Wednesday, January 28, 2015


by Holly West

Dudes. Y'all caught me on a day when I have no idea what to write about. At first this post was going to be about research, because as a historical fiction writer, you'd think I'd know something about it. But about three paragraphs in I realized I probably don't know anything about research that any other writer doesn't already know.

Delete, delete, delete.

Then I thought maybe I'd re-post something I'd written for my personal blog a few years ago. It's about studying and practicing a craft, which is something I think about a lot. As a former goldsmith and current writer, I'm all about perfecting my craft with consistent practice. I've spent a lot of time completing creative endeavors, but I've never thought of myself as an artist. For some reason I prefer to think of myself as a craftsperson. To me, craft means it's about the work, not some ethereal talent I can't quite put my finger on.

Here's the post if you're interested:

Writing and the Craft of Sushi Making

After deciding not to re-post something I'd already published elsewhere (lazy, much?) I realized that what I really wanted to write about was the fact that my debut novel, MISTRESS OF FORTUNE, has been nominated for an award. Yessiree, attendees to the 2015 Left Coast Crime conference decided that MISTRESS OF FORTUNE should be considered for the Rosebud Award for Best First Novel.

And it feels fucking fantastic.

Considering my fellow nominees in the category (THE BLACK HOUR by Lori Rader-Day, KILMOON by Lisa Alber, ICE SHEAR by M.P. Cooley, and THE LIFE WE BURY by Allen Eskens) it is indeed an honor just to be nominated. But regardless of whether I win the award, I'm just so proud of MISTRESS OF FORTUNE. I don't often feel fully confident in who I am or what I do, but I know it's a damned good book and I'm thankful for the recognition.

There. If I'd just have written about this in the first place I could've spared myself an afternoon of irritation as I fumbled with possible post topics. The real purpose of this post, I think, is to remind myself that it's okay to admit publicly that I'm proud of my work and even to toot my own horn on occasion. Or wait--doesn't that cause blindness?

Something like that.

Whatever. I suddenly have a hankering to re-watch "Citizen Kane" so with that, I'll see you next week.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Indian crime fiction sampler

A few years ago Blaft publications released a bunch of Indian genre fiction in English for the first time. This batch of books was my introduction to the thriving and decades old Indian pulp fiction industry. This was enough of a revelation to alter my understanding of the crime genre and also to make me realize, once again, that I still have a lot to learn about it.

In that batch of Blaft books there were two stand out titles that are must haves for every crime collection: The 65 Lakh Heist by Surender Mohan Pathak and The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction. Both of these books are Highly Recommended.

After reading The 65 Lakh Heist (and another translated piece of Japanese crime fiction) I wrote an article over at Spinetingler about Asian crime fiction. In it I talked about the difference between fiction set in another country and fiction from another country. Fiction that comes from another country is written with that country's readers in mind and comes from their literary traditions and their culture. In other words a book like The 65 Lakh Heist was not written with an English audience in mind

I liked The 65 Lakh Heist so much that I recommend it regularly and try to keep my eyes open for other Indian Crime fiction releases. A little rabbit hole searching brought up some articles talking about books and authors that were totally new to me. Score! I also learned about a new crime fiction imprint of Penguin India called Blue Salt. So let's take a look at some of the recent Indian crime fiction books. The great news is that a lot of these books are available through Amazon.

A Cut-Like Wound by Anita Nair

It's the first day of Ramadan in heat-soaked Bangalore. A young man begins to dress: makeup, a sari, and expensive pearl earrings. Before the mirror he is transformed into Bhuvana. She is a hijra, a transgender seeking love in the bazaars of the city.

What Bhuvana wants, she nearly gets: a passing man is attracted to this elusive young woman—but someone points out that Bhuvana is no woman. For that, the interloper's throat is cut. A case for Inspector Borei Gowda, going to seed, and at odds with those around him including his wife, his colleagues, even the informers he must deal with. More corpses and Urmila, Gowda's ex-flame, are added to this spicy concoction of a mystery novel.

Most intriguing is the grim world of Bhuvana. Her hijra fantasies, emotions, and hopes are etched in a way that is chilling yet oddly touching. Some mysteries remain till almost the end, for instance Bhuvana's connection with the wealthy, corrupt Corporator Ravikumar, who lives in a mansion as grand as the Mysore Palace and controls whole districts of Bangalore.

The Price You Pay by Somnath Batabyal

An ambitious rookie reporter, a veteran news editor with a secret, a trigger-happy policeman, a sensational kidnapping: The Price You Pay is the story of Delhi, told through the eyes of the journalists who frame it, the policemen who protect it, and the outsiders who claim it.

When AbhishekDutta joins the Express as a trainee journalist, he has no idea how his life is about to change. Assigned to the crime beat by chief reporter Amir Akhtar, Abhishek encounters a motley cast of characters: DCP Uday Kumar, the ‘Dirty Harry’ of Delhi Police; ACP Crime Branch Mayank Sharma, who becomes a close friend; SamirSaxena, channel head of News Today, who mentors Abhishek’s move from print to electronic journalism; and dreaded gangster Babloo Shankar, who runs the Delhi mafia from exile. As he rides his beginner’s luck to unearth one sensational scoop after the other, Abhishek will soon discover that in the dog-eat-dog world of crime and politics, there are no permanent friends or enemies; it is every man for himself.

With a plot that twists and turns like the inner lanes of the city, SomnathBatabyal’s debut novel takes you into the dark underbelly of India, where common lives are mere pawns in deadly power games and where corruption lies at the very core.

Item Girl by Richa Lakhera

Sunheri and Suhana twin sisters who share a horrific childhood get caught up in a vortex of pain and deceit when Sunheri, a popular item girl in Bollywood, is accused of murdering her vicious uncle and is sent to jail. Suhana, an aspiring filmmaker, is determined to seek justice for her sister but comes up against Kala, their stepmother, who has hatched diabolical plans of her own. And when three other manipulative item girls Nargis, Digital Dolly and Daisy are identified as key eyewitnesses in Sunheri s case, the matter only becomes more complicated.

Throw into the mix an explosive rape-tape, a brutal blackmailer, a cruel boyfriend, a cynical journalist who knows too much, and a hard-boiled cop, and what you have is a mind-bending psychological thriller that will hold you hostage until the end. An intense, gripping account of the dark side of showbiz, there is never a dull moment in Item Girl.

From the author of the bestselling Garbage Beat comes Item Girl, a dark crime thriller set in the psychedelic lights of Bollywood.

The author's sharp insight into Bollywood and its machinations brings to vivid life the motley characters in the story.

Quantam Siege by Brijesh Singh

This is the endgame. The terror group Lashkar has directly threatened the prime minister of India with 'never before' consequences, if referendum is not declared in Kashmir immediately. The UN Security Council has called for an emergency session scheduled to meet within two days to discuss the Kashmir crisis.

Rudra Pratap Singh and his team at the Anti-Terror Cell face their toughest challenge yet. Millions of innocent lives are at stake while India readies itself for a war, the terrorists' threat is about to actualize, and time is running out. Will they be able to neutralize the threat, trace the perpetrators and avert a war?

Set in the heart of a metropolis, this diabolical thriller will consume you in its labyrinthine madness.

A Convenient Culprit by Vibha Singh

Ace crime journalist Joy Dutta is killed, and his arch rival, Jagruti Verma, is accused of using her alleged connection with the dreaded don Chikna Ramu to commit the murder. Their mentor and ex-boss, Ammar Aney, whose exposés had earned him the respect of his fraternity, and whose enemies had conspired to destroy his personal and professional life, is forced out of retirement to get justice for both Joy and Jagruti. As he delves deeper, Aney realizes that the culprits and their motives are moredangerous than he could have ever imagined.

The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail* by Chetan Mahajan

What happens when a business executive is thrown into a jail in small town Jharkhand? He ends up with an education of a lifetime…
When Chetan Mahajan is wrongfully sent to Bokaro jail, he encounters a world completely different from his corporate life in Delhi. From picking the best prison ward, befriending the people who can get him mobile phone access and upgraded food, and training for his upcoming marathon in the tiny prison yard, Chetan soon learns to work the prison system. In the process he makes unlikely friends, and discovers what India’s underbelly really looks like.
A true story, The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail, is thought provoking, amusing and touching. It will show you the Indian prison as you have never seen it before.

Ghalib Danger by Neeraj Pandey

Kamran Khan is a cocky young taxi driver trying to make it big in Mumbai. But his life transforms when he saves a don called Mirza from being killed. What seems like a good deed however has a cruel payback and in a single moment, Kamran loses everything dear to him. This is when Mirza, in gratitude, takes Kamran under his wing and the young man gets drawn into the mafia boss’s dangerous world of cops and rival gangsters, eventually taking over from him. Kamran also inherits Mirza’s philosophy that all of life’s problems can be solved through Ghalib¹s poetry. Soon, the innocent taxi driver has cops, criminals and even cabinet ministers at his beck and call.
And he has a new name—Ghalib Danger.

The Tantalus Redemption by Yudhi Raman

Have you heard of Tantalus, Jurvir? He stole the ambrosia of the gods and was cursed by Zeus to be trapped forever between a bountiful fruit tree and a pool of water. Whenever he tries to eat, the branches rise away. When he tries to drink, the water recedes. It's the source of the English word tantalize. To be ever so close to the unattainable.'

When Jurvir Nair strikes the deal of a lifetime on the Lionhead mine, a tantalum deposit in Africa worth billions, little does he realize that it will lead him to Magan, a sinister figure from his past. Jurvir is a master of the high-stakes world of international finance, but nothing has prepared him for the clandestine blood-soaked trade in tantalum, an exotic metal without which the twenty-first century would come to a standstill. When Jurvir and Magan come face to face, their conflict spirals out of the boardroom into a battle of retribution that only one of them can survive.

A blistering, fast-paced debut novel set against the thunderous monsoons of Mumbai, the wild savannah of Africa, the trading floors of London and the bank vaults of Switzerland, The Tantalus Redemption is a rollercoaster tale of murder, revenge and destiny - and the blood lost in making your mobile phone.

The Avatari by Raghu Srinivasan

A mythical kingdom Legend has it that only those chosen by destiny can gain entry into Shambhala, the mythical kingdom believed to hold the ancient wisdom that humanity will need to resurrect itself from the inevitable apocalypse. They are the Avatari. An ancient artefact When Henry Ashton, a retired British Army officer settled in the Yorkshire dales, receives a letter from a monk entreating him to prevent a `hidden treasure? stolen from a Laotian monastery from being misused, he finds himself honour-bound to respond. Assisted by a retired Gurkha Sergeant, a high-strung mathematician from Oxford with a Shambhala fixation of her own, and an American mercenary on the CIA?s hit list, Ashton?s mission leads to an ancient map that dates back to the time of the great Mongol, Kublai Khan. A secret that must not be revealed The group follows the trail, risking the perils of the inhospitable deserts of Ladakh, turmoil in Pakistan and the rugged mountains of Northern Afghanistan, where the Afghan War is at its height. But they are up against a deadly adversary with seemingly unlimited resources, who will stop at nothing to get possession of the ancient secret ? a secret that, if revealed, could threaten the very fabric of human civilization?'

The Sad Demise of Manpreet Singh by Patrick Bryson

Dominic ‘Biscuit’ McLeod is an expert in making the best out of a bad situation. As a visa fraud investigator at the Australian High Commission, New Delhi, Biscuit is legendary for his prowess in drinking beer, playing cricket, and swearing like a Dilliwallah, until the tragic death of a junior colleague forces him to become something else – a conspiracy theorist who can’t let go. Armed with only a hangover, a loathing for authority, and an inability to believe the lies that he is being told, Biscuit stumbles from crisis to catastrophe in a shambolic search for the truth. From the villages of Punjab to the cricket fields of Delhi, and the walled compounds of Gurgaon and Chanakyapuri, with dodgy visa agents, crooked cops, Aussies journalists, Afghani pimps and American spies for company, Biscuit never looks like solving the case, or leaving the party early. A bold comic debut, The Sad Demise of Manpreet Singh is a novel about the things people will do to leave the places they don’t want to be, and the lengths others will go to try and stop them.

Stalked by Girvani Dhyani

Tara Bakshi is a young lawyer with a difficult boss. No matter how hard she works, how many all-nighters she pulls, he is never satisfied. When she starts work on the top-secret assignment, Project Emerald, Tara discovers that someone had been tampering with the files and her boss asks her to find the culprit. As time ticks and Tara uncovers one evidence after another, someone starts stalking her every move. He shadows her on the street, in the parking lot, in her own bedroom; nowhere is she safe from his prying gaze. The only clue she has to his identity is a Zippo lighter with a serpent carved on it.

As events turn darker with back-to-back murders, Tara teeters on the verge of a collapse. What does the killer want from her? Is he hiding behind a familiar face? Even as her life turns into a whirling nightmare that pulls her into its web, Tara must discover the truth before he strikes again …

A riveting thriller that will keep you guessing till the end.

Compass Box Killer: An Inspector Virkar Crime Thriller by Piyush Jha

This book is a crime thriller, set in the by-lanes of Mumbai. One muggy afternoon, a senior police officer is found murdered at his desk. When Inspector Virkar from the Crime Branch arrives at the scene, he finds a cryptic note that spills out of a student s compass box. Then begins a series of killings and in each, a telltale compass box reveals more clues.

Accompanied by the attractive, ambitious TV reporter, Raashi Hunerwal, Virkar has to race against time to catch the Compass Box Killer before the bodies pile up. As the investigation shuttles from Mumbai to Khandala to Belgaum, Virkar is taken deep into a labyrinth of backroom deals that lead to shocking revelations about the ruthless killer s motives.

Slick plot twists and high-adrenaline action mark the first of the Inspector Virkar Crime Thrillers part of the Mumbaistan series. Tough, daring and relentless in his pursuit of justice, Inspector Virkar is a policeman one wishes every city had.

The Butcher of Benares by Mahendra Jakhar

The shocking and brutal murder of a young American woman rips apart the peace of the ancient city of Benares. She is found to be a research scientist working with the Vatican Observatory, one of the oldest astronomical research institutions in the world. Hawa Singh, a senior inspector from Delhi crime branch on a visit to Benares, gets embroiled in the case. He finds that the murdered woman had been researching the Bhrigu-Samhita, an astrological classic dating back to pre-Vedic times, believed to be lost. The FBI sends in Ruby Malik, a Pakistani-American to investigate the murder. Soon, more bodies are found with bizarre connections to both the Bhrigu-Samhita and Christian orthodoxy. The Vatican seems to be carrying out a clandestine operation, seeking the secrets of Hindu astrology in the city most sacred to it.Secrets that the Vatican would kill to know. Hawa Singh, hardened by many gunfights, and with a bullet already lodged near his brain in a previous encounter, teams up with Ruby Malik to unravel the mystery. Nothing is the same any more. The temple bells fade in the perpetual winter fog. There is blood on the streets of Benares, which becomes a battleground where faith and science collide. The worlds of astronomy and astrology come .Hawa Singh and Ruby search the opium dens, and the domains of Naga sadhus, Aghoris and Doms in the cremation grounds, hunt a cannibal lurking in the maze that is Benares, and clash with the figurehead king of the city, Kashi Naresh Maharaj Abhay Narayan Singh. The killer could be anyone. Only Hawa Singh and his beautiful co-runner on the chase, Ruby Malik, possess the mindset—and the indomitable courage—to find the murderer at the heart of this mystery. And in the process, find themselves.
Dongri to Dubai* by S. Hussain Zaidi

Dongri to Dubai is the first ever attempt to chronicle the history of the Mumbai mafia. It is the story of notorious gangsters like Haji Mastan, Karim Lala, Varadarajan Mudaliar, Chhota Rajan, Abu Salem, but above all, it is the story of a young man who went astray despite having a father in the police force. Dawood Ibrahim was initiated into crime as a pawn in the hands of the Mumbai police and went on to wipe out the competition and eventually became the Mumbai police’s own nemesis.The narrative encompasses several milestones in the history of crime in India, from the rise of the Pathans, formation of the Dawood gang, the first ever supari, mafia’s nefarious role in Bollywood, Dawood’s move to Karachi, and Pakistan’s subsequent alleged role in sheltering one of the most wanted persons in the world.This story is primarily about how a boy from Dongri became a don in Dubai, and captures his bravado, cunningness, focus, ambition, and lust for power in a gripping narrative. The meticulously researched book provides an in-depth and comprehensive account of the mafia’s games of supremacy and internecine warfare.

Mumbai Noir came out a couple of years ago as part of Akashic's noir series. I'm not familiar enough yet with Indian crime fiction to say how good the selection is or how representative it is of the genre but certainly it is worth a look.

A couple of observations jump out. The first is that a number of the books are thrillers. The second is that there is a relationship with Bollywood. Bollywood film makers write books and in others Bollywood story telling elements become apparent. This suggests that getting a film made is certainly a goal of some of these writers.

The crime fiction world is large and I love finding new parts of it explore.

What do you think, do any of these Indian crime fiction titles sound interesting to you?


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Noir at the Bar St. Paul

by Kristi Belcamino

This week I had the honor of participating in my second Noir at the Bar.

I read the first chapter of Blessed Are Those Who Weep (out April 7), the third book in my Gabriella Giovanni series. It's not a cheerful passage.

My mother-in-law made that clear during my reading at Bent Brewstillery in St. Paul. As I read I could hear her gasping and exclaiming about the story.

After I read, a friend put this on Facebook: "You were wonderful. Who knew such a gruesome story resides in such a sweet person."

This was the fourth Noir at the Bar held in the Twin Cities and although my passage might have been a bit disturbing, at least nobody walked out. (That I noticed.)

During the third Noir, a few people walked out on Jed Ayres reading, so he is the current King of Disturbing for the local Noir at the Bar scene. A badge of honor, I'm sure. P.S. It is a tradition to flip Jed off at Noir at the Bar, which is why you see everyone (except me) doing it in the photo below. I simply made a goofy face.

When I was asked to read at the third Noir at the Bar last year, I practiced reading my passages every single day for a month. I made sure to read under different circumstances to be prepared for anything that could disrupt my ability to read.

For instance, one day I had a migraine, so I practiced reading with a migraine.

One night I had a bit too much to drink, so same deal - stood in front of my mother who was visiting from California and read to her.

Because reading in public is not always something that comes easy to writers.

In fact, at my brother-in-law's wedding 11 years ago I nearly fainted when I had to go up on the altar and read a Bible passage.

Boy has a lot changed.

I'd like to say I took a Toastmaster class (which I've definitely considered) and that helped me become comfortable reading in public, but the reality is my confidence in doing something like this has come with age.

That is the most awesome part about your 40s—you don't give a shit anymore. I don't.

There are so many little things in life I no longer worry about and the most freeing one is not caring what people think about me. I mean, of course I care some, but for the most part I think maturity has made me realize that everyone else is so worried about their own shit, they don't have time to think much about yours.


And oddly enough, I've found that something that used to paralyze me with fear—reading in public—is now something I love.

Have you ever faced something that scared the dickens out of you and then found you loved at it and were good at it?

Here are a few snapshots of the night!

Kent Gowran, Daniel O'Shea, Frank Wheeler Jr., MC Paul von Stoetzel, me, and Jeff Shelby

The always huggable Dan Malmon from Crimespree Magazine:

Looking pretty Noir here:

Shelby reading from LIQUID SMOKE, a book I LOVE!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Is James Patterson the KISS of the Publishing World?

Scott D. Parker

I discovered some new friends this week. I'm a big fan of the rock band KISS and there are a good number of podcasts out there. Up until now, my two favorites have been PodKISSt and Kisstory Science Theater. To quote Yoda, there is another.

Pods and Sods is technically a music podcast (a podcast for the musically obsessed...) but Craig Smith and Eric Miller are avid KISS fans. As such, a good chunk of the 82 episodes involve KISS. A fun thing they did last month during the “12 Days of KISSmas,” was cover, in detail, the first 12 KISS LPs, one a day and one an episode. They know their stuff and I found myself nodding to points they made and disagreeing with others.

But what utterly surprised me was how funny they are. The key to their humor comes with the intimate knowledge of the subject matter. With that knowledge comes the ability to look at the absurd nature of some of the antics the members of KISS have foisted on the public in their forty years. Craig's impersonations of Gene Simmons is hilarious! Some fans, you can imagine, take lots of umbrage with any humor at the expense of their rock heroes. Not so Smith and Miller. They see the absurdity for what it is and laugh at it *while still being fans.*

Now, I understand that being fans of a rock band like KISS and being fans of authors are different realms but I couldn’t help think about the similarities of the two this week while devouring 21 of the 22 KISS-centric episodes (that’s about 20 hours of listening, by the way) and reading about the latest news from James Patterson. Evidently, he’s trying to garner interest in his new book with his so-called “self-destructing book.” According to his website, 1,000 fans get a code to download an advance copy of his latest PRIVATE book and have 24 hours to read the story before “the book self-destructs in a spectacular fashion.” You can follow readers’ progress. Three readers here in Houston got the novel. The website claims it’s a revolutionary reading experience.

Yup, it is. And I’m totally cool with it. Why the heck not? Is it a stunt? Absolutely. It is unique? Unquestionably. It is fun? Yessiree bob. It it for everyone? Nope.

Neither is KISS. I know many who discount KISS because of their make-up, over-the-top shows (“They only do that because their music isn’t good”--to which I say just listen to some of their songs), and their unabashed salesmanship. That’s all true, but I’m one who learned about rock and roll through their antics. They are my first favorite rock band. Sure, I’ve come to love Chicago, Bowie, Springsteen, Genesis, Sting, and others, but KISS will forever have a special place in my heart. And they have a particular outlook on music and their role in it. They are entertainers, pure and simple. As the guys from Pods and Sods point out, there’s a whole lot of positive messages laced in KISS songs...if you can get past the clunky lyrics and debauchery.

Might Patterson be the KISS of the publishing industry? He’s unapologetically commercial. So what? It helps him get product out that the public enjoys. He's not the #1 best-selling author for nothing. He uses co-writers. So what? As the December issue of Vanity Fair points out, he has such a heavy hand in the writing that’s it’s basically his work by the time the books are published. As I’ve piled up manuscripts, I’ve often thought it would be nice for someone to take my first draft and clean it up -- while I write a first draft of a new novel and then come back around to revise the cleaned-up draft later. But that’s just me.

Anyway, those are some of my thoughts for this week. I’ve also been working on my new website and I’m close to being done with it. News will be coming soon on that front.

What are y’all’s thoughts on Patterson’s stunt? And if y’all like KISS or just in-depth music talk, I wholeheartedly recommend Pods and Sods 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Hints through music

By Russel D McLean

As I write this, I am currently at work on something I hope will be the next novel. It is not a McNee. For now, at least, the series is on hiatus (because you don't know what happened at the end of CRY UNCLE, do you?). But I am working on something very different set on the means streets of... Glasgow. As usual, I've been listening to a lot of music writing it. With the McNee series, there was a lot of Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Alabama 3, Dylan... with this book, the soundtrack has been a little more offbeat in terms of the way it connects to the material. Despite being set in Glasgow estates and schemes, I've turned to Blaxploitation funk and soul tracks for inspiration. So the inside of my head sounds a little like this:

(each track relates to a different section of the novel)

Prologue: The Other Side of Town (Curtis Mayfield) - all this might tell you is that the prologue takes place on the Other Side of Town (and if its not Curtis, its not Music)

Part One: Pay to the Piper (Chairmen of the Board)  - I mean, in every book, sooner or later, someone's going to Pay to the Piper (if they dance to the music).

 Part Two: Home is Where the Hatred Is (Gil Scott Heron) - the track that actually influenced the book. And Gil's father, of course, had a perhaps unexpected Glasgow connection.

Part Three: When I Die (Esther Marrow) - the version I knew first was by Blood Sweat and Tears, but this one fits the book better.

Part Four: Backstabbers (The O'Jays) - Why wouldn't you use this song in a soundtrack?

Part Five: By All Means (Alphonse Mouzon) - the track itself isn't quite representative in sound of the climax, but the title, oh yes, it most certainly is.

So there you are, some veiled musical hints of what the next book might be like. Or at least the tracks that influenced me when it came to writing it. I still don't know when, where, how the book might be around, but I'm quite exciting for it - much as I love McNee, its nice to leave his world even if just for a little while, and go to a place that surprises me on every page.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Conversation with Jess Lourey

This is the first in a new series of interviews I'll be doing here at DSD. Hope you enjoy the ride.

I don't think I formally announced this on the site, but a few weeks ago via Twitter I put the call out to authors who might be interested in chatting about their work here in my little piece of Do Some Damage real estate. My author friend Jess Lourey didn't ask, actually, but I was chatting with her about something else and I mentioned this was happening. She was keen to do it and here we are. I had the pleasure of meeting Jess in person at last year's great Murder and Mayhem in Milwaukee event, and she was very welcoming to a newbie novelist (that's me!). She's a great writer, with a lot of invaluable information and advice to pass along. Probably best known for her acclaimed Murder-By-Month series of mysteries, Jess has also written YA, launched a successful Kickstarter campaign for one of her latest projects and also manages to teach creative writing (among other things) at a college in Minnesota. So, yeah. Lots of stuff going on. 

I was most curious to talk to Jess about The Catalain Book of Secrets - a genre-blending novel that Jess funded via Kickstarter and self-published. I wanted to find out more about the challenges of self-publishing and balancing those efforts with a pre-existing audience/fandom in another genre. It also seemed like a lot of work, to be honest. Without the benefit of a traditional publishing setup, you have to do everything as an indie author -or outsource it to someone you supervise. Designing a cover, editing the manuscript, getting distribution...everything. It's daunting. Yet somehow, Jess makes it seem easy. She shares some pages from her own book of secrets below. 

Jess, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. What can you tell readers about your book, The Catalain Book of Secrets?

Thank you for having me! Let's see. The Catalain Book of Secrets is the best thing I've ever written, a book with magic in it. In the words of a recent St. Paul Pioneer Press review, it's "part thriller, part mystery, part magical realism." Because it doesn't fit neatly in a genre, I wasn't able to find a traditional publisher for it, though I got close enough to have phone calls with three different editors at Random House and Simon & Schuster. When I wasn't able to land a contract, against all social conditioning and self-preservation urges, I launched a Kickstarter campaign. It was successful, and allowed me to self-publish the book on12/12/2015. I just couldn't let the book die without seeing the world, you know? I'd started writing it in 2002, a reaction to the unexpected death of my husband, and in many ways, it's the idea that launched my vision of myself as a writer. Here is the very first line of The Catalain Book of Secrets:

Ursula was twelve years old when her mother asked her to murder a man.

That'd keep me reading, definitely. Now, you've gone outside the mystery genre a few times over your career, right? What is it about books like The Catalain Book of Secrets that hooked you as a reader and, in turn, motivated you to write one?

I self-published a YA novel, The Toadhouse Trilogy: Book One (super-original title at the end, right?), in 2012. That book is about a brother and sister who realize they're living inside of the novel Tom Sawyer. They have to escape the book, and the ankle-eating evil of Biblos, to recover three items that will reunite them with their parents. I have yet to write the second and the third, though I can't wait to get back to them. I am attracted to that story for the same reason I am attracted to The Catalain Book of Secrets--they're both great stories that came to me from the ether, and they both look sideways so they can see the magic in our lives, whether it's the transporting magic of a story or the powerful magic of family.

What's the self-publishing process been like? Was this a novel you'd shopped around for a while?

Hmm. The self-publishing process. It has been an adventure--in humility, in highs and lows, in self-awareness. Once I had The Catalain Book of Secrets Kickstarter funding, I hired a cover designer, an interior designer, a proofreader, and a website developer. I also set up an account with IngramSpark, as I knew I wanted to make the book available to indie bookstores. In addition, I updated my Createspace account, because realistically, the majority of self-pub sales come through Amazon (though I've had wonderful support from indies on this book, and so my sales have been 50% indie, 50% Amazon, which I love). Then, I began to send out review copies: Kirkus and IndieReader (paid for reviews from both), Midwest Book Review, Publishers Weekly, Booklist (I waited too long on them--note to self: send review copy there first when self-publishing), Library Journal, and newspapers all over the country. I also made a review copy available through NetGalley, which seems to mostly cater to bloggers and librarians, a powerful bunch in the book world.

The Catalain Book of Secrets has sold approximately 500 copies in the month or so it's been out. That's good by self-pub standards, terrible if you need to make a living at it (which I do). My tenth Murder-by-Month Mystery, February Fever, comes out in two weeks, and I'm hoping that will bump my self-pub sales.

So all told, here's my perspective on self-publishing: always try the traditional route first. If you don't get a contract, you can self-publish, whereas it's nearly impossible to do it the other way around. I like the freedom of self-publishing. I do not like the tremendous cost of doing it right (several thousand dollars for the cover, rounds of editing, marketing, interior layout; my Kickstarter campaign paid for half of it, for which I'm eternally grateful). I'm also not a fan of the fact that, with hundreds of thousands of books being self-published each year, it's difficult to be heard in the noise. That said, I have many friends who have wonderful self-publishing experiences, and I think it's good business to be a hybrid author.

Were there any challenges you came across that you hadn't anticipated? In terms of being a one-stop shop for your book, what skills did you feel you had to hone - publicity, marketing, etc?

My tenth traditionally-published book comes out in February, and that previous publishing experience was invaluable. I had connections with authors, reviewers, and bookstores. I had an idea of how the model worked. I'm pretty good at keeping records, I'd already formed an LLC, and I had an audience already. I wish I had a distributor, but it's just me, which makes it hard to get the book in bookstores (though B & N has a review process for stocking self-pubbed books, and organizations like IndieBound and MIBA want to work with professional self-pubbers, in my experience). Besides not being great at distribution, I'm a terrible salesperson--I'd ALWAYS rather hear the person I'm with talk than hear myself talk--and that's not going to change. Or maybe it can? Do you offer classes, Alex? :)

Hey, I'm happy to help whenever! We know each other via the warm and welcoming crime and mystery writing world and you have a long and successful career writing mysteries - why would this book appeal to that readership? Can you tell us anything about your upcoming mystery work?

Isn't the mystery community the best in the world? It's a real gift that I found my tribe. As far as The Catalain Book of Secrets appealing to mystery writers, I think that's an easy sell (but what do I know?). The story is centered around a murder, with a whole lot of magic, relationships, sadness, hope, and love to support it. As far as my upcoming work, I can say with confidence that February Fever (release date: 2/8/15) is the best yet in my Murder-by-Month mysteries (and Kirkus and Booklist agree, with a starred review from the latter), and that if you like funny mysteries, you'll enjoy February Fever.

But what I'm working on now is the most exciting project I've ever undertaken. It's a thriller, which I'm surprised to find is a perfect fit with the way I like to write and the things I like to write about (justice, strong women, the dirt and beauty of life). It's tentatively called Salem. Here's the working synopsis:

Salem and Izzy must uncover the connection between the Witch Hunt of the 1600s and the modern disappearance of single mothers all over the globe to stop the assassination of Senator Gina Kennedy, the first viable female Presidential candidate in the history of the United States.

That sounds intense. I'm in. As you may know, Do Some Damage is a blog where crime writers get to talk about their experiences at various stages of their careers. Can you share a few nuggets of advice to our readers (and fellow bloggers)?

Oh man, it's hard not to sound trite here, but here's the only truth I've found in the writing business: if, when you write, you feel like you're in the right time and place, never stop. I don't mean that writing ever gets easy. The opposite seems to be true--the more I learn, the more I'm confident I don't know anything. I write five days a week. Every single day, Each day, I play this "would you rather" game with myself, where I mess around on social media, clean my bathroom with a Q-tip, anything to not have to write. I pretend that that fear? crisis of confidence? hummingbird-attention span? will go away some day and I'll find myself racing to the computer on a regular basis, stories flowing from my fingertips. I know that's not true, though. Writing will always be the hardest thing I ever do. I will always give bad reviews 99% of my attention and treat good reviews as flukes. I will always feel like the redheaded stepchild when I'm on panels with the superstars. And still, I write. Because when I do, when I finally shut off the monkey brain and get to the work, I feel like I'm in the right time and in the right place. Every time. Without fail.

What have you been reading/watching/listening to that's got you jazzed or inspired?

I wish I watched more TV. I hear my friends talk, and it sounds like the best writing out there is coming from that sector. I love movies, but I have pedestrian tastes (Galaxy Quest is one of my top ten favorites of all time). And when I write, I prefer silence, so I rarely listen to music during the process. But I do immerse myself in books, their content always specific to what I'm writing. So, I'm writing a thriller now. I have a stack of 23 books (just left my computer to count) that are either on symbology/computer forensics, the European and American with hunt and the history of women in religion, or are thrillers themselves so I can internalize the pacing. I LOVE THE RESEARCH!!!!

And thank you for having me. :)

My pleasure! Thanks for visiting, Jess. You can find out more about Jess Lourey and her work at her website, including details on how you can get your hands on The Catalain Book of Secrets and February Fever.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

What Can Writers Learn From the Serial Podcast?

by Holly West


This post contains spoilers about the Serial podcast so quit reading now if you don't want to see them.

Now then:

Can we, as crime fiction writers, learn anything from the tremendously popular Serial podcast about the murder of Hae Min Lee? I think that yes, we can.

Before I go into that, however, I want to discuss my overall feelings about the podcast. My husband and I listened to most of it as we made our drive from Los Angeles to our new home in Northern California. We'd had an exhausting day finishing up packing and directing the movers, and we left LA that final time knowing we wouldn't arrive at our destination until after 11pm, our only welcome being a cold, empty house. As it turned out, our realtor and his wife not only met us at the house that night to give us our keys, but they'd kindly turned on the heat and left us with a gift basket that included two bottles of Veuve Clicquot Champagne. Realtors, take note--it was a nice touch.

Grim as some of its details were, the Serial podcast was the perfect travel companion. It was compelling and interesting, but didn't require more intellectual capacity than our fatigued brains could handle. We swallowed it up hungrily like the Doritos and Red Bulls I'd purchased to get us through the trip, and like its producers (and probably every other listener), we went back and forth on Adnan Syed's guilt. Was Jay a reliable witness? Was Adnan's attorney incompetent? Did the prosecutors fudge the timeline? Yes, no, maybe. Yes, no, maybe.

We weren't able to finish the podcast until a week later, when we drove up to Oregon after Christmas. By then I was hooked--it didn't matter that by episode eight I couldn't see how Sarah Koenig could possibly reveal anything new that would prove Syed's innocence. All that mattered is that it made the driving time fly by and if I dozed a little bit here and there, well, maybe I wasn't missing much.

In the months preceding our trips up north, many friends had posted links to articles about the podcast, all of which I'd painstakingly avoided because I knew I wouldn't get a chance to listen to it until the move. But there was one post title that stayed in my mind (even though I didn't read the entire post at the time):

Serial Sucked and Wasted Everyone's Time

As we sped up I-5 to our new life, listening to the troubling account Hae Min Lee's murder and Adnan Syed's trial, I thought about this post title and wondered all the while if, in the end, I'd deem Serial to be a waste of time.

Let's face it. Serial ended where it began and took 12 episodes to get there. The problem for everyone, even the shows producers, was that nobody knew that nothing new would be revealed or proven until maybe the last few episodes, and by then we'd all invested too much time in it to quit. We had to see it through.

So, was it a waste of time? No, not at all. It made twelve hours of driving seem like a whole lot less. I've got no complaints. After all of it, however, I feel fairly confident that Adnan Syed did indeed murder Hae Min Lee. There are some good questions raised about the prosecutor's case and whether Syed received a fair trial, but those (oddly enough) are separate from the issue of Syed's actual guilt. Despite his repeated claims of innocence and no crystal clear motive, I think he strangled Hae Min Lee and, with the help of his friend, Jay, buried her in Baltimore's Leakin Park.

We got to know Syed through the Serial podcast and he seems like he's more or less a nice guy. He's intelligent and insightful. He's a productive and well-liked member of prison society. I don't want it to be true that he killed Hae Min Lee, but the fact is, someone did, and it was most likely him. Serial challenges us to see him as a person, not simply a murderer. It makes us question, at least to an extent, the true nature of evil and whether a good person can do something terrible and still remain good.

And now, finally, is when I reveal what writers can learn from the Serial podcast. For our purposes, we'll call the tale fiction and assume that Syed is our murderer. Our job is to make readers see him, as much as possible, as a whole person, and not just the villain. We do this by giving him real emotions, by making him scramble, struggle, and come to terms with what he's done. He might still lie, steal, and cheat to make sure he's not apprehended; he might kill again and again for reasons we can't possibly understand. But let him come fully to life--nearly as fully as we allow our protagonists to come to life. Real life is rarely black and white, it's mostly colored in shades of gray. Let us do that with our fiction, as well.