Showing posts with label Jan Grape. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jan Grape. Show all posts

04 September 2022

Bloom Where You’re Planted


Richard Helms
Richard Helms

Allow me to introduce my friend and wonderful writer, Richard ‘Rick’ Helms, author of a zillion award-winning novels and short stories, a man who’s received more nominations than an Iowa caucus. A former forensic psychologist, he oozes Southern charm and he’s witty and modest as well.

He and his wife Elaine live in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he still muscles out superb stories. You can find more about him on his web site. Now read on…

— Jan Grape



Bloom Where You’re Planted
by
Richard Helms

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
— Ernest Hemingway

I wrote my first full-length novel forty years ago. It wasn't published for another eighteen years, after going through dozens of submissions and two different agents. The Valentine Profile is still out there, and—being my first work—it's perfectly horribly awful, and I hang my head in shame every time I think about it. Please don't buy it. Or buy a caseload. You do you.

Despite years of disappointment and an almost legendary number of rejections, I persisted, and wrote four or five more novels, which also weren't published for many years. With each new title, I tried to stretch and improve, and each new book was incrementally better than the last.

I was always reminded of Raymond Chandler’s advice to analyze and imitate. Not surprisingly, most of my first half dozen or so novels are extremely derivative of the authors I was reading at the time—Robert Ludlum, David Morrell, David Hagberg, James Lee Burke, Robert B. Parker, and the like. It takes time to find your voice as an author, so for a while you borrow other people’s voices. There are those who still say—and they aren’t far wrong—that my Eamon Gold private eye series is still just Spenser transported to the west coast.

For years, I didn't even consider writing short stories. I didn't think I had the chops. Like many new writers, I presumed that real authors wrote novels—huge sweeping panoramas of human greed, suffering, conflict, passion, and inevitable death. I earned a Russian Studies minor in college—long story—and might have been influenced a bit by Tolstoy. Somewhere in the recesses of my autistic head, short stories were for quitters who put down Anna Karenina on only page 534.

More than that, though, I was convinced I couldn't say everything I wanted to in only a few thousand words. I thought that was a special skill, like shorthand, and I was playing hooky the day they handed it out.

This is really strange, because my most treasured physical possession is a book of—you guessed it—short stories.

It was my first ‘grown-up’ book. We were moving from Charlotte to Atlanta a week or so after I finished first grade, and our neighbors’ oldest son, who might have been twelve at the time, crossed the street as we were packing our car for the move to Georgia. He handed me a paperback book. He probably said something like, “My mom and dad said you like to read and stuff, and I had this lying around, so you can have it, okay?”

I prefer to remember the moment in the same emotional vein as the Lady in the Lake hefting aloft the mighty Excalibur, presenting it to Arthur. It was a turning point in my young life.

The book was Groff Conklin’s Big Book of Science Fiction. It was an anthology cobbled together from classic pulp science fiction magazines of the 1940s. There were stories by Lester Del Rey, Ray Bradbury, John D. McDonald, Murray Leinster, Fredric Brown, Clifford D. Simak, Theodore Sturgeon, and many more. As we tooled down the blue highways between Charlotte and Atlanta, I huddled in the backseat floor—as kids did sixty years ago—and read about robots and rockets and tiny unconscious homunculi used as currency and a funny alien named Mewhu and a man and a dog transformed into Jupiterian beings and time travel and all sorts of amazing concepts I’d never thought of before.

A lot of it didn’t make sense to me and was confusing, but most of it was amazing and astounding and made my little seven-year-old heart flutter. Groff Conklin’s Big Book of Science Fiction was my gateway drug to adult literature and pulp fiction at the same time. Dick and Jane? I didn’t care if they ran. I wanted to know why they ran. Why were they being chased? What horrible thing did they do? Dick and Jane might have been okay for the other second graders. I yearned for more. Groff Conklin’s Big Book of Science Fiction fed that hunger, and for the first time in my life, I understood that stories didn’t just happen, as Richard Brautigan wrote, like lint. Somebody had to write them.

Groff Conklin’s Big Book of Science Fiction is still my most prized physical possession. It resides in a special place on my bookshelf at home. If the house ever catches fire, I will see that Elaine and the cat are out, and then I’ll rescue the book. Everything else can be replaced. This book can’t, for one reason.

Theodore Sturgeon
Theodore Sturgeon autograph

In 1978, I had dinner at UNC-Greensboro with Theodore Sturgeon and his partner, Lady Jayne. He was a guest of honor at a sci-fi convention at the college. He had written the story “Mewhu’s Jet” in my Sacred Book. I brought the by-then tattered paperback with me, and at a probably clumsy moment I thrust it into his hands and told him the story of how this book changed my reading life—and eventually inspired me to become a writer as well. He took one look at it, and said, “This book has been well-loved”, and he signed the first page of his story.

Sturgeon is long gone now, dead for over forty years. His autograph in my book with the added ‘Q’ with an arrow he used to symbolize “Ask the Next Question” can never be replaced. So the book gets rescued.

As illuminating as it was, Groff Conklin’s Big Book of Science Fiction was also intimidating. To me, the authors in those pages were giants, superhumans endowed with powers far beyond the grasp of mortal scribblers. They captured entire universes in five or six thousand words, and I was not worthy to look upon their visages.

So, I wrote novel after novel after novel. Twenty-five now and counting. Some were squibs. Some were award finalists. Not one of them has ever sold more than 1500 copies. That’s probably my fault, as I am much more comfortable tapping on a keyboard than pressing flesh. A born salesman, I am decidedly not.

In 2006, I decided to start a webzine publishing hardboiled and noir short stories, and solicited submissions on all the usual email listservs, the Facebook and Twitter of the day. Within weeks, I was swamped with submissions, a great number of which had been penned by Edgar and Shamus and Anthony Award winners. I was shocked.

Reading all those stories by such distinguished writers gave me an opportunity again to analyze and imitate. I pulled out my old trusty copy of Groff Conklin’s Big Book of Science Fiction, and I read those stories again as well. As I read, I discovered that the stories that had cowed me so completely decades earlier now made sense. I could recognize the use of a three-act structure and the economy of language in them. I had a little peek underneath the magicians’ capes. I thought, perhaps, I might be able to write in this strange, truncated style after all.

In 2006, I was mowing the grass and came up with an idea for my third Eamon Gold novel. Started working on it, and realized there wasn't enough there for a book, but it might make a nice short story. Longtime buddy Kevin Burton Smith published it on his Thrilling Detective Website, ("The Gospel According to Gordon Black") and it went on to win the Derringer Award that year. I had also written a short story for my own webzine, The Back Alley, entitled "Paper Walls/Glass Houses", and darned if it didn't win the Derringer as well.

No shit, dear readers. My first two published short stories were award winners, and made me one of only two authors ever to win the Derringer in two different categories in the same year. (The other is the incredibly prolific and masterful John Floyd.) Nobody was more surprised than I.

So I wrote another one, based on a failed Pat Gallegher novel, and retitled it "The Gods For Vengeance Cry." On a flyer, I sent it in to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and by golly Janet Hutchings bought it! It went on to garner nominations for the Derringer, Macavity, and Thriller Awards, and won the 2011 Thriller Award.

Yeah. My first THREE published short stories won awards. The fourth, "Silicon Kings" was also a Derringer finalist.

Clearly, it was time to reevaluate my writing priorities.

For almost a quarter century, before Kevin kindly published "The Gospel According to Gordon Black", I had always presumed that I was first and foremost a novelist, however obscure and failed. I had been conditioned to believe the fallacy that novels hold an exalted spot in literature. While I had enjoyed some limited critical acclaim with my novels, the sudden shocking success of the short stories left me wondering whether I had wasted thirty years of my writing life.

It’s a good thing I’m not into regrets.

Over the last fifteen years, I've embraced the idea that I might actually be a short story writer who dabbles in writing novels. I have six Shamus Award nominations (and one win) for my novels, but my short stories have garnered a mind-boggling fourteen nominations, and have won the Thriller, Shamus, and Derringer Awards. One story I wrote for anthology editor and master story craftsman Michael Bracken (“See Humble and Die”, in The Eyes of Texas, for Down and Out Books) was selected for the 2020 edition of Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories, edited by Otto Penzler and C. J. Box.

And the hits just keep coming. Several years ago, the Republican National Convention was held in my hometown of Charlotte, NC. As happens in many cities, Charlotte made a concerted effort to get rid of the many homeless people who cluster each night along uptown Tryon Street, because images of people sleeping on bus stop benches make for bad national TV. I read an article about it in the news, and my first thought was that sweeping the streets of homeless people might make an excellent cover for a murder. Kill a homeless guy, hide the body, and everyone would think he was just given ‘Greyhound Therapy’—a bus ticket and twenty bucks to go somewhere (anywhere) else.  I let the idea cook in my head for a week or two, mostly coming up with a compelling protagonist, and then I started typing. I threw in some stories I’d heard about living on the streets from my hippie buddies back in the early 1970s. The resulting story, "Sweeps Week" (EQMM, July August 2021) won the Shamus this year, and is a finalist for the Macavity at Bouchercon next week.

My wife said, “You know, you might have a knack for this.”

Sometimes I have to shake my head when I realize that one story in EQMM is seen (and hopefully read) by more people than have read all my novels put together. That's humbling, but also exciting. Unlike each new book, which might flop or fly, or even go completely ignored, the stories are being read. Nothing is more important to a writer.

A Kind and Savage Place (novel)

I still write novels. Earlier this year, Level Best Books’ New Arc imprint published A Kind and Savage Place, which traces the evolution of civil rights in the south as experienced by the citizens of a small North Carolina farming community. Next year, their Historia imprint will publish Vicar Brekonridge, a novel based on my Derringer Award-nominated EQMM short story “The Cripplegate Apprehension.” I recently finished a massive novel called 22 Rue Montparnasse, about the Lost Generation in post-WWI Paris, and I’m about ready to set sail on another novel about Laurel Canyon in the 1960s, inspired by the music of the late Nashville songwriter Larry Jon Wilson. None of these, with the possible exception of Vicar Brekonridge, is a traditional mystery story. Writing mystery short stories has freed me to explore other genres in my novel-length works, and to write the more mainstream and historical stories that I’ve back-burnered for years.

For now, though, my plan is to spend 2023 focused mostly on short stories. I’ve discovered that they are intensely rewarding. In what other medium can you come up with an idea on Tuesday, write “The End” on Friday, and people will buy it (hopefully)? In the same way I truly enjoy diving into massive amounts of research for a sweeping historical novel, I love the spontaneous nature of short stories. They’re almost like zen paintings, executed in seconds only after days of contemplation. The typing is only the last stage of storytelling. First, the story has to live inside your head. As Edward Albee once taught me in a master class, “Never put a sentence on the page until it can write itself.”

Living on the autistic spectrum, it would have been easy to stay rigidly glued to the novel-writing path. Comforting, even. Stability, structure, and adherence to a long-standing pattern of behavior is kind of a big deal among my neurodivergent tribe. Gritting my teeth, shutting my eyes, holding my breath, and breaking out and trying something new fifteen years ago turned out to make a huge difference in my writing life, and opened the door to a level of authorly satisfaction I had never known before.

My point is this (and it doesn't apply only to writing): The secret of happiness, I think, is to find your sunny spot and bloom where you're planted. If you beat your head against a door for years without an answer, maybe you're at the wrong door. I spent twenty-five relatively unhappy years working as a clinical/forensic psychologist, but only found career joy when I followed my true calling and became a teacher. Likewise, when I embraced short stories, the flower of my writing career blossomed.

Sometimes, it's a good idea to step back, survey the Big Picture, and figure out exactly where you fit into it, as opposed to where you want to fit. Life has a way of showing you the paths you need to tread, if you’re open to looking for them. A simple jink to the left or right could change your entire life. But, wherever you land, it should be the place that makes you happiest. Living as a tortured literary artist slaving in a dusty garret may be a romantic notion, but it isn’t much fun.

Sometimes, you win by trading one dream for another.

16 May 2022

My Father and Cousin Clyde,
Reprise and Update


Clyde and Bonnie

It recently came to my attention that my Cousin Clyde Barrow was in the news again. His face along with Bonnie Parker's were seen on Russian television.

You've got to be kidding I thought. How could this pair of alleged (Do I have to say alleged if they were never tried?) bank robbers murders and all arround bad folks, who were killed in a shoot-out with the law enforcement in the 1930s, be shown on a Russian owned TV newscast? 

Bonnie and Clyde were young, she 19 and he, 23. They wound up being two of the most colorful and notorious gangsters in early USA 1930s history. Today is one week shy of the 89th anniversary, of that day on May 23, 1933.

I have no idea how or why their photos was shown on Russian TV this past Monday on the anniversary of Russia's victory day over Germany. But during a concert a photo of Bonnie and Clyde was shown, somehow supposedly depicting refuges from 1945 WW-II. 

This photo was shown for several hours until someone (from Russian media?) recognized the couple and the photo was taken down. You can Google Bonnie & Clyde photo on Russian TV if you want to  see it. I personally got a big laugh about it and decided to reprise my SleuthSayer article from March 15, 2015 about my dad and cousin Clyde.

Need I mention the Austin policewoman character in two of my novels, AUSTIN CITY BLUE and DARK BLUE DEATH was named Zoe Barrow? Her name came to me as a way to honor my dad and the Barrow name. The Barrows were from England, lived in VA, NC eventually moving to LA and came into TX with Stephen F Austin. I honestly don't think I was subconsciously thinking to rehab ole Cousin Clyde. REALLY!!

Find my original article here and following is Bonnie Parker's poem.

The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde

You've read the story of Jesse James
of how he lived and died.
If you're still in need;
of something to read,
here's the story of Bonnie and Clyde.

Now Bonnie and Clyde are the Barrow gang
I'm sure you all have read.
how they rob and steal;
and those who squeal,
are usually found dying or dead.

There's lots of untruths to these write-ups;
they're not as ruthless as that.
their nature is raw;
they hate all the law,
the stool pigeons, spotters and rats.

They call them cold-blooded killers
they say they are heartless and mean.
But I say this with pride
that I once knew Clyde,
when he was honest and upright and clean.

But the law fooled around;
kept taking him down,
and locking him up in a cell.
Till he said to me;
"I'll never be free,
so I'll meet a few of them in hell"

The road was so dimly lighted
there were no highway signs to guide.
But they made up their minds;
if all roads were blind,
they wouldn't give up till they died.

If a policeman is killed in Dallas
and they have no clue or guide.
If they can't find a fiend,
they just wipe their slate clean
and hang it on Bonnie and Clyde.

There's two crimes committed in America
not accredited to the Barrow mob.
They had no hand;
in the kidnap demand,
nor the Kansas City Depot job.

If they try to act like citizens
and rent them a nice little flat.
About the third night;
they're invited to fight,
by a sub-gun's rat-tat-tat.

They don't think they're too smart or desperate
they know that the law always wins.
They've been shot at before;
but they do not ignore,
that death is the wages of sin.

Some day they'll go down together
they'll bury them side by side.
To few it'll be grief,
And to the law a relief
but it's death for Bonnie and Clyde.

21 February 2022

Been Arrested Lately?


They say write what you know.

OKAAAY.

How many of you mystery writers have killed someone? Raise your hand. I'll wait.

OKAAAYY.

How many of you have ever been arrested? Raise your hands. Yeah. A number of you. For committing a crime? Or for joining in a protest or some juvie joy riding? Ok. I won't pry for details. Your secret is still safe.

I'm like many of you. I've never been arrested. I've never even come close.

Oh, okay. I'll confess. I was arrested once. I was asked for my driver's license, car registration and insurance, by this blonde female officer. I handed all the paperwork over. Next thing I knew, she told me to get out of the car, walk slowly to the rear of the vehicle then place my hands on the trunk of the car.

As I'm asking what I had done. She said there was a warrant out for me. I kept telling her she'd made a mistake. That I'd done nothing wrong. She paid no attention. When we reached the back of car, she placed her handcuffs on me and clicked them tight. I immediately began cursing her out. Calling her every obscene name in the book. You never heard such a potty mouth on a lady. She didn't answer, but she loosened the cuffs one click.

She began reciting the Miranda warning as she headed me over to a police car. I'm still cussing like a sailor. She covered my head with her hand and pushed me into the back seat.

Once inside I saw a male officer step out of another police car. He started talking to the officer who had arrested me. I couldn't hear what he was saying, but it looked like he was berating her.

A couple minutes later  the male officer came over and opened the door. I handed the astonished Training Officer the handcuffs. It only took me a couple of minutes to slip out of them because I have small hands and wrists.

You see, my arrest had been at the Police Academy Training facility. As an alum of the Citizen's Police Academy, we periodically help the new cadets by "role playing."

My group assignment was to be arrested, cuffed and put in the police car by the cadet. I also was supposed to cuss and yell at this female cadet. The TO wanted to know how she would react.  She had remained cool and calm.

But now he repreminded her for loosening the cuffs.  She was also told NOT to say anything about that to the other cadets.

I was arrested a couple more times that day.  No one else left any play in the cuffs. I found out later the word about "loosening the cuffs" had indeed been passed around.

Since that time, about twenty odd years ago, I've had pleasant relationships with law enforcement. That is until two weeks ago at 5:41AM on a Monday.

I was rudely awakened by loud knocking on my front door. I'd spent Sunday evening watching 5 episodes of the new REACHER series on Amazon Prime and it was after 2 am when I took my ambien, went to bed, and zonked.

When the banging started I thought I must be dreaming. Nope, they kept knocking and then ringing my doorbell. It was real. And certainly mystifying.

Who in the world would be so rude? I wondered as I noticed the time, got up and pulled on my robe. However, I had the robe inside out. So in my short nighty and trying to snap the front of my inside out robe, I stumbed down the hall. The persistent knocking and doorbell ringing continued. I yelled "I'm coming!"

Then I hear a male voice, "POLICE!"

I was still trying to snap my wrong side out robe and thinking to myself, this had better be good.

I could see red and blue lights flashing through the half pane of glazed glass, lighting up my hallway and living room. I flipped on the porch light and saw a  uniformed officer standing there.
I unlocked and opened the door, doing the best I could to hold my robe closed.

"Are you okay, ma'am?" The officer asked.

"Yes. I'm fine."

"Great," he says. "We had a call that a lady was in trouble, but we didn't have a complete address."

 As he turned, I heard, "Sorry to have awakened you, ma'am."

"It's okay." I mumbled.  I closed and locked the door and staggered back to bed.

I still to this day don't know what the whole deal was. I asked politely in a message on our police department FB page. The next day the answer back was to talk to the police chief in person. He wasn't available when I called the next day and I haven't had a chance to stop by the police station.

Now I know a little of how a person might feel being served a felony warrant in the wee hours of the morning.

Now plot lines are also running through my head for a story.
  1. A search for a murderer hiding in my back yard?
  2. A search discovers a young dead woman left on my side porch?
  3. My ex-husband's found murdered and I have no idea where I was whole the evening before the police woke me up.
Write what you know, they say. Killed anyone lately?

24 January 2022

Seven Steps


Nancy Pickard is a U.S. crime novelist. She has won five Macavity Awards, four Agatha Awards, an Anthony Award, and a Shamus Award. She is the only author to win all four awards. She also served on the board of directors of the Mystery Writers of America.

I don't remember exactly when I met Nancy Picard, sometime in the early 90's is my guess. That was when I began to first be published and Elmer & I opened our mystery bookstore in Austin in 1990. I remember she & both were very early members of Sisters in Crime and Nancy is a past National President of S-in-C. I do know I've always admired her mystery novels. Reading Nancy's books are like peeling an onion back to  add to the story and destroy your early guesses. Naturally, you must keep turning pages and peeling layers until you get to the end & the solution. 

When I read this article about Nancy's book: Seven Steps on a Writer's Path, I knew I wanted to share this information with all of you. Her book is available in both Paperback & Kindle formats. Page numbers refer to the trade paperback edition.                                                                                                                — Jan Grape

As Nancy Pickard looked back over her own career and that of her many writer friends, she saw herself and most of them struggling through stages of unhappiness, of wanting, of commitment, of wavering, of letting go, of immersion, and of fulfillment. It looked very much like a path to her, and it felt true, in the way only actual lived experience does feel.

"And thus was born the Seven Steps on the Writer's Path. At first it was a workshop given   by me, then it was a retreat presented by Lynn, and now it is a book written by both of us." p. xii

SEVEN STEPS

by Nancy Pickard

Starting Out

"Writing is a path as full of darkness as it is of light, and so the way ahead is hard to see. There are so many ominous shadows, unpredictable gusts of wind, unexpected blinding shafts of sunlight. It’s easy to get lost, to trip over our own hidden roots, or plunge unaware into unexplored caverns in our psyche. As writers, we hardly ever know where we’re going. The only thing most of us know how to do is to keep putting one foot after the other in the darkness and trust that eventually we’ll get there." p. 1

When Lynn and I each started our own writing careers, we didn’t even know there was a path, much less that there are steps along it. We hope that knowing these things will give you an advantage that writers who came before you didn’t have.

Step One: Unhappiness

"Call this step in the creative process what you will, according to your own experience of it. Name it the 'creative urge,' if you like. Call it an 'itch' or 'creative tension' or 'restlessness' or 'discontent.' Regardless of what label any of us gives this step, it’s a common state and the first step for all of us.

"Unhappiness, to one degree or another, is where all creativity begins." p. 9

What a way to start a book, with unhappiness! But we had to, because that’s where the writing starts… or the drawing… or the music… or any other form of creativity. We discovered early on that the steps in this book apply to any creative person, not just to writers.

Step Two: Wanting

"It sounds so simple. All you have to do is want. But it must not be that simple in real life, or else why wouldn't more people be writing what, where, when, as much, and as well as they want to? Instead, they're still languishing in a state of unsatisfied desire. They're stuck back in step one, Unhappiness, and they can't seem to get out of it, no matter how bravely they face it or how honestly they acknowledge what they want from writing.

"The trouble may be that most of us tend to assume that wanting is only about feeling. Certainly, depth of desire is part of the answer, but what we're missing when we stop there is the second part of wanting, the action part…" pp. 38-39

This chapter required Lynn and me to be excruciatingly honest with ourselves and our readers about what we really want in our lives and our writing. It was good for us. It'll be good for you, too.

Step Three: Commitment

"Some people might joke that writers need to be committed, rather than to have commitment, and sometimes we feel as if we can only agree with them. It’s probably true that we're all at least a little bit crazy. But then, truly committed people usually look a little-or very–crazy to the outside world. If you don't look just a little bit nuts, you’re probably not committed enough. Writers like L. Frank Baum -- whose The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was rejected dozens of times -- who keep sending their manuscripts to publishers look like crazy fools to people who will be only too glad to tell them so." p. 70

Step Four: Wavering

"Wavering tends to arrive when it’s least expected and least welcome. Certainly, you'd never willingly invite it, but surprise, here it is. Such as when you're forty pages into a book and you thought it was going to be smooth sailing from here on out, but now you’re stuck. Or like when you’ve submitted your poems to magazines and you're feeling really good and hopeful about them–and the rejection letters start coming in. Or like when you've arranged to write for a couple of hours every day, and then other responsibilities crop up, just when you thought you had them beat down." p. 103

This is one of those steps where it's truly wonderful to know that you have lots of company. You're not alone. You're not the only crazy one. I'm there with you many days. So is Lynn. So is every writer we know and all of the ones we don’t know. We all waver. We all hate it. We all get through it, one way or another, and having each other's hands to hold is a big help and comfort.

Step Five: Letting Go

"Letting go is the magic moment when you step off into space, trusting that you won't fall on your face. As the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, when we make a leap of faith, it is the actual act of stepping out that creates a bridge to see us safely to the other side." p. 137

This is my favorite step of all. I adore this step. This is where miracles happen. This step sometimes terrifies me. A lot of times in my life I have wanted, oh how I have wanted, to take this step, but I just couldn’t do it. And then sometimes I do take it, and oh, the joy of that!

Step Six: Immersion

"… be loyal to your writing. Be just as loyal as you are to your dearest friend or loved one. If your friend or your child really needed your attention, would you let your attention wander? Or would you ignore the telephone, put everything else on hold, and turn fully toward him or her? Your writing deserves that kind of loyalty and attention, too. If you can't or won't manage to show as much loyalty to your writing as you show to your friends and family, we guarantee that while you may experience moments of writing bliss, you'll never experience the satisfaction of going all the way.

"Be loyal." p. 177

It's hard for a lot of people, some women especially, I think, to be loyal to their writing, or even to think of it in that way. They let everything and everybody pull them away from it, as if they couldn't care less. But they do care, we know they do, and they suffer for it. If only they knew, their writing wants their love and attention, too!

Step Seven: Fulfillment

"So we have to ask you: where’s your cart, and where’s your horse?

"Here are some telltale things that writers say that alert us to improper horse/cart placement. You'll have to pardon us if our answers sound a bit jaded; we've heard these more times than you'd care to know: 'Should I copyright it first?' (You should write it first.) 'What if I send a query to several publishers and they all want it?' (You should only have such problems. Just worry about writing it.) 'What if somebody steals my ideas?' (Just write the damned thing. If you're worried about burglars, get a gun.) 'I've written three chapters of a novel. Should I start sending it out to agents now?' (No, you should write Chapter 4 now.) 'I was thinking of sending my poems out now and waiting to do my rewriting after I hear what the editors have to say.' (We're thinking you should rewrite them now, or you will never hear from any editors.)" p. 208

Dare to dream big, we say in this chapter, but keep dreaming small at the same time. Go ahead and visualize your name on a best-seller list, but also visualize yourself writing that next sentence, paragraph, and page.

28 December 2020

Sister to Sister



In Casablanca at Sid's (Rick's) just short decades ago,  I met this mysterious lady who has more names than I can usually remember, but the one which finally showed up in my '90s bookstore more often was Toni L.P. Kelner. I actually fell in love Sid, her skeleton character. Humphrey Bogart could have carried the part off masterfully.

This wonderful interview with my friend, by Hank Phillippi Ryan, has been reprinted here with permission from Toni L.P. Kelner and the New England chapter of Sisters in Crime. 

-Jan Grape

If you want to find Toni L. P. Kelner, go where the laughter is! For so many years, she’s been such a stalwart to Sisters in Crime in every way. Full of fun and jokes and a marvelous sense of humor, sure. But behind all that is the hardest-working woman in showbiz – – with a pedigree of bestselling mysteries and short stories, an Agatha win, an RT Lifetime Achievement Award, an acclaimed partnership with Charlene Harris, and a glorious and talented and loving family. (Including her wonderful husband Steve, another pillar of the SinC community.)

 She’s never afraid to take a writing risk, including one super successful series (written as Leigh Perry) starring…a skeleton. Yes, that’s the brave and brilliant brain of Toni Kelner.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Do you remember the very first time you thought: I’m going to write a book, and I can do it. What was that moment?

TONI KELNER: I first started trying to write when I was in junior high school, and wrote short stories and even a novella along the way, but the first time I really felt pretty confident that I was going to finish a novel would have been late 1988 or early 1989. That’s when I really got going on my first book-length manuscript, and I was sure I’d finish. I didn’t know if it would sell, but it would be an actual manuscript gosh darn it!

HANK: Wow, that’s thirty-two years ago! That’s astonishing. Did that first book sell?

TONI KELNER: Eventually. I wrote it, shopped it around for a year or so while writing another manuscript, then got some great feedback and rewrote the first one. Once I’d finished the rewrite, it only took a few months to get an agent and then a publisher. (I’ve never rewritten or sold that second manuscript, but I will someday.)

HANK: I have no doubt!  And that’s so inspirational. How many of your books have been published since then? What do you think about that?

TONI KELNER: Seventeen novels, seven co-edited anthologies, and one collection of my short stories. So I guess that’s 25.

 I’m astonished and pleased, but not ready to stop yet!

HANK: Well, of course not!  Gotta know, got to ask. Do you outline? Has your method changed over the years?

TONI KELNER: Only if I have to. I do write outlines when editors require it, but find it constraining. Plotting that works in outline just comes off as contrived in the actual writing. When an outline is required, I write it and get it approved, but then stick it in a drawer and ignore it while I write the book.

HANK:  That’s wise advice. But I wonder if it gets your brain going, you know? Gets the muse listening? Even if the final book is totally different. Getting that core idea is the hardest for me—how about you?  What's the hardest part of the book for you?

TONI KELNER: Getting my tail end writing to get up to speed. Once I’m going, I’m quite fast, but it’s hard to get going. 

Once I’m writing, I try not to repeat myself in terms of plot lines and bits of business. That gets harder each book.

HANK:  Well, yeah, since you’ve been wring for 32 years! (No pressure.) Is your first draft always terrible? Has it always been?


TONI KELNER: My first drafts are much better than they used to be. With the first few, I started too early. I had to cut out a whole first chapter with my first book, then half a chapter with  my second, a few pages with my third… Now I start pretty much where I should start.

HANK:  I love that you learn from yourself.  Very reassuring.  How often in your process do you have doubts about what you’re doing?

TONI KELNER: Almost the entire time except for when I’m rolling down the hill toward the very end.

HANK:  What do you tell yourself during those moments of writing fear?

TONI KELNER: I whine to my husband Steve, who reassures me as best he can.

 I did recently see something inspirational on Facebook. Another writer—and I can’t remember who—quoted something a friend told her. “You’ve written X number of books and stories. Trust yourself to be able to do it again.”

This came at just the right time, because I’ve got a short story due and have been having a hard time writing during Plague Times.

HANK:  Oh, I hear you. If ever there was a time to tune out reality while in the manuscript, this is it. But it’s always safe inside your pages, right?  Do you have a writing quirk you have to watch out for?

TONI KELNER: My characters used to grin all the time, but I’ve gotten better at that one. Now I develop a new one per book that I have to catch while editing. Thank goodness for beta readers.

HANK: True. And so funny. Mine shrug and grin. And it’s hilarious--no one in real life does that, right? What’s one writing thing you always do—write every day? Never stop at the end of a chapter? Write first thing in the morning?

TONI KELNER: I write in the wee hours of the morning. I don’t want to—I’d rather get my work done earlier in the day—but for some reason, I usually can’t settle into work until the world quiets down.

HANK:  Well, you understand your brain, and let it lead you.  How do you know when your book is finished?

TONI KELNER:  If I’m editing and change “said” to “asked,” then in the next pass change “asked” back to “said,” I know it’s time to let it go.


HANK:  Perfect. Has there been one person who has helped you in your career? (I know, it must be difficult to choose just one, but...)

TONI KELNER: So many, but I’m going to say Charlaine Harris. We had been beta reading each other for a while when she invited me to co-edit anthologies with her. That led to a new very visible stage of my career, a new agent, introduction to an editor and publisher, and so many other opportunities. Thank you, Charlaine!

HANK: Well, she’s a total rock star. And so many sisters have her to thank!  Do you think anyone can be taught to be a better writer?  

TONI KELNER: I do. I’ve always liked this philosophy from Gideon in All That Jazz:

"Listen, I can't make you a great dancer. I don't even know if I can make you a good dancer. But, if you keep trying and don't quit, I know I can make you a better dancer.”

I think if a writer keeps trying and doesn’t quit, they’re going to get better. Maybe not great or even good or publishable, but better.

HANK:  Bird by bird, right?  How do you feel about…stuff? Writing swag handouts giveaways that kind of thing. Do you think it matters? Do you have it?

TONI KELNER: I really like creating it but I’m not convinced it works, so I try to restrain myself. I hand out bookmarks, and I’ve got a bunch of microfiber wipes that have original artwork and my book cover on them. Neither are expensive, and both can be mailed with regular postage, so I can still use them during the Plague Times. 

Since lots of conventions and charities ask for auction donations, I also buy skeleton-based items on sale to have on hand so I’m ready to do a gift basket at short notice.

HANK:  You’ve seen so much change in the publishing industry, what do you think new writers need to know about that?

TONI KELNER: Expect change! Keep an ear out to try to predict what that change will be, but don’t assume the experts are going to be right.

Years back, I was at a Berkley Prime Crime dinner when everybody was buzzing about those new-fangled electronic books, and the editor-in-chief told us that we had nothing to worry about. Ebooks were going to settle down and just be a small part of the field, like audio books. Not only was she wrong about ebooks, but she didn’t expect audio books to become a huge market because of downloading services. 

That’s the scary part. On the good side, every change can lead to opportunities. I’ve got books that were long out of print in physical editions, but which are available as ebooks and audio downloads.

HANK:  Yeah, you never know.  You've been so successful, why do you think that is? What secret of yours can we bottle up and rely on?

TONI KELNER: I don’t think of myself as overly successful, just moderately so, but thank you. 

My only secret is being ornery. I just won’t leave. When a series dies, I start a new one. If one story doesn’t sell, I write another one. If I have a dry spell—and I’ve had them—I stick around until it ends. Winning awards, big sales, high-profile deals—those are all great, but staying in the game is the real way to win.

HANK: Yes, yes, yes! We should all print out your advice. (And yes, you are successful!)  What are you working on right now?

TONI KELNER: I’m writing my first Family Skeleton short story for an anthology of mysteries inspired by the Marx Brothers, edited by Josh Pachter. 

HANK: Oh, Josh is great. He has such perfect ideas! Eager to read that!  What book are you are reading right now? 

TONI KELNER: The Art of the Con by R. Paul Wilson, which is research for a new series I’m playing with.

HANK:  Oh, cannot wait to read that, too! You’ll have to keep us posted. Until then, give us one piece of writing advice!

TONI KELNER: Especially in these times, when sales are sparse because of the world at large, write what you’ve always wanted to write. Even if you don’t sell well, you’ll have a great time.

HANK: Aw, that advice is perfect. Thank you! And sisters, how are you doing? My writing went off the tracks a bit at the beginning of the plague times, as Toni so wisely calls this. Did yours? How did you regroup?   

Leigh Perry/Toni L.P. Kelner is two authors in one. As Leigh, she writes the Family Skeleton mysteries, featuring adjunct English professor Georgia Thackery and her skeletal pal Sid. The sixth, THE SKELETON STUFFS A STOCKING, was published in 2019. As Toni, she’s written eleven mystery novels and co-edited seven urban fantasy anthologies with Charlaine Harris. She’s won the Agatha Award and an RT BookClub Lifetime Achievement Award. Her most recent publications were short stories in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and in the Nasty Woman Press anthology SHATTERING GLASS, and forthcoming is a contribution to an anthology inspired by the Marx Brothers.   

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN is the USA Today bestselling author of 12 thrillers, winning five Agathas and the Mary Higgins Clark Award, and 37 EMMYs for TV investigative reporting. THE MURDER LIST (2019) won the Anthony Award for Best Novel, and is an Agatha, Macavity and Mary Higgins Clark Award nominee. Her newest psychological standalone is THE FIRST TO LIE. The Publishers Weekly starred review says "Stellar. Ryan could win her sixth Agatha with this one."

30 November 2020

Earth's Future?


Back in March when the idea that this Covid-19 was contagious and we all needed to quarantine at home, my thoughts turned to space. Yes, first to Isaac Asimov's robot books, then to thinking about our astronauts. Ever since the space program started the astronauts had to be in quarantine for two weeks before going out into space. They didn't want to take some earth germ to the moon. Then when they came  back from the moon, they once again had to go into quarantine  in case they picked up some germ from space and didn't dare give it to earth and cause a pandemic. They didn't necessarily like it, they wanted to see their families to assure their family they were still the same person. That space had not changed them into some weird "outer space creature." 

As the days and weeks passed people began to learn Zoom meetings for business because many  people were now working from home. Before long folks learned Zoom for personal visits. My side of the family who never have reunions had one by using Zoom and our computers. I have two sisters, we all live in Texas but each of us have grown children and some of those grown children have children. One niece lives in NM, one nephew in MO, my daughter anher sons live in TN so it was great fun to at least see everyone, even if it was just in and out on the computer via Zoom for a few minutes. My daughter had taught me how to Zoom and it was great to see her. Actually on Thanksgiving afternoon she and I visited for a couple of hours and even played a dice game. 

In my little town, I'm on the Parks and Rec committee and we had a couple of  meetings on Zoom. There are eight of us and this was a great way to discuss our  projects and plan what to do next. 


This all brings me to Asimov robot books and he writes about the planets of Aurora and Solara where people NEVER "see" each other in person. They "view" each other on large screens in their home. Even married people. They go for walks "together" but they are holographic images not together in actual physical contact. This has gone on for so long that people have become afraid to actually touch each other. Some people actually can become physically ill to even be in the same room room with a human being. The idea of being in the same room with a human from that nasty germ filed planet Earth can cause such a mental upset can be even as bad if not worse.

If this pandemic can't be controlled will earth ever become like that? Will people who are not afraid of science and technology eventually be the only population left in 2050 or 2075? What about the people who won't take the vaccination? Will they just eventually die off? Could visitation by computer only happen on Earth even sooner than 2050? Say 2035? 

07 September 2020

The Boy From The Woods


I met and became friends with Harlan Coben several years ago at the first Private Eye Writer's Conference in St Louis, MO. He'd just had published his first Myron Bolitar, private eye, Play Dead. Through the years he has written thirty-plus mystery and thrillers, becoming a New York Times Best Seller and an International Best Seller, in the process. His books have also been made into Netflix Original Series, beginning with The Stranger. His most recent novel is The Boy From The Woods and just released in paperback.


From the North Jersey Gazette,
                April 18, 1986

Abandoned "Wild Boy Found In The Woods"

Huge Mystery Surrounding Discovery of "Real Life Mowgli"

Westville, NJ --In one of the most bizarre cases in recent history a wild-haired young boy, estimated to be between six and eight years old was discovered living on his own in the Ramapo Mountain State Forest near the suburb of Westville. Even more bizarre, authorities have no idea who the boy is or how long he had been there. 

"It's like Mowgli in the Jungle Book movie," said Westville Police Deputy Owen Carmichael said.

The boy--who speaks and understands English but has no knowledge of his name--was first spotted by Don and Leslie Katz, hikers from Clifton, NJ. "We were cleaning up from our picnic and heard a rustling in the woods." Mr. Katz said. "At first I worried it was a bear, but then we caught sight of him running, clear as day."

Park Rangers, along with the local police, found the boy, thin and clad in tattered clothes, in a makeshift campsite three hours later. "At this time, we don't know how long he's been in the state forest or how he got here," said New Jersey State Park Police Chief Tony Aurigemma. "He doesn't recall any parents or adult figures.  We're currently checking with enforcement authorities, but so far, there are no missing children who match his age or description."

In the past year, hikers in the Ramapo Mountain area have reported seeing a "feral boy," or "Little Tarzan" matching the boy's description, but most people chalked up the sightings an urban legend. 

Said James Mignone, a hiker from Morristown, NJ., "It's like someone birthed him and left him in the wild."

"It's the strangest survival case any of us have ever seen," Chief Aurigemma said, "We don't know if the boy has been out here for days, weeks, months or  heck, even years."

If anyone has any information on the young boy, they are asked to contact the Westville Police Department.

"Someone out there has to know something," Deputy Carmichael said. "The boy didn't just appear in the forest by magic."

Thirty years ago, Wilde was found as a boy living feral in the woods, with no memories of his past. Now as an adult, he still doesn't know where he came from, and another child has gone missing.

No one seems to take Naomi Pine's disappearance seriously, not even her father--except Hester Crimstein, a criminal TV attorney. Her grandson, Mathew tells Hester that Naomi was bullied at school relentlessly and although he had one time tried to take up for the girl, back in elementary school, he was beat down and never tried again. This time he wants to stand up for her. 

Wilde can't ignore an outcast in trouble, but in order to do that he has to  walk back into the community where he was never accepted or fit in.  A community that harbors secrets that Wilde must uncover before the girl's disappearance brings them all disastrous consequences.

Jan's extra note: These days Harlan is an extra busy young man, with his multiple projects for Netflix, next spring will see the publication of the first novel featuring Windsor Horne Lockwood lll, seen many times in the Myron Bolitar Novels, titled If You Lose You Die. He of the "Articulate Baby" way of answering his phone. 

I also had to know if we would ever see Wilde again? Harlan wrote me this morning that book was in progress. I'm thrilled by that news. Wilde is a wonderful character and there is still much we don't know about him.

18 May 2020

Promoting Anthologies


Jan Grape So many of my fellow SleuthSayers are appearing in anthologies I thought it might be a good time to talk a bit about promoting them. It's been many years since I owned a bookstore and promoting has changed a lot but maybe a few tips here can help.

Some of us are a lot better at promoting than others. Many of us sit in our cubical and write and write and never give a thought to promotion, We really don't want to think about that now. We have to finish this book OR our publisher will promote it, right?

Sadly, NO. Unless you're already a best selling author, your publisher sends your book out with very little promotion. I never could understand that reasoning. They'll spend $500,000 on X's book when you have two other very fine books coming at the same time, say one new and one mid-list. Why not spend $400,000 on X and $50,000 on the other two. You get the idea but most publishers don't. Could be why so many indie presses are doing very well, thank you.

Okay, I digress. Back to anthologies. No one is really going to push an anthology you happen to have a short story in so, it's all really up to you.

But Jan, I don't like to promote my short stories and I have no idea how to do it and really could care less about it anyway. Fine, go back to your computer and work on your next story or book. But if you want just a tip or two, please continue reading.

I was blessed because the majority of my stories were in books edited by Ed Gorman and Marty Greenberg (RIP both of you) and books they edited sold very well. Even to markets like Japan and Germany and to audio book publishers. But to promote your own stories in wonderful but somewhat unknown anthologies you have to always include them on your Facebook page or twitter account. And also on your own author page.

Okay, but I already do that, you say. Great, then this is just a gentle reminder for you. But when you do signings for your books, promote the heck out of your stories in an anthology, too.

You will meet people who'll say, "I never read short stories. I'd much rather read a whole book." I really get into the character of someone like Jack Reacher or V.I. Warshawski or Charlie Harris and Diesel. Remind them that an anthology is a great way for them todiscover new writers. Or even to discover their favorite author namely YOU, just happens to write other characters or even in other genres.

The other reason people say they don't read short stories is they don't have time. Everyone is still pressed for time even though they might be working from home now. They have children to teach or occupy them with things to do or meals to cook or laundry to wash. Remind them that short stories are great for them because, each story is only a few pages long and it starts and ends in those few pages. You won't have to stay up past your bedtime to finish. It only takes 30 minutes so so to read a short story.

Tell them the geniuses behind the anthology or behind your story. Time Travel edited by Barb Goffman. If you have a story there, find out why Barb did this anthology or tell why you found the idea so fascinating you just had to write a story for it.

I wrote stories edited by Robert J. Randisi for Lethal Ladies I & II, because they were to be Female Private Eye Stories. For his Deadly Allies I & II, they were stories by members of Sisters In Crime and members of Private Eye Writers of America. Of course, all the Cat Crime anthologies all feature a cat. I loved doing those because I had two cats, Nick and Nora and could relate.

I'm sure each of you can come up with a good way to promote your own short stories in the great way you also promote your books but maybe I've sparked an idea or two with you for your short story.

Now start Promoting.