Category Archives: Toni McGee Causey


by Toni McGee Causey

It’s very late as I write this. I’m sitting in the gorgeous hotel suite in Scottsdale, AZ, as the Desert Rose Conference winds down to an end. It’s been a very full couple of days, and I’m utterly worn out. Rejuvenated about writing, but worn out.

I taught two sessions here today; one was on sex scenes (when to use them, why, how, what the point should be, pacing, tension, subtext, conflict, etc.), and another on voice (how to define it, how to recognize what is authentically your voice, and how to hone it). 

It will probably not surprise anyone that the first class was far far easier to teach. Teaching voice is a little like dancing in a minefield. 

I purposefully did not set out to teach someone a “voice” — I don’t think that can be taught because I can’t impose that from the outside. It is something one can learn about oneself. Some people say that “either a person has a “voice” or they don’t,” but I would disagree. I certainly hadn’t figured out my voice prior to my Bobbie Faye series. I could show you the two projects I’d written just prior to Bobbie Faye and you could pick up the hints of what would become my voice, but it was inconsistent, at best, and nonexistent most of the time. I was constantly writing, searching, trying to figure out what this voice thing was all about, and how the hell did I get one of those?

While I don’t think voice itself can be taught–I can’t take another person and prescribe for them a set of steps for them to take and voila, a unique voice will emerge on the other end of that process–I do think that we can define what voice is, and find ways to hone it. (After all, this is what we all do–we all work on honing our own voice.) 

But first, what it is not: it is not tone, nor cadence, nor syntax. It is not vocabulary, nor style, nor level of complexity of sentence structure. It is not the choice of POV character or characters, nor which type of POV to use (first, second, third, third intimate, omnipotent). It is not the setting of the world, the socioeconomic background of the writer or the subject matter.

It is, in a way, all of those things. Voice is every choice that a writer makes–what matters to them. How they want to approach the story. Where they will start. Who it will be about, and then all of the other things above.

Voice is the authority of the author. Confidence in their choices of how to tell the story. Infusing that story with their own unique personality, their own perspective on the world, the themes or issues that they care about, and communicating a goal specific to themselves. 

I couldn’t have had a unique voice if I was busy emulating others, or trying to write to a trend, or trying to stay within rigid guidelines, or trying to meet all of the necessary ingredients of a genre’s checklist. Emulation and prescription are the antithesis of “voice” — where “voice” is the unique view of the world.

No two people are going to tell the same story, even if they were given identical story prompts, and that’s because they’re writing from different experiences, and with different goals. Thematically, each person will focus on something relevant to their worldview, because different issues resonate with them.  Each story produced is going to have its own voice. (Some will be boring voices, because the writer wouldn’t take a risk on exposing themselves to the reader, making themselves vulnerable by chancing risky story-telling methods. They don’t want to show something that they are worried might reflect badly on them, so they hobble their voice, vanilla it up so it won’t be judged, and only accomplish the very judgment they were hoping to avoid.)

Voice is going with your gut instincts that this is how your story should unfold, and believing in your authority to tell the story. (That’s not to say there isn’t trial and error in that process–but ultimately, when it’s done, you have to go with your gut’s final choices.)

It’s the courage to be authentically you and to reach into your own experiences to write the characters authentically, even if you, the writer, haven’t lived their life. 

Once you believe in your own authority to tell the story, all of the other choices simply become tools to help create the story: tone, cadence, mood, language, theme, POV, style, etc.

We moved on from there to some exercises that I think might help the attendees to look at what they’re doing and help them hone what they think their voice is, and to get rid of what they think isn’t working for them. From the response, I think it might have actually been a successful class (which is always the hope and the fear), and I loved the moment where we ran over time and no one moved, they were so busy scribbling and asking questions and I wished we had another hour. This really should have been a two hour workshop.

Maybe next year. (grin) 

Thanks to many of my fellow ‘Ratis who sent their books, signed, as giveaways. Man, I wish y’all could have seen their faces light up when they received them.

I’ll be on a flight home–long flight and layover. I’ll try to check in, but meanwhile, I’d love examples from you of writers who you feel have a unique voice. Any genre.

unfinished books…

by Toni McGee Causey

Have you ever started a book that everyone glowed about and you just could not get through it? Maybe it hit the NYT list, maybe it got starred reviews from everyone and God, but it made you roll your eyes by page five and by page twenty-five, if you made it that far, you wanted to spot check the rest of the readership for actual brain waves? Maybe–and I know every one of you has known this one–maybe it was considered a classic, a masterpiece, and you secretly hated it. 

Welcome to the weirdest aspect of the entertainment world: guilt for not enjoying the material.

I don’t know of any other art form or entertainment where the participants feel actual guilt for not “getting” the material or enjoying it as happens with books and reading, and I think that’s significant, culturally. How are we creating readers, if we browbeat them into thinking that every book needs to satisfy some internal English critic or create an essay on themes and comparative merits? What does that mindset say about how well books and reading are marketed to the general public? 

Maybe there are other concerns that create frustration — dollars spent, time spent, but those issues create aggravation, not guilt. It’s the guilt that stumps me. (Not that I haven’t felt it–but that I’ve allowed myself to feel it.)

I started thinking about this during the week after hearing Julia Keller‘s NPR piece on the unfinished book, where callers talked about why leaving a book unfinished bothered them so much. Some people admitted to trying to read some “great” work for years, before finally giving up. 

One woman (and I’m paraphrasing) explained that she felt particular guilt about books because when she couldn’t get all of the way through it, it sat there on her shelf, mocking her. If it had been a TV show, she could have just turned the channel or if it had been a movie, she could have left and never worried about it again, but the book sat there, on her shelf, evidence of her failure. And my first thought when I heard this was, “Why not give the book away?” 

Why do we feel the need to turn reading into some sort of gauntlet, the literary equivalent of the Navy SEALs Hell Week? 

Why is it not okay to recognize that where we are in our lives influences what we want to spend our time doing? reading? That mood and crises play as much a role in what we’re able to comprehend as our education? And where is it taught that if it’s fun, it must not be good for us, and therefore, isn’t of value? When did reading become the equivalent of taking medicine?

Sometimes, a work just doesn’t speak to us. And that’s okay. Sometimes, we’re in the wrong mood, and nothing that work could do, nothing that it had done well for others, would work for us. The work didn’t change between all of those accolades and our read. But most of the time, instead of saying to ourselves, “This isn’t what I’m in the mood for,” or “This isn’t working for me,” we instead feel like we’ve failed. That somehow, we aren’t smart enough (or current enough, or well read enough) to make the connections that obviously everyone else made, so what’s wrong with us? And that’s where the guilt starts.

This issue goes deeper than just the “literary vs. genre” wars that crop up every now and again. It goes all the way back to middle and high-school, where we often teach reading with the enthusiasm of a sadist–they are going to learn what “good” literature is, dammit, whether they can stomach it or not. And in the process of being absolutely determined to show young readers what “good” literature is, we manage to turn millions of them off reading forever, because they cannot relate. They don’t “get” it, or they are simply bored, and they don’t have enough points of reference in their lives to realize that literature encompasses an extremely wide-ranging cornucopia of choices. 

In one of the talks that I give to grade schoolers, I ask them to name their favorite TV shows or their favorite movies. We usually write down the list and when we have a nice collection, I point out that someone wrote those stories. Then we move on to favorite books, and for every one they name in a genre, I try to name two or three others that have something in common, that I think the kids will love. They’re almost always in shock, that there are these worlds out there. (Except, of course, for the one or two bookworms in the room, who are finally the ones who are cool, because they read.)

Now, I am all for great literature being taught, and all for vastly different types of stories, from genre to whatever it is that we call literary nowadays (which, frankly, is a misnomer–because many genre books can also be literary–these terms are not mutually exclusive). I’m glad to see that many reading programs in schools include current popular books, Caldecott or other winners, but I wonder if we aren’t also missing a huge opportunity when we don’t include things like favorite popular books in the different genres? I have bought at least ten copies of Ender’s Game, for example, and given it to boys over the years and every single one of them not only loved it, but started reading other books afterward, when they hadn’t been readers before.

I think one of the reasons the Kindle and now the Sony and the iPad are going to continue gaining in popularity is that people don’t feel judged for what they’re reading, because no one can see. Many people don’t want to be judged, don’t want to be taken as frivolous, or seen reading something less “important” than a great literary classic.  

So I wonder, how has the publishing industry and marketing of books failed to erase this perception of reading? Is there a solution? (Or is the solution in process–the upswing of popular YA literature?) Is there anything that could be done to show how much fun reading can be? And finally, fess up — what book did you start and not finish? (Are you glad you didn’t? Or do you plan to try again?) Or was there a book you were forced to read (for school) and as much as you anticipated loathing it, ended up loving it? [I have way more questions than answers today! I’m hoping our backblogger ‘Rati will chime in on why these things bother you.]

For me, the “put it down, feeing guilty for it” book it was Follet’s PILLARS OF THE EARTH. I had heard such rave RAVE reviews, I bought it without reading any sample; I barely started it, and my eyes just kept wandering off the page. I just could not hook into the story, as much as I admired the quality of the writing. I suspect I was just not in the mood for it at the time, so I will try again, later. Eventually.


Friends, again… meet Alafair Burke


by Toni McGee Causey


One of the very best things about being a member of a blog like this is that we occasionally get to interview really cool people… and sometimes we get lucky and get to interview other members of the blog. I was particularly thrilled when Alafair Burke joined us here at Murderati, as I’d been a fan of her work and had heard great things about her, but it was a special kick to get to interview her on the occasion of her newest book which is about to appear in the bookstores, titled 212.

First, if you haven’t really met Alafair, you should know that (and this is directly from her website) she is a former deputy district attorney, and now teaches criminal law at Hofstra Law School. She’s got a fascinating background in law as well as literature, and if you haven’t checked out her website, you’re missing a treat.

The other really really cool thing about being a member of this blog is that I occasionally get to read my fellow blogmates’ books ahead of their drop dates. And yes, I am going to be all gleeful and smug about it, because, dayem, they are fine writers and I’m immensely lucky just to be a part of this group. I couldn’t wait to get my paws on Alafair’s latest, and I have to tell you, it showed up in the midst of great personal upheaval (my father-in-law was in hospice at that time, and we knew the end was near), and I feared my concentration would be nil…  and instead, I was utterly captivated. (Check out the video… and the excerpt for 212.) 

This story is not just ripped from the headlines, but it digs deep into those headlines and exposes the kind of ramifications few in-depth exposé’s could even hope to reveal. In an age when newspapers are glib about how politicians hire expensive call girls and in a day when those very same call girls can later become on air personalities, we’ve become accustomed to reporters just barely skimming over the reality of how deadly and compromising that particular crime actually is. In 212, Alafair explores the ramifications of two intersecting crimes–politicians hiring escort services and online stalking–and shows not only the harrowing results, but the determination of good people who are trying to find the truth, trying to make a difference. Her detective, Ellie Hatcher, is a stand-out, memorable woman you’re going to want to know as she battles her way through lies and deceit to try to stop a killer from striking again, even in the midst of personal risk to her own career to do so.

I couldn’t put the book down. 

Alafair’s got a lot of information up on her site, but I got the chance last week to ask her a few more questions:

1) You write New York as someone comfortable and familiar with the city, like it’s a second skin. I know you’ve lived elsewhere growing up, so tell me about your impressions of New York when you first visited or moved there… and how those first impressions changed (or were validated) after you’d been there for a while.

I first visited New York during the Son of Sam year of 1977.  My father’s friends told of us tales of carrying mugger money around – small bills in a fake wallet to hand to the muggers instead of the real stuff.  Then as an adult, I came here as a tourist, staying most in midtown, seeing broadway shows and museums, and dining at restaurants I saw on Sex and the City.  Now that I live here, I rarely go to those kinds of places and am annoyed when I do.  The places I cherish are little neighborhood spots that would have surely underwhelmed me as a tourist looking to take in the “Big Apple.” 

2) Was there a defining moment when you felt more native New Yorker than not? What was that moment and how did it affect your perception of yourself? Your vocation?

The defining moment was more like a two-stage process.  I remember standing in the TKTS line (discount theater tickets) at Times Square when I first moved to the city.  I looked up at the lights and signs and thought, “Wow, I really live here.  I’m even insider enough to buy discounted tickets.”  Within a year, I dreaded the thought of walking through Times Square with all of those skyline-gazing tourists blocking the sidewalk.  There’s a superficial roughness to New Yorkers that I understand now, but once you scratch beneath it, the people in this city are about as goodhearted as people can be. 

3) You’ve chosen two professions which aren’t exactly known to be easy on a person’s schedule, often costing hundreds of hours of late night work to stay caught up. What enticed you about becoming an attorney? Similarly, what enticed you about becoming a writer? How are the two similar? Different? If there was one way you could prep better for each vocation, what would that be?

When I went to law school, I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a high-priced entertainment lawyer putting together deals at the Ivy or a civil rights lawyer working for the Southern Poverty Law Center.  Given my lifetime fascination with crime, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that I had a real passion for criminal law.  I worked as a prosecutor for five years and was motivated to write by the stories I saw unfold there.  I thought I’d seen a side to the criminal justice system that wasn’t frequently portrayed in crime fiction.  They both require an ability to tell a story and incredible discipline, but writing requires a different kind of creativity that find liberating and sometimes incredibly frustrating.

4) In several of your posts and elsewhere, you’ve shown a sly, wry sense of humor that we all enjoy. What’s the zaniest thing (legal) that you’ve done that you can admit to us?

Oh lord.  I’m ashamed to admit that my craziest act was completely accidental. I went to a different branch from my usual gym.  This was back before I could afford a gym that gave you human-sized towels.  All they had were these little hand-sized things.  I was wondering around the locker room searching for the shower stalls, walked through a door, and wound up in the free-weight room. Warning: some locker rooms have multiple exits.

5) What is something that people who meet you for the first time are most surprised to learn about you?

I have really low-brow taste.  I like bad movies, pop music, and hot dog carts. I’m also very handy.


6) In your new novel, 212, coming out March 23rd, NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher is drawn into a case that you’ve described in your acknowledgements as inspired by recent headlines: politicians, escort services, innocent by-standers, cover-ups and downfalls. You’ve created a vivid, layered world where nothing is obvious and you keep us riveted all the way through as Ellie has to peel away layer after layer to try to find the truth before it’s too late. Tell us a little bit about Ellie, 212, and your process–how you chose this particular type of headline and why you wanted to investigate the ramifications.

Ellie Hatcher is an NYPD homicide detective who, like me, finds herself working in the same field as her father and tries to avoid the inevitable comparisons.  Also like me, she grew up in Wichita, Kansas when a serial killer was active, stalking, torturing, and murdering children and women.  Unlike me, Ellie’s father was a cop who spent his life hunting that killer until he was found shot in his own car. Labeled a suicide, her father’s death has never been resolved for Ellie.

The cases in 212 were inspired by a few real-life stories.  For years I’ve been pulling at threads of stories inspired by Neil Goldschmidt, a former governor of Oregon who admitted in 2004 that he had what he termed an “affair” in the 1970s with his then-14-year-old babysitter.  Many people in Portland were accused of knowing about the abuse and assisting the cover-up, including a man who subsequently became the Multnomah County Sheriff.  I’d been reluctant to write about the case immediately.  Portland’s a small place.  I worked with Goldschmidt’s stepdaughter at the DA’s Office.  I worked closely with a law enforcement officer who was implicated in the cover-up.  But the story of a man who’d done so much good in public life rationalizing a so-called “affair” with a child — and my imagined story of the woman that child came to be as she grew up in the shadow of his political ascension — kept pulling at me.  More than five years after the scandal, my hope was to pursue a fictional story inspired by the real one.  Using the role of the internet in the modern sex industry, I found a fresh angle.

7) On the lighter side for a moment, what’s your most unusual hobby?

Maybe this goes along with my lowbrow taste, but I really like karaoke.  And not in a hip, ironic way, but in an earnest American-Idol loving, Glee-watching, sing-your-heart-out way.  I think every book conference needs a karaoke session. Wouldn’t that be great?  At Bouchercon, the playlist could be made up entirely of crime-related songs.

8) And… finally, if you only could choose five words to describe yourself for posterity, what would they be?

Loved.  Was loved.  Appreciated both.

Alafair is hosting a really cool offer for a mystery gift for everyone who pre-orders 212 before it hits all of the bookstores on Tuesday, March 23rd — which means, you only have a couple of days left to take advantage of this terrific opportunity!

Meanwhile, tell me what ripped-from-the-headlines story you’d love to explore a bit more about? Is there a story you felt the press should have investigated more thoroughly? In this age of giving starlets 24/7 coverage if they hiccup, do you feel like we’re glamorizing everything that should be news? Or do you feel we’re getting into the gritty depths like we should?



by Toni McGee Causey


Sometimes, it’s what you don’t say that counts the most.

That holds true in fiction, as well.

When we’re creating characters and trying to bring them to life on the page, we’re generally focused on things like character voice, motive, need, background, goals, conflict. We express those through language and syntax and action and choice. We may use descriptions and metaphors and similes and dialog to portray all of those choices.

But a lot of times, writers tend to forget to pay attention to subtext — which is “an underlying and distinct theme in a piece of writing or conversation.” 

In other words, whether you like it or not, your choices for your novel are going to communicate a meta message about how you see the world, or how you think your characters see the world. It’s not terribly complicated. For example, if every single female character in a book has to be rescued at some point or other, and no female ever comes up with a single usable good idea, then the writer’s meta message is that females are inferior. The writer may love women, may worship them, may do a fine joy in real life treating them as equals, so it’s isn’t necessarily always the case that they secretly dislike women or think they’re inferior, but one has to wonder. If every single male in a book is a loathsome cheating lowlife bastard who deserves his balls to be shot off and all men should just stand over in the corner and look pretty… well, it doesn’t exactly take a rocket scientist to figure out that message, now, does it.

Those examples, however, are fairly obvious, and most people manage to avoid them. It’s the subtler ones that will destroy a book quickly–when the particular attitude of one character over an issue is prevalent in every character, or every character of a specific gender or race… that it destroys the individuality of the character and the world of the book. Because not every character should think the same, hold the same values. And I don’t just mean the obvious, the villain and the hero. (Actually, it’s pretty interesting when the villain and the hero have the same values, but just see a different approach to obtaining a goal.) The world is full of people who, in spite of the globalization of culture, in spite of the homogenization of attitudes, still have their own individual quirks and likes and dislikes, and real character springs from that.

Subtext, gone awry, can destroy the writer’s intention.

I’m going to use commercials for examples, because they’re quick, easy, and I can post the YouTube versions here.

Now here’s a fun ad by the Dodge people which accomplished their intended subtext… they wanted to accomplish an ad with very dry humor, and portray the new Dodge Charger as the fun, sexy sports car that was also powerful and affordable. This ad worked:


The subtext is, “We’re not only cool under pressure, we have a dry sense of humor, and we’re fun. When everyone else is freaking out, wasting their time, we’re going to be having the time of our lives. Drive this car and be cool with us.”

Not a bad message. Hell, it made me want to go look at the car. And even though it was addressed mostly to guys, it didn’t exclude women. That’s smart marketing.

So then, thinking they were on a roll, the Dodge people came up with this ad for the Superbowl, which failed pretty miserably. (While there are some pockets on the internet which ranked this ad favorably, I saw many many forums and national columnists poke fun, and the sneer on Twitter was practically universal.)


What they were going for was some sort of male creed, that because the male critter was willing to suffer through such torture, and do it with patience and without upsetting the female critter, the male damned well deserved something cool to drive. 

The subtext, however, shot that all to pieces, and what they accomplished, instead, was to assert that their customer was the kind of guy who whined about small inconveniences, had no guts, no backbone, no charisma, no testosterone and no real life, and that the woman in his life was a bitch and owned him, lock, stock and racing stripes. But hey, he could buy a car. That he was unlikely to buy that car was also evident.

They made the potential customer see themselves as downtrodden wusses. Not exactly a clever move, there, because your goal as an ad person is to project something that your customer will identify with as what they want to be, and looky here, this product will give you that (or the illusion of you being like that). 

Additionally, they alienated a huge market for their cars: women. I know lots of women who love sports cars. This ad did not make them want to buy it. For a company in the throes of a bailout, that’s really not a clever approach to increasing market share.

Dodge wasn’t the only company crashing and burning during the Super Bowl… I saw a lot of complaints over the Bud Light ads, particularly this one:


The end slogan is, “It’s the sure sign of good times,” and I guess we’re supposed to assume that because the husband (boyfriend? brother?) managed to filch a few Bud Lights, good times were had. That’s the text of the message, but the subtext is, “Men are inappropriate jerks who wouldn’t know a book if it bit them, and only idiots drink our beer. Plus, sexy smart women think they’re lame and stupid, and barely tolerate them.”

It’s not like drinking the beer made the guy sexier to any of the women there. He certainly didn’t impress them any. He didn’t surprise us at all by actually knowing something about the book. (That would have been a very nice surprise… a book club where the husband is about to take off for a ball game, hears the discussion, grabs the beer from the fridge, crashes the discussion and actually not only knows something about the book, but is intelligent and makes the party fun.)

Now here’s a commercial that addresses subtext head on and, in my opinion, succeeds. Not only do I remember the commercial, but I really want to go pick up some of that Old Spice just to see… ya know?

And this one… cracks me up:


I’m sure there’s something negative about a woman prone to violence, (and most people just said, ‘ya think?’)… but I love the subtext that she’s not going to be a victim, she’s not going to be subtle. The “Oh, shit,” expression when she realizes what she’s done makes her human and flawed and funny and I appreciated the repair shop’s attitude. (I also liked the small detail of the actor who arrives in the car just really seeming to be a sleazy two-timer–it subtly reinforces her assertions.)

So, when you’re thinking of creating your characters, think about the long term affects of the subtext. Look for patterns of repetition which could reinforce a negative stereotype you hadn’t meant to portray, or an attitude that is counter-intuitive to what you’d hoped to have the reader feel in that moment. Subtext / meta messages register, and as you can see in these 30 second videos, they register fast.

As an aside, I wanted to announce that this is the last week to sign up for Margie Lawson’s phenomenal class called EMPOWERING CHARACTERS’ EMOTIONS. Class runs from March 1st through March 31st. The class is an online class that works via a yahoogroup loop… and it’s designed for anyone, any genre, published or unpublished, because you work at your own pace and are challenged at your own level. (Trust me–Margie is beyond awesome. Her classes are routinely packed which means terrific conversation between attendees.)

This class is sponsored by PASIC, a Published Author Special Interest Chapter, but you *do not* have to be a member to attend. The sign up information is here and the deadline is February 27th. (I am the moderator.)

But for today, how about naming a TV show, commercial or movie where the subtext destroyed the intent? Or made you not enjoy the premise of the show? (For example, I know some people who just cannot get past the era of MAD MEN and the misogynistic / racist vibe.)

All commenters (save my fellow ‘Rati), will be eligible either for Margie’s class above OR a $30 gift certificate to MYSTERY LOVERS BOOKSTORE (which ships for FREE, any book you want, they can get). For international entrants, an Amazon gift card can be substituted. Contest open through Friday, midnight, CST. 

We called…









by Toni McGee Causey


Lean on me...


Sometimes in our lives


we all have pain


we all have sorrow.


But, if we are wise


we know that there’s


always tomorrow.


Lean on me

When you’re not strong.

And I’ll be your friend. 

I’ll help you carry on.

For it won’t be long

’til I’m gonna need

somebody to lean on.


If there is a load


you have to bear


that you can’t carry


I’m right up the road


I’ll share your load

If you just call me.



Not so long ago, we called…

And you listened… and came…

And even though New Orleans still has a long way to go…

A couple of weeks ago, we got to see a little bit of that comeback in motion:

I know to a lot of people, it was just a football game. But for a beleaguered city, for a people who’ve already been through hell and high water, it was a welcome change.

Right now, there’s a huge need in Haiti… I hope that if you haven’t already given something, that you’ll consider even a small donation. You’d be surprised how much it matters. You’d be stunned how well it adds up, and what a difference it makes. 

In the mean time, tell me about your favorite fictional underdog stories or favorite succeeds-against-the-odds character. 

(like I could resist)


* Lyrics and music by Bill Withers

**Photos linked to their photo credit, where possible.

Who dat?

by Toni McGee Causey

edited to add:










I have a lot of great friends and fans in Minnesota. But today, there’s this lil ol’ football game where our beloved   


are going to take on the no good, no ‘count, wretched, terrible honorable Vikings, [a team I would otherwise cheer for], a team with that guy who keeps coming out of retirement (he keeps saying that word, I do not think it means what he thinks it means…). 

Meanwhile, those of us here in the  


are gonna pray (and probably do a little voodoo) that Farve has a really off night and Brees, aka Breesus, as in



well… we just hope that Brees keeps on keeping on ’til the Saints come marching on into a victory.

We’ve been Saints fans since way back before they were called the ‘aints, and let me tell you, it was hard, some years, admitting to fandom for a football team who routinely seemed to shoot themselves in the foot whenever they got anywhere close to a winning season. There’s nothing quite like having an amazing winning season–especially for a city so hard hit like New Orleans, who really needed the economic and morale boost like this season has given it. Mostly, it’s just really nice to see perpetual underdogs finally have their year.

It’s a great story.

And I’m going to be glued to the TV, nervous and excited and probably yelling like a damn fool.

If I had any actual working brain cells left, I’d make some sort of parallel to the story arc of an underdog season to that of a good novel, or a parallel to shitty first drafts and crappy seasons, then editing and drafting the right players, and then the final polish and a Superbowl, but really, I just moved my entire house’s contents back into place in three days and then hosted a party for 62 people over here today (because we are crazy, we don’t have a better excuse) and in the middle of all of that, wrote a bunch on the new book that I am freaking loving (which is scary the bejesus out of me). So I’m going to yell at the TV, envy the hell out of friends of mine who have seats inside one of the suites in the Superdome, and, hopefully, be singing Who Dat? all damned night long.

So how about you? Do you root for a team? Any sports you love? Or if not sports, what inspires your fandom? 

I’m holding a contest–all commenters for today’s blog through midnight (central US time) Monday night are eligible to win a $25 gift certificate to celebrate Allison’s newest release: ORIGINAL SIN. (Go check it out–it’s a supernatural thriller.) I just saw an amazing review for it, which should be up soon, and I’ll link as soon as I see it go live.

I have no freakin’ idea.

by Toni McGee Causey

I hate having to title fiction. Titles drive me living batshit (sans clutch) and honestly, I’m terrible at them. The only title of my own that I ever really loved was the first title of my first book: BOBBIE FAYE’S VERY (very very very) BAD DAY. When I sold that book, there were three more verys in that parenthetical, and I know for a fact I drove the marketing people nuts with those. They cut those three out, and then changed the title altogether when we went into reprints in mass market, because the length of the title plus two names (Bobbie Faye’s and my own moniker) was just too much for the mass market sized cover. I was tickled as hell at first to get to keep the title, until had to type it for a bunch of different reasons, never remembering to make a macro keystroke setup so that I wouldn’t have to type something so long. You would not believe how I managed to misspell her name. (Well, maybe you would.)

What I thought we’d do was keep the (very very very) for each book. My editor was on board with that… only… I couldn’t think of anything that worked with the story. And then it occurred to us (duh) that if every book has the (very very very) parenthetical, people weren’t going to remember which book they already had vs. which book was new. So we set out to change the parenthetical, and come up with something akin to the rhythm of the first. That effort ended in BOBBIE FAYE’S (kinda, sorta, not exactly) FAMILY JEWELS. Which I sort of hated for a while and then grew to not loathe. (My poor editor came up with a thousand titles–we just couldn’t find one we liked and honestly, this was the one that bothered me the least. But she tried. My God, did she try.)

It still confused people. You wouldn’t believe the email I got asking me when the new book was out, in spite of the fact that they had seen JEWELS on the bookstand… they thought that was the one they had. Not entirely the effect we’d hoped to have.

The only other title I’ve liked is my short story title in the Killer Year Anthology: Stories to Die For. Its title? A Failure to Communicate — but that’s because I fractured time as well as communication, and that fracture was the point… plus, that’s a line said to Paul Newman in Cool Hand Lukea line he liked so much, (so the apocryphal story goes), he had it written in to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. (In my story, Trevor has nicknamed Bobbie Faye “Sundance” because they are about to die. At the end, she calls him “Butch.”)

Everything else I’ve had published in fiction has been titled by others. I’ve managed the blog entries more like a drunken game of dice… sometimes I’m on, sometimes not. (Cornelia, I think, wins the memorable title aware around here. Seriously, tell me you do not think of the PILGRAMS! SCREE! SCREE! SCREE! title every time you see her name on Saturdays.)

Which, honestly, is the point: titles should be memorable. They should give you some idea of the kind of book you’re picking up, the genre, but most of all, you should be able to recall that title when you’re in the bookstore and are suddenly faced with thousands of choices… many of which sound so similar to one another, they all start to blur.

A good title will make me pick up the book, even if the cover art is so-so. I’ll flip over to at least read the back cover. An average title that sounds like every other average title would have to have really eye-catching art for me to stop, unless I already know the author’s work and therefore know whether they’re an automatic buy. 

But a great title will stop me in my tracks when my arms are already loaded down with books and people are waiting on me to leave because we have to be at dinner in less than ten minutes and could I please please hurry? When someone (whether it’s the author or the editor or the marketing department or some combination, I don’t care) comes up with something that riveting that can stop me like that, I will pick up the book and read the back copy and the cover flap and probably the first page or so. If I’m really pressed for time, and that title was great, I’ll buy it, without reading anything. My hunch is, people who are that creative have a good eye for good material. I’m not always right about that instinct, but I’ve been right more than I’ve been wrong, so I’ll keep going by that gut feeling.

Examples of books I bought this past year based solely on the title, not word of mouth or knowledge of the author:

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

The Sky Always Hears Me

The Book of Unholy Mischief

The Bridge of Sighs

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Granted, I heard about a couple of them somewhere, but when I was in the bookstore, I couldn’t remember what had been said–but the title jumped out at me as a “Oh, yes, I’d wanted to get that.” And I haven’t read all of them yet, since I was sidetracked with a couple of other big reading projects.

It is an extremely difficult thing to do, to find a memorable, unique title. I know some writers who cannot move forward with the first page if they don’t have a title in mind–one they hope will be their final title. I felt that way during book one, but since then, I haven’t ever managed to settle on just one, to fall in love with something and know it was it and that it would be memorable. Oh, how I wish I could.

Right now, I’m tossing around ideas for titles for the new book, and it will probably end up being vastly different from my past titles since this book is much darker and complex and set in a different world. I’ve wandered around ideas of things lost and found again, and I’ve played with ideas based off Saints (the name of the fictional town is St. Michaels, a tiny place set just south of Baton Rouge). For an example, I loved the movie title THE BOONDOCK SAINTS, (and I enjoyed the movie, but haven’t seen the sequel)… but obviously, this is taken and well-enough known not to be re-useable. Titles, unlike works, are not copyright protected, but I’d truly prefer not to use something someone else has already fingerprinted. I thought of BACKYARD SAINTS, but I think Joshilyn Jackson’s next book will be titled something like that, so that one’s out. I’ve thrown around war notions and betrayals, but so far, nothing sticks. If any one of you gets creative in the comments and I end up using it, you’ll be mentioned in the book and will get the first autographed copy.

I’m looking for inspiration. What titles have you come across (whenever, doesn’t have to be recent), that you loved and remember? I’m curious, did the book live up to its title?



contest conversations, continued…

As JT explained, we’re sorta having a half-way-ish hiatus, a week of traveling for many of us and being swarmed with family for some of us. We’re having a contest and here’s what she posted yesterday:

14 books from 14 authors.

Now that’s a deal.

Here’s what we want to know:

(answer as many as you wish, but only one answer is necessary to be included in the contest.)

 What are you doing for the holidays?

What are you reading?

What topics would you like us to cover in the New Year?

What questions do you have for any or all of us?


And then in the comments section, Sylvia asked some questions and I’ll attempt some answers and add some questions of my own at the bottom:

1. Boxers, briefs, thongs, bikinis, hipsters or none? 

I always flunk these tests. Let’s just say I like variety. And sexy comfort.

2. What would you like for your last meal?

I’d never be able to pick, so I’d probably stretch that out to my last day of meals. Like Crawfish etouffee, or my husband’s amazing Shrimp and Corn soup, or maybe ripe strawberries and whipped cream and champagne or… hmm. I’d need at least a week to fit everything in. But the upside, I’d be dead, so I wouldn’t have to worry about calories. 


3. What was your first pet and his or her name?

A german shepherd named Kraut that my mom and dad had as a puppy when I was born. I used to ride him around like a pony. He would never let my brother ride. I loved that dog.


4. What is the worst lie your parents ever told you?

Well, the one that they didn’t mean to tell was that Kraut was going to go live with my maw maw, because he needed to. (There were vague reasons why that I never fully understood, and I knew that I was being manipulated into confusion on purpose.) I was extremely angry at her for taking my dog, and then when we went back to visit and he was gone, I thought she’d lost him or given him away, instead of giving him back to me. I pretty much hated her for years for that. (He was dying, and my parents thought it would spare me the trauma if I didn’t have to see him die. I can’t say that they were wrong, though–I think seeing him suffer would have been traumatic at that very young age, and if he’d been put down, I’d have blamed them for it and hated them. There was never going to be an easy answer for that one.)


5. What’s your favorite curse word?

Fuck fuck fuckity fuck and fucktard and fuckwad and fuckshit. (I am southern. We don’t stop at just one of anything.) (Take that any way you want.)


6. What animal do you fear the most? (Must have experience and not just fantasy)

Water moccasins. I have stumbled across them and had them strike at me and I’ve been in a boat with them dangling from limbs above me and let’s just say that snakes are pretty high on my ‘the only good ___ is a dead ____’ list.


7. Does it piss you off to see your book in a clearance bin?

Nah, like others said in the comments yesterday, it’s a way for maybe more people to afford to try out my writing and then, possibly, be interested in the next thing. Plus, it’s just a natural cycle of business–very few things last forever.


8. What is your definition of hell on earth?

I have to agree with Alex: child molestation.


9. As an author, what question are you asked the most that you refuse to answer or deflect the answer?

Agreeing with Zoë, being asked how much money I make. Or the sneakier equivalent, what was my print run.


10. What 10 questions do you most want to know about your readers, or us, the commenters? I’ll just add five, since we have some great ones above and in the previous comments.

[Feel free to answer JT’s above, or any combination of these or the ones posted in the comments yesterday. This is a free-for-all rolling conversation.]

1) Who’s your hero?

2) What was the very best day of your life? (Aside from significant others/ marriages and births of children.)

3) If you could go anywhere, right now, obligation-free, without stress, etc., where would you go?

4) Which two characters would you love to see meet up for a road trip? (can be anyone in literature… anyone at all) 

5) If you could pick the traits of a favorite character to adapt in your own life, which character and traits would those be, and why?

I know there are more entries sporadically through the week — and remember, all comments all week long make you eligible for the contest. 

Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas!



We’re going to be on a minimal posting schedule through the New Year. Not a complete hiatus, but semi-regular postings, since many of us are traveling and trying to get a real break from the Interwebs. We’ll be back at full force January 2.

We truly appreciate that you take the time to stop by, to participate, to be a part of this fabulous community all year long. We value your input so much that we thought we’d throw the field open to you.

If you comment over the next week, you’ll be entered into our Festivus Contest!

And what, pray tell, may the glorious prize be for commenting? Why, a package of signed Murderati books, of course!

14 books from 14 authors.

Now that’s a deal.

Here’s what we want to know:

(answer as many as you wish, but only one answer is necessary to be included in the contest.)

 What are you doing for the holidays?

What are you reading?

What topics would you like us to cover in the New Year?

What questions do you have for any or all of us?

 We wish you and your families the very best of holiday joy!

An Author’s 12 Days of Christmas

by Toni McGee Causey


An Author’s 12 Days of Christmas

(with apologies to cover artists everywhere*)


On the first day of Christmas, my agent gave to me

            One sad example of some cover art.


On the second day of Christmas, my agent gave to me

            Two antidepressants

            So I’d overcome that awful cover art.


On the third day of Christmas, my agent gave to me

            Three rounds of pep talks,

            Two antidepressants.

            “Please don’t off yourself; it’s not bad cover art.”


On the fourth day of Christmas, my agent gave to me

            Four potential pen names.

            Three rounds of pep talks.

            Two antidepressants.

            ‘Cause the publisher really loved that cover art.


On the fifth day of Christmas, my agent gave to me


 Five Re-al-ity Checks.

 Four potential pen names.

 Three rounds of pep talks.

 Two antidepressants.

 Since I was doomed when the world saw that cover art.


On the sixth day of Christmas, my agent gave to me

            Six bottles of wine.

            Five. Re-ali-ty Checks!

            Four potential pen names.

            Three rounds of pep talks.

            Two antidepressants.

            Plus a note about more samples of cover art.


On the seventh day of Christmas, my agent gave to me


Yes, I know he’s not leaping. Get your own poem. Seven Lords A’ Leaping. (Hell, I don’t know, there was wine involved.)

 Six bottles of wine. (all gone now) (duh)

 Five Re-al-ity Checks.

 Four potential pen names.

 Three rounds of pep talks.

 Two antidepressants.

                            As I sobered up to see the newest art.


On the eighth day of Christmas, my agent gave to me

            Eight frantic emails. (because I was off somewhere with…)

            Seven Lords A’ Leaping. (wouldn’t you be?)

            Six (more) bottles of wine.

            Five. Re-al-ity. Checks.

            Four potential pen names.

            Three rounds of pep talks.

            Two antidepressants.

            Because the newest was truly terrible cover art.


On the…where am I again? Nine? Seriously? Already? Can we move it back to eight? I might not make the deadline, see, because there were these Lords…


On the ninth day of Christmas, my agent gave to me

            Nine more artwork options.

            Eight frantic emails.

            Seven Lords A’ Leaping. (They had their own stash,               I swear.)

            Six (more) bottles of wine.

            Five. Re-al-ity. Checks.

            Four potential pen names.

            Three rounds of pep talks.

            Two antidepressants.

            And a deadline to pick out just one I could live with and not slit my throat over, and no, that doesn’t fit the meter, but YOU try having metered prose when you’re slitting YOUR throat and we’ll talk then, ‘kay?


On the tenth day of Christmas, my agent gave to me

            Ten warnings to quit calling the artist.

            Nine more artwork options.

            Eight frantic emails.

            Seven Lords A’ Leaping. (like they had to worry                   about artwork, hmph)

            Six (more) bottles of wine.

            Five. Re-al-ity. Checks.

            Four potential pen names.

            Three rounds of pep talks.

            Two antidepressants.

            All for artwork my dog could do in a hurricane.


On the eleventh day of Christmas, my agent gave to me

            Eleven restraining orders. (You know, that first cover wasn’t all that bad.                   If my name were bigger, it’d be perfect.)

            Ten harried phone calls.

            Nine more artwork options.

            Eight frantic emails.

            Seven Lords A’ Leaping (I wonder if one of them is an artist? What are the odds?)

            Six (more) bottles of wine.

            Five. Re-al-ity. Checks.

            Four potential pen names. 

            Three rounds of pep talks.

            Two antidepressants.

            And a reminder that I need to work in this town again.


On the twelfth day of Christmas, my agent gave to me

            Twelve beautiful cover flats. (They spelled my name correctly. Yay!)

            Eleven restraining orders.

            Ten harried phone calls.

            Nine more artwork choices.

            Eight frantic emails.

            Seven Lords A’ Leaping (Geez. Cover models.             When will they learn authors have no clout?)

            Six (more) bottles of wine.

            Five. Re-al-ity. Checks.

            Four potential pen names.

            Three rounds of pep talks.

            Two antidepressants.

            So I could practice saying, “I love my cover art.”


On the thirteenth day of… what? No, I hadn’t heard of the page limit. Really? Well, I thought it was going to go all the way to fifteen. Or so. Maybe weave a subplot in there? Something about a Santa Ninja Assassin and his pet… no? Really? Can I edit, then? Hello? Hello? 














* because I really did love my own cover art.


Happy holidays, everyone. What’s on YOUR wish list this year?