoint, save to signal the end of our time with Maggie.

Denise Hamilton writes the nationally best-selling Eve Diamond crime novels featuring a reporter who solves murders in contemporary multicultural Los Angeles. Hamilton is also an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in Wired, Cosmopolitan, Der Spiegel and New Times. She writes a monthly perfume column for the Los Angeles Times called Uncommon Scents.

*FTC Full Disclosure: Many thanks to the publisher, who sent me an e-galley of the book for review purposes.

Friday, September 2, 2011

How I Avoid Train Wrecks: Confessions of a Creative Procrastinator

By Peg Brantley, Author at Work, Stumbling Toward Publication

There's a reason why writer's should write every day (and more importantly, work on their current project every day), and that is because it takes a lot more energy to start a stopped train than it takes to get a moving train to go faster.

I'm told that true professionals write when nothing is happening for them. When the well is dry. When the words are jumbled or flat.

Depending on who you believe, either Peter DeVries or William Faulkner said something like, "I only write when I'm inspired, and I make sure I'm inspired every morning at 9 a.m."

Then there's that quote I've only seen attributed to Jack London: "You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club."

But then there's the philosophy that if a train is stopped, it's unlikely to get in a wreck. No way a stopped train can jump the tracks. Am I right, or am I right?

Why tempt fate? If I leave the story alone right where it is, it's still a good story and there's no chance I'll mess it up.

Fear and Uncertainty are two creatures who are sure to kill creativity. They're twins who live to tell me I can't write and that no one will ever enjoy my stories. I've been on intimate terms with both of them. When my train comes to a stop, these two leap into action, and here's a partial list they hand me of some of the things I can do rather than write:

1. Do some laundry.

2. Clean out the refrigerator/pantry/drawers/closets.

3. Organize recipes.

4. Rearrange furniture.

5. Change my nail polish.

6. Fill the bird feeders.

7. Play Free Cell or Spider.

8. Watch LMN. Or HGTV.

9. Make a grocery list.

10. Clean something.

Blah, blah, blah.

But in the end, I'm a writer and I need to write. Somehow I'm reminded that Fear and Uncertainty are imposters and I give them both the boot. A possible train wreck is a whole lot better than rusting on my tracks.

What finally works for me is to just dive in. After a while, the words begin to flow easier and they go from flat to round and oval and all different kinds of shapes and colors. Pretty soon I notice the landscape flying past and I settle in to a very cool rockin' rhythm.