Thursday, December 25, 2014

Home Alone, Gifts Abroad

By David Swatling           

Last week I did one of those ubiquitous Internet quizzes: “Which Christmas Movie Character Are You?” I was impressed when it pegged me as Kevin McCallister, the boy in Home Alone. “No one special thing defines Christmas for you; you enjoy the whole package.” My first Christmas as a published author began back in August when I opened the box full of books with my name on the cover. The look of wonder and joy on my face was not unlike Kevin’s when his Mom walks through the door at the end of the film. 

This holiday season really started for me last month at Iceland Noir, a weekend celebration of crime fiction. I attended the inaugural festival last year after meeting Icelandic author Yrsa Sigudardottir at Bouchercon in Albany. “We’re almost neighbors,” I joked, mentioning I lived in Amsterdam. “Then you should come to Reykjavik,” she said, with a twinkle in her eye. Although my debut psychological thriller would not be published until the following year, I had a feeling Iceland might be an interesting place to begin exploring interest on the European side of the pond.    
What’s not to love about a country with a holiday tradition of giving books as gifts? There’s even an Icelandic word for it: Jolabokaflod, which translates literally as Christmas book flood. Crime novels are extremely popular, perhaps because the crime rate is so low – or because the winter nights are so long. Curling up in front of the fire on Christmas Eve with a new thriller is a national pastime. Iceland Noir may be a small festival, but great gifts often come in small packages. 

Don’t get me wrong. Clearly, larger events like ThrillerFest are invaluable. Attending in 2012, a rough first draft tucked anxiously under my arm, I felt like a kid on Christmas morning – even as I learned how much I still needed to learn. Without plunging into the deep end, pitching to agents and experiencing the full four days of magic and mayhem, I wouldn’t be where I am now. Certainly not a member of the 2014-15 ITW Debut Authors Class!  

But events in a more intimate setting make it easy to connect with other authors, bloggers, and the all-important readers. Rather than racing from one panel to another, there’s more time to continue discussions, ask specific questions, or compare notes on the creative process. Not only was I on a New Blood panel of debut authors, I also had the honor of reading with local authors of the Icelandic Crime Syndicate in a packed nightclub. And was thrilled to have my book accepted by the Reykjavik City Library. 

Last year Yrsa gave me a copy of her bone-chilling thriller I Remember You. This year I gave her a gift of Calvin’s Head. Whether she reads it or not on Christmas Eve, I’m delighted to add an Icelandic tradition to my own home alone holidays.  

For more information about Iceland Noir:

David Swatling grew up in rural New York, studied theatre, and moved to Amsterdam in 1985. He produced arts & culture documentaries for Radio Netherlands and is three-time winner of the NLGJA Excellence in Journalism Award, among other international honors. His suspense novel Calvin’s Head is published by Bold Strokes Books. His short story “Poet’s Walk” appeared in the inaugural issue of Chase the Moon. He writes about arts and LGBTQ issues at: 
Life in Amsterdam isn’t all windmills and tulips when you’re homeless. Jason Dekker lives in a jeep with his dog, Calvin, on the outskirts of the city. A thesis on Van Gogh brought him to the Netherlands and the love of Dutch artist Willy Hart convinced him to stay. But Willy is gone and Dekker is on the brink of a total meltdown. On a sunny summer morning in the park, Calvin sniffs out the victim of a grisly murder. Dekker sees the opportunity for a risky strategy that might solve their problems. Unfortunately, it puts them directly in the sights of the calculating stone-cold killer, Gadget. Their paths are destined to collide, but nothing goes according to plan when they end up together in an attic sex-dungeon. Identities shift and events careen out of control, much to the bewilderment of one ever-watchful canine. Oscar Wilde wrote that each man kills the thing he loves. He didn’t mean it literally. Or did he? 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Level of Lessons Learned

By S. L. Ellis

As I began the registration for ThrillerFest X, I wondered if I really needed to attend another conference or workshop. As it stands, it would take both hands and the removal of a stiletto to count the number I've attended over the past ten years. Wouldn't my time be better spent writing?

For me, workshops and conferences are rated on effectiveness. If a lesson was learned while attending, I considered them effective. That said, based on this experience, these events can be assigned to one of three levels which are described below.

The Basement
This writer's workshop or conference relies on a key framework: if you can fake it, you can make it. Here, the writer's ego is given free rein and the sessions evolve into taking turns reading your work aloud. This is followed by a round of instructor's praise. As attendee slash audience, you'll realize the cost of shoddy editing, clearly understand the meaning of purple prose, and learn a new definition of kill your darlings. When it's your turn to read, you'll falter, and then create an exculpation so fully developed it has sub plots based on Greek mythology.

The Attic
A workshop of great substance; likely to have a profound effect on survival, or well-being. These are usually held in a cozy and tranquil gather-around-the-fireplace environment. You'll work on plotting—a skill you'll need in order to crawl into the cubbyhole considered your private writing space and bedroom. You'll learn to edit when you discover you're required to take your turn in kitchen chores. Even feeding the table scraps to the goat tethered next to the backdoor won't deter you from admiring the prize winning and erudite workshop leader. You'll be given story prompts daily in unique methods such as discovering surprises left in your bedding by an untrained puppy. Your imagination will grow with every instance of scurrying and scratching noise coming nightly from the corners of your assigned cubbyhole.

The Main Story
This workshop and conference is information based through sharing, discussing, and revising. All elements of writing are studied and practiced. The attendees are coached and mentored with the intention of elevating skill levels. Conference panel sessions are intended to be useful and cover career-related topics. Egos are not obviously displayed or allowed to overtake a session. The environment is one of fun and enthusiasm. There are no goats or untrained puppies in this level.

By attending conferences and workshops at all levels, I've had the privilege of meeting some wonderfully talented and giving authors. Although they didn't know me from a Bronte, these authors taught me things about writing I couldn't have learned in any other way.

Through author-led workshops, through casual conversation during a break between conference sessions, and through the guidance of fellow attendees, I've learned to grow a thick-skin, value a critique over a compliment, pitch my work with a modicum of confidence, conquer the fear of ridicule or rejection, and believe in myself and my writing. Most importantly, I've learned if you're receptive, there is always another lesson to learn.

I'm looking forward to meeting another group of authors in July of next year.

Wait. Does anyone know the Grand Hyatt's pet policy?

Cassie Cruise wants her life back as a kick-ass P.I. Trouble is, she has zero credibility since bungling a case on reality TV. After a public tantrum, she slinks off to bury her head in the sandy beaches of Southwest Florida. Just as she starts over as the owner of The Big Prick Tattoo Shop, a body is discovered in the trunk of her burning car. Cassie's aware there are those who'd get in line for their turn to torch her car. But murder?
You don't have to like her, but you damn well better respect her. And get out of her way—this is one case she intends to solve, with or without an audience.

S.L. Ellis came from a small town in Michigan. After a few decades of winter, Ellis was ready for a fresh start. A move to Florida and a few days on the beach improved her disposition a hundred-fold, and it was here that writing became more than a thought. Classes were taken, workshops worked, and a few books written. Ellis’s short story "A Brush With Death" was published in Vol. 12 DARK TALES, a UK magazine and reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno, DARK SCRIBE MAGAZINE Anthology Reviews: “A Brush with Death is a solid, at times poignant, chiller in which a dying woman—who knows death well after a lifetime of obsession—makes a deal with the Grim Reaper. Ellis’s keen observations on aging and death are spot-on.” Also, her short story "If the Shoe Fits" was accepted for publication in HARDLUCK STORIES for its final issue. She is a member of Sisters in Crime and ITW. LANE CHANGES, a P.I. Cassie Cruise Novel, is Ellis’s debut novel. It's release date is December 20, 2014.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Editing of Murder at the Book Group

 by Maggie King

Writing is rewriting … is it ever! I started cutting a swath through Murder at the Book Group long before I let anyone beyond my circle of friends and local writers see my manuscript. I got 108,000 words down to 102,000, kicking and screaming all the way. But cozy mysteries, especially ones penned by new authors, were expected to hover around 92,000 words.

Yikes! Ten thousand words … what more could I cut? There was no question about it, I had to be ruthless. I enlisted my even more ruthless friend Marcia to help. Between us we reached the goal of 92,000. It wasn’t even that hard once I donned my ruthless hat. I killed darlings by the dozens (“Kill your darlings” is an expression attributed to William Faulkner and repeated constantly by writing professionals ever since).

Two characters had significant scenes that got whittled down to bit parts; one character was nasty as all get out but as a bit player became quite pleasant. She’ll be a recurring character throughout the series.

When my editor, Nancy (not her real name), came on the scene, she loved Murder at the Book Group. Loved it. Still, she had a few suggestions.

Nancy: “I’d like to work on the snarky tone a little more here. I think it’s fine for other people in the book group to be unsympathetic, negative or petty, but our heroine should be the nice one in the group, the one we root for. Many times she comments on her friends’ appearances or makes snarky asides about their lives that come off as too mean.”

Me: Some of that snark was too good to cut but Nancy gave me a way to keep it … I just gave it to the other characters. And my heroine Hazel Rose came up smelling like, well, a rose!

Nancy: “Let’s play up the romance a bit more.”

Me: Great suggestion. After all, when Hazel isn’t hunting down killers she’s an aspiring writer of Baby Boomer romances. So I set Hazel and her inamorato on a more romantic course than before. After all, she needs inspiration for her writing.

Nancy advised me to ditch my swear words. I pointed out that I was trying for realism—people swear, some a little, some a lot, some only when “necessary.” We’ve all known colorful folks who liberally season their conversations with a salty vocabulary. But Nancy said that my story was a cozy and that cozy readers don’t like swearing. And then there was all that sex …

Murder at the Book Group does fit into the cozy mystery genre in that Hazel Rose is an amateur detective. But I consider it a dark cozy. The sex I write about occurs off stage (off page?) and is all talk—remembered sex, reported sex, observed sex, hoped-for sex.

But Nancy maintained that sex and swearing were over the top. And I do want to cultivate loyal and enthusiastic readers who I expect, if given the choice, would pick sex over blue language. So I kept the sex, ditched the cursing, and came up with euphemisms that didn’t dilute the dialog of my more colorful characters. I even got to keep the “okay” swear words.

There was more: “The ending is good, but it needs some work …” “So and so needs more motivation to do such and such …” “This one needs to show more emotion.”

With Nancy’s help Murder at the Book Group blossomed into a fabulous story and Hazel Rose into an appealing heroine (IMHO).

Have the guidelines of your genre restricted or liberated your writing? Have you ever had to cut a massive opus to a more manageable size? What did you do with your outtakes?  What process did you use?

One night at a book group in Richmond, Virginia, mystery author Carlene Arness dies after drinking cyanide-spiked tea. Despite a suicide note, Carlene’s friend Hazel Rose is skeptical. Suicide doesn’t fit with what she knows of Carlene who is, incidentally, Hazel’s ex-husband’s current wife. Did Carlene die by her own hand or someone else’s? Who had a motive? When Hazel seeks answers to these questions she finds no shortage of motives as she unearths a past that Carlene took great pains to hide. Hazel’s investigation leads to a confrontation with Carlene’s killer, who is also fiercely protecting a past … and won’t stop at one murder. 

Maggie King's debut mystery, Murder at the Book Group, came out December 2, 2014 from Simon and Schuster. She contributed the short story, “A Not So Genteel Murder,” to the Sisters in Crime anthology Virginia is for Mysteries. Maggie has worked as a software developer, retail sales manager, and customer service supervisor. She lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband, Glen, and cats, Morris and Olive. Visit her at:

Thursday, December 4, 2014

December Debut Releases

It's the first Thursday in December, which means debut releases. Please take a look and let’s celebrate their success!

S. L. Ellis - Lane Changes (Black Opal Books) December 20, 2014

Cassie Cruise wants her life back as a kick-ass P.I. Trouble is, she has zero credibility since bungling a case on reality TV. After a public tantrum, she slinks off to bury her head in the sandy beaches of Southwest Florida.

Just as she starts over as the owner of The Big Prick Tattoo Shop, a body is discovered in the trunk of her burning car. Cassie's aware there are those who'd get in line for their turn to torch her car. But murder?

You don't have to like her, but you damn well better respect her. And get out of her way—this is one case she intends to solve, with or without an audience.

Maggie King - Murder at the Book Group  (Simon & Schuster, Pocket Books)  December 30, 2014

Nothing can kill a good book group discussion like cold-blooded murder. Especially when the victim is one of the group’s own. Cyanide is the topic du jour for the mystery fanatics of Murder on Tour, but for their poor hostess, Car­lene Arness—who just published her own whodunit—it makes for a surprise ending. One minute, Carlene is speaking animatedly about featuring the poison in her new book. The next, she’s slumped over in a chair, dead from a sip of tea. Did the writer take her research too far? Or did one of the group’s members take a love of true crime to the extreme?
Founding member Hazel Rose is rounding up suspects. Any of her fellow bibliophiles could be the killer. And she soon discovers that almost all of them had a motive. Even Hazel herself, whose ex-husband married Carlene, could be accused of harboring jealousy. The truth is, Carlene wasn’t just hard to read, she was also hard to like—and the scandalous secrets Hazel unearths would make Carlene’s idol, Agatha Christie, turn over in her grave.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

How To Tell If Your Manuscript is YA

by Kate Brauning

Being able to accurately categorize your writing as middle grade, young adult, new adult, or adult is an important part of writing for your audience and preparing to query. Sometimes writers assume because a novel has a main character who is a teen, the story is YA, but that isn’t always the case, and it’s not really the character’s age that’s the main determining factor. Many thrillers deal with teens and children, and aren’t YA.

When I first started writing, I thought the MS I was working on was YA because it was about a teen, and it wasn’t really YA. It had several young adult elements, but it was a much closer match to adult fiction. So how do you tell, really, if you are writing YA, or something else?

Here are some examples of works that muddy the waters:

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn is told from two points of view, and one POV is from a boy who’s fifteen years old. Room and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close have children as the main characters, but they’re adult fiction. The Harry Potter series is one of the most well-known examples of category confusion. The series is shelved in the children’s section because the first few books are MG. But Harry grows up, and so does the series. So, is the series middle grade, young adult, or adult?

Whether a manuscript is MG, YA, NA, or adult isn’t defined primarily by the main character’s age, although certain experiences, settings, and plots lend themselves to characters of a certain age group. Basically, it boils down to perspective.

Perspective is chiefly what makes a story young adult fiction. The lens through which the main character sees the world is what gives YA its distinctive flavor. The characters tackle adult issues, but when they do, it’s for the first time. Of course, YA can contain all the grit and reality of adult fiction, but the characters confront those things without the experience and often without the resources adults have. Of course, teens tend to go to high school, date other teens, have parents and homework. Other category tendencies are the use of first person, school as a major setting, and frustrations with parents and gaining independence. But what ties all these things together, what makes YA fiction YA, is the perspective of the characters.

To me, this perspective of facing the adult issues for the first time is what makes YA unique, and it’s why I love it. Half the YA-buying readership is adults, and that’s probably a big reason for it. We read it and write it because YA is about change, and we all remember those years—and we don’t stop changing even as adults.

In Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle says:
“Only the most mature of us are able to be childlike. And to be able to be childlike involves memory; we must never forget any part of ourselves. As of this writing I am sixty-one years in chronology. But I am not an isolated, chronological numerical statistic. I am sixty-one, and I am also four, and twelve, and fifteen, and twenty-three, and thirty-one, and forty-five, and…and….and… If we lose any part of ourselves, we are thereby diminished. If I cannot be thirteen and sixty-one simultaneously, part of me has been taken away.”

It’s not about being a certain age, it’s about what it means to be that age. YA keeps that part of our lives, that unique perspective on the world, awake and healthy.

Ever since Jackie moved to her uncle’s sleepy farming town, she’s been flirting way too much — and with her own cousin, Marcus. Her friendship with him has turned into something she can’t control, and he’s the reason Jackie lost track of her best friend, Ellie, who left for…no one knows where. Now Ellie has been missing for months, and the police, fearing the worst, are searching for her body. Swamped with guilt and the knowledge that acting on her love for Marcus would tear their families apart, Jackie pushes her cousin away. The plan is to fall out of love, and, just as she hoped he would, Marcus falls for the new girl in town. But something isn’t right about this stranger, and Jackie’s suspicions about the new girl’s secrets only drive the wedge deeper between Jackie and Marcus.
Then Marcus is forced to pay the price for someone else’s lies as the mystery around Ellie’s disappearance starts to become horribly clear. Jackie has to face terrible choices. Can she leave her first love behind, and can she go on living with the fact that she failed her best friend?

Kate Brauning is the author of How We Fall (Merit Press, F+W Media), a YA contemporary released Nov. 11, 2014. She grew up in rural Missouri and fell in love with young adult books in college. She’s now an editor at Entangled Publishing and pursues her lifelong dream of telling stories she’d want to read. She’s represented by Carlie Webber of CK Webber Associates. Website | Twitter
How We Fall: Amazon | B&N | Indiebound | Powell’s

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Falling for . . .

by Cathy Perkins

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “fall”?  This time of year, I still automatically go with a Currier & Ives image of a perfect New England foliage explosion. Out here in the Pacific Northwest, fall is quieter. In town, yard trees are selected for spring flowers, summer shade, and fall color. Our mountain place leans toward towering evergreens, although we can do sepia tones quite nicely. ({big sigh} – I keep planting Aspen and the deer keep eating them.)

“Fall” can conjure other images: People fall up and down the stairs, in and out of love. We choose to free-fall on carnival rides or in any number of outdoor sports. We enjoy the beauty of waterfalls and falling leaves. 

Emotional falls can be beautiful, romantic, sad, painful, and exciting—or “d” all the above. Those emotional triggers seem fraught with so much more peril. A broken bone heals, but is a broken heart ever truly mended? What’s a writer to do? Remember the phrase going around for a while? Want to write? Open a vein and bleed onto the page. That’s emotional vulnerability. 

Where are you with your next manuscript? You know, the one AFTER you sell your debut, where all of a sudden the pressures and expectations are different? Are you falling down or is everything falling into place? 

I find with each novel I write that I’m stretching and growing as an author. In my current WIP, I’m struggling to knock my protagonist down emotionally. I’m taking bigger risks, digging deeper into the character. And in digging deeper, I’m risking revealing more of myself as I tap into my own emotional reserves. 

In order to entice my readers to fall in love with my character, to follow him along and through his internal and external journeys, my character has to not just face down challenges, he has to fail—and fail big, falling flat on his face. He has to hit rock bottom and leave the reader wondering if he can get back up. As I push myself as a writer, I’m pushing this character to peel back layers, figure out what he really wants, and go for it, even if at times he’s hanging by his fingertips over a chasm that will kill him if he falls. 

What about you? Fall/falling–love it or hate it? Are you taking risks—as an author or personally?

When a hitman kills the wrong person, a Greenville, SC detective confronts hidden agendas and conflicting motives in a powerful local family, while trying to control his attraction to the intended victim—a woman who should be dead, but instead is hell-bent on saving the remnants of her family.  

Unwilling to stand by while her family and world are destroyed, she rips apart the secrets surrounding Cypher, the company her father built—and will take any measures to defend.

An award-winning author, Cathy Perkins works in the financial industry, where she's observed the hide-in-plain-sight skills employed by her villains. She writes predominantly financial-based mysteries but enjoys exploring the relationship aspect of her characters' lives. A member of Sisters in Crime, Romance Writers of America (Kiss of Death chapter) and International Thriller Writers, she is a contributing editor for The Big Thrill, handles the blog and social media for the ITW Debut Authors, and coordinated for the prestigious Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense. When not writing, she can be found doing battle with the beavers over the pond height or setting off on another travel adventure. Born and raised in South Carolina, the setting for CYPHER, HONOR CODE and THE PROFESSOR, she now lives in Washington with her husband, children, several dogs and the resident deer herd. 

Visit her at:; twitter: @cperkinswrites; and on her website:

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Finding Your Inspiration

By Jennifer Loring

Writer’s block. It’s a phrase we all dread, especially if you’re participating in NaNoWriMo this month. Plenty of writers have dispensed their wisdom about how to deal with it, but I’d like to share the tips that have worked for me personally. I hope you find them as useful as I have!

My biggest piece of advice is to keep a journal. A journal can be anything from a spiral notebook to computer files. Mine is a bound, lined journal whose fake leather cover I customized with a collage. Journaling gives you a safe place to practice writing and ensures that you keep at it. Aside from your journal, make use of the phone on your camera (or, if you’re like me, carry around a point-and-shoot). If something catches your attention and you don’t have time to write it down, snap a photo. I keep a folder in my Dropbox account called “Inspiration,” and it’s full of pictures of things I find visually striking. This can be another kind of journal.

“Mediocre writers borrow. Great writers steal.” So said T.S. Eliot, though he didn’t mean it literally (I hope!). How can you make this advice work for you? Joanna Penn at the Creative Penn suggests, “Read other people’s works, or look at other people’s art work…. Write the same idea in your own words and you can bet it will be a different story or a new angle on it.… If you are reading something and find a new word, or a description or phrase, or a poetry line, then write it down. Maybe you can re-use the word in a different context, or it helps you describe something in a better way.” I have taken Joanna’s advice to heart many times, and my writing has consistently improved because of it. I’ve also studied various creative media for inspiration, including fairy tales and mythology, video games, documentaries and non-fiction books, TV, and movies.

Song lyrics, and even song titles, can provide inspiration as well. Keep a list of intriguing song titles and lyrics in your journal. I have often turned to songs for story titles. Even instrumental music, or music sung in a language you don’t understand, can generate ideas, particularly if you’re writing fantasy or horror. I write much of my work to a playlist made up of survival horror and fantasy RPG video game soundtracks. Our brains are hardwired to have very strong emotional responses to music. Let it speak to you.

If you’re stuck on a project, turn to your journal or work on something else. Ideas will strike when you least expect it. Ultimately, a piece may not work, but you can almost certainly salvage something from it—even if it’s just a sentence. You can rework the story or build an entirely new one. Don’t throw away (or delete) anything. And most importantly, don’t give up!

Mara is a Japanese-American girl with a history of personal tragedy. Though she still cuts herself to quell the pain, she thought the worst was behind her. But her boyfriend's sudden death, and a visit to one of the most haunted places in Washington State, sends her into a spiral of madness, landing her in a psychiatric ward. Already suffering from dreams of a strange, ghost-infested house in the woods, Mara begins to question the very existence of reality. She is forced to confront the truth about her older sister's death and the reason the ghosts have chosen her as their conduit.

Jennifer Loring’s short fiction has been published in numerous magazines, webzines, and anthologies, and in 2013 she won Crystal Lake Publishing’s first Tales from the Lake horror competition. DarkFuse published her novella Conduits in September 2014 to critical acclaim. Jenn is a member of the International Thriller Writers and the Horror Writers Association and holds an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. She lives in Philadelphia, PA, with her husband and a turtle named—what else?—Ninja.