Thursday, November 13, 2014

Down With Cubbyholes

As we know, there are many different sub genres for crime novels, from cozy and amateur sleuth through to police procedurals and noir. How would you characterize the kind of mystery you like to write and why did you chose this sub genre?

When people ask me what I write, I usually say novels. When pressed further, I’ll often say I’m a mystery writer. I find that it’s a whole lot easier than offering some intricate, convoluted explanation about the characteristics of various sub-genres and where I feel my work falls within those amorphous boundaries. After all,Agatha_Christie most people know what a mystery is—they’ve read them or seen mysteries on television. They’ve heard of Agatha Christie, even though they may never have read any of her work.

Which is fine with me. I certainly don’t mind being known as a mystery writer (I’ve been called worse things).

The truth is, I try not to pay much attention to genres, sub or otherwise. As a kid, when I’d go to the library, I wasn’t looking for any specific type of book. I was simply looking for a good book. A compelling, captivating, page-turner with great characters and a memorable plot. I know, not much to ask for, right?

It was only when I started writing, and then querying agents, that I found I had to place my work into a specific cubbyhole. The book will have to go on a bookseller’s shelf, I was told, and they need to know which shelf it will be. The publisher will need to market the book, I was told, and the marketing types need to know which readers to target. Certain reviewers will need to be contacted, certain conferences attended, certain awards aimed for, I was told, and all of that is genre-dependent.

I never set out to write a mystery; I was just trying to write a good book.

Ideas pop into my head and I run with them, not paying too much attention to the shelves they may eventually sit upon. Now, it so happens that my brain feels most at home wallowing in the word of crime (draw your own conclusions). I guess it’s not surprising, then, that most of my ideas revolve around bad (and illegal) things happening to my beleaguered protagonists.

However, I haven’t written exclusively in the crime realm. I wrote a horror novel (bad things happened to my protagonist in that one, too). And I wrote a YA coming-of-age novel. But pretty much everything else I’ve written could be classified as a crime novel.

So I guess, technically, I’m a crime writer. But if you ask me what kind of crime writer I am, I’ll probably just shrug and start mumbling something about simply trying to write a good book.


If you haven’t had a chance to read the excerpt from my novel in the Kindle Scout program, there’s still time!  Check out RUNNING FROM THE PAST here. If you like it, I’d love a nomination! Thanks!

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


Monday, October 27, 2014

With A Little Help From My Friends

A Grand Experiment

My novel of suspense, RUNNING FROM THE PAST, is going to be part of a grand publishing experiment. For the next thirty days, you’ll be able to read an excerpt from the book, as part of the Kindle Scout Program.

If you like what you read, you can “nominate” it for publication. The more nominations the book gets, the better the chance it will get picked up for publication, where it can reach a much wider audience.

It’s sort of like American Idol for books.

What’s in it for you, you ask?

Two things:

First, my sincere appreciation. I’m sure you’re bombarded with people asking for favors, in your inbox, on Facebook, on Twitter. So thank you for taking a few minutes to read my work.

Second, if my book does indeed get selected for publication, you will receive a free copy of the entire novel as a thank-you. Plus you can say you read it at an early stage and helped it get published!

To read the excerpt, *CLICK HERE*

Here’s a description:

As Colby Walker gets to know his teenage son’s friend Jess, he spots the signs in short order: downcast eyes, passivity, angry red welts marching across the boy’s bare back. He understands what they mean because he’d been that boy, many years ago.

He’d suffered in silence, too.

Can Walker stand by and let Jess’s torment continue, leaving the boy’s future in the hands of the so-called authorities, the ones who had done nothing to help him during his own tortured childhood?

Hell no.

Instead of alerting Child Protective Services or returning the boy to his father, Walker “kidnaps” Jess, packs up the minivan, and takes his family on the lam, keeping one step ahead of Jess’s cruel father and unhinged ex-con aunt. But as the stakes increase—and his headstrong actions lead to his wife and daughter getting snatched, quid pro quo—Walker must finally conquer his past before he can save the lives of those he loves.

To read the excerpt, *CLICK HERE*


Because every vote counts, please let any (and all) of your suspense-novel-loving friends and family know about it, too!

Here’s a link:



Thursday, October 2, 2014

Feeding the Dark Side

Which type of character is more fun to write: villain or hero (in the classic sense of the word)?

Let me recap this week’s answers, so far (see Criminal Minds).

On Monday, Meredith said that “Characters should be fun to write--no matter what their role is in your story.” In other words, she thinks writing both villains and heroes are fun. Score: Heroes 1, Villains 1.

On Tuesday, R.J. said she enjoys creating the hero more than the villain. Running Score: Heroes 2, Villains 1.

On Wednesday, Tracy proclaimed her love for writing villains (even though she was under the spell of a high dosage of pharmaceuticals, we’ll chalk one up for the dark side). Running Score: Heroes 2, Villains 2.

Now it’s my turn to weigh in.

I’m tempted to say that I don’t like writing either heroes or villains. It’s difficult (emotionally trying) to write a sympathetic hero and then subject him (or her) to a wide range of nasty incidents. It’s cruel! It’s inhumane! It’s inconsiderate! But, it makes for good conflict!

On the other hand, it’s hard to write a villain; it’s hard to worm yourself inside his (or her) twisted mind as he (or she) goes about stealing, maiming, killing, or cutting off people in traffic.

But saying I don’t relish writing either the hero or the villain would be copping out. Besides, I guess I really do have a preference. While writing the hero may be more satisfying/rewarding/enlightening, writing the villain can be more fun.

A few reasons:

High Stakes – Most of my books are about the struggles of the heroes, so the portions written from the villains’ POV are often more concentrated and more intense (and focus on something of utmost importance). In other words, the villains are on stage for only a short time, and I try to make every moment count double (or triple).

Over-the-Topness – Depending on what kind of story I’m writing, I can draw my villains a bit larger than life than the hero. After all, things like laws—and common decency—matter little to evildoers, and the villains have to present a major challenge to the heroes. (I had a great time writing the villain, Dallas Pike, in my horror novel, THE TASTE. He was a very nasty man who pretty much did what he pleased. Fun!)

Feeding my Dark Side – In general, my heroes are nice people. Sure, they’ve got their flaws, but underneath they fall squarely on the side of goodness, justice, and unicorns. Sometimes it just feels great to write about depravity for a change, know what I mean?

Running score: Villains 3, Heroes 2.

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


Thursday, September 4, 2014

Hello? Anybody There?

Do you feel like being a writer is a career choice or a calling?

I’ve been and done many things before becoming a writer. Engineer, product planner, marketing manager, entrepreneur. In fact, writing fiction never even crossed my mind until relatively recently (ten years ago).

I disliked writing in high school (Although I loved to read, I didn’t love reading all those boring, assigned books written by dead guys for class. I stuck to my science fiction, much to the consternation of my father, the former English teacher.)

I disliked writing in college. I studied engineering, so I didn’t really have to write much. And certainly nothing creative, unless you consider the analysis of a system’s vibration profile creative (truth: writing a grocery list is more creative).

I disliked writing in grad school. Although I more writing was required there, I managed to fill my papers with technical jargon and buzzwords. We even had a roommate competition where we came up with a list of buzzwords we had to use in each assignment. Which kept us amused, if not the professors.

So if being a writer is a calling for me, the phone rang pretty late.

Actually, in my case, writing was an absolute choice. More evidence: Some writers say they HAVE to write. That if they miss a day of writing, they feel bad. Not me. I can go whole weeks, nay months, without writing, and I wouldn’t feel any different. (Now, if I were to go a whole week without eating, then I would feel bad. Maybe my true calling is eating.)

This question brings up something I struggle with from time to time: my identity. When people ask me what I “do,” I (still) have a hard time saying writer. Yes, I’ve published six books (three traditionally,  three self-pubbed. Note the library “shelfie” with fellow Criminal Mind Clare’s books). Yes, I’m involved with writing organizations and attend writing conferences. Yes, I teach writing workshops (some start this month, sign up HERE). But I still hesitate before I claim to be a writer.

Maybe I’ll just tell people I’m an eater and ask for directions to the nearest buffet.



My book, RIDE-ALONG, is now available as a trade paperback. Enter the Goodreads Giveaway HERE for a chance to win your very own signed copy!

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


Monday, August 25, 2014

Write On!

DC-area writers: September is the perfect time to take a writing workshop, and as it happens, I’ll be teaching FOUR different ones at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda.

Three are one-day (2.5 hour) sessions:

Whodunit? How to Write a Mystery (9/6, 10 am)

Elements of Fiction: Dialogue (9/6, 2 pm)

Writing the Dreaded Query Letter (9/13, 2 pm).

I’ll also be teaching an 8-week workshop:

Fiction II - Writing Compelling Fiction (Saturdays 10 – 12:30) beginning on 9/13.

Click HERE for more details and registration information. If you have specific questions, ask in the comments or shoot me an email!

Write On!


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Give Me a Hand, Will Ya?

Why do you think the crime writing community is so mutually supportive?

First, let me address the assertion that the crime writing community is supportive.

Yes, yes, yes it is! The vast (vast!) majority of crime writers I’ve met have been generous with their time and advice, friendly, approachable, helpful, and supportive. They seem to operate under the credo, “If one succeeds, we all succeed.” Or “A rising tide raises all boats.” Or maybe “Mystery loves company.”

It’s a wonderful group, and I’m lucky to be a part of it.

Of course, there are many practical reasons why we (crime writers) need to be nice to each other:

    • We know dozens of ways to kill people without leaving any clues.
    • You might have to rely on a fellow writer as a character witness during your murder trial.
    • You never know when you’ll need someone to back you up with a rock-solid alibi.
    • You never know who you might need to drive the getaway car. Or who you’ll have to persuade to come out on a dark and stormy night, with a shovel, and help bury the bodies.

To be fair (at least in my experience), I have to say that most writers I’ve met, regardless of genre, have been very supportive. I guess it’s because we all struggle with that blinking cursor and the never-ending self-doubts about our work.

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


Thursday, August 7, 2014

No Threat to Society

What’s the worst thing I ever wrote?

Hmm. The worst thing? Hard to settle on just one; there are so many contenders.

I mean, seriously? Bad writing? I’m an engineer. They practically taught us to write in desiccated techno-speak. It seemed the worse I wrote, the better my grade.

Of course, writing is so subjective—one person’s dreck might be another person’s cup o’ tea. And when evaluating, do first drafts count? What about poetry? (The best/worst of my poetry couldn’t hold a candle to Tracy’s example yesterday.) What about stuff I wrote in grade school? Or college? (Did I mention I’m an engineer?)

You see, not such an easy question to answer.

Here’s what I can say:

My first attempt at a novel currently resides in an asbestos-lined vault, buried deep in my backyard, where it poses no threat to society. (I guess that answers the question, huh?) The prose is terrible and there are more plot holes than plot. (It wasn’t all bad. I liked the font I used.) Let’s stipulate that it’s best if we let that one continue to rest in peace.

A few years ago, I went back and took a look at my second attempt at a novel. The prose was horrid in this one, too, but I liked the story and the characters and the structure. So I decided to resurrect it from the depths of my hard drive.

I opened two windows on my laptop, a blank Word document in one and the manuscript in the other. I then proceeded to re-write every single sentence in the book, revising as I went along. After more revision, I can honestly say that it doesn’t stink!

I could go on with more examples of less-than-stellar work, but then I might run the risk of making this blog post the worst thing I’ve ever written.

And there’s only so much room in my subterranean vault.


I had a lot of fun at the recent DC Noir at the Bar. Here’s a video of me reading:



(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Books About Writing Books

What's your favorite writing craft book of all time?

Over the years, I’ve read a number of books devoted to the craft of writing. As you might imagine, many have been helpful (to me), while others haven’t, but even in those less worthwhile volumes, I think I’ve always been able to find at least a nugget or two of valuable writing wisdom.

As with most things in life, you need to be careful about what advice to follow (but it doesn’t hurt to listen and read widely).

On Monday, Meredith mentioned two of my favorite books:

On Writing, by Stephen King

On Writing 

And Bird by Bird, by Ann Lamott (although I would classify this as being more of an inspirational writing book than a craft book).

bird by bird

Let me add a few (random) others:

For those wanting to pen a best-seller:

How to Write Best Selling Fiction, by Dean Koontz

Koontz writing book

A long (long) time ago, back before I even really wanted to be a writer, I picked up a book by Dean Koontz (one of my favorite authors at the time), mapping out how to become a best-seller. For some reason, it’s out of print now, but you can pick up a used copy on Amazon for a mere $68.


For those wanting to write a “breakout” novel:

Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass

breakout novel

This book also has an accompanying workbook (which I haven’t used).


For those who have trouble differentiating writing in summary versus writing in scenes:

Scene & Structure, by Jack Bickham

Scene and Structure

When I first started writing fiction, I didn’t know what I was doing. This book helped (a lot!).




Want to see ten crime writers, in person, reading their work, AT A BAR?

D.C. area folks will have that chance, this Sunday night at the inaugural D.C. Noir, 8 p.m. at The Wonderland Ballroom. Meredith, Art, and I, along with seven other great writers (Nik Korpon, Steve Weddle, Ed Aymar, Tom Kaufman, Don Lafferty, Tara Laskowski, and Michael R. Underwood), will take turns reading and schmoozing. Come on by—a good time will be had by all.

(This blog entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Give it to me Straight

Writing groups and early feedback - does it help or hinder your process? Why?

If you asked ten writers about their writing process, you’d get fifteen different answers. What works for one writer won’t necessarily work for another, and after having written more than a dozen complete manuscripts myself, I’ve learned that what works for me once, might not work for me again.

Yes, writers can be fickle, finicky creatures with a dependence on coffee and/or bourbon.

However, one thing that remains constant in my writing process is my need for feedback. It’s easy to slop some words down on the page, thinking that I’m saying one thing, when in reality, my work is being interpreted in an entirely different manner (hey, it happens!). I need to understand how my story is coming across to readers so I know if I’m on the right track.

The most beneficial way for me to do this is by participating in a critique group. I give them my words, then sit back to see how they go over (not always so well, I can assure you!). I can find out what works and what doesn’t. Is the plot believable? Are the characters behaving consistently? Is the pacing right for the genre? Do I have ten characters whose names begin with J? Have I dotted all my t’s and crossed my i’s?

Writers can be too close to their work to be able to give it an impartial evaluation. I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting my work “out there” without first sending it through the gristmill that is my critique group. It’s a very valuable—and crucial—part of my writing process.

Without a critique group, I’d be just another writer pounding away at his keyboard, mired in self-doubt. Instead, I’m just another writing pounding away at his keyboard, mired in self-doubt, with a critique group to keep me in line.

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


Saturday, June 14, 2014

Wise Words for Writers

What three tips would you give to a new writer to help them along their journey?

This is Giving Advice to Writers Week on the Criminal Minds blog, so, first, to recap:

On Monday, Meredith advised writers to:

1) Write a lot.

2) Be patient.

3) Become part of the writing community.

I agree wholeheartedly.


On Tuesday, R.J. advised writers to:

1) Never look back when writing (to prevent getting bogged down in re-writing).

2) Throw something unexpected into the story, if you get stuck.

3) Immerse their characters into their surroundings, when describing their settings.

More excellent advice.


Yesterday, Tracy advised writers to:

1) Get independent feedback and join a writer’s group.

2) Remember that rejection isn’t personal.

3) Keep writing, no matter how unmotivated you may be (or how much Pinterest might be tempting you).

I couldn’t have said it better myself.


Now it’s my turn to pontificate, which is difficult because my esteemed blogmates have mentioned some very helpful hints. However, I shall dig deep and give some advice not yet delivered.

So, writers, heed my words:

1) Read a lot. Not only do you have to write a lot, I believe you have to read a lot, too. Don’t stick solely to your preferred or favorite genres, but read in a wide variety of genres and styles. The more you read, the more well-rounded you will become.

2) Take a writing workshop (or two). Learn from someone who’s done it before. Get a look inside the meatgrinder (steel yourself first!) as you critique other workshoppers’ pages. Getting your own work critiqued will help build rhino hide, which so important for writers.

3) Go to conferences and conventions. Talk to other writers to get a glimpse of their writing process. Form a support network. Meet potential critique partners. Learn about how the craft of writing and the business of publishing relate to each other. Develop your drinking abilities in the bar.

Here’s a “bonus” piece of advice: Learn accounting and the principles of financial investing. You’re going to need that knowledge to properly handle the windfall that comes with being a writer! (Well, all my nuggets of advice can’t be winners.)

Now, go forth and write!

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


Thursday, May 29, 2014

Ten Feet Under

Do you have a novel in a drawer, a first novel (or a later one) that never saw the light of day?

You bet I do. Except it’s not in a drawer. It’s in an asbestos-lined Kevlar sleeve, in a six-inch-thick solid steel vault, buried ten feet underground in my backyard, where it’s no threat to the welfare of

Okay, I’m exaggerating. The walls of the steel vault are only five inches thick. 

It’s the first novel I ever wrote, back when I didn’t know a dangling participle from a Flying Wallenda. I knew nothing about esoteric things like characterization and setting and plot and structure and dialogue. I did know a little bit about punctuation, but for some reason, I felt a very strong urge to use a preponderance of semi-colons (and I have a feeling I overused the word “preponderance” too).

I revised it a bit and truthfully, I liked the general story and (many of) the characters. But man, was that prose stilted and formal and phony. And some of the plot twists? Oh my! My, my, my. More than a few coincidences and, shall we say, a preponderance of character actions with questionable motivations.

You might be wondering: Why didn’t I stick with this first novel and keep revising it until it sang?

Not even the best voice teacher in the world could get that turnip to sing.

Wisely, I moved on to my next manuscript, which was clearly better written from the get-go (I guess I learned a lot from my practice manuscript). I know I’m a lot better writer now, but I don’t think I’ll be digging that first attempt up anytime soon to try to resuscitate it. And believe it or not, in some kind of weird time-warped irony, the working title of that first novel was…Unburied Secrets.

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Bad, Bad Ending!

Is there a well-known mystery in which you would have changed the ending/murderer?

[Note: In this blog post, no book/author names will be used to protect the not-so-innocent.]

About ten years ago, I picked up a book with a great premise. I read about 200 pages, then decided that it just wasn’t “working” for me. But I wanted to know what happened. So I finished the book. And it didn’t end any better than it started. I guess you could say it was underwhelming (or hokey, contrived, ridiculous, unbelievable—pick one or pick all).

Fast forward five years. I picked up a book with a great premise. I read about 200 pages, then decided that it just wasn’t “working” for me. But I wanted to know what happened. So I finished the book. And it didn’t end any better than it started. I guess you could say it was underwhelming (or hokey, contrived, ridiculous, unbelievable—pick one or pick all).

Yes—I. Read. The. Same. Stupid. Book. TWICE. Without realizing it. Trash_Can

To prevent me from torturing myself a third time, I actually threw the book in the trash (the only time I’ve ever done that, with the exception of a college text,  Elements of Vibration Analysis, which is another story altogether).

I suppose it goes without saying that I would definitely change the ending of this book. Along with the beginning. And the middle. (The title was fine.)

[By the way, as I was writing this blog post, I looked up the book on Amazon. Judging from some of the reader reviews, I was not alone in my opinion! One representative review header sums it up: “Man, this is a BAAAAD book.”]

As you can tell, my memory about books I’ve read can be spotty (to say the least), so I really can’t remember any other specific books in which I’d change the ending.

But I’m sure they’re out there!

Does anyone else have trouble remembering books they’ve read?

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


Thursday, May 1, 2014

Beam My Books Up, Scotty!

colored spiral When you have a book published, maybe several, what are your thoughts, for the future? Is the book something you hope will be found and read, in 50 years? Or do you know, going in, that you may become out of print, a thing of history...or forgotten? What is your hope?

Do I hope my book will be found and read in 50 years? Heck, I hope my books will be found and read next week! I’m a writer and, to me, it doesn’t really matter when someone discovers my work (as long as they discover it eventually!).

Honestly, I don’t think about where my books will fit in the future. I’ve got bookshelves full of books fifty years old, so I assume my books will be collecting dust someplace fifty years from now. But will they be more than placeholders on a shelf and actually be read? If I’m lucky. After all, that’s why I wrote them—to be read (and hopefully enjoyed) by other people.

I certainly don’t expect that I’ll have a thriving readership decades from now (although I suppose it’s possible). But I can’t let my future dreaming affect how I feel about my writing today. I’ll just keep trying to churn out the best work I possibly can and leave my bookwise “legacy” to those who care about such things.

Of course, as my previous blogmates have noted, “books” may never really go out of “print” any longer. In fact, digital copies of my book might just be around for the colonists on Alpha Centauri to read. I’d have to admit, that would be pretty cool.


Going to Malice Domestic (which starts tomorrow)? I'll be moderating a panel, "Putting the Fun in Funerals: Balancing Humor and Murder," on Saturday at 2:00. Join me and my fantastically funny panelists Donna Andrews, Brad Parks, Helen Smith, and Nancy G. West for an entertaining time!

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Come By and Say Hi!

Over the next month, I’ll be leaving my cave to make a few appearances. If you’re in the area, come by and say hi!

April 27, 11:00 am - 4:00 pm
Mystery Writers of America Booth
International Day of the Book
Howard Avenue
Kensington, MD 20895


May 2 - 4
[On Saturday, May 3, 2:00 pm, I'll be moderating the panel: Putting the "Fun" in Funerals (Panelists: Donna Andrews, Brad Parks, Helen Smith, Nancy G. West)]
Malice Domestic Mystery Convention
Hyatt Regency Hotel
Bethesda, MD 20814


May 17, 1:00 pm – Free Presentation: "How to Write a Mystery" 
Gaithersburg Book Festival
31 South Summit Avenue
Gaithersburg, MD 20877


Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Man of Many Books

If you could choose a dead author to mentor you today, who would you choose and why?

Hemingway? Too gruff.

Edgar Allan Poe? Too creepy.

Faulkner? Too wordy.

Norman Mailer? Too drunk.

Tom Wolfe? Too alive.

I think I’d choose Robert B. Parker. He’s one of the authors that inspired me to become a writer myself, and I’ve read every one of his (many) books, some multiple times. RobertBParker

He’s written four series, in two different genres (mystery and western). He’s written standalones. He was prolific; it seemed like he wrote at least a book a year for fifty years. I love his characters. I love his dialogue. I love the moral dilemmas he created for his characters. (His plots were, uh, utilitarian, for the most part, simply canvasses to paint on. But nobody’s perfect.)

Bob and I would have some fun…

We’d talk shop, down on the banks of the Charles in springtime, watching the college crew teams practice on the river. We’d stroll through Back Bay, discussing characterization and the role of the macho sidekick. We would enjoy a meal at the Chart House as we watched the planes descend toward Logan, deep in conversation about multiple book story arcs.

And he’d impress upon me the importance of researching the setting where a story takes place, insisting on hands-on experiential learning. We’d work out together at the local gym. Take in a new exhibit at the Museum of Science.

Catch a game or three at Fenway.

Yeah, I definitely could get into this whole being mentored thing.

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Can I Still Do Arithmetic?

If you lost the ability to write or read for a day,
what would you do?

Confession #1 – I’m not one of those writers who needs to write every day.

Confession #2 – I’m not one of those readers who needs to read every day. (Does the morning paper count?)

In other words, having to refrain from both activities for a day would be no big hardship for me!
If the weather was nice, I’d get some exercise, for sure. Go for a walk or run. Work on my swing or maybe squeeze in eighteen thirty-six holes. School my son in a game (or three) of H-O-R-S-E.

If the weather wasn’t so nice, I would curl up with a good book I might go to a museum. Watch a movie. Binge watch some Netflix series (Do NOT tell me how Breaking Bad ends! Ditto for what’s going on with House of Cards. Double ditto for Orange is the New Black). Organize my record collection (yes, vinyl!). Round up a few potential victims and coerce them into playing a marathon game of Monopoly.

Or I could do something more productive. Like clean the kitchen, laundry room, garage, office, basement, den, living room, dining room, and/or storage area. Or do some house maintenance. I’m sure there’s something around here that needs touching-up, landscaping, fixing, arranging, rearranging, or demolishing.

In other words, I think I could keep busy if I couldn’t read or write for an entire year!

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Alan Come Lately

When was the first moment you knew you wanted to be a writer?

Ever since I was able to hold a pencil, I’ve been writing stories. Short ones, long ones, ones about sea serpents and space travelers and swashbucklers. As a child, I’d spend every spare moment spinning tales. I’d fill notebook after notebook with my scribblings, lost on adventures with my imaginary friends. In fact, I become known around town as that “little writing machine.” It got to be---

Wait! Hold on! Stop the presses! Not a word of that is true.

Let me try again, this time with the truth.

When I was in high school, I hated English and I hated writing reports. (Actually, one afternoon when I was about ten, I sat down with my best friend to write the sequel to War of the Worlds. We wrote about a page and a half, then went out to play basketball, never to finish the job.) In college, I didn’t take a single creative writing course (I was required to take a single English class, and Technical Writing qualified). I never wrote anything longer than a grocery list, and even then, I’d use abbreviations. In grad school (business), I couldn’t escape writing altogether, but I made sure that whatever I wrote was as dry as dust and chock-full of clich├ęs, buzzwords, and nonsensical jargon (I fit right in with the future Captains of Industry!).point a to point b

But fiction writer? Never. No way. No how!

And then, about ten years ago, things changed. Now, I spend a lot of time writing fiction.

What caused this reversal?

Beats me!

It sounds like my transformation would make a heck of a story! If only I could find someone to write it…

(This entry “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


Thursday, March 6, 2014

I Know I Shouldn’t, But I Do.

Do you read reviews? Reply to them? Review the works of other writers?

All reviews are not created equally, so for the purposes of this post, I’m going to divide them into three types, based on who’s doing the reviewing.

1) Professional, high-profile reviews (The four services: Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist; and major general and trade publications):

Reviews from these sources can matter, in several ways. First, getting a good review (starred or otherwise) can have a definite effect on books sold. People read those publications for a reason, and if your book gets good notice, they’ll be more likely to order and recommend your book. Also, these reviews can provide marketing material (blurbs!) for book covers and other promotional efforts. A complimentary pull-quote about your book from Kirkus (“The best book about talking walruses on the shelves today!!”) can give a boost to your marketing campaign.

Read them? I ALWAYS read reviews from these sources (even if an author wouldn’t want to, their publicist would bombard them with emails about the reviews).

Reply to them? Never.


2) Less well-known publications, bloggers: These types of reviews can also be helpful, both in terms of generating positive word-of-mouth (influencing sales) and for use in marketing, but a lot depends on the individual source/reviewer. The vast majority of these reviewers are very professional, but once in a while you might run across one with a particular agenda. Or a grudge. Or a bizarre way of looking at the world (and your book!).

Read them? Yep, I usually read these (if I know about them, of course), but I’m always watchful for those reviewers who seem to have an axe to grind or who are just out to impress their own blog readers with their super-snarky musings.

Reply to them? I’ll sometimes thank the reviewer (if I know their name) for taking the time to read my book and offer a thoughtful review, but I NEVER make specific comments about the review itself. People are entitled to their opinions, and that’s one of the things that makes this country great (along with 24-hour donut shops).


3) Random Internet people (on Amazon, Goodreads, LibraryThing, etc.): If you’ve ever surfed these sights (and really, who hasn’t?), you’ll know how, um, uneven reviews can be here. Most are reasonably fair and honest reactions to the books they’ve read. But there are some reviewers (a not insignificant number), who use these reviews to vent or try to show their superiority or to exhibit their wit or to demonstrate their need for stronger medication. Actually, these reviews can be quite entertaining (as long as it’s not your book they’re reviewing—then it’s slightly less entertaining).

Read them? I admit that I usually read them, but I don’t give them much weight. When it comes to reviews from the masses, I look for general trends. A hundred mostly-positive reviews outweigh that one-star, “my dead great aunt could write a better book” outlier.

Reply to them? Although sorely tempted at times, I NEVER respond to an Amazon review. Never. Only bad things can come from that. Really bad things. I’m not kidding. Just say no. (I’m talking to you, writers!). Move along, move along, nothing to comment on here.


Do I review other writers’ work? Not anymore. I stopped leaving reviews a few years ago, mostly because of guilt. I’d feel guilty that I couldn’t read all my friends’ books, and then I’d feel guilty if I wanted to leave a 4-star review (instead of 5 stars), and then I’d feel guilty about feeling guilty. And really, who cares what I think about a book anyway? So, no more reviews.

What say you? How much stock do you put in reviews, especially the “non-professional” ones?

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


Thursday, February 20, 2014

Dream Team

If you could choose different aspects of famous writers, who would you use to construct your ideal writer (ie, plotting from James Patterson, characters from Carl Hiaasen, setting from Charles Dickens, etc)?

Here’s my dream team:

Plot – Michael Connelly
Characters – Tom Wolfe
Setting – J.K. Rowling
Pacing – John Gilstrap
Prose – Dennis Lehane
Hook/Premise – Michael Crichton
Plot twists – Jeffery Deaver
Humor – John R. Powers (go look him up!)
Emotional heft – Reed Farrel Coleman
Storytelling – Stephen King
Ka-Chingability – James Patterson

Feel free to agree/disagree/add your own choices in the comments!

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


Thursday, February 6, 2014

Just Call Me Cliff Cliffhanger

How do you know where one chapter ends and another begins? What *is* a chapter?

When I first started writing novels, I wrote them as if I were watching a movie. I’d start at the beginning of a scene, write until that scene ended, then begin another chapter. Each scene/chapter was its own distinct unit. In fact, when I wrote my very first “novel,” I saved each chapter in a separate Word document. (Talk about your logistical nightmares! Writers: DO NOT DO THIS!).

What did I know? I was as green as a guy who’d just downed a bucket of bad oysters while on a rollicking sea cruise (and that was the kind of simile I used in my very first “novel”).

My writing process has evolved over the years (thank goodness!). Now, I sit down and write a novel as one continuous story. One scene flows into the next, rinse and repeat. Start on Page One. Continue until I type “THE END.” I don’t even think about splitting my masterpiece up into chapters until I’m ready to finish the first draft.

Then I go back and figure out where to break it up to maximize the suspense.

Most of my chapters end up being approximately the same length, give or take. I’m not a fan of long chapters—I’d say most of my chapters run between 6 and 12 pages, depending on the genre. Short chapters usually translate to faster pacing, which is what I’m going for.

I try not to start chapters with characters waking up (although, I must admit, sleep happens!). I try not to end chapters with my characters rolling over and turning off the light as they end their days. I try to use a fair number of cliffhangers (but not TOO many). Sometimes I end my chapter at the end of a scene, but often I’ll end the chapter in the middle of a scene.

Basically, I try to leave my readers in a spot where they feel compelled to move on to the next chapter and keep reading.

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


Thursday, January 23, 2014

No Stupid Questions, Only Stupid Answers

What’s wrong with asking, “Where do you get your ideas?”

First, a little explanation about the question, “Where do you get your ideas?”

If you’ve never been to a writing conference or convention, or a book festival, you’re missing out. They’re great places for meeting other writers, meeting readers, learning about books, learning about writing, and learning about the hotel bar. One of the staples at a book event is the “authors panel,” which brings together four or five writers to talk (ostensibly) about a certain topic.Malice panel from Sasscer

When I’m on a panel, my goal is to be entertaining (read: funny). I don’t always succeed, but I do try (that’s me in the photo, as panel referee, er moderator, at Malice Domestic, calling some sort of penalty on Sasscer Hill). After the panel discussion is finished, the audience generally gets a chance to ask some questions of the writers, and invariably someone will ask where we (writers) get our ideas.

It happens so frequently that it’s become an “inside joke” among the writers. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the question—in fact, I think it’s a pretty good question. I just wish I had a better answer.

Because I DON’T KNOW WHERE I GET MY IDEAS. They just pop into my head, when I’m sitting in my car, taking a shower, reading the newspaper, daydreaming, watching TV, eating, cooking, shopping, sleeping (yes, I once woke up with an awesome idea). My problem is not a dearth of ideas; it’s a lack of time to write about them all.

Remember, as my grade school teachers used to say: there’s no such thing as a stupid question.

Just my stupid answer.

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


Thursday, January 9, 2014

Please Pass the Chianti!

Everyone probably has a favorite detective, but who is your favorite fictional murderer?

Ah, so many evil criminals to choose from. But if I’m going to go dark, I might as well go big and select one of the most diabolical, twisted—and formidable—villains ever created: Hannibal Lechter.

Let’s face it. You liked him in Red Dragon. You loved him in Silence of the Lambs. Of course, if you’re like most of the reading population, you really loathed him in Hannibal (and loathed the story, too; it was the one book I actually threw across the room in disgust when I finished). And after reading Hannibal, you probably avoided him altogether in Hannibal Rising (I know I did).

He had it all. A brilliant mind. A refined elegance. A very warped sense of morals with no reluctance to act on them. And when you’re ranking bad guys, cannibalism counts for a lot.

So to recap: I’d choose Hannibal Lechter as my “favorite” murderer.

But I wouldn’t invite him over for dinner.

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)