Thursday, September 30, 2010

#Rejections & Handling Them @Curl up & Die or Become an Indie Author

An open letter of advice on the topic of Writing is easy, writing is fun, writing is my passion, while the writing business (which I left behind about a year and a half ago-- that is the traditional publishing wherein I genuflect to my publisher and his people for crumbs) is or was extremely hard, no fun, and draining of my passions. Part of the old hearbreak was The Rejection Letter followed closely by the BAD Review.

You stick with it long enough you get to kiss the girl instead of the horse; you stick with writing long enough, rejection and bad reviews roll off your back. To take on rejection and criticism as elements in the WAR is simple, and for goodness sake - consider the source first. Your rejection letter is written by a recent college grad, the only one in the house who has taken any sort of look at the book.

Think of it: If my writing heroes sandbagged me, it would hurt a lot more than if Joe Blow who is workin on his first novel or has not yet gotten started but is thinking about it came down on me for jitters, then the complaining whiner knows JACK about the creative process, whereas Michael Crichton did and Lawrence Block does. If Tess Gerritsen had a word of criticism for me on reading Dead On rather than the lovely blurb she gave the book, I'd be damned hurt indeed (for one thing, I write as well if not better than some! In fact I was writing suspense thrillers when Tess, a dear in real life, was cranking out romance titles for Harlequin not all that long ago and seeking advice from me before she was crowned the next Robin Cook Medical Mystery author.

She's quite the success story, while I am not. My checkered history in publishing reads like a gofer hole blasted out by a shotgun, and it is not a thing I wish to discuss, but TV commentators swoop down on me and demanding interview! Just KIDDING. But that kind of "bozo" alone will you allow to crush your potential? I had a college English prof tell me I would never be published, that I should get out of it altogether, maybe major in Park Ranger Lore. If I had been a lesser man who allows that demon inside his head full sway to say such ALONG WITH: Who the Hell Do You Think You Are that you can sit there and think anyone anywhere would care to read a word you write?). Sorry about the serpentine nature of these sentences, but they had to come out this way in my Rant Style if I am to create discussion.

Here is the deal with this crap called rejecion and bad reviews. Ask yourself what has the "critic" done? Can the critic write your book or even her book or his book? It is no small feat to write a novel?

I lost one of many jobs in the real world, but I tenaciously demanded to know the reason why, and the boss said I had no organization about me, no skills for organizing. I slapped a copy of one of my novels on his desk and said, "You see this published novel? Nothing takes more organization than organizing a novel. You try it sometime."

I take pride in each novel I complete, and my pride grows as a result of each; having done fifty now, that evil voice inside my head and inside the head of every artist on the planet is silenced by the success of doing it (not selling it, not becoming an award-winner, not by becoming a bestseller). The piano metaphore fits right in with my metaphor of shooting baskets. You shoot enough of them, you shoot down the worst critic of all -- yourself...or that part of yourself that is so self-deprecating as to be self-destructive. It is why so many offices of so many shrinks are filled with so many artistic types as they have listened too long to that voice inside. We have the child within, but human nature being what it is, we also have the demon within to contend with. My Dr. Jessica Coran in the Instinct titles is constantly struggling with this dark shadow that crawls up out of her and shares her private moments with her--even in bed alone or rather almost alone.

Rob (who like Twain was born modest, but it wore off...but figure in this, I have had a long time to contend with my demons)
"Dead On takes the reader's capacity for the imagination of horror to stomach turning depths, and then gives it more twists than a Georgia backroad that paves an Indian trail." - Nash Black

Promo Ideas Anyone? by Christine Duncan

Fall seems to get me started in a creative way. I'm usually revved up to write, and promote in the cooler weather. I've been thinking about ways to get promoting and what seems to work--or not.

For one thing, lately I'm wondering who reads blogs. I'm thinking that the audience for this particular blog is writers, but how do you pick a particular writer's blog from the ton of writer's blogs out there. What attracts you?

And how is there word of mouth on blogs? I've read blogs on what blogs to read, but frankly I rarely agree with the writer.

I've thought about getting together a group of e-authors to volunteer at Barnes and Noble to demonstrate their e-reader, The Nook. It seems like a win-win situation for the store and the authors. I recently participated in a discussion on my publisher's e-group and found few authors here in Colorado who are published there. It could be a good place to jumpstart Fall promo.

And I have "traded" with other authors about asking for their books in my library. Sometimes if patrons suggest a book, the library is more apt to buy it.

A friend of mine has that in her signature line: "Ask your library to buy (Booktitle). It's hard to measure how any of these things turn out.

But I'm up for some innovative ideas about promo. Cheap is important. Easy is a must. Anyone have any new and super ideas for book marketing?

Christine Duncan is the author of the Kaye Berreano mystery series. Book two, Safe House is available now

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Writing Basics

By Mark W. Danielson

A recent speaking engagement to a group of aspiring writers took me back to the basics of writing. Upon hearing their introductions, I soon realized these people were members of a critique group who were interested in hearing what published authors had to say.
Some in attendance were writing non-fiction while others were working on fiction. Still others were writing their memoirs. All wanted to know how to find a good editor or a good publisher. My best recommendation was for them to review blogs such as this one that include advice on those and other writing related topics.

Following this meeting, I decided to summarize some basic writing principles for the benefit of anyone who is seeking similar information. I’m hopeful that other authors will chime in with their own recommendations or experiences. Having said that, I’ll proceed with some writing basics.

First and foremost, no one speaks to wanna-be writers better than Stephen King in his book, On Writing. King truly wants writers to benefit from his experience and even offers them an exercise that if you follow precisely, he or a member of his staff will offer their critique. To me, this book is as important as a thesaurus, dictionary, or style guide. If you don’t already own it, buy it. You’ll also learn some interesting things about King.

A key point made by every successful author is that writers must also read. As King bluntly says, if you don’t have time to read, then you don’t have time to write. How can you understand different writing styles if you haven’t read them? I’ve put many books down because I couldn’t force myself to finish them. Since I never want anyone doing that with my own books, I analyze what it was that turned me off in a particular story and learn from it. Conversely, if I like a story, then I try to determine why the pages kept turning.

People frequently tell me they would like to write, but don’t know what to write about. Certainly, everyone has at least one story in them, and that’s the story of their life. One of my fellow pilots just told me about his surviving a plane crash during an air show. He was one of two that survived. The other four died. His story was a remarkable testament about flying and survival. Burned over forty percent of his body, he made a remarkable recovery and was flying again in four months. Since them, he has performed countless blacked out landings with the Air Force in various parts of the world and is currently flying as an airline pilot. No one will ever know about stories like his unless they are spoken or written down. Writing your memoirs is a great way to re-live memories while developing a suitable writing style. The key is to write the story as if you were telling it at a family reunion. Don’t throw in an overabundance of detail for it will slow the pace. Deduct ten points for every unnecessary adjective.

Regardless of what you write about, you must read it out loud during the editing process. Doing so catches the majority of your grammatical errors and also flags bad dialogue. What may look good on paper may not sound believable when read aloud. Whatever you write about, keep it real.

Accuracy is equally important in both fiction and non-fiction because inaccuracies dissolve credibility. In non-fiction, inaccuracies may also warrant libel suits. No author can afford either.

There are plenty other important items worth passing on. Published authors, remember what it was like when you first started. Think about your mentors’ best advice and please offer it generously.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

New Hawaii Five 0

     I don't normally get excited about new television shows, preferring to wait until they become established before tuning them in, but when I learned this summer that a reboot (not a remake) of Hawaii Five-0 was in the works, I got excited.  Now, I have to admit that I saw little of the original series when it first aired (1968-1980). College, graduate school, marriage, Peace Corps, starting a family and return to graduate school didn't leave much time for television. I didn't even own a television before 1982, so I have only seen the original in reruns.
     The original series struck me as a straight-forward police procedural in an exotic setting, but featuring a special unit with extraordinary powers that reported only to the governor. We knew little about the background of the main characters. Their personal stories rarely entered the series.
     Having set my own series in Hawaii, I was anxious to see how this new one measures up to the old one, to other series set in Hawaii such as Magnum and Lost, and to other cop shows.
     The new series re-imagines the classic. The cast of characters are the same, but different. As the show opens, Steve McGarrett is a Navy SEAL commander escorting a prisoner out of South Korea. He receives a call from the prisoner's brother, Victor Hesse, who has taken McGarrett's father hostage and wants to trade father for brother. Before Steve can agree to do anything, the convoy is attacked and the prisoner killed. Victor, in turn, kills McGarrett's father. McGarrett vows to get Victor.
     So right from the start, we have a personal backstory as part of the main plot, albeit a somewhat tired backstory. ("Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.") I even used that backstory in my latest book, that's how tired it is. McGarrett returns to Honolulu, his hometown, to bury his father where he is approached by the Governor with an offer to head up the special police unit. Now, unless I missed something, it is never explained why this assignment was offered to McGarrett. Sure he's a SEAL, but his last mission was a complete failure. He lost his prisoner and most, if not all, of his men. He refuses the call, naturally, as all post-Writer's Journey heroes do.
     The relationship to his father had me confused at first. I was expecting the father to be the Steve McGarrett from the classic series and this series to be taking up where the other left off. However, that's not the case. The father is John McGarrett, The new series is not, in any way, a continuation of the old.
     While looking for clues at his father's house, McGarrett encounters police detective Danny (Danno) Williams who orders him away. Incensed at being told what to do, McGarrett calls the governor on the spot, accepts the job, and receives the authority to investigate his father's murder.  That makes Williams his subordinate and first member of his new team.
     There is continuing friction between McGarrett and Williams, which promises to play throughout the series. Williams brings his own backstory. He is a mainland cop who transferred to Honolulu to be near his daughter who was taken to Honolulu when his ex-wife remarried. This devotion to his daughter is something we can expect to see coming up in future stories. In how many police stories have we seen this happen? There is a certain fish-out-of-water aspect to Williams that we're also certain to see more of. He's from the mainland, unfamiliar with the Island culture, prefers big cities to rural areas, and doesn't like the water.
     McGarrett, himself, is half-in and half-out of the culture. He grew up in the Islands, but he's a haole, a Caucasian, so he's treated with some distrust by the locals, even though he demonstrates an ability to speak pidgin. There is a very funny scene where a local who runs a shave ice stand puts one over on the two haoles, McGarrett and Williams. I think I'll steal it for a later story.
     The next member to be added to the team is Chin Ho Kelly, former star quarterback (The finest quarterback to come out of Kukui High, naturally). Kelly is also a former cop (naturally) who was kicked off of HPD for suspicion of taking bribes (naturally). But he didn't do it (naturally). How do we know? He tells McGarrett he didn't. How do we know McGarrett can trust Kelly? McGarrett's father trusted Kelly. Kelly is a local and his knowledge of the local culture helps McGarrett and Williams track down a man who can lead them to Hesse, but that man is involved in human trafficking, and, to get to him, they need a woman.
     The woman is Kono Kalakaua, Kelly's cousin, played by Grace Park. The  Kono role was a male role in the classic series, making this one of the greatest sex changes since Tootsie. Kono is a former pro surfer  and wet-behind-the-ears graduate of the police academy, who dons a bikini and kicks ass in the finest Charlie's Angels tradition. It may be another Hollywood trope, but this is one I hope I never tire of. Naturally, there is the obligatory scene where Kono goes undercover and has to strip to prove she's not wearing a wire. Some cliche's just keep on giving.
     McGarrett finally meets Hesse, the man who killed his father. They fight on a ship in the harbor and Hesse falls overboard. Is he dead? Hah! The three-blind mice could have seen that coming. McGarrett is left with a box of clues from his father containing a tape recorder and a strange key. This quest is just beginning.
     The pilot of a series has a tough task. It has to tell a compelling story, but it also has to set up the back stories of the characters. In this case it has to provide backstories for four characters that many viewers think they know already, but which they don't really know because this is not a remake of the previous one. The writers and producers can be forgiven for using some cliches and shorthand to get the series rolling. There's plenty to build on. The setting is great. Cameras love Hawaii and the series takes advantage of it. Lest you think it's all green mountains, blue seas and white beaches, however, the producers do a good job of brining in the seamy side of the state.
     Did any of you catch the premiere? What do you think?
Hawaiian-Eye Blog (See a picture of the original Wo Fat.)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Life Getting in the Way of Writing

Recently I wrote a blog about writers writing--something we all need to do. I'd like to write on my work-in-progress for at least three hours every day. Sometimes I can, more often, I'm lucky if I can write a page or two.

This coming week life will certainly get in the way of my regular writing. And it all began last weekend when we headed for San Luis Obispo and the Central Coast Book Festival. As all writers know, we all must spend some time on in-person events where we can interest readers in buying our books.

While I'm there I have a dinner planned with a good writing friend the first night and after the festival, dinner with my publisher. I don't get to see her often, though we're in touch via e-mail (a plus of being with a small publisher), so this will be a treat.

We didn't come home until Monday and as anyone knows who goes on a trip, I came home to mail to be taken care of, phone calls to answer, laundry, etc. When this come out, I'll be grocery shopping.

On Wednesday, I have a meeting with a group that I write a monthly newsletter for. Most of it is done already, but when I get home I'll have to finish it up and get it ready to send out.

I'll take the newsletter to the printers on Thursday (they also do the mailing, I've got the stamped envelopes ready to go) and then on to get my yearly mammogram. When I get home I have to make preparations for the huge pot of chili I'll be making at or family reunion on Saturday--plus pack, etc.

We leave Friday morning for the family reunion and may be taking a great-granddaughter with us (not sure yet.) The reunion is in Barstow CA. Anyone who knows anything about Barstow knows it's in the middle of the Mojave desert the last city before Las Vegas. Why have a reunion there? Because it's right in the middle for my sister's family (they all live in Vegas) and mine (scattered all over Southern and Central California.)

Sis and two female cousins are the elders of the crowd. We have kids, grandkids and great grands who attend with the youngest around two. Two granddaughters and a niece are in charge, and everyone is kept busy when they aren't just visiting, and it's really fun. I do bring my latest books for anyone who might be so inclined to buy one. But no, I don't get any writing done.

It is a good time to observe characters though--we have many in our family. We don't have any fighting, thank goodness, the ones who don't get along well with others don't come.

Often, while on long drives I do some brainstorming with hubby about what's going on in whatever book I'm writing and I always have a notebook to jot down ideas--but that's about as close to writing as I get on these trips.

One this month is over, I'll have some writing time until Bouchercon.

I know I'm not unique--life always elbows it's way into our plans for writing.

Marilyn Meredith

Monday, September 20, 2010

Does What an Author Looks Like Make a Difference? by Morgan Mandel

Just wondered -
Does What an Author Looks Like Make a Difference? If you flipped over a book to the back cover and didn't like the author's picture, would you put the book down and not buy it?

When I have extra time, I watch Great American Country, where I can see what the song artists actually look like. Sometimes the sight doesn't jive with my mental picture of whom the voice should belong to, and I wish I hadn't seen the artist. When that happens, I try to ignore the looks and remind myself it's the song that counts. It's not alway easy to do that.

I know lots of authors go to great lengths to get glam shots, so maybe they figure looks do play a part in whether or not their book is purchased. Or it could be they don't want to get embarrassed by not looking their best, and it has nothing to do with whether or not the picture will sell the book.

 What do you think?

Morgan Mandel

Sunday, September 19, 2010


By Earl Staggs

There’ve been some terrific, hard-to-follow entries here recently about the art and craft of writing. I thought I’d offer a slight change of pace with something on the lighter side. Hopefully, however, you’ll find a point made that’s worth the time it takes to read it.

I like the old anecdote about Stephen King. He gives us nightmares with his tales of terror and horror, but he actually has the heart of an innocent five year old. He keeps it in a glass jar on his desk.

I’m afraid my desk is not that interesting. On mine are only the basic tools.

There’s a big fat dictionary, of course. Without it, how would I ever remember how many m’s are in “accommodate?” Then I wonder why “accumulate” only rates one. Who decides these things? But I shouldn’t let myself be so easily distracted with the monumental questions in life when I should be writing.

Next to my dictionary sits Roget’s Super Thesaurus. This is the tool I use, primarily, to replace my humdrum verbs. After all, I shouldn’t be content with “hurried” when the more effectual “scurried” is available.

I know, I know. Both a dictionary and thesaurus are cached within my computer, only a mouse click away. But once in a while, I like to rest the mouse finger and use both hands on something with real paper and ink and pages I can thumb through instead of scrolling.

Next to those two large tomes resides the tiny and well-thumbed copy of Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.” Third Edition. With Index. After all these years of writing, I shouldn’t need reminders to “Use the active voice” and “Put statements in positive form,” but I do. Old habits adhere, especially bad ones.

While thinking about these basic tools, however, I found myself thinking of tools I might have if they were available. There I was being distracted again, but before I could bring myself back to being the disciplined writer, I came up with a Wish List of Writer’s Tools.

First, I’d need a whisk broom and dust pan. I’ll explain those in a minute.

The Wish List I compiled began with a series of buttons beside my keyboard. For example, I’d have a button labeled “Had/Was Eliminator.” A push of the button and every “had” and “was” phrase, those heralds of passive writing, would tumble out onto my desktop and be magically replaced with active and more engaging verbs and phrases. “I had left her a message at two o”clock, and it was now almost six” would become “I left her a message at two o’clock, nearly four hours ago.”

Next to that button, one labeled “Comma Relocator.” One push and the commas in the wrong place would move to where they grammatically belonged. Extra commas would fall onto the desktop to mingle with the had’s and was’s.

Another helpful button, the “Overused Words Exorcist,” would remove the words I habitually overuse. These would include “then” and “that” and “just.” A single push of the button, and they’d join the pile already building on my desktop and spilling over onto the floor.

By now, I was on a roll. I came up with buttons to fill plot gaps, add character depth, delete adverbs and more before I came to my senses and put an end to this craziness .

What was I thinking?

These buttons would make writing easier, for sure. No longer would I have to endlessly revise, tweak, and polish. No longer would I sweat and swear for hours to make my work tight, concise and clear. That’s doing it the hard way and takes a lot of time, thought, and effort. Doint it the hard way is a tiresome, frustrating process fraught with periods of wondering why I ever wanted to be a writer in the first place.

But you know what? Doing it the hard way earns me the right to pump my fist in the air and shout “Yes!” when it’s finished and it’s right. When that little fat lady peeks out from behind the final paragraph and belts out a tune, I can sing along. I did it the hard way and I deserve to join in the chorus and celebrate the accomplishment of a tough job well done.

Besides, writing’s never been easy and shouldn’t be. If it were easy, anyone could do it and we writers wouldn’t be special.

So I shredded my Wish List. I’ll stick to my basic tools and doing it the hard way.

But I kept the whisk broom and dust pan. Even writing the hard way produces piles of had’s, was’s, excess commas, overused and other extraneous words on the desktop and floor. They need to be swept up and properly disposed of. Otherwise, the little buggers will breed and multiply.


Friday, September 17, 2010

Guest Blogger - A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Autopsy!

Our guest today at Robert W. Walker's invitation has a harrowing tale to tell of a real-life autopsy. Andrew E. Kaufman is an award-winning writer and author of Savages. He lives in Southern
California, with his Labrador Retrievers, a horse, and a very bossy Jack Russell Terrier (who thinks she owns the place). After receiving his journalism and political science degrees at San Diego State University, Andrew began his writing career as an Emmy-nominated television writer/producer, working in San Diego and Los Angeles. For more than ten years, he produced special series and covered many nationally known cases, including the O.J. Simpson Trial. He has also written stories for the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, one due out later this year.

For more information about Andrew and his work, please visit: The Bottom Line -   NOW here is Andrew in his own words and talk about DEADication to Authenticity!  Papa Hemingway would be proud of this young author. 

It was a horrifying realization. In the midst of my revisions for While the Savage Sleeps, it seemed painfully obvious that one of the most important chapters in the book, my autopsy scene, had fallen flat. Sure, it had all the technical jargon—that was fine—and the characters appeared genuine in their reactions to what was going on around them. Even the procedures sounded believable. Still, it lacked depth. There was no sense of what was riding just beneath the surface.

As a former television journalist, I know how to craft words and pictures to tell a story. However, fiction, I'd discovered, is a different universe. Unlike TV, in novels there are no images, no video to convey the tone and mood of a particular scene. Here, your words are your pictures, and if the reader can't see them, they're as good as gone. I couldn't afford that. I knew I could do better.

I also knew that in order to do better, I needed to do something I dreaded, and that was to witness an actual autopsy. I shuddered at the thought, and my stomach ... well, let's just say it did far worse.

You may find that odd, considering I'm often accused of writing some very gritty stuff in my novels (I'm not exactly known for warm and fuzzies about puppies and kittens). Beside that, I'm no stranger to blood and guts--I'd seen my share during my tenure in television news. Still, somehow, the autopsy room seemed different to me, like an intimate dance with death--one I'd much preferred to sit out on.

Of course, as it often goes, logic won out. I knew that being a good writer often means getting your hands dirty (or in this case, a lot dirty) and that sometimes you have to push the envelope and venture into places unknown. Experience had taught me that if you run toward the uncomfortable instead of away from it, that's where amazing things start to happen. So logic be damned, off I went to my first, and hopefully last--at least from a vertical standpoint--real-life autopsy.

What was it like? I won't go through every gory detail—there's plenty of that in my book—but I will tell you this: it was pretty disgusting. Not just a little. A lot. Walking into a room filled with corpses is no picnic; in fact, it's an all-out assault on the senses. Not that I was expecting pretty, but the surrealism of it all surrounded me like, well ... a bloody blanket. And there would be blood, lots of it. My first indication? When they handed me my autopsy attire: a white sort of affair, complete with matching facemask. Yes, folks, cutting, drilling, and sawing human remains is messy business. Of course, I couldn't much complain; this was what I'd asked for, and this was what I was getting.

And the getting got better—or perhaps I should say, worse. As an added bonus, not only did the doctor carefully explain everything he was doing, but he also handed me each organ as he removed it so I could fully describe them in my book. Kind of gross, I know, but nevertheless, one of those important and necessary experiences for a writer. After all, you just never know when you might need to introduce a disembodied organ or two into your story—a kidney here, a spleen there. Like I've said, I'm known for grisly scenes.

Overall, I wouldn't say the experience was the most pleasant I've ever encountered, but as a writer, it quite possibly may have been my most valuable. Taking the reader by the hand and bringing them into our imaginary world is what we as writers do, but we can’t accomplish that if we haven't gone there ourselves. Doing a Google search or interviewing a subject can certainly be one part of the process, but if I just did that, I'd only be doing half the work, and in the process, losing at least half of my audience. The other part is bringing the reader in as close as I can to that which I create.

As for the autopsy, would I do it again? Not if I can help it. Was my story better for it? You tell me:

Excerpted from While Savages Sleep's Chapter Fifteen

Office of the Medical Investigator, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Ben Foley’s remains lay on a stainless steel autopsy table. The child-sized body bag surrounded him like a cocoon, zipped tight and topped off with a tamper-proof tie-seal. He was nothing more than a number now, one scribbled across the white plastic with a dark marker.

Cameron just stared at it.

It was hard to believe someone so small could inflict harm on such a large scale. So tiny, so fragile, he thought, so broken. Had he not known better, he could just as easily have mistaken Ben for the victim.

All autopsies in the State of New Mexico came to the Office of the Medical Investigator, located at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine in Albuquerque. For Cameron, that meant a three-hour-plus trip. Although he didn’t normally attend autopsies, he knew he couldn’t afford to miss this one. Too much was riding on it.

Now he stood at the head of the table observing, along with Assistant Chief Medical Investigator Russell Gavin standing at the broadside, and his assistant, Shelia Murphy, to his left. A microphone dangled loosely overhead to record the doctor’s comments while he performed the autopsy.

Cameron shifted his attention away from Ben’s body and around the room, but the picture there wasn’t much better; in fact, in some ways, it seemed worse—three other bodies lay off to his right, two more on the left, each in various stages of examination … and decomposition.

Without thinking, Cameron breathed in deeply, then realized it was not the best idea, as a strong odor of ammonia, blood, and decaying flesh filled his lungs. He forced the air out quickly, turning his attention back to Ben, back to the body of an eleven-year-old killer.

Investigators had removed his clothing at the scene, bagged and tagged as evidence. All lint, fibers, or other substances that had managed to cling to them would be collected and catalogued for the investigation.

Cameron was intent on staying professional, on not letting memories and feelings from his past cloud his thinking about this case. It wasn’t that he didn’t think about what had happened to his son—that was with him all the time. It was that he couldn’t allow it to intrude.

“Ready, doctor?” Sheila asked.

Gavin nodded. He cut the seal on the bag, drew the zipper down toward the bottom, and reached into the opening with both hands. Working from top to bottom, he pulled the two sides apart.

If Cameron thought seeing Ben’s body in the closet had been the worst of it, he was in for a rude surprise; this topped it. Before, in the dimly lit closet, the boy had been crouched down, his body oddly twisted, and a good part of it barely visible. Now, laid out flat under the bright fluorescent light, there was nothing left for the imagination—it was all right there in front of him. Ben’s body was coated in a layer of dried blood, everywhere, and in some spots, caked thickly.

Standing only inches away, Cameron could see with alarming clarity the kind of damage a .30/30 round can do when it intersects with flesh and bone. The gun blast had blown the back of Ben’s head apart, shattering the skull like an eggshell. This caused the facial features to collapse, leaving them spongy and unrecognizable. Scattered across his face were cuts and bruises, the heaviest of which on the right forehead, nose, and left cheek. Cameron studied the cracked stretch marks on the boy’s lips. He knew expanding gases from the gun barrel had caused them when it went off inside his mouth.

The odor took things a step further—it reminded Cameron of rotting meat. Not only could he smell it in the air; he could taste it on his tongue. Cameron swallowed hard, trying to fight back his nausea, felt a tingling sensation in the pit of stomach as it began to churn.

Gavin spoke suddenly, his voice much louder than seemed necessary considering the intimate surroundings. “The body is that of a white male, appearing consistent with the stated age of eleven years. Four-foot-one, eighty-five pounds, with a birthmark observed in the small of the back, approximately a half-inch in diameter. No other identifying marks or features.”

Using his fingers, the doctor reached into Ben’s mouth and pulled it open easily, helped by the gun’s powerful discharge—it had broken the lower jaw, leaving it hanging loose. Then he lowered his head and looked inside. “There’s extensive destruction to the oral cavity, with the hard palate nearly gone. Several attached molars show a grayish-black soot deposition, and the tongue is covered with multiple, purple contusions ranging from one-eighth to one-half an inch at its lateral aspects.”

The doctor pulled his hand away, and the mouth remained open. He closed it and examined the rest of Ben’s body, lifting the arms and checking a few other less exposed areas. “There do not appear to be any other signs of injury or damage to the body’s exterior.”

He stepped back an inch or two and frowned, staring at Ben’s body for a moment. Then Sheila moved in and placed a body block under Ben’s spine, causing the arms, head, and neck to fall back and the chest to protrude forward, making it easier for the doctor to cut his incisions.

Using a scalpel, Gavin made a deep, v-shaped cut going from shoulder to shoulder, then another that cut vertically, looping around the navel and continuing on toward the pubic bone. He pulled the two chest flaps open, immediately launching an even more potent odor into the air, a combination of human feces, trapped gas … and more blood.

Oblivious to Cameron’s discomfort, the doctor went to work immediately, and began by inserting a syringe into the ascending aorta to extract blood samples. He would do the same with the bladder, in much the same manner, only this time removing urine samples. Both would be sent off to the lab for analysis to see if Ben had any drugs in his system, or an illness relevant to the case.

After that, one by one, he began removing and inspecting organs. Later, in the interest of saving time, he would weigh them all at once.

“The heart appears to be normal and free of abnormalities,” Gavin said, “as do the lungs, intestines, liver, and spleen.”

He removed the stomach, which he placed on an adjacent table. After dumping its gray, soupy contents into a plastic measuring cup, the doctor began the dissection process. Suddenly, he stopped.

“See that?” he said to his assistant, still looking down, pointing.

Sheila leaned over with interest. “Yep … sure do.”

Gavin directed his voice toward the microphone. “The gastric mucosa reveals extensive ulcerations along the greater curvature of the stomach.”

Cameron leaned in, trying to figure out what was happening.

Gavin, catching this, looked over at him to explain. “Although possible, the condition isn’t common in a child his age. We’re going to have to do some further microscopic evaluation here.”

Cameron responded with a nod.

The doctor turned back toward the body and began taking small tissues samples from the stomach, placing them into small, plastic cassettes.

After examining the remaining trunk organs, he nodded to Sheila, who moved the body block up a few inches toward the back of the neck.

There was no need to cut the skull open—the rifle round had done that work for him, shattering the back of Ben’s head, leaving the insides in plain view. After making a few small incisions, the doctor grabbed onto the scalp, then peeled the face flap down and away from the skull, much like a latex mask. He examined the underlying, bony surface, then moved toward the back of the head.

The force from the gun blast had obliterated most of the brain, transforming it instantly into pulp and bone fragments. Using a gloved hand, the doctor reached in and scraped out the soggy, mashed contents. After that, he scooped them into a weighing pan where he examined them.

Gavin continued calmly. “The cerebellum and brainstem are largely intact, as are portions of the posterior occipital lobes. The calvarium is extensively fractured. The remaining brain fragments are a pulverized, gelatinous, and partly clotted subdural mass—about ten milliliters’ worth.”

He stepped back. “Cause of death: Intraoral gunshot wound to the head. Manner of death: Suicide.”

He walked to the head of the table where Cameron stood, removing the latex gloves from his fingers as he spoke. “The toxicology tests normally take several weeks.”

Cameron nodded, still staring at the body. “Those stomach ulcers you mentioned … you said they’re not normal.”

“Ulcers in children, while not entirely common, do occur, but the vast majority of patients are adults.”


“Meaning, the most common cause of ulcers in adults is H. pylori, or Helicobacter Pylori, a bacterium often associated with peptic ulcers. Of course, we also see them in people who abuse alcohol or crystal meth.”

“But in kids?”

“In kids it’s different. Theirs tend to be more of a gastric nature, often brought on by certain medications. Do you know if the boy had been taking any, or if he’d been previously diagnosed as having stomach ulcers?”

Cameron shook his head.

The doctor shrugged. “No worries. The tox screen will tell us if he’d been taking anything, and I’ll have a look at his medical records to see if he had a history of stomach ulcers as well. Easy enough to find out.”

“What kinds of medications would cause them?”

“Most common are the anti-inflammatory drugs—over-the-counter meds— things like ibuprofen or aspirin and a few others.”

“So if Ben was taking aspirin or some other pain reliever, they could have given him the ulcers?”

“Not necessarily,” the doctor said, shaking his head. “Not if he was just taking them on isolated occasions. Now, if he’d been popping them like Tic-Tacs—well, then we’d have cause to be suspicious, but ulcers as widespread as what he had? A few days’ worth of use isn’t going to do it. Those look pretty severe. It takes a lot of something, over a long time to cause that.”

“But what that something is, we don’t know yet, right?” Cameron asked.

“Not until we get the toxicology results,” Gavin repeated patiently.

“Anything else that could’ve caused them?”

“Hypothermia can produce a condition that resembles ulcers,” Gavin said, rubbing his chin while thinking aloud, “but not much chance of that happening this time of year, and certainly not in this situation. Besides, those kinds of hemorrhages look smaller, and Ben’s are much larger.”

Cameron looked up toward the ceiling, thinking. “You know, come to think of it, I don’t remember Ben having any sort of medical condition. I was his Little League coach—all team members had to get physicals in order to play. I would have been told if he did.”

“I’ll double-check his medical records, just on the slight chance it got past you, and the lab will take a closer look at those ulcers under a microscope, as well. We should be able to come up with some answers.”

Answers, Cameron thought as he left the building and headed toward his car—the autopsy hadn’t provided any. It had only raised more questions.

He was getting used to that.

Dead men tell no tales. Cameron shook his head. But what about boys? Tell me, Ben—tell me what really happened that night…

And while you’re at it, tell me… what’s happening to this town?

ROUND of APPLAUSE. I coulda pulled off that scene so well myself, and I've done wrote a lotta autopsy scenes in my day!  Do leave a message as we at Make Mine love to hear from you, and we made it easy to leave word. -- Rob Walker

Breaking Bad Writing Habits

by Jean Henry Mead

It’s often difficult for novices to break the writing habits they've learned in school. Perfect grammar, especially when writing dialogue, is one of the worst mistakes a writer can make. I was in an online critique group a dozen years ago, comprised mainly of unpublished writers. I’ll never forget a critique that said, “You need to clean up your characters’ grammar.” The characters were uneducated farmers.

Author William Noble once said, “The grammar rules we learned in eighth grade should never be followed absolutely. At best they are one choice among several, and at worst, they will dampen our creative instincts.”

The use of clichés is another fledgling blunder. The rule of thumb is: if it sounds familiar, don’t use it. If you can’t come up with something original and your muse is tugging you on, type in a row of Xs and write it later during the second draft. But if you must use a cliché, add the word proverbial as in "as profitable as the proverbial golden goose."

Of course there are rules that must be followed, such as adding commas for clarity and periods at the end of sentences. Some writers have felt that innovative sentence structure signals creativity, but the practice is only acceptable now in poetry. In Ulysses, for example, James Joyce’s last chapter begins with:

Yes, because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs since the City Arms hotel when he used to be pretending to be laid up with a sick voice doing his highness to make himself interesting to that old faggot Mrs. Riordan that he thought he had a great leg of and she never left us a farthing all for the masses for herself and her soul greatest miser ever. . .

Joyce’s stream of conscience continues for forty pages without a single period. I wonder how many people actually read it to the end. Creative and innovative? In my opinion, anything that slows the reader for even a few words may cause him to abandon the book.

On the opposite end of the sentence spectrum, Hemingway taught novices to write declarative sentences: “The day had been hot.” “The rifle was long and cold and strange.” “She wore black shoes, a red cape and a white tunic. . .” However, short, choppy sentences must be interspersed with longer ones to make them read well. A good practice for beginning writers is to read one’s work aloud to avoid clumsy phrasing. If words don’t flow well together and your reader stumbles over them, you’ve lost her.

Reading the classics doesn't prepare anyone well to write for today’s market. I’ve judged writing contest entries that contain the most formal language I’ve read since reading War and Peace. Some fledglings avoid contractions entirely, even when writing dialogue. The result is stilted language.

Studying the bestsellers for style, content, description and characterization helps the beginner gain a handhold in the current market. Some writing teachers advise copying your favorite author’s work, as artists have done with the masters—as long as it’s only practice and doesn't result in plagiarism.

I learned to write fiction by studying the work of Dean Koontz and others. Whose writing have you studied and did it teach you the language of fiction?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Writers, Authors, Scribblers--Which are You? By Christine Duncan

My blogmate, Michelle Birkby wrote on our Rule of Three, that she will "call (herself) a writer when (she) gets published and paid, and author when ... published and paid on a regular basis." Michelle calls herself a scribbler.

I used to believe that way. Being a writer was something I aspired to be. I didn't call myself one for years. It sounded boastful.

I believe differently now. I am a writer and I've earned the title, not because I have two published books but because I write.

Let me explain.

There are folks who like the idea of writing. They flirt with it like a single man at a hen party. We've all met them. They may not write, but just talk about the book they will write when they have the time. Sometimes they write for a season or a period of their lives--like someone who writes about her painful divorce or crushing relationship.

Sometimes they're decent writers, sometimes not. But they don't stick. Times and lives change and they move on to another dream. My number one rule about whether you are a writer or not is simple. Do you stick?

Whether you are published or not, whether the dog is sick and it's not convenient or you don't feel like it but you made yourself or someone else a promise--writers write.

Michelle is a writer in my book, not only because she writes regularly for our blog but also because she writes fan fiction and short stories and more.

I'm not sure about her distinction between an author and a writer either. As I told her, I don't know anyone who gets a regular paycheck from this. And I know a fair amount of writers. I usually call myself a writer except in those blurbs at the end of an article or blog post.

I do like Michelle's description of herself as a scribbler. It brings to mind an image of Jo March from Louisa Mae Alcott's classic Little Women. Yet still, wasn't there a famous poet who penned her poems on grocery lists and who was never published until after she died? Would that mean she wasn't a writer? Really?

Christine Duncan is the scribbler, no make that writer, oh shucks, author of the Kaye Berreano mystery series. Safe House the second book in the series is available now.

Monday, September 13, 2010

WHO HAS THE RIGHTS? by Austin Camacho

By now I’m sure you’ve heard about Andrew Wylie, the literary agent who decided to start his own publishing company to produce e-book editions on He started with 20 books which were published before e-books were even thought of. Despite that fact, Random House thought IT had the electronic rights to. This prompted Random House to declare it would no long do business with Wylie’s agency. This was potentially bad news for Wylie’s 700-plus clients, among whom are the estates of such literary giants as Norman Mailer, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth, Ralph and John Updike.

The real question is obvious: who owns the rights to publish the e-book versions of books that were bought by publishers before e-books existed? Wylie was saying that those rights have not been sold and so belong to the author. And if a publisher holds those rights, what kind of royalty should authors get? These days 25% is common for e-books, although if you do it yourself on Amazon you can get 70%.

I can see how this can impact the survival of publishing companies. A lot of money is made from backlist books like Portnoy’s Complaint, The Invisible Man and the Rabbit books, and those books cost the publisher almost nothing to publish now. A couple of classics can make up for a new title that flops.

But as an author, I can’t accept a publisher making green off rights it didn’t pay for. And sometimes I think big publishers miss the point. They are no longer the only game in town. They don’t get to make all the rules as they did a couple of decades ago when the only way to get your book in front of buyers was to either invest tens of thousands of dollars to self publish or to accept whatever deal a publisher offered.

Regardless of how you feel about e-book rights, the unavoidable truth is that if publishers want to stay in business they have to attract good writers and if they hope to do that they will have to make a radical change. They will have to actually be NICE to authors and treat them with a little respect. They may even have to (gasp!) deal with them fairly.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

How Young Can an Airline Pilot Be?

By Mark W. Danielson
Ever wonder about who’s flying your plane? Not to alarm you, but if you’re riding on a regional jet, your captain may be 25 years old (like the one above) and your first officer could be 21. How can this be, you say? Simple. Flying regional jets is a stepping stone to the big carriers. It’s also called paying your dues.

Now before you gasp, rest assured that these pilots are all qualified to do their jobs, are licensed by the FAA, and most fly quite well. In terms of proficiency, regional pilots generally fly more legs than big carriers for less pay because their carriers have high expenses with lower income revenue. So rather than look down on Captain Howdy Doody and First Officer Skippy as you peer into their windshield while boarding the plane, cast them a tender smile and understand the reason they’re eating peanut butter crackers for lunch.

Most regional pilots have no military pilot experience, and that’s just fine. These people have spent thousands of their own dollars learning how to fly, and then gained valuable experience by teaching others to fly. At age eighteen, they can become commercial pilots and certified flight instructors. Once they have gained experience, they can apply for a regional jet position. However, some aviators by-pass the flight instructor phase by attending flight schools that have “ins” with regional carriers. These schools train prospective airline pilots from ground zero and then slide them into the right seat of a regional carrier. While this notion might make some nervous, this type of seat progression is no different than a military pilot spending a year learning to fly jets and then be assigned to the right seat of a bomber or transport. Bear in mind that nearly every fighter pilot has approximately three hundred hours of total pilot experience when they report to their first squadron.

There was a time when every regional carrier flew propeller driven aircraft. Many of these aircraft lacked autopilots and couldn’t climb above the weather. But the introduction of the regional jets phased out most of these prop jobs. Now, the regionals share the same airspace as the big jets, and provide a safe, smooth ride. And because their avionics and navigation systems are virtually the same as on the big jets, regional pilots have minimal difficulty in transitioning to the bigger aircraft.

It’s easy to mistake age for inexperience when you read about regional carrier accidents. Whether you fly on a regional or flag carrier, flying remains the safest form of transportation, and a pilot’s age has no bearing on their ability. If you’re still bothered by this, then sit back, close your eyes, and don’t think about it. After all, worrying isn’t going to change a thing.

As an active not-so-young airline captain who happens to write mysteries, I would be happy to review any section of a story pertaining to flying for accuracy. You can drop me a line through my web site.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Hang On Sloopy

by Ben Small

Crime on the Guadalupe River?


Who'd have thought?

I'd heard the rumors: dealing; transporting, smuggling -- violators old and young.

Yes, a river known far and wide for its beauty and danger, rumored to float a massive crime wave. And in Texas, the Gruene and New Braunfels region to be specific, not the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez some eight hours to the west.

I had to see for myself. Brave the cold water, suffer the embarrassment every man fears: shrinkage.

Dressed casually in a ruby red swimsuit tight enough to expose fat rolls, I blended into the rush for tubes.

The intake, you see, entry point for smuggled goods. All around me I saw them, the contraband, their method of transport usually black rubber tubes, some with mesh containers and coolers, all of them stuffed with similarly clad butts. Butts in tubes roped together -- the connection.

A rubberized chain gang, filling the river's fast-flowing current, the lifeblood of Mother Nature. The Guadalupe curves, rolls, then flattens and sweeps out. Water volume varies, sometimes by several feet on the water gauge -- in hours. Ride the Guadalupe twice one day, and you'll see different rivers. It rose fifteen feet the day after our plunge.

We saw debris thirty feet up, hanging off massive trees, leaning toward the flow. Shore lines were lined with root balls, twisted brown shapes wriggling over and under and around obstacles...or each other. Established, that's what I'd call those trees. Behind the root art lay flood damage, downed trees, wrecked homes. The Hundred Year Flood was just months ago. People died.

The Guadalupe sweeps over rocks and slabs, creates and surrounds islands. It carves, marks and changes the landscape it dominates.

But my discreet entry to the Guadalupe's criminal wave was foiled, and my wife and the friends who'd led me there -- my snitches -- made three critical errors. We were grossly underweight, i.e. too thin; we had no tattoos, and we weren't drunk.

Outed on the Guadalupe. The shame of it.

All around us we heard the clarion call, "Butts Up".  We expected puffs of smoke, the sweet smell of burning hemp, maybe a few foot-longers. You know, Cheech and Chong stuff.

But this signal meant something else: a herald for defensive action; ignore at one's peril.

Unfamiliar with the Code of the Guadalupe (Jiggers the Cops), we gambled and lost. We've got the bruises to show for it. For the call is for rocks, underwater hammers, knives and spears, and tubed as we were, constrained within rubber bounds, legs and heads pointed up, swirling around in current eddies, our trailing fannies -- and body parts nearby -- took the hits.

We bumped from rock to rock like human pinballs, occasionally impaling our buns -- or worse -- on pointy granite slabs. The term "Butts Up" took on a new meaning and exposed us to sights no eyes should see. Exposed skin, and way too much of it -- the wrong parts, too. Some of the show clad in Speedo, some in Spandex, most of it stretched to the snapping point.

Aaiieeyah! My eyes, my eyes!

Another thought: All those coolers, all that beer... Was the water getting warmer?

Eyed warily by those around us and returning the favor, we floated down river, cytoplasmic blobs of connected rubber tubes. Think Dodge-Em cars on water, Superball on a horizontal plane. Think soap bubbles draining -- bump, swirl, spin. There was a nervous tingle in the air. The river churned and throbbed, rolling over slippery surfaces, occasionally presenting a turtle-head for a bit of quick suspense. Snappers can hurt, don'cha know.

There was always someone ahead and someone close by. I saw more tattoos than people.

A tight corner ahead, channels merging, sweeping to the left. We held our collective breaths as once more the call went out: "Butts up!"

Bravely, we turned the corner, and the current slowed to a crawl. Bodies began to stack up, bobbing together in a rubbery blob.

Crimes all around us. We readied ourselves to spring upon 'em.

And saw the locals had beat us to it. New Braunfels cops, copping in a Zodiac. Making arrests by the dozens. Taking names, issuing citations.

Damn! Beaten to the punch,

Should have expected it, I guess. Everybody knows: Cops in Texas are plentiful. More cops in Texas than flies in Florida. More cops than tattoos, oh yes, more cops than deer. And like all Texas cops, these guys were serious. Citations aplenty. Container size, underage drinking and Jello Shots.

Jello Shots: Plastic jello containers filled with vodka-mixed jello. Any flavor.


I'd never heard of Jello Shots, but was told they're deadly. They taste so good and hammer you on the sneak.

Yee haw.

We saw plenty of that.

One by one, the two cops moved tube by tube, as one reached in and tossed jello cups to his partner, who dropped them in a large blue mesh trash bag. From a group of thirty-some tubes, our hero flashed a wide grin and held up two such bags. He roared, "A new record!"

Everybody cheered. Yup, even those arrested -- especially those arrested.

And just around the next bend another tube-cluster, this one full of nattering old folks like me. You know, head-shakers, complaining about an iPods music or the double-WMDs somebody flashed. Old folks like me always find something to bitch about.

Meanwhile, some drunks on shore had two boat coolers full of Jello Shots. They lobbed plastic cups full of the stuff to the Oldies. The summer sun flashed off upturned Jello Shot bottoms as sugar-suicide slowly transformed the white-hairs.

Don't know if money exchanged hands. I can't remember.

The cops say I like strawberry.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Words That Paint Pictures

By Chester Campbell

Among the many definitions of the word "word" in my old Webster's Collegiate (copyright 1977) is "a speech sound or series of speech sounds that symbolizes and communicates a meaning." The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains 171,476 words in current use, plus 47,156 obsolete words. Compared to that, we mystery writers use hardly a handful in our tomes.

Words are the tools of our trade, though, and I suspect most authors are like me and spend a fair amount of time looking up the finer points of their meanings. I keep the American Heritage Talking Dictionary handy on my computer's Start menu and use it frequently for definitions and its thesaurus entries.

Although I have published only six mystery novels and one nonfiction work, I have written a total of sixteen books. I have no idea how many words I turned out in that process, but I know I have used several that became favorites. Though I have been judicious in their use, they turn up in several stories. I suppose the reason I've come to like them is they aren't words I use or hear everyday. And they just flat sound interesting.

I found four of them in my newest mystery, A Sporting Murder, which will be released officially next week. The first one is "skullduggery." It can be spelled with only one "l," but I prefer two. Defined as "a devious device or trick," it can also be "underhanded or unscrupulous behavior." Just the sound of it gives you a feeling of mischief.

Another favorite is "grunge." Oddly, it doesn't appear in my 1977 Webster's. American Heritage defines it as "filth; dirt" or "one that is dirty, inferior, obnoxious, or boring." I love the sound of it. I use it to describe the condition of a light bulb on the porch of a house in a run-down section of Nashville where the murder takes place.

"Pizazz" has the sound of something exciting. For this one, you can use "z' three times or four. Being the perverse sort, I prefer three. It is defined as "dazzling style; flamboyance; flair." When I did a Christmas signing at Mysteries & More bookstore a couple of years ago, we were entertained by a group of female singers called the Pizazz Quartet. They had flamboyance and flair.

My last favorite word is "vociferous." It sounds loud, noisy, and harsh on the face of it. I use it in the book when Sam Gannon says he'd probably buy an NBA season ticket if his wife didn't object too vociferously. I'd describe all these as words with character. Do you have words that strike your fancy because their sound paints a mental picture of their meaning? Share them with us.

Visit me at Mystery Mania

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

New Deputy Tempe Crabtree Mystery Coming Soon

This is number 10 (I think) in my Deputy Tempe Crabtree series. Doesn't really matter, I'm as excited as if it were number one.

The reason I'm never quite sure how many books in the series, is because of the series multiple publishers. The first four were published by a small press in Bakersfield and put out in mass market paperback. Actually there was a book that came before those, but that publisher wasn't interested. Because I had another small press who published other books of mine, they published that book. That made five.

Sadly the first publisher died, so I looked for another publisher. I discovered Mundania and was delighted when I was offered a contract with them. They've published four books in the series, and Invisible Path will be number five.

And if my math is right, that adds up to ten.

Though I write each book as if it were a stand-alone, I don't want anyone to feel that they have to start in the beginning, there is a bit of carry-over in this one. In the last, Dispel the Mist, the Hairy Man is introduced. He has a part in this book too.

Now it's time to start planning signings and the like. Have already set a date in my favorite used book store (the only book store within miles). I'll probably have a signing at our family reunion in Barstow. Had one there last year and sold as many books as I do at a lot of bookstores. We always meet at the Holiday Inn Express in Barstow and the kindly let me have my signing in the breakfast room when no one is there.

That's enough about that--just wanted people to know about Invisible Path which should be available sometime this month from Mundania Press and all the usual places.