Saturday, May 3, 2014

A Year From Now…

Scott D. Parker

I have a printed quotation thumbtacked to my corkboard here in my office. It reads “A year from now, you may have wished you had started today.”

I can’t say for sure when I found and printed that quote, but I do remember a choice I made a year ago this month. I could be pithy or witty or funny, but it boiled down to a simple acknowledgement: You have not been writing for long enough. Time to start again.

It was 1 May 2013 that I started writing again. It was in fits and starts that first month, reminding my fingers and my brain what to do--actually they never forgot. I was just too lazy. Yeah, that last thing’s the truth, without the shiny candy coating. As May 2013 went on, I worked on what was supposed to be a short story. It ended up blossoming into a novella, the first of a new series character.

Looking back on the year that I’ve just lived, there have been some incredible highs: I wrote two novels, back-to-back! I wrote consistently! I created some new characters I really like! I can also recognize the not-so-highs (I refuse to call them lows): I realized my limitations. I realized the things I need to improve on to write better. I realized I need to always have a plan for my writing. Along the way, I kept word count totals (269,792 words written in 2013) and I had that incredible writing streak: 255 consecutive days of writing.

When I look back on my past year, I am very proud of myself. I can remember making the decision that 1 May 2013 would be the day I started again. Ironically, these past couple of months, I’ve again fallen into a non-writing slump, but I started again on May First. Looking back, I like how far I’ve come. Looking ahead, I now project new thoughts and goals on this new “Writing Year.” (I just thought that up; wonder if that’s a new thing for me. If so, then I get two New Year’s Days per calendar year!) If Writing Year 2013 was the year in which I reminded myself I can write and demonstrated I can do it consistently, then Writing Year 2014 will be dedicated to improving my craft, producing more content, and making it available to the reading public.*

If you are on the fence on some creative endeavor, let today be the day you start. A year from now, you will definitely thank yourself.

TODAY IS FREE COMIC BOOK DAY. Find a store near you and find a new story to enjoy. I'm heading out to The Pop Culture Company here in Houston. 

*I know that goals are best achieved when they are enumerated and spelled out. I know that, but I need a bit more time before I make them public. I think I know the complete set of goals, but need to make sure they fit into a coherent and realistic plan.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Edgar winners announced

May 1, 2014, New York, NY:  Mystery Writers of America is proud to announce the winners of the 2014 Edgar Allan Poe Awards, honoring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction and television published or produced in 2013. The Edgar® Awards were presented to the winners at our 68th Gala Banquet, May 1, 2014 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, New York City.


Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger (Simon & Schuster – Atria Books)


Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews (Simon & Schuster - Scribner)

The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood (Penguin Group USA - Penguin Books)


The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War
by Daniel Stashower (Minotaur Books)


America is Elsewhere: The Noir Tradition in the Age of Consumer Culture
by Erik Dussere (Oxford University Press)


"The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository” – Bibliomysteries
by John Connolly (Mysterious Bookshop)


One Came Home by Amy Timberlake (Random House Children’s Books – Alfred A. Knopf BFYR)


Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher (Hachette Book Group – Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)


“Episode 1” – The Fall, Teleplay by Allan Cubitt (Netflix)


"The Wentworth Letter" – Criminal Element’s Malfeasance Occasional
By Jeff Soloway (St. Martin’s Press)


Robert Crais
Carolyn Hart


Aunt Agatha’s Bookstore, Ann Arbor, Michigan

* * * * * *

(Presented at MWA’s Agents & Editors Party on Wednesday, April 30, 2014)

Cover of Snow by Jenny Milchman (Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine Books)

# # # #

The EDGAR (and logo) are Registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office by the Mystery Writers of America, Inc.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Holly's Turn: My Writing Process

by Holly West

My esteemed colleague, Steve Weddle, asked me to participate in this meme about writing processes. He's the author of COUNTRY HARDBALL, the editor of Needle Magazine, and is, in general, someone I like a lot. So of course I said yes.

The thing is, I only recently realized I actually had writing process. It was borne of necessity, when I found myself under contract to write a novel with a deadline six months away. Given its origins were defined, at least somewhat, by sheer desperation, this process is subject to change, but for now, it seems to work.

1) What are you working on?

A standalone (with, as they say, "series potential"). The working title is NOSE DIVE and it's set in contemporary Venice Beach, featuring a female amateur sleuth who tends bar at the fictional Luca's Lounge. Luca's was inspired by the Townhouse, one of the longest "continually running" bars in Los Angeles. During prohibition, the top floor operated as a grocery store and the basement was a speakeasy; illegal shipments of beer and whiskey were smuggled into the bar through tunnels under the old Abbot Kinney Pier.

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I'm not sure how to answer this question, other than to say that the themes I explore in my writing are unique to me, regardless of genre. Which isn't to say that some of the themes I'm interested in exploring aren't universal, but my take on a given subject is always going to be unique to me, and I'd say the same is true for other writers as well.

Does that make sense?

3) Why do you write what you do?

My chief goal as a writer is to entertain, and to me, crime fiction is entertaining. If I'm somehow able to engage a reader further by making them think more deeply about the human condition then so much the better, but it's never my main concern.

4) How does your writing process work?

It starts with a spark of inspiration. In the case of my current WIP, the Townhouse intrigued me because of its history as an illegal speakeasy. Something interesting could happen there, no?

From that spark, comes a whole lot of thinking. What is the story? Who is the best person to tell it? What is their backstory? Who and what do they care about? I write a short biography of my protagonist and briefer sketches of the supporting characters, along with basic timelines of their lives before my story took place.

I outline as much as I possibly can before I actually start writing. Act I--the set up and such--is easy. I usually know who the dead body is from the beginning, but figuring out exactly how he/she got that way is the hard part. My husband and I have at least one long brainstorming session to suss it out. I give him the bones of the story and then we bat ideas back and forth until something sticks for me.

Once the outline is finished, I write a synopsis, from which I try to smooth out any developmental issues in the plot. Then I write the first draft as fast as I can. If I've outlined everything in advance I can do this in 30 to 40 days. Then I do a revision, let my husband read it, then do a second revision or however many are needed to get the novel into shape.

Of course, I'm greatly oversimplifying my process. This doesn't take into consideration the many days and nights I spend fretting about not writing well enough or not writing at all. It doesn't take research into account (which includes drinking Buffalo Trace Old Fashioneds on Saturday afternoons at the Townhouse). But it gives you a glimpse of how I write a novel. It worked once, at least. I'm hoping it works again.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

My Writing Process

By Jay Stringer

I'm not usually the guy who does these posts. People tend not to ask me, because they know I'll either turn it into a joke or go on a rant about writing advice and turning craft into a fetish. When Weddle punched me in the ribs and said "do the writing process thing, fool,*" I reached for my standard defence mechanism. I though, sure, I'll put up a whole blog page, with the heading "My writing Process," and underneath all it will say is "I write."

But I thought about if for a couple of seconds longer and thought, I'm in. Why? Partly because It's the opposite of what I would expect myself to do. Partly because my writing process has genuinely changed lately, and mostly because it's Tuesday and I have no other ideas.

But first, one of my quick rants about writing advice and craft talk....

0) Advice, Craft, Carts and Horses.

There are many things that we talk about online. Plotting, character, research, world building, ice cream, cats. There are a great many people who will dish out writing advice and also a great many people who will spend a lot of time talking about their writing process.

All I say at this point is, always be honest with yourself. Which are you putting first, the horse or the cart? Talking about craft and advice and process if fine if you are doing the writing. If you're doing it as a way of putting off writing...well I'd suggest a rethink.

Take world-building. It's a thing we all do. Every writer, in every genre, with every style, does world-building in one form or another. But it's an organic, evolving, powerful thing that you do as you work. If you're ever in a conversation with someone who is telling you how they will write an epic seven book series once they've found the time to do the world-building, I suggest you back quietly away.

Here's the key to the best writing process - Whatever gets you to the end of the story.

Here's the only advice (in my opinion) that you need before you write- Start writing. 

The rest? It works itself out. Start a story, finish the story, rewrite the story.

1) What Are You Working On?

I'm writing a book that has the working title Criminals and it's about a bunch of criminals. It's set back in the West Midlands, in the same stomping ground as the Eoin Miller trilogy -I wrote a book between them that's set in Glasgow- and it gives us a mostly new cast of characters. Fuller is a recovering addict who goes home after eight years away. He finds his hometown has fallen apart, recession after recession, corruption after failure, there's nothing left. What is a criminal to do when all the good shit has already been taken?

Fuller meets up with his old best friend, a con man named Fry, and with Fry's old flame, a transsexual car thief named Rabbit. It's a book in which I hope to tell a story that is uniquely me, more so than the Miller books that were always filtered through Miller's own voice. I started to think about a modern Robin Hood story. I realised that we need a few Robin Hoods right now, and also that, in the modern day, Robin Hood and his merry men would be a bunch of criminals.

2) How Does Your Work Differ From Other Works Of It's Genre?

Mostly I think it's the jokes about colostomy bags.

3) Why Do You Write What You Do?

Mostly to tell jokes about colostomy bags.

But also, if you must know, because I think that writing is the single most powerful and enduring way of protesting about what is wrong in the world, and the best love letter to what is right. Plus I like to lie, fantasise and make shit up, and if you're not an author or a politician, that kind of behaviour gets you locked up.

4) How Does Your Writing Process Work?

I always have the ending in my head when I start. Actually, that's not true. There are times when I start without an ending in mind, but those stories never get finished. Such a large part of story-telling, for me, is sticking the landing. So I have a last scene, a last image, or a last line of dialogue, and I write towards that point, making shit up as I go. I also need to have a character that I want to write about, but I've learned enough from previous books that I can start off without one and find him or her in the first five thousand words. I like to have an issue that I'm pissed off about, something I can explore or digest for 80,000 words. In truth, I like to have arguments with myself through my writing.

There's a long-running debate online between "plotters" and "pantsers" when it comes to writing. Those who say they plot out their books, and those who say they make it all up as I go. To be honest, I don't think we're all as different as we like to say. Pantsers will have a part of their brain that's figuring things out in advance, and plotters will be finding ways to free themselves from the road map and inject some freshness into the story.

I was a late developer as a reader. I came to prose very late. But I was an avid reader of comic books and I loved movies. I loved the best movies. I was a kid with taste. So long before I got to grips with prose, I already had a firm handle on narrative and structure. As such, even though I've always said I'm a pantser, I've been doing it with a working plan in my head of where in the structure I am. I write with act breaks. I write with reveals and cliff hangers and turning points. The dirty dark secret of Old Gold was that the book closes with the end of the second act, because I got to that point and thought, forget act 3, this is where the story needs to stop.

So for Criminals -and to an extent with the book I wrote last autumn called Ways To Die In Glasgow-I've been admitting that I write with a hybrid system. I know the ending of the book, right down to the last line of dialogue in the final scene. I know the beginning. And, given the experience I've picked up from the books I've written so far, I wrote down a note that said roughly how many pages should be in each act, and whereabouts I would expect the turning points and the emotional beats to come.

So I'd say I still don't write with a roadmap guiding me, but I have a list of local landmarks along the route.

As for any of the other things that people discuss when it comes to process? Word counts? Times? Software? Notebooks? Cuddly Toys? Sod it, whatever gets me there is the process I'm going with. Right now I just try to move the curser to the right of the page every day. After a while, it's moved enough times to be a book. Then I start again from the beginning.

*Actual quote.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Is My Book Too Dirty? by Mike Monson

The Kindle edition of my new novella, The Scent of New Death, was released on April 21. That day, a review appeared on a website with this disclaimer:

Readers are again cautioned that storylines involving incest of a child under the age of 18, bondage, rough sex, as well as frequent brutal and bloody murders are present throughout the book. This is not a cozy style read in any way possible as everything is fully on the stage for the reader to see and experience. It simply can’t be stressed strongly enough that this is very much an adult read and only suitable for adult readers.”

Now, I’d known that my book was pretty hard-core, and I’d made the decision to not shy away from showing the details of my characters’ horrible acts. But, as the publication date got closer and closer, I wondered if anyone would notice. Or care. I mean, there is a lot of sex and violence and bad language all over the place in the culture—not only in books, but in movies and even on television. Certainly, the content of my book wouldn’t raise any eyebrows, right? It’s meant to be a pulpy crime book, after all, and that shit is usually pretty intense.

Deep down though, I knew the truth. The Scent of New Death does, in fact, depict some truly awful people being completely evil. The reviewer’s description is accurate. When I was writing, my imagination went to some dark and brutal places and I made a conscious decision to never censor myself. Thus, I was pretty sure that the bondage, rough sex, incest, etc., while not new, exactly, was presented with a graphic directness that might be unusual and new enough to be shocking, because I did make sure it was all “fully on the stage for the reader to see and experience.”

In the past two years I’ve had a couple dozen stories published (which I collected into the book Criminal Love and Other Stories and self-published last summer), and my noir novella What Happens in Reno came out earlier this year. All this fiction is graphic and dark. The Amazon reviews are rife with words such as “brutal,” “uncompromising,” “gritty,” “lurid,” “demented,” “bleak,” “harsh,” “twisted,” and “sick.”

Plus, with a couple of exceptions (like my wife and maybe my son) no one in my family appears to like my fiction, and very few people I knew before I started publishing ever say a word about any of the stories and novellas (again, with one or two notable exceptions). My friends and family don’t appear to be proud of me and my writing and publishing accomplishments. When we talk, my writing is like the bloody, raped, and dismembered elephant in the room everyone sees and no one dares talk about. Would this be different if I wrote slick cozy banal mysteries or quant literary stories, rather than tales of crime and violence with a wide variety of sexual acts depicted in great detail? I’m not sure, but it’s what I’m tempted to think.

All that said, The Scent of New Death is definitely the most extreme of all my stuff. In the context of “adult,” it is definitely my worst book. As I think I’ve established—it’s very dirty. It’s possible that it will remain my dirtiest book. My current project, while certainly a graphic dark crime book, doesn’t “go there” the way Scent does and there are many pages in a row with no sex or violence whatsoever.

While I wouldn’t change a thing, and I am very proud of the novella, here at the beginning of its publication, I have to admit that I wonder what people will think. Assuming that it is read widely at all, will readers/people be shocked? Will they be angry? Will I or the book be judged harshly? Will I be accused me of being as bad or wrong or demented or sick as the people and actions in the book? Will I piss people off because I didn’t turn the camera away at the last minute, because I didn’t fade to black just in time? Will it not be read it because I went too far?

Right now I’m waiting for the answers to these questions. So far, there has just been that blogger review (which was ultimately pretty positive) and a couple of five-star Amazon reviews basically praising the book because it is sick, demented, twisted and wrong. (What can I say? I do have at least a dozen true fans.)
Certainly, these questions are most likely a moot point. Mike Monson is not a big name in the publishing world. So far, I and my work have gotten very little attention, and my obscurity is quite possibly a permanent condition. But, still, I do wonder, and, I am braced and ready for any backlash and criticism that may actually come along. It’d be great of course if a lot of people read it and had strong reactions, good or bad. I’d love some engagement, some connection with readers because of this book. Definitely.

If, after reading this, you are wondering if The Scent of New Death is really that bad, maybe you should buy a copy right away (and a couple for your friends and family) and find out for yourself.

And then let me know what you think.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Who the hell is Matt again?

How to make your characters memorable by using tags & traits

By Kristi Belcamino

Have you ever read a book and then had to flip back a few pages to figure out just who the hell Matt is anyway? Why is he naked from the waist down? And why does Francesca faint when he walks into the room?
That writer may not have done a good job of giving Matt strong “tags & traits” to make him stand out in the reader’s mind. The goal in giving your characters tags and traits is not only to distinguish them as individuals, but also to make readers feel something about your characters.
The master of “tags & traits,” writer Jim Butcher, explains that the feeling could be love or could be hate, but that the reader will be anything but apathetic. “Tags & traits” make your character pop off the page for your reader. They bring that character to life. 
But what exactly are “tags & traits?"
Here is how to use them, based on reading Jim Butcher and Karen Woodward:*
Find two to three words to describe your character. Use these words the first time you introduce that character on the page. Jim Butcher recommends you only use these tags in reference to your character (not anywhere else in the manuscript) and hit these words every once in a while when your character makes a new appearance.
“By doing this, you’ll be creating a psychological link between those words and that strong entry image of your character." — Jim Butcher quote on Karen Woodward’s blog.*
For instance, I might describe my main character Gabriella Giovanni as: Italian-American, curvy, passionate, and a risk-taker who blazes her own trail. All of those words are tags.
Caveat: Some writers distinguish between tags and traits, but for the purposes of my post, I’m combining them and just labeling them “tags.” (My understanding is that a tag is one word, such as curvy, while a trait, is more of an attitude type description, such as “risk-taker who blazes her own trail.”)
I'm not sure if all of these methods would be sanctioned by Butcher and Woodward as true "tags & traits" but here is how I use "tags & traits" to distinguish characters on a page:
A tag can be a physical trait.
Black hair. Blond bob. Carefully, messy hair.
For instance, Gabriella Giovanni’s love interest, Detective Sean Donovan, has carefully messy hair, dark eyebrows and a frequent five o’clock shadow.
Her best friend, courts reporter Nicole, is poised, sports a blond bob, and has freckles.
A tag can be a prop.
In my book, Chris Lopez, the bad-ass photojournalist is always packing heat. He usually has a sidearm on both his ankle and in a shoulder holster. In addition, C-Lo always has an earbud in his ear that is connected to a police scanner clipped to his belt. This guy never misses breaking crime news!
A tag can be a speech pattern.
In addition, C-Lo frequently uses the word “man” in his speech patterns. He, also, uses police ten codes as part of his vocabulary. It’s pretty easy to tell who is talking when a character is having a conversation with Lopez. On the other hand, Nicole, the courts reporter doesn’t say “man.” Her favorite word—or phrase in this case—is “Holy shit!”
A tag can be mannerisms.
Chris Lopez never sits still. He’s either punching the steering wheel, tapping his fingers, pacing, or climbing nearby trees.
A tag can be clothing choices.
George Lucas purposefully dressed Luke Skywalker in white and Darth Vader in black throughout most of Star Wars. Then, at the end, Skywalker dons victory orange. In my second novel, Blessed are the Meek, my vixen, Annalisa, who is dangerous, alluring, and sexy, always wears red.
A tag can be action.
When you introduce your character onto the page for the first time, show him doing something that reveals what type of person he is. For instance, Jim Butcher points out that the first time we see Princess Leia on the big screen, she is blasting Stormtroopers to infinity and beyond.
A tag can be attitude.
In my second novel, Blessed are the Meek, we meet the mayor of San Francisco being his usual charmingly arrogant self, lighting up a cigarette indoors in front of a mass of reporters even though smoking indoors is against the law in his city.
A tag can be a motto or credo.
Gabriella Giovanni’s motto is Die before cry. That tells you something about her right away.

Do you use tags & traits in your writing? If not, do you have any ideas to share on how to distinguish characters from one another?
*This post was inspired by the amazing Karen Woodward’s blog, which is part of my daily reading no matter what. Karen first introduced me to Jim Butcher and the idea of tags and traits and I’m incredibly grateful for that. Here is her latest on it and here is Jim Butcher's blog.