True Crime Thursday – Please Send Your Unpublished Manuscript

Photo credit: Dim Hou, Unsplash

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

A weird literary crime made news on January 5, 2022 when the FBI announced the arrest of an Italian citizen Filippo Bernardini, 29, at JFK Airport in New York.

The charges against him? Wire fraud and aggravated identity theft.

What did he do? He allegedly impersonated publishing company executives and persuaded authors to send him pre-publication manuscripts. Targets included luminaries like Margaret Atwood.

Since 2016, the writing community has speculated about this peculiar case. For five years, well-known authors had received emails purportedly from editors and agents, requesting unpublished manuscripts. Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware and trade organizations like the Authors Guild publicized the strange requests and alerted writers.

It appeared to be a scam yet no one could quite figure it out.

Turns out Mr. Bernardini was an employee of Simon and Schuster in London where he worked as a rights coordinator. S&S has not been named in the indictment and is not believed responsible.

To further his scheme, Bernardini secured more than 160 web domains and set up bogus email accounts and lookalike websites to mislead people into believing they were communicating with an actual editor, agent, scout, or publishing executive.

For instance, if a legitimate email was XYZ@penguinrandomhouse.com, the letters r and n placed together were substituted for m. Without close examination, XYZ@penguinrandornhouse.com passed muster.

Bernardini allegedly used multiple phony email addresses to contact Pulitzer-winning authors and bestsellers, asking them to send their manuscripts to him before they had been finalized.

According to the FBI statement:

These prepublication manuscripts are valuable, and the unauthorized release of a manuscript can dramatically undermine the economics of publishing, and publishing houses generally work to identify and stop the release of pirated, prepublication, manuscripts.  Such pirating can also undermine the secondary markets for published work, such as film and television, and can harm an author’s reputation where an early draft of written material is distributed in a working form that is not in a finished state.

The biggest question remains WHY?

The stolen manuscripts were not published on pirate sites. No one appeared to reap benefits, financial or otherwise, from the thefts.

If Bernardini hoped to receive credit as the author for works written by others, surely in the small, insular world of publishing, such books would have been recognized long before they were released.

Photo credit: Ben White, Unsplash

Did he receive a thrill because he possessed pre-publication drafts by noted authors?

Was it like having an early unfinished version of the Mona Lisa hidden in your attic?

Whatever his motivation, he now faces a mandatory two years in prison with the maximum sentence determined by the judge.

~~~

TKZers: Care to speculate on Bernardini’s motives?

Are You Prepared?

By John Gilstrap

Last week, I had the honor of spending an hour or so with David Temple on his excellent podcast, The Thriller Zone. We talked about everything from the proper structure of a Martini to my approach to researching an writing my books. The timing of the interview had everything to do with the impending release of Blue Fire, the second entry in my new Victoria Emerson thriller series. For those who are unfamiliar with the series, this is a significant departure from other books I’ve written. It’s set in the aftermath of a nuclear war that lasted only eight hours and destroyed everything that we recognize as modern civilization. While hundreds of million people died in the holocaust, hundreds of millions survived. Among them is Victoria Emerson and her family. Victoria is a natural leader who unwittingly and unknowingly becomes the leader of people turn to in order to stitch society back together.

Like its predecessor in the series, Crimson Phoenix, Blue Fire imagines a world where precious few are prepared to last even a few days without supermarkets, gasoline, or electricity. As panic blooms, those who are even moderately prepared will sooner or later have to interact with those who are not. One needn’t think past the furious fight over hand sanitizer and paper products in the early days of the pandemic to imagine what would happen if life-saving medications and drinking water became scarce.

During the podcast, David Temple asked me how much my research for the series affected my own worldview on matters of survival. As we discussed this, I realized that I had stumbled upon the topic for my next Killzone post.

A Plan is the Antidote to Panic

My research didn’t change my outlook as much as it did reinforce it. I have always believed in preparedness, from filled and charged fire extinguishers and operable smoke detectors to proper flammable liquid storage to really good locks on the doors. My freezers hold weeks’ worth of food, and the emergency generator should ensure that it doesn’t crap out when I need it most. I carry a trauma kit in my car–two of them, actually, but that’s a long story–and I’m blessed to know how to use it. (Alas, if I’m the one who needs the treatment, things get a little complicated.)

Being prepared at home is easy. It just requires a little forethought and some inexpensive purchases. The real exposures we face every day are focused outside of the home. As crime soars and police departments contract, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see the potential for bad things happening to us good people.

Now, I’m not gong to suggest that everyone wander around packing heat (though I don’t think it’s a bad idea if you can do so legally), but I do recommend that everybody focus on being aware of their surroundings and to work with their loved ones on some basic universally-applicable planning. Whether it’s an active shooter or an earthquake, a plan goes a long way toward staving off panic.

Trust Your Instincts

It’s unsettling how many victims of crime and even natural disasters testify after the fact that they kinda knew something was going to happen before it did, but for any number of reasons didn’t act on their instincts. That group on the corner that makes you nervous? Avoid them. If your decision hurts their feelings, that’s their problem, not yours.

When you walk into a café or a theater or any other place that feels like a firetrap it most likely feels that way because it is, indeed, a firetrap. Turn around and go somewhere else.

When a crowd feels wrong–people are yelling at each other, or people start pushing each other–leave. Don’t check it out, don’t play peacemaker. It ain’t your problem (yet) and you don’t want that to change. Every fight you walk away from before it starts is a victory.

Know Where Two Exits Are

This one has been instinctive for me for decades. I always know the way out of a place before I settle into it. When I stay at a hotel, not only do I know where the exits are, but I know how many doorways there are between my room and it, because zero visibility is a given in a structure fire.

In a restaurant or a movie theater or other public spaces, not only do I know where the exits are, but I also have a plan for which one to use. As a general rule, the main entrance is a mistake. If a fire breaks out, or some asshat opens up with a firearm, that’s where everyone else is going to go. People get crushed in the panic, and the logjam at the door presents a bad guy with the mother of all target opportunities. Back doors can be problematic, too, because of the ridiculous security locks that don’t open right away. While I understand the desire to not have customers sneak away without paying, I’m shocked that they are legal. Even fifteen seconds is an eternity when fire is banking down on you.

Remember: In a pinch, glass breaks and drywall is frangible. “Exit” doesn’t necessarily equate to “door”.

Take The Buds Out Of Your Ears And Keep Your Head Up

Whether it’s a lion in the Serengeti or a mugger in a mall parking lot, predators like easy prey. Security experts all agree that one of the best ways to keep the focus off of you is to remain fully in the moment and aware of your surroundings. Instead of reading texts while you walk, or instead of listening to a podcast, walk with your head up and notice things. That simple action alone may be enough to make a potential attacker turn his attention to a different victim–probably one who’s reading texts while listening to a podcast.

A couple of Christmases ago, I was leaving a mall store on my way to my car. It was nighttime, and there weren’t many people around except for a young lady walking ahead of me. It was cold, and I wanted to get to my car, so I was walking faster than she and the distance between us closed. I was still probably ten yards behind her when she whirled and said quite loudly, “You’re making me nervous. Would you mind not passing me?”

A bit stunned, I saw right away that she had every reason to be unnerved. I apologized and did my best to reassure her that I was not a threat–but of course that’s exactly what a bad guy would say. I stood still and let her get a ten-second head start and then walked on more slowly. Good for her!

That scene–or one very similar to it–made into one of my books.

Better to Die On The Street Than Get Shoved Into The Car

That dismal bit of advice is exactly what I taught my son when he was little, during the stranger-danger years. Kick, scream, bite, throw elbows and tear out eyes when someone grabs you. Once someone places hands on you, they have declared their intent to commit a capital crime against you. Make them pay. The worst they can do is kill you, and that’s what they’re likely intending to do anyway.

Your single goal in that moment should be to end the fight. If you can do it by running away, that’s a win. You don’t have to render the attacker unconscious, you just have get enough distance between you to either get to safety or to make him change his mind.

Oh, Yeah. This Is A Blog About Writing . . .

I’m not sure if this really long post did anything to help people develop their writing skills, but I’m hoping there is some relevance to character development. Your fictional creations don’t have to have exceptional skills to survive in a crisis. They don’t need to have freezers full of food (though it’s not a bad idea), and they don’t have to learn ground fighting skills (again, not a bad idea). All they need to do is keep their head about them.

 

First Page Critique:
What’s In That Bag, Curtis?

By PJ Parrish

I have to admit I was ready and eager to enjoy this First Page submission. Must be the ink still running in my veins (I retired from the newspaper biz a couple decades ago after serving as reporter, editor, dance critic and making a sad detour in management). I’m also a sucker for the era.  That said, let’s give a read and see what develops.

Death of A Charity Donor

It was one helluva way to start the year 1941. Wounded during the London Blitz, I’d sailed to New York, railed to Seattle, and ferried to the Island where my gracious Aunt Maude took me in. Barely a week had passed when my presence was requested at the editorial offices of the Island Register. Figured they wanted to fill column space. German Blitz Victim Reveals All. A story I didn’t relish to share. Given my self-induced seclusion to avoid pity, my now grumbling Aunt strongly suggested I take a hike.

The Register’s office sat on a slight hill with full view of Hawk’s Harbor and one of the Island’s three ferry terminals. Great location for spying on the comings and goings of Islanders, visitors, and other items of local interest. Readily available news fodder. Provided the fog or rain isn’t masking the view.

Three desks in V-formation crammed the small room. I called out. No answer. I limped over to a lone and empty office.

From behind me, a woman said, “What are you doing in A.P.’s office?”

I hobbled around to face a petite brunette, ink covering her apron, a stack of papers in her hand. “Curtis Hunter. Have an 8:30 appointment.”

“He’s on the phone.”

“I’ll come back.”

“You’ll do no such thing.” She placed the papers on a desk.

“Our man has arrived.” Fontaine was not Hollywood’s version of a grizzled newspaper editor. A good couple of inches taller than me and broad-chested, his prominent chin possessed a brown goatee capped by a matching thin mustache above his lips. He carried a small bag. “Maude said you’ve done camera work.”

“Archaeological digs, but …”

“Therefore, a keen eye for detail.” He shoved the bag into my hands. “Someone’s died and the Sheriff needs this. Need you to take pictures for him.”

A chill tremored my heart hearing Sheriff. I glanced up to a wall clock.

“Another appointment?” he asked. “Girl? Job interview? Draft registration?”

I pointed to the black patch covering my left eye. “Though my aim’s improved, doubt they’ll take me.”

A grin appeared. “Humor. Nice touch. I’d enjoy it more if you’d help this morning. Gladys must get the paper out. And Congressman Magnuson’s holding for me on the phone. Winters is waiting for you in the car.”

Fontaine wasn’t to be dismissed.

“I’m not a reporter.”

“Make sure each picture tells a story.”

__________________________________

There’s much I like in this submission. The writer is in command of basic craft such as dialogue construction, scene setting, with a nice eye for slipping in telling details. Note this line: I pointed to the black patch covering my left eye. “Though my aim’s improved, doubt they’ll take me.” A lesser writer would have TOLD us the protag is wounded with a limp and missing an eye. Instead, the writer has the man limping/hobbling and conveys the missing eye via dialogue. This is how you SHOW not TELL. Also nicely begins to flesh out the character himself.

We also are quickly given needed points of time and place.

It was a helluva way to start 1941…

This gets my interest because it tells us something (good or bad, we don’t know) is bothering the narrator. But then what happens?

Wounded during the London Blitz, I’d sailed to New York, railed to Seattle, and ferried to the Island where my gracious Aunt Maude took me in. Barely a week had passed when my presence was requested at the editorial offices of the Island Register. Figured they wanted to fill column space. German Blitz Victim Reveals All. A story I didn’t relish to share. Given my self-induced seclusion to avoid pity, my now grumbling Aunt strongly suggested I take a hike.

Backstory.

I really like the idea behind this scene — a wounded blitz survivor has made his way to Seattle (I think it’s Seattle…) and a stranger wants to talk to him. Great! But before the scene can find its feet and get moving forward, we get a long graph TELLING us what has brought this man to this place. It’s well-written, yes. But wouldn’t it be more effective to let this info emerge organically from the action? And Aunt Maude is clutter here, taking up valuable space in the crucial first paragraph.

Consider this question, dear writer: Where is your source of intrigue in this scene? I think it’s in the fact that this guy has been summoned to a newspaper office. I would begin with him in the office (nicely deserted!) wondering what the hell am I doing here?

You can then handle basic info via more thoughts: My Aunt Maude had taken the call from a man named Fontaine, but the guy didn’t say what he wanted with me. I figured they wanted to do a human interest piece on me — what it was like to survive the London Blitz. It wasn’t something I wanted to talk about…etc etc.

Something you have to deal with: If he assumes he’s to be a story subject and doesn’t want to talk about his experience, why did he show up?

I’d then have the woman come in and keep that exchange. I like Gladys — not many women in the new biz in 1941. But when Fontaine shows up, you have to be more explicit in what exactly is going on. Why does Fontaine think Curtis is a news photographer? Why is he giving him this bag and assignment? This is confusing. You need to slow down a tad here and fill in some gaps.

By the way, we all know titles aren’t writ in stone, but I this one doesn’t grab me at all. Your writing and your assured voice tells me you have a better one inside you somewhere. As you progress through your book, be on the lookout for a title that resonates something deeper about your protag and his situation.

Let’s do a quick line edit.

It was one helluva way to start the year 1941. Wounded during the London Blitz, I’d sailed to New York, railed to Seattle, and ferried to the Island where my gracious Aunt Maude took me in. Opening paragraphs are precious real estate and Aunt Maude is taking up space. It’s not important, this early in your story, to tell us where he lives. Barely a week had passed when my presence was requested at the editorial offices of the Island Register. Figured they wanted to fill column space. German Blitz Victim I assume you’re talking about the London Blitz? On first read, I thought Curtis was a German who had been a victim. Reveals All. A story I didn’t relish to share. Given my self-induced seclusion to avoid pity, my now grumbling Aunt strongly suggested I take a hike. Prime example of you the writer intruding to TELL us something. Find a way to SHOW this ie convey it through character action, thoughts, dialogue.

The Register’s office sat on a slight hill with full view of Hawk’s Harbor and one of the Island’s three ferry terminals. Great location for spying on the comings and goings of Islanders, visitors, and other items of local interest. Readily available news fodder. Provided the fog or rain isn’t masking the view. Throat-clearing. Suggest you open inside the office.

Three desks in V-formation crammed the small room. I called out. No answer. I limped good over to a lone and the lone empty office. Did he enter the office? Be specific in your character’s movements. Also, you could slow down just a tad here for a quick bit of description. A news office is notoriously dirty and messy. Or is this one oddly neat? And here is where you might give us a view of Hawk’s Harbor from the window and tells us geographically where we are. But make the description mean something. BTW, is it foggy or clear today? 

From behind me, a woman said, “What are you doing in A.P.’s confusing. Who is this? For a sec, I thought he was in the Associated Press wire room office?”

I hobbled around to face a petite brunette, ink covering her apron, a stack of papers newspapers? composing room proofs? You’re very good with details, so don’t stint in her hand. “Curtis Hunter. Very smooth way of inserting the name of a narrator! Take note those of you who do first person. I Have an 8:30 appointment.”

“He’s Non sequitor since Curtis didn’t mention a name on the phone.”

“I’ll come back.”

“You’ll do no such thing.” She placed the papers on a desk. Make the gesture mean something or lose it.

“Our man has arrived.” confusing structure here. Had to read this three times before I realized this is Fontaine speaking. Put it one separate line and give Curtis a reaction:

“Our man has arrived!”

I turned at the sound of the basso voice. The man standing in the door was DESCRIPTION. However, how does Curtis know this is Fontaine, a man he has never met? Again, be careful of your logic and choreography. 

Fontaine was not Hollywood’s version of a grizzled newspaper editor. A good couple of inches taller than me and broad-chested, his prominent chin possessed he had a brown goatee capped by a matching thin mustache above his lips. He was carrying a small bag. Paper? Burlap? Dripping blood? If it is important enough for Curtis to notice it, there must be a reason why. 

Need a new graph here. “Maude said you’ve done camera work,” Fontaine said. Here is where you could insert Maude. Something like: My aunt had been kind enough to take me in when I got to Seattle, but she had never mentioned how she knew Joe Fontaine. He didn’t seem like someone my WHATEVER aunt would know. (That’s bad but you get the point) Also, the fact that his aunt told this guy something personal about him would make Curtis wonder — again — what the heck is going on here? Build more intrigue if you can.

“Archaeological digs, but …” Excellent way to insert backstory! Perfect example of what I am talking about when I say convey it by SHOWING not telling!

“Therefore, a keen eye for detail.” He shoved the bag into my hands. “Someone’s died and the Sheriff needs this. Need you to take pictures for him.”  Confusing construction here. Is Curtis being hired to take photos for the sheriff? Now, on small-town newspapers it’s not uncommon for a news photog to moonlight as a photograph for the authorities, so I can buy this. But if this is what’s happening, you have to be clearer.  

Also, the bag is really a cool intriguing detail but it’s lost in the mix. Suggest you pull it out thusly.

“Someone’s dead and the sheriff needs you to take pictures for him.”

Sheriff? A chill went through my heart. I glanced at the wall clock.

“Another appointment?” Fontaine asked. “Girl? Job interview? Draft registration?”

I pointed to the black patch covering my left eye. “Doubt they’ll take me.”

He grinned. “Humor. Nice touch. I’d enjoy it more if you’d help this morning. Gladys must get the paper out. And Congressman Magnuson’s holding for me on the phone. Winters is waiting for you in the car.”

“Mr. Fontaine, I’m not a newspaper man.” 

“Make sure each picture tells a story.” But I thought he was being hired to take pix for the sheriff? If so, this line, while clever, doesn’t make sense.

Fontaine brushed past me and started to his desk. He turned and thrust the bag out to me. “Oh, and the sheriff is waiting for this.”

I took the bag. What does it feel like? What is he thinking here? 

By moving the mysterious bag to the end, you give your scene another element of intrigue and give your scene a needed kicker. And don’t forget to do something with Gladys…she’s still there, you know!

So, dear writer, to sum up. I really like this set up and I like this guy Curtis because he’s a man with past (who doesn’t like the word “sheriff” which tells me his past may not be all roses and lollipops — nicely done!). You’ve got a good eye for detail and you’ve found some nifty ways of inserting backstory. Find a way to hone that opening paragraph and move those bits of backstory elsewhere and I think you’re on your way. It’s a fine start. Thanks for submitting and thanks for taking me back to my old musty haunts.

 

First Page Critique: Envy Rots Your Bones

Another brave writer shared their first page for critique. Enjoy! My comments will follow.

Chapter One

Envy Rots Your Bones

Grandma Iris had never cradled me like she did that Bible. Sat across the table, she held it tight to her chest, tracing her bony finger down its decorative spine. The golden crucifix embedded in the book’s cover glinted as dawn streamed through the window. A wink… or a jeer… It knew it was Grandma’s favourite.

Jealousy stroked at me, teasing, and I swatted it’s claws away. Envy rots your bones. It’s a sin, I reminded myself. One of Grandma’s many teachings.

Leather creaked as Grandma delicately opened the book upon the table.

“Are you ready, Elisa?” A demand masked as a question.

I inhaled deeply, the cold dusty air of the dining room filling my lungs. I promised Grandma I would do better, be better, this time. And yet, for the second time that afternoon, I sinned.

“I’m ready,” I lied.

Her eyes flickered to mine. Somehow her wrinkles deepened, eyes became darker when they settled on me. And without another word, she fired the first test.

“Luke 1:47?”

With no time to comprehend the question, scripture tumbled out of me.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”

Grandma nodded, a fleeting gesture of approval. “Psalm 107:1?”

Again, I answered without pause, without a doubt. “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good. His mercy endures forever.”

“Excellent, Elisa,” she said, flicking through the dog-eared pages. “Psalm 18:3?”

I opened my mouth, expecting the answer to dance off my tongue again, but… nothing. Only silence filled the room. Scrunching my eyes, I frantically searched the depths of my mind, bible verses scrambled in my head.

‘When you ask, you do not receive,’ – no, not that one. ‘Come near to God, and he will be near to you’– not that either. 

I could feel her narrow gaze pinned to me now. Waiting, watching as I drowned amongst the scripture. Her fingers rapped against the oak table, underscoring each second that drifted by, still without an answer, still sinking. How silly of me to make false promises. Of course, Grandma would be disappointed, she always was.

Disappointed.

The word buzzed in the forefront of my mind, sending a ripple of familiarity through me. I said it out loud, feeling each syllable float from my lips.

Dis-a-ppoint-ment. 

And with that, I burst to the surface.

“In the midst of disappointment, know that God is listening and-”

But before I could complete the verse, a whoosh of air and the scent of old leather gushed towards me. Pain erupted in my cheek, knocking the words from my mouth and throwing me sideward. As I slammed into the floorboards, my eyes sprung open, just in time to see Grandma lower the bible back to the table.

* * *

Y’know what I love most about this first page? The scene is so complete and compelling, it could double as flash fiction. Anon didn’t feel the need to waste precious real estate by describing the room or the characters in detail. Instead, we’re dropped into the middle of a tense moment, and we cannot look away. This writer also gained empathy for the main character and showed us a lot about the relationship between Elisa and Grandma without resorting to telling. And the voice? Excellent.

I do have a few comments/suggestions, but nothing major.

Chapter One

Envy Rots Your Bones 

Grandma Iris had never cradled me like she did that Bible. (<– Compelling first line) Sat Aacross the table, she held it the book tight to her chest, tracing her bony finger down its decorative spine. The golden crucifix embedded in the bible’s book’s cover, glinted as dawn streamed through the window.

*Side note: Holy Bible, since it’s a title, should be capitalized; the bible—not a title—should be lowercase. Some writers prefer to always capitalize Bible. If you’re consistent, I don’t think it’s a big deal either way. When in doubt, listen to your editor.

A wink… or a jeer… It knew it was Grandma’s favourite.

*Side note: When I received the first page, Lynne noted: “UK writer.” Hence the British spelling of certain words, like favourite vs. favorite and Saviour vs. Savior. Please be aware, US spelling is the preferred industry standard.

Jealousy stroked at me, teasing, and I swatted it’s its claws away. (<–Love that line!) Envy rots your bones. It’s a sin, I reminded myself (<–we know it’s inner dialogue without this attrib.). One of Grandma’s many teachings.

Leather creaked as Grandma delicately opened the book upon the table. “Are you ready, Elisa?” A demand masked as a question.

I inhaled deeply (showing the act of inhaling implies deeply, so the adverb isn’t necessary), the cold dusty air of the dining room filling my lungs. I promised Grandma I would do better, be better, this time. And yet, for the second time that afternoon, I sinned. <–Excellent! These last two sentences say so much.

“I’m ready,” I lied.

Her eyes flickered to mine. Somehow her wrinkles deepened, eyes became darkened when they settled on me. And without another word, she fired the first test. (<– Slight hiccup here. As written, it implies “without another word” from Grandma. But I think you meant Elisa. Easy fix. “Without another word from me”)

“Luke 1:47?” (see below for citing scripture in dialogue)

With no time to comprehend the question, scripture tumbled out of me (comprehend isn’t the correct word. If she didn’t understand the question, she wouldn’t be able to cite the verse. Try: Without much forethought… Or leave out altogether: Scripture tumbled out of me). “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour.”

Grandma nodded, a fleeting gesture of approval. “Psalm 107:1?”

Again, I answered without pause, without a doubt. “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good. His mercy endures forever.”

“Excellent, Elisa,” she said, flicking through the dog-eared pages. “Psalm 18:3?”

I opened my mouth, expecting the answer to dance off my tongue again, but… nothing. Only Silence filled the room. Scrunching my eyes, I frantically searched the depths of my mind, bible verses scrambled in my head.

When you ask, you do not receive,.(Removed single quotes and incorrect usage of en-dash.) No, not that one. Come near to God, and he will be near to you’–. Not that either. 

I could feel Now, her narrowed gaze pinned to on me now. Waiting, watching, as I drowned amongst the scripture. Her fingers rapped against the oak table, underscoring each second that drifted (drifted implies slow. Try: ticked, fled, drained, raced, sped, or another strong verb for fast) by, still without an answer, still sinking (<– Nice visual). How silly of me to make false promises. Of course, Grandma would be disappointed, she always was. (Suggestion: Of course, Grandma would be disappointed, her usual state of mind.)

Disappointed.

The word buzzed in the forefront of my mind, sending a ripple of familiarity through me. I said it out loud, feeling each syllable float from my lips.

Dis-a-ppoint-ment. (Would she really say this out loud in front of Grandma?)

And with that, I burst to the surface. (Consider deleting. I understand Elisa is metaphorically bursting to the surface, but it stopped me. Perhaps others will feel differently.)

“In the midst of disappointment, know that God is listening and—” (Use em-dash, not en-dash, to indicate cut off speech. For more on em-dashes, see this post)

But before I could complete the verse (Redundant since you went through the trouble of showing us the verse had been cut short), aA whoosh of air and the scent of old leather gushed (rushed?) towards me. Pain erupted in my cheek, knocking the words from my mouth, and throwing me sideward. As I slammed into the floorboards, my eyes sprang open, just in time to see catch Grandma lowering the bible back to the table.

The Editor’s Blog has a fantastic article about numbers in fiction. For citing scripture in dialogue, they recommend the following:

For dialogue, spell out the numbers as words. Do this whether a character is saying just the chapter or just the verse or is including both. “My dad always quoted Romans twelve to me.” “My grandmother’s favorite verse was Jeremiah twenty-nine eleven.” “I can’t remember if the verse he quoted was nine or nineteen.” (Could you make an exception for the Psalms? Probably so. “My niece learned how to say Psalm 23 in four languages.” If you consider psalm plus the number a title, I’d say that would work. I don’t know that other books and chapters, however, would get the same treatment.)

Outside of dialogue, use the typical convention for chapter and verse when you include both. Make this one of your exceptions to the rule about when to write out numbers. So—The text he’d quoted was Genesis 3:23.

Yet if you’re using only the verse, spell out the number (use a numeral for numbers greater than 100)—The text he quoted was verse twenty-three.

Also spell out the numbers if you’re not including the book and verses in the typical reference style—The text he was hunting for was in Luke—verses four through eleven of chapter six.

In a reference to the chapter only, you may want to adjust the wording—The text he quoted was from the third chapter of Genesis.

Could you write Genesis 3 or 1 Timothy 5? Probably. And I’d suggest using that format for the Psalms, writing Psalm 119 or Psalm 23. Yet such a format with other bible books might be difficult for readers, at least at first glance. You may want to play around with how you say it if you’re only including the book name and chapter number without a verse number. After all, many people would understand easily if you wrote—He loved the Twenty-third Psalm.)

Brave Writer, I really enjoyed this first page. Thank you for sharing your work with us.

I’d turn the page to find out what happens next. What about you, TKZers? Any suggestions/comments for this brave writer? Favorite line?

The Eyes Have It

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

She put one hand behind her and flipped the snap of her halter and tossed it to the floor, staring at him with eyes of liquid smoke in which there was a curious and great disinterest.From Here to Eternity by James Jones

Eyes. Windows to the soul. “Traitors of the heart,” Thomas Wyatt put it. He would know. He was accused of ruffling the sheets with Anne Boleyn and got to write his poems in the Tower.

So yes, eyes are important. We look people in the eye when we meet them. (If someone doesn’t look at your eyes when they meet you, watch your back!)

It’s the same with characters, isn’t it? The reader forms a picture of a character—eyes included—whether you choose to describe them or not.

So the first decision you make is whether to include orb details at all. My own preference is to describe them for major and strong secondary characters. Most minor characters and “spear carriers” (those little one-offs needed for a scene, like a waiter or doorman) usually don’t need them.

Once we decide to describe the eyes, we usually first think of color. Something along the lines of She had blue eyes and wore a yellow dress. Functional but not memorable. More lush is Margaret Mithcell’s famous opening to Gone With the Wind:

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocracy of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends.

(Note: those green peepers were so important to fans of the book that when blue-eyed Vivien Leigh was cast as Scarlett for the movie, there was an uproar. Producer David O. Selznick took care of that by having yellow lights trained on Leigh’s face in closeups, turning blue to green.)

You can add to the color by including the effect the eyes have on the viewpoint character, as in Richard Prather’s noir story “The Double Take”—

Her eyes were an incredibly light electric blue—shooting sparks at me.

Similar is the description of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs:

Dr. Lecter’s eyes are maroon and they reflect the light in pinpoints of red. Sometimes the points of light seem to fly like sparks to his center. His eyes held Starling whole.

David Copperfield describes the first time he saw the face of Uriah Heep:

It belonged to a red-haired person—a youth of fifteen, as I take it now, but looking much older—whose hair was cropped as close as the closest stubble; who had hardly any eyebrows, and no eyelashes, and eyes of a red-brown, so unsheltered and unshaded, that I remember wondering how he went to sleep.

While color is our natural default when describing eyes, it’s not a requirement. A popular alternative is metaphor.

His eyes were wet wounded rugs.
(Revenge of the Lawn by Richard Brautigan)

He hadn’t shaved for four or five days. His nose was pinched. And his eyes were like holes poked in a snowbank. (The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler)

I’ve been in front of X-ray machines that didn’t get as close to the bone as that woman’s eyes. (The Name of the Game is Death by Dan J. Marlowe)

She had a lot of face and chin. She had pewter-colored hair set in a ruthless permanent, a hard beak and large moist eyes with the sympathetic expression of wet stones. (The High Window by Raymond Chandler)

Richard Matheson’s famous Sci-Fi story “Lover When You’re Near Me” takes place in the distant future on a colonized planet inhabited by creatures called Gnees.

He sat there, momentarily reflecting on her eyes. They were huge eyes, covering a full third of her face; like big glass saucers with dark cup rings for pupils. And they were moist; bowls of liquid.

I’m saving the best for last. Here is an eye description I’ve never forgotten, so perfectly did it capture a character. It’s from Darker Than Amber by the great John D. MacDonald:

She sat up slowly, looked in turn at each of us, and her dark eyes were like twin entrances to two deep caves. Nothing lived in those caves. Maybe something had, once upon a time. There were piles of picked bones back in there, some scribbling on the walls, and some gray ash where the fires had been.

The eyes have it—perhaps more than any other descriptive element they can give us a sense of who the character is and what mysteries dwell within. Use color, metaphor, and/or the effect the eyes have on the viewpoint character, and your fiction will be looking good.

How do you go about describing the eyes of your characters?

Priming the Pump

More than once when I was a kid, my Old Man loaded me up into our 1956 Ford pickup and headed for the river bottoms on what seemed to be the hottest days of the year. The short drive was miserable as the Northeast Texas the sun beat down so heavy you could feel it on your skin. That truck had no air conditioning, and the radio worked only after the tubes warmed up, usually just as we got where we were going.

Left arm hanging out the open window, he commented on the crops, the heat, and a mix of hot summer days, and frozen winter nights, while this kid in a Boy’s Regular haircut wanted nothing more than to go back and sit under the water cooler at the house.

He followed the same route down dirt roads under a cloudless sky between fields of cotton and corn, with no particular reason in mind other than to get out of the house. He drove slow, sometimes thinking about lord knows what. Other times memories poured out in a torrent of descriptions about how those bottoms looked when he and his family lived on a dirt-floored sharecropper’s cabin during the Great Depression.

By the time we reached the woods where we inevitably wound up, I was a listless lump half-hanging out the open passenger window. That was our destination all along, a massive red oak sitting at the corner of a cotton field where years earlier my grandaddy cooled and watered his team of mules on hot days just like those.

He killed the engine and metal popped as it cooled. He opened his door and the hinges popped. “Let’s get a drink of water.”

I knew the drill. “It’s too hot, and I don’t feel like it. Can we go back now?”

“You’ll feel like it when the water comes up.”

“Let’s just go.” I came up with a list of excuses not to get out in the heat and prime that old hand pump that had been there for decades. “I want to go back to the house and read. I want to get something to eat. I want to build with my Lego blocks. (Yeah, they had them back then.) I want to watch The Dating Game that comes on in a little while. I want to take a nap, Grandpa needs me to wet the straw on the water cooler, how about we go to the show….”

“Nope. Get out.”

It was useless to argue. We detrucked and waded through the heat and humidity to the iron pump perched on a black pipe sunk deep in the ground. He took the lid off a 55-gallon barrel of water only a couple of feet away and leaned it against the side. The shimmering surface reached nearly to the top and reflected blue sky shining through the leaves above.

“Good.” He tilted his straw hat back and nodded. “Looks like somebody filled the barrel the last time they were here.” It was the neighborly thing to do. “Go to pumping and I’ll dip.”

Sweat running down the sides of my face, I worked the handle up and down. He filled the dipper over and over and poured the contents it into the top to prime the pump. Half a minute later, water gurgled in the pipe and gushed from the spout and splashed on the leaves at my feet.

He rinsed the dipper, filled it from the fresh stream, and handed it to me. “You did the work. You get the first drink.”

Y’all, the water that came up from deep underground was sheer bliss. Gin-clear, cold and sweet, it was a tonic that changed my outlook on the day and it happened the same way every single time we went out there. Though I resisted the drive, heat, and work, the reward was something I recall today as absolute glory.

Why’d I tell you this story?

Because we sometimes find other things to keep us from writing. Life gets in the way. We have to push through and prime that writing pump. It doesn’t take much, just putting your fingers on the keyboard helps.

There are exercises to get started. One recommendation is to read what you wrote the day before (that’s the barrel of water analogy), and edit that. Simply getting back into the story is the way to reprime your mental pump. There are times when we just don’t feel like writing, but we have to keep at it.

If there isn’t a foundation to help launch that day’s work, type something. The lyrics to a song, what you might be thinking about (it doesn’t have to be a polished draft, this post started with a memory), or throw something out there, and once the creative pump’s primed, you’ll find the story flows like water.

We’re all in the woods when we start a story, or novel. The secret is finding a trail, and there are many winding through the forest. Follow it to see where it leads. It might take you somewhere you don’t expect. That’s good. Let your subconscious take you there.

Sometimes other trails intersect, and one looks better than the other. Take it and see where it goes. They might split, converge, lead uphill, but sooner or later, one will lead to a stream, or that hand pump in the woods, and a stream of words will follow for another session.

Until next time, stay primed and keep at it. There’ll be a payoff at the end.

When the Cows Come Home to Roost

Rita, my wife, manages cashiers at a mad-dog, inner-city supermarket where going bananas from loose cannons is the norm. “It’s like herding cats,” Rita says about her staff, although she knows every cloud has a silver lining, and Rita says, “I also fight an uphill battle with bat-crap crazy and cold-as-ice customers who drive me nuts.”

At the end of the other day, Rita came home and vented—as usual. I’m her sounding board, but I have selective hearing so often, with me, it’s beating a dead horse. Rita went on to tell me about this, that, and other things going on in her shift.

Then she asked, “Ever hear, ‘When the cows come home to roost’?”

I looked up, smiled, and replied, “No. But it’s a clever play on clichés. Where’d you hear that?”

“A regular customer and I got in a Covid conversation. He’s sick of the mask thing. The double vax and now the third. And Stop! Show me yuh papuhs, as if we’re in Nazi Germany. So am I. Then he says, ‘Well, at the end of the day, when the cows come home to roost, catching Covid boils down to this. You’ll live happily ever after or you’ll give up the ghost.’”

———

Rita’s regular customer got me thinking about clichés.

Growing up in small-town Manitoba, Canada, was cliché emersion. I could go on and on with local cliché examples like “Pissed as a nit, liquored as Larry the Lizard, and drunk as a skunk”. Life in the fast lane was, back then, alcohol-fueled.

How often do we say clichés in daily conversation? How often do we write them—subconsciously—into our WIP and fail to recognize these easy-as-pie, easy-peisie, sneaky snips of syntax? How often do we miss clichés only to catch a few in the nick of time before we hit the publish button that can bring the perfect storm—that can of worms—of bad, bad reviews?

I did a little Googling on clichés. The Wonderful World of Wiki had this to say:

A cliché is a French loanword expressing an element of an artistic work, saying, or idea that has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, even to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel. In phraseology, the term has taken on a more technical meaning, referring to an expression imposed by conventionalized linguistic usage.

The term is often used in modern culture for an action or idea that is expected or predictable, based on a prior event. Typically pejorative, “clichés” may or may not be true. Some are stereotypes, but some are simply truisms and facts. Clichés often are employed for comedic effect, typically in fiction.

Most phrases now considered clichéd originally were regarded as striking but have lost their force through overuse. The French poet Gérard de Nerval once said, “The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile.”

A cliché is often a vivid depiction of an abstraction that relies upon analogy or exaggeration for effect, often drawn from everyday experience. Used sparingly, it may succeed, but the use of a cliché in writing, speech, or argument is generally considered a mark of inexperience or a lack of originality. 

When I think of clichés, I often grin at how badly sports stars cliché in their media interviews. Take the golfer, “Yeah, just gotta keep the head down, eyes off the leaderboard, stick to the process, and let the putts drop.” Or the hockey player, “We gotta bring our A-game, give it a hundred ten percent, keep the other team on the boards, and get pucks to the net.”

But what about us common-place writers? How regularly do clichés slip into our WIP and how hack-like does that make us sound? Writing gurus say using clichés shows a lack of original thought, makes us appear unimaginative, and unmask a lazy writer.

I did a little more Googling and found some defense for clichés. One article said it was okay to use clichés when you’re trying to sync with a readership and use familiar phrases like back in the day for Boomers and the struggle is real for Millennials.

The article also said clichés were great to simplify things like explaining beginner concepts. It dropped an example of writing a how-to guide for expectant mothers. In this case remember, you’re eating for two was okay.

And the piece I found suggested clichés were fine, if not expected for dialogue and characterization. A fiction writer might use clichés to show a character’s sophistication level or their sense of humor. I’m wondering how when the cows come home to roost fits in with sophistication and humor. (Rita said the guy seemed dead-serious about it.)

I think we’re all somewhat guilty of dropping clichés. I know I am. Thankfully I have Grammarly Premium that tracks and highlights common clichés. You know, stuff like:

“The wrong side of the bed.”
“Think outside the box.”

“What goes around comes around.”
“Dead as a doornail.”
“Plenty of fish in the sea.”
“Ignorance is bliss.”
“Like a kid in a candy store.”
“You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
“Take the tiger by the tail.”
“Every rose has its thorn.”
“Good things come to those who wait.”
“If only walls could talk.”
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
“The pot calling the kettle black.”
“The grass is always greener on the other side.”

My cliché article gave a bit of helpful advice on avoiding clichés:

  1. Think about the meaning of the cliché. Use a dictionary to identify synonyms that could replace the word or phrase that is cliché.
  2. Decide whether or not you need to include the cliché. Often, clichés are unnecessary placeholders in writing and can be deleted.
  3. Rewrite the sentence with new words in place of the cliché. For example, if you’re describing a musical with the cliché “comes full circle,” the description could be changed to say that the musical “returned to the themes with which it started.”

My last Google cliché search rabbit-holed me into the mother-of-all cliché pieces. It’s a great site that I’ve never stumbled on before called Be A Better Writer which I’d certainly like to be. However, this article’s well was just a little too deep for me. It’s called 681Cliches to Avoid in Your Creative Writing.

How about you Kill Zoners? On a scale of 1 – 10 (1 being cliché free and 10 being cliché down & dirty), how guilty are you of letting clichés slip into your work? And is there a time when it’s okay to use clichés? Oh, and can you make up a better cliché phrase than when the cows come home to roost?

——

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a coroner—pretty much Doctor Death for over thirty years. Now, Garry is a caped crime writer who fights villainous words rather than crafty crooks and deadly stiffs.

Check out books by Garry Rodgers on his website at DyingWords.net. You can also follow his bi-weekly blogs by hitching onto his mailing list and make sure you connect with him on Twitter @GarryRodgers1.

The Nose Knows

The Nose Knows
Terry Odell

Sense of Smell

Image by MarionF from Pixabay

When we learned to write (and it’s an ongoing process, so I shouldn’t be using the past tense), we were told to pay attention to using the senses. Most of us focus on sight and sound, but there’s another sense that can bring additional life to your writing–the sense of smell. Sure, we might mention it if a character walks into a restaurant, or stumbles on a dead body, but otherwise, it’s frequently left out of our writing, or not utilized except in passing. Elaine did an excellent post about this several years ago, with excellent examples, but I thought the subject would be worth another visit.

Why is the sense of smell important? First, it’s another way for readers to connect to our characters. It’s also one of our most powerful senses. A brief detour into basic biology. I’ll spare you a lot of the technical talk, and cut right to the chase. If you’d like to delve deeper into the physiology, I’ll leave links at the end of this post.

The part of our brain that processes olfactory stimuli (smells) is closely connected to both memory and emotional centers. The other senses, like sight and sound, make a stop at the thalamus, which is the main relay station for the brain. From there, they go on to their processing centers. Not so the sense of smell. Scents go straight to the olfactory bulb, the brain’s smell center. This center is directly connected to the amygdala, the center for emotions, and the hippocampus, which plays a major role in memory. No, there’s not going to be a test, but this explains why a smell can trigger a detailed memory or a powerful emotion.

Okay, so there’s scientific documentation that smells are linked to memories and emotions. Any writing connections? Marcel Proust explored the phenomenon in Swann’s Way, wherein his character is transported to his childhood after savoring a madeleine cake soaked in tea. These memory/odor connections are referred to as the “Proust Phenomenon”—the ability of odors to cue autobiographical memories.

Many of us could stand to do more with the sense of smell in our writing.

Characters should not only be noticing smells, but they should be reacting to them as well. Detecting an odor could mean danger. Smoke waking them up at night. Food that doesn’t smell ‘right.’ A character’s scent memories can be a way to introduce back story, or move the plot forward.

A reminder, too, that sensory details shouldn’t be used like a laundry list. They need to mean something.

While I don’t pretend to have any remote similarities to Proust, I do try to include the sense of smell in my writing. They’re not deep, or ‘beautiful prose’, but they add to characterization, or move the story along.

Show, don’t tell, so here are a few examples from my own work.

From Finding Sarah, when the inevitable romance plot ‘black moment’ has separated Randy from Sarah. Throughout the book, he’s noticed the scent of her peach shampoo.

Randy spent the next few days wallowing in his own misery. Feeling like a first-class idiot, he’d even gone to Thriftway and bought a quart of Peach Blossom shampoo, only to pour it down the drain after using it once.

From Nowhere to Hide. We get a hint of the kind of taste Graham has from this snip:

Deputy Graham Harrigan sat at his computer in the Sheriff’s Office substation, the normal sounds of office activity fading to white noise as he hunted and pecked his way through the report he needed to file. As he’d told himself countless times, he should take a keyboarding class so he could get through the drudgery faster. The smell of stale, burnt coffee permeated the air, and he wished he’d taken a few minutes to stop at Starbucks.

And, from the same book, a look into Colleen’s past

Colleen jerked awake, drenched in sweat and tangled in the sheets. She sat up and fought the nausea as the memories came back, crystal clear and in freeze frame, like a slide show from hell.

A domestic dispute. By the book, she and Montoya using all the right phrases: “Yes, Mrs. Bradford. You don’t need the knife. Relax, Mr. Bradford. I’ll take the bat. Let’s sit down. Talk to me, Mr. Bradford.” The tension lifting.

Someone on the stairs. “You bastard! You’ll never hurt my mother again.” Kid, late teens at best. Brandishing a gun. Shooting. So much shooting. The noise. The smells. Gunpowder. Blood.

Our brains are wired to recognize unfamiliar smells. They also acclimate to prolonged exposure. My husband never noticed the smells he brought home after performing necropsies on marine mammals. One nick in his glove, and I knew it, but he was oblivious.

Check your current work for scent references. One way is to do a search on words such as odor, aroma, wafted, scent, smell.

Many of our scent memories relate to childhood because that’s when we experience them for the first time.

What scent memories do you have? For me, it’s the smell of birdseed. My great aunt and uncle had an egg ranch (which meant they raised chickens), and when we visited, we’d help feed the chickens. I’m transported back there every time we open a bag of birdseed.

My references for this post beyond my aging memory of physiology classes:

Why do smells trigger memories?

Here’s Why Smells Trigger Such Vivid Memories

Why Smells and Memories Are So Strongly Linked in Our Brains

What about your characters? How have you used the sense of smell to add depth or move the story? Examples welcome.


In the Crosshairs by Terry OdellNow available for pre-order. In the Crosshairs, Book 4 in my Triple-D Romantic Suspense series.

Changing Your Life Won’t Make Things Easier
There’s more to ranch life than minding cattle. After his stint as an army Ranger, Frank Wembly loves the peaceful life as a cowboy. Financial advisor Kiera O’Leary sets off to pursue her dream of being a photographer until a car-meets-cow incident forces a shift in plans. Instead, she finds herself in the middle of a mystery, one with potentially deadly consequences.



Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Interview with Blackstone Publishing’s Rick Bleiweiss

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Today, please welcome Rick Bleiweiss, Head of New Business Development for Blackstone Publishing. Rick is a former record company senior executive, Grammy-nominated producer, podcaster, and journalist. He is also the author of Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives, a mystery set in 1910 in a sleepy English village, to be released in February 2022.

Rick Bleiweiss

 

 

…what I’m doing at 77 years of age [is] an example to other seniors that you are never too old to try something new or follow your dreams.

 

 

 

Debbie Burke: Blackstone Publishing is unusual in that they started with audiobooks then later added print and ebooks. Could you tell us about that shift and the reasons behind it?

Rick Bleiweiss: The decision to begin publishing books and ebooks in addition to audiobooks was made about seven years ago. We published our first books in 2015. It was primarily driven by three things.

First, the more popular audiobooks became the more other publishers held onto those rights, made their own audiobooks, and stopped licensing them to other companies, such as Blackstone.

Second, we felt that we could succeed well as a publisher of books and audiobooks and have those as another income stream. And we felt we could ramp up quickly as we already were evaluating manuscripts, involved with authors and storytellers, and selling and distributing audiobooks to many of the same buyers at accounts whom we’d be selling books and eBooks to. So that would make it an easy transition.

An added benefit of licensing all rights to a book – print, ebook, audiobook – is that we would be getting the audios, which would start making up for the ones we were no longer getting from some other publishers.

Third, the vision of Blackstone’s CEO (and owners) was to make Blackstone into more than just a traditional publishing company, but rather to turn it into a media company that has publishing and storytelling as its foundation, but also is involved in securing film & tv deals and being a media producer, creating intellectual properties, doing video games, comic books and magazines, and creating and selling merchandising. And we are doing all of that today and more, including owning our own printing plant so that we can make everything in house and never be out of print.

Regarding how we started our print program, early on we obtained the rights to the Max Brand and Loius L’Amour catalogs and signed a number of authors who had some past success but were not yet major sellers. Then it really kicked up a notch when I signed PC & Kristin Cast and we published the last of their books in their 12-million selling House of Night series. Then our CEO Josh Stanton and I got the James Clavell catalog, and I signed Natasha Boyd, who has had one of our biggest on-going books, the USAToday best-seller, The Indigo Girl. That was closely followed by signing Nicholas Sansbury Smith and his Hell Divers series.

DB: In 2019, Blackstone, a family-owned, independent press, made news by luring heavy hitters Meg Gardiner, Steve Hamilton, and Reed Farrel Coleman away from Penguin Random House. Without spilling any secrets, do you anticipate Blackstone’s further expansion of authors who may be disgruntled with the Big Five?

RB: Actually, they were not the first nor have they been the last, although they were major signings. I wouldn’t characterize it as disgruntled with the Big Five as much as wanting to go with a different publisher paradigm. Josh Stanton and I were able to license the aforementioned entire James Clavell catalog (including his classic Asian Series featuring Sho-Gun) and Gregory McDonald’s catalog (Fletch and Flynn series) both of which I believe had been with Dell for many years but whose estates were looking for something different. Other authors who we have signed to do print and eBooks who have also been with major publishers are Sherilyn Kenyon, Heather Graham, Catherine Coulter, Rex Pickett, James Carroll, Peter Clines, Andrews & Wilson, PC & Kristin Cast, Josh Hood, a good part of the Leon Uris catalog, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Al Roker, Eric Rickstad, Brian Freeman, Adrian McKinty, Orson Scott Card, M.C. Beaton, Matthew Mather, Don Winslow, Shelley Shepherd Gray, Catherine Ryan Howard, The Black Berets series and quite a few others.

I think that many people are starting to realize that we are expanding well beyond the role of a traditional publisher and that we are looking at what tomorrow’s successful media/publishing companies will be like and look like, rather than the traditional way of doing things. Hopefully, we have taken the best time-honored industry practices and augmented them with newer ways of looking at what a publisher can and should do. As an example, we have a head of film/tv who got deals for eight of our books within the last three months.

DB: Please describe a day in the life of Head of New Business Development.

RB: Fortunately, because it keeps my business life interesting, there have been many different things I’ve done in that role. I’ve bought other companies for Blackstone (such as the direct-to-consumer company, Audio Editions), licensed our technology to other audiobook companies, arranged distribution deals with other publishers, made introductions between Blackstone and high-profile tech and content companies, I am on Blackstone’s Board of Directors, I put together the relationship between Blackstone and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival which resulted in Grammy-winning audio versions of their Shakespeare plays, I co-created a series of books by Native American elders to preserve their wisdom, humor and teachings.

In short, I have had my fingers in a lot of different pies and strive to be one of the people at the company who keeps Blackstone moving forward as well as in new directions.

DB: What specifically captures your attention when you review submissions?

RB: Since the majority of the acquisitions work that I’ve been doing lately has been more focused on celebrities, best-selling authors and hit catalogs, rather than on debut authors, I look for different things now than I did when I was evaluating day-to-day acquisitions. When I did that, I would look to see if the synopsis intrigued me, if I thought the story was something that the public would be interested in, what the author’s background, social media involvement and overall commitment to being a writer were, and what our sales and marketing people thought they could do with the book. And, of course, finally, was the writing any good?

For an author who wants to submit a query to an agent or a publisher (and submitting to an agent is probably a way lot easier than submitting directly to a publisher) they should make sure to know something about each person they are submitting to so they can personalize each letter/email. The author has to make sure the genre they are submitting is a genre the agent or publisher works in. The query letter should also contain a short, but effective, synopsis of the story, the author’s bio, comps to other books, anyone they could get to endorse the book who would be meaningful, and, if possible, something that perks the reader’s interest and sets the query letter apart from the hundreds of others that the agent/publisher has received.

DB: Tell us about your own writing.

RB: When I was twelve, I hammered out the first two-page sports newspaper that I wrote on my old Royal manual typewriter and sold the two carbon copies I made of it to neighbors. Over the decades since that time, I have written multiple newspaper columns, magazine columns and articles (including cover stories), blogs, copy for a local political committee and candidates, contributed chapters to two anthologies of short stories, and have written six, as yet unpublished and unproduced books and plays, and a rock opera.

My “breakthrough” came when I wrote Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives, an historical fiction mystery novel set in the countryside town of Haxford, England in 1910. It will be published in hardcover by Blackstone on February 8, 2022. An eccentric, but gifted police inspector named Pignon Scorbion, who possesses the skills of Poirot and Holmes, comes to Haxford to head its law enforcement. Through a prior friendship with the town’s barber, Scorbion begins solving his cases in the barbershop assisted by a colorful group of amateur sleuth assistants – the barbers, the shoeshine man, a young reporter, and a beautiful and brilliant, female bookshop owner who is more than a match for Scorbion in observation, deduction and brains.

Scorbion’s ‘universe’ includes Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Dr. John Watson, with whom Scorbion has become friends, and I’ve written the book in the style of the authors of that time and genre.

DB: What’s in the future for author Rick Bleiweiss?

RB: I’ve completed writing over 95% of Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives, Book 2 which I believe will be published in early 2023. Without spoiling anything, it contains a case about a man who is shot and killed by an arrow while riding alone in a hot air balloon, another about the shoeshine man’s visiting cousin who is attacked and brutally beaten, a third involving a blacksmith who is murdered while walking home in the early morning, and lastly, a moneylender who is poisoned and dies in one of the barber’s chairs.

I also have a piece in an anthology of mystery short stories called Hotel California that is publishing in May, 2022. I join some real heavyweights in the book including Heather Graham, Andrew Child (who has contributed a new Jack Reacher story to the anthology), Amanda Flower, Reed Farrel Coleman, John Gilstrap, Jennifer Dornbush, and Don Bruns, all of whom have written new stories for the volume.

My story is about a premier NYC hitman named Walker who escapes a hit on his life and hides out in Maui while another hitman is sent to finish him off. It’s a cat and mouse game of who gets who.

I also will have another Walker story in the follow-up anthology, Thriller, due in mid-2023.

Lastly, at least for now, in January I have stories being published in Strand Magazine detailing a lot of the research I did for the Scorbion book, and another in Crime Reads Magazine in which I talk in depth about my favorite all-time mystery authors.

DB: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

RB: We are launching Scorbion in a somewhat unconventional manner. There is a Pignon Scorbion ‘Find the Hidden Objects” video game that will be available for free on the Apple and Android app stores. It will have six levels based on scenes in the book, but you will have to input an unlock code to play the last two – and that code is in the book and the audiobook. Shane Salerno of the Story Factory made a wonderful video trailer for the book, there will be retail display contests, we are making and will be selling Scorbion t-shirts, the book has already been voted the Buzz Book of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Assn’s fall conference, has been featured multiple times in Publishers Weekly (including an excellent review), will be featured by BookBub on publication date, I am hosting a YouTube show interviewing authors and literary agents as they talk about their careers and give advice to aspiring authors, and we are going to make a strong media push hoping to get what I’m doing at 77 years of age as an example to other seniors that you are never too old to try something new or follow your dreams.

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Thank you, Rick, for joining us at The Kill Zone. Best of luck with the February 2022 launch of Pignon Scorbion & The Barbershop Detectives!