Comic Strip Inspiration

On this date in 1965 A Charlie Brown Christmas, featuring characters from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip, first aired on U.S. TV. It has become a classic.

So, today, with Christmas on the way and Charlie Brown celebrating his 57th anniversary in the movies, let’s discuss writing inspiration and comic strips:

In the past or the present, have you followed a particular comic strip?

Have any of the characters in that comic strip inspired or influenced characters or plot in your writing?

The Nearly Impossible Triple Jump

Most writers hope we’ll have long-running series: John Sandford has written 32 Prey thrillers, featuring Lucas Davenport. Sue Grafton’s alphabet series has 25 mysteries, and with her untimely death, the alphabet ended at the letter Y. And Marcia Talley has written 19 Hannah Ives mysteries since 1999. She’s managed to take her series to three publishers, a nearly impossible feat.
Booklist magazine said this about her latest mystery, Disco Dead, which debuted in November, “Some long-running series have their ups and downs, but the Ives series has been remarkably consistent.”
We’ve asked Marcia about her long-lasting series, and how she’s kept up the quality.
– Elaine Viets

Elaine: Who is Hannah Ives, and why did you create her?

Marcia: I don’t have to tell you that the real world is a messy, violent, frequently unjust place. Mysteries can be a respite – in my fictional world I call the shots. Justice is served and the villain suitably punished. I love the puzzle aspect of the mystery, planting clues and dropping red herrings. As for me personally, there have been a lot of people in my life who needed to die. In a mystery, I can bump them off with a stroke of my pen, and it’s cheaper than a therapist. I’ve bumped off former bosses, an ex-brother-in-law, a real estate agent, a crooked developer (the list goes on!) and even my husband a couple of times.

Elaine: How much of you is in Hannah?

Marcia: Is she my alter ego? Yes and no. She reminds me a bit of what Nancy Drew would be like at 55 or so. Like me, Hannah is a breast cancer survivor who enjoys sailing and is married to a professor at the Naval Academy. She’s funnier than I am, though, and braver—I would never break into a doctor’s office and riffle through his medical records, but Hannah would. Hannah’s younger and prettier, too, although just as curious and fiercely independent.

Her name was always Hannah, by the way, but I didn’t realize until my first editor emailed to inquire about it that my heroine didn’t have a last name. In a semi-panic, I called a friend who suggested the name Ives. I found out later that my friend’s phone was mounted on a kitchen wall next to a Currier & Ives illustrated calendar, so Hannah might well have been named Hannah Currier.

Elaine: How was your first Hannah mystery received?

Marcia: It still amazes me! Sing It to Her Bones won the Malice Domestic Grant for unpublished mysteries, then, after it was published by Bantam Dell, was nominated for an Agatha Award for best first novel. At the Malice Domestic conference that year, I appeared on a panel with the other nominees that was moderated by Margaret Maron (I was such a fan girl!). Hannah lost out to Donna Andrews and her wrought-iron flamingos, but the boost the award gave me spurred sales. Reviews were uniformly positive – “a shining new talent” OMG! – and I was thrilled to get cover blurbs from mystery authors I admired tremendously like Margaret, Laura Lippman, Sujata Massey and Deborah Crombie.

Elaine: Cancer is a grim topic. How do you keep Hannah entertaining?

Marcia: With humor and pragmatism. The opening lines of Sing It to Her Bones are:

“When I got cancer, I decided I wasn’t going to put up with crap from anybody anymore.”

And over the course of the next nineteen novels, she certainly doesn’t.

Take this example in a scene from the first chapter of Sing It to Her Bones. Here, Hannah is receiving the devastating news that she’s being laid off from the prestigious D.C. accounting firm she’s worked at for years:

While Coop oozed on about severance pay and maintenance of health benefits, I stared at Fran, who sat straight-backed and immobile, like an ice sculpture. I willed her to look at me, but she focused on his reflection in the tabletop. If Jones of New York had issued shotguns along with its suits, I thought, Old Cooper’s shirtfront would have been a sodden mass of red and we would have been picking bits of lung and rib out of the oriental carpet. I concentrated on the way his yellowish hair sprouted from his upper forehead in spiky clumps and how his earlobes wobbled when he talked. Frankly, when he laid the news on me, I didn’t know whether to run out and hire a lawyer to sue his ass or fall down and kiss his feet.

Elaine: Who was your first publisher and why were you dropped?

Marcia: My first contract was a three-book, mass-market paperback deal with Bantam Dell, a division of Random House. At some point between Unbreathed Memories and Occasion of Revenge, Random House was bought out by the German publishing giant, Bertelsman and their whole mass-market paperback mystery line was axed. Up until that time, B/D had been publishing two paperback mysteries a month; twenty-four authors were instantly orphaned. I remember (barely!) commiserating with a bunch of homeless B/D authors around the bar at Bouchercon Denver in September of 2000.

Elaine: Were you expecting your series to be canceled? What did you do when you got the news?

Marcia: I was completely blind-sided. My then editor had already told my agent that they would be wanting a fourth book in the series. I got the bad news on my cell phone, directly from my editor while sitting in a parking lot outside a Shaw’s supermarket near my sister’s home in Gorham, Maine. After sulking for a while, I marched into the store and bought a pint of Haagen Dasz rum raisin ice cream and ate it all by myself.

Elaine: Conventional wisdom says when publishers drop writers, these authors have two choices: indie publish their series, or start a new series. Did you consider either alternative?

Marcia: Back in 2001, indie publishing was about as respectable as printing your manuscript out at Kinko’s and selling it out of the trunk of your car, so it was never a consideration for me. Conventional wisdom at the time was to Keep Your Name Out There. So, I began to write short stories, the first of which, “With Love, Marjorie Ann” was short-listed for an Agatha award. Fans of my Hannah Ives mysteries will be surprised to learn that I am also a serial novelist. I wrote novels with other women. And not just one woman either. TWELVE other women.

My then agent called shortly after the aforementioned rug had been pulled out from under me, to say he’d heard that some publisher had paid Big Bucks for a serial novel about golf. He suggested I write a novel set in an exclusive health spa, with, say, a greedy owner, a star-struck daughter, a drunken senator, an aged rock star … and Naked Came the Phoenix was born. Naked was followed by I’d Kill for That, my second expedition into collaborative serial novel territory. For the uninitiated, let me explain that the novel, like its predecessor, was written in round-robin style: one author writes the first chapter then passes it to the second who picks up the story where the first author left off, then passes it on to the third, and so on.

For me, coming up with the scenario – murder in an exclusive gated community — and creating a smorgasbord of fascinating characters for the others to play with was just the beginning. The fun really started when I turned it all over to my fellow authors, sat back and waited to see where my dream team would run with it, and they didn’t disappoint.

Under the talented pen of Gayle Lynds, the “greedy real estate developer” suggested in my proposal leapt to life “with a clash of cymbals and a drum roll” as Vanessa Smart Drysdale, a petite, chestnut-haired beauty in black leather slacks who possesses all the compassion of Cruella de Vil. Little did I know what Lisa Gardner had in store for poor, tormented Roman Gervase, and Julie Smith’s take on Sunday services at St. Francis of Assisi Interfaith Chapel had me chuckling for weeks. Other equally delightful chapters were penned by Rita Mae Brown, Linda Fairstein, Kay Hooper, Kathy Reichs (lending her customary forensic expertise, of course), Heather Graham, Jennifer Crusie, Tina Wainscott, Anne Perry, Katherine Neville and, ahem, me.

The authors seemed to enjoy the game, too. The rules were simple. Each chapter was to be written in the third person, with a definite solution in view, even thought we were well aware that subsequent authors might take – indeed were expected to take – the plot in divergent directions. Speaking of her chapter in Naked Came the Phoenix, which was set in a luxury health spa in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Nancy Pickard said, “It was dangerously liberating to know I didn’t personally have to deal with the consequences of whatever I put in my chapter.” Good thing, too, as she left our heroine struggling to extract the body of the spa owner from a mud bath.

Although writers were cautioned to avoid cliff-hanger endings that would require Houdini-like efforts on the part of the next author, the “real fun” comes, according to Laurie R. King who wrote the final chapter of Naked Came the Phoenix, “in seeing thirteen sweet-tempered lady crime writers stab each other thoughtfully in the back.” Judy Jance gleefully ended her chapter in that novel with Phyllis, the spa’s resident psychic, floating face down in a lake. Fortunately, however, someone in Faye Kellerman’s chapter knew CPR and revived Phyllis long enough for her to deliver a critical clue before lapsing into a coma.

As you might guess, my job as editor/contributor resembled a cross between tour guide and traffic cop as I assembled the team and worked out the intricacies of scheduling – each author had just a month to complete her chapter – and made sure, for example, that each author received packets of background information and copies of the chapters that preceded hers. Timing was critical. We met at conferences, spoke on the telephone and exchanged emails at a furious rate. As we raced to the finish line, Anne, Katherine and I kept the trans-Atlantic telephone lines hot as we brainstormed and worked out plot details – Anne Perry pointed out that the novel needed a love story, and she was right – so we put one in. And Val McDermid vowed she would not participate unless she could use the word “incarnadine,” a request I happily granted. Often we found ourselves revisiting an earlier chapter to plant a clue or clear up a discrepancy, and it fell to the amazing Katherine Neville – who volunteered for the job, I should point out – to tie up all the loose ends as our novel sprinted to its stunning conclusion.

Elaine: How many books did you do with your second publisher, and why did you jump to a third?

Marcia: My second publisher was Morrow/Avon. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the very night I won the Agatha Award for my short story, “Too Many Cooks” in 2002, I was approached at the awards banquet by Caroline Marino, a senior editor at M/A who was well aware of the bloodbath that had taken place over at B/D and said, “I have someone I’d like you to meet.” Caroline was already familiar with the Hannah series and introduced me to editor Sarah Durand. Within a week, my agent received an offer of a 3-book deal. In Death’s Shadow, This Enemy Town and Through the Darkness were all published by Morrow/Avon until they met the same fate as my first three books: the victim of a corporate takeover, this time by Harper Collins, and a decision to ax the mass market mystery line in favor of trade paper format. I was already well along with Dead Man Dancing, set in the world of competitive ballroom, which was immensely popular at the time with TV shows like “Strictly Come Dancing” in the UK and “Dancing with the Stars” in the US, so that may have been one reason the series was picked up by Severn House. I’ve been with them ever since.

Elaine: How has Hannah changed since your first book?

Marcia: If I had known when I was writing Sing It to Her Bones that I was writing a series, I would have made Hannah much younger. At the end of the first book, we learn she’s about to become a grandmother. My novels are roughly contemporaneous—Occasion of Revenge, for example, climaxes during New Year’s Eve celebrations in 1999, the eve of the New Millenium – so Hannah must be at least twenty-two years older than she was back then, but, uh, let’s not mention it.

Elaine: What do you do to keep your series fresh?

Marcia: Every time I finish a book, I think, “I’ll never get an idea for another one.” But all one needs to do these days is pick up a newspaper or watch television to find something that gets the creative juices flowing. The first thing I ask is how do I get Hannah believably involved in this? Writers of mystery series call it avoiding the Cabot Cove Syndrome. After twelve seasons of “Murder She Wrote” and years in syndication, there can’t be anyone left alive in Cabot Cove, Maine, and would you risk having tea with Jessica Fletcher? Once I figure out how to involve Hannah – and her network of cancer survivors is a big help there – I hop on the Internet and begin researching the issue. In Mile High Murder, for example, Hannah is invited to go on a fact-finding trip to Denver, Colorado by a Maryland state senator in their cancer support group who is looking into legalizing recreational marijuana in Maryland. In Tangled Roots, I explored what happens when Hannah’s Ancestry.com DNA test comes up with totally unexpected results. The expertise she gained with forensic genealogical research in that novel and the subsequent one, leads her to being invited to join a small group of quirky “citizen detectives” dedicated to solving cold cases in my latest novel, Disco Dead.

Marcia and her husband Barry are sailors, and spend winters in the Bahamas. Here’s Marcia (with a broken finger, no less) writing her novel on their boat, Iolanthe.

Elaine: Thank you, Marcia for an informative interview. TKZers, you can buy Sing It to Her Bones here: https://www.amazon.com/Sing-Bones-Hannah-Ives-Mystery/dp/0440235170?ie=UTF8&qid=1464306300&ref_=tmm_mmp_swatch_0&sr=1-1
And this is the link for Disco Dead: https://www.amazon.com/Disco-Dead-Hannah-Ives-Mystery/dp/1448307953/ref=sr_1_1?crid=AUSQ28331C5Y&keywords=disco+dead+marcia+talley&qid=1670508658&sprefix=disco+dead%2Caps%2C1810&sr=8-1

A Jar of Rocks

A Jar of Rocks
Terry Odell

image of rocks inside a glass jarChecking my calendar, I see that this is my last post before the annual holiday hiatus, so it’s time to think “loftier” thoughts as we reflect on the upcoming departure of 2022.

A while back, a post from Garry Rodgers introduced me to the weekly newsletter from Farnam Street.

This past Sunday’s offerings included a variation on something I used to do with my 7th grade science students early in the semester, which was to take two graduated cylinders, each with 100 ml of a clear liquid and pour the contents into a third graduate. The combined liquids did not reach the 200 ml line, and we discussed possible explanations of why. Answer in the comments.

The article included in Farnam Street was similar, but the teacher’s goal went beyond the science. I thought it worth sharing at this time of year, especially after NaNoWriMo, where word count became the focus of participants.

A high school science teacher wanted to demonstrate a concept to his students. He takes a large-mouth jar and places several large rocks in it. He then asks the class, “Is it full?”

Unanimously, the class replies, “Yes!”

The teacher then takes a bucket of gravel and pours it into the jar. The small rocks settle into the spaces between the big rocks.

He then asks the class, “Is it full?”

This time there are some students holding back, but most reply, “Yes!” The teacher then produces a large can of sand and proceeds to pour it into the jar. The sand fills up the spaces between the gravel.

For the third time, the teacher asks, “Is it full?”

Most of the students are wary of answering, but again, many reply, “Yes!”

Then the teacher brings out a pitcher of water and pours it into the jar. The water saturates the sand. At this point, the teacher asks the class, “What is the point of this demonstration?”

One bright young student raises his hand and then responds, “No matter how full one’s schedule is in life, he can always squeeze in more things!”

“No,” replies the teacher, “The point is that unless you first place the big rocks into the jar, you are never going to get them in. The big rocks are the important things in your life …your family, your friends, your personal growth. If you fill your life with small things, as demonstrated by the gravel, the sand, and the water…you will never have the time for the important things.

So, what are the “Big Rocks” in your life? Spending time with your children, your parents or your spouse? Taking the seminar or class to get the information and perspective you need to succeed? Making the time to set goals, plan or evaluate your progress? When you are hassled because there is no time, remember the story about the Big Rocks and the Jar!”

— Author Unknown

 All right TKZers, at this busy time of year, what are your Big Rocks?

(If anyone knows why I didn’t get 200 ml of liquid, feel free to mention it in the comments. Or take a guess.)

Have a safe and happy holiday season no matter what you celebrate (or don’t).

See you in 2023!


Now Available: Cruising Undercover

It’s supposed to be a simple assignment aboard a luxury yacht, but soon, he’s in over his head.


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

Editor Interview – Val Mathews

By Debbie Burke
@burke_writer

After lunch on the second day of a writing conference, typically attendees’ brains are already brimming. Fatigue sets in. With full tummies, the temptation to nod off is strong.

Editor Val Mathews

However, no one dozed during Val Mathews’s presentation at the Flathead River Writers Conference in Montana this past October.

Val is a former acquisitions editor at The Wild Rose Press and teaches at several universities. She’s a certified flight instructor and used to fly Lear jets. Additionally, she’s a gifted speaker who knows how to grab and keep an audience’s attention.

At the beginning of her talk, Val got about 100 attendees up on our feet and walking between long rows of tables and down the aisles of the auditorium. Initially, she asked us to imagine we were taking a leisurely hike in Glacier Park. What did we see, smell, and hear?

Then she switched the scenario to a crowded city street. We were late to an important meeting, had forgotten our notes, and needed to return to the office to retrieve them. The energy in the room increased. The sea of people hurried around, now moving in opposite directions, passing each other and trying to avoid collisions.

Next, Val reduced the pace and had us walk with different postures—chests out, heads lowered, hunched over, hips forward, speeding up, slowing down—while paying attention to how each variation made our bodies feel.

Then she told us to become our main character and emulate their posture, movements, stride, and attitude. She asked, “How does your character feel? What are the physical sensations? What are they thinking about? How does that affect their movement?”

After ten minutes, Val had succeeded in chasing away all drowsiness and captured our full attention.

The exercise impressed me, so I invited Val to visit The Kill Zone. Welcome, Val!

Debbie Burke: Please share a little of your background and how you ended up in the publishing business.

Val Mathews: Thanks for having me, Debbie. I’m so glad you enjoyed my workshops! They are always so much fun to do, and everyone comes away renewed with ideas and inspired to write!

By the way, that opening exercise was borrowed from acting classes I took recently. Acting is all about stepping into your character’s body and soul and deeply connecting to your character’s inner world. Writers must do the same thing! And we can get to this deeper level of connection with our characters through our senses. Good writers have a knack for stepping into their characters, and it shows on the page. The characters come alive, feel real! And real-feeling characters hook readers.

So, to answer your question, I recently left The Wild Rose Press. Currently, I’m an editorial consultant for CRAFT Literary, a well-established online literary magazine, and I teach other editors at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, the University of California at Berkeley, and the Editorial Freelancers Association in New York City. Also I work one-on-one with writers to take their manuscripts to the next level—or the next few levels. All done remotely from my home in Athens, Georgia.

The funny thing is that I feel like I ended up in publishing by accident, even though my mom encouraged me to pursue that direction all my life. I got into publishing later in my life. In my 40s, after I already had a couple of careers and raised a family, I was accepted into graduate school and earned my Master of Arts in Professional Writing.

While in graduate school, I taught First-Year Composition, tutored writers, and volunteered as a poetry editor for a little literary magazine. On the side, I was coding and designing websites. Then I volunteered for SurfCoaches, a surfing company in Costa Rica, and created a digital magazine and website for them.

Those experiences gave me the confidence to approach the Georgia Writers Association and propose a digital literary magazine. They were thrilled since they only had a little newsletter at the time. I got a team together—mostly volunteer editors and readers—and we poured through submissions. We published poetry, short stories, and articles on the craft of writing. We did a couple of flash fiction contests too. A lot of fun!

Initially, I was just going to handle the poetry side, but surprisingly to me, I ended up being really good at fixing red-hot messes and fine-tuning short stories.

One of the accepted short-story authors asked me to edit her full manuscript. Then another asked and another. They referred me to their writer friends, and before I knew it, I was working with a writer every month while still in grad school. It spread by word of mouth. Soon writers asked me to come and talk at their writer groups, and I got even more clients. Then I started presenting at writer conferences, and my career took off from the exposure and experience. I’m booked two months or more in advance now.

A few years ago, I sent letters of introduction to a few university presses and small traditional publishers. I was hired on with The Wild Rose Press and got on the developmental editor list with the University of Georgia. During the first few years, I asked myself, “Is this real? Can I do it again next month?” And I always did. My mom would say, “I told you so.”

I’m still amazed at how I get to do what I love and I can do it from home, the coffee shop, the mountains—maybe the moon in five years. (Just kidding about the moon; I’ll settle for an island as long as I have a good internet connection.)

In college, I wanted to major in Biology. My mother bucked. She said, “But you can’t; you’re a girl!” Hard to imagine nowadays! She convinced me to major in English at Loyola University in New Orleans. Eventually, I rebelled, and I secretly enrolled in college for aeronautical science to become a commercial pilot like my father. I didn’t tell my mom until after my first solo! I flew turboprops and Lear Jets for a little while, and then life took unexpected twists and turns that led me to my current publishing career.

I’m still a FAA Certified Flight Instructor and have been for almost three decades now. Being a jet pilot is a bonus in the editing world. Aspiring authors often mention that my flying past was one of the deciding factors that made them pick up the phone and ask about my editorial services. And they always sign on.

Needless to say my mom was right. She knew I had a knack for writing and editing. Don’t you hate it when your mother is always right?

DB: What attracted you to editing?

VM: Although I edit at all levels—from developmental to proofreading—I’m most attracted to developmental editing. Developmental editors are all about the big picture. We assess how scenes hang together as a whole, how a story moves and unfurls, how characters drive the story forward. We’re kind of like detectives. We look for clues—or story seeds, as I call them.

These story seeds are often hidden or not fully fleshed out by the writer. But developmental editors look deep into the heart of a story and pull them out. Often writers don’t even know these seeds are there! Their creative subconscious scattered those seeds, but their consciousness was barely aware of them. When I point them out, their faces light up. It’s incredible to watch authors in this moment of inspired realization.

What I love the most about developmental editing is these light-bulb moments.

It’s deeply fulfilling to help writers fulfill their dreams. If a manuscript lacks focus, I’ll help the writer find it. If an author lacks confidence, I’ll work to inspire, challenge, and cheer them on. A developing editor’s job is not just about the manuscript—a large chunk of what we do involves inspiring the author’s voice and developing their full potential. In fact, the best developmental editors become the author’s collaborating partners—we hone the writer’s unique voice and make the author’s vision our vision.

When copyeditors move to developmental editing, it’s a significant perspective shift for sure. And how to make that move is a big part of my focus when teaching other editors to do what I do.

DB: When reading manuscripts, what qualities catch your attention?

VM: Well, on that first page, I’m crossing my fingers and hoping to be hooked. I love a story that starts with a strong voice—either a strong narrator voice or a strong character voice. Voice is a bit of an allusive term. What a good voice is for one editor may not be for another. It’s often very subjective.

In Voice: The Secret Power of Great Writing, James Scott Bell says that a “great voice is symbiotic,” meaning interdependent, and he encourages authors to identify with their characters so intimately that the authors begin to feel and think how the characters feel and think. Again, this is what actors do when preparing for a new part, and what I try to do in my workshops.

Furthermore, I love a story that captures my senses. At The Wild Rose Press, we have a good rule of thumb: include three sensory details per page and one of those should be something other than visual. Sensory details make the characters and their world come alive and really pop off the page.

DB: What qualities turn you off?

VM: Simply boring writing. Boring is also an elusive term too. What boring is for one editor may not be boring to another editor. Again, it’s often very subjective. But there are a few things that all editors will agree on.

For instance, dialogue that doesn’t add anything to the mood or increase the tension or drive the conflict. Boring dialogue and “talking heads” turn me off the most. Talking heads is when characters are talking but disconnected from the story world—there are no action beats, no sensory details, no glimpse into the point-of-view character’s inner world and motivations. The characters don’t feel real!

But the good news is it’s an easy fix. Writers can just look for long stretches of dialogue, and weave in actions and details to ground the reader in the story’s physical world. Then show the character’s conflicting desires, values, and emotions so the character becomes real.

Another turn-off is when the characters’ roles are generic, stereotyped, or old-fashioned because they don’t represent real people in all their colors, patterns, and quirks. Again boring.

DB: Could you describe your acquisition process at The Wild Rose Press?

VM: Every editor at The Wild Rose Press may have a different process. Typically, a senior editor or our editor-in-chief will send us a potential new author’s submission package consisting of the query letter and the first five pages. Each editor makes their own decision to request more pages or send a friendly (but often helpful) rejection letter. That’s why an author’s opening pages have to pop. Writers have a small window to hook a publisher and make the acquiring editor want to read on.

However, my submission process normally starts at a writers’ conference. Most of the submissions I read were sent to me from authors I met at a conference or workshop. I also get contacted by literary agents who pitch their client’s novels.

When I receive a submission, the first thing I do is read the first five pages. Often, I can tell on page one if it’s going to be a rejection—cold hard truth. If the opening doesn’t pop off the page, most readers aren’t going to wait until page three hundred to see if anything happens. One time, a writer told me, “But it gets good on page one hundred.” True story! Readers read for the joy and thrill of it. We want that joy and thrill on page one, page two, page three, and every page after that.

To get your foot in the door with an acquisition editor, rock the house down on the first page. It doesn’t have to be exploding bombs, car chases, shooting matches, and murder mayhem on page one, but it does need to hook us immediately and keep hooking us on every page.

The hook can be a promise of future conflict or subtle micro-tension or a strong character voice. One of those three things (preferably all three) will prompt me to immediately email the author and ask for a partial or full manuscript.

After reading the first five pages, I look at the pitch part of the author’s query. I’ll also read the synopsis and then request more pages or send a rejection. Some editors always read the query first and only ask for more pages based on the pitch. However, more than once, I’ve been thrilled by a fantastic pitch and strong synopsis, only to be disappointed when reading the manuscript. I think sometimes authors hire a professional query and synopsis writer.

I suggest writing it yourself. You have to know your story cold. When writers struggle to put the gist of their stories into a strong pitch paragraph or break the story down into a tight synopsis, then I bet there is a good chance their manuscripts have plot holes or too many storylines or too many characters—just my two feathers. I’m sure there are exceptions.

If I’m on the fence about a story or just want another opinion, I sometimes run it by our reading panel for their input. Depending on their positive reviews, I will continue with the acquisition process. Sometimes the readers give me insights I haven’t thought about or clue me into some aspects of the novel that might rub readers the wrong way.

Once I find a manuscript that I love and want to make an offer to the author, I send a Request for a Contract to my senior editor. If she approves, she sends it through, and an offer is made. Then the fun begins!

DB: What do you believe are the most significant changes in the publishing industry in the past five years?

VM: Well, the pandemic certainly changed things and pushed readers more strongly toward audio and digital books. Both have been steadily rising, but they really jumped up in readership during the pandemic. Audiobooks are a hot marketplace ticket! We are talking about a billion-dollar market here!

Authors may want to consider keeping their derivative rights. Derivative rights are the starting point for audiobooks. Before signing a publishing contract, ask, “Do I control my derivative rights, specifically my audio rights?” Read that contract and consider renegotiating to hang on to those rights. Because as I said, audio rights are hot right now and are expected to get hotter.

Spotify is buying Findaway and is really moving into the audiobook market. They expect audiobook sales to grow from $3.3 billion to $15 billion by 2027. That’s huge!

If you control that right, you get 100% of the profit. However, more publishers are keeping those rights. But it’s still economically not attractive for many publishers to produce audiobooks, so they may decide not to do it. In either case, you may want to ask for those rights to be reverted back to you so that you reap all the profit.

DB: What trends have you noticed lately?

VM: TikTok is the fastest-growing social media platform and is probably today’s essential tool for branding and marketing your novels. I used to rave about Twitter, but TikTok is stealing the show these days.

Although audiobooks and digital books are hot, print books are in demand, and apparently there is a shortage. Despite the surge in new technologies, all generations still prefer reading physical books. So, the good news is that print publishing is not dying as many had predicted.

Serial fiction is super-hot! As the old sales adage goes: It’s easier to keep an old client than to get a new one. The same goes for readers. This is particularly important for self-published authors. Sites like Kindle Vella, Wattpad, Inkitt, Tapas, Radish, and other online reading apps will continue to do well.

During the pandemic, book sales increased, especially among Gen Zers. Not surprising with more free time and people working from home or off work and going to school from home. And contrary to popular belief, Millennials are voracious readers.

The book industry is still alive and well. Older readers tend to gravitate to thrillers, mystery, and suspense, whereas younger readers tend to favor fantasy, science fiction, and general literature. Young adult novels had the most significant jump in sales in 2021. Also, 66% of poetry book buyers are under thirty-four. These young people are huge readers!

One interesting statistic I found is the rise in romance readership among young people, specifically young adult men. However, with that being said, most fiction readers are still women. About 80%!

Writers may want to think about creating a tough, wicked-smart female protagonist who solves her own problems and doesn’t wait for the knight in shining armor. I think the days of the damsel in distress are gone—again, just my two feathers.

It’s good to understand the differences between the generations and how they hear about novels. Gen Z looks to social media and friends for book recommendations, whereas most of the older generations depend on bookseller lists. So, if you’re not on social media, such as BookTok, I encourage you to get hopping. It’s never too late or too soon to start.

DB: Is there anything you’d like to add that I haven’t asked about?

VM: Yes! On behalf of all editors everywhere, I want to thank you and all the writers out there. Thank you for letting us into your creative worlds. I know how hard it is to let your “baby” go and entrust it to the care of an editor. I want to acknowledge the guts it takes to be a writer and put yourself out there. I’m so happy that you are in the world! Keep learning. Keep pushing your boundaries. Keep moving forward one page at a time.

You can find me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/editorvmathews and Instagram https://www.instagram.com/val_mathews/.

~~~

Val, thanks for the deep dive into the mind of an editor. We appreciate you sharing your insights with TKZ! 

~~~

This is my last post before TKZ goes on our annual holiday break. See you in 2023. Aargh! How did 2022 whiz by so fast?

As always, thank you for your interest and participation in TKZ’s community! 

May your holiday season be filled with cheer, love, and peace!

Running and Writing – The Finish Line

“The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.”
—John Bingham, running speaker and writer

* * *

No matter how long or short the race or how well or poorly the runner performs, the finish line is always a welcome sight. Crossing the line is a triumph in itself, but once there, it’s time to do more than enjoy the refreshments. Here are a few things to check off the list:

  1. Celebrate the completion of another race.
  2. Congratulate the other runners on their success. (In long road races, you will often see the leaders cross the finish line and then jog back down to course encouraging the slower runners.)
  3. Analyze the results. Did you prepare and train well enough? Did your strategy work? Did you give it your all? The answer is often “no” to one or more of these, but that’s good fodder for #4:
  4. Plan for the next race. Write down your goals and schedule the next competition.
  5. Get to work.

* * *

As we come to the finish line of 2022, it’s time to reflect on what we’ve done, what worked, what didn’t work, and start to plan for 2023.

I’ve mentioned here before that each year I create a list of goals that I tape to the back of my office door. I glance at them now and then throughout the year, and their mere presence seems to keep me from going too far off-track. I took my 2022 list down today and reviewed it. I’ve met most of the goals, some I missed completely, and several I changed during the year. Here are a few I’m celebrating:

  • Contributing a bi-weekly post to the Kill Zone Blog. I loved the challenge of coming up with something new every other week and interacting with all the folks who comment. I particularly enjoyed co-writing A Mystery of History with Dale Ivan Smith and working with BK Jackson, Debbie Burke, Priscilla Bettis, Becky Friedrichs, Patricia Bradley, and Robert Luedeman on the TKZ Handwriting Experiment.
  • It must have been Steve Hooley’s influence that inspired me to try my hand at a fantasy short story, The Clutter Busters, in the Collierville Christian Writers Anthology Stories from the Attic. (Since my story is the first in the anthology, you can read it by using the “Look Inside” link on Amazon.)
  • Created a Box Set of The Watch Mysteries, Books 1-3
  • Although I planned to begin the fourth book in the Watch Series of Mysteries in 2022, I changed that goal and instead worked on the first book of a new romantic suspense series, Lady Pilot-in-Command. I finished the first draft and sent it off to my editor a couple of weeks ago.
  • Continued my monthly Craft of Writing Blog series of interviews on my website. This year the blog featured authors of mystery, suspense, thriller, and fantasy novels. Most of the guests are regulars on TKZ, and their answers to the interview questions are enlightening.
  • Attended two writers’ conferences: Killer Nashville and the American Christian Fiction Writers conference.

Lest you think everything was sunshine and roses, here are a couple of notable misses:

  • Even though I submitted several times during the year, I was unable to get a Chirp deal for the audio version of Dead Man’s Watch.
  • I didn’t publish a novel in 2022. That wasn’t actually one of my written goals, but maybe it should have been:

Well, that’s a pretty good summary of my writing year. I’ve started jotting down my goals for 2023 (in handwriting, of course), combining realistic expectations with flights of fancy. Walking up to the starting line now …

So TKZers: Congratulations on completing another year of writing!

What are you celebrating as we come to the end of 2022?

What are your plans for 2023?

* * *

 

The Watch Mysteries Boxset: Books 1-3 Kindle edition on sale now.

 

You Are a Winner!

Congratulations! You have won the Publishers Give-a-House Christmas Extravaganza for Readers and Writers, a free, all expenses paid, life-time use of a Reader/Writer Dream Hideaway. And…you get to choose the location, contents, and amenities of that fully-equipped library/office, WITH NO LIMITS. Yes, a dream come true!

So, when you stop dancing with joy, tell us how you will choose and equip your dream site (and remember, your imagination is your only limitation):

  • Location – country, region, city, town
  • Setting – castle in the mountains, cabin in the forest, sea-side bungalow, castle in the Scottish Highlands, English country manor, yacht in the Caribbean, anything you can imagine
  • Library – size, description, book collection, and view from the window(s)
  • Computer/electronic gear
  • Software
  • Amenities – coffee pot, maid service, room service, masseuse

When you have experienced “the high life” long enough to want to revisit your current home, I will be happy to occupy and protect your hide-away for you while you are gone, with no charge for my services.

Hint: If you choose a large enough venue, you could invite all of the TKZ community to come and visit you.

What Day Is It Again?

By John Gilstrap

As I woke up this morning, and my wife and I were planning the events of the day, I told her that I needed a couple of hours to write my Killzone Blog post.

“I thought they went up on Wednesdays,” she said.

“That’s right.”

“Today is Wednesday.”

“No, it’s not. Today is Tuesday.”

“Wednesday.”

“Crap. It’s Wednesday.”

Normally, I’m not an in-my-jammies kind of worker. While my office is just down the hall, it’s still my office, and if I’m at my desk, I’m dressed for the day. Except this morning. As I write this, the clock on the wall tells me that it’s 8:35 a.m. That tells me that I’ve already missed the eyes of commuting readers. And I’m bearing the burden of Reavis Wortham’s post from a few days ago, where he talks about the moral betrayal that is the missing of a deadline.

I choose to blame Thanksgiving. That Thursday holiday makes the days that follow all feel like Saturday or Sunday. Throw in the fact that we’ve been decorating the new abode for Christmas and I haven’t been near a calendar, and here we are. I’m writing, but let’s be honest. I’m not saying very much. Bottom line: I dropped the ball.

Just wait till next time, though. Maybe I’ll be brilliant.

Here are the discussion questions, now that Thanksgiving is in the rearview mirror and Christmas is fast approaching:

  1. Does your favorite whipped cream come out of an aerosol can or a tub?
  2. Do you agree that a satisfying Thanksgiving dinner must include jellied cranberry sauce?

Misjudging A Book By Its Cover,
Getting Back In The Saddle,
And In Praise of Bad Writing

By PJ Parrish

We should all have such problems…

I read a story in the New York Times this week about a debut author whose novel became an international bestseller with rights sold in 40 countries, was named Barnes & Noble’s book of the year, and is on track to be the bestselling debut novel of 2022. Oh yeah, an Apple TV+ adaption is in the works.

But she’s getting a lot of hate mail because of her….cover.

The book, Lessons In Chemistry, is about a woman scientist in the 1960s who is opinionated, funny and intelligent, but she’s cheated out of her doctorate and brutally sidelined by male colleagues who, as one reviewer put it, make Don Draper look like a SNAG (Sensitive New Age Guy). Think of The Queen’s Gambit set in the macho labs of abiogenesis. The heroine wears a sharp No. 2 pencil in her chignon not for style but as a weapon against sexual advances.

 

But then there’s that cover.  Bubble-gum pink, with a cartoonish woman’s face peering over a pair of cat-eye sunglasses. Some readers picked it up as a quick beach read, expecting — I hate this phrase — “women’s fiction.” What they got was a serious look at the frustrations of a generation of women, who were relegated to the corners, ignored, or worse.

Garmus is able to laugh about the hate mail from some readers, saying, “They were like, ‘You’re the worst romance novelist ever!’”  She says the cover has turned off a few men, admitting that during an talk to an all-male book club, members were dissuaded by the cover’s Necco Wafer shell. “But as I’m fond of saying,” Garmus said, “the book isn’t anti-men, it’s anti-sexism.”

It’s also, by all accounts, a fun read. There’s a mystery, mixed in with a shrewd  look at politics, and a dysfunctional bad local TV station. The heroine has an addiction to her rowing machine, loves her daughter and her dog Six-Thirty.

James Daunt, chief executive of B&N, admits that aiming the novel at a female readership is “a bit pigeonholing….but the book has dominated the cover.”

Love that phrase — dominated its cover. As a writer who has had her share of bad covers, I sympathize. It’s an eye-catching cover, to be sure. But the dissonance between it and its message is jarring. I’m glad Garmus can joke about it. She had more than 100 rejections of other manuscripts before Lessons In Chemistry. Nice to break through — at the ripe young age of 65.

How To Get Back To Writing

Back from a long and lazy vacation where eating, drinking and reading were the only things on my brain, I’m having a devil of a time opening the file of the WIP. So when Jane Friedman’s latest blog popped up in the mailbox the other day, I clicked.  It was by an author who, feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, found a way to grease the wheels again.

Matthew Duffus writes: “When I finished my MFA in 2005, I didn’t write for a year. Between exhaustion from completing a readable draft of a novel on deadline and the confusion caused by having too many critical voices in my head (thanks, workshop), I didn’t know where to begin, let alone how to get to The End of something. I’d burned out on my thesis, realizing it would be my “novel in the drawer,” and had no idea what to do next. After the first few maddening weeks, I tried embracing Richard Ford’s concept of ‘refilling the well.’ When this stopped working, I knew I needed to try something new.”

Duffus has three easy steps. And yeah, I’ve tried all three.

  1. Set a challenge. Forget stuff like NaNoWriMo. He says, “had I known about that event in 2005, I would have crawled into bed and not come out until December 1st.” Instead, he read like a maniac — English classics mainly. It made him eager to write again. I get that. After my vaca, I was sated on reading. My fingers longed for the keyboard again.
  2. Start small. Says Duffus, “Instead of aiming for 1,000 words per day, as I’d done in grad school, I bought a pack of three-by-five index cards and numbered the first thirty. I filled the lined side of one index card per day for the next month. By the end of that period, I had the beginnings of a longer piece that I was already dedicated to pursuing further.” For me, my small stuff was returning to a short story I had been stalled on, and sweating the deadline for an anthology.
  3. Try a new style. Focusing on his notecards forced Duffus to go slower rather than obsess about hitting a daily word count. He also switched a stalled novel from third to first person and it gave him momentum. That led him to finally set aside a novel he had worked on for 15 years and begin a new one. He finished it. I had a similar experience with my short story. It wasn’t working. I switched it from third to first and reset the time from the present to the 1960s, using John D. MacDonald’s style as my inspiration. I finished it this weekend. It was fun.

You’ve Gotta Be Good To Write This Badly

Finally, I give you the year’s best in really bad writing. No, no…not the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Awards. They’ve cancelled them because as the judges wrote: “The public has been subjected to too many bad things this year to justify exposing it to bad sex as well.” Well, we’ll just have to go back and re-read our John Updike, right?

That leaves us with the Bulwer-Lytton Dark and Stormy Night contest. Since 1982 the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest has challenged participants to write an atrocious opening sentence to the worst novel never written. The contest honors Sir Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, whose 1830 novel Paul Clifford begins with “It was a dark and stormy night.”

I forgot to report these earlier this year, but attention must be paid. Especially since the grand prize winner this year is a fellow crime dog.

GRAND PRIZE WINNER by John Farmer Aurora Col.

I knew she was trouble the second she walked into my 24-hour deli, laundromat, and detective agency, and after dropping a load of unmentionables in one of the heavy-duty machines (a mistake that would soon turn deadly) she turned to me, asking for two things: find her missing husband and make her a salami on rye with spicy mustard, breaking into tears when I told her I couldn’t help—I was fresh out of salami.

CRIME AND DETECTIVE FIRST PLACE by Jim Anderson, Flushing, Mich.

The detectives wore booties, body suits, hair nets, masks and gloves and longed for the good old days when they could poke a corpse with the toes of their wingtips if they damn well felt like it.

Dishonorable Mentions 

They called Rock Mahon the original hard-boiled detective, and it wasn’t because of his gravelly voice, or his crusty manner, or his chiseled jaw, or his cement-like abs, or his feldspar fists, or his iron incorruptibility, or his calcite cynicism, or his uzonite unsentimentality, but because of his goddamned, geezly, infuriating habit of polluting every crime scene with shells dropped from the hard-boiled eggs he munched without surcease.– Barbara Stevenson, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

As detective Harry Bolton knelt down looking at the fifth murdered prostitute in as many weeks, he thought his was a cold cruel city and that maybe he should have taken that job in rural North Carolina but he didn’t think he could be like sheriff Andy Taylor all in black and white, plus he couldn’t stand Aunt Bea’s falsetto voice, and who names their kid Opie anyway, he had to know it rhymed with dopey, you might as well just call him dipstick, that doesn’t rhyme with much. — Doug Self, Brunswick, ME

The heat blanketed the small village in much the same way a body bag blankets a murder victim, except that a body bag is usually black, which the heat wasn’t, as heat is colorless, and the village wasn’t dead, which a murder victim usually is. — Eric Rice, Madison, WI

In honor of all the winners, I leave you with the queen of real talent laboring in the pursuit of artful awfulness — Lucille Ball. She made an enduring and endearing shtick about her caterwauling attempts to get on the stage. In real life, she was a pretty okay singer. Hit it, Lucy.

 

Due Dates

Leaning back in my recliner, I’m typing this post on November 25, the day after Thanksgiving 2022, as the world spins like the blurry view from a municipal park merry-go-round every time I move my head. I’m suffering another bout of vertigo.

Adding insult to injury, I ache all over with a flu virus the Bride contracted from one of the grand-critters a few days ago, before passing it on to me.

Each time I get up, I stagger like a college freshman on spring break, but thanks to the benefits of modern chemistry, I’m now able to keep my stomach from turning wrong-side out.

It’s not a great day to write, but here I am, because I have a deadline for this blog on Saturday, November 26.

I first started showing symptoms of this most recent bout of vertigo three days ago and as luck would have it, I had a newspaper column deadline to meet. Propped up in the bed up at our Lamar County cabin in Northeast Texas (five miles from the Red River and Oklahoma), I kept my eyes closed and pecked out a nine hundred-word Thanksgiving recollection from fifty years ago.

Finished, I hit send after a cursory scan and faded into a deep sleep. Far from recovered the next day, the Bride drove us home. That’s when everything in my body started aching.

Vertigo isn’t something new for me. The first time it attacked was maybe five years ago in Key West, while we were on vacation with the Gilstraps. John and I have a tendency to wreck our livers when we’re together, and early one morning I rose to find myself on the deck of a ship in high seas. Bouncing like a pinball from a wall, to a chair, and finally the bathroom, I upended the contents of my stomach and wondered how much I really drank.

Wait, I’m not in college anymore.

Flipping through mental files with one cheek on the cool toilet seat, I counted up the number of drinks I’d consumed the night before and realized the symptoms weren’t alcohol related. The Bride located a Doc-in-the-Box a mile away and I soon joined the flow of a dozen college kids reeking of booze and heading for the front door. As one, we staggered into the waiting room and the participants collapsed on the nearest horizontal surface.

In once instance, a young lady curled up in the fetal position on the floor and wept.

The tired doctor surveyed the room, took note of my age, and after a flurry of questions, escorted me into an examination room.

“Lay back on this table and turn your head to the right.”

Urk!!!”

“I thought so. You have vertigo.”

He was glad to see something besides alcohol poisoning and sever dehydration which seemed to be going around that January. After poking a handful of pills down my goozle, he gave me a prescription for dizziness and nausea and launched me back into the world where I managed to function with respectable fortitude for the remainder of our trip.

My second round of vertigo happened again nearly two years later when I was the master of ceremonies at one of the world’s largest book club conferences held by the Pulpwood Queens in Jefferson, Texas. Again, I slept flat on my back the night I arrived and the next day stumbled into the enormous hall containing 500 attendees to take the stage.

I told them up front I wasn’t drunk, though I wished I was. I played off the symptoms, and many thought the organizer, Kathy Murphy, brought in Foster Brooks’ son as the MC. I introduced a panel every hour on the hour beginning at nine that morning, then wove my way outside to sit behind the wheel of my truck and doze for fifty minutes until time for the next panel to begin.

Some of the ladies took pity on me after the second hour and poured copious amounts of coffee into this bod so I could hold up my end of the bargain over a three day period. If memory serves, and recollections are somewhat fuzzy, I ended the conference to a standing ovation.

But that might have been a hallucination.

Today I told you that, to emphasize this. If you’re going to be a writer, or become involved in any aspect thereof, you have to meet deadlines. Whether it’s a weekly newspaper column, a magazine article, a personal appearance, a Zoom panel, a conference, or the delivery date for a book, you must meet that deadline.

Show up for work. Play hurt, or don’t play at all.

Again with John Gilstrap, I wrote a newspaper column at four in the morning, riding in the backseat of an SUV, on the way to join up with a Florida SWAT team and participate in the arrest of an accused purveyor of kiddie porn. We were there to train with those fine men in blue, I had to get it written, because I was on deadline.

I’m close friends with a well-respected, successful novelist and he managed to bring in a novel after building a house, moving twice, attracting Covid, and surviving a disastrous injury to a family member. Because of his track record, his publisher granted a small deadline extension which he met, and he survived with his reputation intact.

I suspect that because that request was granted because he’s been meeting other deadlines for about twenty-five years, or more.

Writing is a business, and we can’t let the public or publishers down because of a few unanticipated obstacles.

And with that, I’m going through the required steps to post this blog, and leaving this stable chair for the rolling deck of my living room. If I make it far enough, I’m crashing again until the crystals stabilize inside my skull.

Even if I’m not completely up to snuff, I’ll write tomorrow, propped up in bed like Mark Twain with his newfangled typewriter, because I have a March 1 deadline for the second Tucker Snow novel.

That’s what I do.

Oh, and Happy Holidays to you all!