Saturday, May 14, 2016

A Conversation With James Scott Bell

Bestselling suspense author James Scott Bell has served as a trial lawyer and fiction columnist for Writers Digest Books as well as an adjunct professor of writing at Pepperdine University. His books on the craft of writing are among the most popular today.

James, your varied and successful career has included actor, lecturer, television and radio commentator. What brought you the most satisfaction and why?

Wow, that's quite a list. I hadn't thought about all that in a while. I can tell you I've been very blessed to be able to do a number of things I really enjoyed.

I loved going to court. All the workup before trial, and the 24/7 aspect of thinking about it, is stressful. But standing in front of a jury and arguing a case, cross-examining witnesses, all that was supremely enjoyable.

I loved acting. If it were a more secure profession, I'd probably still be living in New York doing Shakespeare and O'Neill and David Mamet.

But I love writing, too, and being able to make my living at it is tremendously satisfying. My office is wherever I can lug my computer or my AlphaSmart, and my subjects are whatever my imagination can conjure up.

Your Writers Digest craft books have been bestsellers. What’s the best advice you can offer aspiring writers in today’s market?

The best advice for today's market is the same advice I gave yesterday and would have given 100 years ago: produce the words. Set a weekly quota, one that is comfortable, and up it by 10%. Then go for it. You still have to show that you can write solid fiction book after book, no matter how it gets to market. And the way you show that is to actually produce.

Yes, study the market, but don't become a slave to it. Trends come and go. Write material that moves you and it will have a chance to move the reader.

 How did you manage to be mentored by Lawrence Block?

When I called him my first mentor, I meant by way of his columns in Writer's Digest. What made those so great is that he knows how a writer thinks. He got into my head and showed me what to do. And he did that for countless other writers.

When I started doing that column myself, I felt like Joshua taking over for Moses. I did finally get to meet and chat with Larry at a convention, and via email, and it felt good to talk as a colleague. But I still reverence those years he was teaching me so much.

Briefly tell us about atch Your Back and Writing Fiction For
All Your Worth? Are they still available in print or only on Kindle and Nook?

I released these two as e-books only. I wanted to supplement both my thriller print fiction and my writing books for Writer's Digest. I discussed this with my agent and the publisher beforehand. I see these as volumes to make new readers. And that's what publishers and agents keep telling writers to do. Build a platform. This is one way to build it.

Watch Your Back is suspense fiction, the title novella and three stories. I love the old pulp days when writers like Chandler and Cornell Woolrich were producing great short fiction. But the pulp market died. Now, with e-books, it's back, and I want to be part of that.

Writing Fiction for All You're Worth is a collection of my best blog posts, articles, interviews and reflections on writing. It covers the writing world today, the writing life, and the writing craft. I've also included a section of my "secret" writing notebook. No one but me has ever seen that material, until now.

How do you feel about the ebook revolution?

Of course it's here and it is a revolution. But will it turn out to be the United States in 1776 or France in 1789? Will it be order or chaos? Will it shake out into anarchy or some form of cooperation between traditional publishing and e-publishing? No one knows!

But it is definitely a heady time and even the professionals—authors, agents, publishers—are wondering how to act and react.

I'm a writer. I write. I write for readers. The readers are out there with e-devices. Why should I not give them material when I've got so much of it?

Suspense/thriller novels and Christian books seem almost polar opposites. How and when did you decide to write in the Christian market?

I began in the Inspirational Fiction market because I liked writing about people struggling with faith issues in a dark world. In a way, that's what great thrillers are about. It may not be religious faith, but it's faith in something—in the quest for justice, say—that makes a thriller worth reading on the character level.

So there is no inherent opposition in the thriller/Christian fiction genres. It's true the latter market is dominated by "softer" titles, such as Amish fiction. I have chosen to jump into the mainstream with my Try series and Watch Your Back. But no matter where you are, you still have produce page turning fiction.

Why do you set your novels in the Los Angeles area exclusively?

I just can't get away from it. It's my home, I love it, I know it and it's the greatest noir city in the world. There is a plot around every corner, a great character on every street. You can drive a mile and be in a completely different neighborhood. And I think there's something cool about being one of the bards of L.A. I love Cain and Chandler and Connelly and Crais and those guys. I like being part of that tradition.

What’s the worst thing that ever happened to you while researching a novel?

Oh, nothing major. I never got thrown in the clink or anything. I did have some uncomfortable moments when I was researching Skid Row for Try Darkness. There's nothing like walking around in a location, but this one is rather sketchy, to say the least. Having learned how to walk fast and with attitude when I lived in New York, I did fine.

Does an aspiring writer really need an agent, and are agents becoming the dinosaurs of the publishing industry?

A great agent is such an asset. And indispensable for getting published the traditional way. I have the best agent in the world, Donald Maass, and I am also friends with some terrific agents. I know it's a tough deal right now. If an aspiring writer gets with a good agent, that's fantastic. I know the search can be long and difficult. But the discipline of trying to write material good enough for an agent to take on is not wasted should the author eventually try another route.His blog site:

Twitter: Twitter/jamesscottbell and Facebook fan page:

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Using TV Techniques to Write a Killer Mystery

by Hank Phillipi Ryan, bestselling novelist and  award-winning journalist 

Here's what you need to produce a successful television story. Develop memorable characters. Build suspense. Show conflict. Tell a compelling story. Find justice. Change lives.

Here's what you need to become a successful television journalist. Never miss your deadline. Be fair. Get people to tell you things they wouldn't tell anyone else. Understand how the world works.Work with an editor. Create a brilliant and flawless product every time. Be completely devoted to your job.

As I began to write my first novel, I realized the number of parallels between writing for television and writing a mystery novel. Your primary focus is telling a great story, right? With compelling characters. And centering around an important problem. You dig for leads, track down documents, conduct intensive research, and see where the clues take you. You want the good guys to win, and bad guys to get what's coming to them. You want a satisfying and fair ending, and you want some justice. And if you're lucky, you get to change the world. 

Here's a new way of looking at your work as a journalist. And it doesn't matter if you've never written a news story in your life. 

You won't use every news story every day. Some you won't realize you need, until you do. On those days, there are journalism-based questions you can ask yourself to prod your brain into story telling--kind of a who-what-when-where-why and why-not that just might get you out of that pre-deadline panic.

Why do I Care?

If you're in a scene that seems to be flabby, or boring, or simply not compelling, there may be there's no reason to write it. Se your intention before you write the scene. What's the point of these next 200 words? Why do we care about these next 200 words? Why do we care about what's going to happen next? Figure that out. It may be that you're writing a scene that you don't need. You may be writing a scene that needs to move faster, or go a different direction, or wind up in a different place. 

Am I in the Right Place?

Not only the right place geographically, but the right place in time or space. If you've got two guys sitting around talking, or someone looking up a name on a computer, or talking on the phone, or if it's the fourth scene in a row that's taking place in an office--hmmm. Television is all about good video. Can you place your characters somewhere more cinematic? What would happen to your characters when you do?

Who said that?

Maybe you've got the wrong person talking, or using the wrong point of view. Placing the same scene in the point of view of a different person changes the perspective and as a result, shows you motivation in a different way. What's at stake in your scene? Who has the most to lose? Sometimes even thinking about a scene through a different character's eyes can open your own to different ideas.

What's the goal?

Are you at the beginning of the book where you need a big compelling hook? In the middle of the book where you need to twist and turn and keep the readers turning the pages? Or near the end, when you need to ratchet up the suspense and come up with the big finish or happy ever-after ending? Make sure you're clear on your goal. Think about what you should write to accomplish that.

(You can read more of Hank Phillipi Ryan's article as well as her  interview in The Mystery Writers.)

You can also learn more at her website:

Tony Allyn's Alter Ego

Tory, what inspired you to write your debut novel?

My father died unexpectedly and it totally prioritized what I wanted to say about my life. Some not so important things were relegated to the lower end of my list allowing my writing to take precedence. Once I made the commitment, a set time was put aside every day to write. I found a quiet location and let the words pour from my brain. Before I realized, the flooding of words gave me a total of four books which are a series entitled, The Davenport Decrees. My first novel is Alter Ego.

Tell us about the plot.

Informed by his Captain to retrieve the remnants of a disfigured body, Special Agent Jack Stanwick exited FBI headquarters and raced toward Rockfort, Virginia. As sirens echoed in the distance, he approached the old gravel road that led to Granite’s Mill. Jack knew what he was about to see, and with most of ‘the brotherhood’ dispatched away, outside help was needed. So the experts at the Davenport Detective Agency had to be hired. Bren Williams, Derek O’Rourke and Russ Munroe are detectives under the guiding eye of former police chief, Raymond Davenport. All four were ex-cops who turned over state’s evidence on corruption in their respective precincts, only to be ostracized by the remaining brass. If anyone can immerse themselves fully into Alter Ego, they can!

How did your characters evolve?

I’ve had the storyline jangling around in my brain since the mid-1990’s. It wasn’t until I committed my ideas to paper that they took on a life of their own. With each stroke, my characters developed personalities, qualities, temperaments, dispositions and so forth. As you will see in my first novel, writing for a variety of men and women is quite the challenge, but I loved every minute of it. What helped me most was writing out a ‘grid’ as I call it. The grid allowed me to write out each character’s name, age, physical features, education, employment, backgrounds, personalities and how they related to the story. I used it so much that it had coffee stains on it (I probably shouldn’t have admitted that)!

Advice to other fledgling writers?

Your story has to be hungry to get out. When you sit to write, let it consume all thought; just allow it to bleed from your mind. Do not worry about perfection. That will come to fruition during the editing process. Once you have finished the initial draft, go back and read it out loud. Awkward sentences will reveal themselves. Always hire a competent editor (check Predators & Editors to see if they are in good standing) and get a beat-reader (one who is not a family member) to make sure you manuscript is ready to be published.


Tory Allyn currently resides in Upstate New York. Although born in Syracuse, he was raised in the quaint town of Baldwinsville with his brother and two sisters, who drove him into becoming the zany person he is today. As a child, he made up many a tale. Some funny; others dark and brooding, but all started him on the path to writing. Today, his nephew, lovingly referred to as ‘The Monster Child’, is his partner in crime. Most days, you will see them playing ball at a nearby park, going for a dip in the backyard pool or snowboarding down a popular mountainside. 

Saturday, April 30, 2016

A Visit with Bill Kirton

Bill Kirton began his career as an English actor, playwright and broadcast script writer. He now balances his police procedural novels with promotional work for North Sea oil companies at his home in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Bill,  Tell us about your books.

 My efforts have been going into writing three books for students in a series of ‘Brilliant’ books published by Pearson. They’re called Brilliant Study Skills, Brilliant Essays and Brilliant Dissertations. The titles (I hope) are self-explanatory. But the latest novel to appear was The Figurehead. It’s a historical crime novel set in Aberdeen in 1840. It came about because a friend said to me one day ‘You should write a book about a figurehead carver. I had no idea why he said that but, since my PhD was on the theatre of Victor Hugo and I love the whole revolutionary period of the 1830s and 1840s, I did some research and found I loved it. Readers of crime are very sophisticated and know all about DNA and other arcane forensic processes, so it’s good to set a crime novel at a time before we enjoyed such refinements.

My research involved lots of reading of contemporary newspapers and so on, but also I wanted to know how it felt to carve a figurehead so I joined a woodcarving class and that became a hobby of mine. I also signed on as part of the crew of the beautiful Norwegian square rigger Christian Radich and sailed from Oslo to Leith for the Tall Ships Festival. That was a very special experience.

The book itself proved to be interesting in terms of the characters. My carver, John Grant, is the amateur detective, driven by sheer curiosity really. But in the course of the story, Helen, the daughter of his patron, shoved herself to the fore and became at least as important as John. I suppose it helped that there was obviously some chemistry between them. But now, as I begin researching the sequel, I’m finding that Helen will probably become the central character and John may have to be satisfied with being her helper.

When did you know you were a writer? Did you receive any encouragement along the way?

I think there’s a difference between when I knew I was a writer and when I heard other people say I was. I knew it from very early days–probably when I was around 11 years old, because I used to enjoy writing things–mainly funny stories but also playlets (awful, awful things–I found one a few years back and while I suppose it was OK for someone of that age, it definitely didn’t show any early promise).

As for encouragement, I don’t remember that with specific reference to writing, but Dad was a great reader and my brothers, sisters and I were all encouraged to do all sorts of things. But I was in my mid-twenties when I was invited to the newly opened Northcott Theatre in Exeter because a BBC producer, on the strength of some scripts I’d sent him, had told the director, the late Tony Church, that I was a playwright. Tony showed me round the place and we met one of his production team. Tony introduced me with the words ‘This is Bill Kirton. He’s a writer.’ I’d never heard it said before and I haven’t forgotten the pleasure it gave me.

What attracted you to mystery writing (police procedurals) and which author most influenced your own writing?

It seems as if all my answers are indirect because I didn’t really have this mystical thing which whispered to me ‘you must write a police procedural’. It was much more prosaic than that. I’d written mainly stage and radio plays and the occasional short story and one day I read of a novel-writing competition. So I started writing a novel. And that in itself was interesting because, like most other people, I thought ‘Wow, a novel. That’s long. Quite an undertaking.’ But I soon realised the perhaps obvious truth–that you don’t ‘write a novel’, you write a few sentences, some paragraphs and, at the end of each day, the pile of pages is that much bigger.

And, if you’re enjoying it, you eventually see that it’s actually looking quite a substantial heap, so you’re determined to finish it. I did finish that one. It was a spoof crime novel and, in fact, I’m reworking it at present in the hope that a publisher might like it.

Having done that, I was ready to write another and that one (which eventually became The Darkness was triggered by a chance remark made by a waiter at a local restaurant. He had an English West Country accent. I said ‘You’re a long way from home’ and he told me he’d chosen to come as far away from his home as possible because his wife and two daughters had been killed by a drunk driver who’d spent just six months of his sentence in jail and was then released. ‘Two months for each life’, as the waiter said. It affected me very deeply and I retained it. It eventually grew into my second novel, which was a stand-alone thriller. My then agent sent it to Piatkus, an independent publisher in London, who said ‘we like it but we’re not doing thrillers at the moment. Has he got any police procedurals?’
I wrote parodies of poetry for the school magazine and a couple of articles for the university newspaper but I think the first piece I got paid for was a radio play ‘An Old Man and Some People’ which was broadcast on Radio 3 and Radio 4 by the BBC in 1971, so I was 32. I’ve had several more broadcast since but, strangely, I think that was probably my best one.

Do you write full-time or do you have a "day job?"

I write full-time because writing is also my day-job. I used to be a lecturer in the French department of Aberdeen University, but I also did some TV and radio work. This led to me writing scripts for safety programmes and documentaries and then on into brochures, promotional and educational material and more or less all types of commercial documents and programmes. I live in Aberdeen, remember, so the oil industry always needed scripts and press releases. I was getting so much of that to do that I eventually took early retirement to concentrate on my writing.

This balancing of writing fiction and hard commercial fact is interesting. I’m always aware that the commercial work is what earns the money but I’m always happier when I’m writing what I call my own stuff. The commercial material has its own rewards. Most companies want to say the same things about themselves (i.e. how brilliant, safe and environmentally responsible they are), so there’s a challenge in finding new ways of saying it.

The worst part of it is when the management of a company (and this has happened with the biggest oil majors as well as smaller outfits), can’t be bothered to give a specific briefing about what they want and instead, hand you a bunch of technical manuals or their last dozen brochures and say ‘It’s 
I didn’t have but I immediately set about writing one, Material Evidence, which featured DCI Jack Carston. I actually invented a town for the setting. It’s called Cairnburgh and it’s not far from Aberdeen. My thinking was that I didn’t want to set it in Aberdeen in case I wanted to say nasty things about the police. As it happened, the year after it was published, some events in the Grampian force exceeded any fictional plots I could have imagined.

It was published in hardback, followed the next year by Rough Justice, also in hardback, and they’ve both now been published in paperback in the USA as part of the Bloody Brits series. I rewrote The Darkness to turn it into a Carston novel. It was published in December 2008, and there are two others completed and ready for final edits.

What's your writing schedule like? Would you rather write than watch a football game or other sporting event?

I work from about 8.30 am until 6 pm, with maybe fifteen minutes for lunch, and the time rarely drags. If I’m really into it, I go back for more in the evening, too.

Watching football is my relaxation from writing and, when it’s a good game, no, I’d rather watch the game. Because I’m basically lazy. But I do love writing. When I’m into a novel, I’m completely absorbed by it. I have no notion of the passage of time, or of self or surroundings or anything. It’s a great privilege to be able to lose oneself so completely in an activity.

What are the best and worst aspects of writing? And how long does a book take to finish?

The best part of writing is the loss of self in the process, the feeling of a reality (albeit fictional) unfolding as I write, the way the characters do what they want and often surprise me and the occasional feeling that a particular sentence–-even a simple, un-poetic one–-has exactly the right words and rhythms in it.

Another best part is when a reader tells me they’ve enjoyed one of my books and I know that they mean it. Often, it’s just a polite thing to say, of course, but sometimes their enthusiasm shows that they really have read it and thought about it. That’s very special.

The ‘How long’ question is hard. The idea for a book appears and disappears, then I remember it and think about how to treat it. The time all that takes is difficult to assess because it depends on so many variables. But when I’m ready to start writing, the process is fairly regular and I reckon an 80-90,000 word novel takes about six months. After that, it’ll get lots of tinkering, but the bulk of the work’s over in that time frame.

How do you feel about the current publishing market? Is it in the doldrums in the UK as well?

I know that, as a writer, I should be able to quote statistics and examples to show the state of publishing today, but I can’t. Not because I’m not interested but because I have no control over it all and I prefer to focus on my own writing and making sure it’s as good as I can make it. But I can’t help but know that publishing is in a pretty poor state. Scotland has been lucky in a way–no, not lucky, canny. Canongate, for example, in Edinburgh, published Barack Obama’s early works, and there’s a strong literary community in Scotland which is producing all sorts of interesting and powerful poetry, plays and novels.

But the market dictates to all, and it’s rather depressing to see best sellers chosen because they bear a celebrity name rather than the name of a real writer.

Are ebooks well accepted in the British Isles and do they sell well? Are there many publishers in Scotland who produce books in multi format?

I’m fascinated to know what’ll happen with e-books.You read a lot about them but I don’t think I know anyone yet who has a reader or who downloads e-serials. The arguments in favour of them are clear but equally the book as object is still doggedly admired and needed. Somehow, a book has a notion of permanence, endurance, whereas words on a screen are ephemeral, when you ‘turn the page’ they disappear. The big publishers are recognising the need to produce multi-format books, but the smaller ones either don’t have the expertise or perhaps the desire to branch out in that direction.

I also think that, for readers, the directness of the experience of reading a book in the conventional format is qualitatively different from reading from a screen. I don’t know what it is but, for example, when I edit, I often miss things on screen which I pick up when I print something out. I think for readers there’s an intimacy about ‘curling up with a good book’ that’s very special and can’t be replicated with an electronic version. I hope I’m wrong there and that the e-book will become as personal an object as a paperback, because I think e-publishing has helped to keep a decent market, especially for genre fiction.

Which American genres and authors are popular in Scotland? And which Scottish authors are bestsellers?

American crime writers are very popular here. I rarely look at the romance, fantasy or sci-fi shelves, so I’m not sure how well the USA is represented there. But crime, boosted even more perhaps by the popularity of TV series such as CSI and The Wire, has a strong presence on the shelves. As for authors, I think the ones we go for are the ones who are bestsellers for you, too–Lee Childs (who’s British, I know, but he writes distinctly American thrillers), Elmore Leonard, Jeffrey Deaver, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Ed McBain–well, you can fill in all the other names for yourself.

I think the same’s true for bestselling Scots too. Ian Rankin is obviously the top man, Val McDermid the top woman, and then there are many, many others writing good crime. One who deserves particular mention is Denise Mina. Her novels are full of compassion, humour, pain and the reality of life in today’s Glasgow.

Why do you write?

The simple answer is that I write because I can. I love words, what they do, how they sound, how they fit together. I consider myself lucky to have received, in my genetic make-up, an ability with words. That’s not a boast. In fact, I always quote something an artist friend of mine once said. We sometimes sat at meetings together and, by way of doodling, he’d draw wonderful pencil sketches of the people round the table. One day, I looked at one and said ‘Vic, I don’t know how you can do that.’ His reply was ‘Bill, I don’t know how you can’t.’ It’s such a simple way of saying that having a specific talent isn’t a cause for self-congratulation; it’s something that comes as naturally as breathing. And we’re lucky to have been dealt such a hand.

Anything else you'd like to discuss?

Not really. I think I’ve talked enough, don’t you? There are more ramblings on my website: Thanks for letting me blether on like this.

Bill’s website:

His blogsite:

Saturday, April 16, 2016

A Visit with John Locke

John Locke is the author of How I Sold One Million eBooks in Five Months, which includes more than a dozen thrillers and westerns selling for 99 cents.

John, why, after all your business successes, did you decide to write full time?

Actually, I’m still a part-time writer, with a full-time job that keeps me busy most days. But I’ve wanted to write books since I was in high school. I’m stopping to do a mental calculation. Could that have possibly been 43 years ago? Wow. I wanted to try my hand at writing all these years, but never got around to it because life kept getting in the way.

I know you write thrillers, but why westerns?

I had to pause just now to smile. Why westerns? Let me tell you something. Westerns are magic. When you read a western, you’re viewing the world in microcosm, because there’s a fixed time and setting, generally, with endless possibilities. The whole dynamic of a man and woman optimistically venturing into an untamed land with little more than a horse, gun, wagon, meager supplies…and a whole lot of courage—is the very definition of heroism. Courage is at the core of every western. And every good western offers adventure, heart, and a classic confrontation between good and evil.

How much research do you conduct before you begin a novel?

I do a lot of research, but try hard not to let it get in the way of a good tale. For example, my westerns take place in Dodge City, in 1860, and I describe a rough-and-tumble, bustling city in need of taming. Now I certainly know the first house in Dodge City wasn’t built till 1871, and it was a sod house. Why not set my story in 1876, when Dodge was exactly the way I describe? Because the other factual elements work for 1860, such as the terrible Kansas drought and the railroad and the stage coach lines and the trails and Indians and so forth. I could have invented a town or made my characters travel farther, but Dodge symbolizes everything I wanted in a western town, and it has name recognition.

My readers delight in the small things I point out that almost no one ever thinks about, like why Indians of the time were terrible at shooting rifles, or how dangerous it could be for a town woman to use an outhouse in the middle of the night, because where else would a bad guy lurk? But I don’t try to impress readers with the facts I uncover. I make the facts a part of my characters’ everyday life.

In your book, Don’t Poke the Bear, you talk about jail holes dug in the ground to house prisoners in Dodge.  Did they actually exist or are your plots based purely on your imagination?

This is an example of the details I uncover and weave into my stories. It is true that almost no towns had jails in 1860. When a town did have a jail back then, it was literally a hole dug in the ground. But in Kansas in those days, it was very difficult to dig deep holes because the ground was often hard, and it was a rare settler who owned a decent pick and shovel that wasn’t damaged!

Do you feel that bringing back “adult Westerns” of the 1980s is going to revive the genre?

I’ve never read any adult westerns of the 1980’s, so I can’t say. My westerns are certainly adult, but they’re intended to be more fun than adult. They’re outrageous, and meant to be read with a smile. My goal is not to change westerns or revive them, but to breathe some new life into a genre that is uniquely American. My thriller readers know I have a soft spot in my heart for my westerns, and many don’t understand it. But I love them, and they make me happy in a way my other work doesn’t.

Wish List Why are women's legs on most of your book covers?

This was my publisher, Claudia Jackson's, idea. When I told her 75% of my readers were women, she said we should use women's legs on the next cover, because women are naturally drawn to other women's legs. I thought it was a clever idea, like a brand, so we decided to do all the covers that way. Now, when people see women's legs on a book cover, they know it's a John Locke book. I get publicly criticized for it sometimes, but my readers know it's all in fun. Also, we put a little number on the cover of every book so readers will know which number in the series that particular book is. It's sort of like a "Where's Waldo" but not hard to find! In Vegas Moon and A Girl Like You it's part of the boot. In Now and Then it's in an open coconut!

What’s the most important promotional activity a writer can conduct to make the public aware of his or her book?

Writing a personal blog in your unique voice, and getting it read by your target audience. I explain exactly how to do this in my new marketing book for authors titled, How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months.”

Do you feel that ebooks are going to eventually eliminate brick and mortar bookstores?
ebooks can be created by tens of thousands of excellent authors and distributed instantaneously throughout the world for a one-time cost of a few hundred dollars.

If writers follow your success plan to the letter, what’s the most they should charge for their ebooks?

They should charge whatever price makes the most economic sense. For me, it’s 99 cents. Here’s why: Follow the Stone has sold 60,000 downloads in five months, earning me $21,000. If I had charged twice as much I’d have to sell 30,000 downloads to break even. Let’s go all out and say 40,000 readers would pay twice the price. I’d earn $28,000 instead of $21,000. Did I come out ahead? In my opinion, no. Because in that example 20,000 readers chose NOT to buy my book at the higher price. Those 20,000 readers won’t be buying my second, third, and fourth books, nor will they spread the word to their friends.

Which social media outlets do you feel are the most important to further an indie writer’s career and how much time should he/she spend networking on the Internet?

I’m a Twitter guy. Facebook is probably good, but I prefer the Twitter experience. I don’t know the other outlets. If an indie writer is working social media effectively, he or she can tie a dollar figure to every hour spent at the keyboard. Let’s assume that dollar figure is $50 an hour. If I paid you $50 an hour to work at your keyboard, how many hours would you devote? The key is to learn what each hour of your time is worth. You can’t base it on what it’s worth this week. You need to compute it over the lifetime of the sales. Maybe in the past hour I met someone on Twitter who invited me to do an interview, and that interview resulted in twenty sales. And those twenty people each told three friends who told three friends. And then they all bought my other nine books. What was that hour worth to me? If I did the math correctly, it’s around $910. Maybe I worked another four hours today and generated nothing. Was it a good five hours of work?

Saturday, April 2, 2016

by Leighton Gage

If you come to visit us in Brazil, you’ll occasionally see a stand where the offerings look like this:

Literatura de Cordel (lit. “cord literature”) derives its name from the way the wares are often displayed, i.e. hung by a cord, usually with the aid of clothespins.

Such stands are less common in the southern part of the country, but are a feature in many of the fairs and markets of the northeast, principally in the States of Pernambuco, Paraiba and Ceará.

These little booklets are the last survivors of a form of popular literature with which an inhabitant of eighteenth-century Madrid, or nineteenth-century England, would have been quite familiar, but that you’d be hard-put to find elsewhere in the modern world. They contain stories and ballads and are generally produced in black-and-white, illustrated with woodcuts.

Down through the years, the content has taken-on a distinctly Brazilian flavor.

Many of the books deal with the folklore, legends and history of the northeast, subjects like Lampião and his band.

I've previously written about him under the title The Bandit King. And, if you like, you can read that post by going here:

One of the classics of cord literature, The Arrival of Lampião in Hell, by José Pacheco, is much-prized by collectors.

And a satire on the Brazil’s former president, The Arrival of Lula in Hell has enjoyed a good deal of success.

As to the art, two of the more talented woodcutters are Adir Botelho and José Francisco Borges.

This is Botelho:

And this is a work from Borges, who has had expositions at both the Louvre and the Smithsonian:

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Writing Life

by Carolyn Hart

When I was eleven, I decided to be a reporter when I grew up. I had no idea I would end up devoting my life to murder.

I worked on school newspapers and majored in journalism at the University of Oklahoma, back in the days of hot type, pica poles, and Speed Graphics. In j-school, I wore a trench coat, smoked Chesterfields (successfully discarded many years ago) and was sure I would be the next Maggie Higgins. But, as the adage informs, Man proposes, God disposes.

I met a young law student, we married, and I worked on a local newspaper, then for public information at the university. After we started our family, I quit work and stayed home. This was before the days when young women were expected to work full-time, have a family, and bake cookies for the school sale and climb the Matterhorn in their leisure moments.

I missed writing. I didn’t want to go back to reporting because of the long hours. That’s when I first thought about writing fiction. In The Writer magazine, I saw an announcement of a contest for a mystery for girls aged 8 to 12. I adored Nancy Drew and I decided to give it a try. THE SECRET OF THE CELLARS won the contest and was published in 1964. I’ve written children’s mysteries, young adult suspense novels, and dozens adult mystery or suspense novels. I also write the GHOST AT WORK series. The late Bailey Ruth Raeburn, an impetuous redheaded ghost returns to earth to help someone in trouble. She moves a body, investigates a murder, saves a marriage, prevents a suicide, and - in a fiery finale - rescues a child who knows too much. I have never had more fun writing a book.

So many books. All of them mysteries.

"Why mysteries?"

"When will you write a real book?"

"Why do you want to write about murder?"

When asked these questions at a book talk, I know immediately that the questioners don’t read mysteries. Murder is never the point of the mystery. Mysteries are about the messes people make of their lives and how they cope.

Mysteries captured my heart when I read my first Nancy Drew. I was thrilled by the challenges posed for Nancy Drew and for Frank and Joe Hardy, absorbed by the puzzles, and inspired by their courage and devotion to justice. Nancy’s snazzy roadster, amazing independence, and handsome Ned were also a plus. As for serious Frank and fun-loving Joe, who wouldn’t want to spend time with them? I always think of Max Darling, Annie’s handsome blond husband, as Joe Hardy all grown up and sexy as hell.

Suspense, a puzzle, and courage, these are the hallmarks of the mystery. However, the mystery offers even more to adult readers.

There are two kinds of mysteries, the crime novel and the traditional mystery.

The crime novel features Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade or Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski. The crime novel is the story of an honorable man or woman who tries to remain uncorrupted in a corrupt world. It is the story of the protagonist and not of the murders that are solved. These books are about the quest for honor.

My own particular love is the traditional mystery. These books are sometimes dismissed by devotees of the crime novel as unrealistic, "cozy" little stories of drawing room crimes in little villages.

Agatha Christie, whose books have now sold in excess of two billion, understood reality. There may not be a body in the drawing room, but there will always be pain and passion, heartbreak and violence, despair and fury, whether in a village or a metropolis. Christie knew life as most readers live it, ordinary, unremarkable, and fraught with emotion.

Christie once compared the mystery to the medieval morality play. In the play, tradesfair audiences saw graphic representations of what happens to lives dominated by lust, gluttony, sloth, and all the deadly sins. This is what today’s mysteries offer in a more sophisticated guise.

The sleuth in the traditional mystery explores the relationships between the victim and those around the victim. In trying to solve the crime, Annie Darling or my new sleuth, the late Bailey Ruth Raeburn, search out the reasons for murder by exploring the relationships between the victim and those around the victim. The detective wants to know what caused the turmoil in these lives. Readers extrapolate the lessons observed in fiction for their own use, for their own lives. If this, Dear Reader, is how you treat others . . .

Thankfully, everyday dramas do not usually end in murder, but violent emotions caused by fractured relationships corrode the lives of all involved, often forever. This is what the traditional mystery is all about. The traditional mystery focuses on the intimate, destructive, frightening secrets hidden beneath the seemingly placid surface. Readers know the jealous mother, the miserly uncle, the impossible boss, the belittling friend, the woman who confuses sex with love, the selfish sister.

What could be more humdrum than everyday life as most of us live it? Aren’t those seemingly lighthearted, civilized tales of murder nonsense?

No. They probe personal passions. Nothing can be more powerful than jealousy, anger, hatred, lust, and fear.

It is how these emotions destroy lives that fascinates the readers and writers of traditional mysteries. The crime of murder is a dramatic exaggeration of the misery created by lives that succumb to sin.

I’ve spent a lifetime with murder, even though I can never read accounts of true crime. I find them too harrowing because behind the violent acts I always see the heartbreak of failed humans. In the books, I am trying to understand what created the passions that destroy and offering homage to the detective who wants to bring peace and understanding.

Even though by now the body count in my many books is horrific, I am grateful for my life with murder. It has put me in the best of company. Mystery readers are good people. Every time they read a mystery they are reaffirming their commitment to goodness. They believe in justice, decency, and goodness.

Every day we see proof that evil often triumphs. Yet we yearn to live in a good, just, and decent world. There is a world where goodness triumphs, where justice is served, where decency is celebrated, the world of the mystery.

(Article orginally published in the Washington Post)

Saturday, March 19, 2016

It's a Mystery to Me

by D. R. Ransdell

I’d been thinking about starting a novel when Andy Veracruz sprang into my head. He was at his usual gig at the restaurant where he was the band leader of the mariachi group, and as usual, he noticed more than he should have. In this case, it was his boss’s wife, who waltzed into the restaurant with her lover. Andy wished he’d closed his eyes because he didn’t want to have to tell his boss that his wife was sleeping around, and yet he didn’t want to keep quiet about it either.
Thus started Mariachi Murder, with Andy in a predicament about how much to say about the alluring Yiolanda. Although I didn’t set out to start writing this book on a certain day, once I got the initial image I couldn’t help myself. I sat down and wrote about a thousand words. That night I regrouped. The next day I wrote another thousand words, and so on and so forth.

But in my mind I clearly knew what I was doing. That is, I wasn’t quite sure of the plot or exactly how Andy would reach the conclusion, but I knew whodunit before I began. I also knew I wanted to write a murder mystery. I knew I would need several dead bodies. These conventions were clear to me. After all, I’d followed Lawrence Block’s sound writing advice: if you want to write a mystery novel, read 500 first. I think I’d gotten up to 321 before I lost track of my notes and switched everything in my life over to a word processor.

Thus my novel followed a discernible pattern. I had a protagonist who became an amateur sleuth because he had trouble on his hands. I had dead bodies here and there. I had clues. But in the meantime, while I was trying to find a publisher for Andy’s book, I was planning a trip to Thailand with a girlfriend. And that kicked my imagination into high gear.

I’d been to Asia once by that time, to Japan., and it was a wonderful experience. I loved the temples and the funny handwriting. I laughed at my misadventures such as arriving at a subway station where every single thing was written in kanji instead of Roman letters.           

I figured that a trip to Thailand would include some of the same kind of adventures. After all, I didn’t know much about Thailand’s history, culture , or language. I didn’t know what the food was like. I didn’t know what I wanted to go see. But right from the beginning I vowed to turn my trip into some kind of novel.

When I arrived in Bangkok, I started drafting. I used my varied experiences for plot lines, for humor, for inspiration. I thought I was merely writing an adventure story with a hint of romance. The funny thing is that without trying to, I wound up writing a mystery.

Thai Twist is no murder mystery. I don’t even categorize it as a mystery per se. But it’s the story of two sisters traveling in Thailand. They’re given a mission: to take a gift to a neighbor’s long-lost relative. That sets them on a trail of discovery that made use of my own best adventures. It was also a mystery that carried through from one end of the book to another.

I’ve been told by publishers that mystery readers are mystery readers and romance readers are romance readers and that’s that. However, I disagree. I think there’s often a lot of crossover between genres. And I think that in my own writing, no matter how much I might want to write a romance or an adventure or anything else, I’ll wind up wrapping a mystery inside of it. At the same time, anytime I write a murder mystery, there will be shades of romance and adventure. Otherwise, the result just wouldn’t be one of my stories.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

A Fat Manuscript is a Dead Manuscript

by Lois Winston

Whether you're writing mysteries or another genre, your manuscript needs a great story, great characters and great writing. The quality of the writing determines the difference between an acceptance and rejection. As a literary agent and author, I see too many submissions where the writer needs to place her manuscript on a diet.

Before you submit your manuscript, make sure it's not bloated with excess wordage that drags down the pacing and bores the very people you want to impress. Your writing must be crisp as well as succinct to catch an editor's or agent's eyes.

The Bloated Manuscript Diet:

1. Reread your manuscript. Is every scene essential to the plot, or goals, motivations or conflicts of your characters? Does each scene advance the plot or does it tell the reader something she needs to know about the characters? If not, the scene is filler, and you need to get rid of it. Each scene must serve a purpose. No purpose? No scene.

2. Repeat #1 for all dialogue. If the dialogue is nothing but chit chat, ditch it.

3. Do a search of "ly" words. Whenever possible, substitute a more active, descriptive word to replace an existing verb and the adverb that modifies it.

4. Instead of using many verbs to describe a noun, use one all-encompassing adjective or a more descriptive noun.

5. Say it once, then move on. It's not necessary to repeat an idea or image in different words in the next sentence, next paragraph or next page.

6. Identify needless words and eliminate them. Every writer has at least one or two pet words that need to be eliminated.

7. Avoid a laundry list of descriptions by substituting more descriptive nouns and adjectives.

8. Do a search for "was." Whenever it's linked with an "ing" verb, omit the "was" and change the tense of the verb.

9. Choose  more descriptive verbs and omit the additional words that enhance the verb.

10. Omit extraneous tag lines. If it's obvious which character is speaking, omit the tag.

11. Show, don't tell. Whenever possible, you want to "show" your story through dialogue and active narrative, rather than "telling" the story.

12. Let your characters' words convey their emotions, not the tag line. Also, keep to the unobtrusive "said" in tags. You can't grimace, laugh or sigh dialogue. The character can grimace, laugh or sigh before or afterward, but not while speaking.

13. Avoid non-specific things like "it" and "thing."

14. Describe body movements only when they are essential to the scene. Don't break up dialogue every other sentence with having your characters shrug, giggle, smirk, glance, nod or drum their fingers.

15. Don't fill dialogue with interjections. We might have the bad habit of filling our speech with "well" and "like" but having a character constantly adding those words makes for lousy dialogue.

(Excerpted from THE MYSTERY WRITERS,  now in print, ebook and audiobooks editions, which includes Lois Winston's interview.)

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Programs and Signings: A Beer, a Muffin and a Book

by Lesley Diehl

What do libraries and bars have in common? I like both and they like me. I do signings and programs in them. Both places have interesting people so, if you don't sell a book, at least you have some cracking good conversations with the folks there.

Friends of the library--not all libraries have them, but once you find libraries that do, you've uncovered the mother lode. Libraries have local authors and often the friends group arranges author programs. And they usually provide food after the program. 

I did a book launch for my novel set in rural Floria, in the local library. I wanted to do something different so I made up baskets themed around my protagonist's  journey in the book and that of other characters. I think this works best with a humorous story, which mine was. One basket was the "Clara Gets Out of Jail." It included bath salts, fancy soap, a loofah sponge, a bath pillow, a very classy champagne glass and a split of champagne.

Wouldn't you want this when you got out of the lock-up? I had my attendees drop their names in a cowboy hat, and we pulled winners of the baskets out after my short program. Many of the baskets held some kind of beverage (the one for guys had a beer glass and a bottle of beer and was fashioned around one of my male characters). I spent the money making them as I went to yard sales and the dollar stores for the items.

Another great place where I signed is a nearby restaurant featuring local microbrews. Since one of my books features a microbrewer accused of murder, it was a perfect setting for people to grab a brew and snack on food I've provided. I don't do programs there, just signings. The protagonist of my Florida book is a bartender at a country club, so I'm now moving on to golf and country clubs for book events. My signing at  restaurants, bars, country clubs, breweries and golf courses sell my books as well as promote the businesses. They seem to love having me there, and I certainly enjoy several hours of chatting with their patrons.

Who cares if I sell a book? Well, I do, but I never feel cheated if I don't because I've spent an enjoyable evening with some entertaining people. I usually give the business a complimentary copy of they book and they often display it somewhere on the premises. One brewery bought a dozen of my books to sell.

My philosophy is if a reader complains it's impossible to hold a drink in one hand, a muffin in the other and buy one of your books, offer to hold the muffin.

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers where you can read former psychology professor Lesley Diehl's interview as well as writing advice from sixty other writers.)  

Saturday, February 20, 2016

A Conversation with Vincent Zandri

Vincent Zandri is not only a bestselling and award-winning novelist and essayist, he travels the world as a photojournalist. His novel, As Catch Can was called "brilliant" by the New York Post as well as  "The most arresting first crime novel to break into print this season" by the Boston Herald. The novel was recently republished as The Innocent.
Vincent, why the large cross with neon letters on your website?

The Big Cross. That’s from a piece I did for RT (Russia Today satellite news network) about New York state going broke. Eleven months ago, the governor warned the public that in two or three week’s time the state would be bankrupt. I had just flown in from an assignment in Moscow and Italy, and promptly drove down to the local mission in Albany, and took that shot. I liked it so much I put it up on my website. Very noir, especially at night. BTW: the mission was built by my dad, a local Albany contractor. So he was probably responsible for purchasing and installing that big illuminated cross! He probably picked it out!

Tell us about your noir novel, The Innocent.

The Innocent came about when I was working on a nonfiction biography about New York State’s first black maximum security prison warden by the name of David Harris. Story goes that he was personally investigated for failure to properly do his job when a cop killer managed to escape. He was eventually exonerated but that kind of thing sticks with you and can make you bitter. No one likes to be falsely accused of anything! While the non-fiction didn’t sell, I came up with the idea of a prison warden who not only is blamed for the prison break of a cop killer but who is also brought up on charges of murder one when said cop killer shows up murdered. I wanted it to be a paranoid thriller in the vein of Hitchcock, and I hope I succeeded. It was originally published by Delacorte Press under the title As Catch Can, and numerous foreign translations were sold also. For some reason, Delacorte couldn’t really make it do anything even after laying a ton of money on me. But now that it’s been re-released, it’s an Amazon Hard-Boiled bestseller in hard-boiled fiction, which really pleases me.

How did the transition from journalism to fiction come about?

The transition is never ending in that every day I work on journalism assignments and write fiction. These days, having signed two more contracts for two more books with StoneGate Ink (a new noir imprint from StoneHouse Ink), it’s getting harder and harder to balance my time. I’m also an obsessed marketer of my work! But I learned long ago not to place all your eggs--golden, rotten, or otherwise—into the same basket. I did that once before and was out of work for more than a year. I don’t ever expect to give up journalism, but if my books continue to sell as well as they have, I will be able to choose only the stories I want to write. Stories that really interest me.

How do you support your novel writing habit?

Lately, it’s been lots of journalism and some pretty good royalties from my releases this year alone: Moonlight Falls, and The Remains, which has been a bestseller for months in both hard-boiled and romantic-suspense fiction. But while I was building my career backup my dad was pretty generous about helping me out. I used to work for him, and he knows how hard this business can be. There’s been some movie interest in my Moonlight Falls novel, so fingers crossed there.

Do you outline your novels or have a vague idea of what you’re going to write when you sit down at the computer?

I try and think about the story in my head for a good long time before I begin to write. I used to begin the story long before it was meant to be written and it would result in the worst frustrations. Nowadays, I might take a month or more to make notes and think about my characters. Only when that’s completed will I draw up a prelim outline that’s loose enough to allow the story to form organically. When I finish the first draft, which I usually do by hand, that will serve as my formal outline. I’ll let that sit for a while before going back to it. At any one time, I might be working on three different novels. In this the day and age of Kindles and EBooks, readers want and expect more work from their favorite authors than they used to. So I plan on putting out two books per year for the rest of my life. Plus a bunch of digital shorts, like my noir short, Pathological.

You’ve traveled to  China, Russia, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, England, Africa and a lot of other interesting places. Which country do you most enjoy writing about and why?

The country I enjoy the most is Italy. I spend a month there every year just working, thinking, eating and drinking. But the country I most loved to photograph and write about is Africa. I was on an assignment there for RT last year and I wrote about 10 pieces and took hundreds of photos. I was stationed on a hospital ship off the coast of Benin, West Africa, during the peak time of piracy. I spent time in the surgery and off-ship in the bush. It was an incredible experience not to mention dangerous. You feel pretty vulnerable when the Land Cruiser you’re driving over a dirt road is suddenly flagged down by a soldier standing in the middle of the road waving an AK-47 at you. They demand papers but what they really want is money. You give them money and the first thought that crosses your mind is, “If he kills me, no way anyone is going to find my body.” I actually had to bribe my way out of the country. My idea of fun!

How difficult was it to acquire an agent?

Curiously, I’ve never had any trouble luring agents to my cause. And I’ve had a bunch of them, from Suzanne Gluck at WMA to my present one, Janet Benrey. What’s difficult is finding an agent who wants to remain in the business. And, frankly, a lot of them are sort of crazy. My first big agent, Jimmy Vines, is missing in action, on the lam, or some such thing. Following him, I signed with a string of agents who for one reason or another up and quit the business just like that. Their actions literally cost me years and tons of sales. But agents looking for a new line of work seems to be one of the growing trends in the business. In fact, I’ve been in and out of this commercial fiction thing for more than ten years now, and not a single person I started out with---agent, editor, chief editor, publicist, etc.—is still working in the publishing business. Well, that’s not entirely true, since Jacob Hoye, the editor who first bought me (and Harlan Coben by the way), heads up MTV’s Pop Culture books division. But hey, I don’t write pop culture, whatever that is.

Advice to aspiring writers?

Finish school, learn to live on little while living large. Travel, gain experiences, pay attention to what people say and how they say it. Read all the greats from Hemingway to Robert B. Parker to the great Charlie Huston. Then write as much as you can and rewrite some more. Don’t be dismayed when the people you graduated high school and college with are pulling ahead financially. You will catch up eventually so long as you stick to your guns. This is a business about persevering as much as it is about writing well. Oh, and don’t get married. For the first ten years of your working life, the writing will be both spouse and mistress. Hope this helps! If anyone has more questions, feel free to email me at                 

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers, where you can also read Vincent's article, "Renewing my Writing Vows" as well as interviews and articles by more than fifty writers.