26 March 2017

While We're at It

by R.T. Lawton

Most of us would agree that we're not in this for the money. We would prefer to say that we write because we love to write, or to have written (not quite the same thing), or to have an outlet for our creativity, or to entertain others. Take your pick. At various times I have fallen into each of the four categories. You may even have another reason, one which is all your own. Regardless of why we write, money still becomes a factor of some consideration. In which case, it's a good thing I have a nice pension to live on. Thus, when I hit the streets for research, I don't have to live there and spend the night huddled in the doorway of some downtown business.

Jan/Feb 2017 issue contains
the 9th story in my
Holiday Burglars series
Okay, I'll admit I'm a slow writer, plus I probably don't spend as much time at it as I should. But, I've also been told by fellow authors who write novels for small, but well-known publishing houses, that I probably make more money from just two short stories sold to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine in any one year than they make from their one novel's advance, plus royalties (if it earns out) in that same year. Many of these novelists end up spending their advance for marketing and publicity (because their publishing houses don't do it for them), hoping  to make up their net profit  later on their second or third published novel. Unfortunately, the Death Spiral often kicks in and it's time to start writing under a different name because publishers know the statistics for an author's name.

For those of you who haven't heard of the Death Spiral, it works like this. Say you got a print run of a thousand books and you had a sell through rate of 80%. Sounds like a high rate, but for the second novel, as it's been explained to me, the publisher looks at the figures and decides to do a second novel print run at 800 books. After all, that's what the first novel sold. If that second novel gets a sell through rate of 80%, then the third novel gets a print run of 640 books. At an 80% sell through rate, there won't be a fourth book.

Me, I don't write novels, except for that one completed novel still in the desk drawer where it truly belongs. Too much time invested for a potential rejection, whereas if one of my short stories gets rejected, well, it's merely less than 6% (on average) of the words invested in a novel. I can write 3-10 short stories a year (hey, I'm not as prolific as John Floyd), which is still less than the number of words I'd need for that one novel a year like the publishing industry wants. The problem with my situation is there are only about four top paying mystery markets out there for short stories. If I were to become really ambitious, I'd have to branch out into the sci-fi short story market.

For the basis of this argument, here are the numbers, strictly for my AHMM market.

36 Accepted   15 Rejected*   70.6% Acceptance Rate   $15,516 Money Earned for just those stories, plus $750 for reprint rights on 8 of those AHMM stories  $16,266 Total for only AHMM stories (I'm not getting rich, so you know I'm not bragging.)
          * Most rejections were early attempts as I learned my way in, but yep, I still get rejections.

Many of the small publishing houses only pay about a $500 advance for a novel, whereas I've been making about $900 average for two AHMM stories in any given year out of which I have to spend no money for marketing or publicity. Those 36 short stories I sold to AHMM totaled to about 190K words, which for me would make about three short novels over a several year period.

MY Conclusion: For time spent, money received and interest of mind, Guess I'll stick to short stories for as long as my market lasts, even though there is less prestige in them than in being known as a published novelist. And, if I did spend the time needed to write a novel, it would have to be good enough to sell to one of the big houses, with a much, much better advance than $500 (which incidentally is the payment for one 700 word mini-mystery for Woman's World magazine), else it's not worth the effort for me. No offense meant to anyone out there, because I'm talking about me and how I think about my situation. Plus, I couldn't write a novel a year.

So, that's my story. Everybody wants something different, has different circumstances and/or sees the business in a different way. What's your take on the money side of the business we're in?

Personally, I hope you're one of those novelists getting great advances, high figure print runs and  excellent sell through rates. And, if you operate as an e-book author, I hope you have a great marketing platform that's working for you. Find whatever edge you can get.

Best wishes to you all.

25 March 2017

Advances and Royalties and Agents, oh my! A Primer on Traditional Publishing

by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl, who is being especially good today)

Many here know I teach Crafting a Novel at Sheridan College in Toronto.  In weeks 13 and 14 of the course, we talk about the business of publishing.  I’ve prepared the following primer on traditional publishing to bring new authors up to speed on the basics, and thought it might be of interest to readers here.  (Insert caveat here: this is a general primer. Your deal or experience may be different.)

Advance:

…is just that.  It is an advance against the royalties the publisher expects you to earn.

If your book cover price is $10, and your royalties are 10%, then you can expect to make $1 per book sold at that cover price.  (Often, your publisher may sell for less when in bulk. And when that happens, you make 10% of the amount the book sold for, so a lot less.)

So…if you receive an advance of $5000 (which would be considered a nice advance in Canada from a traditional publisher) then you would have to sell 5001 books before you would start seeing royalties.  (At least.  It may be more like 7500, if they’ve sold some of your books below cover.)
In Canada, royalties are supposed to be distributed quarterly, according to standards set by TWUC (The Writers’ Union of Canada).  But this standard is not law; often, publishers ignore these guidelines and pay royalties semi-annually. 

Royalty Example:  Melodie sells 1200 copies of Rowena Through the Wall from Oct. 2015 to Dec. 2015.  She has already ‘sold through’ her advance in previous quarters (see below for an explanation of sell through.) The royalties on these sales will appear on the March 15 royalty statement.  So in fact, for a book sold Oct. 1, she won’t see her $1.50 until March 15, nearly 6 months later.  And that’s with the best kind of publisher.

Sell Through:

This is the term to describe if you have ‘made up’ your advance.  If, in the top example (advance of $5000,) your book has sold 5001 copies, you have ‘sold through’ your advance.

This is a key event in the life of your book, and a critical thing for your book to achieve.  If your book doesn’t sell through, then you are unlikely to get a new book contract from that publisher.

You can see why a large advance comes with stress.  The smaller your advance, the easier it is to sell through. 

(Even if you don’t sell through, you keep the full amount of the advance.)

Agents:

An agent handles the business side of your writing (contracts, etc.)  Agents typically take 15% of your income. 

So, if you got an advance of $1000 (a not unusual advance for a first book in Canada) an agent would take $150 of your advance.  Now you can see why it is so hard to get an agent.  They don’t want $150 for all their work – they want $1500 or more!  So until you are getting advances of $10,000, it is hard to get an agent.

Why you would want an agent:

Agents get you in the door at the big 5 publishing houses.  Most of the big publishers will only take query letters from agents.  If you are a published author already with a house, the main reason you would want an agent is to ‘trade up.’  i.e. – move from a smaller publisher to Penguin. 

Time from sale to bookstore with a traditional publisher:   
Usually 12 months to 18 months.  15 months is typical.

Deadlines: 

Miss your deadline with a traditional publisher, and you are toast.  This means deadlines for getting back on publisher edits too.  Production time in factories is booked long in advance.  If your book isn’t ready to go on the line in its slotted time, then your publisher loses money.  Say goodbye to your next sale.

Print on demand publishers: 

Some smaller traditional publishers have let go of production runs and are now using print on demand technology via Createspace.  Usually this means shorter time from sale to bookstore.  (i.e. a book sold to a publisher in March might be for sale by June.)

How bookstores work:

Bookstores typically buy books from the publisher or distributor at 60% of cover.  So the bookstore makes 40% (less shipping costs).  Usually the shipping costs are born by the retailer, but sometimes publishers will have specials.

BUT – if a book doesn’t sell, the retailer can rip off the cover, send the cover back to the publisher and get a full refund for the book.  The coverless books are then destroyed.  (Yes, it’s appalling.  It all has to do with shipping costs.  Not worth it to ship books back.)

Problem – this doesn’t work with print on demand books.  You can’t return anything to Createspace.  So retailers are reluctant to stock books that are not from traditional publishers using the traditional print-run method, because they can't return books that don't sell.

How long is your book on a shelf:

In a store like Chapters (the Canadian big-box equivalent of Barnes & Noble), if your book doesn’t sell in 45 days, they usually remove it.  Gone forever from the shelves, unless you become a NYT bestseller in the future, and they bring back your backlist.  Yes, this is unbelievably short.  It used to be 6 months.  The book business is brutal. 

I think the third word in that last line is the key.  The book business is a business.  It’s there to make a profit for shareholders.  We are in love with our products, so we find that hard to face.  I saw a study that said approximately 40% of writers are manic-depressive.

The rest of us just drink.

Melodie Campbell does her drinking in the Toronto area, where she writes funny books about a crime family.  Is it any wonder?  www.melodiecampbell.com

24 March 2017

Now for Something Different ...

by
O'Neil De Noux

Adventure novels, always loved them. From the Doc Savage - Man of Bronze books to H. Rider Haggard to David Dodge's PLUNDER OF THE SUN ... I could go on and on.

Secret Agent Spy novels, always loved them. From Ian Fleming to Len Deighton to Adam Hall to John le Carre ... again I could go on and on.

Adventure novels, always wanted to write one. So I wrote one with secret agent spies. Most fun I've had with a computer since I discovered the Bettie Page page. It started with an oil painting my artist-daughter Dana painted for me for Christmas or maybe my birthday.


The characters came next and as soon as I created them, they let me know they needed to be different from other secret agent spies. They needed special powers so I gave them super powers, which took the novel into the realm of the paranormal. All right. I grew up with SPIDER-MAN and DAREDEVIL and THE FASTASTIC FOUR ... I could go on and on.

OK, when does the story occur? I just finished my historical mystery THE FRENCH DETECTIVE (set in 1900), so let's go back in time, but not that far. As I kept looking at the tiger, I started thinking INDIANA JONES and the ultimate villains of the 20th Century - Nazis. Hey, I have all that research from my historical novel about OSS assassins set during World War II - DEATH ANGELS. So I set the book in 1936.

OK, where? Some place different. I know - Macao (now spelled Macau). And that's how it began. I put a character in a tuxedo, another in an evening gown and have them run into each other in a giant casino where there's a gunfight with Nazis and Japanese agents (can't leave out the villainous Japanese of 1936).

So where does the tiger tie in? Easy enough. India. So we're off to India. I gave my characters their super powers, added a mysterious stone with special powers and followed them from Macao to India to Goa and into the Indian Ocean to a secret island where Nazi scientists are experimenting on tigers.

Here's the result:

Here's the promo:

IT IS 1936 and the world is on the brink of war -

An American with special talents is sent to the Portuguese colony of Macao to discover why Japanese agents are frantically searching for a mysterious stone called the Blaer. Murder quickly follows as the American stumbles on a vivacious brunette who needs rescuing. Or does she? This audacious woman has her own special talents.

The chase is on as Japanese spies and German thugs pursue the American secret agents who turn out to be superheroes with super powers. Against a backdrop of exotic locales - a giant gambling casino in Macao, a voyage through the South China Sea through the Strait of Malacca into the Bay of Bengal to mainland India before our heroes travel to a lost island in the Arabian Sea to battle Nazi SS troop and evil scientists. The two Americans are drawn to one another on this plush island and become enmeshed in a struggle between good and evil.

What diabolical plan do Nazi scientists have for tigers? The perilous adventure becomes a deadly game of cat-and-mouse in the realm of the ultimate predator - the tiger.

Here is the link to the paperback and eBook: https://www.amazon.com/Lucifers-Tiger-paranormal-secret-agent-ebook/dp/B06XCQS4CL/

Can't wait for the 1-star reviews on Amazon. "Hey, what the hell is this?"


I'll close with a quote from William Sydney Porter - better known by his pseudonym O. Henry (who lived in New Orleans for a short while). He once said, "Write what you like; there's no other rule." Not sure he said this. I got it off the internet. But I hope he did.
www.oneildenoux.net


23 March 2017

Cliffhangers

by Rob Lopresti

This appeared on a different blog seven years ago and was one of my most popular pieces.   I figured many of you haven't read it and the rest have forgotten it, so....

LOOK OUT!
 
Don’t you see that car fishtailing up the road, barely staying on the pavement? It’s heading straight to the cliff, zooming like the brakes have been cut, and it seems that in just a few seconds it will crash to certain doom. We may have just enough time to figure out what kind of a novel we are in …

If the driver is the local aristocrat that everyone in the village hates and has reason to kill, this is a cosy.

If the driver is a young punk who has just realized, too late, that the beautiful woman he slept with last night had no intention of sharing the dough with him, this is a noir.

But if that punk has in his pocket a compromising photo that implicates a millionaire’s daughter in a vicious murder, we’re in a hard-boiled.

If the driver and passenger are currently engaged in an activity that might feature in a compromising photo, this could be pornography. The Supreme Court will know it when they see it.

If the driver is in a mad rush to get Scruffy to the vet, and Scruffy will eventually have to drag his master out of the burning wreck with his two remaining teeth, this is a dog novel.

If the driver, nursing deep scratches on both arms, is steering with one hand while trying to stuff poor kidnapped Mitzi back into the carrier case, this is a cat mystery.

If the driver is attempting suicide because he just discovered (on the day he got his license!) that his sexy driver’s ed teacher was only pretending to like him to get the attention of the hateful football coach, this is a coming-of-age novel.

None of the above.
If the driver is scrabbling at the door handle, clawing at it with both hands in a desperate attempt to throw himself out before it’s too late, this is a suspense novel.

If he took the wrong road because he just heard his wife being interviewed on the radio, and he thought she died in South America ten years before, it is psychological suspense.

If the handsome young man races up in a jeep at the last moment to pull the beautiful driver out the car, it’s a romance.

But if she realizes that that handsome young man had been tinkering with the car just before she got in it and she has to decide right now whether she trusts him or not, this is romantic suspense.

If the only one who had the chance to tamper with the brakes was the handsome young man’s insane mother, it’s a gothic.

If the car is being chased by a crack squad of militant monks because the driver is in possession of the only extant copy of the Perth Amboy Codex, an ancient manuscript that claims St. Paul was a woman, this is a religious thriller.

If the car is being chased by a tank, it’s is a war novel.

But if the tank is full of Confederate soldiers, this is alternate history fiction.

And now the car is flying off the cliff…

If the driver, an elderly Byelorussian, uses his last strength to toss from the car a blurry photograph with the words “Storm Captain, Morocco” scribbled on the back, this is an espionage novel.

But if, on the other hand, the driver, a handsome man with a ruthless expression and an ironic smile, jumps out the window and, by pressing the right lapel on his tuxedo, turns his pocket handkerchief into a fully-functional parachute, then this is a spy novel.

If the car suddenly emits a pale green light and takes straight off into the sky, it’s science fiction.

If little Maisy in the back seat prays really hard and the car lands, unharmed, in a tree, this is inspirational fiction.

If the driver manages to scrabble out to safety but the car, weighted down by a trunkful of gold bullion, sinks forever into the swamp, it’s a caper novel.

If that same driver lands safely in a pile of pig manure, it’s a comic caper novel.

Attribution below.
After the crash …

If the brake cable was sliced exactly 17 centimeters from the pedal with an Entwhistle Model 22K cable cutter, which is sold only by three hardware stores in the northeast, this is a police procedural.

If the car crashed because of a design flaw which only one engineer in the whole world can detect, and he is a drunken has-been, living on hand-outs from the company that made the mistake in the first place, this is a legal thriller.

If the driver is found to have a temperature of 105 degrees, green splotches on his skin, and breath that smells like nutmeg and old firecrackers, we’re in a medical thriller, and I hope you had your shots.

If it turns out the driver, alone in the car with all doors locked and windows closed, was stabbed through the heart with a dagger which is not even in the car, this is a locked room mystery.

If it turns out the driver died for no reason and everyone spends the rest of the book feeling very, very sad about it, this is mainstream literature.

If the driver turns to ashes as the sun comes over the horizon, this is a vampire novel.

If the driver turns out to be the president’s best friend, who hasn’t been seen since the day after the election, it’s a political thriller.

If the driver’s sister discovers a tragic secret in the wreckage, and has to decide whether to share it with the family, this is women’s fiction.

If the driver got the heel of her Manolo Blahnik caught in the gas pedal, this is chick lit.

If there is no driver, it’s a ghost story.

If the trunk contained forty-seven jars of homemade jelly which were intended for a tasting at the new gourmet food store in town, this is a novel with an amateur detective.

If this is the fifth car to zoom over a cliff in the last two years, it’s a serial killer novel.

If the pulverized remains of the murdered driver meld with the shattered remnants of the ruined auto and together they go in search of vengeance, this is a horror novel.

If, on closer examination, the car turns out to be a Conestoga wagon pulled by a team of horses, this is a western.

If the Conestoga wagon was pulled by a team of llamas, this is a very badly researched western.

If the car bounces, it’s fantasy.

Did I miss any?

Photo: By Matchstik (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

22 March 2017

TOM & LUCKY

David Edgerley Gates



In early 1936, the racket-busting New York prosecutor Tom Dewey went after the Mafia crime boss Lucky Luciano. They convicted him, and Luciano drew thirty to fifty. Ten years later, his sentence was commuted and Luciano was deported. Luciano's lawyer in the 1936 trial is a guy named George Morton Levy, not mobbed up by any means, but a regular Joe and a straight arrow. His legal notes, from a long and storied career, have gone unexamined since his death. The writer Chuck Greaves - a former lawyer himself - got access to Levy's papers. And thereby hangs a tale.

Chuck Greaves has two trains running. He's written a series of legal thrillers (three so far, very funny books), Hush Money, Green-Eyed Lady, and The Last Heir, and as C. Thomas Greaves, the noir historicals Hard Twisted and Tom & Lucky.

Tom & Lucky is, you guessed it, about you-know-who. Not to mention George Levy and a soiled dove called Cokey Flo Brown. Each of them gets a turn at bat, the novel told in multiple POV, winding the clock. The book's third act is the showdown in court, which is hotter than a matchhead. Hot enough, as Cokey Flo puts it, in a somewhat different context, that the people in the adjoining rooms could light up cigarettes.

Wait a moment, and savor that turn of phrase. The voices in Tom & Lucky are nothing if not engaging.  Cokey Flo tells her own story, first-person, third person for Dewey, Luciano, and George. That omniscient third is different for each of them, Dewey's reserved, a little chilly, even, Luciano's more interior, but not inviting (he's a moral leper and a psychopath, after all), and George's, finally, one that shares confidences, along with his humanity. Levy is the center of gravity, here. And regarding the voices, or the collective voice of the book, the effect is specific and immersive, a particular time and place.

Not that this is easy to do. In fact, the opposite. It's easy to trip yourself up. Inhabiting the past is tricky. Too much effort, and it shows. The smell of the lamp. You want to bait your hook with the evocative detail, but almost an afterthought, seemingly accidental, something thrown up by the context, yeast working in the dough. The casual aside, overheard, the careless glance. The other device in Tom & Lucky is the use of pulp conventions, again without breaking a sweat. Not just for momentum, or atmospherics - although they happen to work that way, too - but because they're familiar landmarks. Like compass points, they help orient us, both to the period and to the principal relationships. Everything's a transaction. It's about leverage and opportunity, palms and grease.

That said, Tom & Lucky is actually sort of counter-generic. The material is pulpy, the tabloid headlines at the time wrote themselves. Nor can you do a book about this kind of thing without getting into the down and dirty - and of course enjoying it. It's too juicy. George Levy gets his shot at defending Lucky? He'd be crazy not to. Nobody stays home on this one. At the same time, as sensational as all of it is, you don't have to add extra relish. Lurid is as lurid does. For my money, the real trick Chuck Greaves pulls off is that he reimagines the whole event, and doesn't take any cheap shortcuts. The tension is all in the telling. The people sound and seem entirely genuine, to the circumstances. They're not caricature. They're not noir tropes, or conveniences. They're immediately recognizable, their weaknesses, their heroics, their ambitions, their folly. They're in their native element, fully fleshed, and not as if they're posing on the horizon line of history, looking over their shoulder.

Chuck Greaves is published by Bloomsbury and by St. Martins's. The paperback edition of Tom & Lucky (and George & Cokey Flo) comes out April 11th, 2017.
http://chuckgreaves.com/



21 March 2017

Be They Sinister or Sleuthy, Seniors Have a Place in Short Stories

by Barb Goffman

Looks can be deceiving. No one knows that better than people who try to slip something past you. Con artists. Murderers. And sometimes even wide-eyed children and little old ladies. When you appear nice and innocent, folks will let you get away with murder.

I've written before about using teenage girls as protagonists. They work well as evil-doers or crime-commiters because no one suspects them. They're young and peppy and can come across as sweet if they try. They're also fearless and their brains aren't fully developed, so they'll do stupid things few adults would. Today, I'm going to focus on the other end of the age spectrum: the senior set. (I know some people don't like that term, but I mean no animus, so please bear with me.)

Imagine you come home to find your house burglarized, with your files ransacked and your computer--with all your notes--stolen. In real life, you'd call the cops, never thinking you personally could find the culprit. It could be anyone. But things are different for fictional Amateur Sleuth Sally.
Sally knows she's been investigating the arson death of poor Mr. Hooper, who owned the corner store. So with the neighbors leaning on their porches or whispering in small groups on their lawns, watching the police spectacle (it's a small town so there's spectacle), Sally goes outside and studies her prime suspects in the arson murder and her own burglary: those very same neighbors.

Is the culprit Oscar, the grouchy guy in the green bathrobe across the street who puts out his trash too early in the morning? Sally heard he owed Mr. Hooper money. Or is it Maria, the skinny lady who works at the library? She lives two doors down, and Sally has heard she spends time with Mr. Hooper when Mrs. Hooper is away on business--or at least she used to until Mrs. Hooper put a stop to it. Or was it Mrs. Hooper herself, the betrayed spouse? Sally has lots of questions and suspects, but she never stops to think about kindly Katrina, the grandmother who lives next door. Surely a woman who bakes cookies and serves as a crossing guard couldn't have done in Mr. Hooper.

You all know. Of course she did. And Sally Sleuth's failure to recognize that appearances can be deceiving will almost be her undoing. (Almost. This is a cozy novel I'm outlining, so Sally must prevail in the end.)

But things don't always tie up so neatly in short stories. In short stories, the bad guy can win. Or the ending can really surprise you. Or both. And kindly Katrina could end up pulling one over on Sally Sleuth. I've made use of this aspect of short stories in several of my own, particularly my latest two.

Everyone loves
cabernet

In my newest story, "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?," seventy-year-old Myra Wilkinson is in her final week of work. She's retiring on Friday after working for forty-five years as a law firm secretary, forty of them for the same guy, Douglas. But as her final day looms, Myra isn't as excited as she anticipated because Douglas has chosen Jessica, a husband-hunting hussy, to replace her. Jessica doesn't care about doing the job right, and this is bothering Myra to no end. Then something happens, and Myra realizes that Douglas has been taking her for granted. So she comes up with a scheme involving Douglas's favorite wine to teach Douglas a lesson and reveal Jessica for the slacker she really is.

The beauty of the plan is no one will see Myra coming. On the outside she's kind and helpful. She calls people "dear." As one character says, she's "the heart of this department." Myra's nice on the inside, too, but she also has sass and a temper, which come into play as she hatches her scheme and it plays out.

Another great thing about Myra is she's known Douglas for so long that she knows his weaknesses, and she makes use of them. (This reminds me of a wonderful scene from the movie Groundhog Day. Bill Murray's character says of God, "Maybe he's not omnipotent. He's just been around so long, he knows everything.") The older a character is, the more knowledge she'll have--information she can use against others.

Towanda!
An older person like Myra also might be willing to throw caution to the wind, seeing she's made it so far already. (That reminds me of a wonderful scene from the movie Fried Green Tomatoes in which Kathy Bates's middle-aged character is cheated out of a parking spot by two twenty-something women, one of whom says, "Face it, lady, we're younger and faster." Kathy Bates goes on to repeatedly ram her car into the the other woman's car, then says, "Face it, girls. I'm older and have more insurance." Granted Kathy Bates's character wasn't a senior citizen, but she had reached the point where she wasn't going to just take things anymore.)

Anyway, so what happens to Myra and Douglas and Jessica? You'll have to read the story to find out. You can read "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" in the new anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet, which was
published last week by Koehler Books. It includes seventeen stories of crime and wine and is available in hardcover, trade paperback, and e-book. Most of the stories are set in Virginia (where most of the authors live). Why is a book of wine mysteries set in Virginia? Well, our great commonwealth has a thriving, but perhaps not well known, wine industry. We hope to change that.

Getting back to seniors, Myra isn't my only recent senior character. In my story "The Best-Laid Plans" Eloise Nickel is a mystery writer, a grande dame of her profession, and she's being honored for her lifetime achievement at this year's Malice International convention. (Does this convention's name sound familiar? Good.) It's too bad for Eloise that the convention's guest of honor this year is Kimberly Siger, Eloise's nemesis. Then, to make matters worse, a few weeks before the convention, Kimberly insults Eloise in Mystery Queen Magazine. Eloise isn't going to take that, so she plans to make Kimberly suffer during the convention. Because she's known Kimberly for many years, Eloise knows Kimberly's weak spots. And because she's thought of as a nice, aging lady, she figures no one will suspect her of any nefarious doings. Do her plans work out? Read "The Best-Laid Plans" to find out. This story, published in the anthology Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional,  is a finalist for this year's Agatha Award. It's available on my website: www.barbgoffman.com/The_Best_Laid_Plans.html

So, fellow mystery authors, when you're thinking about your next plot and want a bad guy or gal who can hide in plain sight, think about a senior citizen. The same goes when you're devising your sleuth. A bad guy may not spill his guts if thirty-something Sally Sleuth is nearby, but he certainly might if Grandma Greta is. He thinks she's so innocuous, he won't see her coming--until she pulls a gun on him.

Do you have a favorite character--good gal or bad--who's a senior citizen? Please share in the comments. We can never have enough good short stories and books to read.

20 March 2017

Bad Review Blues

by Steve Liskow

Many years ago, when I could fit my theater resume on a matchbook, a local director asked me to produce his next play. He had years of experience so I thought I'd learn a lot from him, and I was right. Alas, when the play opened, we received a review that shredded the show inch by bloody inch. when I calmed down enough to read it with an open mind, I realized that the critic pointed out several bad choices we had made--updating the play made the mindset of the characters anachronistic, for example--and supported his opinions with facts and quotes. I learned more about theater from that bad review than I'd learned in the past year from friends and family telling me how wonderful I was.

Jump ahead thirty years...


A few months ago, someone on a writing group list complained about receiving a bad review for one of her books, and several other members of the group commiserated. They suggested reasons for the reviewer's bad opinion ranging from stupidity to prejudice about the genre to anger about the results of the November election. I didn't read the book, and what's even more interesting, I didn't get the impression that any of the dozen or so people who responded did either.

Even though I didn't read the book, the review struck me as possibly accurate because it included specific examples and passages. It also reminded me of a comment Chris Offutt made at the Wesleyan Writers Conference when I attended it: A hand-holding group is not really a group. It's a club.

You can learn more from a bad review than you can from a good one--assuming the review is legit and you're willing to polish your craft, both of which I admit are iffy.

Long-time agent Peter Riva wrote in Publisher's Weekly a few months ago that Amazon reviews are useless, and I'm willing to agree with him. If you're interested, here's a link to the article:


I get few reviews on Amazon so maybe this whole discussion is moot, but bad reviews aren't the end of the world. It that's all it takes to ruin your day, you need to get out more often. Let's look at the whole pie.

If you're a writer, you are selling your books. You're no different from a baker, tailor, carpenter, car mechanic or anyone else who provides goods or services for pay. If someone buys your product, they have the right to expect quality and also have the right to complain if they don't believe they got it. You should look at their complaint and learn why they're dissatisfied. Maybe their reasoning is weak or they misunderstood something, but you need to make sure. If they do have a reasonable case, you need to do better next time.


Restaurants come and go, and there are only three reasons for this: bad location, bad food or bad service. The first one is unalterable, but the others can be fixed. If many people say the fish is overcooked or they waited a long time for someone to take their order, the restaurant needs to do better. If they don't the word will get around and people will go elsewhere for that fish. It's the same with clothing, plumbers, tune-ups or books. Critics--the few who remain--are supped to help people spend their entertainment dollars wisely, so if they don't like a film, play, CD or book, they will say so. They should explain why (not), too.

This is where writers miss the gifts in a bad review. What they do well will never keep them from succeeding. When someone points out something they (read, "you") do poorly, they're doing you a favor. They're showing you what you need to fix. 

Granted, Riva's comments about useless reviews are easy to support. No one-sentence review is worth the second it takes to read it. No review that lacks details or examples can tell anyone anything. The more details and examples, the more valuable that review might be. 

Ignore the five-star reviews. That's easy for me, and you already know you're wonderful. But if you get a three-star review or lower, read it and see why the person gave you that score. If there's no reason or it doesn't match their details, ignore it. But if they offer details, maybe even quoting a passage or discussing a character, they're showing you how to improve your writing.

Don't worry about the idiots who give you one star because you write romance and they don't like romance. That just means you shouldn't offer more free downloads. Ditto if they don't like profanity and your characters curse a lot. That's their effing problem, not yours. 

But if someone points out that your character's behavior is inconsistent or hard to explain, maybe you should think about it. If they say they can't follow your plot because the events don't seem to lead from one to another, consider that, too. If someone says that she's never heard anyone speak the way your character does (Clockwork Orange is an exception), you need to write better dialogue.

Put simply, a review is a beta reader. It comes too late to help this book, but if someone points out something you do poorly, you owe it to yourself, your craft and your future sales to do it better next time.

When I send an MS to a beta reader, I tell them "I don't care what you like. Tell me everything that bothers, confuses, or upsets you, no matter how minor, even down to the type font. If they say something positive, I skim over it because I don't need to fix it.

But the beta reader who told me that Run Straight Down had "too much description and teacher routine in the first chapter" saved me from a bad review saying the same thing. Explanations and back-story belong later, after the plot and conflict gain some momentum. The Night Has 1000 Eyes made one beta reader say, "I wonder if this scene would have more impact if you put it in the other character's point of view."

Those comments helped me make the books better. What could I have done with "Gee, this is really great and I love your writing"?

Yeah, good reviews make us feel good, but they don't spur us to improve. I think I know my main weakness and I'm still trying to make those less visible, but someone has to remind me about them, preferably beta readers instead of reviewers.

If you don't want to get better, why are you writing in the first place?