Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Holly's Favorite Books of 2014

by Holly West

2014 was a great year in reading for me, particularly in the last few weeks, when I used reading to ease my stress during our recent move from Southern to Northern California. Even so, I'm always reminded at the end of the year that I don't read nearly as many books as I'd like to. Still, there were a few that stood out for me in 2014 and I'd like to share them with you.

DARE ME by Megan Abbott

This book left me a little bit breathless, much in the same way that GONE GIRL did. If there's anyone who captures the existential angst of teenage girls better than Megan Abbott, I haven't found that author.
CRASHED (Junior Bender #1) by Timothy Hallinan

I have one regret about reading this novel--that I didn't delve into the Junior Bender series earlier. Bender is the perfect blend of a hardened criminal and insightful, loyal, generally good guy. And Hallinan, of course, is a hell of a writer. I can't wait to get started on his other books.

THE BLACK HOUR by Lori Rader-Day

THE BLACK HOUR is a unique mystery--it doesn't follow the format of a traditional who-dun-it and for that reason alone, I enjoyed it. But it's real strength is it's voice. The protagonist, Amelia Emmett, is cynical with good reason, and Rader-Day does a great job infusing her with just enough warmth to make the reader root for her without pitying her. It's a tough balance to achieve, but Rader-Day nails it.


This book was quite different from my usual crime fiction diet, but I thought it was charming. It's a re-imagining of the "Twelve Dancing Princesses" fairytale, set during the Jazz Age in Manhattan. It's fanciful and touching at the same time, even suspenseful at times. Mostly, I loved how it transported me to the raucous speakeasies of 1920s New York City.

THE CUCKOO'S CALLING by Robert Galbraith

This novel pretty much follows the standard P.I. format, so nothing new there. But I enjoyed the mystery and I liked getting to know Cormoran Strike, the bastard son of a famous British music star whose nonetheless had to make his own way despite his illustrious parentage. He's cynical--but not bitter--and he's smart. I'm currently reading the sequel, THE SILKWORM, and I like it even more than this one.

THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt

THE GOLDFINCH is a good reminder that regardless of genre, crime is often at the heart of a really good story. A book that's won the Pulitzer Prize probably doesn't need me to add to it's accolades, but nevertheless I loved it--though not nearly much as I loved Tartt's THE SECRET HISTORY, which is in my top 5 books of all time (so far).


I'm at a bit of a loss when trying to describe this novel--it's atmospheric and magical in a way that makes you want to take up residence in Mr. Penumbra's strange and wonderful bookstore, even when you (and its protagonist, Clay Jannon) realize that there's much more to the store than meets the eye. While it's not exactly a mystery, it's certainly mysterious, and I'm glad this book found its way to the top of my TBR pile.

Well, there you have it, my favorite books of 2014. I wish you all a very Happy New Year and I'll see you on the flip side!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Hardest Step

By Jay Stringer

We've almost done it. We've almost made it through 2014. This year did it's best to drive me nuts, but only a few more hours to go and we're into 2015.

I'm writing this as I take a wee break from edits on a novel. This is the book I wrote earlier this year, and I'm acting on some notes from super agent to try and get it knocked into shape in these last few hours of 2014 so that I can start the next book fresh in January. The new blank page.

What did I get done this year?

Well, my writing year was shortened by a medically-enforced  two month break from the keyboard, but I got done most of what I wanted. I signed a deal for the book I wrote in 2013, and turned around the copy edits on it. I wrote a new book from scratch, currently titled Criminals. I've written the first draft of a comic script for a pitch, and the six issue outline to go with it. I wrote a draft of a secret project I'm working on with Russel. I've started a podcast. I wrote a piece about the Scottish referendum on my own website that had 20k hits in a week, and I wrote a piece about dyslexia for that had a great reception.

I also attended Harrogate for the first time, and followed that up with my Bouchercon debut. Provisionally for 2015 I'm expecting to be at the London Book Fair, Harrogate and Bouchercon again.

I also managed to get more politically active than I had been for a long time. I stood up for something. It went the same way it's always done whenever I've stood up for something politically, but it reminded me of why we do it, and why I need to keep doing it. 

Even through the stresses, hassles and long breaks we manage to throw at ourselves during a year, I managed to get a fair amount done. I seem -and whisper this quietly enough that the neurotic side of my brain can't hear- to have found a groove. I manage to write a book a year. I manage to fit in other projects around that. I manage to get by.

The challenge is to raise my game again.

Here's a random piece of advice, and it's something I wrote back when I announced my first book deal. Writers, especially those of you out there who are only just starting out, maybe making a new years resolution to write a book in 2015. Or those of you who have finished a book and are searching for an agent or a publisher. Or maybe those like myself, who are a few books into this thing we laughingly call a 'career' and still manage to find ways to worry. Everyone, all remember this;

Each step is the hardest step.   

The next thing feels like the toughest. But the thing before felt like the toughest, and you still managed it.

There was a time when writing a book, ONE book, felt like the greatest challenge of my life. Then I wrote one. Then finding an agent looked scary, but I have one of the best. A book deal? Not happening. But it happened. There was a time when writing a book a year felt like something that only other people could do, but I now write a book a year.

The two biggest challenges ahead of me next are to earn all of my income from writing, and to be able to write two books a year. Right now, they both feel big and impossible, but fuck it, I'll get there.

And the same goes for you. Whatever the thing in front of you right now, it's huge. The next step in your career will always be the hardest step. But don't run from that, don't put it off, just embrace it. That's part of writing.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Favorite Crime Fiction Books from 2014

Over the last couple of weeks I've posted a couple of lists: Favorite book covers of 2014, non-fiction books, re-issues, crime graphic novels, and short story collections and anthologies. Yesterday Kristi Belcamino gave her favorite books of 2014. (And I think there may be another list coming tomorrow). Today I've got a selection of most of my favorite crime fiction books (next week will be the final, main favorites book list with some guest contributors).

Angel of the Abyss by Ed Kurtz - I was cruising along the story path that Kurtz was laying out for me when, part way through, something unexpected happened and there was a narrative shift. Now I was paying attention. This might be Kurtz's most accessible work to date. And that's a good thing. 

The Big Ugly by Jake Hinkson - Hinkson has quickly become a must read author for me. I get whatever he publishes pretty soon after publication and get to reading pretty quickly after. In his latest novel Hinkson crafts more of a classic hardboiled novel. The Big Ugly has a bit of a throwback feel to it and is enjoyable as hell from the jump and never lets up.

Black Rock by John McFetridge - McFetridge has long been a favorite and with Black Rock he starts a more traditional series (past novels have been linked by characters). All of McFetridge's strengths are on display here: an interesting exploration of an explosive historical time, great characters, great interactions, and a hell of a story. Looking forward to the next book in the series, A Little More Free. McFetridge is your new favorite crime fiction writer, you just don't know it yet.

Duke City Split by Max Austin - Duke City Split is straight up crime fiction. It has criminals doing criminal things and interacting with other criminals. I love this kind of book, and it doesn't disappoint. There's a lot of fun to be had here. The sequel, Duke City Hit, is already out.

Federales by Chris Irvin - One Eye Press continues to put out enjoyable novellas with their Singles line. Federales gives us a taste of of a larger story, there's action, drama, and the search for redemption packed tight into these pages.

The Fix by Steve Lowe - Boxing and crime stories have a long fruitful history. Criminals, boxers, schemers, old acquaintances (can you trust 'em, will it stop you from getting involved?), grudges that need to be paid back, and much more. Broken River continues to pump out great crime fiction and The Fix is one of my favorites from them this year.

Last of the Independents by Sam Wiebe - Wiebe adds to the canon of great Canadian crime fiction with Last of the Independents. One of the things that I really liked about this novel was how grounded it was. The main character, a PI, was very much a professional trying to run a business. He worked multiple cases at once. And he did not conjure many (if any) of the tropes that can bog down a sub-genre that is many decades old. Never an anachronism, thoroughly modern, Michael Drayton is one to watch.

Third Rail by Rory Flynn - With Eddy Harkness we get a great character: A really good detective, with a past that sees him benched, and a bit of a self-destructive streak. Third Rail is a rip roaring ride that is a lot of fun to read.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Favorite Books of 2014

by Kristi Belcamino

Here is a list of my top 10 favorite books of 2014.* Please share yours in the comments if you like.

* I still have a large stack of books from 2014 I haven't tackled yet, so this list is based on what I've read so far!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Literary Goldfinger

Scott D. Parker

In the past week, I have listened to two books, one fiction and one non-fiction. The fiction title was Goldfinger by Ian Fleming. I listened to it (again) via Audible. Simon Vance does a splendid job and he becomes the literary Bond in my ears.

I say again because I listened to it for the first time a few years ago and, being between books, I thought I just listen to the first few chapters to get a taste of the Fleming Style. I went through the entire book in a few sittings. The style really moves you along through the book.

Which is interesting considering how tranquil large passages of the book are. If you remember the movie, the whole “jet pack” opening sequence is pure movie magic. In fact, the first four chapters basically deal with the Goldfinger-cheating-at-cards scenario where Bond blackmails Goldfinger into throwing the card game. Then things really get moving with Bond assigned night duty. That is, he mans the radio feed back at the home office. Thrilling stuff, I have to tell you.

Unlike the movie, Bond’s run-in with Goldfinger-as-card-cheat is a coincidence. 007 isn’t even assigned to the case until later in the book. The golf game is included here and it’s takes up nearly an entire chapter. Fleming all but gives a play-by-play of an eighteen hole match, but he does so in a way that makes the game nearly as thrilling as an action-packed fight.

All I’ve just mentioned takes up half the book. Yes, half. No shooting, no real action, just a secret agent doing what secret agents do: watch and learn. It’s probably close to real life, but it’s a surprisingly light “thriller.”

That’s what makes the literary Bond so unlike the cinematic Bond. In the books, he’s a regular person. Granted, he’s an excellent agent and can do his job well, but he’s not superhuman. The killing he has to do affects him, and not just in a ‘straighten the tie’ sort of way. When strapped to Goldfinger’s table (it’s a rotary saw in the book, not a laser like the movie), Bond prays that he has the fortitude to suffer the painful death without talking. He knows he’ll die, but hopes the other agents will use the information Bond gleaned and take down Goldfinger. It’s rare in the movies when you see Bond sweat a situation.

Have y’all read the Fleming books? What are y’all’s favorites?

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Let's Talk About Endings

First off: Merry Christmas if you celebrate it. Or Festivus. Or anything. Happy holidays.

I've been thinking about endings a lot. About people's expectations - both in fiction and "true stories." About what's owed to the reader, listener, whatever, and who is responsible for "delivering." 

I was pretty hooked on the podcast Serial, which tried to re-investigate the murder of a Maryland teen and whether or not her ex-boyfriend - serving a life sentence for the crime - was actually guilty. I like to think I'm an avid true crime reader, so the format didn't really strike me as new. Nor is it that new for a podcast - see StartUp, for example. 

I didn't go into the podcast's debut season expecting An Ending, or Big Resolution. Because hey, this is real life and endings aren't tidy or clean. Life is gray and muddy and very rarely features tight plotting. Things get messy. But as the show gained momentum, press, buzz and its very own subreddit thread, it struck me that some listeners - relatively new to true crime narratives and maybe even new to podcasts - were expecting that. They were expecting a final episode that revealed the killer, Murder She Wrote-style. Actually, it felt like they wanted that kind of closure. The final episode came and went. I won't go into detail because I imagine plenty of you are still listening or plan to listen. But, like I said, it got me to thinking about endings.

I had a similar feeling, except this was regarding something fictional, while watching True Detective's first season on HBO. It also started off on a subdued note - in terms of attention - and gained traction as it developed, reaching maximum buzz before the season finale. Who was the Yellow King? Who would survive? Would all the questions be answered? The finale happened, people discussed, and here we are.

Both endings were totally fine, in my view. Good, even. They managed to stick the landing. They were solid conclusions to the stories both Serial Executive Producer Sarah Koenig and True Detective showrunner Nick Pizzolatto set out to tell, or in Koenig's case, investigate. But have we reached a point where a "good" ending isn't good enough? Is there such a thing as a perfect ending - and is it impossible for it to leave anything unresolved? 

I love sloppy endings. I think the grays and what's left unsaid are much more interesting than having everything explained. While I do want to see a character arc and certain things resolved - if you're building a mystery, you better solve it (see season one of The Killing, for example) - I also don't expect Every Single Thing to be crossed off like a shopping list. I'm not that kind of consumer of media. But maybe I'm in the minority? I think that, sometimes, stories just end. You take a journey with characters and it stops. There's no villainous speech, no heroic battle at the precipice of a giant canyon. Sometimes it's a haunting visual or a bit of dialogue that signals this is it for now. 

If I'm taken on an interesting journey and the ending matches the trip or delivers on the promises made, I'm content. I think it's unfair to expect an earth-shattering ending to stories that have not purported to be those kind of stories. Am I wrong?

What say you? 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Holidays

by Holly West

I've got a turkey to brine and stuffing to make, so I'll keep this short. I hope you all have a wonderful holiday--especially my fellow DSDers, many of whom I had the pleasure of meeting in person this year.

And what a year! 2014 was full of ups and downs, but it"s ending on a high note as I celebrate Christmas in a new house and in a new town.

Thanks, all of you, for making my debut author year a memorable one. May your holiday be filled with good love, good food, and most importantly, good books!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Dana King and the PI Novel

Last week I posted a 20 question interview done by Holly West with author and friend-of-the-blog, Dana King. It was really interesting. It was also a repeat.

I was supposed to have posted an interview I did with Dana. Or rather, Dana’s response to my one question. What is it with PIs?

So, a week late, here it is:

I’ve read private eye stories since I was old enough to choose my own reading material. Encyclopedia Brown. The Hardy Boys. Sherlock Holmes. Mickey Spillane. In college I moved toward non-fiction for quite a while, until I found myself divorced and no longer a musician. I had a nine-to-five job and time on my hands. The local library featured a Raymond Chandler book—might have been his birthday—and the name rang a bell, so I picked it up.

Then I had to read them all, pretty much one after the other. Moved to Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, Robert B. Parker, and keep right on going, through Dennis Lehane and Robert Crais and too many others to list. Chicago PI Nick Forte was the first character I created. He’s stayed with me though four novels (including the just-released The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of), a fifth to come, and even made a guest appearance in my other series.

So what is it with PIs?

I hadn’t thought much about it myself, just that they were fun to read and write. My epiphany came on Sunday, October 12, 2008, in Baltimore. Bouchercon Sunday morning. Everybody hung over, Declan Hughes moderating a panel on PI fiction. High-profile panelists, yet all I remember is Hughes, who gave an impassioned and well-reasoned argument against the disrespect that had befallen the PI genre. He asked the audience to remember how the scales fell from our eyes when reading Chandler, Hammett, or Macdonald for the first time, reminding everyone, were it not for Hammett and Chandler, none of us would be here this week.

Not only was the PI novel woefully undervalued, Hughes maintained, when done well, it is the highest form of crime fiction. A first-person PI allows the author to make his own comments in the guise of the detective, who becomes the novelist within the novel. The reader becomes more involved by seeing through the eyes of the PI and having to interpret for himself. Last—far from least--societal commentary runs through PI novels as an integral part. (This is why I take notes at all Bouchercon panels. Bunch of smart people there.)

To use a term Hughes would likely appreciate, I was gobsmacked. In no more than five minutes he’d changed me from a guy who enjoyed writing stories to someone who was proud of his chosen path. He didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know (at some level), yet everything he said felt new. I never thought the same way about writing PI stories again.

Because, of course, he was right.

The archetypical PI story uses a first-person narrator, the ultimate way to characterize. The author need tell the reader nothing. The character does it, in every word on the page: what he notices (or doesn’t), how he describes it, how he responds to events, how he treats people. Everything about the telling of the story informs the reader about that character. He is somewhat unreliable as a narrator by definition—he can only share what he knows, and not necessarily all of that—yet the reader must trust him, as his word is all we have. There is no distance between the reader and the story. You’re in it with him now, for better or worse.

PIs can also look into things the police won’t, or can’t. Cops take whatever cases come to them, with a mandate to close it to the satisfaction of the legal system. This may leave as many questions unanswered as answered. That’s where the PI comes in, to provide some kind of closure. With luck, to make things come out right, or at least as close as he can get it.

The PI is the outsider, not restricted in the same ways a cop is by politics or power. (Fictional detectives, we’re talking about.) Look at the popular crime fighters most likely to leave lasting impressions: Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, Lew Archer, Mike Hammer, Spenser, Elvis Cole, Easy Rawlins. PIs, all. Which cops come to mind? Harry Callahan, Columbo, Dave Robicheaux, Popeye Doyle, maybe Steve Carella, and the partnership of Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones. With the exceptions of Columbo and Carella, the best-remembered cops are those who operated outside the system, or bent it to their own purposes.

I’ve heard it said that PI stories are currently in eclipse because Americans aren’t enamored of the outsider since 9/11. They want stories about how the omnipotent government agency or hero—think Jack Bauer—keeps them safe. (Never mind all the talk about how government is too big. Ever hear any of those guys want to cut Defense or Homeland Security?) That seems to be a plausible explanation. If it’s true, then look for PIs to come roaring back, as dissatisfaction over the means with which government keeps us safe continues to grow, and shades of gray move toward the center of consciousness. And conscience.

As for me? Doesn’t matter. I’ll keep reading and writing them as long as I’m able. It’s the big leagues.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Favorite book covers of 2014

(This post has a lot of images)

When they say don't judge a book by its cover we all know the sentiment being conveyed. Readers, writers, and book buyers also know that a good cover may not guarantee a quality read but it can attract. It's a foot in the door. For the past few years I've pulled together my favorite covers for the previous year. So without any further blathering after the jump are my favorite book covers of 2014.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Why ebooks make sense for mystery writers

By Kristi Belcamino

When I was first offered my book deal through HarperCollins' WitnessImpulse imprint, I admit, I didn't know what to think. The offer was ebook first and possibly a paperback print run, as well.

But I soon learned that the strategy behind the imprint is very smart and makes sense.

Apparently, mystery readers are big ebook readers and love to read series as fast as they can.

I get that.

The turnaround for an ebook is crazy fast.

Let me give you an example, by summer, I will have four books published.

Rather than readers waiting a year (which is the most common fast track for paperbacks and hardcovers), they will have four of my books within that same time period.

It's smart for many reasons.

Even if I love a book, a year is a long time to wait for the next one in the series. I do it, but honestly any more than a year wait and I've been sidetracked and had my attention directed elsewhere.

What mystery readers like to do is find a series they like and RIP through the books right away.

This makes sense.

I do the same thing with books, but also with TV series and podcasts.

For instance, when I watched my first Battlestar Galactica episode, I spent every second waiting for the kids to go to bed so I could watch more episodes until I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer.

Same with Sopranos, True Blood, and I can see this is going to happen with the Serial podcast, as well.

The only reason I haven't binged on Serial so far is I'm on deadline so I can make those four books out in one year. But as soon as there is the slightest down time, I'm on it!

So, the idea of getting books into reader's hands as quickly as possible makes perfect sense to me.

PS Just waiting for one of the DSDers to post about SERIAL. Alex? I better catch up before anyone does to avoid spoilers.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Building Tension on "The Missing"

Scott D. Parker

My wife and I started watching “The Missing” on Starz this week. We’re two episodes in and it’s a splendid example of a story that builds tension in a slow-burn fashion.

Pretty sure it’s not a spoiler to reveal that the thing missing in the show is an English couple’s young boy. They are on vacation in France and you know, going in, that the child will disappear. But you don’t know how or where.

That’s what really gripped me. We’re shown wonderful domestic scenes of a young family on vacation. They’re smiling and laughing, the portrait of bliss. Car trouble prompts an unexpected stop and layover in a small town with only one hotel.  The mom wants to nap and the dad and son go swimming.

Ah, this is when it’ll happen, you think, and you think you know exactly when: the pool. The camera shows scenes from underwater and you’re dead sure the dad’ll dive under and the child will vanish. Nope. But the tension built up is great.

It isn’t until the dad and son walk up to a group of Frenchmen watching a telecast of the World Cup (the flashback scenes are set in 2006) that the vanishing happens. “Just hold the kid’s hand,” I say out loud to the TV. “Better yet, hold him.” But Dad doesn’t do that and literally in the blink of an eye, little Oliver is gone. What follows is heart-wrenching for any parent. That my wife and I lost our boy for about twenty minutes at a nighttime a few days before watching made it even worse.

I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of this season play out. I’m also enjoying how effective the flashback juxtaposed with present day material storytelling style is. Not unique, but certainly a masterly presentation.

A Book Recommendation

I love Christmas story compilations. One of my favorites is Holmes for the Holidays. Last year, however, a new tome landed in my reading collection: The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, edited by Otto Penzler. This book makes the fourth I own from Penzler's series and it's great. There's a Christmas story for every taste, be it Sherlockian, traditional, pulp, funny, and more. If you are like me and have a few Christmas books that live in Christmas boxes, only to be opened each December and a few stories are read, a book like this will give you years of wonderful enjoyment.

Friday, December 19, 2014

(Even More) great Books from 2014

By Russel D McLean

Last week, my Herald (Scotland) crime books of the year was published. It was one of the toughest columns I've had to write in ages, because there were so many good books I read this year. Some of them I got the chance to review professionally, others I never managed to place. But I only had space for a set number of books in the column, and narrowing it down was a killer. So here, as this is the last DSD post I'll do before Christmas, are my "runners up" in books of the year - these are all worth your time: some great books from some incredible writers.

Jason Starr's modern noir classic Cold Caller, charting the hell of a cold caller in the city, who might just have a few psychological issues, has been reissued by No Exit Press, and if you haven't read it, you need to do so. Now.

Stuart Neville's The Final Silence was one of my favourite serial killer thrillers of the year: pulse pounding stuff from a writer who never disappoints.

And speaking of never disappointing, John Connolly's The Wolf in Winter is the best entry yet in his long running Charlie Parker series - and the end will leave the Parker faithful with their jaws on the floor.

K.T. Medina's White Crocodile was a brilliant debut - set among the minefields of Cambodia (and the less minstrewn but equally dangerous mean streets of Manchester), it marks the arrival a stunning new talent.

Chris Ewan's Dark Tides was, I think, his best book yet - set during the Manx Halloween, its a claustrophobic and psychologically unsettling novel with shades of all your favourite slasger movies running through it.

Alan Furst's Midnight in Europe was tense and filled with his usual eye for period detail: a riproaring espionage novel.

Louise Welsh wrote a brilliant dystopian crime novel (first in a trilogy, so there's even more to come!) in the pacy and punchy A Lovely Way To Burn.

Meanwhile, Pulitzer prize winner Robert Olen Butler wrote a Hemmingway-esque crime novel in The Hot Country which is only the start of what I hope will be a spectacular series.

Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America by Kevin Cook was my favourite true crime book this year.

And, before I run out of time, one final choice... Reed Farrel Coleman's The Hollow Girl saw us say a bittersweet farewell to the incredible Mo Prager, one of the most developed detectives in recent years. Sad as I was to see Mo go, I'm glad it ended like that... it just felt... right.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Dark Digital Sky: Pulpy techno-thriller

I had the chance to read Dark Digital Sky by Carac Allison and to ask him some questions about writing. Dark Digital Sky is one of those novels that unfolds as you go along reading it, that seems fluid in its movements, solid in its muscle. It clearly falls into the slot of “high-tech thriller” and carries itself along through its action-filled plot, while gripping you with its troubled main character.  The premise is straightforward, though the promise is a bit more complicated. Anyway, here’s what the pros say about the book --

A gripping high-tech crime novel mixing the pulpy spirit of the past and the security threats of today
Chalk is an ex-FBI agent whose specializations are cults and computer forensics. The tools of his trade as a PI are a Porsche 911, an unregistered Glock, modified cellphones, radios, and an eclectic collection of computers. He suffers from bipolar disorder, lives alone and hopes, one day, to be able to see his son without the constraints placed on him by the courts. 
Chalk’s mission is simple: find three biological sons of one of Hollywood’s sleazy successes whose origins lie in a sperm bank donation he made decades ago. Chalk finds all three, each as twisted as the father in very different ways. It seems his task is complete when Chalk discovers all three are being recruited by a demented General who is looting vast pharmaceutical warehouses and planning a major domestic terror attack.As Chalk digs further into the brothers’ plot, he uncovers a secret military weapons program embedded deep in the Hollywood special effects and technology industry. It will take every bit of techno savvy he has to strip away the illusions and the politics and find the real source of the threat.

Now, on to the show:

DSD: You've got a background in plays, yeah? Does that help writing dialog?

Carac Allison: I hope so. Playwriting is about structuring action. The language is performative. Characters talk themselves into problems and try to talk themselves out again. They are created on the stage as they interact with each other.
When you’re writing a play you have to make it happen instead of just describing it. And I’ve always heard the voices of my characters.

DSD: This book is part techno-thriller and part noir mystery. Were you consciously balancing this as you went?

CA: No, not really. I wanted to create a hardboiled PI that followed in the tradition of the great pulp detectives. The technology is just a product of our time. Chalk needs to crack into computers and use modified cellphones to get the job done. 

DSD: How do you go about creating a damaged character still worth rooting for?

CA: Chalk’s worst enemy is himself. His control of his emotions and his thoughts are tenuous at best. Readers empathize with his anguish. Because they’ve struggled with mental illness themselves or they’ve supported family and friends who have.
A lot of PIs and Detectives talk about being alone. Chalk is totally isolated in his own head. And he is going to live through a lot of pain in the coming books.

DSD: With the technical advances in getting words down, do you feel you're in a better position to write than, say, Mary Shelley or James Joyce? Does technology make the writing easier? What's your process like?

CA: Technology makes it easier to get words down—to be sure. This is why there are so many bad novels. Almost anyone can type 60,000 words now.
But I don’t believe technology has made it any easier to become a writer. To find your voice. To learn the discipline. To pound out the 20 bad novels you need to get through to write your debut book.
I can’t speak to my process. No one would believe me.

DSD: You've written elsewhere about how technology impacts our learning, especially in higher education. What is that impact?

CA: We are assaulted with information every moment of every day. We’re forced to passively learn about celebrities, climate fears, politics. It takes an effort of will to learn actively. To block out the noise and focus on something.
When you do block out the nonsense, technology makes it possible to learn anything. You just need the time and the drive. 
So Universities and colleges no longer have a monopoly on learning. They offer an opportunity to meet people with similar interests. Beyond that you pay for the paper—the diploma. 

DSD: As this book is structured with mini-mysteries leading into a bigger story -- solve this and get to the next step -- can you explain your thoughts on pacing? How do you keep the reader moving forward?

CA: Action on every page, brother.

Dark Digital Sky is now available on, Google Play, Barnes & Noble, the iBooks Store and the Kobo Store.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Lingering Questions

By Holly West

As my year as a debut author comes to a close, it's fun to reflect on how much I've learned about writing and the publishing business. I wouldn't give it up for anything.

In late 2012 I signed a contract to publish two ebooks with Carina Press, the digital imprint of Harlequin. The first book, MISTRESS OF FORTUNE, came out in February 2014 and the second, MISTRESS OF LIES (which I spent most of 2013 writing), came out in September 2014.

I absolutely loved the process of editing a book with a professional editor--I'd done it with a freelance editor (also a pro) before I got the deal to publish MISTRESS OF FORTUNE, but working with an editor in the publishing house was even better. It gave me confidence about my writing. For example, when I turned in MISTRESS OF LIES in November 2013, I knew it was a good story, but I hadn't had nearly the same amount of time I'd had with MISTRESS OF FORTUNE to edit it on my own. I was terrified my editor would say something to the effect of "you're kidding me with this, aren't you?" But no. She loved the book and while she had a few developmental edits to suggest, overall the book I turned in is very close to the book that got published.

It felt good knowing I could write a book worthy of publishing in less than a year.

My one disappointment with this process (and it's a big disappointment) is that sales of both books have not been as good as I (and my publisher) would've liked. I know that happens to a lot of writers and I don't think of it as a reflection of my abilities, but more a combination of factors. This has led to a couple of lingering questions as I think about my year as a debut author:

1) I decided to take the deal with Carina Press because Harlequin is a large publisher and I thought it was possible they could position my books--even without a print version--better than a smaller imprint. But now, I'm wondering if that's true. Carina Press publishes a variety of genres but they're not as well-known for their historical mysteries (or even their mysteries) as they are romance. Furthermore, the crime fiction community has still not fully embraced ebooks and having only ebooks available left many doors closed to me.  Would I have been better off with a smaller publisher if I could've gone into print? 

I honestly believe that I would've been, though it must be said that I didn't have such a deal on offer at the time.

2) Ultimately, should I have self-published?

There's no question that having a "traditional" publishing deal was good for me in a couple of ways. First, it allowed me to learn about the publishing business and the way it works. I really wanted that with my first go around as an author. Second, it did give me a little more credibility (perhaps this credibility is only perceived by me at this point). Still, at the end of the day, I've published two books with a major publisher and that feels good.

However, given the fact that my sales are not great, does it even matter that I was published "traditionally?" If I had self-published, I would've retained all of my rights, I would've had control over the whole process, and I could dictate how I wanted to proceed with the series. Yes, I know some of the same doors that were closed to me as an ebook author would still be closed if I self-published, but damn it, I would have control over everything. I feel like I have none of it now.

I signed away my print rights when I took the deal with Carina. It is very unlikely that those rights will ever be exploited. I knew this going in but when I signed the deal this somehow had less significance. Now it kind of bugs me. There's no way to know what the outcome would've been and there's no going back in time to un-sign the contract, so I try not to dwell on it.

Either way, I'm proud of what I've achieved. 

I really am. When I signed my contract with Carina, I did so with the confidence that this would be my first book deal. If I made mistakes, that was okay. And I did make mistakes. But I went into this with the understanding that this was my chance to learn about the industry and to learn something about myself as a writer. I enjoyed working with Carina Press because their staff, especially my editor, are great.

As this year draws to a close, I there are still those lingering questions. But I'm not sure I'd change anything, even if I could. Mostly, I'm just proud and happy to have had this experience.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

20 Questions with Dana King

I run a regular feature on my blog, One Bite at a Time, called Twenty Questions, where I get to grill authors about their newest books, and writing in general. Holly was kind enough to submit to one when Mistress of Fortune was released, before performing her due diligence on what she was getting into. When I asked about possibly pinch-hitting on Do Some Damage to promote A Small Sacrifice, Holly showed she has a long memory and thought it would be great fun to make me answer all the questions I made her answer. So, if you don’t like this, it’s her fault.

Holly West: Tell us about A Small Sacrifice.

Dana King: It’s a story about a Chicago PI named Nick Forte, who is hired by Shirley Mitchell to clear her son’s name. Doug is assumed by everyone to have killed his five-year-old son, Justin, a year ago, but the police have butchered the crime scene and there’s not enough proof for an arrest. Forte is about convinced Doug did it, too, until something happens that turns the whole investigation around.

HW: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)

DK: The idea came to me when John and Patsy Ramsey were on television almost every night, talking about their daughter’s murder. Just about everyone assumed they killed the girl, and were lying, so much so “those lying” seemed to have become part of their names. (As in, “Did you see those lying Ramseys on TV last night?”) I got to wondering, what if they’re innocent, but have to lie because the truth is even worse? From that point forward, I stopped watching any interviews or reading anything about them. I wanted the story to have as little to do with the facts as possible, beyond the original germ of the idea.

Dana - front cover

HW: How long did it take to write A Small Sacrifice, start to finish?

DK: A little over a year of actual writing. I went back a couple of years later for some changes when an agent showed interest, and did a little polishing before I released it as an e-book last year. From first draft of Chapter One to final e-book file took about twelve years.

HW: What’s the back story on the main character or characters?

DK: Nick Forte is a former musician, teacher, and cop, now turned private investigator. He’s a divorced father who adores his daughter and is constantly aware of the things he can’t do for her because they don’t live together anymore. This is a large part of how Shirley Mitchell is able to get him to try to prove a negative: she guilts him into it. He has trouble sustaining relationships with women because he doesn’t want to have more children, worried his daughter, Caroline, will wonder if he loves the kids he lives with more than he loves her. He’s better at doing what he has to do than he thinks he is, but the violence he encounters as this case unfolds is more than he bargained for.

HW: In what time and place is A Small Sacrifice set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?

DK: Today, or recent times, in Chicago and the northern suburbs. Lake City is a stand-in for any number of affluent communities north of the city. I worked hard to make Chicago a part of the story, but, to be honest, there were a number of cities I could have picked and probably made things work just as well. I was living in Chicago at the time and loved it, so it was the logical place to set the story. Now I associate Forte so closely with Chicago, I can’t bring myself to move him, though I’ve considered it from time to time.

HW: How did A Small Sacrifice come to be published?

DK: It had an agent at one time, and seemed to be very close to a sale, but things never quite worked out. By the time all was said and done, I had a few more Forte stories the agent wasn’t interested in, since this one didn’t; sell, and she wasn’t interested in the standalone I’d written next. I left Forte in the drawer for several years until he made a well-received guest appearance in my first contracted book, Grind Joint. I thought I’d see if people might be interested in more of him, so I published A Small Sacrifice myself, straight to e-book on Amazon.

HW: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?

DK: Mostly crime fiction. Almost all of everything else I read is non-fiction, primarily history and true crime. I kept trying to broaden my fiction horizons, but found the stories I liked, those that spoke to me best about conditions in the world today, were crime stories at some level. I also like tightly-written prose, and most crime fiction writers keep things to the point. There is often an understated brand of eloquence, but it’s rare to see a crime writer write a beautiful sentence for the sake of writing a beautiful sentence. It has to serve a purpose. Good crime writers seem better at killing their darlings than a lot of mainstream or literary writers.

Favorites? Wow, so many I’ve actually created a spreadsheet to keep of track of who I want to be sure to read, so I get to them in turn. Of the big dogs, my current favorites are Robert Crais and Dennis Lehane. Tim Hallinan and Declan Hughes are great writers whose work I never miss. Charlie Stella is the Godfather of mob fiction, for good reason. Most of what I read are writers who are not quite broken out yet, people like Declan Burke, Adrian McKinty, John McFetridge. Terrence McCauley is doing great things with Depression and Prohibition-era stories. Tim O’Mara is about to become a best selling writer, if he isn’t already. Scott Phillips is a genius. There are at least twenty others in the regular rotation, and I apologize for not listing everyone.

HW: Who are your greatest influences?

DK: So far as getting me going, the usual suspects: Chandler, Leonard, McBain. George V. Higgins after I discovered The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which I think might be the greatest crime fiction novel ever written. (That, or The Maltese Falcon.) Reviewers tend to cite Leonard and Higgins—which is immensely flattering—though one reviewer said he found elements of James Ellroy, which is also flattering, as I’m a huge fan and wish I wrote more like him, Frankly, I don’t see him in my own work.

HW: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?

DK: Outline. Always. It’s not a real detailed outline, maybe a sentence or paragraph about each chapter, unless a scene grows organically in my mind before it’s time to write it, then the notes for that chapter can get pretty long. As a rule, though, it’s just enough so I know what has to happen. Everything else I make up as I type, always while wearing pants. Well, at least boxers.

HW: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?

DK: My first drafts sometimes almost read like screenplays. I’m a dialog-heavy writer as it is, and if it’s flowing, I’m acting out the scene while trying to transcribe what’s going on. The next day I’ll go back and tidy things up before starting on what’s new, to get me back in the mood I was in when I left off. Once the first draft is done, I’ll let it sit for a while, then do usually three more drafts: one to add and remove things that will turn a series of chapters into a coherent story; one to add the little touches that make books fun to read; and one anal and OCD three-step process to get everything just as I want it.

HW: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?

DK: Have a vision for your writing. Raymond Chandler once said, “Don't ever write anything you don't like yourself and if you do like it, don't take anyone's advice about changing it. They just don't know.” (I’ll use a Chandler quote at the drop of a hat, even if I have to drop it myself.) It’s not pessimism to note the vast majority of those who actually get a novel published—in excess of 90%--will never be more than a blip on the public consciousness, if that. Would you rather that be because you took your best shot and it didn’t work out, or because someone else told you to try something, or to do it their way, and it didn’t work, and now you’ll never know if your original idea would have? Then you can’t find out because whatever influences you accepted have changed you permanently.

HW: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.

DK: Hanging with The Sole Heir, but she’s 23 now and about to start grad school, so I don’t get as much chance as I used to. Spending time with The Beloved Spouse, reading, watching the Pirates and Penguins.

HW: Which do you take to bed at night, the money earned or the good review?

DK: Good reviews, which is good, as I’m not making much money. That’s not a complaint—I made peace with that aspect of the writing business long ago—but I guess what I mean is I get a great deal of satisfaction when I see people I respect “get” what I was going after in a book. That keeps me going, to be spoken of as a peer by those I consider to be my betters, as least as writing goes. It’s also a lot of fun, now that reviews are coming in from complete strangers. That’s immensely gratifying, to know someone has invested their most finite resource—time—and think I made it worth their while.

HW: Would you stop writing if someone paid you enough money so you’d never have to work again, on the condition you could also never write again?

DK: I was a real prick when I came up with this one, wasn’t I? Actually, I think this was suggested by a commenter on my blog, after I’d asked for suggestions.

My answer will probably appall a lot of people, but, yes, I would quit under those circumstances, though I’d have to have the agreement in writing and the money in escrow. As much as I said I enjoy writing above—and I do dearly enjoy it—it is not the defining feature of my life. There are plenty of things I’d find to do if I had the time in which to do them, which I would if I didn’t have to work. I’d miss writing, but I had to give up being a musician, too, which was the only things I ever really wanted to do, and it didn’t kill me.

HW: If you were just starting out, which would you prefer: 1. Form your own indie publishing house and put your work out in paper and e-book yourself? 2. Go with a small or medium traditional house that offers very little or no advance, a royalty that is only a fraction of what you'd get on your own, and also makes no promise of any type of publicity push, keeping in mind that you also will lose the publishing rights for a period, sometimes indefinitely? 3. Go with a Big Six or legacy publisher that offers a larger advance, legitimate review possibilities, entrance to industry literary awards, and exposure on the shelves of brick and mortar stores. Pick one and say why.

DK: I’ve tried all three, and, given my place right now, I think Option 2, though any can work given the right breaks. Option 1 works best for those who already have a foothold on the public consciousness, or are willing to work twenty hours a day on marketing. And are good at it. And write well enough for the marketing to matter. Option 3 can leave you in the cold if the big house doesn’t think you’ll be one of their breakouts, and the blemish on the record will be yours, not theirs. I think Option 2 leaves the best opportunity for a partnership with people who know the business end, though, of course, even there the match has to be right.

HW: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?

DK: Beer. My favorites run in cycles. Right now it’s Bass Ale, though I’m sure Foster’s and Heineken will get their turns again. Sam Adams when I’m in the mood.

HW: Baseball or football?

Dana King Author Photo

DK: Baseball is the single greatest thing ever devised by the human mind.

HW: What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?

DK: That one.

HW: What’s the answer?

DK: “That one.” (I’m sorry, I stole that from Todd Robinson’s interview, but it’s such a good answer it ruined me for all time after I read it.)

HW: What are you working on now?

DK: Summer is when I put new work on hiatus, though I am polishing another Nick Forte novel so it’s ready for e-book formatting, or for the agent. In September I’ll start work on the edits for the fourth book in my Penns River series, currently laboring under the clever title of PR4.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Police, torture, and crime fiction

(I really didn't know what to call this post)

A couple of days ago our very own Jay Stringer asked where now for procedural writers in the wake of Fergsuon?

My response, in short, is: nothing. What happened in Ferguson will have no meaningful impact on the police procedural genre. If only because this kind of thing happens all the time.

For years I've argued that the police procedural genre is primarily a fantastical one because it is so divorced from reality. On TV we regularly see things that don't or can't happen in real life like: a suspect breaking in 30 seconds; using a missing persons cell phone data to determine a location without having to get a warrant; taking a door; rarely showing the process of obtaining a warrant to take said door; suspects, specifically affluent ones never lawyering up; making The Promise and then delivering on it in 42 mins.

These examples arguably are more benign (and focus heavily on TV shows since it is mostly taken from the linked post). There are other, far more serious, realities of policing that aren't presented.

Are cops aware of the immense power they have? The power to arrest someone is awesome; any cop, at any moment, can take temporarily take your freedom. Yes, there are courts to protect the rights of the innocent, but in the meantime, a police officer can still put handcuffs on you, shove you in the back of his vehicle, fingerprint you and lock you up for at least a couple of hours; and lock you up with some pretty mangy people if he so desires. That is real power, traumatizing power. Society grants police officers that power, but in exchange, we must expect certain things — that the police officer granted this responsibility show more patience, more kindness, and better judgment than the average citizen.

C'mon dude, stop being so melodramatic.

In January of 2013 a man named David Eckert didn't come to a complete stop leaving a store parking lot. He was asked to exit his vehicle. The officer believed that Eckert was clenching his butt cheeks because he was hiding drugs. They obtained a warrant and proceeded to give him multiple enemas and a colonoscopy against his will. They found nothing. And they billed him for all of the procedures.

These horrific things weren't/aren't done by renegade, lone wolf cops. They are done by every day cops that are part of a system that is interested in protecting its own interests and actually benefits from keeping it's lower ranked members (ie: the police that citizens deal with) uninformed.

You see, police officers are protected by a doctrine called qualified immunity. Police officers can also be shielded by something called the Good Faith Exception at trial.

In other words, the banality of evil at work.

I think this is why the David Simon penned cop shows come the closest to a realistic interpretation of the job. Because he understands the systemic forces at work. Or at least recognizes that they exist.

Another facet of this is that the historical role of police officers, has morphed into a much more militarized beast that isn't fully represented in cop fiction.

I actually don't mean this as a hit piece on cops. I just wanted to illustrated some of the ways that fiction differs from reality, and how significant some of those differences are.

Recent current events shine a light on another way that fiction differs from reality. This time I'm speaking of the torture report.

How many times have we cheered on a character who explicitly or implicitly tortures another character to extract information because in the fictional situation that has been set up and presented to us it's deemed not only appropriate but worthy when we may be against the practice in real life?   Most of us would be appalled if a police officer violated our rights but happily cheer on a fictional cop/spy/solider/etc when it's done. 

If a person, who otherwise believes themselves to hold a different opinion, roots for a character who tortures another character does that mask a latent belief that the person holds or just someone getting pulled into the narrative structure and arc of the story? I don't know but I think it's an interesting question.
Then there is the question of the fiction affecting the reality. In other words can exposure to something affect your belief in it? A few years ago the term Jack Bauer Effect (aka The 24 Effect) was getting some play. Specifically, that effective torture scenes in a post-9/11 world was making torture more palatable to people. Is this effect real? One thing we know is that it reinforced your opinion of torture if you already believed in using it. Hence the rise in so called Right Wing Thrillers. Glen Beck for example is constantly recommending certain fiction books to his audience. As for the rest of us? Maybe.

But there is also something called The CSI Effect that has been around for years. It states simply that juries expect a lot of forensic evidence in trials, which raises the  standard of proof for prosecutors.  Sounds silly right, that a show could have so much influence on public perception. But it is nothing new. In 1986 there was a paper written on Lawyer portrayals in mass media. You start looking at the way governments have used propaganda films to effectively sway people one way or another and...

I admit to finding the questions that all of this raises fascinating. Is there a morality gap in fiction? Specifically in how often consumers of fiction (movies, TV, books, etc.) will happily cheer on characters who represent something they disagree with. Can an author be unaware of thematic subtext when constructing a story? What is the author's responsibility in how they portray their fictional worlds?


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Being Published Isn't For Wimps

By Kristi Belcamino

Being a published writer isn't for wimps.

You have to develop a tough skin and learn to let criticism roll off your back.

Otherwise, might as well thrown in the towel now. Because trust me, you are going to have people who HATE what you do, who RIDICULE your word babies, and who SCOFF at your life's work.

You can't give a rat's you-know-what if you want to make it in this business.

That's why it is important if you are a beginning writer to learn how to take feedback and use it to your benefit instead of letting it crush your little ego into smithereens.

Last week I raved about my writing group. And as I await their feedback on my third novel, I have no apprehension. I have spent years finding the right critique partners that I value and trust. I also use beta readers or critique partners SPARINGLY. What that means is now I only send my manuscripts to my writing group plus one writer friend who is a crazy good critique partner.

It wasn't always this way.

When I wrote my first book, I sent my manuscript out to as many people who would agree to read it. I'm pretty sure at least twenty people read that first book and gave me feedback.

As you might imagine, it was overwhelming. And soul crushing. And useless.

For many reasons.

It also was complicated. What one reader loved, another one hated.

One reader was incredibly upset that I had so many characters with names that began with the same letter. It drove her crazy. Couldn't even read my book it was so annoying.

So, I took all the feedback in and learned what to pay attention to and what to ignore and let slide off my back.

With hindsight, this was a good training ground for the rest of the publishing journey, but not always helpful at the time.

What I learned was some people have a gift for feedback and others ... not so much.

It had nothing to do with how good of a writer they were. It had nothing to do with how much I personally liked them. It was something some people had and others didn't.

So, what I have learned over the years, is that if you are lucky enough to come across someone who is gifted at giving feedback, do anything in your power to keep them reading your novels.

But here is a general rule of thumb I like to share with anyone who receives feedback —whether it is from beta readers, agents, editors, or someone else.

ONLY pay attention to feedback that:

a) is voiced by more than one person.

What that means to me is that I usually need at least three people to tell me the same thing about a scene or a character or a plot point before I seriously consider changing it. Every once in a while, I'll change it if only two people echo the same thing but usually follow the rule of three.

b) ignore the above advice if only one person says it but it RESONATES with you.
You know what I mean—when someone makes a comment about your writing and you want to slap yourself in the forehead and say, "By golly, you're right!"

If you follow this general rule of thumb about feedback, you  have a good chance of keeping your ego intact at the same time you are most likely learning and growing and becoming a better writer.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Year 2014: Measuring Progress and Favorite Things

Scott D. Parker

In a fortnight, 2014 will be history. Seriously. Seems almost like last month I was making resolutions for 2014 and now it’s time to account. The year 2013 was a huge breakthrough with my writing. I basically went from writing barely anything in the seven years before it to writing over 200,000 words spread over one novella, two novels, and a short story. One would think that to make 2014 more productive, I’d need to write more. Well, I define “more” as more completed projects, not necessarily more words. Thus my four completed project this year trumps my three from last year. Progress achieved. And, when I think of the milestones achieved this year—new focus on shorter works; completing a novella in the month of November—I’m darn proud of my progress.

The year 2015 will be yet another milestone: publication. I am working hard on getting my first story ready for the world. When I publish one book next year, it’ll be a triumph. My business plan calls for more than that, but that first one will be sweet.

As for writing, I plan on continuing the pattern I set in November: write more efficiently and productively, and expand the types of books I write. I’m pretty sure I’ll always like a mystery in my stories, but I’ll be branching out in genres to include more westerns (Calvin Carter and more!) and science fiction. It’s going to be an exciting 2015.

The Lists

We all like lists at the end of the year. Here are some of my favorite things of 2014.

The Martian by Andy Weir
Honor Among Thieves (Star Wars) by Timothy Zahn
Face the Music: A Life Exposed by Paul Stanley
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
As You Wish by Cary Elwes

Ace Frehley - Space Invader (love this album!)
Chicago XXXVI “Now”
Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga - Cheek to Cheek
Bruce Springsteen - High Hopes
“Sue (or In a Season of Crime)” by David Bowie (in front of a jazz orchestra!)

Guardians of the Galaxy
Edge of Tomorrow

I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere
Fatman on Batman
The Creative Penn*
Rocking Self Publishing Podcast*
Self Publishing Podcast*
America’s Test Kitchen*
Hollywood Babble-On
Kobo Writing Life Podcast*

*Discovered in 2014

I’ve left off things that I’ll slap my forehead when I remember them, but these are what come to mind.

What are some of your favorite things of 2014?

Friday, December 12, 2014

Ghosting Stories

By Russel D McLean

If, like me, you were only vaguely aware of Zoella (The online name of Zoe Suggs) through TV ads for Youtube (I honestly thought she was an actress showing an example of what could happen, which shows how desperately old and out of touch I've become), chances are that this week you know far more about her than you did before thanks to the storm in a literary teacup that is the revelation she may have had "help" writing her first novel. Or, in plainer language, some people have said she may have used - shock, horror, etc - a ghostwriter.

Ghostwriters, for those not in the know, are not literally ghosts, but the unseen hand in a novel. They typically remain un-named or un-acknowledged and they usually do the majority of work on a book. So, that Katie Price book you thought was all from her hard-typing fingers, it was ghost written. And lest you believe this terrible, immoral (please not the sarcasm here) dishonest practice was a sign of times, its worth noting that "Carolyn Keene", the "author" of the Nancy Drew Mysteries was in fact a cover for a slew of ghost writers creating fiction to the house style, as was "Franklin W Dixon", creator of the Hardy Boys. Personally, I had to sit down and take a very deep breath when I realised that Alfred Hitchcock was not in fact writing those introductions to - or indeed even writing the text of - the Three Investigators mysteries. And, of course, many autobiographies by non writers (sports-folk, actors etc) are ghosted, too. Sometimes for very good reasons: to make an interesting story more readable (and sometimes for bad: to rush out a book to capitalise on five minutes of fame, but there's always a downside to any part of the industry and let's take the good with the bad). So I don't see why there's all this fuss about Suggs's book being ghosted: its not something that thousands of others haven't done before.

Look, my point is this: ghostwriting has always been around in one form or another. Its another form of marketing, and marketing in literature is not some dastardly new invention of greedy capitalist publishers. No, its something that is - as distasteful as this may be to "purists" of a literary bent - absolutely essential to keeping the health in book sales. I would gladly, tomorrow, claim that all my books were written by James Patterson if a) he offered that and b) it meant that my book sales went up by more than three thousand percent.

The issue with ghostwriting, of course, does come down to one of money. Zoella's book - allegedly written in whole or in part by bestselling children's author Siobhan Curram - sold somewhere in the region of  78,109 in its first week alone. Reports (cribbed from this article in the Guardian) estimate that ghostwriters up for the position of working with Zoella/Suggs were offered between £7,000-£8,000 flat fee. Now, in that same report in the Guardian, Andrew Crofts - a professional ghoster - implies that this is a bit of an insulting amount. But the fact is that some writers (such as me) would kill for an amount like that (most of my money is currently brought in doing reviews, editorial reports and so on - the books help, but by God, advances at my level don't come anywhere close to even that) even at a flat fee. And I admit I think that is a bit stingy - to write (allegedly) 80k words in six weeks is a tall order. But in a world where so many writers are asked to work for "exposure", the knowledge that you a) wrote a succesful book and b) got paid a semi-decent amount for it (Having worked in retail full time, I think eight grand for six weeks work is actually not bad) is enticing. I would, if offered, have no real issues with ghosting. I wouldn't think it beneath me. In fact the challenge of being a writer is stretching and disguising your style; experimenting with different voices. But I'm drifting from the point here. And the point is this:

Zoe Suggs is no different from James Patterson, if she did indeed use a ghost (and we're not sure - nor do I think we really need to know - how much impact Curram had on the final product: Suggs refers to her more in mentor terms than stating she wrote the whole book, and that's fine, because Suggs is not a writer by training, but someone starting out and of course at that stage its a good thing to have a mentor who knows the industry etc). Yes, Patterson puts the other author's name on the front of the book, but very few of his readers really care about that: they just see the name Patterson and they buy the book. Yes, many people (and I've been guilty of this) mock Patterson for his conveyer belt of releases, but you cannot deny that they sell and that people read them. And this happens because of marketing. And sometimes it means that they move on to other books, too. I'm still pleased to have seen Patterson recommending Ken Bruen for people to read a few years ago; he wants people to move on from his books and into other authors, too (while still buying his, of course). And that's a pretty admirable thing.

In one of the articles I read, a parent complained that "young girls" were buying Zoe's book and that they were being lied to and that this was a bad thing. So let's go all the way back to the top of this entry and look at The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and The Three Investigators. I read all of these as a kid. I later realised they were ghosted. It didn't change my love for the books themselves. And it didn't stop me reading anything ever again. It didn't change the words. It didn't change the fact I bought the book. And it didn't make me burn the ones I had bought. Yes, ghostwriters go as the unsung of writing, but I don't think its a dishonourable thing to do. In the same way that exec producers in TV don't write all the scripts themselves, I see nothing wrong with someone having a marketable idea and bringing in someone else to write for hire. Do I think they should be paid well for this? Yes. More so, I think, if they are never going to be acknowledged and have to work fast. But given that authors who write under their own name are often paid so little anyway, if all parties are amenable to the idea of ghosting, then I think we really need to stop acting like its the crime of the damn century. If people are buying and enjoying the book, then that's the only result that matters.