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.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Nancy Pickard Revisited

Winner of the Agatha, Anthony, Barry, Shamus, and Macavity awards, and 4-time Edgar finalist, Nancy Pickard's latest novel, Virgin of the Plains was the Kansas Reads selection for 2009.

Nancy, what happened to your first novel?

It was, thank the publishing gods, rejected by nine wise publishers. It got me an agent, though, so I love it anyway. It was my apprentice novel and no longer exists in any form. Heh.

What was the turning point in your career?

Funny, I've never thought about it like that in terms of my novels, only my short stories. I'm thinking of three turning points:
1. When I moved from original paperback at Avon to hardcover at Scribner, with the wonderful Susanne Kirk as my editor.
2. When Linda Marrow became my editor, first at Pocket and now at Ballantine. We're writing/editing soul mates. I'm very lucky.
3. And for short stories, when I heard a writer say that every short story needs an epiphany. Having not been classically trained as a fiction writer, I'd never heard that before. After that, my stories sold.

Sue Grafton said your nonfiction book, Seven Steps on the Writer’s Path, written with psychologist Lynn Lott, is “fresh, insightful, candid, funny, supportive, encouraging and wise." How did the book come about?

I had met many writers--especially new ones--who seemed lost and alone, sad and confused, bewildered and overwhelmed by the highs and lows of the writer's life. I felt for them, and I wanted to talk to them and let them know we all feel crazy sometimes, and then give them some ideas about how to cope with the emotional roller-coaster.

Why have you written such a variety of mystery subgenres, from cozies to private eye stories, humorous mysteries to psychological suspense?

Two reasons. One, I get bored if I do the same exact thing over and over. Two, in my life I have loved all kinds of books in the mystery world, so I am influenced by all of those kinds of novels and I like to play around with their tropes and charms and quirks.

Tell us about The Virgin of Small Plains, your multi-award winning novel. Why did you set it in Kansas?

I set it here because one day I was hit with the need to write about Kansas forever and always. It's as simple and was as career-altering, as that. I was born on the Missouri side of Kansas City, and moved to this side when I married a Kansas cattle rancher. (Hence, my two books set in the Flint Hills cattle country--Bum Steer and Virgin.) I'm still here and feel completely Kansan now. I love this state, political warts, and all.

Your work has won or been nominated for nearly every existing mystery award. Which means the most to you and have the awards translated into higher book sales?

The awards have helped a lot, I think. As for which awards mean the most, they're the ones that reinforce me after I've tried something new, as for The Whole Truth and for The Virgin of Small Plains. When you disappear for a while to take some chances with your writing, it's reassuring to come back and find that readers appreciate it. The same is true for awards for short stories. For instance, when the first and only fable I've ever written was picked for a Year's Best anthology of Fantasy and Horror stories I was thrilled by the confirmation--from people who really know the genres--that I'd done an okay job of it.

How important are organizations such as Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America to a writer’s career?

I think they're wonderful and I encourage participation. They make you feel part of something larger. They let you give back to the genre that supports you. They're not for everybody, I suppose, but for writers who like to hang out with other writers, they're pretty great.

How did the Jenny Cain series come about?

One day I was in the Asian section of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and I saw an antique Chinese bed with gauzy curtains and a little alcove with seats in it. I thought, "What a great place to find a dead body." Seriously. That's how it started. Not exactly profound, lol.
On a violently stormy night, in this land of dramatic contrasts, the favorite son of the county’s wealthiest landowners is shot and killed and his young wife disappears. They leave behind a 3-year-old daughter to be raised by her grandparents and uncles. The obvious suspect is quickly caught, convicted, and sent to prison, leaving behind a wife and 7-year-old son. Twenty-three years later, he is released pending a new trial, and returns to the scene of the crimes he may not have committed. The secrets about that night of dramatic change for a family, a town, and a county, are revealed both to his son and to the daughter of the victims, as these two children of tragedy struggle to uncover dangerous truths about their families.

What is your writing schedule like?

I'm a binge writer. When I'm really going at it, it's all I do. I ignore everything else. At other times, I may do nothing writerly at all. Or I may catch up with all of the things I've neglected. Like interviews. :)

Advice to today’s novice writers?

Yes. One, be patient with yourself and your writing. Doctors aren't built in a day, neither are lawyers, neither are plumbers, neither are teachers or truck drivers, and neither are writers. It takes a long time to get good enough to be published. Give yourself that time and try to enjoy it! Two, please please please give yourself time before you start worrying about getting an agent, etc. Write first. Write second. Write third. Finish the manuscript. Rewrite it. Rewrite it. Rewrite it. Maybe send it out, or maybe start the next one. Time. It takes time Give yourself that time and please don't be so hard on yourself if things don't happen fast for you. Third, care first and always about the writing. The writing. The writing. ::steps off soapbox:: Oh, and read Annie Lamott's fabulous book about writing, Bird By Bird.

Thank you, Nancy, for taking part in the series.

Nancy's blog site is now closed and her website is being redone in preparation for her next Kansas novel, The Scent of Rain and Lightning, which is slated to appear in April, 2010. But if you're curious, she says to visit: and

Saturday, February 6, 2016

LIfe's Too Short to Ignore Your Dreams

by Margaret Koch

I wanted to be writer--to call myself a pro, not just write memoirs for friends and family. I wanted to entertain people with fast-paced mysteries--tales of courage and humor, romance, intriguing puzzles and derring-do. My words would dance, leap and shine, sucking readers in until all they could do was turn the page and gasp, then pant for air and relax. They would sigh and smile when the book was done, satisfied. 

I was a psychologist, with a successful practice. I'd heard plenty about life's adventures, but I couldn't use those stories, nor did I want to write research-style--with lots of colons and multi-syllabic words documenting minutia. The joke about research writing is that many colons are needed because material is over-digested, then expelled. And much of it should be flushed. I would write no self-help books, either. I had no life-fixing thoughts I cared to share. So I had no experience with that glittering mix of excitement I wanted in my books. And I was overly mature. An unkind person might even say I was old. There I was, a fast-aging wannabe, totally ignorant of what I was getting into. 


I hitched up my brain and dove headfirst into the buzzsaw of writing and publishing. No guts, no glory. During the next five years, as I wrote and published my mystery-thriller series novels, this is what I learned--in simple form, no colons.

1. The business is brutal, as are most businesses allied to the arts. If you want respect and due consideration, get over it. You're likely better at the gates, unacknowledged, Unless you are struck by lightning you'll be dismissed. It's a business. They don't trust wannabees, especially old ones writing a series. You might be spectacular, but the first lesson is "Get over yourself." Start young, if possible.

2. A single book traditionally published will take at least two years to get to a reader--too slow, if you've started late. Your life will slip away while publishing proceeds at a snail's pace. By the time you're offered a contract, your brain will have departed. You can't do a series of one, anyway.

3. There's another way. The e-book revolution arrived. The odds of success increase with each e-book you publish, if you turn out a quality product. And it's fast. But e-book publishing is like diving into a stormy maelstrom where many good writers perish unknown.
I'm selling enough to know that I'm valued to readers. People thank me. I like my reviews. I like royalty checks. I believe that I'm a good writer. That's heady.

4. Writing fiction requires courage. You're exposed. You cannot worry about what people will think. You'll be praised, ignored and critiqued. You'll be emotionally tossed from highs to lows. Do it anyway. Life's too short to ignore dreams.

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers where you can read Margaret Koch's interview as well as that of 51 others. The 390-book is available in ebook, print and audio editions.