Friday, August 31, 2012

Kids and Crime

By Jenny Hilborne, author of mysteries and thrillers.

One of my college assignments was to argue one side of a difficult social issue. FOR or AGAINST. I was instructed to show no support for the other side, regardless of my personal beliefs and opinions. This was a tough challenge, made tougher by the issue I chose and one I think about a lot: the appropriate form of punishment for pre-teen and teenage killers. I personally know someone whose adult brother was killed by a teen.

The research into the issue was sickening. Most of us know about the horrific 1993 slaying in England of two-year-old Jamie Bulger by 2 ten-year-old boys, and we all know about Columbine in 1999. In 1991 seventeen-year-old Kevin Nigel Stanford raped and stabbed a woman repeatedly during a robbery, then shot her in the face and back of the head so she couldn't testify against him.

Some kids are psychotic. Evil. Some commit worse crimes than adults and receive lighter punishment. Their age protects them. Society seems to protect children more than ever before.

This post, however, is not about my essay (which can be found on Scribd for anyone who wants to read it), but about using children in our crime novels. Even with all the atrocious school shootings and other crimes we read about committed by minors, as a writer, I'm careful about using children in my novels, especially as the victim. I don't enjoy reading about child abuse in works of fiction, but it's a sad fact that it happens and, if it's integral to the story, I'll read it. It likely won't prevent me from reading other works by the author.

It's shocking to read true crime of juveniles who assault or murder someone with a deadly weapon, and also of child victims abused by people in positions of trust. In works of fiction, I often wonder if and when it is acceptable to use children in crime, either as the villain or the victim. 

Recently, I read a crime fiction novel about child abuse and kidnapping and, while it was difficult to stomach, it touched on some very important points, areas the general public might not always understand, such as why the kidnapped and abused child might not try to escape. 

In my first book, Madness and Murder, my opening scene handles the sentencing for a child murderer. I worried when I wrote it, especially the later chapters about the atrocities inflicted on the child. I felt sick about those and worried how readers would react. The scenes were an important part of the story and they belonged, however, justifying it didn't make it easier to write a child murder into the novel.

Crime against anyone is unacceptable. Crime against women and children seems worse due to the vulnerabilities of both, yet both women and children can be very cruel and equally as capable of committing heinous crimes themselves. Readers: how do you feel about reading crime fiction books using children either as the villain or the victim? Does it prevent you from picking up other works by the author?

Writers: Do you worry about readers reactions to your crime stories where children are involved in the crime, especially if the child is the victim? Do you have a hard time reading it as well as writing it?

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Like Sherman's march to the sea

By Gayle Carline

I'm slashing and burning my way through my latest manuscript. It probably doesn't look that spectacular, but trust me, I'm killing my darlings.

I thought I'd give you a glimpse into my self-editing style. Each author does things differently (it's not like there's a handbook), so some things might work for me and only me. If any of this gives you ideas of how to improve your own editing process, I'm happy to share.

First of all, I'm not one of those people who barfs it all out on paper, then returns to mop up the mess. I can't leave misspelled words or poor grammar lying there on the page (don't ask me about commas - they're my downfall). Also, when I'm stuck in the story, I typically go back to the beginning, re-read it and voila! I know what my characters should do next. This means more chances to correct a few things.

This means, when I am ready to EDIT, I am looking at story pacing, continuity, overuse of certain words, and sentences that sound better in my head than real life.

My first pass is for words I know I overuse. Apparently, I say apparently a lot. Also, very. Too many people tend to scamper in my novels, and I love-love-love the terms tchotchkes, brouhaha, and flotsam-and-jetsam. You can really only get away with one of those per novel. Perhaps even every other novel.

I also look for adverbs and strengthen the verbs instead, unless they're being used in dialogue and I hear the character speak that way.

After I hunt down the usual suspects, I reach for my digital voice recorder. I could use the recording software on my computer, but I like the little, handheld dvr because it's so portable. Also, it's somehow not as intimidating as talking to my computer. This part of the process takes the longest: I read my entire manuscript into the dvr, chapter by chapter.

Once the book is completely recorded, I listen to each chapter and make notes of what needs to be corrected. If I'm sitting about at home, I write my notes down. If I'm driving, I can record them on the dvr, which is what I love about its portability. (In California, I'm not allowed to drive while holding my cell phone, but there's no law against holding my recorder.)

When I read my work aloud, I find phrases that make me stumble. I also find those odd, dropped pronouns, conjunctions, or prepositions. (Almost typed "proposition" here, and I rarely drop those.) When I listen to my words read back, I hear cliches, POV problems, and errors in the structure. I also hear where I'm putting myself to sleep, which is not going to be good for my reader.

After I've listened to all the chapters and made all the notes, I edit. When the physical typing and cutting and pasting is done, I re-read the book aloud. Sometimes I read it into the dvr again, but not always. It kind of depends on what kind of hot mess I thought I had at the beginning.

I repeat this process until I think my book is ready for beta readers and/or a professional editor.

So far, I've read my manuscript into my recorder and I've listened to 14 chapters. I've found out that all of my male characters are wearing grey slacks, everyone has leather furniture, all the cops have either spiky hair or are bald, and there are duplicate descriptions that activate my gag muscle (Peri's "little blue Honda", Benny as "the needy little man", etc). Peri also seems to be wearing white capris A LOT. She might want to save those for going on a cruise or something.

Authors - what do you do to edit your work? I'd love to hear your processes.

P.S. I'm also hoping to get a title from all this editing. The working title is "Burning Mad" which I hate. The crime has to do with a house fire and subsequent insurance problems. The subplots have to do with families and their secrets. Any ideas?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Catch 22 of Great Reviews: Thanks, John Locke!

by L.J. Sellers, author of provocative mysteries & thrillers

This week we learned that John Locke—one of the first indie authors to sell a million books—paid for hundreds of reviews at a now-defunct paid-review site that didn’t require its reviewers to read the books, just to crank out the stars. Because the story made the NY Times, one expert estimates that a third of all Amazon reviews are fake.

This pisses me off, breaks my heart, and makes me—and the other terrific and honest indie authors on this site—look bad. That is, if we have too many great reviews.

GalleyCat weighed in on this issue with this blog post, listing several bestsellers that each have more than 150 one-star reviews. The point of the short piece is that real bestsellers have lots of bad reviews as well as many good ones. The unspoken point is that books with too many good reviews and few bad ones must not be a real bestsellers, that those reviews must have been paid for or written by marketers or friends.

I resent this! Without good reviews, you’re treated like a hack and can’t sell books. Too many good reviews and not enough dogs, and you look like a phony. Obviously some authors—and publishers—resort to these tactics. But many of the books on Amazon’s bestselling and top-rated lists come by their reviews honestly.

I know I did. Dying for Justice is the top-rated novel on two of Amazon’s lists—police procedurals and mystery series—with 54 five-star reviews, 8 four-stars, and 1 one-star (idiot). Not one was paid for or written by a marketer. My sister claims she wrote a review, but she loves my work. And I can’t find it, if she did. And I have many great reviews in print magazines—Mystery Scene, Crimespree, Spinetingler, and RT Reviews—to support those online "amateur" reviews.

Yes, I gave away the book on Goodreads, with the idea that readers would post reviews, but I took my chances that they would be in my favor. And yes, I asked readers in a blog to post reviews for the book—but always with the caveat “if you read and enjoyed the story.” I don’t want or need fake support.

Here’s a question for GalleyCat: If a book with a lot of fake five-star ratings wasn’t good, wouldn’t a lot of honest readers start to give it bad reviews? You can’t fool everybody forever. No author has that many loyal friends or fake online IDs—except maybe Stephen Leather, another example of how some big-name indie authors are making the rest of us look bad.

And I have to throw in one more issue. The site that Locke used was clearly corrupt. Reviewers were directly paid to crank out good blurbs without even reading the books. But what about sites like Book Rooster? For a $60 admin fee, the site lists your e-book internally, then their unpaid reviewers sign up to receive and read books of their choosing. In exchange for free books, they write honest reviews.

This process seems fine to me, and I used the site for The Suicide Effect, my least-read book, just to get some reviews. But there was no guarantee of how many reviews or what they would be. It was just an opportunity for exposure, and I got lucky, mostly. But now I’m wondering if that was a mistake, just because the exchange of money (for the administrative fee) might make people lump the service into a paid-review category—even though no money goes to the reviewers.

What do you think? Have you read John Locke’s work? Does he deserve his success? Are you skeptical of any books with almost entirely good reviews? Do you think Book Rooster is a legitimate service? Should Amazon take Locke's work down to show it's serious about the trust factor for customer reviews?

Calling All CSIs!

Each post, I try to demystify some aspect of forensics or crime scene investigations as it relates to crime writers. Recently I was reminded that some writers are interested in things that I would otherwise regard as too mundane. It's a failure on my part to assume that writers understand those things I and others in law enforcement take for granted due to their ubiquity. So in that light I decided to explain one of the most common occurrences in a criminal investigation; the call out. Let me begin by saying that every agency can have it's own call out procedure and that procedure can change from one administration to the next. However, in my experience most call out procedures will relate to one of two CSI schedules. Both of these schedules, in and of themselves, are important for crime writers to recognize because they affect how your characters respond to scenes.

All CSIs work in shifts and the number of shifts is largely dependent on the size of the organization. Large organizations like the New York City or Denver Police Departments have 24 hour (or near) shift coverage. Typically these consist of three shifts; days (banker hours), mids (late afternoon to late evening), and graves (late evening to early morning). The specific hours vary from agency to agency but the key aspect of this type schedule is that CSIs generally work scenes only in their shift hours. So if your character is on days they won't be responding to a call at 10 PM. The popular CSI television series regularly stretches this reality as the main characters work the graves shift but always seem to be out working during the day too! That's a lot of overtime. CSIs can work over-shift if they have a major crime scnee but everyone has to sleep at some point so keep that in mind.

The second type of shift is a day shift with after hours on-call rotation. This is the type of schedule I worked throughout my career. So I would work during the day and then if I was needed at night I would get called out. There are limits to this system as well so there is generally another criminalist called the back-up who handles the next call out should one come in or if I needed extra help. With this type of schedule your character can be realistically working at any hour of the day across any shift. This gives you a bit more flexibility when writing scenes because you're not limited by the ending of a shift.

Now that we have that spelled out we need to look at the mechanism of a call out. CSIs are a finite resource. As such, their time and efforts are (should be) carefully regulated. In the real world an agency doesn't want to call out a CSI after hours unless their skills are really needed. You don't want them burning the midnight oil on a recovered stolen vehicle when there might be a homicide call out a few hours later.  In truth, I have been called out for some ridiculous tasks like putting a pair of underwear in a bag or making a photocopy (I kid you not) but most of the time the calls were legitimate. To prevent unwarranted call outs most CSIs can only be called out by their supervisors or detectives on scene. Patrol officers must request a CSI though their supervisor and that supervisor has to call the CSI supervisor. Here is where is gets interesting for you as a writer. Many times, the CSI is called out by someone who is not at the crime scene. This may seem counter-intuitive and it is but it is a function of reality. If the person calling out the CSI (Dispatcher, Sergeant, Bureau Chief, etc) is not on scene then the information your CSI gets will be second or third hand.

When a CSI gets a call we take notes of the pertinent information. What time did we get the call, who called, the crime scene location, what is known of the crime, etc. The dispatcher calling your CSI may not be handling the actual call so the CSI may get less than accurate information.  This is a really important fact because CSIs don't usually carry every piece of equipment they may need at a crime scene. It can be really frustrating to ask simple questions like "was the victim shot or stabbed?" and receive "you'll find out when you get there" type answers. If I got a call of say a gunshot homicide I would spend the commute time thinking about the various evidence I may encounter and what tasks I may need to perform. I built a picture in my mind based on previous scenes I've worked. So if I show up and it's a suicide by overdose I have to shift gears dramatically. Not the end of the world but, certainly a source of tension. Your character may wonder what else have they failed to tell me? 

Inaccurate information is more a result of fluid changes occurring during the interviewing of witnesses and cursory search of the crime scene, than incompetence. But as an author you can use that uncertainty and misinformation to your advantage. I wrote about a staged death scene in The Scent of Fear in which a homicide was made to look like an accident and the investigator saw what they wanted to see. Just as an author frames a scene or storyline, the initial call out frames the response from the CSI. That is why we like to ask a lot of questions before we ever turn the ignition and begin our response. A patrol officer may think a death is very suspicious (alternatively not suspicious) whereas a seasoned detective or CSI asking the right questions may realize they need more help or specialized equipment.

This may seem like a lot of inside baseball type stuff. I guess it is but, you may be able to use this insight to create conflict and tension between your characters while throwing a few curves to your reader. As a reader I like being kept a little off balance. I love being surprised and unsure of where the story will lead and I'm sure most of you do too. Just like real CSIs, we like to predict expectations based on the available information and when that information changes we have to quickly reshuffle our thoughts. That can be very frustrating to a real life CSI but it makes for great reading in my opinion.  

By Tom Adair
Author of The Scent of Fear and  Planning Your Career in Forensics a guide for prospective students and teachers. Tom also blogs at forensics4fiction.

Monday, August 27, 2012

It’s a Story, Not an Instruction Manual!

So don’t have body parts or eyes doing disembodied things.

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker
Fiction writing is all about sucking your readers in and keeping them eagerly turning the pages to find out what happens next. Don’t put any roadblocks or speed bumps in their way. Here are some tips for keeping the story flowing, rather than bumping readers out of it by frustrating them, even subliminally.

Don’t get too technical about which hand or foot or….

Whether you’re writing an action scene or a love scene, it’s best not to get too technical or clinical about which hand or leg or finger or foot is doing what, unless it’s relevant or necessary for understanding.

Getting bogged down in details is distracting to the reader and can even be laughable or annoying. Of course we want to know what’s going on and how the characters are feeling, but we don’t need a highly detailed, anatomical description of every little gesture and movement.

Without getting too far into the bedroom, here’s kind of an extreme example of way too much detail, off the top of my head:

“He stroked her left forearm and wrist with his right index finger, while his left thumb brushed aside a strand of hair from her right eye and tucked it behind her right ear.” Barf! Gives a new meaning to TMI, doesn’t it? And if we were to move into the bedroom, there’s nothing that kills a love scene faster than detailed, clinical descriptions of exactly which of various appendages and other body parts are doing what, in what order, and how. Keep the instruction manuals out of the bedroom!

Similarly, in an action scene or a fight, unless we really need to know, for logistic reasons, which hand, arm, or leg is doing what, don’t bother specifying, as it slows down the action and can be distracting, even annoying.

And you don’t need to say that someone’s hand or finger pointed in a direction—what else do people normally point with? Instead of “She pointed her finger at the car,” Just say, “She pointed at the car.” And no need to write, “He gave her the paper he held in his hand.” Just make it, “He gave her the paper,” or “He handed her the paper.”

Here are some examples, altered and disguised, from various stories I’ve edited:

Before: “Look, Matt, take that left and we can come at them from the other side.” His partner's hands indicated a street off to the left. Officer McLeod turned the vehicle left and took off down the street.

After: “Look, Matt, take that left and we can come at them from the other side.” His partner pointed to a street off to the left. Officer McLeod turned left and took off down the street.


Before: His father yanked the earbuds out of Jeff’s ears with his left hand and grabbed his iPod with his right hand. “Listen to me when I’m talking to you!”

We don’t really need to know which hand is doing each action. Take out the unnecessary details and what is left is stronger:

After: His father yanked the earbuds out Jeff’s ears and grabbed his iPod. “Listen to me when I’m talking to you!”

Here’s another example:

Before: Andrew used his hands to frantically push the boxes away from the opening, then clambered through it.

There’s no need to specify that he used his hands – what else would he push the boxes away with?

After: Andrew frantically pushed the boxes away from the opening, then clambered through it.

Or this one:

Before: He looked quickly at Jack, who dropped his arm holding the gun and gave a purposeful glance first to his left and then his right. He looked back in their direction, stared fiercely for a moment, and began walking calmly, slowly, towards them.

After: He looked at Jack, who lowered the gun and glanced both ways. He glared back at them for a moment, then began walking slowly towards them.

And a final example:

Before: He had arrived at the vending machine and was punching the buttons on its front with an outstretched index finger when a voice from behind him broke him away from his thoughts.

Here we have way too much minute detail. What else would he be punching the buttons with besides his finger? And we don’t need to know which finger or that it’s outstretched, as everybody does it pretty much the same. And it’s a given that the buttons are on the front of the vending machine.

After: He was punching the buttons on the vending machine when a voice behind him broke into his thoughts.

It’s best to avoid having unnecessary details that just clutter up your prose.

And lastly, don’t have eyes doing impossible things:

These days, agents, editors and readers frown on oddly phrased sentences to express how someone is looking at someone else, like in these examples:

“His eyes bounced back and forth between them.” (boing, boing, boing)

“Her eyes shot daggers at him.” (Ow! Ow!)

“She dropped her eyes to the floor.” (splat!)

“Her eyes clung to his.” (like Velcro)

“He devoured her with his eyes.” (munch, munch)

“Her eyes darted across the room.” (speedy)

“His eyes followed her across the room.” (rolling?)

“Her eyes fell to her lap.” (cushioned fall)

It’s too easy for readers to form a comical mental picture of eyeballs popping out of someone’s head and doing strange things, and start thinking it’s some kind of parody. So it’s best to do a search for the words “eyes” in your story, and if they’re doing weird things, see if you can find a more subtle, natural way of expressing how the characters are looking at each other.

Readers and writers – do you have anything to add? Any awkward or comical phrases or expressions to share?
Copyright Jodie Renner, August 2012

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity, incl. Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie at,, her blog,, and on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Is Social Media Making Us All Too Vanilla?

by L.J. Sellers, author of provocative mysteries & thrillers
Several recent blogs made me think about the writer’s role and how social media has made us all so likable and homogenous.

First there was Sandra Parshall’s great piece on Poe’s Deadly Daughters in which she asked the question: Should writers keep their opinions to themselves online so they don’t offend readers? She mentioned instances in which readers said they would never read so-and-so’s work again because of something they had posted on Facebook or Twitter. I’m guessing it was something political, and the readers were of the other persuasion.

This has weighed on my mind because I have succumbed to self-censorship. Every day, I make a choice to not post links to liberal commentaries I enjoyed. When others post political statements I agree with, I’ll click the Like button but typically won’t comment. My thinking is that conservatives buy novels too, so why offend them? But it also makes me cringe. Until this point in my life—when I became a very public person—I’ve always spoken freely and said what I thought. Maybe too much so, I hear my husband say in my head.

I even moved The Sex Club—my bestseller and a book readers loved—out of my Jackson series and into the standalone thriller list, because the book is political and I didn’t want to lose readers before they even gave the series a chance. But now Amazon wants to market it as part of the series, and I said yes. I’m a little worried about the backlash, but I’m also happy to take ownership of my politics again.

The other interesting post that dovetailed into this discussion was in Slate magazine and subtitled The Epidemic of Niceness in Online Book Culture. The author made the point that when writers friend, support, and Like! everyone, it becomes nearly impossible to give an honest critique of their work. How can you say something even mildly critical about a novel if the author just gave you an online hug?

In my experience, most writers are by nature really nice people. We’re typically very supportive. We want to help each other, and post great reviews on Amazon, and retweet book links. And l love it. I’m part of that culture. But is it honest? If I were a professional book reviewer who didn’t know some these authors personally, would I have a different assessment of their work? In that scenario, my loyalty would be to readers, to give them a full honest appraisal of the book.

If I post on Twitter than I’m reading a particular book and someone asks me if I like it—and by then I’ve stopped reading it—what do I say? If I post that it was too slow for me, I risk offending several people and maybe that reader will decide we must like different books so they won’t bother to try mine.

This is why I don’t read much fiction or talk about what I read—unless I love it. And I turn down almost all requests to review novels. My nature is to be supportive—often to an extreme—but I also have a loyalty to my readers, and I shouldn’t steer them toward books just because those writers are my friends whom I have great affection for.

I love social media and connecting with people and I’ll keep doing what I can to cultivate friends and encourage people to like me. But some days, the self-censorship makes me not like myself.

What do you think? Is the online writer community too nice? Do you ever wish you could cut loose and say something critical or political—without losing readers or friends?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Do Reviews Matter?

A guest post by author Jordyn Redwood

Now that I am a published author, the whole world of reviewing and what it actually means has been an interest of mine.

Do you trust reviewers? Does it influence your decision to buy a book?

First, let me give my pre-published-just-a-reader point of view. I can say reviews really didn't matter me. I didn't read them unless the book was published by a well known author and poorly reviewed. I don't know. Maybe it's like when we slow down to look at the carnage from a car accident.

When I got my e-reader, I began to look more at reviews. I didn't want to junk up my reader with poorly written books that I wouldn't read through the first couple of chapters.

I found myself suspicious of reviews that were under twenty and all five star. I mean, to me that felt like family and close friends and were they really giving an unbiased review? Hard to know. If the novel had over thirty or so reviews and had a distribution amongst all the stars but most were four and five stars with a few one, two, and three stars—I was more likely to download it.

Then I began to realize there is a trust issue between the buyer and those who review. There was an interesting column by author Mike Duran that focused on this issue where he hypothesized that those who reviewed Christian books were softer and more favorable toward certain publishers’ books so it wouldn’t hurt their chances of someday being published by that particular house. You can read his thoughts here.

After I was published, I was not one of those authors who couldn't read the reviews—though I did find myself mostly focusing on Amazon and Goodreads for my primary perusing.

My now I'm-published-but-still-mostly-unknown-author viewpoint concerning reviews is as follows.

1. Reviews are important for newer authors who are building a readership. This is one of those Catch 22 situations of getting people to review your novel who don't know you by perhaps offering them a free book and hoping they follow through. Perhaps 50% of the people who received review copies of Proof actually have thus far followed through with a review. The reason I do think it's valuable in this phase of the author's life is to help with that word of mouth spread. If you look at a debut novel that's gotten over 100 favorable reviews—WOW, a lot of people are loving that book and I know it would influence me to buy the novel too.

2. Reviews from well respected sites do help book sales. Proof, my debut medical-crime thriller, got a starred review from Library Journal and I know that has definitely influenced sales.

3. Reviews don't help me decide to buy books from authors I regularly follow. For me, Dean Koontz, is my most favorite author. Do I 100% love everything he's written—no. But, what I've learned from reading Dean through his lifetime of writing books is that there are definitely highs and lows to the writer's life but I know a prolific author has it in them to produce good stories.

4. Reviews help evaluate the competition. There is one particular author who was a debut novelist that released her book the same time Proof released. She has over 100 reviews and the reason I've been reading them is to see what it is in her novel that is resonating with readers. That can help me have market awareness.

5.  I also need to review books. This is becoming more apparent to me that it helps people determine what kind of author I might be by what I like to read. A couple of people who have sent me letters have mentioned this specifically.

What are your thoughts on reviews? Helpful? Trustworthy? Do they influence your decision to buy books particularly from a newer author?

Jordyn Redwood is a pediatric ER nurse by day, suspense novelist by night. She hosts Redwood’s Medical Edge, a blog devoted to helping contemporary and historical authors write medically accurate fiction. Her debut novel, Proofgarnered a starred review from Library Journal and has been endorsed by the likes of Dr. Richard Mabry, Lynette Eason, and Mike Dellosso to name a few. You can connect with Jordyn via her website at

Dr. Lilly Reeves is a young, accomplished ER physician with her whole life ahead of her. But that life instantly changes when she becomes the fifth victim of a serial rapist. Believing it's the only way to recover her reputation and secure peace for herself, Lilly sets out to find--and punish--her assailant. Sporting a mysterious tattoo and unusually colored eyes, the rapist should be easy to identify. He even leaves what police would consider solid evidence. But when Lilly believes she has found him, DNA testing clears him as a suspect. How can she prove he is guilty, if science says he is not?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The End

By Andrew E. Kaufman

I’ve been thinking a lot about endings lately. No, not my own. The ones in my books. The reason for this moment of reflection is that I’m wrapping up my third novel.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m beginning to gain a better grasp on my process as an author. I’ve done it enough now, that I kind of know of what to expect as I stumble my way through. That’s not to say it’s always easier—it’s not. In fact, in some ways, it’s actually harder. I’m more the daredevil author these days, more willing to strap on my helmet and try things I would never have considered before, and with that comes its share of problems.

But the one thing I still pay very close attention to are my endings. They're important to me—really important—both as a reader and a writer.

As a reader, nothing bothers me more than a book that keeps me in suspense and turning the pages only to reach a conclusion that feels tacked-on or falls flat on its face. It doesn’t matter how engaging or well written the story is up to that point. If it doesn’t satisfy, I feel cheated. In fact, in those cases, that makes it even worse because my expectations are higher and the disappointment, greater. Reading is an investment, one that requires a payoff, not just in money but in time. Especially time. Since I've started writing books, I find I have far less of it to read. What little time I do have I want to feel worthwhile and enjoyable.

As an author, I know I won’t satisfy everyone, but I want to leave as few feeling disappointed or cheated as possible. So while I’m writing, I try to pay special attention to my reader’s mind as well as my writer’s. Part of that means making sure I’ve laid the groundwork and weaved my story in a manner that makes the ending feel organic rather than out of the blue or as my editor often cautions, “just in time.” I also try to pay close attention to both the story and the emotional plots. Two very different things but ones that are equally important. Since my stories are character driven, I want my readers to feel the emotional impact on my protagonist, and I want it to hit them hard. If my main character is feeling deep sadness, I want tears. If he’s feeling joy, I want the reader to experience that as well. When he’s in danger, I want them to know they have a pulse and to really feel it.

Recently, a writer-friend expressed her annoyance when she got to the end of a book and discovered there really was no ending at all. Lots of loose ends and no mention of a sequel. Bad move. She decided not to buy that author’s books anymore.

Another told me he bought a second book from an author after falling in love with the first, but when he did, it was a big disappointment. The reason? The ending was a big letdown. 

These examples illustrate rather well how important an ending is in a book and how it can make or break an author's career.

So as I wind up to the ending of my own novel, I’d love to get your input. Readers: what bothers you most about endings, I mean, what drives you absolutely crazy? Writers: what do you do to make sure your endings measure up?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

You Won't Run Afoul Using The OWL

By:  Kimberly Hitchens is the founder and owner of, an ebook production company that has produced books for over 750 authors and imprints.

Well, I feel cheap and tawdry, because hot on the heels of Jodie's excellent Thesaurus post, here I come, talking about...the OWL.
Not just any Owl.  Not the Great Horned Owl that roosts on my chimney flue, scaring the bejesus out of me every full moon with his hooting; not the Owl that hangs out with the Pussycat; and not the Linux platform that was named Owl; not even that cute little Owl hunting imaginary prey on Youtube (see below!).

No, writers, I am speaking of your next-best-friend, the Purdue OWL, surely one of the best uses of an Internet Server known to man (and woman).

Now, if you aren't familiar with the OWL, the link is right here: .  The OWL (Online Writing Lab) has everything from General Writing sections (Academic Writing, Mechanics, Grammar, Punctuation, etc.) to the absolutely screamingly geat Grammar and Punctuation areas.

For the beginning writer, there are articles on the Writing Process, ranging from Outlining to pre-writing to reverse outlining to PROOFREADING (yes, we all know this is my own personal crusade)--even stasis theory, harkening back to Aristotle and Hermogenes.  For  College students, there's even tips on creating your Thesis Statement.  (Now...if they'd just add a section on writing a BLURB, many of my clients would be ecstatic!). 

But for the average author, the OWL's big attraction will be, I think, those  pesky grammar and punctuation issues that plague so many folks, ranging from verb tenses to pronouns to "Conquering the Comma," a perennial favorite (which features a slide show).

And on that note...I'm outta here!  Please note--the OWL is supported with tax-deductible gifts, and although all of us are stretched thin, if you can--give to the OWL.  It's worthwhile, it's worthy, and it's invaluable.  Thanks!

Thanks, folks, and I'll see you next go-round!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Writing What You Know

A guest post by author Natalie R. Collins.

When I was six years old, a man pointed a gun at me and told me take off my clothes or he would kill me.

I think that at some point everybody takes a moment to look back at their life, wondering, “Now how did I get here?” How did I become a writer of dark suspense and crime thrillers? I know that one of the pivotal points for me was this event: being held at gunpoint at six years old. Some friends, my sister and I were playing on some wooded property when a man started yelling at us, threatening to kill us. He was hidden behind some bushes, and my sister pushed me down inside the crevice of a rock so I would be safe. I will always remember that. 

She was eight years old, and she stood up to this man with a gun. He told us to take our clothes off, or he would kill us. And she bravely said “No, we won’t. You’re going to have to kill us.” 

This went on for a while, and she refused while the rest of us cowered in fear. He shot the gun in the air to prove how serious he was, but she wasn’t budging. 

Finally, he gave up and told us to run, and not look back. I remember I lost my shoes, but I wasn’t stopping. He said don’t look back and I didn’t. 

We ran to our house and told my dad what had happened, and for some reason, he didn’t seem to believe us. So, rather than call the police, he put all four of us in the car and drove us up to the same place where we had just been terrorized. And as we pulled in a man in camo with a gun came walking out of wooded area. That changed everything. My dad questioned him, and he denied it all, but there he was. With a gun. In the woods where we had just been threatened. 

So the police were finally called. I remember they came to our house, and all four of us waited in the basement for our turn to be interviewed. I don’t really remember the interview. I don’t really remember much past the day I was told the local church leaders had asked for charges to be dropped because he had just married and had a baby. And charges WERE dropped. He did not go to jail. At least not at that time. My mother told me years later that he did end up in prison, which is no surprise. 

But it was that moment, that dichotomy of events—Church power vs. Municipal power—that made me question both my childhood religion and how things were handled by authorities, most of whom were also Mormon. And even deeper, why Mormon families allowed it to happen. 

My friend, a retired detective, worked for a while in Farmington, Utah, where this happened, and she assured me it was done all the time. It made her sick, and eventually she left that local force and went to Salt Lake City which was a bit more diverse and less ruled by religion.

Now, I’ve long gotten past this event, and I wrote about it in my book WIVES AND SISTERS, but what I haven’t gotten past is my interest in religion and crime—murder--and the way they interact. Religion seems to be a catalyst for a lot of bloody crimes. Is it easier to commit a crime if you are convinced you are doing it in the name of God? I’ve wondered this as we watch events like the murder of Lori Hacking, by her husband Mark. Or the BTK Killer, Dennis Rader, who as an active member of the Christ Lutheran Church. We watched planes fly into the World Trade Center as terrorists gave their lives for glory and virgins and “Allah.” 

Brian David Mitchell kidnapped Elizabeth Smart so he could have another bride. He was following the original teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Jr. 

In some hands, religion is more dangerous than a loaded gun. 

And I began exploring it when I wrote. Every time I think there won’t be another story to tell, along comes another one.
And it doesn’t mean I hate Mormons, or want to hurt them. I like Mormons. Some of my best friends are Mormon. But there is something about the violent and bloody teachings of early Mormonism that triggers a switch in some degenerate brains. Brains like those of Mark Hoffman, who was committing fraud, and killed innocent people to try to cover it up. 

I am currently writing my fourth book for St. Martin’s (tentatively titled Death Angel), and I don’t know if there will be more or not. I can’t say, because I don’t know. What I do know is there are stories that need to be told, and I am glad I got the opportunity to tell them. 

And now I will also have an opportunity to go back and spend some time writing more Jenny T. Partridge Dance Mysteries. So much fun to write. So many pyscho dance moms. The drama never ends….

Natalie R. Collins has ten published books, several others in various stages of publishing, and is currently working on her next one… or two… or three. She has dabbled in both dark suspense and cozy mysteries, and is happy to be able to work in both genres.
In addition to writing for Binary Press Publications, and Sisterhood Publications, she has written for Penguin Putnam, Thompson Gale, and still currently has a contract with St. Martin’s Press. Her third book, TIES THAT BIND, was just released.
Her critically acclaimed WIVES AND SISTERS received excellent reviews, including one from Kirkus, calling Collins “…a talent to watch.”
Natalie lives in Southern Utah with her husband Jeff, and two spoiled  dogs.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Working for Free Still Pays

by Peg Brantley

I have mixed feelings about making my book free. It's the only one I've published so far (#2 is in the editing stages), so the wonderful bump in sales many other writers experience for their other books is for me a moot point. On the other hand 'free' gives me a wonderful opportunity to expose my work to a wider audience and add to my reader base. I love that.

When an opportunity came up for me to be a guest on a live radio show I decided to capitalize on that event and make Red Tide free. So for three days, Sunday through Tuesday of this week, my one and only book was available to whoever wanted it.

Turns out, almost 35,000 people decided to give it a try. For the first time since the book was published in late March, I reached readers in not only the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany, but also readers in France, Spain and Italy. The after-effect of sales is gratifying (though I still don't understand why that happens) and I've lent more books from Amazon's lending library than ever before.

But I didn't just schedule it to be free and wait for readers to find me. I asked for a lot of help to get the word out. I tweeted (and tweeted), utilized Facebook until I was sick of seeing my own cover, and thankfully had prepared—in advance—for some backup.

About two weeks before I went 'free' I sent my information to the following websites (there is no guarantee that any of these sites will feature your book):

  • Pixel of Ink has thousands of subscribers. I do know that my book was chosen by them for the first day, and I credit this site for a lot of my downloads;
  • Free eBooks Daily has a bit of quid-pro-quo and listed my book at some point;
  • Free Booksy listed not only me, but the joint promotion I had with my sister;
  • eReader News Today also carried my book, and they have a lot of influence with readers;
  • Bargain Book Hunter is a site I purchased (at least 48 hours in advance) a guaranteed placement for $5.
There are countless other sites, including at least four more who I submitted to but I don't think selected my book.

My point is, simply going free and sitting back to wait for fabulous results probably isn't going to work unless your name is Stephen King or Michael Connelly. When you're ready to push for some positive results by offering your book free for a few days, you need to have an army behind you. Plan ahead.

CFC readers, how do you find your free books—the ones you really are interested in?

CFC writers, if you offer your books for free, what are some of the things you've learned along the way?

My very special thanks to Karin Cox and Indie Review Tracker for providing me with a lot of ideas.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Curses! Foiled again.

By Gayle Carline

(A brief caveat: In order to keep this blog from becoming a "You Must Be 18 or Older" site, I'm not spelling out certain words. I'm depending on you to figure them out.)

Well, dammit-to-hell, it's time for another post. I've been thinking about cursing a lot lately. That is to say, I've been thinking about it a lot, not that I've been cursing a lot, although I probably have. A couple of events crashed into each other recently to give me a chance to think a Deep, Philosophical Hmm, of the practical business sort.

The first was, last month or so, my hubby and my bestie, Tameri, and I went to see Kathy Griffin at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach. Kathy is one of my guilty pleasures. I watch all her specials on Bravo, and I know from my bleeping TV how profane she is on stage.

I am no prude when it comes to profanity, but I do wince when I'm in a crowd and someone is wandering around talking about this or that f*ing thing that happened to them. I mean, Dude, maybe the woman with the 3-year old in the stroller behind you would like to introduce that word to her child at some special time.

It's even worse when the f*ing talker is pushing the stroller.

Still, I wondered if she would shock me. I was surprised at how unruffled I was when Kathy took the stage. She held nothing back, but the profanity and crude language seemed less offensive than when it was bleeped on my TV. It was supposed to be there, so it was funny.

The second thing to happen was my re-release of Freezer Burn. Like any good little author, I re-read it and edited a few things. I hadn't really used a lot of profanity in the book, but I had a couple of lowlife guys who, at separate times, used the F-word. It seemed to be natural to their characters.

Having two occurrences of that word cost me a few sales. People, mostly women, would ask if there's profanity in the book and I would tell them the truth. They thanked me for my honesty, and passed on the story, and I was okay with that.

By contrast, my cast of characters in Hit or Missus turned out to be on the wealthier side of the tracks. I know rich folks can curse like sailors, but in my book they just didn't. I don't know why. It didn't feel right.

In editing Freezer Burn, I suddenly had to consider how my books played out as a series. Yes, I wanted my characters to be as real as possible on the page. No, I didn't want to confuse readers who might have expectations of the amount of profanity, or sex, in my books. And yes, it made me sad to think of readers who would enjoy my stories, but truly couldn't handle rough language.

If I was writing a series of thrillers, or darker mysteries, or if I wrote more graphic, gritty scenes, it would be different. But I write fun romps, with a side of let's-skip-the-details sex. Even if it might be realistic, f*ing has no place in my books.

People expect cursing in a Kathy Griffin routine. In my books? Maybe not so much.

So I took those two instances out. I found other words or gestures to mean the same thing. My books are now PG-rated. The new one will be, as well.

What about you, as readers? Do you pick up a thriller expecting salty language and raw, unbridled sex to alleviate the tension? Are you ever surprised by the level of cursing, or lack of it? Do you f*ing care if my f*ing characters curse?

P.S. One of the interesting side effects of taking that word out of my book is that I've been using it more when I talk. Usually around the house, often behind the wheel of my car, and always because I'm feeling pissy about something. But never in a crowd – out loud. I don't know if I'm feeling freer in my everyday conversations, or just crankier in my everyday life.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The great debate.....

By Jenny Hilborne, author of mysteries and thrillers

That plot or to pant.

Until I saw all the panster v plotter discussions on the various writers forums, it never occurred to me there might be different types of writers. I assumed, rather ignorantly probably, that writers opened up their manuscripts, be it longhand or typed, and just wrote the story in their head. 

I might have a working title and an idea of a story when I start, but I never know what's going to come out of my fingertips until I'm at my desk in front of my laptop. I don't even know if I have enough for a short, a novella, or a full-length novel until I start writing. 

As I understand the definitions, a plotter knows all the events of the story in advance and follows the route they mapped out to get the story from beginning to end. A panster writes the events as they occur in the writer's mind and has no idea how they will get to the end until they get there. From what I read in the discussions, each type of writer fiercely defends their own style and some have a hard time understanding the other.  

The dictionary definition of "plotting" is: secretly make plans to carry out (something illegal or wrong). Very appealing to all mystery/thriller writers. Plotting is also to mark a route or position. Maybe it's my horrible sense of direction (or my inability to concentrate for long periods of time), but I cannot plot. I've tried it and screwed up the bits of paper in frustration. Plotting (for me) hampers my creativity. I begin to feel like I'm following a formula and falling into old routines. I'm a true panster.

Whenever I write, without a map, it reminds me of a time when I drove with my parents from La Havre to Versailles and detoured off the road map we brought with us at every available opportunity. We wanted to escape the regular "route" and explore all the intricate little places we would have missed, or never even known about, if we stuck to the map. These places are hidden surprises, and often gems. I like to think of it when I write, not knowing where I'll end up or what I might find along the way. 

I googled to "fly by the seat of your pants", which is from where I imagine the term "panster" originates. It means: to pilot a plane by feel and instinct rather than by instruments. This about sums up how I feel when I write without any guide. I find it more thrilling, more energizing. I certainly wander off track and sometimes get lost, but I always find my way back - often on a surprising path and one I couldn't have plotted ahead of time, if I'd tried.

I'm intrigued by plotters. I imagine they must be extremely organized, detailed people with a clear idea of where they want to go. I imagine the editing process is less time-consuming for them.

I have a decent plot and numerous twists in my finished products, even though I'm not a plotter. Sometimes when I read, I can predict the ending of the book because of the way the plot is constructed and I wonder if the writer is a "plotter."

There is no answer and no write (pardon the pun) or wrong about the difference in styles. It's interesting to me how often this topic comes up in the writing forums. I've even seen these debates turn quite heated. I'd like to have some snazzy ending to this blog post, but, as you now know, I can't plot anything out in advance........ 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Exploding the Myth of Bullets in Fire

There is a common depiction in movies and novels of bullets exploding and "shooting off" when exposed to fire. The idea is pretty straight forward. Throw a cartridge into a fire and the heat will set off the gunpowder. It can make for some harrowing scenes. The gunshots can cause a distraction, pin down the cops, or even kill someone. Unfortunately, the entire idea is fiction.

Heat damage to live ammunition occurs more frequently than you may think. Over 70 million homes have ammunition in the United States and when one of those homes goes up in flames, so does the ammo. We call it "cook off". The process will generate the sound of gunfire but little else. Huge cook offs at military (small arms) ammunition depots have been recorded with little or no destructive effects (other than the fire that is).

Firearms work because they contain a small explosion. All of the gasses and energy released from the casing has only one direction to go; out the muzzle. Barrel diameters match the caliber of the bullets being fired through them. The fit is extremely tight so the gasses stay behind the bullet and propel it down the barrel. But when the cartridge is not in the firearm then the energy is released in all directions from the casing opening. They're like tiny little pipe bombs with a loose end cap. The gunpowder also burns at a slower rate in a fire as opposed to a primer charge. When the heat ignites the gunpowder the bullet will basically "pop" off. Since there is nothing to contain the pressure, the bullet can't fly off at the designed muzzle velocity.

So as a sound effect or distraction, throwing cartridges into a fire can be very effective. That doesn't mean you can't get hurt if you're standing next to the fire (don't try this anywhere) but the bullets won't be traveling with the speed they normally leave the barrel of a gun.So if you are writing a scene where a character throws a handful of small caliber bullets into a fire remember that they act more as a sound effect than anything else.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Thesaurus is Your Friend – Really!

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker 

Do you ever draw a blank when you’re trying to find just the right word to fit a situation in your fiction or nonfiction writing? It’s on the tip of your tongue but you just can’t think of it. That’s where the trusty thesaurus comes in. Look up the most ordinary or closest word to the one you need, and you’ll find similar words you can then use to narrow down to "le mot juste” – the one that perfectly expresses what you’re looking for.

The thesaurus sometimes gets a bad rap because of writers who get carried away trying to find a more original way to express something and end up replacing good, solid, concrete words with abstract or esoteric words that evoke no emotion and often annoy or confuse the reader. For example, using pretentious words like “abscise” instead of “cut” or “snip,” or “mendacious” instead of “dishonest” or “lying.” But if used judiciously, the thesaurus can be an indispensable guide for helping you enrich your language and imagery and write more powerfully—and keep the readers absorbed in your story. And by avoiding trite, blah, everyday words that have lost their power, you keep your imagery fresh and your story compelling. 

For example, check out how many ways you can say “walked” or “moved.” (Hint – look up the present tense – “walk” or “move.”) You can use an online thesaurus or go all-out and buy the best print one out there – J.I. Rodale’s The Synonym Finder, which, at a hefty 1361 pages long, is without a doubt the most comprehensive thesaurus in book form in the English language. (Thanks to Jessica Page Morrell for turning me on to this indispensable aid for writers.) 

For the verb “walked” for example, Rodale gives us a long list of great synonyms for the verb "walk" to help us capture just the right situation and tone. He just lists them, but here I’ve roughly categorized some of them to suit various situations, and changed them to past tense, to suit most novels and short stories. Can you think of words to add to any of these categories?

Drunk, drugged, wounded, ill: lurched, staggered, wobbled, shuffled, shambled

Urgent, purposeful, concerned, stressed: strode, paced, treaded, moved, went, advanced, proceeded, marched, stepped

Relaxed, wandering: strolled, sauntered, ambled, wandered, roamed, roved, meandered, rambled, traipsed

Rough terrain, hiking, tired: tramped, marched, trooped, slogged, trudged, plodded, hiked

Sneaking, stealth: sidled, slinked, minced, tiptoed, tread softly

Showing off: strutted, paraded

Other situations: waddled, galumphed (moved with a clumsy, heavy tread), shambled, wended

So in general, it’s best to avoid plain vanilla verbs like “walked” or “went” if you can find a more specific word to evoke just the kind of movement you’re trying to describe. But choose carefully! For example, I’d usually avoid show-offy words like “ambulate” and “perambulate” and “peregrinate” (!), or colloquial/slang/regional expressions like “go by shank’s mare” and “hoof it.” 

Also, some synonyms are too specific for general use, so they can be jarring if used in the wrong situations. I had two author clients who seemed to like to use “shuffled” for ordinary, healthy people walking around. To me, “shuffled” conjures up images of a patient moving down the hallway of a hospital, pushing their IV, or an old person moving around their kitchen in their slippers. Don’t have your cop or PI or CEO shuffling! Unless they’re sick or exhausted--or half-asleep. Similarly, I had a client years ago who was writing about World War II, and where he meant to have soldiers and officers "striding" across a room or grounds or battlefield, he had them "strutting." To me, you wouldn't say "he strutted" unless it was someone full of himself or showing off. It's definitely not an alternate word for "walked with purpose" as "he strode" is.

Similarly, be careful of having someone “march” into a room, unless they’re in the military or really fuming or determined. “Strode” captures that idea of a purposeful or determined walk better. And in a tense situation, don’t have your character “saunter” around. Sauntering implies a relaxed, carefree pace. So after you’ve found a few possible words in the thesaurus, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to also check the exact meaning in your dictionary. For that, I recommend Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (mine has 1622 pages).

Or try looking up the verb “look” in a good thesaurus. Here are some of the synonyms J.I. Rodale lists: see, visualize, behold, notice, take in, regard, observe, study, inspect, examine, contemplate, eye, check out, scrutinize, review, monitor, scan, view, survey, scout, sweep, watch, observe, witness, gaze, peer, glance, glimpse, ogle, leer, stare, goggle, gape, gawk, squint, take a gander, spy, peek, peep, steal a glance at, glare, glower, look down at, look daggers… (and the list goes on). Some of these, and others he lists, are too specific or archaic for general use in fiction, so again, choose carefully. Don’t use “behold” for “look” in your present-day thriller or mystery, for example! And “reconnoiter” works for military situations, but not for everyday use. Also, watch for eyes doing weird physical things, like "his eyes bounced around the room."

Also, don’t start using a bunch of fancy synonyms for “said.” Best to just use “he (or she) said” most of the time, as words like “postulated” and “uttered” and “articulated” can be laughable and distracting, whereas "said" gets the meaning across without drawing attention to itself.

Why not open your own Word file and call it “Thesaurus” or “Synonyms,” then start lists for the verbs you use most in your writing, like walk, move, look, run, etc. That way you can quickly find lots of variations and try them on for size.

Writers – do you have anything to add? Any suggestions for finding just the right word to capture the mood or tone of the scene? Readers – do you have any examples of words that stuck out in your reading because they just didn’t fit the situation?

For a related post, see my my post, "Tone and Mood - Choose Your Words Carefully," and my review of The Emotion Thesaurus, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

Copyright © Jodie Renner, August 2012

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity, incl. Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie at,, her blog,, and on Facebook and Twitter.