Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Ellen Hart writes:

Success, the brass ring, the pot at the end of the rainbow--we all think we know what that is for us. But do we really? Is it a rave review in the New York Times? Making a bestseller list? Being invited to appear on Oprah? Becoming the new Dan Brown? Or is it something less obvious, but every bit as important?

Here's today's burning question:

What does success mean to you as a writer?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Eight or Nine Words About Email

By Donna Andrews

A friend once showed me a letter from the mid-1800s that her pioneer great-great grandmother had written to the family back home. The paper was so brittle that it had broken along many of the folds. A careless touch would have turned it into a dozen fragments; a few more years might reduce it to powder. The paper had browned and the ink faded, and to top it all off, Great-great Grandmother had cross-written--after filling up the page, she had given it a quarter turn and filled it again, sideways. It looked rather like this:

People cross-wrote because both paper and postage were ruinously expensive, but it must have made reading difficult, particularly in a time when spectacles were both harder to come by and less effective than they are in modern times. I was relieved to find that Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, in his essay, "Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter Writing," gave the following advice: "When you get to the end of a notesheet, and find you have more to say, take another piece of paper--a whole sheet, or a scrap, as the case may demand: but whatever you do, don't cross! Remember the old proverb 'Cross-writing makes cross reading.'"

But I imagine most of the recipients of cross-written letters pored over them for as long as it took to extract every bit of news from friends that they might rarely if ever see again. Aren't we lucky that nowadays, thanks
to email, communication is so much easier, both to send and to receive?

Not necessarily.

Buried in email I'm currently behind on my email. I didn't mean to let it happen, and I am trying to dig myself out of the hole, but the problem is that doing so requires ruthless discipline--the ability to scan an email and either act on it or make a swift decision to delete. Obviously if I had that kind of iron discipline I wouldn't be up to my ears in email to begin with. And the email keeps pouring in, so that as the Red Queen told Alice, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.

Typing At time like these, when I am a wee bit cranky about the whole subject of email, I find myself brooding over the issue of email etiquette. I am tempted to write a rant about things people should and shouldn't do in email--but my hands pause over the keyboard as I consider whether I, too, have been guilty of some of these breaches in netiquette. Yes, I probably have. So instead of ranting, I'm going to share a few resolutions I'm trying to follow in my own email life. I might actually come up with eight or nine, and there's even a remote possibility some of them might contain a grain or two of wisdom.

1. I'm determined to stop sending emails with blank subject lines or vague subjects like, "Hey there!" or "Me again," unless it's to someone like my mother, who will stop what she's doing and read anything I send her immediately, with far more attention than it deserves. In fact, I'm going to do my best to send other people the kind of subject lines I'd love to receive. Of course, succinct little subject lines like "Love the books!" or "Congrats!" are always in order, but that last email I sent this evening should have had a subject line of "Update on possible MWA-MA speaker for April 2010," not "April." I'll try harder.

2. I'm also going to try harder to send private messages privately. And I don't just mean making sure I'm talking to one person rather than a list when I say something snarky. (Assuming that of course, I will occasionally fail in my resolution not to be snarky.) I've long believed that the larger the list, the more important it is to take birthday wishes and congratulations off list. Time to start living that.

Delete 3. I'm sticking to my guns about asking before I add anyone to my mailing list. I know some people think it doesn't matter-- "You have a delete key; it only takes a few seconds to use it!" Yes, but those seconds add up--I calculated not long ago that I have probably spent several months of my life scanning and deleting unwanted email. So I'm not going to do unto others what irritates when it's done unto me! Yes, when I get an
enthusiastic email from a reader, I've been tempted to say, "Oh, she loves the books . . . I bet she'd like to be on my mailing list." But that way lies spamming. Even though it's more work. I'll keep sending out the "Would you like to be on my mailing list" invitations.

Facebook_logo 4. When/if I join Facebook, I absolutely will not give it access to my address book. Because I know they wouldn't just use it to notify my friends who are already on Facebook; they'd also send invitations to everyone I've ever emailed since I got my first email account. Right now, hardly a week passes without one or two of those invitations landing in my email inbox, and I figure if someone hasn't joined Facebook by now, it's a decision, not an oversight. (Actually, since studying Facebook in its native habitat requires a Facebook account, I do have one now. But it's for one of my fictional characters. I'm not telling which one.)

Too_Much_Mail 5. I'm going to be more assertive about unsubscribing from email lists I don't want to be on. I figure buying something from a business once or twice doesn't mean I have to stay on their mailing lists till doomsday. I might eventually start unsubscribing from a few author lists, too, but only in cases where I'm already seeing the same message on two or three lists. And since I'm going to be doing more unsubscribing, I promise not to sulk when someone unsubscribes from my email list. Well, only a little.

6. I'm going to work harder at reading to the end of threads before posting on lists. After all, if I'm two days behind on my DorothyL reading, maybe someone has already answered the person who wanted to know what the L in Dorothy L. Sayers stands for. (Leigh, in case you're curious.)

7. I'm going to write a lot more sharp replies when people send me emails or post things on lists that get my
goat. Not just quick little jabs, either, but long, detailed, vicious rants, full of witty invective and biting personal remarks. I'm going to polish them to a fare-thee-well, reread them with great satisfaction, smile to myself . . . and ceremonially press the delete key. Because a well-wrought sharp reply is a wonderful form of catharsis as long as you're smart enough not to send it. (And I will remember never to hit reply when I'm doing this. Always better to start a new email, and address it to my backup email address.)

8. I'm going to stop complaining when someone emails me a question I've answered a hundred times before. If I've had to answer it a hundred times, maybe that's because a hundred people would love to know the answer, and my email correspondents have just helped me come up with a great idea for new content for my website or my blog.

9. And I'm going to work on follow-through. Like answering emails fast enough that I don't have to begin with an apology. Or at least sometime within the same calendar year.

p.s. For authors only. When your book is accepted for publication, please consider getting an email that includes your author name--like or Because your friends may already know who you are, but do you really want to contact editors, bookstores, reviewers, convention organizers, and readers with an email like or

Perhaps I could sum it all up by paraphrasing William Morris, who once said "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful." My goal is to have nothing go through my email inbox or outbox that I do not know to be useful or believe to be entertaining.

Donna Andrews is the award-winning author of the Meg Langslow mystery series. Her current book, Swan for the Money, has been nominated for the Agatha Award for best novel 2009.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Ellen Hart writes:

Will ebooks kill the old publishing model? Is the novel you're working on any good? Will you receive another contract? Why aren't you getting more foreign rights deals? Does your agent really have your best interests at heart? Are your sales growing? Will the rotten review you received last weekend toss your career off a cliff? And on and on and on. We all know the drill. We all have many of the same thoughts circling around in our minds.

Here's today's burning question: In the midst of today's publishing chaos--and your own professional stresses and strains--how do you stay focused on writing?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Who in the WORLD is Molly Weston?

Molly Weston
Meritorious Mysteries
Editor, inSinc

You're probably wondering why I'm a guest blogger—but if you've ever been charged with finding someone to write for free every week for a year, you know what Ellen's up against! Probably the first reason she asked me to write is that I'm the new editor of Sisters in Crime's newsletter, inSinc. She wanted me to introduce myself to you.

I'm a long-time member of SinC even though I don't write mysteries. I read them—lots and lots of them. More than 20 years ago I began reviewing them for a local independent bookstore, then another. FInding that I really liked writing reviews, I started a review publication, "Meritorious Mysteries," which I mailed free of charge to local bookstores and libraries that had agreed to duplicate them for their patrons. After the internet made its way into people's homes, I developed a website for my reviews, still called "Meritorious Mysteries."

In the meantime, I got a job at the FPG Child Development Center at UNC-Chapel Hil as editor of an in-state magazine aimed toward the early childhood profession. The position required a lot of traveling and involved providing training, so I wasn't able to write as many reviews. I let Meritorious Mysteries fall by the wayside—but I never stopped reading mysteries—usually around 250 a year.

After providing workshops and training in my work, I realized I could do the same for mysteries—and I began giving lectures at libraries and other events. I'd pick a topic and talk about 20-25 authors whose work fell somewhere under that umbrella. I found that readers loved to see photographs of these authors and to hear personal stories about how I had met them.

I attended mystery conferences every chance I got—and everywhere I went, I met authors, always adding photos and stories to my repertoire.

Once when my husband and I were going to Tunica, Mississippi, I told Noel, "I'm going to call the librarian there and see if she wants me to do a program for them."

Noel, who goes to Tunica to gamble, said scornfully," They don't have any libraries in Tunica!"

Totally determined now to give a mystery talk SOMEWHERE in Tunica, I searched the internet. Of course, there was a library there—and it was beautiful. When I spoke with the librarian, she said, "I'd love you to give a talk. You have made my day. No, you've made my WEEK!"

Surprisingly enough, she chose the topic, "Sweet Tea and Murder," and we had a delightful event, with the Friends of the Library bringing in a tea party spread to die for.

This year, I've begun having guest bloggers on Meritorious Mystery ( — all mystery writers. I'm giving monthly programs at the Cary Public Library, and teaching a six-week mystery course at the EncorĂ© Program at NC State University. I'm looking forward to hosting July Hyzy, Karen Olson, and Hank Phillippi Ryan at the end of this month. Then, in June, Rosemary Harris, Meredith Cole, Donna Andrews, and Elaine Viets will roll into North Carolina for a mini tour.

So, you can see why I was overwhelmed to be chosen to edit your newsletter. Thanks for allowing me to have an opportunity to work with more of you in SinC. I look forward to meeting and renewing friendships with you at Malice and Bouchercon!

In the meantime, keep on writing!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Ellen Hart writes:

M.D. Lake, author of the Peggy O'Neill mystery series, once began a talk to young writers by giving them what he considered his most important writing tip: "Beware of writers bearing tips." He was being funny, of course. Everyone laughed. But he was also being his usual ironic self. Someone once said--was it Raymond Chandler, Tony Hillerman--that there were three universal rules of writing, but nobody could agree on what they were. We've all learned how to write by writing. And along the way, we've all discovered ideas or habits that help us become better writers.

Thus, the burning question for today is: What is your most valuable writing tip?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Just what DO Librarians Want?

Sheila Connolly
Vice-President/Library Liaison
Sisters in Crime–New England

In November 2009 Sisters in Crime-New England and New England Mystery Writers of America for the first time included a librarians panel in their jointly-sponsored New England Crime Bake conference. The panel brought together three New England librarians: Jennifer C. Harris from the Plymouth (MA) Public Library; Kathy Meeker, director of the Scituate (MA) Town Library; and Jane Murphy of the Westport (CT) Public Library. The audience included equal numbers of librarians and writers, all looking for ways to help each other promote mysteries and attract readers.

The librarians (who together represented nearly a century of experience) agreed that mysteries are among the most popular books in their libraries, which should be good news for mystery writers. The focus of the panel was how to get the librarians and the writers together, and emphasized two main issues:

–how librarians can utilize writers for library programs, and
–how writers should approach libraries to make themselves known.

The resulting panel discussion, and the questions that followed, were stimulating and in some cases surprising.

One point that the librarians on the panel raised more than once: writers, use your librarians! Don't wait until you're published or nearly there–they can help you with:

–research for your books
–information on the publishing community
–information on how to find an agent or a local writers group.

The bonus is, if you do this you have already established a relationship with your local library when your book comes out.

What should a writer do once the book is published?

–If your local Sisters in Crime chapter has Speakers Bureau (which matches libraries, bookstores, and other organizations with local writers), use it!
–If you have no local chapter, or your chapter doesn't have a speaker coordinator, how do you get your books in front of the right people in a library? It's easier than you think. Libraries love programs that are affordable and don't require a lot of planning on their part; in return, they can publicize your appearance and your book to their patrons and to the local community, through newsletters and the press. Contact your local library and ask if they're interested.
–Find out if there is a Friends of the Library group or a mystery readers group associated with a particular library. They may even manage the programming opportunities for the library.

How can you make sure libraries buy your books? Libraries rely on the major review sources such as Library Journal and Publishers Weekly, and the catalogs that publishers send out or make available on line. Since reviewers pay little attention to original mass-market books, a paperback writer has to make a greater effort to capture librarians' attention. You should:

–Send a short letter or email describing your book and offering to speak at the library.
–If you use snail-mail, include a few bookmarks.
–Do not swamp the library with frequent updates or long appeals–simply let them know when you have a new book coming out, and that you're interested in talking to the library's patrons.

If you haven't discussed audio book options with your agent and publisher, you should. These have become increasingly popular with library patrons.

The bottom line is: Librarians can be valuable resources in spreading the word about your books, and you as a writer need to make the most of the opportunities that libraries present. Get to know your local libraries–not just the one in your town, but those in surrounding towns or even the state. Stop by, introduce yourself, leave a few bookmarks. If your budget permits, give them a book. Use your libraries wisely, and everybody wins!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Ellen Hart writes:

Except for perhaps the first book in a series, writers don't write in a vacuum. We all have an audience, and we all get emails from that audience. How much do you listen to those emails? Do they affect the stories you write? Do you find fan's voices in your head as you move through your novel? Do you write to a specific audience?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Rhys Bowen on Thrillers v. Mysteries, Noir v. Cozy

I was speaking at a bookstore the other day and a member of the audience asked me what the difference was between a mystery and a thriller. My flippant reply was, “About eight hundred thousand dollars.” This surprised my audience who tend to think that all published authors make millions of dollars (Sisters, you are allowed a gentle chuckle here). They couldn’t believe that mysteries were less highly regarded than thrillers.

“But thrillers are all about plot,” one person said. “And my favorite Rhys Bowen mysteries are wonderful character studies.”

Right. But as we all know, good books do not necessarily translate into bestselling books. When I’ve been in an airport or on a beach, I’ve been dismayed to observe that everyone is reading Dan Brown or James Patterson. Does that really mean that most people find them more enjoyable or that they are so ubiquitous that the average person can’t help stumbling upon them in the big box stores or at the airport newsagents?

The sad thing is that these people will think that this is the gold standard of mystery/thriller fiction. We’ve all heard the comment, “Oh, I never read genre fiction” by those who consider themselves cultured and educated. I always point out to these people that they have probably read no genre fiction other than the piles at the big box stores and thus can’t really judge. I ask if they have they ever read Nancy Pickard or Laura Lippman or Louise Penny or any number of distinguished women writers whose books are full of wonderfully complex characters, finely drawn settings, moral dilemmas and who write to touch the soul?

I suspect, unfortunately, that most people don’t want their souls touched. They don’t want to be involved with the books they read. They just want entertaining and titillating in the same way that they watch their TV programs. I don’t know about you, but when I read a good book, I am so involved that I am not conscious of words on the page. I am in that place and time—feeling the hot dry wind in my face with Tony Hillerman, shivering in the icy cold of Quebec with Louise Penny. I also strive for this when I write my own books. I want my reader to experience the sights, sounds and smells of New York City with my heroine Molly Murphy. The experience of the setting is as important to me as the plot. So is getting to know the characters. I come to regard series characters as old friends, to be revisited with anticipation each time a new book comes out. I know my fans feel this way, because they talk about Evan and Molly and Lady Georgie as if they are real people—which they are to me, of course.

Which brings me to a second gripe: that noir mystery fiction, usually written by men, is somehow more valid and more literary than traditional mysteries written by women. You only have to look at the Edgars or best books of the year lists to see that we women are lucky if we get a mention. Would somebody please tell me why an alcoholic and troubled loner sleuth is considered more interesting and relevant than an ordinary, likeable person trying to see that justice is done? We writers of the traditional mystery (no, I won’t use the word cozy) are used to being patted on the head, as if we are the maiden aunt who should sit quietly in the corner, knitting. Well, I’m sorry but I find the stories in traditional mysteries more shocking in many ways. If I am on the mean streets of the city, among gangs and drug dealers, I expect to find crime and violence. How much more disturbing is it if violent crime strikes the kind of place where I live and involves people that I know?

I guess I’m biased. I don’t like violence. I don’t like graphic violence on the page. I like to read a book in which justice somehow prevails and order is restored to the universe by the end of the story. I guess I really am cozy by nature.

When I first started writing I complained to my editor that all my reviews called my books “charming and delightful.” I wanted to be taken seriously, not to be charming and delightful. So I told my editor that my next book would contain Satanism, cannibalism and strewn body parts. She smiled sweetly and said, “Yes, and I bet they’ll be charming and delightful body parts too.”

So that’s it: cozy and noir are in our natures as writers and we can’t write well outside our nature however well we try. So I promise no cannibalism or strewn body parts in my next Molly and Georgie books!

Rhys Bowen writes the Agatha, Anthony and MacAvity winning Molly Murphy mysteries set in 1903 New York City and the bestselling Royal Spyness mysteries featuring a minor royal in 1930s London. The Last Illusion, her ninth Molly Murphy mystery, will be in stores on Marsh 2nd. She also looks forward to being toastmaster at this year’s Malice Domestic convention.