Saturday, December 26, 2015

On the Cusp of the Future

The Best Christmas Ever is finally over. Four generations gathered to open presents, eat too much and play with grandchildren some hadn’t even met yet. With the leaf in the dining room table plus two card tables we managed to seat and feed the crowd. And now everyone has arrived home safely.

What do we do after Christmas? Aside from packing away the decorations and eating leftovers, we turn our eyes to the New Year. This is when we look back and measure the accomplishments of the year past and make plans for the one coming up. This is when we make our New Year’s resolutions. I think those resolutions mean more if they are made public, so I figured I’d share mine.

I am a writer first, and I’m committed to some of the characters I’ve created. So in 2016 I resolve to publish the next Stark & O’Brien adventure. I need to continue Felicity’s story arc of emotional recovery from her knife wound. I will also complete a sequel to Beyond Blue. Those characters have been calling out to me, and I now have three story lines that can wind around each other nicely to show these detectives in more depth.

I’m also a publisher, and my goals for the business are simple in theory, but most challenging to execute. Intrigue Publishing has a dozen excellent writers under contract. In 2016 I resolve to do all I can to maximize the sales of their books and, by extension, their royalties. We have negotiated a contract with a stronger distributor and plan direct promotion to bookstores nationwide to boost sales. Scheduled contests and giveaways should help with ebook sales. And we are actively seeking new ideas to improve book promotion.

Finally, I’ve become a mentor to several new authors and I appreciate that responsibility. So for 2016 I resolve to help any interested aspiring authors get their first novel (or their next novel) plotted, written and actually finished. I’ll do much of that here, filling my blog with direction, insight and inspiration that will help new writer stick to it until they have a final finished novel on their hands.   

Well, those are this writing publisher’s New Year’s Resolutions. What are yours?

Saturday, December 19, 2015

All I Want for Christmas is…

If you ask your favorite author what they think would be the ideal holiday gift they might reflexively answer, “Buy my book,” and that answer would be mostly joking. However, there are gifts you can send them that they may appreciate even more than you picking up another copy of their book… and they won’t cost you a dime.

One great thing you can do for that favorite author is to write a review. Online reviews are important because having a lot of reviews (good OR bad) is proof that a book is being read and talked about. A tweet or email telling me you posted a review on Amazon, GoodReads, Barnes & Noble or Audible is as welcome as a package under the tree.

Promotion on social media is also a great gift. Taking pictures of the book when you get it and posting them on Facebook and Twitter is a great way to spread the word about the book – especially if you add a link to where it can be purchased.

How about inviting your author friend to speak to a club or professional association you belong to. And you should check if your employer’s company is open to author speakers. Writers need exposure to new audiences almost as much as they need sales. This is a way you can help them get both.

If you blog, or produce a podcast, your favorite author would love to be interviewed for it, or to see a review of his or her book there. Again, it’s the gift of exposure to a new audience.

If you belong to a book club, a simple invitation would be a wonderful gift. Many a book has been propelled to best seller status thanks to the support of book clubs. Aside from the sales when every member of your club orders a copy to read, book clubs also provide incomparable word-of-mouth. And, the author you love will have a great time visiting with a roomful of avid readers. If you are distant from the writer’s home, you can have him or her visit by Skype.

All of those perfect author gifts will cost you nothing but time and energy. But if you decide to spend money on a gift to your favorite writer, consider the rest of your gift list. Which would your other friends and family appreciate more: yet another gift card, or a personalized and autographed book? This can be a personal and memorable gift, particularly if you know the author well enough to tell the recipient something about him or her.

So put a smile on the face of your favorite authors. Give that writer what he or she REALLY wants this year.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Diversity - Good for Fiction AND Life

I sometimes wonder if readers know or even care what I look like. I don’t think you can tell from my writing. Hannibal Jones has a mixed racial heritage. Felicity O’Brien is Irish while her partner, Morgan Stark, is African American. BEYOND BLUE has an ensemble cast whose members are white, black, Pacific Islander, black/Puerto Rican and Japanese/British. These characters did not arise out of some socially conscious design, but rather they grew organically out of the storylines. Nonetheless it is true that I purposely work with a diverse cast of characters. Here’s why:
First, I want my fiction to reflect the real world. Where I live, in the national capital region, I encounter every type of person every day, and often hear languages I can’t identify when walking through the grocery store. I know that the world is a rich and complex tapestry of cultures. The natural friction between those cultures creates conflict and conflict is the basic ingredient of storytelling. I love to exploit it
But beyond that, if you only write about one kind of person you limit yourself as a writer.  I have to stretch when I write about people not like myself. When I wrote my first gay character, in COLLATERAL DAMAGE, I had to force myself to think like that character, to get his voice, his mannerisms, and his feelings right. I also learned how my other characters felt about him. In some cases that wasn’t a very flattering view of them, but I had to keep it real. So I learned more about my other characters, and got a view of what that character (and his real-life counterparts) faced on a daily basis. Writing people not like myself has certainly deepened my ability to create realistic characters.
Finally, I will admit to a cultural motivation. Readers like to see people like themselves. So authors who write about only black characters can count on African American readers, but they face a challenge reaching a broader audience.  I want to reach a broader, more universal readership. And if I do it right, I might just help some of those readers better understand the characters who are not like the people they spend most of their time with. Because the most important thing you learn - as a man writing female characters, or an African American writing whites, or even a Democrat writing about Republicans – is that humans have a lot more commonalities than differences. While I never preach, and never let that fact get in the way of the plot, I’ll admit that subtext does give me a good feeling.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

A Wonderful Book Club Experience

Yesterday I had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours with the members of the Wisdom Seekers club. The group meets once a month to discuss a book they all have read. This month they selected Beyond Blue, and invited me to take part in their discussion of the book.
I met Yvonne Kinney at the Black Authors and Readers Rock Weekend, an event designed to draw book clubs together. Generally these groups are all female, mostly mature ladies who love reading so much it provides a regular part of their social life.  If they like a book they’ll talk it up and can be the basis of an author’s platform. After hearing me speak became interested in my books. I mentioned that I enjoy meeting with book clubs so after reading one of my novels she emailed me through my web site. I was happy to accept her invitation to a meeting.
Book club meetings generally have a set protocol. They generally begin with a fine shared meal. In this case an assortment of Chinese food was laid out. Nothing relaxes and bonds people like sharing a good meal.
Then we moved to the meat of the meeting, an experience every fiction author should try to have. After expressing how much they enjoyed Beyond Blue the ladies spoke, very clearly, about what it was about the book they liked. They discussed which characters were their favorites, what about my writing style appealed to them, and what story points stood out. Not only was it clear that they got the subtext of every storyline as I intended, but they linked the events in the book to real-life current events in a way that even enriched the novel for me. They read meaning into some situations that I was not conscious of putting there, and made recommendations about the future of many of the characters.
One of the coolest parts of all this was the way the conversation freely flowed. Often one club member would ask a question and before I could respond another member would give their perspective of the answer. The fact that one member had a SWAT team member in her family and another was related to an undercover cop deepened their understanding of the material. And it was gratifying to know there were other people out there who still support good cops and understand how challenging their lives can be. One of the ladies actually said, “There should be a Beyond Blue agency in every city.”

An hour flew by, after which we took photos, and I offered Ms. Kinney a Beyond Blue tee shirt in thanks for inviting me. A few of the ladies purchased other books of mine (glad I always have some with me) and we had dessert. Then I said my goodbyes while the club eased into their business part of the meeting. I did overhear that they designate a part of their dues to literacy charities. Fine ladies, these. I’m proud to know them and look forward to visiting them and other book clubs in the future.  

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Price is Right

As a publisher I have to make any number of decisions that authors don’t have to consider, unless of course they’re self-publishing.  One of those decisions is product price.
Every author invests hundreds of hours of sweat into creating a novel. Every novelist (myself included) believes his books deserve to sell far more copies than they do. And most of us believe our hard work, inspiration and talent are worth far more than the cover price on our book suggests. I think that explains why so many books I see on Amazon, especially ebooks, are so costly. Unfortunately for them, book buyers are very price sensitive, so a price that’s even a little too high could kill their sales.
Remember the battle Hachette got into with Amazon over pricing? Amazon was trying to force the publisher to lower its ebook prices. Like other major publishers, Hachette was trying to sell ebooks at a price almost as high as their paper books. I have to believe that cuts down on sales.
So how do you find the right price? We start by checking out the competition. After looking at a lot of fiction ebooks for the Kindle we decided that $2.99 was the best choice. If your ebook is one of the genres we publish and it’s around our usual page count but costs more, well, thank you. People who see your promotion may well decide they want that kind of book. But when they see your price they may also decide to get one of ours instead.
It’s just as important for print books to be priced close to their competitor books if you want strong sales. It’s a bit more of a challenge because hardcovers are very expensive to make, and other things like paper choice and the number of pictures, can impact cost. To keep the price of your book in the ballpark of others like it you might need to be flexible about the number of photos or pictures. And you might need to give up hard cover production and stick to paperbacks in the most economical size. 
If you really want your book to be more expensive, and still sell, there’s only one way. Again, check the prices of other books and you’ll see that those that are both successful land higher priced are by authors whose names you recognize, authors whose fans will buy their books without looking at the price. To raise your price without lowering your sales you’ll need to build a platform as substantial as those authors. When you have enough fans who will buy a book with your name on it, without caring about a couple more dollars, THEN you can raise your cover price.
Can you get there? Maybe, if you build your fan base. So increase your email list. Get lots more reviews! Make contacts at appear at conferences.

But keep your cover price low while you are still an unknown quantity to most readers. When more people know that your books are a sure thing, price will no longer be an issue.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween – A Writer’s Worst Nightmare

Many writers I know use various holidays as inspiration for their writing. I’ve written Christmas-themed stories, and stories inspired by what the New Year brings or why Veterans Day is important. But Halloween is the worst holiday for me and I think lots of other fiction writers, just because of who and what we are.

For most people Halloween is a time of make-believe. We laugh and make fun of what’s frightening, and dress up as other people (or things.) It’s all in fun and nobody takes it seriously. Except…

Some of us are cursed with too much imagination. Writers really can imagine those pranks being real - those demons might actually be there. A stroll thru a graveyard might make most of you giggle nervously. For some of us, it could be a truly horror-inducing experience. That’s because we can’t help but imagine an real encounter with the undead, or a ghost, or a serial killer.

So if your traditions on this night include telling scary stories in the shadows – playing scary pranks – or watching The Exorcist with special effects added – you might want to leave your author friends out. Or maybe just me.

BUT if you want to READ something appropriate for this holiday, I can recommend some writers who will be at the Creatures, Crimes & Creativity Con next year:

Start with Alexandra Sokoloff: THE HARROWING was nominated for both a Bram Stoker award (horror) and an Anthony award (mystery), for Best First Novel. THE PRICE explores troubling questions of what people will do for love, or personal survival, in the eerie setting of a Boston hospital. THE UNSEEN centers on a team of psychology researchers who decide to replicate a long-buried poltergeist investigation. In BOOK OF SHADOWS a Boston homicide detective must join forces with a beautiful, mysterious witch from Salem in a race to solve a Satanic killing.

Then move to Cerece Rennie Murphy: lovers of the paranormal will enjoy her bestselling Order of the Seers trilogy  - a harrowing tale of people who can see the future.

Even Donna Andrews, known for her humorous mysteries, can give you a chill in her Turing Hopper series, about an artificial intelligence that actually solves murders. Creepy, right?

So pull up a good book, put on your mask and enjoy Halloween, even if it IS the holiday that makes me want to stay inside with all the lights on. 

Monday, October 26, 2015


So here I am again. I’m within a week of the release of my next mystery novel, THE PYRAMID DECEPTION, and I’m wondering as I always do at this point, if anyone wants to read the book badly enough to pay for it.

With each release I experiment with the marketing. I sent my previous Hannibal Jones novel to a ton of writers and ended up with a long list of big-name blurbs. That tactic didn’t move the needle on sales. I also recruited a street team, but that cost me more free books than it sold. I did still send off review copies to lots of reviewers.

This time I’ve posted several samples on my Facebook page -  – and worked Twitter more. I made my cover reveal an event. And I posted an interview of Hannibal so people could get to know him.

I introduced the new book to the book club crowd at the recent authors and readers weekend. I offered it at a reduced price and sold quite a few copies. I’ve made sure it’s available at Barnes & Noble and offered it to several private bookstores. And I put the ebook version up for pre-order on Amazon.  But mostly I rely on word of mouth to spur early sales. I can only hope that fans of the Hannibal Jones mystery series really are eager for more.

Of course, I can’t focus on my book release the way most authors can. As a publisher I must divide my focus. I cannot slight the new acquisitions we are shepherding into publication, or our upcoming Young Adventurers anthology release, or the effort to secure keynote speakers and guest authors for next year’s Creatures, Crimes & Creativity Con. So my novel may not get the flashy opening our other releases get.

Still I hold the thought every author holds less than a week from his book’s official birth. What else can I do? What last minute task have I overlooked or forgotten that could make a difference to the success of this novel?

Monday, October 19, 2015

Why Black Authors and Readers Rock

The event I attended this last weekend - The Black Authors & Writers Rock Weekend - was one of those reader-oriented parties I try to be part of every year. The concept is as simple as it is beautiful: bring a number of book club members together with several authors so that they can get to know one another. Sharon Lucas, the lady brave and ambitious enough to execute that concept has wisely broken it into two parts. On Friday evening she offers a cash bar and hor d’oeuvres to the roomful of avid readers and has the authors present in a fairly formal way. This year I was lucky enough to be on a panel, “Men of Literature” with five other successful writers who are book club favorites:  Dwayne Alexander Smith, EarlSewell, Brian W. Smith, RM Johnson, and Curtis Bunn. Their work deserves your attention.

Then Saturday 40 or so authors gathered for an all-day book fair, during which attendees enjoyed panels in other rooms. With lunch we got a nice keynote address from Dwayne Alexander Smith, author of 40 ACRES. It turned out to be a great place to introduce my newest novel, and I signed quite a few for the roomful of appreciative avid readers.

Everything I’ve said above would be great for any kind of reader oriented literary con. But why do we need a BLACK authors and readers weekend? When you pick up a mystery or romance novel do you really care what the author looks like? Well, we can debate whether or not anyone should, but the truth is, some people do. Some readers prefer to read books by people who are part of their own culture. This event had attendees from at least eight book clubs, all of whom were African American women. The clubs were as much social groups as literary groups and much of their reading is about Black culture in the 21st century.

It is also true that some authors don’t want to speak to a general audience. Personally, I think this is a mistake that limits an author’s progress, but some of the writers at this event have proven that targeting an audience and giving them what they want is one path to a certain level of success.

Another truth: books aimed at the African American reader rarely get the display space and attention in bookstores that others get. Worse yet, all such books are often lumped together and displayed with “street lit.” Trust me, none of the authors at last weekend’s event were writing about thugs, drug dealers or hookers.

So to an extent it is a vicious circle. Authors who don’t expect fair treatment in bookstores rely on these book clubs to get the word out about their work, and the word-of-mouth support of these book clubs really can make an author a success.

So I will continue to attend Bouchercon and Thrillerfest, but I will also make sure I get to the Black Authors and Readers Rock weekend. Because it lets me reach an important audience who are not represented at the mainstream Cons. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Bouchercon Afterthoughts

Bouchercon isn’t just a mystery fan conference. It’s an experience like no other. It absorbs two large hotels. Programming fills four days. And with 1500 attendees it can give you Disney World flashbacks when you’re lined up for a popular panel or to get a book signed.

Many writers’ Cons are designed for writers to learn and network. At Bouchercon fans outnumber writers 4 to 1. Of course, most of us writers are fans too. I still can’t get used to having Heather Graham, John Gilstrap and Alifair Burke call me by name.  I still get a little tongue-tied when I get to chat with Karen Slaughter, Kathy Reichs and Alexandra Sokoloff. Those are the best moments of the event.

The hour-long panels can overwhelm you, not so much because of the content but because there are so many choices. Seven different panels at any one time and all sound so interesting.  How do you choose between “Just the facts: T
Police Procedural,” “The Private Sector: Professional Investigations” and “Crime Mystery and the Far East?”  (Actually I bypassed them all to see a panel called “Beyond Hammett, Chandler, MacDonald & Spillane” which featured my pal Peter Rozovsky, plus Kevin Burton Smith and Laura Lippman.)

And then there were the awards. The Anthony Award is voted on by the Bouchercon attendees and most of the nominees attend. It’s fun to see who’s book is the most popular in 5 different categories. This year was a special kick as my friend Art Taylor won for best short story.

Of course, some of the best moments of the Con take place in the bar after the panels and ceremonies are over. The hotel bar was way too noisy but they did have some interesting specials. I had something called The Red Death and I have no idea what was in it but it sure did the trick. Blood Spatter was less sweet but I swear it had even more alcohol.

Meanwhile I, and the other 2 principals of Intrigue Publishing, were hunting keynote speakers and guests for next year’s Creatures, Crimes and Creativity Con. Networking galore took place, and I’ll let you know how successful we were in a later blog.

So? What were YOUR most memorable moments at Bouchercon? 

Monday, October 5, 2015

Life Between the Cons

The Creatures, Crimes & Creativity (C3) Con is over but that doesn't mean the work is over. In the military we called the next step a hot wash. It's that meeting where you go over everything you did during an operation, critique your actions and the results, and make decisions about what you could do better next time. Which panels were hits and which were misses? How should those panels run? (It's clear now that panels do need moderators.) What started too soon, or ran too late? Were the name tags the right size? How was the food? There are so many details involved in making a 3-day Con happen.

Once the decision was made to do it again next year, we had to confirm a venue, and dates. We're on the hunt for keynote speakers and local guests. We have panels to choose and a menu to put together. Not to mention all the work involved in turning last year's web site into this year's web site. We even decided to set up a Facebook page to make it easier for people to give us suggestions and keep up with Con happenings thru the year.

This year there are only ten days between the Con Intrigue Publishing puts on and one that we all attend - Bouchercon. That involves preperation too. Thursday through Sunday we'll be fishing for C3 keynote speakers and attendees among the 1,000 authors, fans, publishers, reviewers, booksellers and editors who will be in Raleigh NC for that 4-day event. We must go over the schedule to figure out which panels we'll get the most out of (7 at a time over 4 day!) Plus I'm on a panel Friday. It's called "Research: Alcohol, Drugs, Weapons & the Psychology of the Insane." As you might guess, that calls for a little research itself, so more prep.

Plus, I'm promoting my novel that willt be released next month, Intrigue's anthology that will be released in December, rewriting my next novel, and there's the usual day-to-day business of running a publishing company.

So it's a very full life in between the two Cons. But I'm not complaining. It's like the working space between two great vacations!   

Saturday, September 19, 2015

One Week Before the Creatures, Crimes & Creativity Con

For me, publishing and even writing take a back seat for the next week while we gear up to present The Creatures, Crimes & Creativity Con is a great chance to spend a weekend with fans and authors of mystery, suspense, thriller, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and paranormal fiction. For some of us, that’s enough to prompt us to attend, but for you others I’ll count down a dozen more good reasons.
the Mid-Atlantic's coolest literary event of the year.

Reason #1 to register for the Creatures, Crimes & Creativity con today: HEATHER GRAHAM! The ITW’s 2016 Thrillmaster and author of more than 150 novels and novellas gives the keynote address at Saturday dinner.  Later she’ll also give a discussion later, explaining how she has managed to balance real life with her wildly successful writing career.
Reason #2 to register for the C3 Con: F. PAUL WILSON will give Friday night’s keynote talk. This NY Times bestseller and creator of the Repairman Jack series has written horror, thrillers, mysteries, science fiction, Young Adult stories and a few works that defy categorization. In a class at the C3 Con he’ll shares how he is able to shift genre, what he has to do differently, and how he decides what he’s writing next.

Reason #3 to register: ANDY STRAKA: Six books into his Frank Pavlicek series, he continues to present a Private Eye who is at once traditional and totally unique. I’ll interview him at Saturday lunch and in a separate class he’ll explain the ins-and-outs of writing detective fiction, and how he decides when to stick with the conventions of his sub-genre and when to throw them out the window.

Reason #4: S.D. SKYE: a former Intelligence Operations Specialist/Analyst in the FBI's counterintelligence program, senior intelligence analyst with the DIA, Coast Guard Intelligence, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. She’ll be interviewed at Sunday breakfast, then she’ll give a class telling fellow authors how to write realistically about intelligence and law enforcement – and telling readers how to spot when a writer is just making it up.

Reason #5: John French (crime scene supervisor with the Baltimore Police Department Crime Laboratory) and Dana Kollmann (C.S.I. for the Baltimore County Police Department) will give a team presentation on their expertise and take questions... no matter how weird.

Reason #6: Enjoy 28 panels and presentations of interest to readers, fans and writers.

Reason #7: One lucky attendee will win a new Kindle Fire in our Twitter contest for the most tweets using our hashtag #MdC3Con.

Reason #8: The registration fee includes five meals: Friday’s dinner, 3 meals Saturday and Sunday breakfast. Readers and writers dine side-by-side! (ask those questions you’ve always wanted to ask!)

Reason #9: Every attendee receives a goody bag that contains, among other cool stuff, a copy of this year’s C3 Anthology, our annual collectors’ item collection of short stories contributed by authors in attendance.

Reason #10: authors get to spend time with their fans, and to expose new readers to their writing by presenting on panels.

Reason #11: Registered authors’ books will be available in the on-site bookstore and there will be two giant book signings.

Reason :12: All attending authors are posted on the C3 web site and will be pictured in the C3 program

AND IF YOU DON’T WANT TO REGISTER you can still meet all the authors and get signed novels at the Mid-Atlantic’s biggest book signings. The Creatures, Crimes & Creativity Con hosts two book signing events – both free and open to the public. Get novels signed by Heather Graham, F. Paul Wilson, and 30+ other authors. Grow your collection of mystery, thriller, suspense, horror, sci-fi, fantasy and paranormal fiction with signed copies. That’s Friday and Saturday from 5pm to 6pm

It all happens at the Hunt Valley Inn, 245 Shawan Rd, Hunt Valley, MD. Want more details? They’re all on the C3 website –

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Loss of a Legend

The literary world lost more than a great creative mind when Warren Murphy left this world Friday morning. You can read his bio elsewhere, and learn of his exciting life as a journalist, journeyman writer, creator of iconic characters and effectively the originator of a whole fictional subgenre that served as a bridge between pulp magazine stories and today’s thrillers. For me the loss is far more personal. For me, Warren Murphy was a friend, a mentor, briefly a co-writer, and one of the finest gentlemen I’ve had the privilege to know.

I first met Warren at Book Expo America in 2002. I was there with my first novel, Blood and Bone published with a fledgling Print-On-Demand company. I recognized the creator of The Destroyer series I had loved in college. He didn’t just stop and say hello. He posed for a photo with me and accepted a copy of my novel. Of course he said he’d read it, and of course since I didn’t really know him yet I was skeptical. You can’t imagine my joy when I received a blurb form him!

      "Blood and Bone is a hair-raising roller coaster ride of a story, and Hannibal Jones bursts into the        world of the fictional private eye like a pack of high explosives. I can't wait to see him in action          again." - 
        Warren Murphy, two-time Edgar award winner and creator of The Destroyer adventure series.

That year I was elected president of the Maryland Writers Association and was eager to hold a spectacular writers conference. I was a little nervous asking Warren if he’d come talk to an auditorium full of aspiring writers but he was very gracious and not only accepted my invitation, but gave one of the most inspiring keynote addresses I’ve ever heard, before or since.

As we drove him back to his hotel, Warren hit me with this idea he had… a detective agency staffed with quirky characters that all looked just a bit like Warren’s own non-Destroyer collection of characters, all dedicated to helping police in trouble. This agency would be driven by the events of 9/11 and the title he had in mind was Beyond Blue. I was naturally stunned when the great man proposed that we write this book together.

My next great memory of Warren was the Love is Murder conference in Chicago the following year. Imagine sitting at a bar with my wife, telling people I was writing a book with Warren Murphy. And I  kept one photo with him there. I'm standing with a veritable pantheon of thriller gods: David Morrell, Warren, Barry Eisler and William Kent Kruger.

More importantly: We all sat at an art auction that was part of the con. A particular painting caught our eyes, but we were in no position at that time to participate.  Days later
that painting arrived at our home with a card calling it a gift to “the bride,” which was what Warren always called my wife. More than a decade later, that painting still hangs in our dining room, an enduring reminder of this kind, witty, talented gentleman who passed thru our lives.

Of course much has happened since then. Warren battled ill health and turned the Beyond Blue project over to me to complete. He returned to writing when he could. He never stopped dreaming or spinning his dreams into adventures we could all share.

It is easy for me to imagine him up in the clouds chatting with his predecessors and peers. That poker table would surely include Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Verne. They might let Ian Fleming sit in.

We are poorer for his passing, but I can say that my life was greatly enriched for having known him.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The First Hannibal Jones Interview

On the run up to the release of the next Hannibal Jones mystery I thought new readers might appreciate a chance to get to know the detective a bit better. So I'm posting here the first time Hannibal agreed to be interviewed by a reporter. He introduces that interview in his own words:

I don’t generally like being in the spotlight. I guess the Secret Service taught me it’s better to keep a low profile.

But I’m not with them anymore, and this reporter Irma Andrews helped me unravel a series of murders that caused a lot of collateral damage among the families of the victims. So when Irma asked for an interview I didn’t see how I could say no. Despite my girl Cindy’s prompting I refused to do a TV piece. Appearing in print is bad enough. At least Irma didn’t misquote me, but I think she left out some stuff that makes the whole thing a little misleading. Anyway, here’s the way the piece ran:

I met with private investigator Hannibal Jones in his office in the Anacostia section of Washington. He offered me an excellent cup of coffee, which he said was made from Costa Rican beans, and sat at his desk with sunlight pouring in through large front windows. The office was small and Spartan, sparely furnished but warm and bright. Significantly, while I took notes during the interview, so did Mr. Jones.

Irma Andrews: Thank you for speaking with me today. You are listed as a private investigator but your card describes you as a troubleshooter. How would you describe what you do, and why is it different from what most P.I.’s do?

Hannibal Jones: Most private investigators do employment vetting, matrimonial and divorce work, insurance claims and that kind of stuff. My work is a lot more focused. My clientele is individuals, not corporations. I work with people who are in trouble and don’t know where to get help.

IA: But you do bodyguard work.

HJ: Sometimes.

IA: And solve mysteries like any detective.

HJ: On occasion.

IA: And if a person has been threatened?

HJ: Look, I do whatever’s necessary to help somebody who’s gotten themselves into a jam. I don’t think much about what that might be, going in.

IA: What qualifies you to do this sort of work? What is your professional background?

HJ: As soon as I was old enough I moved to the States and joined the New York City police force.

IA: You weren’t born in the United States?

HJ: No. I was raised in Germany. My dad was an MP in the army. My mom was a German national. We lost Dad in Vietnam. Anyway, I came to the U.S. to be a cop and I was going to bring Mama over as soon as I was settled but she passed.

IA: While you were away.

HJ: (pause.) Yes. While I was away.

IA: I’m sorry. So, you became a policeman…

HJ: Three years on the force to make detective J.G. Then three more as a detective. Then I passed the Secret Service entry exam. I spent seven years as a special agent for the Treasury Department, in the protective service.

IA: But after seven years, you resigned.

HJ: Yeah, well, stuff happened. I should have been one of the uniforms instead of going to the protective service. You see, in the protective service they expect you to not only protect your principal’s life, but his reputation too. I didn’t think my duty should included covering up a politician’s stupid actions. My boss disagreed.

IA: Any politician in particular?

HJ: Not going to go there.

IA: A national figure? Executive branch or…

HJ: I’m not going to go there.

IA: All right. So you had friction with your supervisor. For that you resigned?

HJ: Yeah. Well, after I knocked him on his ass the service was good enough to let me resign.

IA: Should I print that?

HJ: Why not. It’s what happened. They were actually pretty nice about it. Could have stopped me from getting the P.I license you know.

IA: So why this whole troubleshooter concept? How did you get into this business?

HJ: I guess in a way I did it for Mama. She always wanted me to follow my dad’s example. He was always there for people, always looking out for the little guy. Here in Washington, it seemed like there was an overabundance of little guys that needed looking out for.

IA: How do you get enough clients?

HJ: It was slow at first, but word of mouth is a powerful force in the hood. I did a couple of jobs pro bono - kept a couple of kids from being approached by drug dealers. After that people started to find me when they had problems.

IA: So your neighbors are your clients?

HJ: My clients are people with problems bigger than they are. Naturally that happens more often to people without big money.

IA: I know you’ve also had more affluent clients.

HJ: Well, I do get referrals from old Secret Service contacts. And I get business referred to me by the attorney I introduced you to, Cindy Santiago, my, um, friend.

IA: So you do have entrees into a higher financial stratum, but the well-to-do don’t come to Anacostia. Why have your office here?

HJ: That’s a bit of a story. This building used to be a crack house, believe it or not. I was hired to clear the bad element out of here for the owner. In the process I kind of bonded with the neighborhood. I felt at home here, and I knew if I stayed, the bad element wouldn’t be back. I guess the owner knew it too. He made me a very attractive offer to stay.

IA: Why not join a larger detective agency?

HJ: I like deciding who I’ll take as a client, and what kind of job I’ll do.

IA: What kind of job will you do?

HJ: All kinds. Well, no matrimonial stuff, or spying on people waiting for them to do wrong. But I do personal protection, missing persons, sometimes get hired to prove an accused person innocent. I’ll chase a bad element away like I did here, keep drug dealers away from kids or a pimp away from a hooker who wants to quit. Negotiate with loan sharks. Basically, if you have to deal with the bad guys and don’t want the police involved, I’ll usually handle it.

IA: You carry a pistol. What do you think of gun control laws?

HJ: Good gun control means being able to hit the target. Anybody who wants a gun can get one, so restrictive laws only keep people who obey the law unarmed and unable to defend themselves.

IA: But isn’t it too dangerous for everyone to be able to have a gun?

HJ: Based on statistics, it’s too dangerous for everyone to be able to have a car. Maybe guns should be more like cars. You get a license to carry at 18, after passing a mandatory training course.

IA: Interesting. How would you describe your relationship with the police?

HJ: I’d call it mutual grudging respect. I don’t mess with them. They don’t mess with me.

IA: How would you describe your personal relationship with Cindy Santiago?

HJ: I would describe it as personal.

IA: What have you learned doing this?

HJ: I’ve learned that most people are sheep. They’re not looking for trouble and they’ll do the right thing if you let them. A few people are wolves. They prey on the sheep, and they’re going to do wrong no matter what you do. They need to be shut out or put down hard.

IA: And you? Where do you fit in?

HJ: Me? I guess I’m the sheepdog.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Book Signing - Be Active

Last week we talked mostly about how to set up a book signing. But what do you do when you finally get there?

Well here’s the number one thing NOT to do: Don’t just sit there. A surprising number of people are uncomfortable about walking up to an author and talking to them. So if you want your event to be a success, stand up and talk to people. Say hello to everyone who passes by. If they speak, or stop, or even make eye contact, continue the conversation. Ask if they like the kind of book you write. Tell them you’re an author – you’d be surprised how many people will see you at a table behind a stack of books and not make the connection that you are a writer. A sign on your table with your name and the words “author signing” can help, but don’t count on the bookstore to supply one.

It’s also a good idea to have something to put in people’s hands. Bookmarks are good. Post cards are good. Flyers are better. People who walk right past you might read the exciting copy (like what I hope is on your back cover) and stop back to chat with you on their way out of the store. Because I write series novels, I have a trifold with the covers and a short blurb about each of my novels. Sometimes people circle back to my table after wandering all around the bookstore, point at one of the covers in the trifold and just say, “I want this one.”

For those that do stop to chat, have your elevator pitch ready. Your one-minute talk should deliver the who-what-when-where, and most important, why someone should want to buy your book. Something like this for my next novel:

“I write mysteries. Hannibal Jones – the star of my mystery series - is an African American private eye based in Washington DC. In my newest novel, PYRAMID DECEPTION, he takes on the most important client of his life: his own girlfriend. She gets taken in a scam so he’s trying to get her money back. When Hannibal finally tracks down a lead he goes to question the woman, but she gets gunned down right in front of him in a drive by shooting. Then her body disappears and Hannibal is the top suspect. So he’s got to clear his name, recover his girl’s money AND solve a murder. It’s a mystery that will keep you guessing right to the end. And I’d be happy to sign one for you.”

It’s less than a minute and leads directly to a yes or no.

More book signing tips next week.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Book Signing - Make it Special

A couple of weeks ago I did a book signing at the nearby Barnes and Noble in Bowie MD with my label-mate DB Corey (Yes, they still have signed copies of our novels. Hint! Hint!) I always enjoy these events. I won’t deny the importance of social media, but for me nothing matches the face-to-face connection I make when I’m talking to people about my novels in person. As cool as it was, my mind has wandered since then, mulling over what could have made that good experience better. A lot of ideas have come to mind, so I figured I’d share.

Of course, it’s hard enough to even GET a book signing. There are fewer bookstores every day, and many of those that remain have no interest in doing author events. Various Barnes and Nobles stores have given me a broad variety of reasons they don’t do signings and they all say it’s “company policy.” I believe the real reason is the manager doubts any writer they never heard of will bring new people into the store. After all, if someone comes in and buys your book instead of another one they would have bought, the store hasn’t gained anything. You’d need to sell a book to someone who would have bought nothing or sell a book in addition to another they wanted. In other words, the manager has to believe you’ll bring your own crowd.

So, when you talk to a bookstore manager (or in the case of Barnes and Noble, the Community Relations Managers) be sure to tell them that you will promote your book signing aggressively through regional media and your  local mailing (you do have one, don’t you?)  And assure them you haven’t done another signing within an hour’s drive of their store. That way they know you won’t burn out your local market before you get to their store.

The store I most recently signed in only does multi-author events and I see nothing wrong with that. More writers usually mean more publicity. But to make the best of it, have some actual activities planned. Want to do a reading? Give a talk? (I plan to do my “why people love mysteries” presentation next time) or offer a workshop? Each author can offer something different and in the meantime the others are available to sign books.

So much for what to offer the bookstore. Next week I’ll talk about what to do when you get there.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Pre-Release Marketing My Novel

If you visit here regularly you already know that my next novel, PYRAMID DECEPTION will be released November first. If you’re wondering why I’d be talking about it now, you might be missing out on an important part of getting your books noticed. Promotion for your novel needs to start long before anyone can buy it.

Most of this pre-pub promotion is fun for me. The one part that is not is the very first step. Major reviewers want their Advance Reader Copies 120 days before the release date. That means that review copies went into the mail before July 1. Luckily I have a small press behind me so someone else does the really hard work – build a list, address envelopes, haul books to the post office – but it will be well worth it when the guys at Publisher’s Weekly finally wise up and review one of my novels. So far my biggest successes in this arena have been Library Journal and the local papers.  But I remain optimistic.

Everything else is getting the attention of actual readers and building anticipation. That starts 3 months out. I kick it all off with a cover reveal on Facebook and my web site. Then I leak the story ideas and synopsis. I’m purposely stingy with details because, just like when they’re reading a mystery novel, fans enjoy the suspense.

In September I’ll get help from the characters. I’ll post interviews of Hannibal and his supporting cast. I might let the characters give some more hints as to what the book is all about. All this time I’m also chatting with book stores about staging events around the November release. I’m also bugging bloggers about visiting their pages at release time. Guest blogs are pretty easy – the cover, synopsis, a sample chapter and/or one of the interviews I’ve already created will generally do the job.

I wait until the month before release to start sharing sample chapters. I post these on my web site and leave links on Twitter and Facebook to draw people in. I also plant those links on LinkedIn in the writer and reader groups I’ve joined. Asking other writers’ opinion of your samples can be exciting or humbling, but either way it does get engagement.

If pre-publication marketing interests you, stay tuned. In December Intrigue Publishing will release its first anthology and, trust me, promoting a book when you don’t have an author’s brand as your basis is a whole ‘nother thing. But it might turn out to be even more fun!  

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Elements of Mystery II

Last week I listed some of the essential elements of a mystery story and asked what you thought was missing. I got quite a bit of feedback and, luckily, all the suggestions do appear in my upcoming novel, PYRAMID DECEPTION. Here are the elements I didn’t discuss last time.

It’s not really a mystery without clues embedded in the story. It’s best to mix them up between material, behavioral and informational clues. Physical clues can be hidden in the setting or the crime scene. Clues can be detected from interactions with the suspects. The best clues are both subtle and clever. But don’t make the mistake of dropping too many clues. If they’re really clues that makes the solution too easy. If there are a lot of false clues readers will resent the artless misdirection.

Readers appreciate the weapon or means of killing, so a physical description of the “how” (how the victim was killed or how the missing item was stolen) is essential. This offers a great opportunity to embed clues so don’t skimp on the description.

I list tension as an essential element because stories without it are boring. There needs to be dissent between the characters, especially between the suspects and your detective. It’s just not realistic for the suspects to happily comply with the sleuth. Detection is more fun to watch if each clue is hard won.

And there must be misdirection, or at least serious distractions. This is where a writer gets into the art of mystery writing. False clues should be woven in with real clues, or tied to a sub plot. They can’t be used gratuitously. Readers will consider that a waste of their time.

Finally, every mystery must have a logical resolution. For your mystery to be satisfying, you must play fair with your readers. They must see all the clues necessary to solve the puzzle, even if they are cleverly hidden. You must not simply pull the solution out of the ether. The readers must have been able to both follow the path and feel that they could have – and SHOULD have – predicted the ending.

For many mystery writers these elements arise automatically as they create their stories. But don’t trust to luck. If you are a plotter, like me, you should make sure all ten of the essential elements are in your story before you begin to actually write. On the other hand, if you are the kind of writer who flies by the seat of his pants you will need to stay aware as you proceed, and not miss the opportunities to include these elements.

NOW… are there other essential elements you feel a mystery needs? Let me know.     

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Essential Elements of Mystery Fiction

Saturday I was lucky enough to participate in the Virginia Writer’s Club annual symposium.  A big part of the fun was teaming up with fellow mystery author Rosie Shomaker to deliver a workshop called “Writing Mysteries: the Why, What and How of it.”

After giving our class a clear definition of the mystery story, and spending some time explaining why writers should choose to create mysteries, we enumerated what we think are the ten essential elements of a mystery story with some do’s and don’ts. I thought you might like to know them too.

First, of course, you must have a mystery. There must be a secret, something missing or an unsolved crime. And of course there has to be a victim. Most important here is to explain the damage and the stakes. In other words, who was harmed, killed or put in danger? And the stakes need to be high, otherwise readers won’t care.

Next you need an investigator. Please don’t use some random, passer-by as your sleuth. He or she needs to have a vested interest in solving the crime.

You’re going to need some suspects. The guilty party should be among them, and you need to introduce this person early. When you bring the real villain in late the detective’s examination of earlier suspects feels like a waste of the reader’s time. And, while we need a selection to choose from, you shouldn’t have too many suspects. Agatha Christie’s “little Indians” aside, ten is too many.

The setting is a necessary element of a good mystery. Be specific about where your mystery is happening and make that setting three-dimensional, that is, describe it with all your senses. Mysteries take us where we want to go, or sometimes they just show you the places you already know.  My detective, Hannibal Jones, lives and works in Washington.  He shares the city with James Patterson’s Alex Cross and George Pelecanos’ Derek Strange.  Of course Laura Lippman’s Tess Monahan rules Baltimore, Robert B. Parker's Spencer owns Boston, and Paula Woods redefines L.A. urban noir with Charlotte Justice. Janet Evanovich takes a rather satirical look at New Jersey. And Alexander McCall Smith’s books about the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency are set in Botswana.

And of course your mystery must have actual detection. Your sleuth has to examine, investigate, and interview those suspects to build their motive, means and opportunity. The detective must ferret out both physical and relational facts and connections. Don’t let your protagonist luck into the information he or she needs. Likewise, don’t have your sleuth endlessly listening to gossip or hearsay. The information gained from interviews should be validated and compared in order to learn who’s lying.

But we said ten essential elements, didn’t we? I’ll talk about the others next week.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Don't Judge Me for Judging

After assembling my own anthology for publication (Young Adventurers, due for release in December) I thought I was fully ready to help judge a short story contest that would result in an anthology for fellow publisher.  Well… maybe.

Nancy Sakaduski of Cat & Mouse Press invited me to be one of the six judges for this year’s Rehoboth Beach Reads Short Story Contest. I was honored, but still didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. Nancy is tapped into a pretty vital writing community in Delaware, which resulted in more than 130 submissions! When I got my first batch of 40 stories to review I figured I’d blow through them pretty quickly. I just needed to pick my top five choices with no reviews, comments, or explanation required. We were judging the stories based on their creativity, quality of writing, their suitability as a beach read, and how well they fit the beach theme. Eliminations should be easy, right? You know a story’s too weak  by the end of the first page.
The problem is, almost none of them was weak. This was a pretty darn good bunch of stories. I wanted five great reads to float to the surface, but it was more like twenty. I had to get really picky to choose the 5.
But then we all needed to read the entire group of semi-finalists. Six judges,  five stories each.  That means thirty counting my five, but surely there’d be a lot of overlap that would reduce that number, right? Well, not so much. We had 28 semi-finalists to consider. And shoot, almost all of these were really good! Plus there was the apples vs oranges issue: is this really well written romance better or worse than that well written humorous story? Or the thriller? But hard choices had to be made. We each shared our top three choices (although I couldn’t resist mentioning two that were an eyelash away from the top three.)
Finally, we judges met to hash out which of these fine efforts would be declared first, second and third place winners. There was lively discussion but no conflict really. These people were definitely my respected peers and we all made passionate arguments for our favorites. Ultimately we all loved the top stories to some degree so settling on final winners was not that hard. And we each got to give a Judge’s Award to a favorite that didn’t make it into the top three.

It was exhausting but SO rewarding, and I now know several authors I want to pursue for a Intrigue Publishing. If you are an accomplished writer you should look for an opportunity to judge. It’s a wonderful experience.

Monday, July 13, 2015

It's All About the Dialog III

Last month I wrote a bit about dialog, but it was all just mechanics. But remember that good dialog is so important to your fiction because dialog is the best place to reveal your character’s inner self.  It is also the place where you can most easily destroy your character, and your book.  I know you’ve been told that every writer should have his own individual voice.  If you want your characters to become real people, they too should each have an individual voice, and that voice should grow organically out of who that person is.

You must think of every character you create as a real person, as real as you or me.  How you speak is the result where you come from, your age, your ethnic background, your gender, whether you’re a leader or follower, and whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert.  So you need to know all of that and more about every character before he opens his mouth. Your speech is also affected by what groups you have belonged to.  For example, ex-cons and retired soldiers have distinctive speech patterns that are very different.

One final tip on making your dialog fresh and believable.  When you have a conversation written and you think it’s the way it is supposed to be, the final test is done by ear.  Read your dialog aloud.  Say exactly what you wrote, and if you find yourself tempted to change it in the reading, consider changing what is on the page.  If you stumble over an unintentional tongue twister, change that too because people don’t usually say things that are hard for them to say during conversations.  And pay attention to the word choices.  Consider this sentence from a book I was asked to critique: 
“Your sourpuss persona is rubbing off on everyone, including Whimsy.  She’s seven years old and by now you should have adjusted to being a parent—-she deserves more from you.  It’s Christmas, for pity’s sake!”   

Now, if you had written that and then read it aloud, I hope you would ask yourself - would the person who used a phrase like “sourpuss persona” also use a phrase like, “for pity’s sake?” 

The test by ear is the final test of whether you’ve written strong, believable dialog.  I hope these few tips will help you put better words into your characters’ mouths.