Monday, August 30, 2010

Wonder and terror

By David Heinzmann

In 2003, I covered a story for the Tribune about the arrest of a group of South Siders accused of pimping teenage girls they had coerced into a prostitution ring that traveled a circuit of Midwestern cities. The story caught the attention of the then-editor of the Tribune, who sent an order from on high for me to find out everything I could about child prostitution.

Over the next several months, the project became a constant pot simmering on the back burner of my cops beat. I built relationships with advocates for abused kids, went to court hearings in Detroit, a conference on prostituted children in Washington, and interviewed several teenage girls who told me horrifying stories of being passed around at gang parties, pimped by their junkie fathers, a litany of heartbreaking miseries.

I learned more than I wanted to know about children in the sex trade in Chicago and beyond. But in the meantime, the editor of the paper moved on to other interests, and my immediate editor took a jaundiced view toward the story—old news, who cares—so most the contents of my notebooks weren’t making it into the paper. It was frustrating and disappointing.

But—you’ll never see this coming—my reportorial frustration eventually cut a new channel in the dirt, and the source of a novel began to trickle forth. (My second, which comes out next year.) At about the same time, I was sent to Las Vegas on an unrelated wild goose chase of a story. While I was there the child prostitution idea percolated in my head. During the course of that unused reporting, I had become familiar with a Vegas cop who specialized in child prostitution cases, and it’s hardly shocking that Las Vegas is a hub for the underage sex trade.

And then in 2004, I made a couple of trips to Memphis and Mississippi to write about Chicago gangs who ran pipelines of guns from Delta pawnshops back to Chicago by the trunk-load. The long roots of hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans still connected to the Delta fascinated me.

This stew of settings and situations eventually cooked into the narrative of a book. It was a very different experience from the beginnings of my first book, A Word to the Wise, which started with a character and me searching for a story to illuminate him. Or the third book, which I’m working on now, which probably was seeded by my early failings as a police reporter and the moment when I learned who really was running the Chicago Police Department behind the scenes.

One of my favorite genesis stories for a novel was Vladimir Nabokov’s account of how Lolita was inspired. He claimed he was convalescing for some ailment in a Paris hospital and read a story about zoologists who had taught a chimp how to draw with pencil and paper—and the first thing the ape drew was the bars of his cage. I don’t know if any Nabokov scholar has ever tracked down that newspaper story to see if it really exists, but it’s a marvelous literature of its own about the birth of Humbert Humbert.

This anecdote isn’t just a ridiculous ploy to place myself next to one of the literary geniuses of the 20th Century. Books come from all kinds of moments in our minds—a single impression, a series of experiences that have affected us deeply, a hunger to answer what if questions. These different kinds of beginnings deeply influence how were write our stories.

In this forthcoming book, Throwaway Girl, I was haunted by the places I had been and the people I had met. Those experiences gave me a visceral road map for how to write the book, which was its own challenge. A writer like me, with a day job as a journalist, has to be ever wary of losing himself in the reporting, and staying focused on harnessing my imagination in the direction of suspense and surprise.
With this third book, which was inspired by more of a little spark, I feel much more like I’m starting from scratch. The lifting is a little heavier.

Every time out is different, and that’s a good bit of the wonder and terror of being a writer.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Yin and the Yang

by Libby Hellmann

I’m going through that peculiar period before my next book comes out. There are still several months to go -- it will be released in December. It’s a thriller that goes back, in part, to the late Sixties in Chicago, and yes, I’ll talk more about it later. Now, though, my publisher and I are in the process of sending out Advanced Reading Copies, or ARCs, to reviewers, bookstores, and bloggers. Btw, President Obama, I’m happy to send you one. You can read it after you finish your Jonathan Franzen ARC.

Usually, I love this period. No reviews have come in yet, and everything is still all possibility. Maybe I’ll get starred reviews. Maybe it will sell 100,000 copies. Maybe it will break me out. Maybe (gasp) it will end up on the New York Times best seller list. Maybe it will even be made into a film. This period is seductive, exciting, and enjoyable and I’d like to stay here forever. I’m in a dreamer’s paradise. I can even feel proud of my accomplishment — this will be my seventh novel, and for someone who never thought they’d be published, that’s not bad.

But you know where this is going, right?

Yup. I’m already bouncing from the rosy glow of the Yin to the dark abyss of the Yang. My friend Diane calls it “Imposter Syndrome”. I call it the “Who Do You Think You Are” disorder. It’s the feeling that the entire manuscript is drivel, that everyone will see what a fraud I am. That I’m just fooling myself to think I can write at all. Everything is black and toxic and gloomy, and I creep around the house feeling the weight of the world on my back. I don’t want the book to come out; I don’t want read what will clearly be pans by reviewers. I just want to go into a corner and disappear.

You’d think that after seven books, I’d know how to cope with both ends of the spectrum. That I’d learn to control the manic part, ignore the depressive. But it doesn’t get any easier. Even though I’m knee-deep into the next book and going through the same process -- Hmm, I never realized how cyclical these feelings are. Maybe I should see someone. Oh that’s right. I did. It didn’t take.

So, I ask you, blog readers and writers. How many of you have felt the same duality? What do you do about it?


Earllier this sumer, reviewer Nina Sankovitch said this on Huffington Post:

“Short stories are a good way to ease your way back into the art of relaxed reading after a cold and intense winter. Start with these great shorts and just see where this summer can take you.”

While I wish she’d been talking about my collection of short stories (she wasn’t), in that spirit, I’m running an End-Of-Summer-It’s-Not-Too-Late special. My e-collection of short stories, NICE GIRL DOES NOIR, (all previously published), is free until September 1 on Smashwords. Just use the following coupons.

Vol. 1 #VC26Y
Vol. 2 #NL43X


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Power of the Story

by Jamie Freveletti

In all the furor over e-books, kindle downloads, and dire predictions about the “death” of books, one significant point is lost.

The power of the story.

You know it. It’s when you sit on a lovely summer evening, with the flame torches firing and the lightening bugs flashing and you and some family members discuss the stories of generations past. Depending on the family, these stories are either embellished facts about a time and era that seemed tinged with rose-- or painted black. The latter is quite a bit more interesting, and harder to pry out of the older generation, although I’ve found that a glass of wine goes a long way to loosen tongues. You sit and listen and ask questions and even your children stop playing video games to gather around the table and hear what’s being said. Everyone wants to know what happened in the family all those years ago.

I have a term for versions of family stories that are altered to make the family appear less dysfunctional than it really is. I call these stories “the official” story. Whenever I hear someone say, “Aunt So-and-So never really participated in the family after the war,” I always ask,

“So what’s the ‘official’ story on that one?”

It’s usually, “She was crazy,” or “She didn’t get along with anyone.”

This, I’ve found, is often code for “she told the truth and it was ugly and no one really wanted to hear it.”

When you get the ‘official’ story, pour the wine and start asking some key questions. It’s best to start with, “Well, they’re all gone now, so it doesn’t hurt to tell what actually happened.” Even the most optimistic and sunny of your extended family will open up after that suggestion.

There are, though, family members that always tell the real stories. Rather than say, “what a wonderful man Uncle Johnny was,” these relatives will say, “He was a royal ass#@≤, and probably crazy to boot. He once picked up the turkey and threw it against the wall because it was overcooked. This, mind you, during the Depression, when turkey was fabulously expensive and no one could afford it.”

As a writer, these are the stories that I love to hear. Call me sick, but hearing about how saintly Aunt Rose was doesn’t interest me in the least. “That woman went to church everyday,” (not an unusual occurrence in either an Italian or Irish family, which is the combination I inherited), does nothing to further the family history. I always ask, “Why did Rose go to church every morning?” And then I hear Aunt Rose’s story–her sister had Downs Syndrome and she prayed for God to protect her. Still sweet, but gives Rose a motivation for all that praying that puts her life into perspective.

Here’s another thing I’ve noticed about families, mine and just about everyone else’s that I’ve been able to quiz on the subject–everyone has a family member that dropped out. Just disappeared. Poof! One day they were there, the next, gone.

This fascinates me. I've asked friends, family members, (both my Irish and Italian sides have at least one) and neighbors. When quizzed they all have a story about a member of the family that vanished, and no one knows what happened. Sometimes the disappearance is ominous–one is believed to have been taken to a Russian prisoner of war camp in Siberia and died there, and some just interesting-an Irish relative who went West during the Gold Rush and was never seen again. And I wonder, did he strike gold? Become fabulously wealthy? Or did he die in a mining town fighting over a claim?

When these somewhat magical evenings occur I’m always struck by the way the audience around the speaker is silent, listening with rapt attention. I look around the table, with the nearly empty wine bottles and remnants of dessert and coffee, and I know that no matter what happens in the future, stories are here to stay.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

And now I'm back to let you know I can really shake 'em down

By Kevin Guilfoile

Anyone who is a good friend of a writer probably likes his friend a little bit less around publication day.

This has to be especially true in the Facebook and Twitter age. We nudge our friends about every good review and mention, pester them with invitations for every appearance and signing. They are so loyal with their likes and kind comments, but in the backs of their minds they are all thinking that we have become a little bit of a pain in the ass.

So consider this an apology.

My second novel, THE THOUSAND, hits bookstore shelves tomorrow (Tuesday). I won't bore you with too many specifics, but the story is set in Chicago and involves a young woman with special mental gifts running afoul of the warring descendants of an 2,500-year-old religious cult. There's more here and also here as well as here.

(See what I mean? This linking to reviews is a disease.)

A few months ago I started a contest. Because my novel is called THE THOUSAND and because I am extremely clever, I thought I would try to see if I could get a thousand Twitter followers before my book came out. I didn't try as hard as I should have, frankly (see everything I just said about annoying my friends) but I almost made it, nevertheless. In the end, The Thousand contest became the Nine Hundred, which is almost a better title anyway. It is exactly three times better than The 300, but not half as good as 2012.

Tomorrow I will announce ten winners of the 900/1000 contest. All ten will win a copy of my new novel, as well as an awesome gift pack from Field Notes.

The grand prize winner will receive an additional item of dubious intrinsic value. A few months back I began transcribing a chapter I had deleted from the final manuscript of THE THOUSAND into a Field Notes notebook, and I added some illustrations, as well. Now I am not any kind of artist (even though I can claim with all modesty that I was the illustrator--and co-author--of the #1 bestseller, MY FIRST PRESIDENTIARY: A SCRAPBOOK BY GEORGE W. BUSH--the truth is my co-author and I were not getting paid very much for that gig and didn't want to split the money with another person, so we lied and told the publisher that I knew how to draw). But a subplot of THE THOUSAND involves an outsider artist--an untrained street person whose artistic work has suddenly turned extraordinary--and so the sketches of an untrained doodler like myself almost seem appropriate. And whatever the dubious artistic merits, it is a one-of-a-kind artifact. I spent a lot of time on it and now I'm about to send it off to a stranger without any idea how much they'll appreciate it or what they'll even do with it. Something about that strikes me as cool.

I'll be announcing the winners tomorrow, so you still have a few hours to win. Just follow me and you'll be entered automatically.

If you live in the Chicago area, I hope you'll make it to my launch event at the Borders in La Grange, Illinois, Tuesday, August 24 (that's tomorrow) at 7 PM. I'll be making many more appearances in the coming month, so even if you can't make that event I hope you'll check out my current tour schedule, especially if you live in the Chicago, Milwaukee, Scottsdale, or Houston areas,. More dates and cities will be surely be added in the coming weeks.

Seriously, are you tired of hearing about this damn book yet? I thought so. But brace yourself for my next self-promotional barrage.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Great Reviews for Kevin and Bryan

Surf on over to the Chicago Tribune to find some fabulous reviews of books by Outfit members...

Rick Kogan Interviews Kevin on THE THOUSAND


Julia Keller declaims on Bryan's THE HANGING TREE.

Jeff Johnson also featured Kevin and THE THOUSAND in Sunday's Chicago Sun-Times Chicago Lit Section.

Please send them your heartiest congrats. They might make you an offer you can't refuse.

PS It's now Friday, August 27, but we need to add a great review of Kevin's THE THOUSAND from the New York Times.

Well done!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Everything I know about CSI...

by Michael Dymmoch

...I didn't learn from watching CSI. The popular TV franchise seems to be the butt of jokes from cops, writers and real crime scene investigators.

So where does one satisfy one's curiosity about real crime scene investigations?

Real cops are a good source—if you can get them to talk to you. Authors Mike Black and Dave Case, both police officers, do a great crime scene presentation at mystery conferences. And they're pretty easy to talk to at signings—especially their own.

Most police departments have an information officer whose job is to field questions from the press and public. The Chicago Police have a News Affairs Department, which I've found to be quite helpful. Citizen's Police Academies are another good source for information about local procedures and regulations. And local departments will sometimes arrange ride-alongs for writers or interested citizens. Then there's the FBI Citizens' Academy for civic leaders who can talk a local agent into sponsoring them (and can pass a background check).

Conferences frequently feature panels, lectures or seminars on crime related topics (and sometimes on GUNS!). Jan Burke arranged a superb Forensic Science Day for the Left Coast Crime conference this spring at the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center, home of the Los Angeles Regional Crime Lab. Lecturers gave us slide presentations on two real crime scenes, including bloody photos, and an explanation of how the scenes were processed and what the evidence proved. We also got a short course on document examination and a tour of the lab itself, which is state of the art and has separate facilities for processing trace evidence, documents, firearms, and DNA (with two separate rooms with different purposes and different colored lab coats to minimize human error). There's also a killer gun collection, a garage with a lift for under-car searches, offices for processing paperwork, and classrooms where CSU students study to become CSIs.

Which leads to one of the best sources of accurate CSI information: College or University Criminal Justice Departments. My most recent field trip was to a University of Wisconsin-Platteville Seminar. Basic Forensic Academy for Authors was taught by UW-P lecturer Joseph Lefevre, a police officer and fire department photographer. The venue was a ranch-style house designed as a laboratory/observatory and constructed by UW students on the University's College Farm property. The house has an attached garage and full, semi-finished basement that can serve as a lecture hall or an industrial crime scene. The main floor has a living room, dining room, kitchen, laundry room and bath. A third room is equipped with video monitors, and see-through observation mirrors allow instructors to monitor their student CSIs via cc TV; every room but the bathroom is covered by video cameras. Although we weren't able to dig deeply into it, we were informed that the Forensic Science program also includes a fenced "body farm" where students monitor the progress of decomposition in pig cadavers.

The seminar began with the first-officer-on-the-scene's responsibilities and what the CSI does when he(she) arrives. What most people over look is the need to first determine whether or not a crime has occurred. Covered during the first day were methods used to examine and document indoor and outdoor scenes, as well as how to locate, collect and process evidence. The importance of securing a scene, documenting who has access to it, and maintaining the chain of evidence were stressed. Two indoor crime scenes were set up for us to examine and we were quizzed as to what might have happened at each scene. We also did an outdoor search for evidence and were able to locate two syringes, and two shell casings discarded in a field adjacent to the house.

Making casts of footwear impressions, outdoors, and lifting finger prints from various objects, indoors, were also part of the hands-on instruction.

The second day of the seminar, we covered the basics of proper evidence collection. (Here's something you don't see on TV's CSI. Proper technique dictates that new gloves be put on to pick up every piece of evidence that may require processing for DNA!)

After which, we went into the house and "investigated" the murder of the "homeowner."

We examined and processed the entire house, took photographs of each room, then medium and close up photos of each item of evidence with numbered tents placed next to each item, and rulers next to items whose sizes weren't obvious. Finally we collected and bagged the evidence and logged it on an inventory sheet.

Mr. Lefevre told us that to preserve continuity, one person usually works a scene from start to finish with occasional help with note taking. Real crime scene investigation is painstaking and time consuming. And processing a scene like the one set up for us can take 12 hours or more.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Dreaded Query Letter

by Marcus Sakey

Hey guys, I just did a guest post over at Jane Friedman's blog on how to write a query that will get you a 75% request rate. It's a topic I've written about before, but I'm asked about it at pretty much every appearance, so I thought was worth re-posting here.

I promise, if you follow these instructions--and they aren't all easy--you will get that request rate from agents.

Hope it helps!


About two weeks ago I pissed a lot of writers off.

I was attending the Midwest Writer’s Workshop at the time, where along with my buddy John Gilstrap, I gave a presentation on “The Secrets of Getting Published.” One of the things I said was that a properly-written query letter should result in at least 75% of agents requesting the manuscript.

My host, the delightful Jane Friedman, tweeted this, and many of you disagreed with me rather strongly.

To which I respond, respectfully: you’re wrong.

I know because I had that success rate. In fact, once I had my query in its proper form, about 80% of the agents I queried requested materials.

Some of you said that this isn’t realistic for today’s market. But this was late 2005. While the rise of e-books and a down economy have taken a toll, you’re going to be hard-pressed to convince me that agents have fundamentally changed their business model in the last five years.

Others pointed out that I’m an established author. However, when I was querying my only publication credit was a short story in a U.K. journal with 600 subscribers.

Still others said that there were too many variables in play. You raise a point, but remember, I didn’t say any query letter. I said a properly written one.

Here’s how to do it.

(By the way, all of this applies to fiction; non-fiction is different, and I don’t know beans about it. Sorry.)

First of all, finish the book. And I don’t just mean type “THE END.” If it isn't polished to a high gleam, if it hasn't been read by a dozen friends and re-written in response to their comments, then you aren't ready to worry about Step Two.

But let’s assume that it is. The next thing you need to do is decide which agents to approach.

This is one of the ways you limit the number of variables in the equation. Only query agents who represent work like yours. My own agent, for example, specializes in crime fiction, thrillers, and some nonfiction. Sending him fantasy would be a waste of time. It's not his market, and even if he did like it, you'd be better served by an agent who really knows your field.

How to do that? Go to your local bookstore or library, and bring a notebook. Find the section that matches your genre, and start pulling books down. In their acknowledgments, authors almost always thank their agent (if they don't, you don't want that agent anyway.) Focus on books that are somewhat similar to yours, but don't obsess. Don't try to pick a favorite in advance.

After three or four deeply boring hours, you should have a sizable list. To find their addresses, turn to the Internet. You can Google search, using quotes around their full name. You can also look at sites like and Again, not fun, but necessary. Make a spreadsheet, and include the agency, the agent's name, the authors they represent, the address and email, and sections for dates to track who you've sent letters and when.

Okay, so you've got a targeted list. Now it’s time to write the dreaded query.

It’s dreaded for a reason, which is that you already wrote the book. You slaved over every one of 350 pages. You know its intricacies, its subtleties, its moments of grace and its smelly underarms. Now you have to forget all that.

Here's the key to writing queries. You're not actually selling the book.

I want to repeat that: You are not selling the book. In fact, you could write a highly successful query for a book that does not exist.

All you’re doing is seducing the agent. You want to get them interested enough that they ask to see your manuscript. That's it.

It's like online dating. If you can write a charming email, you might get a date; if you get a date, who knows where it could lead. But try to put all your history and baggage in that first message and you won't get any play. Instead, demonstrate that you're worth someone's time. That you are interesting, sincere, and respectful.

How do you do that? Well, for one, you're polished. Your language is compelling and your presentation is perfect.

Also, you're brief. Agents are busy. There are hundreds of other queries to read.

Finally, you are a storyteller. You know how to tease, how to intrigue, and you're not afraid to put those wiles to work.

After a professional greeting (Mr. or Ms.), begin with a 1 - 2 line paragraph explaining that you are writing them because you know they represent X, and your book is similar. This shows that you have done your homework. It also begins to frame their expectations. By implication they know the genre and style of your work. This is also a good place to put the word count, because if it’s appropriate (70,000 – 120,000, give or take), that’s a hurdle you’ve already cleared.

Next, in 3 - 5 lines, sum up your story. This is the hard part, but it’s easier than most people make it. In essence, what you want to do is leave out the tangents, complications, minor characters, and themes. Remember, this is seduction. Focus on drama and stakes. Here's mine:

For Danny Carter, retired thief turned respectable businessman, a normal life sharing a Lincoln Park condo with his loving girlfriend seems like the ultimate score--until his former partner comes looking for him. A hardened killer fresh out of Stateville, his partner wants to kidnap the son of Danny's millionaire boss, and he needs help to pull it off. Doing the job could cost Danny his career, his relationship, and his freedom.

Refusing could cost him his life.

Did I leave out a lot? About 86,974 words. And man oh man did it hurt at first. But look at what it accomplished. By keeping the pitch brief, using only one name, and including significant stakes, I demonstrated that I know how to tell a story.

And that, my friends, is the point of the query letter.

Think about it. Agents get hundreds of these a week. Do you really think they remember them? Hell, I bet they forget the beginning of most by the time they reach the middle. You try and read 300 queries, see how fast your eyes glaze over.

So instead of trying to convey the beautiful bleeding soul that is your novel, just show an agent you know how to tell a story. That’s what makes them willing to read your manuscript.

Okay, next paragraph. This is the place for awards, previous publications, and nepotistic hookups. Will Stephen King blurb you? Is Oprah your aunt? Do you run a wildly successful blog? Put it in there.

Also, if you have some experience that informed the book, consider including it. Be judicious: if you're hawking a mystery novel, by all means mention that you’re a cop. If your character likes to cook and so do you, leave it out. In fact, if you have nothing to mention here, leave the whole damn ‘graph out. Never write just to fill space.

Finally, end with what in advertising is known as a call to action: "May I send you the finished manuscript?"

If you're writing a conventional query, you're done. However, when possible, I recommend you query via email. There are a couple of reasons. First, e-queries are cheaper and faster and better for the environment. Second, you can include a little taste of your novel. Do it like this: "Page one of follows. May I send you the finished manuscript?"

Then, after your name and contact info, paste in the first page or so of the novel. Do not attach it, as that will freak people out about viruses. Also, be sure to check your formatting, since email can screw that up, and manually insert line-breaks to double-space. Finally, make sure that you end on a minor cliffhanger, something interesting.

The idea is simple. The agent has just read your brief and compelling query letter. They're intrigued. It's the easiest thing in the world to scroll down and read a little more. And then, because your first page is dynamite (right?), hopefully intrigued upshifts to excited. Simple as that.

A good query letter is not written in a day. Write it and rewrite it. Have friends and critique partners read it. Buff the hell out of it. Once you feel like it's ready, start sending out waves, say 5 - 10 a week.

Doing it in waves is crucial, because it will tell you how effective your query letter is. (Note: I didn’t say how interesting your book is. Query letters and novels are separate things.) Remember, your query letter isn’t finished until you’re seeing about a 75% request rate.

When you do get a bite, remember to write REQUESTED MATERIALS in big letters on the envelope so that your manuscript hits the top of the pile. Then do a little happy dance and go send out another couple of queries.

Of course, the painful part is that for all the requests, you’ll get plenty of rejections. I did. This is a subjective business, and some very big names told me they didn’t like the book, that it lacked tension, that they didn’t think it had a market. Which made it all the sweeter when CBS Sunday Morning called The Blade Itself “how immortality gets started,” or when we sold the film rights to Ben Affleck.

Don’t sweat the rejections. Have a beer, then send another query. And great good luck!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Expert Tour Tips, Vol. 37, No. 6

By Bryan Gruley

Now that I’ve embarked on my second book tour, it’s time to impart my expertise about touring. Of course, merely two experiences qualifies no one as an expert at anything. But I’m blogging, and therefore I am an expert (blogito ergo geniusum).

TIP: If you’re driving 100 miles to an event, leave a bit more than an hour. And assume that you will reach the drawbridge in Charlevoix precisely thirty seconds before it goes up.

TIP: Inscribe books with embarrassingly intimate notes so as to discourage people from loaning the books to friends and family, thus maximizing sales.

TIP: Refuse to obsess about the young woman who took one of your books, sat down against a bookshelf, read for five minutes, and then returned the book to your table without so much as a glance at you. She’s a speed reader and she adored your book.

TIP: Forgo your blather about yourself and your precious new book and get NYT bestselling non-fiction author Doug Stanton to interview you about yourself and your precious new book.

TIP: The key to the city won't actually open anything, but it's pretty cool to get one from the good people of East Jordan, Michigan.

TIP: Tell people it’s fine if they don’t buy both of your books, so long as they can find a bookstore open at 2 in the morning when they finish the first one.

TIP: When speaking to a group of readers, avoid at all costs following novelist and cop James O. Born, the funniest man in south Florida since Jackie Gleason.

TIP: Feel grateful for the handwriting exercises foisted upon you at St. Gemma Elementary school when the nice reader from Okemos, Michigan, insists, “Please sign it legibly.”

TIP: Have an IT guy put something in your laptop that blocks you from looking at your Amazon sales rankings.

TIP: When someone in the audience asks if you’d please put his town in your next book, politely ask if he’d like it to be the home of the pedophile or the serial killer.

TIP: Order the whitefish at North Country in Suttons Bay, Michigan; the fried perch at Western Avenue Grill in Glen Arbor; and the patty melt at the Hide-A-Way Bar on Starvation Lake. Oh, and the empanadas at Fuego Café in Phoenix.

TIP: Treasure the opportunity to see old friends and meet new ones. Be humbled by the fact that anyone would read your work, let alone pay for it. Take someone who loves you even if you’re not a bestseller. Have fun: nobody promised you another tour.

I really mean that last one. And a couple of the others. Now I’m interested in hearing your tips, folks …

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Book Marketing

by Libby Hellmann

So I’m writing an article for Sisters in Crime on – what else – book promotion. Since I’ve been around for a while, the subject is “Then and Now”… things I’ve learned about promotion over the years, and what I would or wouldn’t recommend today.

Here’s what I’ve got so far:

Then: Produce 100-200 ARCS for reviewers, booksellers, influencers
Now: Even more if you can

Then: Tour everywhere you can
Now: Be selective

Then: Go to Conferences and Festivals
Now: Concentrate on Festivals

Then: Produce/buy/distribute tschotkes
Now: Don’t bother, except maybe a flyer and/or chapbook

Then: Have a website
Now: Become a member of Web 2.0: Website, FB, Twitter at least.

Anything else come to mind? I’d really like input…


The Trib talks about Chicago mystery writers

OK, it was written by our own Dave Heinzmann, but it's a nice piece anyway -- about the growth and muscle of Chicago mystery writers. The Outfit is mentioned, too.

Check it out.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Congrats to Laura!

Who was nominated for a Shamus award for RED BLOODED MURDER.

Way to go!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Anonymous Reviews

For the last week, I have been in Rarotonga. For those of you who don’t know where that is (and I certainly didn’t when my mother moved there to do charitable work ten years ago), it’s one New Zealand’s Cook Islands. On my travels back, I read the New Zealand Herald, which has to be one of the broadest of the broadsheets. After getting used to the mini-me versions of newspapers in the states, the massive publication that is the New Zealand Herald was a treat.

But the thing that intrigued me most was an article I found by Tracey Barnett. The article highlighted how vociferous, angry and aggressive people can be lately toward one another. Barnett discussed a face-to-face encounter to highlight this, but she also mentioned the reader comments she gets to her articles. These can be just as aggressive and angry, she says. “This is especially true,” she writes, “when the comments are particularly cutting and personal. A letter might allude to placing my views where the sun 'n' air don't shine. “But,” she wrote, “everything changes when I write back - that is, when I become real.” When she personally addresses certain reader comments “suddenly, their demeanor improves. They go from Ozzy Osbourne to Justin Bieber. Words are tempered into kinder and more socially acceptable language. Immediately, that strange wall of safety, that false anonymity is broken and usually a respectful exchange is restored.”

I mentioned Barnett’s article to a couple of fellow American writers when I returned. Every one of them winced. Every one had stories, usually numerous, about reader comments on the internet that had really and truly stung them. None expected readers to respond in a resoundingly positive way to something they’d penned. We writers like to be able to have our say—all hail the first amendment—and so we want readers to do the same. But as Barnett pointed out in her article, a little civility goes a long way. And there seems to be a divide in what people write when they are hiding behind the veil of anonymity versus what they say when they sign their name.

Yet one well-known author I spoke with said he recently published a feature article in a major magazine. He purposefully tried to avoid the comments on-line, having found them unhelpful before, but he couldn’t avoid the personal message he found in his Facebook in-box—a message full of vitriol, railing about his hideous writing skills and in the demise in his style. And the woman writing the message clearly identified herself. The lack of anonymity hadn’t mattered in this case.

I think Barnett was largely right in her article though—writers recognize that we’re putting ourselves out there and therefore opening ourselves to responses. The hope is that readers realize we generally write by ourselves in a room, in a vacuum. We send our work into the world, hoping it touches someone in a good way. If it doesn’t, we’re willing to hear about our failings in a constructive way, but as Teflon as we try to make ourselves, we can be a touch wounded too. I know I’ve encountered the same problem occasionally when I’m a reader, rather than a writer. I might not be as careful with an anonymous comment as when I know my name will appear.

While thinking about reader response, quick judgments, and harshness from an unnamed source, I realized my first nonfiction book coming out September 14th, Long Way Home: A Young Man Lost in the System and the Two Women Who Found Him, dealt with that very topic. Harsh quick judgments landed a young man in jail for nearly six years for a crime he didn’t commit.

Whether I sign my name, or comment anonymously, I’m going with what Barnett recommended, Don't split who you are. Apply the same standards of respect in every element of your life.

Friday, August 06, 2010

The Great Gaping Hole

by Barbara D'Amato

In CHARLIE CHAN CARRIES ON [1930] by Earl Derr Biggers, seventeen men and women come together in London to begin a round-the-world tour. One is killed at the outset, in London. When no culprit can be found, although the killer is pretty clearly one of the tour party or its leader, the sixteen continue their travels. Some days later a second man dies, possibly a suicide, but the death is soon shown to be murder.

Inspector Duff travels with them, wrestling all the way with theories about who the killer may be and worrying about whether someone else may be killed. We are shown the suspects over and over with the question—is it this one? Is it that one?

Duff contacts the widow of the second victim by phone. She has not been on the tour, but will meet them at the next stop, San Remo. She says can identify the killer. She knows him from “Years ago, when we met him in – in a far country.”

She and Duff arrange that she will point him out that night when the party reaches San Remo.

But wait! The suspects are not identical twins or even similar in characteristics. One is sixty years old, with white hair. One has a facial scar. One is middle-aged, with a hawk nose. One is in his thirties and handsome. One is in his twenties. One is “dark and stocky.” Well, you get the idea. She had only to describe him on the phone to make identification obvious, save Duff’s anxieties, and save her own life. [Naturally, she is shot and killed as she and Duff go to view the suspects.]

Now this is not they type of problem that is simply the result of trying to heighten suspense. Nor does it produce merely a failure to suspend disbelief. It’s not the sleuth going out to the graveyard at midnight or the climbing the barbed-wire fence to investigate the factory grounds where no investigator has come out alive. This is a failure of logic, a logical disconnect.

I like the Charlie Chan books. I’ve specified Biggers mainly because I don’t want to point at living writers by name, but the problem lies in wait for all authors.

For instance, a recent crime novel concerns the kidnapping of a young boy. He is held in a large house whose doors and windows are impregnable, but he is more or less free to wander around inside. The police, frustrated, decide to plant a listening device inside to find out what the kidnappers plan to do with him. They send a man in to plant the bug by way of the boathouse entrance—the house is on a river. Wait! Send a man in? Why not just slip the boy out through the boathouse entrance?

In another book, a detective is trying hard not to be heard as he creeps up on the bad guys, but the building is next to the airport and every time the aircraft take off the roar would cover the entry of an army.

And another – I wondered why didn’t the police just cut the electricity to the apartment?

I think writers have all had this happen, at least in a first draft. Some perfectly obvious explanation we’ve overlooked makes a plot point ridiculous. Writers are focusing on so many elements at once that a serious glitch can slip right past them. Probably we’ve all found something at the last moment that made us horrified at the thought we might have let it get into print.

Your editor may catch a glitch, but I’ve read a lot of edited books where something major slipped through. No reader, including an editor, can pay attention to everything at once. Same with copyeditors. And anyway, wouldn’t we all prefer to catch that big, embarrassing goof before our editor even saw it?

If we work with a reading group, a big error is likely to be caught early, I think, but many writers don’t have a reading group. Also, most reading groups work section-by-section and the participants may not get the big picture. Probably the best thing is to develop a couple of forthright, close-reader friends who will read the almost-final manuscript.

Have you made—and saved yourself from—a big blunder? How did you catch it?

Wednesday, August 04, 2010


by Marcus Sakey

Short stories are hard work. Maybe not for Joe Konrath, but for the rest of us mortals, they're damn tricky. You need to cram a big vision into a small space, and from the beginning you need a very clear idea of what you're trying to accomplish.

Which makes it all the more frustrating that they also have a very limited shelf life. You write one, it sells, and you get to see it in a magazine or an anthology. Life is great. But then, all too soon, the next issue comes out. The anthology goes out of print.

The story vanishes.

Happily, thanks to the explosion of e-readers, that no longer has to be the case.

All of my novels are already available digitally, but I've just released a new e-book. Scar Tissue is a collection of seven of my previously published short stories, including "The Desert Here and the Desert Far Away," which was selected as one of the best shorts of 2009 by International Thriller Writers and nominated for a Macavity Award. Scar Tissue is available for all e-reader formats, or as a PDF you can read on-screen or even print out. If you haven't checked out my short stories, this is an easy way to catch up.

Want to see it? Kindle users, click here
For all other e-readers or a PDF, click here

The anthology is just $2.99, though if you prefer, you can buy the stories individually for a buck a pop (Kindle | Others). Either way, my hope isn't really that I'll sell a bajillion copies and be able to retire to a private island.

I just like these stories, and I don't want to watch them disappear.

In that spirit, as a gift to our loyal Outfiteers, I'm giving away one of the stories for free. All you have to do is click here, add it to your cart, and enter coupon code YB98Q.

Hope you enjoy!

Monday, August 02, 2010

Sit, write

By David Heinzmann

Anybody who planned to mark the stages of their summer this year by the progress of the trial of former Illinois governor Rod R. Blagojevich may have been disappointed to see the back-to-school sales come way too early. Most people expected the Blagojevich trial to dip into the first few hot weeks of the football season. But here it is the first week of August and the jury has already begun deliberating whether the former governor conspired to illegally trade campaign donations for government action.

A verdict, which could result in the last two Illinois governors in federal prison at the same time, may come as early as this week.

For those not following this case closely, the big chunk of this courtroom thriller that’s missing is the defendant on the stand. Blagojevich cut the trial short by at least a week when he changed his mind about telling his side of the story and decided not to take the stand, robbing trial watchers of the big climax. His lawyers said they decided to save Rod the trouble because prosecutors hadn’t proved he had committed any crimes. Others said it was because they finally understood the enormity of the bloodbath awaiting the former governor on cross examination.

Either way, the centerpiece of Chicago’s crazy summer of news is coming to a close earlier than expected. If this was a novel, you might not write it this way. But regardless of what the jury says, there’s still plenty of room for high drama and explosive plot twists in the coming days when the jury renders their verdict. Whether he's convicted or acquitted: What Will Rod Do?

My own connection to this case as a reporter is tangential. I was in court the morning that Blagojevich was herded before the judge in one of his finest jogging suits, but only by chance. I had volunteered to help a small team of reporters stake out the governor’s house on the North Side after our ace federal court reporter Jeff Coen figured out in late 2008 that the FBI was moving in on him. It just happened to be one of my days watching the house. I had been sitting in my car with a photographer in the predawn darkness when they came for him—though the arrest was carried out so smoothly that it looked like nothing but the morning shift change for the governor’s state police security detail. Rod was already on his way to a holding cell by the time we figured out what had just happened.

Anyway, I haven’t had to cover the case since then, so I can’t blame the Blagojevich saga for my lack of progress on my third book. But I have indeed gotten stuck. I started strong a few months ago, firing off five quick chapters of a new story—with a new protagonist—before getting bogged down. Unpredictable sleeping schedules of children, trips to the Northwoods and the shores of Lake Michigan are my excuses. Oh, and a day job. But most writers have day jobs and have to steal the time, so that’s not really an excuse.

All the summer vacations are finished now, so it will be back to some semblance of a daily date with the chair and keyboard.

And I’m going to try to not let the editing of my second book, Throwaway Girl, contribute to the distractions while writing the third. That sort of happened with the first and second books. I was almost finished with the manuscript of Throwaway Girl when I signed a contract to publish A Word to the Wise. A first timer, I became so engrossed in the editing process with the publisher, not least because of errors and problems I found in the manuscript at that late stage, that I set aside completion of Throwaway Girl for more than a year.

I just signed the contract with Five Star to have them publish Throwaway Girl in November 2011. After I finished this manuscript and sent it off, I had sort of counted myself as a liberated man, ready to move on with the third book. But now that I have a contract and a publication date I’m obsessing a little bit about the editing process and things that may need to be fixed. I know, I know: it’s supposed to be perfect by the time it goes to the publisher so that I can wash my hands and move on. I just haven’t swallowed that idea yet. But I’m determined to not go too far down this path of distractions.

Anybody with any advice on how to keep the editing of one book from devouring all the energy it takes to draft a new book at the same time?