Category Archives: Toni McGee Causey

a poll and a teaser

by Toni McGee Causey


I would really love it if you all would help resolve a bit of a mystery for a lot of us freaks/writers/authors/scribblers…

Lately, I’ve seen a tremendous amount of discussion on a couple of writers loops I’m on, and elsewhere on various blogs, about how important social media is to a writer’s career. We all pretty much agree that it’s important to have a website (she said, the person who has not updated her own in a long time, yikes)… but there is the assumption / pressure / voodoo guesswork that it’s critical for an author to also be present on Facebook and Twitter and other social media sites.

The assumption is that social media helps authors sell books. And the corollary is that a lack of presence means lost sales (bad author, bad author).

I think these are incorrect assumptions, but I could be wrong.

My theory is that most people who “follow” an author on Facebook or Twitter do so after they’ve already learned about the author–usually by buying their books or visiting them on blogs. I’m not sure that the exposure to the author on Facebook or Twitter actually compels a follower who hadn’t already been interested in buying the author’s books to then do so. 

Does that make sense to you all? 

Now, don’t get me wrong–I enjoy Facebook and Twitter and I think that it’s funt to build a relationship with readers, and I know in my case, many readers have become real friends, so that’s a lot of lagniappe, there. Subsequently, there have been times that these friends have talked about someone else’s books and I’ve gone to check that book out and then I bought it. But I bought it on word-of-mouth, not on the author having posted information. (In each case where this happened, the person had bought and read the book; they had not re-posted anything from the original author.)

I also know that there have been a few times when I’ve seen an author be so… repugnant… on their social media interactions, that I am no longer interested in their books, so the social media thing can definitely backfire.

So I’d like to know if the mandate to “get a FB and Twitter account” to “help sell books” is a fallacy… or if it helps… or if sales are just an occasional side benefit. 

Would you mind telling me which of the following is true for you? Please feel free to pick more than one if you do some of one, some of the other. I’m looking more for overall trends here, so feel free to elaborate.

Now, this is not just aimed at readers, but I really hope you all will come out of lurkdom and post. To make it fun, one lucky commenter will receive a $25 gift certificate to the online bookstore of their choice.



a) I follow authors on FB/Twitter after I’ve read their books, not before.

b) I follow authors on FB/Twitter after I’ve heard about them from their blogs — this does not mean I have bought or will buy their books.

c) I follow authors on FB/Twitter after someone else has mentioned them / tweeted about them / shared a link, but that’s more out of curiosity, and does not mean I will be buying their books.

d)I follow authors on FB/Twitter, and in some cases (or all cases), have then subsequently bought their books.

e) I follow authors on FB/Twitter after I heard about them from their blogs, and I have then subsequently bought their books.

f) I follow authors on FB/Twitter after someone has mentioned them/tweeted, etc., and I often then buy their books.

g) I follow authors on FB/Twitter and ended up buying something they recommended. (Doesn’t mean I bought that author’s books, though.)

h) What the hell? Who the hell follows authors on FB/Twitter? I don’t “follow” authors online, and I still buy books.



And now, for the teaser part of the post…

For the next two weeks, you will see all of our workspaces and hear about our writing processes. Well, everyone except moi… mine was posted a couple of weeks back here. I think this is a first for us–a concentrated two week look into the same aspect of each of our lives, and how similar–and different–we all are.

On my Sunday, two weeks from now, we have a round-up of photos from a bunch of cool writers friends, and we’re adding more through this week. (Seriously, you will love glimpses into these writer’s workspaces — Lee Child, David Morrell, Laura Lippman, MJ Rose, Anne Stuart, Lani Diane Rich, Karin Slaughter, Lisa Gardner, Cindy Gerard, Erica Spindler, T. Jefferson Parker, CJ Lyons, Jeff Abbott, James Born, Gayle Lynds, Jonathan Maberry… and YOU.)

I want YOU, yes, YOU to send me your photos of your workspaces, because you’re a part of us. So many of you have visited with us every day, and we’d love to include you in our pictorial. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO BE A WRITER. We LOVE READERS. There are a bunch of writer friends who post here for whom I do not have an email address, and yes, I want you on board. All of you. What a cool round-up that would be.

Here’s what you do — take a photo of your workspace. I don’t care if it’s a barn, a desk in a cubicle, an assembly line, a backhoe… take a photo of your workspace and email it to toni [at] tonimcgeecausey [dot] com. Any photo will do, and don’t worry if it’s dark or whatever–I have Lightroom, I can deal with it. Email it and tell me in a sentence or two something about your workspace and what you do there.

C’mon. Join the fun. I’ve got photos right now of everything from a Starbucks to a highrise apartment to a bed. (Yes. A bed. Which is so perfect.) So send me yours, dear ‘Rati. You belong here. 

Now, on to your answers! And thank you.

summer goodness

by Toni McGee Causey

You know what? I had a grumpy post for today, but really, who wants to read a grumpy post? Besides, it’s difficult to finish a grumpy post when you take a break from it and go off to write and then the writing starts sailing like you own the ocean. I posted earlier this week on Facebook that I’d been listening to a lot of Peter Kater’s Piano CD — if you go to his website, the song titled “Spirit” loads and plays. It starts slow, but about 1:12, the cascade of notes… beautiful. That is how I wish I could play. I put this CD on (God, I love iTunes) and start writing and I feel like this:

Happy. The writing, flowing. (Which is weird in that I’ve never written much to music before this book. I had occasional moments on the third Bobbie Faye book where I listened to music, but mostly a drum cadence when I was writing that insane climax at the LSU / Alabama football game. I’ve been listening to music this entire book, but then almost everything has changed with this book.)

Anyway, I deleted the grumpy post and I decided that today, I’d rather hear from you–what you’re doing, what’s going on that’s good in your life. (C’mon, there are some good things. Please share!)

Here are a few things which have put me in a good mood:

The above mentioned CD. Particularly the songs “Thanksgiving” and “Anthem.”

Books on my TBR pile… I’ve just started one that came out a couple of years ago titled THE LACE READER. I don’t usually like first person present tense, but she captured me from the beginning, so I’m fascinated to see where she’s going with Towney, and especially with the supernatural elements to this mystery. Next up on deck is Chevy Stevens’ debut (hi, Chevy!) titled STILL MISSING. Several people have raved to me about this book (hi Fran!) and I’m always thrilled to read a gut-punching, great first novel. After that is Don Winslow’s SAVAGES, which has also come highly recommended. 

Is there anything better than great books when the heat index outside is around 106? (Um, no.)

This morning (if you’re reading this in the morning), I’ll be having brunch with my parents and husband and granddaughter–we’ll be having omelets, bacon (I think it’s against the law in the south to have brunch without bacon), biscuits, and, just for kicks and giggles, waffles with either blueberries or strawberries (fresh). By afternoon, I will be in a carb coma, so if you hear a loud thunk, that’s me landing on the floor.

So what about you? What are you reading? What’s your favorite summertime food? (Mine is fresh strawberries, followed closely by an ice cold watermelon.) What movies are you watching? (I saw INCEPTION a couple of weeks ago and hope that Alex is going to write about this one–I thought it was brilliant.) Are you looking forward to football season? (That would be a resounding yes over here in SAINTS / TIGER land.) What will you write about in your “what I did over the summer” essay? 





A writer’s workspace (mid-book)

by Toni McGee Causey

JT has her idea box and her official book box. Alex outlines (I think?). Allison brainstorms as she goes. Rob has a hole in a cave somewhere. (Kidding.) 

I have whiteboards.


(photos taken with my iPhone because my big digital camera died on me)

I also use Scrivener for Macs — which has many of the same capabilities of these whiteboards + a Word-like software… and I will dump a lot of photos there, images of my characters and such. But when I am working on specific scenes, I like having the photos right there on my board.

 (photos are random, from the internet… not my own)

I like Scrivener for the organizational information-at-my-fingertips convenience. I am actually very lazy about organization–and I’ve paid for that countless times by wasting hours looking for something that I couldn’t remember how I worded (and therefore a simple “find” search wasn’t helpful). Or I’ll forget a character’s last name from the time I mentioned them (which drives me nuts when I can’t find a last name, and then I can’t remember if I actually used it or changed my mind but maybe mentioned them by last-name-only somewhere else). So the organizational ability to just plop a folder under a heading called “characters” on Scrivener, and drop bits of info in there (cut and pasted description, a photo of an actor or anyone I find on the internet who most resembles the character)… and later on, it’s there to remind me of details without me having to search. 

Mostly, though, I use the whiteboards. And lots and lot and lots of Post-It notes.

I hate writing a linear outline. I don’t “see” the story like that. I see it playing out horizontally, like a movie. And that might seem like splitting hairs, but I was finally able to structure a story solidly once I allowed myself to write it out horizontally and “hang” the bigger turning points along a timeline, rather than try to write down the page, vertically, in a paragraph-by-paragraph explication.

[So far, I have never had to go back and make any big structural changes–once I get this structure up on the board. When I start blind, without the structure, I end up re-doing the first act too many times to count.]

When I start a project, both of those boards are empty. My husband, Carl, made those for me. [We ordered the magnetic whiteboards online where I found them at a pretty significant savings over Office Depot–especially for these sizes. Carl then framed them and hung them for me.][Yes, he is my hero.] The first thing I’ll do on the board that you see on the second photo is draw that timeline across the time–Act One, Act Two, Act Three lines in place, then turning point lines, climax, resolution. And I start plugging in the major emotional moments / major plot issues. 

Weirdly, I will not write down every scene I “see” in this pass. I don’t need to–if I have a major turning point, I’ll know what I’ll need to do to build up to that turning point. Those things will fluctuate and change, though, so I’m not fond of nailing them down too severely. 

The Post-It notes start showing up at some point around the mid-book process. I’ll start seeing too many things at once and I don’t want to forget the smaller details. I’ll have a note up there about motive, or a twist, just to remember to layer in those clues as I go so that when I get to that scene, it’s ready. As I write, I’ll realize I’ll need to go back and layer something in earlier, or give it more depth because it’s turned out to be more important or useful than the initial throwaway comment indicated back when I wrote it. (I often find I planted things I had no idea I’d planted… I’ll think, ‘Oh, I need to go back and do X’ only to go back and lo, there it was, already there.’ That, my friends, is freaky.)

By the end of the book, I’ll have dozens of Post-Its up there, of things I still need to go back and check. I’ll discard the ones I know I already finished, so it’s not confusing.

[During the edits and then later, the copyedits, I will do more Post-Its. I think the company owes me a thank you for keeping their revenue up.]

You see that notebook on my desk? That’s the second one for this book. It’s a five-subject college ruled thing, nothing fancy, and I’ll brainstorm in there. I will work out motives, or the characters’ traits, backstory, habits, etc., and I almost never go back and refer to anything there because once I write it, I know it. It’s very stream-of-consciousness and hard to follow, but I will often start babbling in there if I have a knotty story problem and usually, the physical process of writing it down helps me brainstorm it out. I don’t know why. I can’t actually write the story in longhand–I freeze up. I’ve been typing too long, having started writing back in the early eighties on an IBM selectric typewriter. 

My office used to be in a front room of the house–a room not-quite-double this sized room, and with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. I never got anything done. Part of it was the fact that I was too accessible to everyone (kids, employees, husband), and part of it was that the wall space was too visually busy. I don’t have much on the walls in this room, and I like that it’s in the back of the house, where almost no one but my husband will go. I can write in public places when I have to, but it’s difficult because I am naturally nosy and want to eavesdrop on everyone, and then I end up in conversations. Which are great, but then I get nothing done.

[I am just one of those people that complete strangers will tell absolutely everything to. If I’m in a restaurant, people will want to tell me stuff they’ve never told anyone else. Little kids love me. They will be terrified of everyone else in that place, and if I sit down, they are going to try to come over and crawl in my lap. I have had new moms hand me their infant and say, “Can you hold her a sec? I just have to run to the restroom.” or in the grocery story, “Oh, here, I’ll be right back, I have to grab some cereal.” And then I’m standing there, with this kid I’ve never laid eyes on, who, for some reason, thinks this is perfectly okay. At least they don’t cry.]

Anyway, I digress.

I have worked in a very tiny office space made out of a closet. A back porch that we turned into an office. A converted dining room. My “desks” have included everything from a piece of plywood or a lap pillow to an old table to a hand-me-down desk, to, finally, a new desk. I’ve worked with just a typewriter all the way up to my Mac and a big honking monitor. (Yes, I know it’s huge. That wasn’t on purpose. That is just one of those, “Well, fine, if you insist,” moments when they did not have mine fixed, couldn’t fix it, and had to replace it with something bigger. I should get an Oscar for the straight face I had when they asked me if I would mind the bigger monitor.)

I’ve also written while lying in the backseat of a truck, just after having had surgery, while my husband drove us to Colorado–pen and paper and only occasionally, the laptop that was on its last leg.

So I’m curious about your workspace, no matter what you do. What’s on your desk? If you don’t work at a desk, tell me something about what you do and see when you arrive at work? What’s your ideal working environment (whatever you do!). What is the one thing that will derail your efficiency? (Mine is the dog barking next door. There is one of seven which sounds like you are stabbing her, and stabbing her some more and oh, wait, stabbity stabbity stab, and I swear, I think she’s dying and it upsets me. But that’s just how she barks.) (Not too coincidentally, I have begun to write to music all of the time, now.)

Tell me about your workspace!


there is joy

by  Toni McGee Causey

I can tell you up front, I know no secrets about writing. I had sort of hoped that, by this point, I would have found the mysterious code, the secret handshake, the door in the back that opens with just the right combination of knocks and pauses. There may be such things; I don’t know them.

I’ve thought about that a lot this last year. When I knew that I was going to write something else besides a Bobbie Faye novel, I felt a sense of exhilaration, followed almost immediately by a sense of terror. I’d been hostess to that set of characters for almost seven years, at that point. It was a bit like growing up with the same friends, going to the same school, living in the same house in the same small town; at some point, you yearn to see what the rest of the world is like.

That series started off as a script, and then after deciding to adapt it to a novel, I had to work long and hard to break myself of a bunch of script-writing habits and re-learn how to write fiction. The whole ability to show internal thoughts? wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. Seriously. That was a trip and a high after years of having to keep everything external and yet somehow physically convey the internal, or use dialog, without getting to dip even a toe into the interiority of a character. (The exception, of course, is voice-over, and I’m not a fan. I think it shows a weak script, most of the time.)

It was time for a change, though, and the problem with suddenly having that freedom is that there were too many options. 

For the first couple of months, I thought I’d develop something funny, since that seemed to be my “niche.” The oddity about that as my niche is that it’s really not what I first loved to write. Everything I’d written in the early script years had been very dark, psychologically. The humor was something I didn’t think I could write. Oh, I was a natural smartass, and I learned early on to curb that online (bit me in the ass a few times, it did)… but conveying humor on paper? I hadn’t really planned on it, and yet, my screenwriting agent at the time felt like I should give it a try. [And that script still gets calls, almost 14 years later. It’s been optioned and re-optioned. I refer it as the script that refuses to die.] 

Funny became my bailiwick. I loved it, it was a joy to get letters from people who were going through really crappy days or months, and learn that I’d helped them through it. There’s just nothing quite like that feeling, when you read those letters. So I thought I’d do that again, just set in a different world.

I brainstormed the world, had the characters, and tried to write. And a frustrating thing happened: it went dark. Not just a little dark. Not like mildly slate gray when you were aiming for the whitewash of dawn. It went very dark. Bleak in places.

The story and I had a talking to–a come to Jesus meeting if you will. It seemed to agree to shape up, to do what it was told, so I would throw out the pages and start over, and try to go back to the lighter side. It curved on me, swerving back. Nothing I did worked.

I got a lot of well meaning advice at the time about sticking with what I was known for, keeping my fans happy, and so on, and every single bit of that is valid. People who have built amazing long-term careers said these things to me, so there was no doubt they were speaking from experience.

And the more I tried to pretzel that story, the more miserable I was. I sort of hated writing there for a while. In fact, we kinda broke up. I didn’t mention it here, but I had started to wonder if I was a writer, you know? I couldn’t get that damned story to work, and I couldn’t leave the idea behind. It had grabbed me by a chokehold and I was squirming away. 

It was back in October and early November when several friends said a few things to me. I would like to think it was provenance, fate. I hope it wasn’t because I was whining incessantly. [I was whining, people.] 

That’s when I had the realization that I hadn’t gotten into writing to do just one thing. I get bored easily. I hadn’t become a writer because I thought I’d be famous. (The Naked Cowboy is famous. These days, you can do the stupidest thing on the planet, and be famous. Thinking you’re going to write a book, one among hundreds of thousands and suddenly be famous? Not likely.) And nobody sane gets into writing for the money. Just look at the flux publishing is in today–nobody really knows what the hell is going to happen two years from now. Two years ago, e-readers were the clunky dim future and nothing worth worrying about. Now? The percentage of ebook sales is rising, fast, and there are all sorts of quakes ripping through the industry. It’s going to change by next month, and definitely by next year, so writing for the money is fairly laughable. The majority of writers either have a job to support them, or are lucky enough that a spouse can handle the bills while they toil away, hoping to create something that will sell.

So, then, why the hell write?

Because I can’t not write.

I quit fighting the story.

If it was going to go dark, then fine, we’d go dark. If it wanted to be told in first person, then dammit, we’d do first person. (Scared the living hell out of me, that one did. I had never written a first person story. Ever. Thought I never would.) If it was going to break my heart a dozen times over how hard the main character’s life was, well, then, fine. 

I would simply tell the story.

And it started working. 

I’m here at a point in the story where today felt like I was carving each word out of my own skin, syllable by bloody syllable, because the scene was painful. People lose things, in this scene, that cannot be recovered. It changes everything for them in this story. And as painful as it was, as scared as I had been to go here, I have to tell you, I sat back at the end of this day, and there was joy.

I am so grateful I didn’t listen to the peer pressure of doing the same sort of thing I’d done before. I will go back to lighter stories–I have another one I already know I want to do, eventually. But I am so grateful that my friends–several ‘Rati members included–encouraged me to go with my instincts. I can’t write that to you as someone who sold this thing–I’ve held it back, with the blessings of my agent–because I didn’t want it out there until it could be a whole book. If I do it right, if I pull it off, it will be heartbreaking, but the end will be worth it. So when I tell you that there is joy, it’s a joy of the writing. There is no other reward, here, than that, because everything else is fleeting. 

The first couple of years of being a writer, there is so much pressure to promote. No one really knows what works; it’s all a guess. I’ve tried a lot of stuff, because people said I needed to, and some of it might’ve helped, and a lot of it was completely useless, as far as I could tell. The first couple of years, you spend a lot of time suddenly caught up in the spin cycle of publishing–writing as fast as you can, sending things off, getting the next book started or the next proposal done, proofing copy edits, writing a bit more on the current one, starting up promotional stuff, proofing the galleys, frantically writing more of the next one, trying to squeeze living and family in there, having very little time to breathe, much less enjoy.

None of it matters more than the work.

At the RWA conference last year, I went to an early morning no-holds-barred chat giving by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. (She’s got a gazillion NYT bestsellers under her belt and is gorgeous and nice. You kinda want to smack her for being perfect, except she’s funny and disarming and you end up liking her a lot before you know what happened.) She said a lot of useful things, but at one point late in the hour, she said, “Whatever you do, protect the work. The work is all you have.”

There is a joy in that. I honestly know that I am writing far far better than I did before. Everything about how I write has changed with this book. That part is neither better or worse–just different, I suppose. What’s important is that I didn’t keep thinking, “Well, I should do it this way or I should do that other thing, because that’s what’s expected.” Instead, I said, “What does this story want to say?”

I love what I do. I am so incredibly grateful I get to do it. I may never sell again, and I will be bummed, if that happens, but I’m here to tell you that this part? This writing what is gut-wrenching and honest and letting the story stay true to itself?

Pure joy.

Sometimes, it’s going in the complete unexpected direction that will break you free of the chains, and bring you joy.

And speaking of joy, I could not end this post without giving you the Jane Austen Fight Club. 

What brings you joy, my friends?

(By the way, I’m woefully behind on updating my website, through no fault of my excellent webmistress, Maddee, so if you want to follow me, it’s easier to find me on Twitter or Facebook.)

in which I make up a point just to get to post this twitter feed

(a Twitter / Facebook / social media how-to)

by Toni McGee Causey

Okay, look, there are lots of discussions going on (one at Thrillerfest this weekend, moderated by our own Allison Brennan), wherein Social Networking is dissected and analyzed and pondered and ground to a pulp. Since I sadly was not at Thrillerfest (whimper) and missed their terrific panel, I have no clue what was discussed there… but I’m willing to bet that there was at least some reference to using social networking sites for “branding” and “getting your name out there” for the public and “keeping a presence” on the interwebs and promoting your book.

But, mostly, social networking is really just supposed to be social. You know. Fun. 

[I will tell you one thing–I have had people follow me in order to be able to DM me about their latest release. It’s not a personal DM (direct message)… it’s a canned message. Spam. I hate it. I will not buy a book if I’m spammed like that. If you have a review that you’re proud of, that’s great. Or a blurb? Terrific. If someone is excited about someone else’s book and mentions it–wonderful–in fact, I’ll tend to pay more attention if someone is mentioning you than if you’re doing it yourself. I will follow links to reviews and I have bought books like this. But a direct spam in my private in-box? No. No no no no no. And really? No. Don’t do it. You don’t want to look smarmy and socially inept. You wouldn’t show up at my door in a shiny leisure suit when I was having a casual party for friends and barge in and announce that your book was out today and you had this great offer and by the way, what was my name again? Well, maybe some people would, and those people get deleted and ignored.][I don’t care *how* famous you are.]

So, back to social networking. I think it’s okay to mention what you’re working on, talking about the process of what you’re going through. It’s okay to mention when your book is coming out, because that’s an event in your life. But if all of your posts to Facebook and Twitter (etc.) are promotional, people are going to tune you out. You will become the equivalent of the DVR’d commercial: zip, on to the next interesting thing, instead of hanging around and getting to know you.

Instead, social media should be used for fun. Networking and promotional stuff is just a side benefit, a little lagniappe, if you will. Take, for example, this exchange Friday night, wherein we pick up this story with Colleen crouched on her sofa, wielding a spatula:



I’m not afraid to eat fried worms but I am afraid of this monster flying roach thingie that’s aiming for my head. #whyineedashotgun



@colleenlindsay A fast remedy for the flying roach and you’ll think I’m crazy, but it works–hair spray. If you don’t have bug spray.



@ToniMcGeeCausey Er, um, I have a buzz cut. Thus, I do not own hair spray.


@colleenlindsay oven cleaner? windex? really anything spray-able. Also, I now know what to tell your clients to get you for Christmas. 😉



@colleenlindsay Got any Raid? And a lighter? Instant flame thrower!


@Jinxie_G The way my luck has been going the past three weeks, I’m just as likely to set the whole house ablaze. Good suggestion, though!



@colleenlindsay Yeah, I thought of that after the fact. LOL Seriously thought, what Toni suggests should work with the sticky wings.



Damn it, SIGOURNEY WEAVER would know how to kill this giant roach!



@colleenlindsay uh, Sigourney didn’t fare so well by the third movie. She was having alien baby, killed self. Do not go down that path.



I swear to God Stinkyboy just offered that roach a martini.

[note to reader: Stinkyboy is Colleen’s cat.]



This roach needs to die. #whatwouldBrianBoitanodo? #hedmakeaplanandseeitthrough #withaflamethrowerprobably



@colleenlindsay Honestly, Colleen, put on your big girl panties & deal with it. I know actual babies who’re tougher than you. #sissylindsay


@literaticat I am not denying my inherent sissy nature. I AM NOT ASHAMED TO BE A WUSS.



@colleenlindsay Scrubbing Bubbles Foam will kill any multi-legged beastie & make your surfaces gleam while it’s choking the life out of ’em.

@JM_Kelley I HAVE SCRUBBING BUBBLES! I will BUBBLE it to death!



ACK! Just dive-bombed my head again.



Sneak attack! Have disabled Mothra with Scrubbling Bubbles. It fell behind stove. Not waiting around to see if it crawls back out, dammit!

Meanwhile, in a related conversation, after HC mentioned she had firebombed a spider once…


@ToniMcGeeCausey He pissed me off, trapping me in the house like that. I finally got so mad, I made SURE my revenge was not served cold.


@HC_Palmquist LOL… damn, girl, you’re hard core. I’ve Raided ’em and WD 40’d em and Lysol’d em, but I have never firebombed one.



@HC_Palmquist of course, given that it’s *me*… me+firebomb would be a very sad thing. I once tried to shoot a rat with a gun, tho.


@HC_Palmquist missed it.


@HC_Palmquist managed to kill a really nice piece of molding and a desk leg.


Then a few minutes later… after we hadn’t heard from Colleen in a while…


Waiting for Fat Biped to fall asleep. We will then offer her up as a prearranged sacrifice to the Great Flying Roach God. Shhhh! Don’t tell!


There were signs the next night that Colleen lived. Stinkyboy will lounge to doublecross another day.

We had fun, goofing off, all of us. I don’t know Colleen, other than she’s a literary agent at FinePrint Literary Management. I did not start following her because she’s an agent — I am extremely happy with my agent, Stephanie Kip Rostan of Levine/Greenberg. (Exceptionally happy.) I started following Colleen because someone retweeted a funny comment she’d written.

Here’s the thing… Colleen accomplished something pretty smart with her playfulness — she demonstrated that she’s got a great sense of humor, she’s self-deprecating, she’s easy to interact with, and she’s human–not at all stuffy and scary, the way so many agents are perceived. She does a Q&A every so often (I haven’t kept track of when–perhaps she’ll mention it in the comments), and if I were ever asked by anyone if I knew anything about her, I’d say that I thought she was a lot of fun, and clever and approachable and yet, I’ve also seen her answer questions very professionally. Now really, she wouldn’t have accomplished that if she were telling me she was fun and clever and yet, professional. She simply showed it.

Show, don’t tell.

Treat your social media as fun; be a friend, interact as friends. Ask people about their day, see how they’re doing. Respond to what’s going on in their lives. Don’t try so hard to be anything important and for heaven’s sake, don’t just interact to promote yourself. Do pass along links of interest and contests you’re sponsoring–those are often appreciated, but don’t get so aggressive that you pass along every freaking contest you’ve ever seen on the internet. Most of all, relax. Twitter and Facebook are the equivalent of gathering for a break at the water cooler. If you were standing there, you wouldn’t want to hear someone evangelize or detail their latest colonoscopy or try to sell you some Amway. You’d just want to hang out, have some fun, maybe talk about something interesting in the news and then go back to work. You’ll remember the people who made you laugh and you’ll avoid the ones who were hounding you for something. Social media works pretty much the same way.

Plus, you learn that Raid + lighter = flamethrower, and you just never know when that might come in handy.


So tell me, ‘Rati, what odd / fun / interesting thing have you learned lately from a social media site?





little truths

by Toni McGee Causey


There are things I’ve been thinking about lately. Sometimes I wish I could go back to that debut novelist, or even further back, to that almost-sold writer, and say, “Here. You’ll need to know these. They will keep you from lying fetal in the corner in a year or two.” But then, it’s most often the bad times that teach the best lessons, and maybe–just maybe–knowing them ahead of time wouldn’t have really worked. Still. If I could, maybe I’d go back and tell myself a few of these little truths:


1) You cannot drive forward by solely focusing on the rearview mirror. You can only see where you’ve been, and what you did, and if you don’t look forward, you’ll run off the road, sooner rather than later. Likewise, you cannot grow in your career or as a person when you’re always focused on what you did before that worked and assume that if you just did it all exactly the same again, everything will be fine. Eventually, the terrain in front of you is going to change. You have to let go of who you were yesterday and look out there to see where you’re going right now to make sure you’re aiming for who you want to be.

2) Life has a funny way of taking that nice, gently climbing terrain you’re ambling on and dropping off into a canyon, without any roadside warnings. Remember, there is almost always a bridge over or a road around or, short of that, a plane. In other words, canyons aren’t the end of the trip… they’re just an opportunity to see something different, learn something new, find a new path, and become a better you. Quit griping, put your foot on the pedal, and head in the new direction. You’ll get nowhere staring at the canyon.

3) There will occasionally be bad reviews. Think of the coconut factor, and let it go. (The coconut factor: coconut, is, and will always be, disgusting, ptui, nasty, awful, horrid, and useless as a food item. Even the smell is unpleasant. But there are entire swaths of people out there who love it, for reasons beyond understanding, and think you’re crazy for not giving it a five star review. Sometimes your book is just going to be their coconut. You can’t fix that, nor change it, nor should you even care. The world needs people with all sorts of tastes… especially the coconut farmers. C’est la vie.)

4) People will astound you. Really, this is the best part about this business — you will have fan letters which will choke you up, friends who stand by you when you’re down, who reach a hand out and pick you up, others who will encourage you and still others who will give you much needed advice. You will realize that this is what makes you wealthy, not contracts, not lists, not print runs.

5) You will come to realize that everything that led up to the first book contract was the equivalent to internship/training, and signing the contract is the equivalent of signing an employment contract. Meaning, that sale is not the end of the road, the “arrival” of success, but simply the end of one phase and the beginning of another: the job. Just like any other employment, there will be good days and bad, things that go beautifully, and things that don’t. No job is perfect. It simply can’t be. Every single job has obstacles and learning curves and opportunities–and writing is no different. Expect those curves and you’ll be fine.

6) Though you’ll still hate coconut.

7) You’ll be faced with obstacles and you will choose to grow.

8) It will hurt.

9) Like hell.

10) But it will be worth it. It’s hard to see, sometimes, when you’re deep in the woods, lost, in pain, but you’ll take that dark and those woods and learn from them, and what you end up with will be so much better, that if given the choice to go back and live life without having had the pain, you’d choose the same path. 

11) You will one day be very very sleepy after writing a blog really late into the middle of the night, and you will accidentally splatter toothpaste into your eye. It will really wake up that eye. I do not recommend this.

12) When dealing with staircases, don’t assume the last two steps are merely suggestions and skip them altogether. Trust me, gravity works, concrete is not soft, and purple toes are not next year’s must-have accessory.

So tell me, ‘Rati, what little truth have you learned lately?

talking with friends… this week, Bill Cameron

by Toni McGee Causey

One of the things you realize right off the bat when you first meet Bill Cameron is that he’s not only very funny, but he’s one of the good souls. He’s also extraordinarily talented and one of those from whom praise means everything, because he has such high standards, especially for himself.

(I adore Bill. Just in case that wasn’t obvious enough.)

When I realized his newest book, DAY ONE, out right now (ignore Amazon’s due date, if it’s still incorrect), I wanted to take the opportunity to introduce him to those of you who might not have met him (and have a chance for old friends to share the day). Here’s my recent interview with Bill:


Toni McGee Causey (TMC): Is Portland as full of coffee shops as Seattle is purported to be? 

Bill Cameron (BC): Seattle is a perfectly nice coffee town, I’m sure. But Portland has Seattle whipped on the coffee front. Boo-yah! (But, Seattle, you know I love you!)


TMC: Are there any indelible lessons you’ve learned now that you are a published author?

BC: Whatever you think you know, you don’t. Whatever you think you’ve learned, it’s already obsolete. Last month is old and last year is ancient. But the future is at least two years away.


TMC: How can readers find out more about you, your books, and your future endeavors?

BC: I am a hesitant blogger, though I did recently join the Criminal Minds group blog (  where I will pop up twice a month or so. Still, I find Twitter far more to my liking most of the time. It’s casual, friendly, and very low pressure. So if reading the 140-character natterings of a nattering natter monkey is your thing, follow me at


TMC: How have things changed for you between your first book and now?

BC: I panic less. I understand better how little control I have over my success or failure. What I can best control are the words on the page. Everything else is a combination of luck and the support of others.


TMC: What is your favorite word and why?

BC: It used to be defenestrate: to throw something or someone out the window. And defenestrate remains high on my list. I’m just delighted by the fact that a word exists specifically for throwing things out the window. Such a useful word. Who hasn’t desperately needed to defenestrate someone or something at some point in their lives? All of us, I’m sure!


TMC: One of the things you do so well is bring to life unusual characters, or characters who have an odd outlook to life. I think of your characters with the same awe I have for Confederacy of Dunces–you find the details so many writers overlook that gives the character the neat-but-twisted point of view. What’s the most unusual character you think you’ve written? And why are you attracted to them? (What influences these choices?)

BC: First, wow. Being favorably compared to Confederacy of Dunces is, just, wow.


The thing is, I don’t set out to write unusual characters. I think I see everyone as being a unique mix of otherwise familiar characteristics. The soup may be different, but the ingredients aren’t. What I try to focus on is what’s important or formative to each character. With Skin  , it started with imagining the impact of his distinctive birthmark on his experience of the world around him. I’ve spent a lot of time off the page imagining his life, how he grew, how he responded to challenges. Imagining his strengths and his weaknesses. I think if you go through a process like that with your characters, you give yourself a chance to grow them into unique figures who can then come to life on the page.


In Day One, one of the characters is a teenaged boy named Eager Gillespie. He came about first as a name. I liked the sound of it, but I didn’t know anything about him. So I started imagining the life of someone named Eager. Is it his given name, or a nickname. In time, I decided it was a nickname, and well-earned. I started to think of him as an eager puppy, eager to please, eager to do what he wants. He developed into a likable ne’er-do-well, which was fine, but what else? Ah, he has two younger sisters. His mother is a bit of a screw-off, less attentive than she should be, absent a lot. So Eager has to look out for his sisters, has to be more grown-up than his age. And there comes the conflict: a boy forced to behave like a man against his own nature. He’s only partly successful, though when he is successful, it shows a deeper reservoir of strength than he realizes he has.


That’s my character process in a nutshell. My goal is not specifically unusual characters, but compelling characters. I hope what I’m doing is showing the way ordinary traits shape people into distinctive individuals. And, then, of course, I make their lives as miserable as possible.

TMC: How did you begin as a writer? What prompted you to first think, “I can do that?” and how did you get from there, to here? (Classes? Winging it? Mentors? Sheer dogged determination?)

BC: When I was in high school, I was convinced I was mere minutes from the first of many Johnny Carson interviews. Yeah, I had this thing. Sadly, it was another twenty-five-plus years before my first book came out, and for reasons which still mystify me, The Tonight Show has yet to call. Alas. (Oh, and by the way, Team Coco!)


I took creating writing classes in high school and college. It was tough when I was in college, what with suffering from the “why hasn’t the world discovered me yet?” disease. I know I gave my instructor’s fits at times, what with my insufferable arrogance. Fortunately, decades of being ignored eventually got the message through to my pea-sized brain: all my teachers were trying to tell me something important.


Ultimately, it boiled down to a lot of practice, a lot of trying things out, and even more classes. Lost Dog got its start in a mystery writing class I took at Portland State back in the 90s. By then, I’d become someone interested in learning, and that was the point when my work began started to become something other people might actually want to read. Nowadays, I see myself as always having more to learn. My hope is each thing I write will be better than the last, but the only way that will happen is if I listen to other and learn what they have to teach me.


TMC: What stories (or authors) inspire you and make you want to hurry back to the computer to write?


BC: Is it cheating if I say all of them?


Okay, maybe not ALL of them, but any time I read good writing, I want to write. And there is a lot of great stuff to be read — I’m never short of inspiration. That said, if you’d like me to name names, there are a few stand-outs for me right now. Just looking across the room at my stack of recently finished books, I see a few names which have inspired of late. Timothy Hallinan, Ken Bruen, Courtney Summers. Ken’s books are so lovely and lyrical and heart-wrenching. Tim does such a wonderful job of evoking Thailand, and his characters are fascinating — I get lost in his books and don’t want to be found. Courtney is a young adult author whose first two books  are so brilliant powerful I actually get twitchy wishing for the next one.


But  there are so many more. I grew up on Lawrence Block and Rex Stout, found inspiration as I was getting serious about mystery in Sara Paretsky and John Straley. Then there’s John Dunning, Laura Lippman, and more recently, Kelli Stanley. I feel like I just want to start listing names, but this would be a mile long before I finished.


TMC: What’s a typical writing session like for you? Laptop in a favorite coffee house? Or quietly ensconced in an office somewhere? Do you need complete quiet? Noise? What are your other must-haves? What stops you cold? What gets you going again? What part of the writing process is your favorite?
BC: I’m solidly in the laptop at the coffee house camp. I like activity going on around me. I like to people watch. And I love to shamelessly eavesdrop. Note to the world: if you don’t want your so-called private lives to end up as story fodder, don’t overshare them noisily at the coffee shop next to the guy with the laptop and the cocked ear.


Now, once I get into a rhythm, I will probably put the headphones on. I like to listen to music while I write, usually playlists created to evoke various moods. I also find myself creating soundtracks for stories as I write them. For Chasing Smoke and Day One, I even posted the soundtracks on my web site. Music to listen to while reading!


What I can’t do is write in dead silence. Oh, lord. I go mad when I’m in a quiet house. A few times a year I get the chance to stay at a friend’s cabin in the woods, and while I appreciate the solitude (in small doses), I need to play music. Otherwise, I find myself first pacing, then rushing out into the woods, there to crash through the trees and, probably, eaten by wolves. So definitely music, or human activity — something.


As my favorite part of the process, that’s tough. It’s that time when I’m in the groove, when the words are flowing and I feel like I really have a handle on the scene I’m writing. That can happen during the first draft or during revisions. I’m not a “don’t like writing, love having written” type of writer. The process itself is genuinely satisfying. Still, it’s not always (or often) easy. But all I can do is power through the rough patches. I’m a firm believer in giving yourself permission to suck. Get it down, then fix it in revision if you have to.


TMC: If you could have a conversation with any five people (assume here that them being dead isn’t a hindrance)–all of them grouped together at a table–who would they be and what would you want to ask them?

BC: This is one of those questions I always have a hard time with. Whenever I get a chance in real life to ask questions of someone who I admire or am intrigued by, I always get fumble-tongued and end up blathering. And so I think my approach to the magic dinner party time machine would be to throw people together and see what they had to say to each other. Just let shit happen!


Here are my five: 
Claire Clairmont, one time lover of Lord Byron and participant in the famous gathering when Mary Shelley conceived of Frankenstein. Byron, and Mary and Percy Shelley are often who you’d think of first among that group, but Claire may be the one whose life was most interesting in the aftermath.


H.G. Wells. He and Claire can discuss free love and Empire, at least until the others get into the mix.


Gloria Steinem. I’m sure she’ll have a lot to say to Wells and Clairmont. Also to:


Albert Einstein. Yes, because of relativity and general brilliance, but also because his own personal life was something of a hash. Let’s face it, if it was warm-blooded and female, Al would make a run at it.


Phyllis Schafely, because I would take such joy in watching the other four make mincemeat of her, all the while absorbing a conversation which will surely be wide-ranging, at times heated, but supremely fascinating.


As for questions? I wouldn’t need to ask any questions. Have at it, people!


TMC: What five words would you use to describe yourself? Can be a phrase, a sentence, or individual words.


Can I cheat and offer a reprise of my 6-Word Memoir which Jen Forbus recently featured at her blog? I can even edit it down to five words! “I’m in a mood now.” Maybe it was a little better in the original six: “Oh I’m in a mood now.” Kinda captures my mercurial nature pretty well!


TMC: Of course you can! In fact, I probably swiped the idea from Jen without even thinking about it (hangs head in shame) and want to say what a terrific site she has and everyone should go visit her regularly — she has great guests and terrific blogs!

Okay, now, tell me a little bit about Day One:  

Born and raised in southern Oregon farm country, Ellie Spaneker flees her home and abusive husband, her trail dogged by a brutal ex-cop in the hire of her vengeful father-in-law. In Portland, retired homicide detective Skin Kadash fills his idle days drinking coffee and searching for Eager Gillespie, a teen runaway of special interest as the only witness in a troublesome and long unsolved murder. Eager, meanwhile, is on his own, grifting and working the angles in the homeless underground, oblivious to the unfolding events which will force him to face the consequences of a crime, and a longing, which has haunted him for years.

These disparate trails converge at a bloody standoff, the harrowing end of a string of violence which stretches from the high desert to the streets of Portland.

And here are a few wonderful things being said about the book:

  • MBTB: “Cameron has invented a novel filled with complex plotting and writing that is both tough and lyrical.”
  • Library Journal: “Readers will get caught up in this thriller’s various plot threads, which will lead them to a sad yet satisfying conclusion.”
  • Booklist, “Unrelievedly bleak and gritty yet thoroughly compelling.”
  • Chelsea Cain: “DAY ONE combines philosophical first person wit with a spider web of a plot. It is an utterly engrossing page-turner, but you’ll force yourself to slow down, just so you don’t miss any of Bill Cameron’s crackerjack writing. A reluctant hero, a damsel in distress, a kid with a secret, plenty of Oregon references, and oh, lots and lots of murder. What more could anyone want?”


So, now for you readers — don’t forget our own Alexander Sokoloff’s new book, BOOK OF SHADOWS went on sale this week. And Bill’s book is out right now, too (ignore Amazon’s date)–two great new works to keep you busy. 

Meanwhile, tell me your favorite unusual character–doesn’t have to be a main character–but what weird, off-beat, or just unusual character do you still remember long after having put down the book. One lucky commenter will receive a $25 book gift certificate to any of our indie bookstore friends or Amazon or B&N, Borders or Books A Million. (Certificate will be emailed.) Post through Friday at midnight central US time; winner announced next Sunday.



By Toni McGee Causey

One of the most frustrating things about teaching new writers the ins and outs of publishing is trying to communicate just how subjective the business is. Grasping just how subjective the business can be is perhaps one of the first real steps into grasping the business itself — moving from starry-eyed newcomer to experienced writer. Those steps? Can be torture. Because when you do finally grasp just how random and coincidental and subjective the business can be, you finally have to acknowledge that you cannot control it. You move from being the God of the world you created to the person subject to an enormous amount of whims and choices beyond your control. If you’re a control freak (and I think most writers are, to a degree, especially about their own work), it’s positively painful to realize that your control can’t extend much further than who you query or whose offer you accept, should an offer be proffered.

I was teaching a few weeks ago at one of the library events I do throughout the year, and it was a crash course on publishing. The event was very well attended and several of the attendees came chock full of questions (which is wonderful — the time flew). But we kept circling around to the notion that they might not have control over some of the things they thought they’d get to choose about their books. Like cover. (coughcoughinyourdreamscough) If you’re really lucky, the publisher/editor will ask for your input and/or feedback once they have some designs, and if you really loathed something, hopefully they’d take that into account and not inflict you with a terrible cover, but often, they have reasons that go far beyond what you saw for the book … reasons that have more to do with market research and what’s selling well and what just hit the bestseller lists and on and on — none of which may be right for your book, but that’s impossible to predict.

When I was discussing this with the group, talking about subjectivity in general, I tried to use the dress metaphor. (I lost the men almost immediately.) We were talking about why not every editor will love every book, even when a book might go on elsewhere, and become a bestseller. Today, however, I had the perfect example right in front of me.

I’m in New Orleans. CJ Lyons is down teaching and I scampered over today to hang out during her down time today. CJ knew that one of my goals today was to take the time to look around at some of the galleries here for art. I’ve been doing some remodeling in my house and I have almost no art up anymore. Some things I just outgrew, some things I’m simply tired of, and mostly, my tastes had grown and changed over the last few years, so that what I wanted now was different. We meandered in and out of several galleries, and I suddenly imagined what an editor feels like when they’re perusing stacks and stacks of manuscripts: overwhelmed with the choices.

There are so many great artists out there, so many of them right here on this one street (Royal) that I could spend hours and hours angsting over the choices to be had. I didn’t have hours and hours, and I had a budget in mind, should something happen to grab my attention. And when you have that many choices in front of you–so many of them great–you have to create your own criteria to help whittle down the choices so that you can actually buy something.

For example, I eliminated certain styles of art immediately. I appreciate looking at them, I appreciate what the artist is doing (or tying to do), and I can see the value in them, see the impressive skills … but the bottom line was, I didn’t want to live with it. I didn’t want to wake up day in and day out and see it. It wasn’t going to bring me joy on that level, and it wasn’t something that spoke to me or resonated with me in a way that gave me new pleasure, every time I looked at it. An editor (and an agent) goes through this–they know that whatever they sign, they are going to be seeing it for a long long time. Maybe not day in and day out, but they’re going to be reading and re-reading and thinking about it and talking about it and figuring out how to do more with it and market it and then get it as much promotion as humanly possible. If it doesn’t really speak to them? That a lot of time to spend on something that is just technically good. If you had the choice of spending a lot of time on something technically good vs. something that blew you away, which would you do? Assuming they cost roughly the same, or both could at least be purchased by you — you’d be crazy not to pick the latter.

 Once I had automatically eliminated the obvious things that weren’t in my tastes/zone, I had to start whittling down the remaining choices. Many of them were beautiful works. Some were paintings, some were photographs. This is where budget and space contraints came into play. I could have spent more on something, if I’d found the exact right thing that grabbed my heart and held on and made me want to sit in front of it for hours, just mesmerized. I was willing to go there, for something like that. For the smaller things I was looking at, I loved what the photographer had done, (and it speaks to something I’m doing in my new work), so it resonated with me deeply and I knew that I would enjoy these smaller pieces. I saw a slightly bigger item at that same gallery which impressed me, but not enough for me to go so far over my comfort zone, budget wise. I bought the smaller pieces, and am not only happy with the purchases, I know I’m going to enjoy looking at them again and again.

A few shops later, I saw two pieces that I flat out loved. They were amazing works of art and I wanted them. Wanted. But there were two issues that prevented me from having an automatic “yes.” (1) I wasn’t sure if I had the right spot for them. You don’t buy something that large  and that dynamic without knowing where you’d hang it, and I wasn’t sure if I even had the right place. (2) I wasn’t sure it was ultimately what I wanted. If I was going to blow my budget by that much, I had to feel like it was something I couldn’t live without. Something I’d feel bereft at losing. Something I’d lament not having, day after day.

An editor is faced with the same sort of issues. There are small projects she/he will love and/or enjoy and while they may not be masterpieces, they are something the agent/editor connects to and will not mind living with for a long while through the course of the book. But for an editor to spend a lot of money on a big project, they have to have two things going in: they have to absolutely love it in order to convince those with the actual money to part with said money and they have to believe, in the world of their business, that this gamble is going to pay off. In my art choices, I only have to gamble my daily satisfaction–I’m stuck with something that expensive, and if it turns out to be a bad choice, I don’t want to have to be reminded about it day after day. But imagine if you are not only reminded of it … imagine if your job hinged on its success. If you’ve got the passion for a project and tout it up the ladder and convince everyone to spend a lot of money (both on the project and on marketing) and then it doesn’t sell? Your career as an editor could be over or in serious jeopardy. So you’ve got to really really love the work to go that distance. Even for an established writer, with a built-in audience.

It’s a subjective world. We can’t control the business, and we can’t say “I’ll be happy when …” and then put things like “sell” or “sell X number of books” or “hit X list” at the end of that sentence, because those things are outside of our control. The only thing we can do is control the quality of the work. Do the very best we can do and put it out there, in as many ways as possible, to interest the one right buyer (gallery [art] or agent [books]) who can then get it to the right audience. We need to look at the work for satisfaction, not the career trajectory, because to do anything else is to court insanity. The day everything goes really well and we think we can take the credit for that? Is the day we’ve bought back into the delusion and no good can come of that.

So love the work. Enjoy the process and the people you meet along the way. Don’t worry about all of the other things beyond your control. Do the best you can do to educate yourself about the process, of course, and the best you can do to put your work into the rights hands, and then let go and move on to the next work. (Unless you’ve self-published, which brings with it a host of problems, because you have to do everything yourself.) If you want the NY publishing career, know that, at best, you will control only a little of it, and that is mostly what you put on the page.

The good news is, there are lots of people with lots of different tastes. With a little education and tenacity, you can get your work in front of many of those people and increase you chances for good luck.

Conversation… with our own Zoë Sharp

by Toni McGee Causey


All of our hearts are just overwhelmingly saddened for Cornelia, and what she and her family are going through. Everyone here at Murderati wants to extend our condolences to all of the Read family, wherever they are, and especially to our beloved Cornelia. Come home soon to us, C. You are missed.


I love this group. Our commenters, our regulars, our lurkers… you all make this place so incredibly special. Thank you all for hanging out with us.

And as I’ve said before, one of the very best things about this gig is getting to talk at length to fellow ‘Rati members and find out such cool things about them. Well, I jumped at the chance to interview our own Zoë Sharp and had so much fun. I think this blog could have gone on for pages and pages. We’re going to be dangerous, when Zoë makes it over here for her tour in June.

This, my friends, is fun! And so, the interview…

Toni McGee Causey 1) Anyone who peruses your website or blogs for any length of time will realize that you are a professional photographer. In one of the interviews on your site, you mention that you like to try to give descriptions that encapsulate the character instead of being a full “formal CV.” Could you tell us a little bit about how you started off in photography, how you knew how to proceed to make a living at it, and what it taught you about description? (Framing, light/dark, contrast, composition, the importance of the telling detail, etc.)

Zoë Sharp 1) As with most things I end up doing, I kind of fell into the photography side of things, having started out writing non-fiction articles for motoring magazines. After a couple of years doing that, my editors started saying, “Can’t you just take some pictures to go with these words?” And – as is so often the case way when people are too ignorant to know the true difficulty of what they’re agreeing to – I said, “Erm…OK.”

(Toni’s note… okay, that cracked me up. Are you sure you’re not a contractor? (grin))

When it comes to making a living at it, the advantage I had when I started was that I already had a market for my work – the articles I was writing were the hook on which to hang the sale of the accompanying pictures. As I’ve since discovered, although good pictures will sell an OK story, bad pictures will kill a good story stone dead. I would never have thought, when I started out, that there would be enough work just in photographing weird and wonderful cars to make a living – in fact, I was told outright by a very experienced newspaper photographer that it couldn’t be done – and yet, 22 years later, here I still am…

Just about all the photographic work I do now is on location, rather than in a studio, so it’s a constant challenge to find a suitable backdrop for each shoot. I’ve developed a habit of looking at places with location-hunting in mind, even when we’re not on the way to a shoot. As Sherlock Holmes said, people look, but they don’t see, and I feel working as a photographer has taught me to see more. I like snapshots, taken from up high or lying on the ground, looking at things from a different angle, in a slightly different way. I don’t spend hours setting a shot up, I just know where the light and shade needs to go, place the flashguns, and shoot. I like to write the same way. Although I can appreciate beautiful prose, like the Laurie Lee books I read years ago, usually pages of description about the contents of someone’s desk bore me and I start to skip-read at that point, so my aim is to avoid writing the bits other people skip.

TMC 2) You have a terrific list of fun hobbies; you’ve even flown a helicopter! So tell us a little bit about your hobbies, what inspired each, what’s the most fun you’ve had for each, and how they’ve influenced you as a writer.

ZS 2) Oh boy, we could be here all day with this one! Somebody once said that you always regret the things you didn’t do, more than the things you did, so if I get the opportunity to go and do something, I tend to take it. It’s no good sitting around in your octogenarian bath chair going, “Oh, I wish I’d got round to…”

The Robinson R22 helicopter trial flight was a birthday pressie from Andy, and it was wonderful, if incredibly difficult. I think at one point after my instructor handed over control,  he rather nervously advised me to pull the nose up because, “Erm, we’ve gone into a bit of a screaming dive here…”

(T’s note… this is probably where I’d have had the heart attack.)

Now, I’m not sure if the hobbies affect the writing, or vice versa. In the Charlie Fox book I’ve just finished the rewrites on (Hurrah!) I’ve included horses. I mean, they’ve always been there as a vague part of Charlie’s background, but it’s never been more than mentioned in passing as backstory. This time, I had the perfect opportunity for it to play a fairly important part in the plot, and as one of the few things I’m actually qualified to be is a horse-riding instructor, I had the confidence that I could get my facts right.

I think my favourite hobby, stemming from an old job, has to be sailing – especially on a big multihull, at night, when there’s nothing to block out the stars from reaching right down to the horizon on all sides. Fabulous. Sooner or later, I’m going to have to get Charlie onto a boat…

TMC 3) I’ve read in a couple of your interviews that your very first novel was one you wrote when you were fifteen and your dad (God bless him) typed it up on carbon paper (pre-computer days) and sent it off for you to publishers. (Aren’t dads the best?) You got “rave rejections” and clearly showed an early talent. But enquiring minds want to know… what was that first novel about? And what did you learn from it?

ZS 3) Hmm, funny I’ve just mentioned horses, because it was a horsy tale, much inspired by Anna Sewell’s BLACK BEAUTY, which I listed recently as the most influential book I ever read as a child. That book – her only novel before she died tragically young – changed the laws on animal cruelty in the UK, and had a huge effect on public opinion. So, I thought I’d write my own horsy tale, although sadly it lacked the same kind of social comment. In fact, it lacked any kind of social comment! The dusty old typescript now languishes in a box in the attic and my father (God bless him indeed) keeps threatening to dig it out and put in on eBay. No chance!

Bearing in mind it was written back in pre-word-processor days, the publishing houses were not inundated with typescripts, but they were still enormously kind in their rejections. I often wonder what would have happened if it had been accepted, but getting the thing turned down numerous times, however gently and encouragingly they did it, was enough to shatter my fragile self-confidence as a writer. I put that ambition aside and went out and did various other things instead for a few years before I got into the non-fiction side, which satisfied my desire to put words on paper – for a while, at least!

I suppose at a basic level, what I learnt from it was that I could complete a story from start to finish, even if it wasn’t quite the right story. If I’d managed to become a novelist at that early age, I think I would very quickly have run out of things to say. I’d been nowhere and done nothing.

At least, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

(T’s note… I’m so glad you went back to it, though! The world needed Charlie Fox! But I love that you show so clearly how sometimes it’s best to let go of that first attempt, shelve it, learn from it and move on. So many first-time writers really and truly want to do the hard work… but they also want to live the fantasy that the first book is going to be “the one.” I’m grateful to your dad! And if he’s reading this, and wants to make a few extra bucks for an old yellowed typescript he just happens to have sitting around his attic… call me.) 

TMC 4) You live (were born) in the UK, and your Charlie Fox books were initially set there. Now Charlie’s traveling in the US for various books. Tell us a little bit about the difference in the culture between where you live vs. the US — beyond just differences in language. Do you see any significant differences in how a strong character like Charlie is perceived here vs. there? Or, are you finding that with the internet and TV, cultural differences are eroding? (Or something in between?) I’d love a sense of the place where you grew up / where you live now vs. cultural nuances you’ve discovered in your travels in the US. Also, what were the obstacles in setting a book in the US?

ZS 4) I think the main difference between the UK and the States is the scale of the place. We describe our house as halfway up the side of a fell in the middle of nowhere, but in reality we’re only five miles from the nearest small town, not several hours’ drive along deserted arrow-straight road without another human being in sight. OK, so the local population is outnumbered probably ten-to-one by the sheep, but there isn’t that sense of real isolation you  can achieve in America.

Charlie is possibly accepted more easily in the States, because you have more of a tradition of strong female characters. If you think of American TV, you have more kick-ass women in programmes like Alias and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We have Miss Marple. I think we absorb a lot of US culture over here through TV, because if an American series is successful, for instance, we tend to import it as is. In the States, though, it seems that the UK concept is simply remade with an American cast and setting. Apart from villains, of course. At one point, every movie had to have a Brit as the chief baddie. And if he wasn’t a Brit, he at least drove a Range Rover…

(T’s note: Or he was James Bondish.)

I would not like to try and write a book entirely from the POV of an American main protagonist. At least with Charlie, she’s a Brit and she still thinks like a Brit, so I’m constantly looking at a foreign culture through her eyes. She’s always felt apart from other people because of her abilities, and this increases her outsider status. Keeps things interesting!

(T’s note: I’d agree–I love the fish-out-of-water situations Charlie finds herself in, and I especially love seeing the US from the eyes of a non-American. It can be so illuminating.)

We’d travelled a lot in the States before I took Charlie over to Florida for her first American job, and although Florida is a very touristy destination, I wanted a very particular setting for the book – Daytona Beach during the Spring Break weekend. That was probably the first time where the time and place came first, and the story arrived afterwards.

TMC 5) Charlie Fox is one of the best and strongest female protagonists I’ve ever read and I love this series. So much so that I am champing at the bit for the newest book. Tell us a little bit about how Charlie came about?

ZS 5) Funny you should ask that, because I’ve just finished reading a thriller that seems very much in the vein of the old all-action, macho tough-guy style that I used to read when I was younger. There were very few women in the book, and they performed the ‘traditional’ female roles – sex, cooking, ministering to the sick, crying during a firefight, and being unable to take the safety-catch off a weapon. And it reminded me of exactly why I came up with a character like Charlie. I simply couldn’t find one I didn’t want to shake until her teeth rattled!

(T’s note: Exactly! Bravo!)

TMC 6) I see that sometimes in interviews, questions are always popping up about the “gender divide” in the thriller / mystery genre, and honestly, I have to wonder if this is a divide that is perceived by those in the business rather than the audience… meaning, the business perceives it, acts on it, creates a system whereby it’s harder for female led books to be marketed in general, and thus creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’ve noticed that you (like myself) didn’t perceive a divide and wouldn’t characterize the issues a strong protagonist faces in order to win over an audience. That said, what *do* you perceive as the issues facing a writer who’s writing a strong female character? What sorts of things are you wary about with Charlie, and how do you make us care so much about her.

ZS 6) I think the big problems are that, not only do I write a strong female character, but I have an obviously female name as well, which does seem to put off a certain element of male readers. I still get amazed emails from male readers saying they actually enjoyed reading a Charlie Fox novel, which was often given to them by a female friend/relative. And yet, I don’t know what made them wary about picking up one of my books in the first place. What are they expecting that they did or didn’t find?

I tried not to make Charlie a ‘guy in nylons’ as someone so nicely put it once.

(T’s note: I thought for about a half-a-second to Google ‘guy in nylons’ and then I came to my senses. You are welcome.)

She’s just…a person. She’s competent and resilient, but she’s aware that she has a capacity for violence which worries her in a way I don’t think it would a male main protag. She has a nice dry sense of humour, which I hope makes her more human without slipping into comedic, but at the same time she could kill you with her thumbs.

On the marketing side, I think you’re entirely right. I look at some of the weird overseas covers I’ve had, and wonder where on earth the books are supposed to be aimed. I recently signed a deal for a couple of the books to come out in Russia, and I’m intrigued to see where they pitch those. Just as long as they don’t do the covers in pink…

From a personal standpoint, it annoys me to be pigeonholed purely on gender. I’ve been getting that for most of my life. I think if I was starting again, though, I’d go for a pseudonym that was very definitely non-gender specific. Let people pick up the books with an open mind, and decide what they think afterwards.

(T’s note: I so completely concur.)

TMC 7) Tell us a little bit about how the Charlie Fox novels were created (following what event?), and how you see the series growing? I’m interested in the fact that, as a series character, Charlie *is* continuing to grow and change as a result of events from previous books. Was this planned? A part of your natural inclination?

ZS 7) Charlie came about because of two things. One, as I already mentioned, was because of the lack of the right kind of female characters within my reading sphere. The other was receiving death-threat letters in the course of my non-fiction work. That was a very strange and unsettling experience, particularly as the police never quite pinned down who was responsible, although we had our suspicions at the time. I think I was probably very lucky to come out of it relatively unscathed.

(And that is still so scary — just to think how real the possibilities are. I think it’s made you strong, and savvy, though.)

Charlie’s background came partly from the stories of bullying, hazing and suicide at a training camp called Deep Cut, and the rest of her quirks and qualities simply grew out of her experiences, coloured by my own.

Yes, she has grown during the series, but I felt I didn’t have the option to keep her static. I knew when I started out that she was not going to stay an ‘amateur sleuth’ for long. There’s only so many bodies an amateur can trip over before nobody would ever want to stand next to them in a bus queue, just in case.

I think if Charlie had already been working as a bodyguard in the very first book, with her relationship with Sean rekindled from their army days, there wouldn’t have been the same imperative. As it stands, she needed to come to terms with the past before she could move on, and she’s done this at a steady rate – at least until things start going Horribly Wrong for her on a personal level.

TMC 8) I am the lucky LUCKY recipient of an ARC of the very first Charlie novel, KILLER INSTINCT, which is coming out THIS MONTH from Busted Flush Press. This is a fantastic book and I feel like a total fangirl, squeeing on the sidelines, but I am thrilled that I got to read it. Not only was I surprised to learn that there were four books prior to FIRST DROP, I was frustrated that they weren’t readily available, ’til now. This is *wonderful* news and the covers are amazing. Tell us a little about how this re-release of the four originals came about.

ZS 8) David Thompson at Busted Flush Press has always been an enthusiastic supporter of my work, so I was delighted when he expressed interest in bringing out new editions of the early Charlie Fox books. Because David is a bookseller as well as a publisher, he has his finger on the pulse of what’s likely to sell and what isn’t, so we’re both really hopeful that the books will do well.

And, I know it’s confusing, but there were actually three books before FIRST DROP, and then a fifth between that and SECOND SHOT. (T’s note: oops. But now it’s starting to make sense…) When I thought up the title for FIRST DROP, it related to the rollercoaster Charlie is riding at the start of the book. I liked it because, in coaster terms, once you’ve climbed the initial lift hill and hit the first drop, you can’t stop, you can’t slow down, and you can’t get off the ride – you’ve just got to hold on tight and hope you’re still alive at the finish. It suited the story, I thought, but I never realised it would set a precedent.

However, when the series was picked up in the States, FIRST DROP was where they started. I was already writing what would become SECOND SHOT by that time, which was originally going to be called FALL LINE, because of the ski connotations and the fact that the fall line is the fastest way downhill. Considering Charlie does get shot twice on the opening page of that book, it seemed to fit. But, my US publishers wanted another numerical title to follow FIRST DROP, and SECOND SHOT was the obvious choice.

T’s note: for those of you keeping score at home, here’s the order of the series:

Killer Instinct 

Riot Act 

Hard Knocks 

First Drop 

Road Kill 

Second Shot 

Third Strike 

Fourth Day 

Also, I’d like to point out to the readers here that you can start with Charlie right away and still go back to the earlier books (out of order) and love the series!

TMC 9) You’ve stated in other interviews that your schedule changes daily, and you aim for 30K words per month to try to hit your goals. I’d love to hear a bit more about how you manage to cope with the constant changes and keep track of your story’s details, and how you fit writing 30K in and around a very busy schedule. What was the single most helpful tip that you found while tracking your information? What was the thing you tried which derailed you and you’ll never try again?

ZS 9) We very often find that no two days are alike, so if we’re on the road and I can’t use my laptop, for whatever reason, I usually at least manage to make a few notes about the next piece of dialogue, or work out the basics for an action scene that’s coming up, or even just what information my characters need to receive or get across in the next chapter.

I do try and write about 30,000 words a month when I’m in the midst of a book, and I find that if I don’t have a target, it’s too easy for days to slip by with nothing getting done. Then you find yourself facing an insurmountable amount with a deadline looming. This allows me to pace myself a little better, and make a reasonable amount of progress. It’s only around 1000 words a day, but that’s finished words. I don’t tend to rush through a first draft and then make a lot of major changes in each subsequent draft.

What is the thing I tried that derailed me? Not spending enough time plotting a book before I started on it. Definitely. I don’t find detailed outlining makes a book stale for me, simply that it allows me to interweave a greater number of differing strands of a story more tightly together. And the best thing? Doing a summary of the book as I go, which was suggested to me by my friend, crime writer Lesley Horton. It’s an invaluable way of keeping on top of the story, and then of making any necessary mods afterwards.

TMC 10) Tell us a little bit about FOURTH DAY and when we can expect to see it out on the stands?

ZS 10) FOURTH DAY sees Charlie going undercover into a cult in California, looking not only for answers about the death of a former disciple, but also for the means of her own redemption. She’s pretty unhappy with her life at this point, and the cult’s leader, Randall Bane, proves a charismatic figure who makes her re-evaluate herself and threatens to cause a rift between Charlie and her lover, Sean. It was a fairly harrowing book to write and, having just finished the follow-up, things do not get easy for Charlie in the months that follow. As THIRD STRIKE was about her search for respect from the people who matter most in her life, this was a logical next step and I’ll be very interested to see what people make of it! FOURTH DAY is just out in the UK, and will be out in the States next year from Pegasus.

TMC 11) Who are your heroes? (Not just in writing, but in life.)

ZS 11) My heroes are the people you’ve never heard of, because they just keep their heads down and get on with it. We’ve become such a celebrity-driven culture that people are famous simply for being famous. As for my writing heroes, there are too many to mention, but top of the list come my fellow Murderati bloggers!

TMC 12) What five words would you use to describe yourself. (Can be a sentence, or just five individual words.)

ZS 12) Doing the best I can.

TMC 13) What’s up next for you? What do you dream of doing (doesn’t have to be writing related) that you’d love to try now?

ZS 13) What’s next? Work, work and more work! I’m about to go to CrimeFest next weekend, which should be lots of fun, then I’m over to the States for a mini-tour at the end of June, in time for the Busted Flush edition of RIOT ACT to come out. (Erm, we are still OK to borrow your guest room for a couple of days, aren’t we?) (T’s note: Are you kidding? I’m lining up all sorts of fun things and great food. Can’t wait!) I’m already planning the next book, plus we want to sell our current house and start building another. And we really NEED to get some more motorcycles this summer to do the four corners of Britain, and go and race round the Nürburgring in Germany, and go sailing again. But my biggest dream at the moment is to go to Cambodia to see the Ankhor Wat temple.

(Now… can’t you  just imagine how much fun another interview will be after Zoës travels? I’m making a list of new questions now…) 


And now for the commenters — let’s talk about hobbies — what we love to do and what we would love to try. Two lucky commenters are going to get a signed copy of Killer Instinct – as soon as Zoë hits the ground in New Orleans and I can get her signature for you.

Buying habits (a Kindle / e-reader review)

by Toni McGee Causey


I own thousands of books. I’ve given away hundreds, probably, but there are books everywhere in this house, and a room doesn’t feel lived in, to me, if there aren’t books lying around. My idea of heaven would be a mountain cabin (in the summer), with a view and hundreds of books at my disposal. All through school, I read, constantly. I’d read through class (while listening, which infuriated the teachers, because I could answer their questions); I’d read in the evenings, and when it was time for bed, I’d read into the wee hours of the night until I heard my dad’s alarm go off. He had to be up at 3:30, sometimes, to get into work for his shift, so I’d turn off the light in my room, wait impatiently for him to get dressed for work and leave, and listen carefully as his truck pulled out of the driveway. I also learned the hard way to wait until his truck made it around the corner because it turned out, he could see the light from my window until he made the turn.

I love the smell of books. The texture. The weight of them in my hands. I love holding them at odd angles, propping them up on pillows, turning pages and blocking out the world. My heart races when I walk into the bookstore–so many possibilities there. The mind boggles. A large library can fill me with awe and I feel more reverence there than I ever have in any church.

So when this whole e-reader thing came along, I wasn’t interested. I saw a friend’s Kindle, and while it seemed convenient, I knew I’d never buy one because I would miss the actual experience of a book. 

Last year, my husband wanted to buy me a Kindle for my birthday, and I told him no, thanks, not interested. Then one day, on a flight home, the dreaded event happened: I was stuck in an airport, after all of the kiosks and shops had closed, and I had finished my book already. Nothing to read. Hours stretched ahead. Bored. To. Tears. 

I didn’t have a Kindle with me, but I had my iPhone, and the Kindle app was free and easy. I’d already surfed the web and that had grown old. So I downloaded the app, browsed around through the really awful Kindle browser, and picked something to try out. (I never use the browser feature on the Kindle, even now. It’s antiquated and slow.) 

And I started reading, fully prepared to hate the experience. Because it wasn’t a book. In my hands. There wasn’t the weight and the texture and the cover and I had to click something to turn the pages and… I actually forgot all of that as I started reading. Because the book was so compelling, I forgot the world out there, all of those things that distract, gone.

This shocked me.

And I felt dirty. Dirty rotten betrayer of all things holy.

But like any sinner with a gateway drug, I was too intrigued to let it go at just one. I tried another… and then realized the iPhone screen was just too small. I need more. Bigger. By Christmas, I had a Kindle, and Kindle apps on all my computers. Last week, I added the Kindle app to my Macs (finally), and it was goooooooood.

I am lusting after the iPad, but I will wait until the second or third generation. It’s hard to justify, just for pleasure when I’ve already got a Kindle and enough computers to have back ups for my back ups, but I want one. Badly. For one thing, the Kindle browsing feature sucks. Did I mention that already? Yeah. That bad. It just does not do the books justice, and doesn’t load quickly, and if you’re browsing, those are very important elements to sales: give the customer what they’re looking for, fast, and make it attractive. Kindle fails at this. I’m sure that since the iPad’s introduction, though, the next wave of Kindles will upgrade to color and will try to compete in that arena. 

What I am surprised about, mostly, is how my buying habits have changed. What I used to do is check out the books in the stores in the typical fashion–browse, pick up something that looked interesting (the cover caught my eye), read the back cover copy, then, if still intrigued, read a couple of pages and by that point, choose to buy it or put it back. I have bought many a book based on that scenario and ended up not finishing it because it didn’t live up to the initial pages. I’ve also been very pleasantly surprised by a few that grabbed me from their covers alone, and I love that feeling of chance when stopping in front of something I have never heard of because the image on the cover piqued my interest.

With the Kindle, though, I’ve started buying a lot differently. I still try to support my favorite indie bookstores — such as Seattle Mystery Bookshop, Mystery Lovers Bookshop, and Murder by the Book — just to name a few, because these are the types of places that give personal service and have reams and reams of knowledge in the staffs that cannot be found online. You can have a discussion with someone in any of these places about something that you loved, and come away with a stack of fabulous recommendations that you know you can trust because they’ve read the books–they’re not giving you a recommendation based on some sort of computer algorithm. However… there are times when I know what I want and it’s 2:30 a.m. and I want it right now. I love the Kindle for that aspect. There are other times when I don’t know what I want and I have a vague notion of category and I go search by keywords, and find four or five good possibilities. Those with sample chapters get downloaded. I’ll test run the chapter and if I’m captured by the end of that, I can download the book right then and keep reading. 

For a night owl read-a-holic, that’s nirvana. 

No more lugging six books in my check-on bag because I’m not quite sure what I’m going to want to read or what mood will strike me. No more buying something that kinda sorta sounded okay but turned out flat after just a few pages. 

I’ve relegated the “definite” buys to bookstores where possible. (And anywhere I sign, I always ask for recommendations from the staff and buy several books, because I believe in supporting those stores.) I’ve used the Kindle for the impulse buy, the late-night browsing, and the odd research text. I’ve purchased way more books on Kindle than I thought I would (65 in four months), and I’ve ended up reading real gems that I wouldn’t have given a chance in a bookstore, because either the cover was crappy, or it was so over-hyped, I thought I would hate it. I love the sample-chapter feature, though so many authors’ sites have these… what makes it so wonderful is the “click to buy to continue reading” feature.

The Kindle, as an interface? Is ugly. It feels like a Volkswagon in a Ferrari world. But I am now comfortable with the choices it gives me, and when I’m reading–if the book is good–I completely forget the medium that’s delivering the story. I love the fact that I can enlarge the text, and I hate the fact that it’s not backlit for night reading. 

One thing is for sure: it changed how I buy books. And read them.

For someone who is a bookaholic–that’s huge.

I know the debate will rage on about whether or not ereaders will increase readership or simply add another method whereby readers access the material. My gut feeling is that it’s always going to be really great stories that strike a chord that increases readership. Just like Harry Potter opened up the YA market to an entire generation who were deemed “non-readers” by so many, and Twilight continued to feed that group, so we’ve seen that same group branch out and hungrily grab for many other stories, propelling them to bestseller status. And it didn’t matter that these were print books–the computer generation read them. However, that said–it stands to reason that an entire generation who have been born into the iPhone world will expect, as they grow up, to read everything on some device instead of lugging books around. Many schools are going to all-digital texts. The world may not change in the next five years, but five years out is too short-sighted. It’s twenty years out, and thirty years out that publishers should be planning for, and those kids? They’re going to be all digital.

It’s not an “if” but a “when.”

So how about you? Have you tried an e-reader? Would you, if they were cheaper? What about the free apps? Have you tried those? What about the kids around you… what are they reading… texts? or digital? or both?