Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Ellen Hart writes:

I remember the first time I was asked this questions: Does it bother you that you're writing about murder as entertainment? It was at a Barnes & Noble and I choked. I'm sure I eventually said something coherent, but I remember going home with the thought that this was something I needed to consider. In fact, this question ultimately helped me form my philosophy about what I do as a writer.

So this time, the question is for you:

Does it bother you that you're writing about murder as entertainment?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Reviews Today: It’s the Wild West out there

by Libby Hellmann

The holidays are over, and now that we’ve packed up all our peace and good will until next year, it's time to turn our attention to something not so kind and gentle.


You know the story. It used to be you’d write a book. Your publisher would send out ARCs to major trade publications and newspapers. While you probably wouldn’t get reviewed in the New York Times, you could count on Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal. And your local newspapers. Those reviews, for which we sat on pins and needles weeks in advance, helped create buzz. Good reviews could make or break library sales, bookstore interest, even word of mouth.

Newspaper Not any more. First to go was review space in big city newspapers. All of us can point to a paper that no longer exists or, if it does, has pared reviews to the bone. Closer to home was the demise of Drood Review and Mystery News. Then, just a few weeks ago, the death of Kirkus. Say what you want about their last line zingers, a good Kirkus review was cause for celebration. Even worse, there seems to have been a decline in the number of reviews from Library Journal and Booklist. I could usually count on reviews from them for my books. Not this time.

At the same time, we’re seeing an explosion of what’s being called “citizen reviews,” most of them online, all of them written by “readers” as opposed to professionals. I probably first Amazon logo noticed them on lists like Dorothy L, but over the years they’ve picked up steam on Amazon (‘fess up.. how many of us have asked a friend to write a favorable review?) to the point that they’ve been institutionalized with the Amazon Vine program. Reader-oriented websites, like GoodReads and Library Thing encourage them. And that doesn’t even include the proliferation of book review blogs and websites. There are literally hundreds of citizen reviews these days. I know, because I’ve tried to keep lists of them.

Which is the point of my rant. Citizen reviews are filling an important void. Many of these reviewers are professional, thoughtful, and take their responsibilities seriously. I’ve been the beneficiary of their work, and I’m grateful for it.

Then there are others.

Toxic hazard label I was the recent target of a citizen review that has to be the most savage review I’ve ever received. Bar none. (If you’re into hate, go ahead and click on the link) Clearly, anyone has the right to say they hated a book and why, but this individual went above and beyond by inferring the type of person I must be because of the subject of the book. He also threw in several racist comments, which were gratuitous... and hurtful.

I don’t care how many good reviews you get -- it’s the bad one we obsess over. And I did. I waited a week to say anything – I didn’t want to be impulsive -- but eventually I took it up with the organization’s managers. They maintained the review didn’t violate their “terms of service.” Which made me wonder what would.

But the most offensive (at least to me) part was the discovery of a sub-group of citizen reviewers on the same website, some of whom consider it a badge of honor to write clever but snarky reviews. “Writing scathing reviews is fun,” the person who critiqued my book said. Someone else agreed, saying “savaging bad writing is fun, and often necessary.” To be fair, I should point out that others in the group challenged those remarks.

I deleted my page from the organization, but it brings up an issue I believe all of us need to grapple with. On one hand, the dearth of traditional reviews is filling up with new voices. That’s good. And necessary. On the other hand, how far can a review go and still be considered useful? Citizen reviews will undoubtedly be a permanent part of the literary landscape, but at what price? And how should an author handle reviews that they believe are over the top? Should we do what author Niteflyr-one did on Amazon, ostensibly to her regret, since it seems to have backfired? Or should we just crack open a bottle of wine and let it pass?

The absence of parameters – good or bad -- has catapulted the act of reviewing into an online version of the wild, wooly West. And yeah, I know the bromide about any publicity being good publicity. Still, I wonder.

What do you think?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Wednesday's Burning Question

Ellen Hart Writes:

Okay, so we all have our pet peeves in mysteries. I dislike endings wherein the culprit spills his or her guts at the last minute--while holding a gun on the protagonist--talking endlessly about what happened and why. I did this in a few books myself until I gained the skill to reveal more as I went along and save the ending for the final thrilling trust. It's hard to get much thrill when you stop the forward movement for five minutes to do an information dump.

That's one of my mystery pet peeves. What are yours? What do you think is overused? What's cliche? What might have worked once but doesn't anymore?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Writing longhand: Goodbye to an old friend?

By William Kent Krueger

William Kent Krueger One of the questions I’m often asked during any event Q & A is how I do my writing. More specifically, do I compose directly to a computer or do I write longhand? The funny thing is it’s one of the questions I almost always ask of other writers. I love to know about process.

In my own case, the answer used to be simple. For nearly three decades I wrote everything in longhand first, then transcribed to the typewriter or—much later—the computer. The reason isn’t complicated. I’ve always done my creative writing in coffee shops, and when I began that process there were no laptops. A notebook and pen or pencil was the only option. Oh, how I grew to love the feel of writing, which was not just a cerebral process but physical as well. I swear I can sense the energy of the story shooting from my brain down my arm into my fingers and finally through the pen onto the page. In a way, I’ve always regarded it not only as process but as ritual, something that’s necessary in order to make the magic of writing happen.

Writing longhand The benefits have been many. I’ve always appreciated the freedom of writing longhand because I can compose anywhere, anytime, so long as I have paper and a writing utensil. (I’ve even used crayons on occasion.) The process helps me to look at my work in different ways. First, there is the mess of the initial composition, all scrawled and scratched out and with margin notes and addendums and arrowed lines showing where changes need to be inserted. Transcribing to the computer is my first edit. On the screen the structure is neatly organized with clean sentences and formal paragraphs and text that is easily read. I’m able to see the story as it will appear in manuscript form and I look at it differently, from a more considered perspective than the creative frenzy of scribbling on paper allows.

For most of the thirty years I’ve been writing, nothing has been more exciting to me than sitting in the booth of a coffee shop and opening a new notebook because all I see in those empty pages is promise.

Lately, however, things have become a bit muddled. I just completed the next novel in my Cork O’Connor mystery series, a book titled Vermilion Drift. Because I was a little late in beginning the manuscript and because deadline was looming, I was forced to streamline my normal creative process. The book was written with a hybrid approach that involved some longhand on paper and some composition directly to computer. It felt awkward at first, but as I went along, I became more comfortable with my fingers on the keyboard channeling immediately what went on in my brain. During this period, I began work on another novel as well, not in the series, which has been written entirely to computer. Just between you and me, I think it’s a wonderful manuscript.

Coffeeshop writing So, these days when I’m asked about my process my answer tends to be much more complicated than before. I don’t know if I’ve given up longhand for good. In a way, I hope not. It would be like saying goodbye to my best friend. But as the song goes, sometimes even the best of friends must part.

I’ll keep you posted.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Wednesday's Burning Question

Ellen Hart writes:

As both a writer and a writing teacher, I make sure my students understand POV (Point Of View). Simply put, you can't head hop in a scene. You can't be in two character's minds in the same chapter/section. And then, of course, one smart-aleck student will always go out, find a British mystery, bring it back and point out that the British do it all the time. So there. What's a poor writing teacher supposed to say?

Which leads us to Sandra Parshall's Burning Question for today:

"British authors often "head-hop"--switching from one character's POV to another within a scene. American writers generally regard this as a forbidden practice. How do you feel about it, as a writer or as a reader?"

Monday, January 11, 2010

How Women Writers Brought me to Bookselling

By Robin Agnew

Mary_Tyler_Moore_throwing_hat_in_air My path to bookselling was a long and circuitous one – graduating from college during the last big recession (1982) my husband and I took whatever jobs we could find. Wanting to be Mary Tyler Moore (or I did at least) we ended up loading up our VW Rabbit with wedding presents and driving to Minneapolis, where we lived for six years. While my husband worked a variety of jobs and attended graduate school at the Univesity of Minnesota, I simply worked a variety of jobs: bridal consultant, salesclerk, hotel reservations and catering assistant. Along that way my reading journey, of course, was never interrupted.

Open book I had always read mysteries and had a mother who raised me on the classics – Agatha, Margery and Dorothy (thanks, Mom). When I married I discovered that my father in law was also an avid mystery reader. He introduced me to some authors who really, in the end, changed my life, but the two that really blew the roof off my head were Lillian O’Donnell and Sara Paretsky.

These two women expanded the parameters of what I thought mystery writing was. O’Donnell, maddeningly difficult to find today (and though we carry loads of used books at our store, in the neighborhood of 20,000 volumes) the copies we have of her books are mostly in the hard cover book club editions. I’m constantly pressing them on people anyway though the sequence of the series is hard to follow.

At the time, my father in law was in fact sharing his own book club hardcovers with me, and I tore through the saga of O’Donnell’s homicide cop Norah Mulcahaney, who along with rising through the ranks of the NYPD suffers the loss of a child and the loss of a husband along the way. Meanwhile O’Donnell also delivers crisp and straight forward police procedurals, a subgenre I’ve always been partial to.

Sara Paretsky BookIndemnityOnly_smis not really big news anymore, but back in 1982 when she was first breaking the boundaries of what women were supposed to be and how they should behave – well, V.I. gave me someone to live up to in every sense of the word. She’s so independent, smart, and brave – well, I think all of us wish we had a little bit of V.I in us.

The other thing that Minneapolis introduced me to was the mystery bookstore – one of the oldest in the country, Uncle Edgar’s, still thrives there. I loved the mix of new and used books, the passionate recommendations and even the kids in the playpen at the store.

We eventually moved to Michigan to be near family, but that Uncle Edgar’s model stuck in my head. Some of my happiest hours in Minneapolis had been spent browsing those shelves. Arriving in Michigan babies started to arrive, and with them the desire for a flexible something to do that would allow us to both be part of the kid’s lives.

Orig_auntagathas Meanwhile, my husband was working at Borders. At some point books, my love of mysteries, and our desire to work for ourselves (which still sometimes feels monumentally foolish) and the idea of sharing my love of mystery writers, women mystery writers especially, took over and Aunt Agatha's was born almost 18 years ago. Along with the store came the baby swing, just like at Uncle Edgar’s.

Sara Paretsky and Lillian O’Donnell are still steady sellers for us, and our passion for books has never waned. Along the way my husband became a mystery fan (he wasn’t when we opened) – his favorite woman writer: Margery Allingham, though he’s also awfully fond of Megan Abbott.

Bookselling, like life, takes lots of strange twists and turns but my love of reading and wonderful writing has never changed. And that is thanks, in big part, to O’Donnell and Parestsky.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Wednesday's Burning Question

First, a preface. Many years ago, while at Jim Huang's wonderful bookstore--The Mystery Company, in Carmel Indiana--I was asked a question that not only elicited a response from me, but one from Jim. He said that he felt that series mysteries tended to become darker as they went along. While that's not the case for all series mysteries, it is for many, and that includes mine. So here's the question:

As a reader, do you like it when the characters grow and change, or do you prefer them to remain the same? Put another way, do you want the series to always have the same tone, or do you mind a slide in a little darker direction? (As someone once said, some characters grow, and some characters grow orchids. Nero Wolfe never changed. The city changed around him, but he never grew older, never went on a diet, never met a woman and fell in love.)


That's it.

Thanks so much!


Monday, January 4, 2010

Relaunching our Blog

By Ellen Hart
Sisters In Crime, Public Relations

Sometimes I feel as if I’m the only person in the world who hasn’t written a blog. If I am the last holdout, don’t tell me. I’m already feeling a bit like a dinosaur. Did you say 2010??? Yikes!!!

I’m beginning to suspect that there might be a hierarchy of experience out there in the big wide world. First steps. First bike. First grade. First rock concert. First love. First kiss. First taste of Champagne. First reading glasses. First grandchild. First gray hair. Ah, yes, I’ve experienced them all. And now, I’ve finally clawed my way to the pinnacle of modern life--my first blog. I’m feeling very pumped, ready to take on a challenge--which is good because I’ve been tasked with the job of bringing some new energy and interest to the SinC blog.

Now, just because I’ve never written one doesn’t mean I don’t read them. There are a few blogs I read religiously--Nathan Bransford’s, for one. I love hearing about the publishing industry, about books people are reading, about the process of writing and promotion, about what’s hot and what’s not (and hopefully, why). When you sit in a room by yourself all day, as writers do, you sometimes crave what so many other people have -- a water cooler, a place to gather with other adult s to chat and chew over events and ideas of common interest. I think blogs are our modern day water coolers.

So welcome to the new, improved, one-hundred percent organic and natural, totally green, radically innovative, doctor-prescribed, wrinkle resistant, and as a bonus, potentially cholesterol reducing SinC blog!

Here’s the down and dirty--the way it’s going to work. Every Monday a new blog will be posted from a member of SinC. This is equal opportunity. If you’ve got an idea, email me and let’s kick it around, run it up the flag poll and see if it holds water. (Yes, I realize I mixed a metaphor. Glad to know you’re still with me.) Email me at I’m the one who will be delegating the Monday blogs, and you can believe I will be on the lookout for something informative, lively, and even provocative.

On Wednesday, we will post the Burning Question of the Week. I assume some questions will be more burning than others, but I’m hoping that many of you will weigh in with your thoughts. Engaging conversation is one of the true delights of life, and that’s what I’m hoping to promote here. If you have ideas for the Burning Question, again, please email me.

Our first blogger will be Robin Agnew, co-owner of Aunt Agatha’s Mystery Bookstore, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Robin is a long-time (and very vocal) supporter of women’s mysteries. The third week of the month, multi-award winning crime writer, William Kent Krueger, will be taking the internet lectern.

Please tell all your Sister’s in Crime buddies to check in every week to see what’s going on. I can’t do this alone. A water cooler with only one person standing by it is a deeply lonely place. That’s why the Official Sisters In Crime Blog needs you!

Freezing in Minnesota, I remain,

Ellen Hart

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Write Like A Man?

Is the key to literary success to be or write like a man? That's the subject of a recent article in the Washington Post by Julianna Baggot. Check it out here.

Let us know what YOU think.

Friday, January 1, 2010

We Love Libraries

Sisters in Crime is pleased to announce the first "We Love Libraries" lottery. Monthly grants of $1,000 will be awarded from January through December 2010. At the end of each month, a winner will be drawn from entries received at our website at Only U.S. libraries may enter the drawing.

To enter, simply complete the entry form and upload a photo of one or more of your staff with three books in your collection by Sisters in Crime members. You can find a list of members on the website here.

After the random drawing on the last business day of the month, the winning library will be contacted and announced. All branches within a larger system may enter; however, once a library in the system has won, no other libraries within that system can win the grant. Those not successful in one month will automatically be entered for subsequent drawings. Grants must be used to purchase books and may not be used for general operating expenses. Book purchases are NOT restricted to the mystery genre nor to those by Sisters in Crime members. There is no cost or obligation other than allowing us to post winners' photos on our website.

All libraries are welcome to enter. If you have Sisters in Crime author mysteries in your collection we would love for you to enter this money giveaway.

We at Sisters in Crime LOVE our libraries and want to see them thrive. Enter for your library's chance to win beginning January 1, 2010 at

Click here for the entry form.

If you have any questions please contact Beth Wasson.