Category Archives: Guest Blogger

Medium Towel Radiator

By Chris Grabenstein

(author of the John Ceepak mysteries TILT A WHIRL, MAD MOUSE, and WHACK A MOLE and the Christopher Miller thrillers SLAY RIDE and HELL FOR THE HOLIDAYS)

My wife and I are ready to suggest a new slogan for the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) in their on-going battle to keep our skyways safe:  “If you see something, say something but don’t expect us to do anything.”

In fact, it’s become painfully clear to us that the folks in the white shirts with the epaulettes, the ones who regularly make us line up to take off our shoes, belts, and underwire bras, the x-ray scanning gendarmes who confiscate our tweezers, nail clippers, and water bottles, the security specialists who eyeball your Baggie and take away your shaving cream if it’s over two ounces, have absolutely no idea why they are doing any of that except that it beats flipping burgers at Wendy’s.

Yes!   Now I understand the true nature of the blogosphere.  This is a place to vent, rant, and rail!  (And maybe demonstrate where sicko ideas for thriller plots like the ones in SLAY RIDE and HELL FOR THE HOLIDAYS come from).

Here goes.

Recently, we were flying home to New York from Nashville (It was one of those 7-7-07 weddings.  BTW — Did anyone besides that kid Damien get hitched on 6-6-06?).

We were all snuggled into our Jet Blue extra legroom seats, watching Simpsons reruns on our chairback screens, dreaming about Blue Chips and biscotti yet to come, when my wife SAW something:  a lady carrying an infant in one hand and a bright green Bic butane lighter in the other.   After much consternation (come on – who, even years after kindergarten, wants to be known as a tattle tale?), she decided to SAY something, just as the slogan plastered all over NYC since 9-11 suggests.

She found a flight attendant and said, “Uh, that lady who just walked up the aisle with the baby and is now seated in Row 22 has a Bic lighter filled with flammable gas sealed under heavy pressure in a miniature flint-fused flame thrower,” or words to that effect.

The flight attendant took a quick stroll up the aisle, came back and reported as follows.  “I didn’t see anything.”

To which I, the smart aleck in our family of two, remarked, “Gee if that shoe bomber Richard Reid had had a Bic instead of a book of paper matches, he could’ve really done something besides pose for a mug shot in a scraggly beard and an orange jump suit.”

To which she, the Jet Blue constitutional authority, replied that “the laws of the United States” prohibited her from asking the baby-toter if she had a lighter.”

Yes, I remember those laws.  You see, I used to smoke.  Many a night at the smoke-filled bar, someone would waggle their unlit cancer stick in my direction and ask, “Do you have a light?”   The police were immediately summoned and the offending party was unceremoniously hauled off to the hoosegow.

A few weeks earlier, when I was flying out to Omaha for Mayhem In The Midlands, I had my shoes shined in Newark airport.  This was after I took them off for the security screening and realized that the state of Nebraska may not let me cross their border with shoes in such a sadly scuffed state, cows and leather being a big part of the whole Omaha Steaks image system.  While the shoeshine guy thwacked the buffing towel across my toes, I watched the other humble and lovable shoeshine guy working the booth sell a Bic lighter for a buck to man in the throes of a nicotine fit.

This is all on the far side of Airport Security, mind you.   I immediately started hatching a plot for my next Christopher Miller holiday thriller!  A terrorist buys a Bic Lighter from an enterprising shoeshine guy for a buck, buys The New York Times for a buck fifty at the newsstand, waltzes on to Jet Blue (where no one is allowed to ask questions if he keeps the lighter tucked in his pocket), and takes a seat in the row directly underneath the oxygen tank for the masks.  It’s up in the luggage bins.  Usually near the back of the plane.

I’m thinking a rolled up Times and a flick of the Bic, and you’ve got yourself a pretty nice voted-off-the-island Survivor-style Tiki torch ceremony in the back of a crowded airplane.  Tear the plastic tube off that oxygen tank or, better yet, give our psycho an accomplice – an old man with emphysema and his own portable O-2 tank!

When we arrived (safely and unscorched) in New York, my wife called the Transportation Security Administration.  They have an Eagle on their patch – they’ve gotta be serious about security.  In fact, the TSA Website has a slide show proclaiming stuff like “Increased Vigilance At U.S. Airports.”   We figured these Vigilant Ones would be interested in cracking down on the rather unvigilant Jet Blue and the screeners at the Nashville airport.

Or maybe not.

First they kept her on hold for 25 minutes.

Then the gentleman who finally picked up the phone advised her “not to worry about it.”  The lady probably just bought her Bic at a shop after she passed through security.   He also doubted that the lighter had any flammable fluid in it because it was probably just a souvenir.

Wait a second.  The words Nashville or Music City were not printed on the side of the lighter.  It was a standard issue Bic.  They all have fluid inside them.  They come that way from the Bic factory.  There’s no way to refill a Bic.  You light your cigarettes or your New York Times until the gas is all gone, then you toss it away.

When my wife asked TSA Security Maven #1, “Why would they be allowed to sell lighters in souvenir shops on the other side of security when it’s against the law to carry a lighter on an airplane?”

She was asked to please hold for TSA Question Answerer #2.

Oh, by the way, when we checked our luggage at the ticket counter, the guy ahead of us had to remove the lighter he admitted to packing inside his suitcase.

Anyway, when TSA Man #2 materialized on the other end of the phone, he answered my wife’s question with an example:  “You’re not allowed to carry water bottles through the metal detectors but once you’re past security you can buy all kinds of beverages and carry ‘em on a plane – not just water.”

Hello?  I believe the reason you can’t carry water bottles past security anymore is because someone may have dumped out their Poland Spring and refilled the bottle with Nitroglycerine or some kind of flammable liquid to turn your sport bottle into a Molotov cocktail!   It’s not about the water!!!


I don’t think the folks at the TSA understand why they do what they do except that someone spinning the color wheel of threat levels told them to do it.

In the end, for seeing something and saying something, we were made to feel like alarmists and fools — not to mention tattletales.

But, we did get a good plot for a thriller.

Mad_large  Whack_large

Mini Donut Pan Black

by guest blogger Stacey Cochran

You guys are awesome. Thanks so much to Alex for the opportunity to guest blog, and thanks so much to everybody at Murderati for consistently putting together one of the best crime, mystery, and suspense blogs on the web. It’s really an honor to write to you today.

I’m fascinated by the past. Because out of the past we can see how people lived and functioned. Moments that stand in our collective conscious — Elvis Presley filmed from the waist up on Ed Sullivan; Neil Armstrong touching down on the Moon; JFK declaring “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”; race riots in the South, hoses and dogs and an astonishing lack of humanity; a man of God with a monumental dream speaking before a statue of Lincoln to the entire world and generations to come.

My thesis today is on the power of media and publicity in a writer’s life. More specifically I would like to address the belief that I have of that power — television, film, and the still image — to speak to people with an immediacy like nothing else on earth. Underlying all of this is the question I have of what role a writer plays in society.

My good friend J.A. Konrath sees the writer as entertainer and entertainer only. I’m sure there are a lot of us who would agree with him.

At Thrillerfest this year, I asked Marcus Sakey about the secret of developing compelling, great characters. He responded wryly that I’d have to pay him twenty bucks for an answer. But the point is that Marcus, as a novelist, elevates the role of character in his work.

There seems to be a fundamental split in the crime fiction community: either your work is character driven and serious, or it is plot driven and meant as entertainment.

The best writers walk an invisible line between the two.

Nonetheless, it’s important to know which side of the camp you pitch your tent on because it will affect how you promote yourself, how you approach bookstores, how you value reviewers, newspapers, and radio and television interviews. It will affect the persona you should be developing with regards to how you interact with the public.

I think we shape these things, and I think we make conscious choices about doing so. Even if your choice is that you’d never be so self-absorbed as to think about “developing a persona,” that in and of itself is a choice about your persona. You want to come across as modest and unpretentious. Only the work matters. Only the writing…

When I was in grad school, I went through a Thomas Pynchon phase. Here was this guy who completely avoided the media … in an obsessive way. What he was saying by doing so was that a writer’s personal life should not affect the way that his work is received or interpreted. Salinger was only marginally different.

Then came Stephen King whose personal story — being abandoned by his father as a toddler, living in a trailer while his wife worked at Dunkin Donuts, fishing that Carrie manuscript out of the trashcan — reads like an Emmy-winning TV mini-series.

There’s no doubt in my mind that his persona was fashioned with a great deal of revision and deliberation. The man made himself sound like the Abe Lincoln of the fiction world.

And he had the writing to back it up.

J.K. Rowling’s personal story of living on welfare as a single mother played a huge role in creating buzz about her first novel. People felt sympathetic, and her writing was very good.

The point is that we develop a persona consciously (and sometimes subconsciously), and that our persona comes from our belief in the writer’s role in society. This, in turn, affects how we use media to publicize ourselves and the issues that matter to us.

I personally believe in creating social harmony. To that end, it is a theme that runs through most of my writing, my website, how I do bookstore events, and on my new television show. There are few greater goals for a writer than to explore the issues that divide cultures, ethnic groups, religions, and other institutions with the potential to polarize individuals.

This is not to say you can’t do this in an entertaining way. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, David Morrell’s First Blood — these are all novels whose first aim is to entertain us. But not without addressing issues that divide us as well.

At Thrillerfest this year, James Patterson put it this way: “Nothing reveals character better than action, in books and in life. What we do is kind of who we are . . . I love thrillers, so it kills me a bit when people condescend to them. I don’t like it when someone calls a book a ‘guilty pleasure.’ I don’t know why anyone should feel guilty about reading a book.”

My goal is to take whatever success I have in this life — whether modest or great — and use that success to help others. Whether speaking to a room of thirty aspiring writers regarding the publishing business or building a library and school for children (my own personal dream), in my own humble way, I would like to enrich the lives of as many people as I can.

In His Shadow

By Dave Zeltserman

I originally wrote my first novel, In His Shadow, back in 1992. My wife was working with someone whose girlfriend worked at Houghton Mifflin, and the girlfriend was able to get it to one of their fiction editors. Houghton Mifflin ended up debating for nine months whether or not to publish it, and in the end decided the book was too risky for a first novel—telling me that as much as they liked it, they needed something more formula for a first novel, and at this point I started sending query letters to editors at the large NY houses. This was at the end of 1992, and editors were still responding to well-written query letters from unagented writers. I ended up having seven editors request the book—and three of them told me the same as the editor at Houghton Mifflin, that as much as they liked it they needed something more formula for a first novel. About In His Shadow—it is no way a formula PI novel, but part deconstruction of the hardboiled PI genre and a large part psychotic noir. The protagonist appears to be a clichéd hardboiled PI, but it’s an act to cover that he’s a pure sociopath. While the reader is led to believe they’re in for standard hardboiled fare, they’re really sucked into the PI’s hellish descent and complete psychic unraveling. No, not at all formula. After striking out with the editors who requested the book, I put it away and focused on my day job, although at this point I had sold several stories to magazines qualifying me for MWA membership.

Skip forward to 1997. I just finished writing my crime/horror thriller, Bad Thoughts, and find that the NY houses have mostly shut their doors to unagented works. I am able to slip through one door, though, with Warner Books. An editor there reads Bad Thoughts, and we end up going through three rounds of editing (and each round does improve the book) before he tries submitting the book to his editorial board, where he gets shot down. At this point I put Bad Thoughts away also, and again focus on the day job.

Skip again to 2002. MWA has a deal with iUniverse allowing its members to self-publish for free under iUniverse’s Mystery and Suspense imprint. I do this. I have no delusions of selling any copies, but my hope is to use it as a resume—get enough reviews and quotes from other writers to interest a legitimate publisher in Bad Thoughts, which I consider a better and more marketable book. Basically, I’m looking at it as throwing away In His Shadow to get Bad Thoughts published. So what happens? Pretty much what I expected. Mostly because of my past published stories, I’m able to get some very good authors to read In His Shadow and they end up providing me some great quotes. Which leads us to the Italian publisher, Meridiano Zero.

L’occhio privato di Denver

Not only am I getting quotes from some well-known writers, but people are discussing my self-published book on online forums, including RARA AVIS, which is a discussion group for hardboiled and noir fiction. One of the members of the group, Luca Conti, is translating books for Meridiano Zero, and is intrigued by the discussions around my book. He buys a copy and later contacts me about wanting to submit the book to his publisher. Meridiano Zero is no slouch—they publish top crime fiction writers, people like James Lee Burke, Derek Raymond and David Peace, so my answer to Luca is: yes, please do so. The publisher ended up feeling the same way as Luca and buys the Italian rights to In His Shadow, so I end up selling the Italian rights before the English rights. The book is published with the title: L’occhio privato di Denver.

Fast Lane

Skip ahead to the end of 2003. At this point I have an agent, we’re shopping In His Shadow again now that we have an Italian publisher, and we come close but can’t quite pull it off—we still have that problem that the book is too different, too risky for a first novel, even with the praise the book has garnered. I write a new book titled Small Crimes. This one is again pure noir, but a huge jump up from In His Shadow. With this one I end up with four editors at different houses trying to acquire it, but none of them can get it through their boards. I’m about to give up. A friend of mine, Allan Guthrie, another frustrated noir writer who has since landed a nice book contract with Harcourt, contacts me about a small press he’s starting with JT Lindroos called Point Blank Press. Al has read both Small Crimes and Fast Lane. He wants to acquire Small Crimes. I politely say no, and he then asks for In His Shadow, which I am only more than happy to give him. More than anything I want to escape the stench of self-publishing, and so a new and copy edited version of In His Shadow is born, with the title Fast Lane. So now that Fast Lane is published by a small but earnest publisher, people who wouldn’t look at it before are reading it. Poisoned Pen Bookstore names it one of the best hardboiled books of 2004. Kate Mattes, who runs Kate’s Mystery Bookstore, becomes a fan, reads Small Crimes and Outsourced (a novel I had just finished) and wants to acquire both for a mystery line she has with Justin Charles, but the publisher passes on them. Ed Gorman writes a unbelievably flattering review for Fast Lane, as do others. But I’m still having no luck selling Small Crimes or Outsourced.

A quick note about Outsourced. This book was meant to be a balance between noir and commercial fiction, and a quick plot summary has a group of software engineers made obsolete due to outsourcing coming up with a clever way to rob a bank, and of course, things going very bad. As with Small Crimes, editors were trying to acquire Outsourced, but couldn’t get it through their boards. But I do have a bit of luck with it—the book ends up in the hands of one of the top film agents in Hollywood, and he wants to do something with it. Hollywood can move at a glacial pace, but two years later, and after a misfire in trying to make it into an HBO series, it seems to be on track for a feature film. We have a producer and two very hot screenwriters, and we’ll see what happens over the next few months.

Small Crimes

John Williams, who is an acclaimed writer and also an editor at Serpent’s Tail, is also a member of RARA AVIS. I contact him off list, telling him what Ken Bruen and others are saying about Small Crimes. He’s interested enough to look at the book—with the caveat that they probably won’t buy it, that Serpent’s Tail only buy books they absolutely love. I mail him a copy. Months go by. I’m talking with Ed Gorman at this point about my frustrations with selling Small Crimes and Outsourced. He recommends that I send a copy to Five Star, which publishes a mystery imprint that he started. The thing with Five Star is they sell mostly to libraries, which means no more than 1,000-2,000 copies of Small Crimes would sell, and I had higher hopes for the book. I end up sending it to Five Star thinking that at least I’d get the book reviewed, and maybe that would lead to Outsourced being bought. I get an offer. My agent tries contacting Serpent’s Tail at this point, nothing. An editor at St. Martin’s tries buying Small Crimes—and he’s shot down because his boss decides he has too many dark books on his list. I give up. I sign the contract with Five Star. Five days later I hear from John Williams. Both him and the publisher love Small Crimes. They want to buy it. I want to put a bullet in my head.

Bad Thoughts

Now my agent and I are scrambling. Serpent’s Tail publishing Small Crimes puts me in the game. Not only will the book get good distribution, but Serpent’s Tail is one of the more prestigious houses in the UK for crime fiction. Fortunately the folks at Five Star are the most decent people imaginable. I can’t say enough good things about them. They let me swap Bad Thoughts for Small Crimes—which works out best for everyone since Bad Thoughts is a better fit for Five Star. It’s more of a thriller—which are selling better these days—albeit a very different crime thriller that borders on horror. The book is now getting strong reviews, and Five Star seems happy with it. So that’s my story of working my way up the publishing food chain. Three books, five publishers, if you include iUniverse in the deal. And a lot of gray hairs in the process.

Dave Zeltserman

Dave Zeltserman is the mastermind behind Hard Luck Stories.  Dave lives in the Boston area with his wife, Judy, and when he’s not writing crime fiction, he spends his time working on his black belt in Kung Fu.

Comments from a reader

by Woodstock

(Hi all. I’m on vacation with the family this week and invited a devoted suspense reader to guest blog. "Woodstock" is the pen name for a retired tax acountant who lives and reads in the suburbs of Colorado’s Front Range communities. Give her a warm welcome. PNT)

I’ve always been a reader, and suspense fiction has been my first choice since I was about 9 years old and read THE SECRET OF THE OLD CLOCK — Nancy Drew, of course. With my current day in, day out, level of responsibility, I read at the rate of 2-3 books/week. At least two members of a book discussion group I used to attend thought I was strange because I read so much! Believe me, I’d read even more if I could.

Many people have observed that there are only a few general plot lines. I agree. The action in a book, while certainly important to holding my interest, is not the first thing I think of when I ponder what makes a "good read." How a character acts and/or reacts is what will hold my interest and bring me back to that author when another book appears.

Suspense fiction has it all. Do you like romance? The title character in T. Jefferson Parker’s SILENT JOE planned the first date to end all first dates. What about humor? Janet Evanovich had me wiping tears of laughter from my eyes when Stephanie Plum delivered a chocolate pie to the wrong face in FOUR TO SCORE. Would you enjoy a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions? Pick up Kent Harrington’s DIA DE LOS MUERTOS, Ken Bruen’s DRAMATIST, or Chuck Hogan’s PRINCE OF THIEVES. Is a tightly woven plot more your style? I’d recommend Stephen Booth’s BLACK DOG or IMPULSE by Frederick Ramsay. Do you enjoy a strong sense of place? Check out Donis Casey, Adrea Camilleri, James Lee Burke, the Scudder or Bernie Rhodenbarr series by Lawrence Block, and books by Donna Leon, Daniel Silva or Tony Hillerman. If you are interested in history, there are dozens of mysteries set in other times and in other places. I usually don’t pick up "historicals" but have enjoyed Rebecca Pawel’s series set in Spain in the 1940s.

I could probably keep going for billions of bytes of bandwidth, but I think you get the idea. I find in suspense fiction more variety than I can begin to catalog.

The biggest change in bookselling I notice now as a customer is the huge increase in author appearances, booksigning events, poetry readings and the like. In the few months I worked at an independent store one Christmas season, a signing occurred perhaps once or twice a month. Now, that same store’s weekly newspaper ads list an event almost every day of the week, and sometimes two or three on the same night, in each of the three store locations. This means that more and more authors have the opportunity to meet more and more readers, and I regard that as a very good development.

Another change which impacts my life almost daily is the role of the Internet in creating readers’ communities, connecting these communities with other similar groups, and providing word of mouth recommendations to those who like to read.

Websites maintained by authors can be treasure troves of interesting information and sources of community as well. A website given only sporadic attention by an author or a publicist can be a huge disappointment and can limit my interest in that author. Do it right, or don’t do it at all, would be my advice.

Because of my participation in a couple of Internet based reading groups, I learned about book conventions. I’ve been an eager participant in every Bouchercon since 2000. Left Coast Crime will be held near my home in 2008, and I regularly cast longing eyes over the schedules for Mayhem in the Midlands, Thrillerfest, Magna Cum Murder, Love is Murder and The Great Manhattan Mystery Conference in Manhattan, KS which is held annually less than a day’s drive from my home. I really wish I had the resources to attend every convention I can find. Alas, not just yet.

Conventions have introduced me to new authors, given me face-to-face contact with people I knew through Internet communications, and raised my confidence as a participant in what is truly a world-wide community.

I could not support my reading addiction without a public library. I’m fortunate to live in a lively, well funded, expanding district. Keep in mind that library patrons sell books, too. I have filled out a form at more than one library indicating interest in a specific title, and my libraries have purchased at least one copy. Librarians tell me that word of mouth for books like THE KITE RUNNER  or THE BOOKSELLER OF KABUL sends them off to the wholesaler to order more copies and keep up with demand. And the guys who used to run the small press Uglytown told me one time, "We don’t get remainders back from libraries." When a library buys a book, it stays sold.

If I could have one wish granted for those of us who read, write and publicize suspense fiction, it would be to dissolve the divide between "literary" works and "genre fiction."

I’m not sure where and how the divide was created. For a reader like me, who will read just about anything, the distinction doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I don’t have an easy answer, or any answer at all for that matter. But that would be my wish.

Thanks for the invitation to join you. Happy reading to you all!

Woodstock (read reviews here)

How To Marry A Mystery Writer

In his excellent book ON WRITING, Stephen King gives the best advice for a long-writing career: Read a lot, write a lot, and stay married.  As a recently enaged young man, my mind has been on that last partlately.

I’m 30, almost 31 and I think one of the reasons I’ve put off marriage this long is because I’ve known I wanted to be a writer and I knew it was going to take a special kind of person to be married to a writer.  I also didn’t want to be tied down and prevented from doing all of the things, going all of the places, and learning all of the lessons needed for a vital writing career.

But now that I’ve had all of those experiences and I’m settling into a semi-responsible life I’ve been looking for that someone special and it’s been an interesting hunt.  It took me quite a while to realize the best mate for me as a writer is NOT another writer or artist.  I like to be the artsy fartsy one, the tortured one, the irresponsible and dreamy one.

So finally I found my perfect match in a banker named Becky Kilgore who owns a grand total of maybe 10 books.  She doesn’t read much, but she reads my stuff and asks the kind of great common sense questions that only non-readers are capable of noticing.  She has no tolerance for literary flair without purpose and is ruthless in her need to be entertained.  That’s great for me.

Now, to those of you out there with spouses and significant others,here’s a chance to give advice and shout-outs to your own best partner.  What balance of reader/non-reader or writer/non-writer works
for you.  Any advice for my bride-to-be on being married to a writer? And also, tell us about some of the worst writer’s spouses  you’ve heard of.  We want dish people.

Bryon Quertermous


By Chris Grabenstein One of the most interesting panels at this year’s MAYHEM IN THE MIDLANDS out in Omaha was one moderated by William Kent Krueger called “The Me You Never See: The Secret Life of Your Favorite Authors.”

When he asked, “What’s your sign?” I thought at first that Mr. Krueger, apart from being an Anthony Award-winning author and all around great guy, was a time traveler from a 70s Single Bar. But, when about half the writers on the panel responded Virgo (or at least some Virgo influence), I knew he was on to something.

What my wife and I call Virgosity.

You see I was born on September 2nd. I am a Virgo. This explains why I eat the same whole grain muffin with peanut butter and honey every day at 9:32 A.M. Why I have two mugs on my desk: one for black pens, the other for red. Nothin’ but Sharpies.

Wait. Looks like someone snuck a baby blue ball-point into the red mug when I was in the other room preparing my 3:30 p.m. cup of coffee.

The ballpoint is dead to me.

Yes, to create the chaos of my mystery and thrillers requires lots of order and structure. Not outlines. More important stuff like two coasters: one for the coffee mug, one for the bottled water. Always to the left of the computer screen. The right is where the note pad has to sit.

Here’s what one Internet stargazer said about Virgo, the Virgin, the only female sign in the Zodiac: “Virgo wants to make sense out of the world, and will observe, study, research, compare, and record. Virgo likes paper, where ideas are presented in tangible form. In fact, an ancient picture of the Goddess shows her with a papyrus headdress. Virgo is often a fine writer, or poet, or critic.”

I’m ordering up one of those papyrus headdresses, pronto. And a rhyming dictionary so I can move into my poet phase.

Agatha Christie was a Virgo. J.K. Rowling has some heavy Virgo influence. Theodore Dreisser, D.H. Lawrence, Lilly Tomlin, Leonard Bernstein, BB King, Sean Connery and Sophia Loren – Virgos all.

But then again, so was William Howard Taft, America’s 27th (and fattest) president. WHT probably could’ve been a writer if he hadn’t been so busy doing other things such as consuming mass quantities of mutton.

Virgos crave routine. Be it regular servings of mutton and hash, or a daily writing schedule that begins to resemble the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day.

The major pitfall of Virgo is worry.

I was afraid of that.

It’s why we Virgo writers never think we’re finished rewriting even after the hardcover and paperback have already come out. When I do a reading from one of my books, I always see words I should’ve changed, sentences I could’ve cut.

We always want to make things better. Maybe it’s why so many mystery writers on that panel were Virgos.

In mysteries, order is, typically, restored at the end. The loose ends are all tied up. All the pens are in their proper containers.

Now, if you will excuse me, it’s 4:30 p.m. Time to take my dog Fred out for a walk, the same walk we took yesterday at 4:30 p.m.

Fred, the dog, has a schedule, too. We suspect he may be a Virgo and is secretly writing a mystery where the cats don’t solve the crimes but are the victims.

Chris Grabenstein

Alchemy on the First Page

I‘m at Malice Domestic this weekend and so have begged one of our favorite Murderati regulars, Billie Hinton, to guest, today.   Billie is a Jungian therapist and is constantly amazing us here with her meta-comments.    I’m finding today’s topic particularly relevant as I mingle with so many dedicated readers here at Malice.   I’ll try to blog a little about it later in the day.

– Meanshile, enjoy!   – Alex

                                                ALCHEMY ON THE FIRST PAGE

      In Carl Gustav Jung’s field of work model, the therapist and client interact on a conscious level – what is said and done in the room. But they also interact on an unconscious level, and Jung felt that when the therapist and the client both drop into this deeper level of work, there is opportunity for transformation.

    He suggests that if the therapist holds her own conscious/unconscious material as well as the client’s, this “alehemical container” creates the space where transformation happens.

    I commented recently here that I’m a reader  “willing to be amazed.” I’m also a writer who wants to amaze. As an adjunct to both those things, I’m slightly obsessed by the writing process and recently seized on Jung’s field of work model as I venture/stumble into the bowels of a second novel ms that needs revision. The goal: to try and make sense of what exactly I need to do with this book. Actually, it’s more than that. I want to perform alchemy.

    I suspect something akin to Jung’s “alchemical container” happens when a masterful author writes a book that resonates with a huge number of readers, mixing insight and character, story and plot in a way that creates the space for readers to open the book and immediately sink deep – into action and narrative and dialogue and motivation. And when it works well, magic and transformation.

    A tall order!

    I think I’ve mastered creating some magic in my books – but I’m still struggling with how to get that alchemical container in place on page one and sustain it for the rest of the novel.

    I suspect in my case, I have to wrench myself out of therapist mode and move fully into the role of writer as alchemist – not writer protecting readers or characters or anybody else.  Not walking the reader in slowly, but inviting the bold jump into deep waters.

    As a writer, how do you go deep on that very first page and create the alchemy that carries through to transformation?

    And as a reader, what works for you? What alchemy happens on the first page of the book you aren’t willing to put down?

The Sexy, Sexy Indy Press–Part II

Troy Cook, here, filling in for Simon one last time. He should be back next week.

Last week I mentioned how the sexy, sexy Indy Press could work for a lot of authors. That they can be a dynamic place to launch new authors with unique voices. Because I spoke out in favor of it, I feel it’s necessary to talk about both the good and the bad side of small presses. I don’t want to mislead you—it’s not an easy road. But I still think it’s worthwhile.

I was fortunate enough to have multiple offers for publication from small presses. I got offers from a POD (print on demand) press, from one that paid very small royalties, and from one that did a regular offset print run (which means that they print thousands of copies right from the start). None of them paid a large advance so chuck that notion right out the window.

All of them seemed like they could work, but with different pitfalls for each one. A real danger of dealing with small presses is that they often have very little capital to work with, which often leads to them going out of business. In fact, one of the presses that offered me publication went under around the time my book would have been released by them. Wow, would that have sucked!

The POD press had been in business for a few years and published lots of books. But the reason I didn’t go POD is because it’s very difficult to get your books into stores. It’s hard enough for any small press, but it’s extra hard for POD. This is because they print them one at a time so they usually have to charge more for each book and they’re often not returnable, which is a standard in the industry. I’m not saying it’s impossible to launch a career with POD, but you need to know that it’s going to be a much tougher slog. BTW, the POD is the one that went out of business, in case you were wondering.

The next press paid very small royalties, but would use regular offset print runs. That meant they had a better chance of getting it into stores. Because of both my film and business background, I had already decided to spend a chunk of change on promotion. You know the axiom: You’ve got to spend money to make money. Because the royalty at this press was so small, it would be nearly impossible to make money and I would be more likely to lose a lot of money because of my promotional efforts. A little backward, by my way of thinking. Still, if that’s what it took to launch a career, I would consider it.

But the last press paid larger royalties and also used offset print runs. The scary part about them was that they were new, without a good track record to judge them. But the part about them that I liked was that they had a national distributor. When I was directing films, one of the key elements to success was having good distribution for your movie. I believe it is the same process here. If you go with a small press, try to choose one that has a good distributor with a national sales force. This means that your book will likely be carried in quite a few more stores than without the sales force. So any promotional efforts you do have a better chance of working, and of bringing an eventual profit.

And for me it paid off, my book sold out its first print run in a matter of months and brought even more attention than I had thought possible.

So there are definitely pitfalls to avoid, but I think it can still work out with a sexy, sexy Indy Press.

But this is just one man’s story. What do you think?

Troy Cook
Award-winning author of
47 Rules of Highly Effective Bank Robbers
A “Killer Pick” by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Assn.
“A literary jewel. Don’t miss it.” – Library Journal

The Sexy, Sexy Indy Press

Troy Cook, here, filling in while Simon goes under the knife for a little nip/tuck, or so I’ve heard. <grin> Or maybe he’s off promoting his new book. Either way, I’ll be filling in next week as well.

Have you ever fallen for someone mysterious? Someone with a smoldering intensity?
As you got to know them better, you found out that they were hard working, unique, and full of passion—but at the same time broke. Before I make this too confusing, I’m not talking about the opposite sex, I’m talking about my recent love affair with the magnificent Independent Press. We all love the big NY publishers and want to be published by them, so why does Indy get me excited?

It probably starts with my background in independent filmmaking. In the film business 80% of all films are produced by the independents. Yes, a lot of them are crap, including plenty of the eighty films I made in my career. But it’s also where you discover the next great filmmakers of our time: Quentin Tarantino, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola, among others. These guys, with their crazy ideas about filmmaking, explored and created works of art in the independent world before being snatched up by the big guys.

I think it’s the same with big publishers as it is for the studios. Big publishers are defined by their stockholder value, which makes it next to impossible for them to take too many risks. And every new author is a risk. That’s where the sexy Indy comes in. They can take a chance on a new author because they don’t need huge sales numbers to be profitable. They can grow an author from scratch all the way to big sales.

Of course, then the NY pubs swoop in and lead the author to bigger and better distribution and sales. Which is pretty cool.

Will this happen to me? To you? It remains to be seen, but it is possible to make a splash even when you’re with a small press. My debut mystery picked up rave national reviews and won multiple awards, garnering interest from a big NY pub and landing me a film deal. So I think it’s plausible.

A couple of examples of the small press rags to riches story are Sean Doolittle and Victor Gischler. Well…rags to riches might be a stretch since very few authors get to the riches stage. But these guys were with a cool small press called Uglytown, with good sales, and eventually got snatched up by Bantam/Dell. One day, I hope to follow in their footsteps.

And I think you can, too.

This post is about the “why” of going with a small press. Do you agree or disagree? Next week I’ll write about the “how”—the positives and negatives of going with a small press. You definitely want to avoid some of the pitfalls.

Troy Cook
47 Rules of Highly Effective Bank Robbers

Disaster Strikes Photographer


The worst possible thing that could happen to me from my photography work at Bouchercon happened. My chip reader, the mechanism that transfers all of the photos I shoot, and that I use to upload all my hard work for you and others to see, managed to erase and reformat two days of work on the little chip in the camera where the photos are stored.

Instead of properly uploading all the files to my computer, it reformatted the damn card. The card reader cooperated for two days but then something went south. It is now sitting in my garbage can. I had shots of the Anthony awards, on Saturday night,  and shots from the closing panels today. I was saving my absolutely best and most defining shots for Murderati. My wife implored me to take the card and reader to a specialist. All gone, and the computer says there is no data on the card. This is the equivalent to exposing rolls of film by accident. Piss on it.

In any event I have 250-300 photos from the first two and one half days that worked. But here you have ten defining photos from the whole affair. No awards, no photos in the Frank Lloyd Wright building where the award ceremonies and subsequent reception were held, but I have some for you, thank god. BTW, Mary Reagan took this photo of me as I took one of her for her blog.


Alex Brett, my wife Maureen, myself, Rick Blechta, Carol from Reviewing the Evidence, and another friend all went out for Japanese food on Saturday night after the awards, and we all talked about the highs and lows of our B’con experience. I have shared with you my disaster, but it was not my worst moment because it is something I can get fixed quite easily. Art is not always pretty.

I give you a photo of Barbara Seranella which captures my best and worst moment. Her liver is failing. She needs a new one. She speaks about it quite openly and she is also fighting Hepatitis C. I do not put this photo here for you to think I am being cruel. She is a courageous human being who moved the entire audience to tears with her acceptance speech for winning the best Short Story Anthony Award (her first ever mystery/fan award according to Barbara).

This was the best moment of the conference for us all. She has a huge challenge ahead in the next month when she is evaluated for a third transplant and her fourth liver if you include the one she was born with. She dragged herself to Bouchercon and many would question why. This woman has a zeal and a will to live like no other, and we now all know about her resolve and need to be with her friends from the mystery community. She does not want letters or notes from anyone about how she is doing, she wants you to tell her stories. By the end of the weekend she looked better! I came up to her on Sunday morning in the dealers room and told her that she looked great and had better energy. She was pleased to hear that. Let us all pray that she gets the help she needs and pulls through. She is an amazing woman.

Barbara_and_jim Barbara_at_the_opening_ceremonies_1


I also want you to meet Judy Watford, a blind fan at Bouchercon. Judy is another amazing woman who hosts a radio program for the blind, loves mysteries and reads with a special mechanism that reads out the words as you run your finger over the page. She interviews authors as well on her program. Judy is a fantastic, enthusiastic human being. Say hello to Judy Watford.


And how about your Simon and Denise, eh???? So nice to meet you and catch your buzz. I did not realize Simon was an Englishman living in California. I love the English, although I am Scottish by heritage so you can imagine that it was so great to see MC Beaton, Val Mcdermid, and Denise Mina, who is so Glaswegian you have to ask her to slow down a bit when she speaks. Glaswegians speak differently than a lot of other Scots. If you ever rent the film "My Name Is Joe", a brilliant little film about an ex-con in Glasgow who is trying to make it onto the straight and narrow, they put English subtitles at the bottom of the film so you can read what they are saying. It’s a hooooot, man.


Here is a lonely reviewer from Deadly Pleasures who wanted his picture taken so I obliged. Larry Gandle seem to be having fun all weekend. He and George Easter, the editor of Deadly Pleasures,  were in the dealers room most of the time. This man loves mysteries and thrives when he is around like minded people. I love to tease him about his reviews, but in fact we are good pals and I have grown fond of him over the past few years. I am fond if him because he is a passionate human being, and passion is what Bouchercons are all about. It really is a four-day love fest, where you get to rub shoulders with all the stars, the new stars, the future stars, and the established stars. And let’s face it, without zealous readers and fans, there would be no stars. It takes two, you write the words, we read them. This is our dance with all you authors.


Speaking of the star maker machinery, I would think that many authors including my wife, Laurie King, and many more, would not even be in Madison if it were nor for Ruth Cavin, the 87-year-old senior editor from St. Martin’s Press. She has given so many authors their start and boy, can she pick ’em. My wife Maureen still loves Ruth, as she edited her first four books and helped immensely with Maureen’s self-confidence as a newer writer. Her mind is still sharp as a tack. Keep reading and writing folks; it will serve you in the later years of life. I plan to.



But let us not forget the booksellers. Here is Wendy, the manager from Sleuth of Baker Street. This is all a dance of writers, publishers, booksellers, readers, and credit cards. Those dangerous little plastic cards we carry around in our wallets when we go to these events. Go to a panel, run into the dealers room, plunk down your ccs. A dance. Here is Wendy, and Mystery Mike with Lee Child. Two of the nicest booksellers at B’con. Give these people your business, they appreciate it and love to talk about books.




Well that’s it. I hope to do this again for you soon. Perhaps at Magna Cum Murder. But I will give Pari my photos and she can do the copy if she wants. It’s been great fun and I am appreciative of the support for my work from you guys. I leave you with a friend I made on a walk about.  It was politely pointed out to me from my own blog that what I thought was a bull is in fact was a cow because of her udders. What do I know? A city boy from Toronto. I thought just bulls had horns, eh?

Iden Ford grew up in NYC and moved to Canada in 1968. He came from a family of film and theatre parents who met just after the war in a show called On the Town. Iden is married to Canadian author Maureen Jennings and they have been together since 1979. Right now he is a fitness trainer by trade, but is attending Ryerson University in their photography program. He plans to work as a full time photographer and business assistant to his wife in the near future.
You can reach Iden at the following virtual coordinates:
Iden Ford