Monday, September 30, 2013

The Author-Agent Relationship

I’m just back from a trip to New York City, and one of the things I did while there was to meet with my great agent, Ellen Geiger of Francis Goldin Literary Agency. That meeting started me thinking about the whole author-agent relationship.

Ellen and I have become friends, as well as business colleagues, during the years she’s been representing me, so our long conversations often touched on the personal. But I was struck by the business part of our talks. I don’t think it was what most authors who are looking for an agent would have expected. We didn’t talk specific contracts (with the exception of an unusual one that’s currently under negotiation). Those discussions are taken care of by phone and email at the time the contract’s being negotiated. What we talked about most of all was what direction my writing career should take in the future. Ellen knows how far we can go in one area before hitting its ceiling, and she encourages me to consider writing other books in other areas, so I won’t be one of the writers having to reinvent myself because my current market has dried up under me.

This kind of long-range career planning is the kind of thing a good agent does with her/his client when they have the chance. After all, I have a contract with Ellen to essentially be my guide and representative in the business aspects of my writing career, and that involves (or should involve) more than just today’s contract for tomorrow’s book. I have this contract with Ellen because she knows the business, and that knowledge is vital in informing the decisions I’ll make about my future efforts. I take her advice seriously because it’s a large part of what I wanted an agent for in the first place.

I know some writers would balk at this. “I don’t want some agent telling me what to write,” one friend said to me when I mentioned this arrangement once. “They’ll always push you toward the commercial and away from the artistic and literary books of your heart.” First of all, Ellen doesn’t tell me what books to write, but she does advise directions and helps me choose the best next book from among the many I want to write. Secondly, that old wives’ (or perhaps more fittingly, old writers’) tale of the agent who forces their author to churn out commercial trash at the expense of her or his soul and reputation is now false, if it ever was true at all. Ellen has even been encouraging me to write a memoir and a literary novel lately. Not exactly the stereotype of the agent my friend and too many others have.

I think it’s important for writers who are still looking for an agent to educate themselves about what a good agent does for her/his client. That way, they’re not as likely to get suckered by one of the bad ones out there—and never forget to check them out with the Association of Authors Representatives and Writer Beware websites. A good agent may have to say things a writer doesn’t want to hear, such as “This book needs more revision,” or “That’s about as much of an advance as you can expect for this genre at your stage of career.” Hollywood and writer-myth have given us this notion that an agent can sell an otherwise unpublishable book and get huge advances for everyone, including rank beginners. Neither of these is true.

Our writing success is directly linked to three things—how good our writing is, how wise our decisions are, and luck. An agent can’t bring us luck or counter the effects of lazy writing, but s/he can help us to make much wiser decisions about the business and the path we choose to take in our career and help steer us away from major pitfalls. The key word in that sentence is “choose,” because the choices are still all the writer’s. The agent only advises. A bad agent is a disaster, but a good one can be a major partner in creating a successful writing career.

If you have an agent, how does your relationship play out? If you’re looking for an agent, what qualities and services are you seeking?

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Of Writing and Murder and Being Considered Sane in Public

Let’s talk about murder for a second.

It’s the reason we’re all pretty much here, right, reading a blog called “Writers Who Kill”?

Because to write a mystery, you’ve got to bloody somebody’s fictional hands.

It’s just the way it goes. From Agatha to Stieg and every writer with a story in between, we’re all fictional murderers if we’re writing mystery. That’s just the way things are.

And therein lies a tiny little problem when I (and probably you) tell people what I write.

The conversation usually goes a little something like this.

“You’re a writer?”


“What do you write?”

“Outside of newspaper stuff? Mysteries.”

“Like with murder?”


“Really? You seem so nice…”

The thing with writing mysteries is that folks think you secretly want to kill people.

Which isn’t true in the slightest.

Mystery writing isn’t about the murder.

It’s about finding the truth in the puzzle.

It’s about exposing the guilty, not glorifying what they’ve done.

Thus, when I discuss my manuscripts or potential manuscripts with people, I’m very lucky that my friends/critique partners/beta readers understand this very fine point. Because to talk about mystery ideas you first have to talk about murder.

Which, out of context, makes me (and you) sound completely insane.

In fact, I’ve had many a dinner or lunch meeting or writing date with writer friends where the discussion often veers into ideas on how to off someone in a book. What’s reasonable. What’s far-fetched but cool. What really fits into the storyline. Etc.

I just visited two of my writer friends in North Carolina, and fresh off the plane, my friend Renee shuttled me to a giant Whole Foods for lunch. As we chowed down on garlic-y kale in the store’s café, we discussed, probably a little too loudly, how I’d like to do a sort of fictionalized update of In Cold Blood.

Thus, there we sat, two bright-eyed chickadees chatting about bodies and blood spray in a farm house, a town on lockdown and the horror that comes from what seems like a completely random crime.

A couple of other folks were in the café, and I’m sure anyone listening in was mentally deciding whether he or she would get enough cell reception in a café bathroom to call the cops on us or if it would be best to just get up and walk out before the conversation got worse.

At least we gave those folks a really interesting Thursday afternoon.

Why do you gravitate toward writing mystery?

P.S.: The pic at the top is of a little guy my hubby bought me after I’d written my first in-the-drawer mystery. My special pencil holder has been terrifying coworkers and getting laughs ever since. And he’s the perfect metaphor, no?

Saturday, September 28, 2013


In preparing this series, I solicited answers to ten survey questions from members of the Writers Who Kill blog and authors who are well-known for their wonderful mystery short stories. These authors have been so generous, detailed, and insightful in sharing their views and providing excellent information that I wanted the WWK readers to have the full benefit of their replies.

Today, Jerome W. McFadden, author and editor for the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable monthly online literary journal, offers his perspective.

Jerome W McFadden has held various esoteric jobs around the world while supporting his writing addiction, including selling industrial chemicals in Africa, surfboards in Europe, and crayons in Asia. He has 20 years experience in free-lance writing for American magazines and newspapers but is now focusing on fiction. He received a 2nd place Bullet award in June, 2011, for the best crime fiction on the web, had one of his short stories performed aloud on the London stage by the UK Liar’s league, and received top mentions in several national short story contests.

Jerome, thank you for being with us and taking the time to answer the survey questions.
How has being part of a short story writing community influenced your writing?

The fantasies in your head are much larger that what the reader sees on the page, no matter how many words you have written. The Bethlehem Writers Group, to which I have belonged for several years now, helps me to see exactly the words that I put on that page, as they have no idea of full scene that I imagined in my head. I listen to them and sometimes think, “Why didn’t they see that?” and then slowly realize that maybe I did not express it exactly the way I saw it in my imagination. Which makes me a better writer next time.
A good group also catches your grammar mistakes, your word repetitions, and sentences that just do not work. That is valuable (but sometimes irritating) in itself.
But you also have to learn to trust yourself. Your instincts should tell you what you should and should not accept of what the group is saying about your writing. You must learn not to write for the group or a community, but to write for yourself - but keep an open mind when they talk.

What is your thought process when you submit or select stores for a themed anthology?

There are two questions here:
(1) When I am submitting, I use the theme as seed for my story, then let my imagination fly in any direction it wants to go, i.e., never to let the theme bind me into a strait jacket just because the theme might be “food” or “seasons” or “Christmas stories,” all of which have been BWG anthology themes. I seem to have a reputation (deservedly) for weird and wacky stories, and all of these mundane themes directed me in some weird and wacky directions.
(2) The Bethlehem Writers Group employs specific guidelines to evaluate stories submitted to our annual SHORT STORY AWARD competition. The winner of the competition receives a cash prize and is published in our next anthology, so we know the task of judging is important. To inject objectivity into selecting finalists, despite the different backgrounds, prejudices, and preferred genres of our judging committees, we evaluate each story based on:
a) Relevance to our theme – Yes or No?
b) Skill/creativity demonstrated by the author
c) Ending – The story cannot just tail off, nor should the ending be predictable, deus ex machine (except perhaps for humorous effect), or flat. It must tie back into the story to “close” it.
d) Mechanics – Spelling, grammar, formatting
e) Overall satisfaction – Not just with the ending but with the full story itself.
Aside from the question of theme, the other four questions are scored on a 10-point scale, for a possible maximum of 40 points. If there is a wide discrepancy among judges, we
add another judge or two, just to be sure that we are being fair to the writer. Then the finalists are sent to an independent judge for the selection of the winners.
Our 2014 SHORT STORY AWARD competition begins on October 1 of this year, and closes on January 31, 2014. This year’s theme is food stories, broadly interpreted. You can find out more about it on our Roundtable website (
For Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, our monthly literary journal for which I am an editor, we have a less formal evaluation process in part because there are fewer people making the selections. All of our editors consider each submission, looking for good stories, good writing, and a good fit for our publication. There is a submission form with more information on our website (

When do you know an idea is suited for a short story instead of a longer work?

The opposite is a more important question: How do you know an idea can carry a longer work rather than just being a germ of an idea for a short story of indeterminate length? A longer work demands an idea that has depth and structure and multi-layers to it that can carry a story through to the length of a novel. Most ideas can be expressed into a short story or maybe into a novella, but cannot necessarily carry a full blown novel.

Have you written flash fiction? What do you think of flash fiction as a literary form?

Flash fiction is very much a true literary form. It is harder to write a strong, coherent, emotionally-meaningful story in 100 to 500 words than it is to write a short story of 2,000 to 6,000 words. This goes back to old anecdote of a famous writer writing a letter to a friend but starting it by saying, “I’m sorry, but I do not have time to write you a short letter.” Good flash fiction is hard and demands great writing.

How many characters can be in a short story?

The nature of the beast demands that the number of characters be limited. Depending on the length, two to four may be the limit, five maximum. Otherwise you will confuse the reader or turn many of the characters into shallow cardboard cut-outs or stereotypes that add nothing to the story. The reverse of that question is equally interesting: How few characters can you have in a short story? Just one? Or does it take two to have a conflict and add tension?

How long have you been writing short stories?

Off and on when I was young, including high school and college, but criticism and rejection would shut me down for long periods. As I matured I learned to accept both for what they are: Other people’s opinions. And that should never stop anyone from something they really want to do.

What is good/bad about the current short story market?

The good: The proliferation of “markets” through the internet, self-publishing, blogging, etc.
The bad: Overwhelming competition and the lack of paying markets.

Should an unpublished author self-publish short stories?

That is the only way an unpolished author is going to get a collection of short stories published. There is a very, very, small market for short story collections in the publishing industry. The only collections being published by traditional publishers are by highly well-known novelists, and even those have limited print runs. Collections of short stories do not sell well without that kind of hook. Literary houses continually publish short story collections, but that is for prestige earned from literary awards and prizes, not for their sales potential.

The reason I write short stories is:

I love to write them.

The most important aspect of writing a mystery short story is:


Again, thanks for joining us and providing us with such terrific insight, Jerome. Best wishes for your continuing success.

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Second Step

A Second Step

I wrote about the effect a bicycle could have on a child, a family and ultimately an entirely community in a developing industrial country.  As a writer, I appreciate that experiencing something in person gives a perspective not available in other way.

An example of cash-poor living concerns a device estimated to have been invented 10, 000 years ago, namely a kiln.  One of the villages we visited was home to a tribe that migrated to Tanzania some years ago.  Needing a way to survive, the tribe developed an economic niche as brick makers. 

By local standards they would not be considered poor because they have all the necessities of life.  I observed that only children walk in this village.  Everyone else runs.  A man with a pick dug clay out of pit. He stopped only to hurl rocks out of the way. Another man slapped clay into a two-brick-mold, hurried the filled mold to a drying area, flipped over the mold dislodging the newly formed bricks, ran back to dip the mold into a pits of muddy water and restart the process. A third man ran with a wheelbarrow full of clay.  A woman stacked six bricks on her head and quickly carried them away.

We talked to a local elder who explained the faster they worked the more money they made.  Each family had a separate business.  Some families had built a kiln and some had not.  I asked if the villagers shared the kilns. He said they did not. Sounding like my capitalist father, he said those with kilns had saved money for years to have then.  Those families (like his) made a major investment and others in the village could do that too by working harder.

            Asked the price of bricks, he said roughly six fired bricks for a dollar and six unfired bricks for twenty cents.  Using a kiln increased the value of bricks five times.

            He said he wanted his children to get an education well beyond his so they could leave the hard life of brick making for something easier and better paying.  Our guide pointed out that the villagers did not sell bricks every day. It might be a long time between sales. 

            Apparently business loans and mortgages are difficult to obtain.  When people want a house or a kiln they spend what cash they have to start the project.  When they run out of money, they stop building.  As soon as they accumulate more cash, the building resumes.  I saw many unfinished buildings both in the city and the countryside. 

Thursday, September 26, 2013


My daughter, Mary, at Filoli gardens.
Sometime last winter, I finished the third book in my Catherine Jewell mystery series, Ladies of the Garden Club, and put it aside and out of my mind for the time being. Instead I concentrated on getting the second book, Daylilies for Emily’s Garden published before Malice Domestic as well as my middle-grade book, The Sherlock Holmes Detective Club I had finished long ago, but needed attention to reformatting and a final read through.

Spring and summer are always a busy time for me. There’s the Malice Domestic Convention in May, vacations and various events like graduation open houses, picnics, wedding showers, and more get-togethers  with family and friends that come up when the weather is nice. For some reason this year has had more birthday parties for all the little ones now in my extended family. Of course, for me there’s the lawn and garden work that gets overwhelming from March through October. There’s not only the mowing – and not with a riding mower – but planting, weeding and trips to garden centers to buy more plants. Then comes strawberry season, and this year my patch had more than enough to supply my love of strawberries. Later the lettuce and peas were ready to be picked followed by cucumbers, beans and blueberries. This year, however, because of one of the rainiest summers I’ve ever had, the tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables suffered so I had little freezing to do and no canning  My sister living less than fifty miles south of me suffered from lack of rain, yet still had a bountiful crop.  Of course, my grass and weeds, if not my veggies, thrived like never before.

Maggie by my blueberry patch 
So any writing or writing related activities I’ve done this past spring and summer has been limited to my weekly blogs, the occasional poem, mostly started and not finished, and three short stories, plus a book signing for my second book at a local bookstore - poor neglected second child.  I did have it in time for the Malice Domestic at least.

Finally, after much nagging from those who have read and enjoyed the first two books in The Catherine Jewell Mystery Series, I started my final edit of Ladies of the Garden Club toward the end of August and finished my read through making corrections and changes. Now I’m sending it three to five chapters at a time to my Guppy critique partners. I’ve also given a hard copy to a writer in my local writing group, who has been my beta reader for my other books, and I respect her opinion, and I’m sending chapters by email attachments to my sister, who is now retired from teaching. And for all those who think family can’t be trusted to be critical enough, this sister is a very critical reader. Many, but not all of the mysteries I liked and shared with her, she found faults with the writing, and her comments were astute.

One of the things surprising me in going back to this book after so much time away from it was sometimes reading scenes or even once a chapter, that I didn’t remember writing. The same is true with my critique partners, Ann and Mary. Their comments are often “I don’t remember reading this. Is it new?” And I can’t remember if it’s a revision or an addition from their first reading and editing of this book. And just like me as I reread these chapters I’d stored in the closet in my mind for so long, they’re enjoying reading it again. They know the villain, how it ends, but they’re enjoying meeting the characters again and getting reacquainted with them. They’re also chuckling at the humorous spots again. And they’re finding the little glitches – the missed quotations marks, etc.

For me the most stressful time of writing is here. Soon I’ll have all my edits received and will do that last and final edit. My granddaughter, the graphic artist who has designed all my covers, is working on this cover now. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with.  Hopefully, I’ll have this latest book up and out in the next month or so, and I’ll finally have copies of the Ladies of the Garden Club in my hand. Then I’ll be able to start scheduling book signings for this book and my others, too, including the anthologies I’m in.

So why is it so stressful for me? It’s because I want this book to be perfect. I know it’s not a book that will appeal to everyone. No book is, but at least I want those who have read and enjoyed my other books to enjoy this one, too. And I want it to be totally glitch free.

What stage of your writing is the most stressful for you?

If you’re not a writer, what do you find most stressful?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Linda Lovely Interview

Linda Lovely set her first Marley Clark series, Dear Killer, on an island near Beaufort, S.C. Of course, the beach setting attracted me, and I admired her main character, who served as a security officer on the island after retiring as a military intelligence officer. Her third book in this series, With Neighbors Like These, will be released soon. In addition to this series, Linda also writes one-off romantic/suspense thrillers. Her first, Final Accounting, left me breathless. Please welcome Linda to WWK.                                                                            E. B. Davis

1. Could you give our readers a synopsis of your Marley Clark series?

Marley, a 52-year-old widow, is retired military, and she’s working security to keep mind and body busy. Her security job and skills give her plenty of opportunities/reasons for becoming involved in solving murders and other mysteries. She’s recently come to realize her late husband would not want her to remain a loveless, lonely widow, but returning to a world of courtships and relationship challenges often leaves her befuddled. Marley is smart, fit, and sexy. She has a keen sense of humor and some interesting (and funny) friends.

2. When will With Neighbors Like These be released? Can you give us the jacket paragraph?

I’m aiming for late 2013, though recent distractions (good ones) have caused a slight delay. For example, I just signed contract with a narrator to produce a Dear Killer audio book and need to provide notes about the “voices” I hear in my head when my characters speak.

In With Neighbors Like These, Marley’s best friend (Janie) has started a business that offers management services, including security, to homeowner associations (HOAs) throughout the seaside county. When squabbles among homeowners turn vicious, Janie turns to Marley for help. Then someone’s murdered. And another murder quickly follows. Both death scenes are staged to humiliate the deceased. Since the murders aren’t confined to a single HOA, it’s a stretch to believe testy neighbors are the villains. Yet tempers are boiling. Could the second murder be a copycat crime? Marley suspects a different murder motive is in play. Braden, Marley’s love interest in DEAR KILLER, is back in the Lowcountry, too!    

3. Your main characters aren’t cozy. Marley has a tough edge. She swears. She owns weapons and knows how to use them. Is this due to her military training or would Marley still possess these attributes without her military experience?

I wanted a series heroine who would logically have the skills and experience (and a job) that would allow her to become involved in investigating and solving crimes. I chose a military background for Marley because my best friend since kindergarten is a retired military intelligence officer and was kind enough to share a lot of her experiences with me. As far as the swearing goes, Marley mostly uses “milder” swear words that my own mother might have used if she dropped a hammer on her toe or found a dead body. I can tell you if I stumbled over a corpse, I would utter something stronger than “oh my goodness.” I hope my language is realistic without being unnecessarily vulgar.

4. Water is a common theme in your work. Does it have a special significance for you?

Yes, I LOVE the water. I grew up next to the Mississippi River, spent childhood and teen summers in Spirit Lake, Iowa, and have either lived near or beside water most of my adult life. I’m an avid swimmer and kayaker. It’s only natural that my characters share my love for the ocean and lakes.

5. Is Dear Island, the setting for the Marley Clark series, real or your creation?

Dear Island is a composite island with features lifted from a variety of communities. I lived in the Beaufort area for twelve years. Engaged in tourism-related public relations work, I visited many of the South Carolina Lowcountry’s delightful communities, historic sites, and cultural attractions.

6. Your secondary characters at times are comical, such as the big shot homeowner association
president, who takes himself too seriously or tragic, such as the young brothers who are loose on the island with no parental supervision. Have you lived in communities like the one you describe on Dear Island?

Like Dear Island, my characters are composites. I steal traits from the people (good and/or detestable) I’ve encountered over the years, mixing and matching characteristics as needed. I’ve killed off (on the page!) a number of people who’ve seriously annoyed me. They would never recognize themselves, however. I’ve changed their ages, appearance, professions, and, on occasion, even their gender. What I’ve kept is their core character. In almost any neighborhood, there’s at least one annoying know-it-all, who really ought to find another hobby/interest and leave his/her neighbors in peace.  

7. Do you think that being a finalist in the Golden Heart and Daphne Du Maurier contests helped you become published?

Not directly. But entering contests helped me improve my craft. Feedback from judges helped me spot problems in my manuscript I hadn’t noticed. Also serving as a judge has made me more aware of potential flaws in my own manuscript related to pacing and dialogue. Sometimes less really is more.

8. Your publishers include, MuseItUp Publishing, L&L Dreamspell, and Harlequin Worldwide Mystery. How did you find your publishers or they find you?

I met an editor for L&L Dreamspell at a conference, and she suggested I submit to them (L&L is no longer in business). A critique partner who’d published with MuseItUp suggested I submit to that house. I met a Harlequin editor at another conference who suggested my Marley Clark series might suit the Worldwide Mystery line. L&L submitted works by several of its authors to Worldwide Mystery.

9. Why do you write a mystery series and one-off suspense thrillers? Do they both fulfill a function in your writing?

I’m sure I’d be wiser to concentrate in one genre and write all of my books with a cohesive readership in mind. But I have ideas for stories I really want to explore/write that don’t fit my Marley Clark series and location. For example, I just finished LIES, a romantic suspense manuscript set in Iowa in 1938. It’s inspired in part by stories my mother told me about how hard it was for working women in the Depression. I’ve put that book on a shelf to “age” for a couple of months before I return for a final critical edit. FINAL ACCOUNTING was inspired by a troubled young lady I met in college and a visit to Jamaica when my sister and brother-in-law lived there. The idea for MISDIRECTION, a completed manuscript now looking for a home, came from a visit by a director of security for a nearby university to our Upstate SC Chapter of Sisters in Crime.

10. Tell us about your next one-off suspense thriller?

I’m not sure which of the thrillers I just mentioned will be published first. I’m hoping LIES will be published soon. I had such fun doing the historical research on my hometown of Keokuk, Iowa.

Bonus: Which do you prefer, beach or lake?

I love the beach for walking the shoreline. I love the lake for swimming and kayaking. I can stare at the beauty of either one for hours (but then I’d never finish a manuscript).