20 September 2014

Between Aha! and the P.O.

by John M. Floyd

A topic that seems to come up regularly, in our local writers' group, is the differences in the way we writers choose to work, in creating and marketing our fiction. 

Much has also been said at this blog, about that. Outlining vs. not outlining, writing in first person vs. third, simultaneous submissions vs. one-at-a-time, writing in past tense vs. present, literary vs, genre, self-publishing vs. traditional, and so on. And I always enjoy hearing about the quirks of famous writers: Hemingway's preference for writing while standing up, Erle Stanley Gardner dictating his stories to an assistant, Elmore Leonard writing longhand on a yellow legal pad, Eudora Welty's need to be sitting in a certain place when she wrote the end to a story, etc. Understandably, everyone has his/her own unique methods and preferences.

As for me, every short story I sell involves five steps:

1. I get an idea (aha!)
2. I put the story together in my head (pre-plotting)
3. I write it (first draft)
4. I re-write it (edits and subsequent drafts)
5. I submit it (either via the SEND key or via the Post Office)

I think steps 2 and 4 are the most fun, and number 2 usually takes more time than any of the others. (What can I say?--I'm an outliner, and for short stories the outlining is done in my mind, beforehand.) But for today's column I'd like to focus on steps 3 and 4, the part between the thinking and the mailing. Putting this in question form, what do you feel is the best process for creating and editing drafts? Even more specifically, should you type and/or revise onscreen, or on paper?

Ballpoint vs. fingertips

Here are some of the arguments I've heard.


- It can be done anywhere and anytime, at home or away, inside or out, as long as you have a pad of paper and a pen.

- Proofreading and revising should be done using a printed copy because it's easier to catch errors that way.

- Over time, reading pages onscreen can be harder on the eyes than reading printed pages. 


- Typing it straight into the computer saves time because you don't have to write it twice (transcribe what you've already written on paper).

- Editing onscreen is easier than on paper: quick corrections/additions/deletions, the ability to move blocks of text around, etc.

- It's cheaper since it requires no paper and no printer ink.

I should mention here that compromise is sometimes a good thing. Maybe you'd prefer to type your rough draft onscreen, then print it out and do your proofing/edits/rewriting on the hardcopy version. Or vice versa.

Production notes

Personally, I've changed the way I do things. When I first started writing short stories for publication twenty years ago, I almost always did rough drafts in longhand in a spiral notebook, and usually while sitting in our backyard swing or in my recliner. I sometimes even did the first round of corrections on that same hardcopy, and typed it into the computer only when the story was pretty much done. It was a long, slow ordeal. Word-processing programs then did less than they do now, but I still didn't take full advantage of their capabilities.

Eventually, as the years passed, I found myself doing rough drafts on paper and then immediately typing them into the computer. I then did all my rewrites onscreen, never printing the story out until it was finished and ready to submit to a publication. NOTE: Until fairly recently, there were few markets that accepted electronic submissions; it was all done with paper, stamps, envelopes, SASEs, and trips to the P.O.

Now, an older and (hopefully) wiser writer, I seldom print out my stories at all, unless they are to be submitted via snailmail. I compose the rough draft onscreen, do all my corrections and editing onscreen, and then either submit the story via e-mail or via an online submission website like those at AHMM and EQMM. Paper is never involved, before, during, or after.

But I confess that there are still times when I prefer working with a hardcopy. For years now, I've served as a judge for a number of fiction-writing competitions, and I always ask the folks running the contests to make copies of their printed submissions and snailmail them to me for judging. Why? Because it truly is easier, and even faster, for me to read dozens of manuscripts if they're printed instead of electronic. It's just easier on my eyes. I also prefer having the students in my writing classes give me double-spaced hardcopies of their stories for critique. They're not only easier to read that way, they're easier to mark with corrections and suggestions.

I should also mention (this is a bit off the subject) that there are some writers--although I personally know only one--who edit as they go, making corrections online to everything they've written that day, so that when they're done with their story or novel, whether it's four pages long or four hundred pages long, they're done. Finished. No rewriting. I have trouble even imagining such a thing. In fact I do the exact opposite. I always write a rough (translate that as pitiful) draft of the whole project first, whether it's four pages long or four hundred pages long, and only after that draft is finished do I go back and edit it. Several times. My reasoning is that sometimes I find myself changing the plotline--or the characters, or the POV--in midstream, and if you do that, the process of editing "as you go" becomes a huge timewaster, because you wind up having to go back and change things that you previously edited and had thought were completed. Oh well--to each his own. As Robert Duvall said in a recent movie, "Am I right, or Amarillo?"

Questions for the Draft board

If you're a writer, you've been through the processes. What's your method? Do you write everything on the computer, from the get-go? Do you write drafts first in longhand and then transcribe? Do you edit offscreen, or onscreen? Does anyone do as I do, and rarely print anything out? Do you find it's easier to read a printed manuscript than to read one onscreen? Do you feel you have to use a printout to do effective editing and revisions? Do you edit as-you-go, or only afterward?

Okay, I'm done. I wish I could tell you this column required no corrections and no re-writing. I'll tell you this, though: I've not yet printed it out.

Maybe I should have . . .

19 September 2014

When I Was Three

by R.T. Lawton

It's been three years now. To tell the truth, I never thought, even at the low rate of posting once every fortnight Friday, that I would last three years at this blogging thing. So far, I've talked about writing topics and about my writing successes, failures, how-to's and humorous outcomes. Sometimes, as novelist Raphael Sabatini said, you just gotta laugh at the world. I've told tales of the street, touched on some facets of law enforcement and dug up facts on peoples, customs and oddities out of various times in history. Don't know what you guys out there thought upon reading some of these bi-weekly contributions, but it's been fun on this end. It's also been great learning about all you guys and what you know.

SIDE NOTE: Yeah, I know there appears to be a male gender in the word guys if you happen to be thinking in terms of guys and dolls, but in my 1960's Webster's, definition 3, Colloquial, it says person, which is not gender specific, thus I mean all of you. Sure, I almost lost the argument in my 1974 Webster's, but that dictionary is a small paperback version. And, I get my genderless definition back in my giant 2002 Barnes & Noble Webster's Encyclopedia version which says in definition 2: a group of people regardless of gender. Hope we're all good with that one..

As for my tales of the street, don't take any of those as bragging when I mention events I played a part in. For our Sleuth Sayers blog, they are merely meant as entertainment for yourselves and as possible use for characters or events in the writing of your fiction. When these same types of tales are told among law enforcement personnel, this becomes a way of informal training having nothing to do with age, rank or length of service in the field. Everyone learns from the storyteller, which may mean a better chance of survival on the street. Every agent has different experiences during his career, thus his or her telling of these experiences gives fellow officers a chance to learn what worked under a certain set of circumstances, and maybe what didn't work out so well and could be done better the next time those circumstances happen to occur. Either way, it could be a lesson in life or a life lesson.

Photo by Puschinka 2009
It has been my great pleasure to rub shoulders with all you posters and readers on this blog site for the last three years, and to actually have been able to meet and converse with a few of you in person at writers conferences or other gatherings. Know that I look forward to your future postings and comments.

Happy 3rd Sleuth Sayers Birthday to all and a special thanks to Leigh, Rob and everybody else who keep this thing going..

18 September 2014

The Cost of Congeniality

by Brian Thornton

"Oh Be-HAAAAAVE...."

                                                                          - Austin Danger Powers

The above quote from Mike Myers' immortal creation ought to be a catchphrase for every author out there trying to make a buck. The walking Male Symbol (tm) gives great advice, especially for writers of both the established and the up-and-coming variety, and especially when it comes to presenting a public face to a world full of (hopefully) customers ready to buy and read their books!

Yeah, Baby, YEAH!
What do the pithy quotes from a made-up British super-spy have to do with good writer behavior?

It's simple, and the root word for 'behavior."

But, hey, since if you couldn't spell, you wouldn't be here, spending part of your day reading this, let me spell it out for you:


Simple, right?

Well, sure.

But as anyone with any experience doing the simple things will likely tell you, "simple" and "easy" are not the same thing. Hell, they're not even the same word. Or even variants on said word (see "behavior" above).

And all too many of us find that "behaving" is easier said than done.

Especially in the so-called "virtual world" of the internet.

That's why it's so important, especially for an author, someone cultivating a public persona, or to use the current popular parlance, a "brand," to have a grip on what does and does not constitute "behaving."

And oddly enough, it can be completely counter-intuitive.

Let me give you an example.

REVIEWS (Customer or professional)

Let's imagine that you are signing your books after having given a riveting reading. On this day, in particular, you KILLED, really nailed it, and your books are flying off the shelves! Cha-CHING! The bookstore sponsoring the event has already asked you back when your next book pubs. Double Cha-CHING!

And then it happens: you can't help but overhear a couple of patrons complaining about the lay-out of your book. And one of them says the magic words guaranteed to cause an author to spontaneously burst into a fiery column of frustration: "I don't know what the writer was thinking with this layout!"

Now, this is real-world and potentially face-to-face, so if you're really socially adept, it's entirely possible that you can smoothly insert yourself into that conversation and clarify that you did not have final refusal on the layout/color scheme of your books, thereby burnishing your bonafides as a nice person with good taste, all without sounding either defensive or priggish.

It is possible.

In the real world.

(Although there are plenty of authors who are not socially adept enough to navigate that conversation, and if you're one of those authors, steer clear!)

Now imagine this conversation is taking place online.

What should you do?

Unless a response is solicited, keep your yap shut.

Especially if this type of unwarranted criticism is coming in the form of a customer review, on, say, Amazon, B&N, etc.

Customer reviews are conversations not intended for the ears of authors, so if you go read them (and I  know a TON of authors who actually perform this sort of self-mutilation on a daily basis!) you're literally eavesdropping on a conversation not intended for your ears.

And the example above, the one about "layout"? Well, I lived that, reading someone kvetch about it in an Amazon review of one of my books.

I wanted to contact the reviewer either publicly or privately and explain that I had nearly zero control over the lay-out of my book. Rather than contact the reviewer, I did the sensible thing.

I talked to my wife about it. She's the sensible one in this marriage. Me, I'm just sensible enough to listen to her when she dispenses the good stuff. This was some good stuff.

"Don't bother," she said. "It's not worth it." When I protested about the lack of fairness of the whole situation, my wonderful wife, not one to beat around the bush, cut right to the point: "I don't care about this other person we've never met and who doesn't know either of us at all. I care about you." And then she reiterated, "It's not worth it."

After some thought and some delving into the reviewer in question's other reviews (nearly all negative in one way or another), I had to concede she was right.

It's a dictum I heard a whole lot back before Facebook and Twitter, back in the days when people used to argue nearly exclusively via email list or usenet groups: "Don't feed the trolls."


A friend of mine is a fan of the writing of an incredibly successful thriller writer who shall remain nameless. I do not share my friend's enthusiasm for said writer. And frankly he doesn't need me to earn out. The guy's rolling in it. And hey, good for him. I've met him several times at various writers' 'dos' and he's always been personable and engaging. I wish him every success.

My friend who is a fan of his work discovered said work after meeting this author while visiting our fabulous local mystery bookshop (Hint: I live in the Seattle area. Need I say more?). He said of the encounter, "The guy could sell ice cubes to eskimos. He just was not going to take no for an answer, asked me what sort of writing I enjoyed, along with other probing questions, and suggested several of his works, two of which I eventually bought."

Nothing wrong with that, right? An author who takes "customer service" personally? This isn't the first or only account of this type I've heard about the author in question. He's well-known for this proclivity amongst the denizens of the mystery writing community.

But wait, you say, I'm not that kind of person!

That's also fine. But if you want to sell books, then you'd better expect to hear some nutty requests that seem perfectly reasonable to those making them. Especially if you run your own author's page and answer your own email.

I am acquainted (although not well) with another author, hard-working, talented as hell, and fun and funny to be around. I was on an author panel with her once that will live in my memory for decades to come. She was hilarious!

Unfortunately that acerbic sense of humor doesn't always translate well when answering the email/Facebook requests of would-be customers. Without getting into details, my colleague recently stirred up a minor controversy by answering acerbically, pointedly, publicly (and honestly) some rather dunderheaded requests for information about her books.

Annoying? Sure.


The requests were opportunities to win over new fans. When I heard about the hue and cry in response to what she'd said, my heart genuinely went out the colleague (whose writing, I hasten to add, I very much enjoy). That said, I couldn't help but wonder how the successful thriller writer mentioned above might have handled the exact same scenario.

And that leads to my main dictum when dealing with people you'd like to convert into fans. As with other writers, industry professionals, hell, people you meet on the street...

It costs you nothing to be gracious!


It's a big, wide, scary virtual world out there. Here are some links intended to help guide authors both established and emerging navigate the tricky world of social media and we can use all the help we can get!

The Ultimate Social Media Guide for Writers

Essential Facebook Etiquette: 10 Dos and Don'ts

Social Networking Do's and Don't's

Author Etiquette 101: Do’s and Don’ts for Writers Using Social Media

Good Luck!


17 September 2014

Three Years Later...

Three years ago this web site and blog went live with John Floyd’s column “Plots and Plans”. Readers who have been with SleuthSayers from the beginning know it was spearheaded by former members of Criminal Brief, an influential web log devoted to mystery short fiction. CB, as it was affectionately known, had run its course. In 4½ years, it had covered a broad range of topics and insight in the realm of crime-writing. In the same month that Criminal Brief closed shop, September 2011, Leigh, Rob, John, and Deborah - as well as Janice Law, who had just joined CB seven months earlier - launched SleuthSayers. And what a great three years it has been.

Today we celebrate the third anniversary by bringing back all of the regular weekly columnists from Criminal Brief to provide brief updates of what they've done and where they've been during these three years. Let me say I’m glad to be back among old friends once again. So now I welcome to the stage Deborah, John, Melodie, Janice, Rob, Leigh, and Angela. It also seems fitting - we couldn't have it any other way - that Criminal Brief founder James Lincoln Warren will have the final word.

Thank you. And Happy SleuthSayers Anniversary!
— Steve Steinbock

Deborah Elliott-Upton
Deborah Elliott-Upton.  Criminal Brief arrived at a pivotal time of my life. I had finished teaching a series of writer’s workshops and longed for a new challenge. A weekly blog fit perfectly. I enjoyed the camaraderie of my fellow CB writers, some were new acquaintances, amid some I’d known for a while.  This allowed enough familiarity to be comfortable, enough new to make me strive to do my best. I think we learned from each other as much as we shared our knowledge and experiences with the readership.

My favorite columns to write for Criminal Brief during the four years were one on Nick Carter (great time researching that one!) and two that complimented the other: “Good Bad Guys” and “Bad Good Guys.” Of course, I have fond memories of my very first experience with CB with “Take a Seat” – my entrance to the blogging arena.

When James decided Criminal Brief should end, many of us immediately signed on as SleuthSayers. We met some new writers as columnists and also reached many new readers, too. Personally, I was most grateful for those that traveled with us from old to new blogs.

Taking a sabbatical from SleuthSayers, I went back to school, majoring in psychology. After all these years, I am still curious about what makes people tick and why they do or say or act like they do. These differences make life much more interesting. I plan to never stop learning and I can’t stop writing; both are addictions. I am so happy to be among people who feel as I do.

John Floyd
John M. Floyd.  There’s nothing special going on in my world, which is exactly the way I like it. I still teach fiction-writing classes in the Continuing Education department of a local college, I still carry out my wife’s every order (well, almost every order), and I still read or watch all the mystery/suspense books and movies I can get into my hands or my Netflix queue. In the summers I mow our yard once a week whether it needs it or not, and in the winters I spend a lot of time wishing we lived even further south. Since retiring, most of my traveling has been to visit our children or my mother, or to attend the occasional (but not often enough) Bouchercon.

On the writing/publishing front, I have two novels currently out with an agent who (bless his soul) remains excited and encouraging about them both, but--as always--most of my time is spent writing short stories. Over the past year I've been fortunate enough to place stories at AHMM, The Strand, Woman's World, and The Saturday Evening Post, and unfortunate enough to add a lot of entries to my stunningly long list of rejections. At the moment I have new stories upcoming at both AHMM and EQMM, and my fifth book will be released next month. This one is another collection of shorts, appropriately titled Fifty Mysteries.

Melodie Johnson Howe
Melodie Johnson Howe.  I miss blogging and my blogging buds. But I have been busy, busy. My new Diana Poole novel, City of Mirrors, has been received with raves and I have a contract for the second in the series. I’m writing away and pop my head up to go to Bouchercon, and speaking engagements. City of Mirrors has come out in the UK in e-book, so you Brits out there take a look at it.

I’m looking forward to the Bewitched Fanfare later this month. They will be showing ‘Generation Zap’, the episode I starred in. I will be interviewed afterwards. Who knew there was a Bewitched Fanfare?! It’s in L.A. at the Sportsmen’s Lodge. This should be fun. My long ago acting career is alive!

We have a new puppy called Satchmo in honor of Louis Armstrong. The attendant at the vet thought Satchmo was named after an action hero. I told her he was. Which reminds me of a black standard poodle we had called Madame Bovary. And people kept calling her Ovary. But I digress.

We have a great granddaughter, Addison, who just turned one. Beyond adorable. Bones and I will be married for 50 years in March. What’s in a number? Many years of living, adjusting, talking, laughing, arguing, passion, and always love and respect.

I must leave now to get my roots blonded. I find it’s good for the soul and creativity.

Janice Law Trecker
Janice Law.  Since Criminal Brief shut down, I spent a year writing bi-weekly blogs for Sleuthsayers and discovered that I do not have an endless supply of clever ideas and interesting activities. The SS gang has been kind about allowing me an occasional space.

I have published the three volumes of my trilogy featuring Francis Bacon, painter, as the detective, which is not as impressive as it might sound given that I sent The Fires of London to my then agent in 2006 and did not find a publisher until Otto Penzler accepted it for mysteriouspress.com in 2011. Because I had ignored the hint that the publishing world was uninterested in both me and Francis, I already had the second novel, Prisoner of the Riviera, written by this time. The publishing mills grind exceedingly slowly in my case.

I have also published a volume of short stories – don’t ask me how long Blood in the Water looked for a publisher – and thanks to a suggestion by Rob Lopresti, there have been numerous outings for Madame Selina and her assistant, Nip, in AHMM. I think it is about time Nip acquired a legitimate trade or profession and Madame retired to Newport or Saratoga.

Lately, I have been trying to market some novels close to my heart but apparently not to the demands of the market. As a result, I’m spending a lot of time painting, with quite happy results.

Robert Lopresti
Robert Lopresti.  What have I done in the last three years? Gotten much more than three years older, I think. Sold ten stories, more or less. Won two awards.

The future looks exciting. My first collection of short stories will be self-published quite soon. A new novel will be out next year. (Can't tell you about it yet, but I wrote a lot about it in the first year of SleuthSayers.) And, speaking of blogs, I have a new one starting next year. No, I won't be leaving SS, but I hope a lot of you will enjoy it. Read all about it here on January 7. In fact, I hope all you good folks will keep reading what we turn out here. You make it all worthwhile.

Leigh Lundin
Leigh Lundin.  In comparison with my colleagues, I submit very little but work a lot. I know, I know; I actually have to send things in!

The problem with ADD is that too many things interest me. Not long ago, I helped edit math textbooks and wrote a few chapters for one. More recently I’ve been editing novels of new authors who’ve turned their backs on the self-pub short-cuts and want to present at a professional level.

A couple of stories are wending their way to editors’ desks and I’ve been working on a couple of novel-length projects. Well, one's a novel and one isn't, but more on that later.

In the meantime, SleuthSayers keeps me occupied, albeit with considerable help from my cohorts, especially Rob. And did I mention I spent the better part of a year in South Africa? And would love to again?

Steve Steinbock
Steve Steinbock.  For a fuller disclosure of what I've been up to since the days of Criminal Brief, take a look at my recent guest post here on Sleuthsayers. The short version: Last year I attended a large number of mystery conventions and events - Bouchercon, Bloody Words, The Edgars, and Malice Domestic - as well as, on a lark, a Dark Shadows gathering in Tarrytown, New York. I continue to write my regular Jury Box colum in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

On the personal side, my youngest child just began his senior year of high school. After he graduates, I plan to relocate to Washington State, just a few hours from Sleuthsayer and former Criminal Briefer Robert Lopresti. I spent most of this past summer in the desert region of Eastern Washington as well as in Seattle. I also took my son on a college exploratory trip to California, where we were able to catch up with old friends James Lincoln Warren, Melodie Johnson Howe, and Murder She Wrote and Columbo creator William Link.

Angela Zeman
Angela Zeman.  Hello! It’s been forever since I’ve checked in on SleuthSayers, thanks, Leigh for the invitation. When browsing your blogs, I detected that nobody here has been idle. (Elementary, heh heh.)

Life is good. I'm still attached to the amazing Barry Zeman, who Leigh thinks would make an ideal Mickey Spillane.

Since appearing in the Mystery Writers of America anthology, The Prosecution Rests, I've continued to write and developed a high-end web site. Most of you know that for several years, disk/back issues have disrupted my writing and my life. But tah-dah, it’s over. Well, I’ve had to stop leaping tall buildings. But I’m content with short hops. So, friends, to all directly concerned with my production (you know who you are) whatever I promised you… it’s going to arrive late. But I’m on it, no worries.

Oh yes, I'm 30,000 words into a thriller with a touch of horror. I'm so excited to be writing again!

James Lincoln Warren
James Lincoln Warren.  By 2006, I had tried at least twice (two-and-a-half times, if you count my short-lived Diction City Police Department attempt) to establish a presence on the internet as an author with his own blog. Can you say crash and burn? Running a personal web log takes a hell of a lot of work and a monstrous amount of discipline—that, or a pathological graphomania, and I’m a slow writer. Frankly, it isn’t possible to keep such a website completely current, and since new posts were generally erratic, it was also hard to keep it fresh. A blog really needs to be updated every day.

Several of my novelist friends had solved the necessary-update-every-day problem by joining rotating blogs, i.e., they shared the same blog, but each author posted on a regular schedule once a week. So I thought, why not a rotating blog for short story writers?

I pitched the idea to Rob Lopresti, who was enthusiastic, and after both of us had worked in putting together a regular list of contributors, Criminal Brief was launched on May 7, 2007. It was a resounding success.

The “Mystery Short Story Web Log Project” lasted for four and a half years. It was a very different website from SleuthSayers in a couple of ways. First, it had an extremely specific goal, to wit, promoting the crime short story, although other peripherally related topics were tolerated. Secondly, I was the editor and ultimate authority regarding what could be posted. (This latter condition caused some friction now and again.)

But toward the end, its content had gotten so broad that it was no longer even remotely sticking to the topic. Since it had pretty much become a non-paying full-time job for me, this made me unhappy. I was working very hard on something I did not really have a passion for.

Was CB still relevant to its primary purpose? The answer was clearly no. But then I realized that CB had actually accomplished its purpose. I wasn’t willing to let what had been so lovingly been crafted turn into just another author blog, not that I have any objection to such blogs, but the reason Rob and I had founded CB in the first place was because we wanted something unique. Regretfully, I decided to shut it down. That pretty much made everybody unhappy.

So I suggested to the others that if they wanted to continue to write posts, that they establish a new blog among themselves with a broader mandate. The indefatigable Leigh Lundin picked up the gauntlet, and three of the seven authors from CB joined him, which I thought was absolutely grand, and the SleuthSayers shortly thereafter began to pronounce their auguries. Look at them now!

SleuthSayers is a much bigger project than CB ever was. From the short story acorn has grown a mighty oak of crime fiction contributors. Here’s Criminal Brief’s swan song. That will tell you what I think we achieved, and explain my pride in the project. One thing at the time I didn’t suspect was what would happen to that acorn, though—I only left it on the ground. The SleuthSayers themselves are the ones who nurtured, pruned, and watered it into what it is now, and they’re the ones who should be justifiably proud of their accomplishments.

16 September 2014

Rangitoto Island, etc.

by Stephen Ross

It's Friday. I'm reclining on an orange sofa in the lunch room (so orange in color, it's probably radioactive). I've got my iPhone open to Google Docs and my wireless keyboard Bluetoothed in. It's my lunch break and I'm trying to think of something to write about, as two of the ideas I had for this week's article have lately been written about.

And then I have a conversation with a friend about Machado de Assis' Dom Casmurro (an excellent read, by the way), and Rangitoto Island, which is on display through the lunch room window. And then I think maybe I should finally visit Rangitoto and research it for a possible short story setting (I've spent about 75% of my life living in Auckland City, and I've never once set sail across that short stretch of water to the island).

And then I'm commuting home. I'd love to be able to write my book/short stories on the bus on my morning and evening commutes, but (and I've tried), there are too many distractions, too many bumps, too many tight corners, and way too many passengers discussing their current critical concerns: "Have you ever been inside a mental institution?" (An actual question put to me from a girl with faraway eyes).

I'm one of those lucky writers who earn their entire living from writing. Words pay my bills. However, the writing of mystery fiction is only a supplemental part of that income. I have a day job in a software company as a technical writer. I write instruction manuals and technical guides (I'm one of those people for whom RTFM holds deep meaning and significance).

Monday to Friday, nine to five, I work at a desk in the middle of an open-plan office. I'm surrounded by software developers -- a form of wildlife that is congenitally noisy and borderline insane (the typical desk of a software developer is an anthropologist's field trip). In fact, I'm quite sure the IT field was invented so that eccentric people would have somewhere warm to gather and work. I just know one day I'm going to arrive at the office in the morning, step out of the elevator, and be passed in the hallway by someone on a unicycle. It's like holding down a job in P.G. Wodehouse's Drones Club.

I could not write fiction at that desk, not in the middle of all that commotion and chatter. And to even write tech documentation, I often have to counter the distraction by putting in earbuds, with industrial-strength construction-yard earmuffs over that, and crank up a LOUD ROCK Spotify playlist (I couldn't write fiction listening to that, either).

And therein hides one of the only real points of this little piece (thankfully, a theme has emerged): that there's a big difference between the mindset required for technical writing and that of fiction writing. They are two very different beasts.

There aren't many adjectives and adverbs used in technical documentation; the "voice" of tech writing is the driest voice in literature. It's the Sahara Desert (without the dunes). It lies somewhere between Walter Cronkite and the voice of HAL the computer (from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey). It is authoritative, wholly objective, direct, and emotionally void, or as a boss once intoned in my early days of tech writing: "You are the voice of God."

To write fiction, I need a completely different environment. Thankfully, at my house, I have a room of one's own. My office (study, writing room, studio, factory, boudoir, cave -- I never know what to call it) is a small room on the second floor, and it has a view of a lake (at least, where the sight of it isn't obscured by the houses across the street).

My writing desk is relatively small (about half the size of my desk at my day job) and has two computer monitors on it placed side by side. Configured like that, I can see six pages of a Microsoft Word document spread out at one time without scrolling (about 1400-1600 words). There is nothing on the off-white wall above the desk and the only thing that moves in the room (apart from me) is the second hand of my wristwatch. It is a distraction-free zone.

To write fiction, I need calmness. I need peace and quiet and zero interruptions to write about murder and mayhem, and it took me years to distill and quantify that state. I need to concentrate. I need to be totally IN the story.

If technical documentation is the voice of God, does that make crime fiction the voice of the Devil?

The only distraction I can't escape in my "room where I write", however, is the sound that pours in from outside in the street. Gentle reader, I live in Noise Zealand.

On weekends, when the sun comes up, New Zealanders go outside. They mow lawns, they whack weeds, they wash cars; they stand in their front yards, drink beer and discuss their current critical concerns. Their kids go abstract expressionistic and decorate the sidewalk with pink chalk, or restage the D-Day landings with lightsabers and soap bubbles, or simply stand in one spot and SCREAM.

To counter this racket on weekends, I'll wedge in my "Bullets" (my noise-reduction earplugs). My Bullet earplugs are rated at 30 decibels, which is enough to muffle and hide most sound. And yes, the soft foam plugs are shaped exactly like bullets (from a .45). Perfect for the crime writer! And if not earplugs, I'll put in my earbuds and go back to Spotify.

Rangitoto Island
Spotify, in case you don't know, is an online music service. You can custom-create playlists, selecting from around 20 million pieces of music, including classical, soundtracks, jazz, funk, and everything in pop from Abba to Zappa. I've created several playlists specifically for writing. One of these is labeled "Writing Background" and contains 20 hours of music, ranging in styles from drone and mediation "atmospheres", to soft lounge music (Disclaimer: I don't own shares in the Spotify company).

Writing at night is another country. After dark, certainly after about 10, the typical suburban New Zealander has gone indoors -- to do what, I don't really know, but it probably involves the Internet, YouTube, and cats. A Wi-Fi scan after dark (or on rainy afternoons) lights up with around 40 different signals, all within a hundred foot radius of my desk.

Natürlich, I write best at night.

Writing fiction is like meditation. Actually, it is meditation -- a creative meditation. If I'm in the zone, I can write. Knocked out of the zone, and I may as well go outside into my front yard and discuss my current critical concerns. With my mailbox. In the moonlight.

And that's the way it is.

Be seeing you.


15 September 2014

A Cinderella Sleuth Story with a $5000 Prize

Melissa Yuan-Innes
by Melissa Yi

Hope Sze’s tale

Once upon a time, in the 21st century, a poor student lived in Montreal’s mouse-infested apartments, tending to the sick at all hours of the day or night, while more senior physicians mocked her and tore her dreams to cinders. Until one day, our Cinderella doc discovered a body outside an operating theatre. (Code Blues)

The other practitioners fled in fear, and ordered her to leave the case to the constabulary, but Cinderdoc set upon her own quest to discover the killer. And verily, she did, and it was good.

© savemiette
Two Princes stepped forward to claim her, eyes glassy with admiration, but first a grieving mother (Notorious D.O.C.) and then an illusionist (Terminally Ill) pressed their cases upon Cinderdoc, beseeching her for help. And so Cinderdoc became CinderSleuth, incessantly healing the ill and investigating the lawless.

Melissa Yi’s tale

Once upon a time, a starry-eyed girl longed to become a writer, but her parents and the rest of society urged her toward the far-safer path of medical school. While dissecting cadavers, Melissa’s subconscious brain rebelled and she began spinning an award-winning tale about corpses and music.

During residency, she continued weaving fantastic fables about vampirish school girls, wizards, and psychic children. After graduation, between shifts in emergency medicine, she renamed her alter ego Melissa Yi and created Dr. Hope Sze, the resident doctor who could fight crime as well as disease.

Occasionally, Melissa’s stories appeared in periodicals and anthologies distributed across the Commonwealth. But still, Melissa toiled in the trenches, longing for a fairy godeditor to touch her with a magic wand.

As Melissa crouched over her laptop in despair, two new fairy godparents appeared. The first was nearly invisible, but spoke with a seductive voice and carried a fortune in her hands. She said, “Come with me, child. You no longer need a magic wand to transmit your stories around the globe. With the tap of your keyboard, you can release Hope to the world through the miracle of independent publishing.”

The second godparent read the Hope stories and nodded his head in approval. “Melissa, my name is Kobo. I would like to offer you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We are hosting a ball to celebrate Princess Gillian Flynn. Would you like to write three psychological thriller tales in honour of her ascendant Gone Girl? Everyone who attends the ball and solves the riddles based on your stories may be awarded five thousand dollars.”

Melissa flew to the ball faster than a pumpkin coach could carry her, already formulating the stories in her mind.

Your tale

Once upon a time, which is now: A sharp-eyed, sharp-witted reader could win a Kobo Aura H2O and five thousand dollars. The best part of any fairy tale is the happily ever after, and in this case, it could be yours!

Kobo is sponsoring the Going Going Gone contest, which features three Hope Sze Gone Fishing mystery short stories. Hope escaped the hospital to take her dad fishing on the Madawaska River for his birthday, only to discover that her own family might represent the most dangerous wildlife of all.

Download the stories for free (“Cain and Abel,” “Trouble and Strife,” and “Butcher’s Hook”), solve one riddle per story, and you could win five thousand dollars.

Readers are rarely rewarded and fêted in our society, let alone fiercely intelligent readers who can solve ten puzzles before breakfast. When Steve Steinbock introduced me to SleuthSayers, I told Kobo, “These are exactly the people we need to talk to.” Gigantic thanks to Velma and Leigh for fitting me in on a tight deadline.

Please feel free to share the link, to brainstorm solutions together, and of course to admire Kobo’s beautiful platform and their newest e-reader, the Aura H2O, which can be read underwater! What would you do with five thousand dollars?

P.S. I was going to title this blog Cinderella with Guns, for no good reason except I liked the idea of a Cinderella detective, armed and dangerous. Someone beat me to it!

More Information

‘Going, Going, Gone’
Kobo Contest Challenges Mystery Lovers
Gather Clues For a Chance To Win
a Kobo Aura H2O and $5,000

by René d’Entremont

Toronto, September 5, 2014 – When not one but two bestselling thrillers are turned into highly anticipated, soon-to-be-released films, it is an opportunity too good to miss.

In anticipation of the release of film adaptations of Gillian Flynn’s hit suspense novels Gone Girl and Dark Places, Kobo, a global leader in eReading, today launched ‘Going, Going, Gone’ – a thrilling new contest that will put readers’ sleuthing skills to the test. The six-week contest closes on October 10, one week after the release of Gone Girl on October 3.

Read the eBooks. Solve the riddles. Enter for a chance to win $5,000 CAD and a Kobo Aura H2O.

Kicking off today, readers have the opportunity to channel their inner sleuth to solve puzzles by gathering clues found in three original short stories authored by acclaimed mystery writer Melissa Yi, available free of charge at the Kobo bookstore.

In the first story Cain and Abel, released today, readers are invited to go along for the ride when a camping weekend leads to much more drama – and distress – than desired.

Every two weeks, a new story will be released containing clues readers will use to figure out that story’s entry code. Three correct entry codes will enter readers into a contest for a chance to win a Kobo Aura H2O and $5,000 CAD.

“Blockbuster thrillers, such as Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places and Gone Girl, have always transported readers to new worlds. We’ve partnered on this exciting project with hot up-and-coming mystery writer Melissa Yi to take that idea to a whole new level,” said Robyn Baldwin, Marketing Manager, Kobo. “Booklovers will delve deeper than ever before into the kind of chilling mysteries that make the works of Gillian Flynn so incredibly popular—getting the chance to play detective in a fresh and exciting way.”

"It was wonderful to work with Kobo on such an imaginative contest," said Melissa Yi, Author. "I'm a huge fan of Gillian Flynn's work, so it's an honour to be able to connect with her books in such an innovative way. In the theatre, they talk about the fourth wall between the actors and the audience. As a writer, I feel like this contest breaks down the fourth wall between writers and the readers, so that the audience can dive into the stories — exploring and experiencing the mysteries for themselves."

Yi is a Southern Ontario-based thriller author and physician who channels her experiences as a medical doctor to write about everything from articles for the Medical Post to medical mysteries, suspense and romance novels. Her latest Hope Sze medical mystery, Terminally Ill, hit the Kobo Top 50 eBook List after Publishers Weekly hailed it as “entertaining and insightful.”

How to Play
  • Download the free Kobo reading app – available for the most popular smartphones and tablets – to read the short stories containing important clues needed to solve the riddles and identify the entry codes.
  • Download the stories. There are three short stories in all, and three codes needed to enter the contest.
  • Readers must enter all three entry codes correctly for a chance to win. Sharing this contest with friends and followers via Facebook, Twitter and email will earn additional entries.
  • The contest is open to legal residents of US, UK and Canada (excluding Québec). No purchase necessary. See full terms and conditions. (PDF)

The first short story, Cain and Abel, is now available and can be read with a Kobo eReader or any of the company’s apps.

The series includes:
  • September 05 – Cain and Abel
  • September 16 – Trouble and Strife
  • September 29 – Butcher’s Hook
For more information about author Melissa Yi, please visit her web site.

About Rakuten Kobo Inc.

Rakuten Kobo Inc. is one of the world’s fastest-growing eReading services offering more than 4-million eBooks and magazines to millions of customers in 190 countries. Believing that consumers should have the freedom to read any book on any device, Kobo provides consumers with a choice when reading. Kobo offers an eReader for everyone with a wide variety of E Ink eReaders and Google-Certified Android tablets to suit any Reader’s style including the award-winning Kobo Touch™, Kobo Mini, Kobo Glo, Kobo Aura, Kobo Aura HD, Kobo Arc, Kobo Arc 7, Kobo Arc 7HD, Kobo Arc 10HD – and the newly launched Kobo Aura H2O. Along with the company’s free top-ranking eReading apps for Apple®, BlackBerry®, Android®, and Windows®, Kobo ensures the next great read is just a page-turn away. Headquartered in Toronto and owned by Tokyo-based Rakuten, Kobo eReaders can be found in major retail chains around the world. For more information, visit Kobo.com

14 September 2014

The Sausage Factory

by Leigh Lundin

Rob Lopresti wrote about the ordering of chronological events that might be revealed in a story, e.g, relating event 2 before telling us about event 1. I find I’m no stranger to unveiling events out of sequence, although I probably lay things out as they happen more often than not.

Like Melodie Campbell, I’m a plotter. I need to know a story complete, how it ends before I start writing, even if characters sometimes push their own agendas.

Part of this comes from my experience as a software architect. I designed very intricate systems software, which John Floyd and Darlene Poier will understand. Fifty- or a hundred-thousand lines of machine code must work perfectly, step-by-step, or disaster strikes. As a manager, one of the most negative signs of talent was a programmer who started writing code the day he received his assignment instead of taking days or even weeks to fully understand and plan the project. Know the ending before beginning was a key to success.

Wurst Notions

Filmmakers often compare making movies to making sausage: you don’t want to know how it’s done. Sometimes I think that’s true of writing fiction.

When I stretch out on the sofa with my eyes closed, I’m working. Don’t be fooled by snoring, I’m still working. Like a video, I run a story through my head, pausing, rewinding, reworking, re-editing to get it right. The movie in my mind has to work before I’m ready to turn it into digital ones and zeros or splatter it on paper.

One advantage to this approach is that just as movie makers often film scenes out of sequence, I occasionally write my scenes out of sequence. Don’t worry– it’s all in my head, but I might choose to jot down particular parts before others.

By the Numbers

In the midst of editing for someone else, a story came to me that I needed to write. As long as I record the essentials, I can do both, much like I used to read more than one book at once. With the plot in mind and, using Rob’s notation, I began writing my scenes in the order of 3, 1, 4, 2.

This particularly story has an unusual feature, a semi-dénouement or false ending (scene 3 designated above). A character reveals how he outfoxed the bad guy, but then the tables turn in a red herring feeding frenzy (scene 4).

I thought I knew where I wanted my reader to begin– as near the end as possible, so goes the good advice. And thus I started with an opening scene that pulled all the characters together at once and went well. But then the real dénouement…

The grand plot was revealed in dialogue as mystery stories have done for the past century and a half. But my characters telling it sounded like blah-blah-blah. It was wooden. I was pretending to show, not tell. What would prevent a character, let alone the reader, from taking a commercial break and heading to the kitchen? The retelling was, well, telling.

Reading in the Dark

I’m the kind of guy who keeps readers in the dark. Why? Because that’s how I like to read, given the chance to use my brain to assemble clues and figure out what’s going on. I can’t simply watch a movie– my brain races ahead, parsing possible plot outcomes. Usually it’s a win either way: I feel satisfaction if I figure it out and, if a screenwriter fairly fools me, then kudos to them. So yeah, I think readers like their intelligence respected and challenged. Dale Andrews and I have discussed this and whether you like to solve the puzzle or if you simply like to relax and read at the end of a long day, we'd love to hear your opinion.

Other than scene setting, almost every sentence in this story attempts one of two contrary things: It either darkens the plot while secretly providing a clue, or a line seemly enlightens while actually misleading the reader.

But here in the grand dénouement, I hit a dead spot. The script turned grey and lifeless.

To bring immediacy to the writing, I briefly considered a flashback, but I realized scene 4 was a wrapper for an embedded scene 0, which takes place three years before the rest of the tale. A novelist might call it a prologue, but I don’t see it that way. It has action: things exploding, fires burning, tension bubbling, lots of trouble. What better way to open a story?

Surprisingly, after all this sausage grinding, the final product would read in chronological sequence.

Although my story isn’t honed at this hour (scene 2 still needs work), my sequence of laying down pieces has occurred in this order: 3, 1, 4, 2, 0, where the scenes are:
3. pseudo dénouement
1. story opening
4. true dénouement
2. main body
0. precipitating events

That sounds far more convoluted than what the reader will see:
0. precipitating events
1. story opening
2. main body
3. pseudo dénouement
4. true dénouement

The end.