Friday, July 29, 2011

Use all of your Borders Bucks this weekend!

By Kathie Felix

The remaining Borders bookstores will accept Borders Bucks for purchase discounts through Sunday, July 31, 2011, only.

The Borders Bucks program has ended. Shoppers enrolled in the program cannot receive Borders Bucks credit during the chain’s liquidation.

Borders gift cards will be redeemable throughout the liquidation process, which is scheduled to end in mid to late September at most of the chain’s existing stores.

For many readers, a nearby Borders store brings back a wealth of memories of great reads, a reintroduction to lost classics and exciting new reading discoveries. In honor of those vanished days, I took a stroll through the Borders in my neighborhood to take what may be my final look at the place that once was my second home.

It was difficult to see the old store underneath the trappings of the closing sale. This week, the shop d├ęcor was accented by countless large neon orange and yellow signs announcing discounts of 20 to 40 percent. (Most of the books on the shelves were discounted 20 percent.)

The cashiers were very busy, even though employees were unable to look up information on titles or authors for customers. As might be expected, no checks are accepted at the register these days -- and no returns will be accepted.

The mystery/crime fiction section was still in relatively good shelving order. It was fairly easy to find a copy of The Big Dirt Nap by Rosemary Harris and We’ll Always Have Parrots by Donna Andrews, a couple of the titles that I’ve been meaning to pick up for quite a while. They may turn out to be my final Borders purchases.

I spent more time than I intended wandering through the store and wondering about what might make the ultimate last Borders purchase. During my browsing, I found the Biography section in perfect order, despite several shoppers in the area. I wondered briefly if biography readers are tidy people – or if the sale’s shoppers were just not interested in biography.

I’m not sure I’ll be back before the store closes. It was a sad experience.

Do you have plans to get to a Borders store some time soon? What do you expect to buy as your final Borders purchase?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Tax Tips for Writers, Part 2 of 2 Parts

By J. J. Murphy

The conversation with certified public accountant Carol Topp continues:

Q. Is it true that a writer (or anyone) who experiences a substantial increase in income in a single tax year can refile past taxes (up to five years back) to flatten the tax liability in the high-income year? Is that a worthwhile project?

A. Sorry, but income averaging has not been allowed since 1987, except for farmers and fishermen. Now, taxes are due on income the year in which the income was received.

On the other hand, if a business suffers a loss, the owner may choose to carry back the loss. The loss can usually be carried back two years. Recently, Congress has allowed a carry-back of a loss up to five years (it’s called an NOL, or Net Operating Loss).

Q. When should a writer hire a CPA?

A. Good question! Here are times when a CPA can really help a writer:
  • When you receive a letter from IRS, especially if it involves an audit or something you do not understand.
  • When you need help with record keeping.
  • When you start to make self-employment income of more than $400 a year.
  • When you make good money and fear you’ll owe taxes at the end of the year. Ask your CPA about “estimated payments” to the IRS and your state.
  • When you sell books or e-books and have to collect and pay sales tax.
  • To assist you in preparing payroll taxes and filing payroll reports.
  • At least every three years to review a tax return you prepare. The IRS can audit back three years, so I recommend getting a CPA to review your self-prepared return at least that frequently.
  • When you purchase equipment for your business and want to take a depreciation expense.
  • To understand the pros and cons of forming a partnership or becoming a corporation.
  • When you are not sure if you need to pay self employment tax or sales tax.
No one is an expert at everything, so I encourage you to focus on what you do best — writing — and leave tax and accounting matters to those who know them best.

Carol Topp’s Tips to Find a CPA

Seek out an accountant who has the ability teach you the financial side of your business. You should feel comfortable with him or her and feel free to ask questions. If you leave a meeting with an accountant feeling confused, you need to find another accountant. To find a helpful professional, ask other small business owners in your area for their accountant’s contact information or call your state CPA society. Find a listing at

Topp's Tips on Business and Taxes

Carol's book, Business Tips and Taxes for Writers, will be available through her website (where she offers sample chapters and also lots of other free information) at:

J.J. Murphy is the author of the Algonquin round table mysteries (Obsidian), featuring Dorothy Parker as the wisecracking sleuth. The second book in the series, You Might as Well Die, comes out in December, 2011. For more information, see

Monday, July 25, 2011

Tax Tips for Writers, Part 1 of 2 Parts

By J.J. Murphy

Dorothy Parker once said, “The two most beautiful words in the English language are ‘check enclosed.’” The witty Mrs. Parker also published a book called Death and Taxes. I’ll let you connect the dots.

Then again, you may find that connecting those dots isn’t so easy. Let’s face it—we’re writers, not accountants. To that end, I took the opportunity to ask for a few tax tips from Carol Topp, a certified public accountant and a writer. Carol is the author of an upcoming book, Business Tips and Taxes for Writers (Media Angels), which will provide nuts-and-bolts advice on topics such as income tax, sales tax, self-employment tax, tax deductions, financial planning, bookkeeping and — last but not least — mistakes that authors and publishers make. Here’s the Q&A with the C.P.A.

Q: What’s the best business (or tax) tip that, in your experience, most writers don’t seem to know?

A: Only one? Here’s one tip: Calling your writing a hobby — when you have been paid — can be detrimental to your pocketbook. In other words, you may be paying too much in income tax because, unlike a business, many expenses for hobbyists are not tax-deductible.

It's fairly easy to convert a hobby into a business. You simply have a profit motive and conduct your writing as a business — meaning you keep records, consult a professional when needed, and improve your knowledge in the area of writing, as a business owner would do.

Q: What’s the bottom line on the home office deduction? Is it an automatic red flag, or is there something in a tax filing that makes it become a red flag?

A: The I.R.S. does not reveal its algorithm for choosing tax returns to audit, but C.P.A.s know from experience that the home office deduction is frequently audited. So here’s a warning: excessive home office expenses without corresponding income can look very suspicious.

Q: You make a distinction between a writer who’s a “hobbyist” and one who’s a “professional” (in a business sense). Let’s say the self-publishing hobbyist makes a nice $500 in one year and the professional makes a very nice $50,000 in a year from writing. Are these amounts fundamentally taxed differently, or is each writer taxed comparably for their income?

A: The income is not taxed differently, but the expenses are treated differently for a hobby than for a business.

A business can deduct necessary and ordinary expenses and reduce taxable income. A hobby must report all its income, but may be unable to deduct the related expenses due to limitations in the tax code. Hobby expenses are deducted on Schedule A itemized deductions under miscellaneous deductions, subject to a 2% of adjusted gross income threshold. This threshold means that a taxpayer can deduct miscellaneous deductions that are greater than 2% of their adjusted gross income.

For example, Mary has income of writing of $250. Mary’s only expenses related to this income are paper, ink, and postage of $50. Mary’s expenses can be deducted on her itemized deductions under miscellaneous deductions, subject to 2% of her adjusted gross income. As is common with many taxpayers, Mary’s expenses of $50 were too small to overcome the 2% threshold to be deductible. She received no tax deduction for her writing expenses, yet pays tax on all the income.

Additionally, the I.R.S. does not allow hobby expenses to exceed hobby income. In other words, losses from a hobby are not permitted on a tax return. A business can have a loss and it can be deducted on a tax return, but not a hobby loss. If John, a hobby writer, had income from writing of $400 and attends a writers' conference that costs $900, he could deduct his expenses (as miscellaneous deductions) up to $400 (his hobby income), but no more. The extra expenses of $500 are considered personal expenses that John incurred for the love of writing.

To be continued...

J.J. Murphy is the author of the Algonquin Round Table Mysteries (Obsidian), featuring Dorothy Parker as the wisecracking sleuth. The second book in the series, You Might as Well Die, comes out in December, 2011. For more information, visit

Friday, July 22, 2011

25th Birthday Bash at Bouchercon

Sisters in Crime celebrates its 25th birthday during Bouchercon with a breakfast party at the Roberts Mayfair, a Wyndham Hotel, on Friday, Sept. 16, 2011, at 7:30 a.m.

A full plated breakfast will be served. Guests are welcome.

The cost is $25 for SinC members and $45 for nonmembers.

The Roberts Mayfair is the located near the front door of the Renaissance St. Louis Grand Hotel.

The deadline for registrations sent by U.S. Postal Service mail is Sept. 9. The mailing address is: Sisters in Crime, P.O. Box 442124, Lawrence, KS 66044. Be sure to include an email address with your reservation to receive a receipt from SinC.

The online registration deadline is Sept. 12. Members can click here to register; nonmembers can click here to register.

The room location for the breakfast will be sent to attendees by email and will be posted on the Sisters in Crime website by Sept. 9.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

You're Invited to Spoilerville

By Jan Burke

At last, a place where enthusiastic fans can talk about your books without spoiling the plots for those who haven't read them yet!

Spoilerville [] is a place where your readers can comment on your books after they've read them. Here, they don't need to worry about asking questions on blogs, websites, mailing lists and other places where they might raise the ire of those who haven't yet read your latest.

And, yes, I started it because I needed a place like this, and figured others might, too.

It's easy to have your books included -- and it's free.

Just send the following to me at spoilerville[at] (Please convert that into the usual address format -- I put it here in this form to discourage spammers):

1) Low resolution/web-sized images of your book covers (ideally, all in one email)

2) Your website's URL.

That's all there is to it! Once your books are up on the site, I'll send you links to your pages and you can encourage your readers to join in the fun.

If you have questions or need more details, contact me at the Spoilerville email address above.

Jan Burke is the award-winning author of the Irene Kelly thrillers. The newest book in the series is Disturbance. Jan is the original editor of Breaking & Entering, the Sisters in Crime guide to getting published, and the founder of the Crime Lab Project, a nonprofit organization created to increase awareness of the problems facing public forensic science agencies.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Selling Your Own E-books: Dana Stabenow Reports

Introduction by Dana Stabenow:

Scott Gere has been my webmaster from my first website. Along the way, we’ve talked a lot about the publishing business, as I watched and mourned my backlist going slowly and inexorably out of print.

Inevitably, e-books showed up in our brainstorming sessions - and last year he said, “Let’s just do it.”

We had no idea if we would make any money. I was petrified that his company would be out-of-pocket on expenses and not only would my e-books go away, but he’d fire me as his website client, too.

Everything of course took a lot longer than we thought it would, but Fire and Ice, my first Liam Campbell novel, went up last year three days before Christmas. Since then, we’ve been averaging about a book a month. When we’re a little farther into this process, I’ll be blogging about it with real numbers, but for now let me just say that the results have exceeded everyone’s expectations, and that no one is out-of-pocket.

Gere Donovan Press (GDP) is scanning, formatting and proofing the books, giving them terrific covers and minding the store (specifically putting the books up on iTunes, Amazon and Barnes & Noble and collecting and dispersing the income). Now they've come up with a nifty way for me to sell books through my website, which is currently active on (

Scott wrote about our project on the GDP website, and SinC reblogs his post here for you today:


You may have recently encountered a wee web application that we’ve been working on. Indeed, the odds are good that its footer provided the link that brought you here.

Who is Bridgit, you ask, and what does she have to do with your eBook purchase?

Bridgit is a lightweight eBookstore cart solution, currently under development by Gere Donovan Press. Named in part for St. Brigid of Kildare, patron saint of printing presses (who was herself named for the Celtic goddess of Wisdom), Bridgit will enable small publishing houses, self-published authors and others to easily accept credit card payments in exchange for time-limited, DRM-free eBook downloads. It allows you to cut out the middle man, and bridges the gap (ouch). [Note: DRM, or digital rights management, is referred to by some as digital restrictions management.]

Bridgit assumes that the parent site provides all of the product information. Place an add-to-cart button on the book’s page, targeting your Bridgit instance, and we handle the rest. Bridgit processes the financial details of the transaction, generates download links that are unique to the customer and emails them a receipt. Books are provided in both .mobi and .ePub formats, via links which are valid for 24 hours.

In that no DRM has proven to be proof against piracy, while virtually all DRM has been shown to annoy honest people who just want to move their files from one device to another, Bridgit’s downloads are DRM-free. As devices and file types evolve, Bridgit may expand her horizons a bit… we’ll see what the market wants.

To experience Bridgit for yourself, [take a look at] one of the fine GDP eBooks from If you’re interested in discussing how Bridgit could be used to handle your own eBook transactions, or want to tell us what you think Bridgit should do, please drop us a line at

Dana Stabenow is the award-winning author of the 18-book Kate Shugak mystery series, the four-book Liam Campbell mystery series and the three-book Star Svensdotter science fiction series. The most recent title in the Kate Shugak series is Though Not Dead, a mystery set in contemporary Alaska that includes more than a passing mention of Dashiell Hammett's Army days in the Aleutian Islands during World War II.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Have You Given Up on New York?

by Nancy Martin

Getting published the old-fashioned way is hard. (A writing friend of mine used to counsel new writers by asking, "If you know it's going to take five or ten years to get published, would you keep trying?" She was right. It does take most writers between five and ten very difficult years to succeed.) Nowadays, many frustrated writers have given up pursuing the traditional route to publication and are turning to small presses.

Not all small presses are created equal, however. When making your choice, here are some questions to consider:

1. The money. Does the press pay an advance? Usually, an advance is the publisher's vote of confidence in a writer's ability to sell books. Does the press pay a royalty rate about the same as other publishers? If not, the press is passing along its risk to the writers. Ask yourself why.

2. Money that flows the wrong way. Does the press ask for money from the author? This is a sure sign the company isn't on firm legs yet. If you're asked to contribute a "marketing fee" or a "buy-in" or to pay "editing costs," think twice. Asking the author to buy a substantial number of her own books is another way of disguising the same issue. Do you want to spend your time selling books out of the trunk of your car?

3. Not all marketing is worthwhile. Most presses crow about doing plenty of "marketing." But what does that mean, exactly? Do they have a good website, prepare catalogs, and send emails to a mailing list of a few hundred industry people? That's nice, but it's the kind of effort that doesn't cost a lot of time or money . . . and doesn't result in significant sales. Do they send ARCs to all the important review outlets? (The SinC Summit team heard over and over that librarians and bookstores are flooded with promotional materials, so when ordering stock they tend to pay close attention to a few trusted publications: PW, Booklist, Library Journal and Kirkus.) If the press doesn't print ARCs, do they participate in NetGalley? Do they pay personal calls on distributors and bookstores to create relationships? If it's an e-book company, do they perform more marketing tasks besides posting on Facebook? Do they participate in online forums? Make your books available in formats that work for all devices? Do they do more than simply put your books up for sale and stand back to wait for the money to roll in?

4. Distribution requires trucks. If the books are printed on paper, does the press regularly place stock in distributor warehouses like those of Ingram and Baker & Taylor? Just making books available to distributors via a catalog isn't the same as actually stocking.

5. The details of distribution: Does the press offer books to distributors and booksellers at the standard industry discounts? Are the books returnable? Are the books priced about the same as other books of their type? If not, the press may be passing along its cash flow problems to booksellers.

6. Everybody needs an editor. Yes, even you. Does the press employ editors who edit your book for content as well as copy editing? Or must you hire a freelancer?

7. Contingency plans. If the company is owned and operated by one or two people, what is the secession plan? (In other words, what happens if the owner becomes incapacitated?)

Maybe you just want to see your words in print and none of these issues matter to you. But if you hope to make your living at writing some day, these are some things to consider. Can you think of more red flags? What other information might help a Sister in Crime make a wise choice?

Nancy Martin has been writing and publishing books since 1982. She has written nearly 50 pop fiction novels, including the Blackbird Sisters mystery series and the Roxy Abruzzo series. Her most recently released title is Sticky Fingers. Nancy serves on the board of Sisters in Crime and edits SinC Links.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Death Investigation: It's Not Exactly What You See on TV, Part 2

By Michelle Clark

[Originally published in First Draft, the Guppies newsletter.]

I teach a forensic science class at the University of Hartford and I instruct my students not to take what they see on television as reality. There are many aspects of analyzing death scenes that CSI doesn’t really cover, although it does try.

The first is what I like to call "smellivision." The smell of decomposed bodies is difficult to describe, but distinct. Once you smell it, you’ll never forget it. The best way I can explain it to my students is to ask if they have ever smelled a dead animal and suggest that they amplify that odor by about 130-fold, since most adult humans weigh at least 130 pounds or more.

My kids have smelled it, but don’t realize what the smell is. There are days where I have been to a bad decomp scene and when I get home they both squeeze their noses with their fingers and say “Ew, Mom, you smell like work.”

I can’t tell you how many weird looks I’ve gotten at sandwich shops after I leave a decomp scene and try to get something for lunch (yes, I can eat afterwards). The smell gets into everything - hair, clothes, etc. I keep several bottles of Febreeze in the trunk of my car.

Another misconception I try to clear up for my students is that I don’t show up at death scenes in fishnet stockings and high heels, packing heat. My wardrobe consists of jeans, work boots and either a long- or short-sleeved shirt. And, no, I don’t carry a weapon. That’s what the cops are for.

I have had to wade into small lakes and streams, dragging bodies to the shore with firemen - and trudged through water- and ash-drenched burned homes with fire inspectors to look at unidentifiable victims after fatal fires. I walked along railroad tracks picking up pieces, literally, of a man versus train accident. I’m sure you can guess who won. I scraped brain matter off of the highway from a motorcycle accident while my stomach growled because I'd missed breakfast. I climbed trees to help cut down hanging suicide victims and trampled into heavily wooded areas to look at a suicide victim with a gun shot wound to the head. In other words, my job can get very dirty and, at times, is physically demanding.

One thing that they never taught us in grad school was about the emotions of the people at the scenes. Death is obviously very traumatic for survivors, especially when it wasn’t anticipated. I go into people's homes after a loved one has hung or shot themselves. I try to be inconspicuous as I slip into a house filled with bereaved people, locate the officers and do my job as quietly and neatly as possible - but not always with success. Bodies tend to ooze when rolled over.

No one can prepare you for the bereaved father of a young victim or the grieving teenagers whose father hung himself, asking you why. They’ve never met me, but they look to me for answers. I do my best to console them and tell them it’s not their fault, but I’m sure they are so grief-stricken that they wouldn’t remember me the next day.

I’ve talked to family members whose eyes are glazed over in despair and indicated to the friend standing next to them to please repeat the information that I had provided at a later time.

Do I shut it all off? Sure. Am I a robot? No. Do I take my work home with me? No, and my family is my key to forgetting my bad day at work. Will I ever reach my limit? Maybe, but for now I take each day as a new experience and learn from it.

So how did I get to the Guppies chapter of Sisters in Crime? One of the ways I cope with my day is to write. I started more than a year ago, writing my experiences down, and ended up writing a 487-page manuscript. I have one mystery/paranormal/romance that is almost done and am working on a mystery/crime and a third project, a mystery/thriller.

How do I come up with these story lines? Let’s just say I have pretty vivid and scary dreams - all stemming from reality.

I wanted to learn more about the literary field - and what better place than here in SinC and swimming with the Guppies. I’m learning a lot, from the listserv and from the critique group that I am honored to be a part of through the Guppies (shout out to the M&M Writers critique group).

I hope I have given you a little introduction into my workday and what death investigators do, at least here in Connecticut. One of my students this semester asked me if I thought I could pull off the perfect crime. Smiling, I told him that there’s no such thing as the perfect crime. He'll just have to read about that when my books gets published.

Michelle Clark graduated from the University of Hartford in Connecticut with a B.S. in Medical Technology and earned a master’s degree in Forensic Science from the University of New Haven. She currently works as a Death Investigator for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Connecticut. She is board-certified as a Medical Technologist and board-certified as a Molecular Biologist.

While her kids are a great distraction from her job, she finds that writing helps her escape. She tried her hand in the paranormal/romance/mystery genre and finished a 487-page manuscript called Haunted, which still needs to be cleaned up. She is at work on two more WIPs: Jurisdiction of Bodies, about a death investigator who finds herself in the midst of catching a killer in Connecticut, and Note to Self, a mystery/thriller about a CSI who’s getting calls on her answering machine in her own voice, telling her to kill herself.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Death Investigation: It's Not Exactly What You See on TV, Part 1 of 2 Parts

By Michelle Clark

[Originally published in First Draft, the Guppies newsletter.]

When I tell the other parents on the soccer field what I do for a living, they have several responses: “Wow, that must be really interesting,” or “That’s the coolest job ever” or the dreaded “What’s the grossest thing you’ve seen?”

In reply, I try to explain that what is gross to them isn’t exactly gross to me, avoiding the question especially if the kids are in earshot. There are reasons why the bodies at horrific car accidents are covered up with sheets. Do you really want to see? I can tell you I see it every day. But, don’t get me wrong, I love my job.

I realize I’m very lucky to have the job that I do. Since CSI, forensic science has been introduced to mainstream America - and the field has become flooded. I was very fortunate to not only get a job in the forensics field, but also to stay in Connecticut where my husband and two kids have become rooted.

My luck started when I was still in graduate school for forensic science and working as a molecular technician in a pathology laboratory in Hartford. At that time, I was hired as one of the first civilian crime scene technicians for the Waterbury Police Department. The 24/7 on-call schedule took a toll on my family so, with a sad heart, I left. I will admit, though, that I was happy afterward not to be called out every night to a crime scene.

Fortune fell on me again and a position for a death investigator at the medical examiner’s office opened up.

So what does a death investigator do? It varies from state to state, so I will let you know what I do in Connecticut - which is, by the way, a beautiful setting for any mystery novel.

I am one of 14 death investigators in Connecticut. Our main office, where all the autopsies take place, houses the toxicology lab - and my cubicle - in a three-story building in Farmington. The 14 of us are spread out into jurisdictions each day, to areas where we respond to any fatalities. These fatalities include all suicides, homicides, fatal accidents and fatal overdoses, etc. We respond to the scene, get as much information as we can regarding the circumstances from the police officers or family members, take photographs of the scene and examine the body to be sure that the information that we received matches the wounds we observe on the body.

Police personnel in Connecticut have become accustomed to waiting for me to arrive before touching the body so that we can go over the body slowly and meticulously together. The body is my jurisdiction. I help the police preserve as much evidence on the body as possible. If they want to take evidence off the body to keep from losing it in transit, I make notes of what they take and assist if necessary. I take all the information back to the office where I upload my pictures and write a brief report about the scene so that the medical examiner assigned to the case (we have four M.E.s) has a good idea of what’s going on before the autopsy.

And, no, I don’t remove the body from the scene. We have forensic techs to do that - or a trade service if the techs are busy.

Most of the autopsies are done the next day, unless there is a large number of cases or a backlog from the weekend. Mondays are usually crazy busy. There can be anywhere from one to 20 cases on the board requiring an autopsy. We have three autopsy tables and can do three autopsies at once. If it’s busy, the M.E.s will do a maximum of four cases, each, in one day.

We have a minimum of three forensic techs who assist the M.E.s with their cases (I call them the slicer-and-dicers) and a forensic photographer to document the autopsy. Every body that comes in for an autopsy gets a toxicology screen, regardless of the circumstances of the case.

I usually don’t observe the autopsy in my cases, unless it was something that I haven’t seen and am curious about. Unfortunately, there isn’t much that I haven’t seen.

When I’m not at scenes, I view bodies that are waiting to be cremated. In Connecticut, there is a law that all bodies being cremated have a 48-hour hold placed on them until they can be viewed by a death investigator. I drive from funeral home to funeral home, viewing bodies before they are cremated - so to say I see dead people all day is an understatement.

I am looking for anything suspicious, not just the obvious stab wounds or bullet holes, but bruising, signs of falls or anything traumatic. I can see anywhere from five to 25 bodies in one day for cremations - and that doesn’t include my getting called to a fatal scene. In January, I observed 114 bodies for cremation and went to eight scenes.

To be continued tomorrow...

Top photo by Ken Clark: Michelle Clark wearing an official Office of the Chief Medical Examiner shirt.

Bottom photo by Michelle Clark: The autopsy room at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Connecticut.

Michelle Clark graduated from the University of Hartford in Connecticut with a B.S. in Medical Technology and earned a master’s degree in Forensic Science from the University of New Haven. She currently works as a Death Investigator for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Connecticut. She is board-certified as a Medical Technologist and board-certified as a Molecular Biologist.

While her kids are a great distraction from her job, she finds that writing helps her escape. She tried her hand in the paranormal/romance/mystery genre and finished a 487-page manuscript called Haunted, which still needs to be cleaned up. She is at work on two more WIPs: Jurisdiction of Bodies, about a death investigator who finds herself in the midst of catching a killer in Connecticut, and Note to Self, a mystery/thriller about a CSI who’s getting calls on her answering machine in her own voice, telling her to kill herself.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Launching our Internet Chapter!

By Nan Harrington

I’m so pleased to announce that, at long last, the Internet chapter of Sisters in Crime is back!

We’ve “hung out our banner and opened our doors,” so to speak. Now we’re hoping that you’ll come in for a visit - and join us! The chapter can be found online at

And, in case you’re wondering just what an Internet chapter is - and why you’d want to join, here are a few answers:

An Internet chapter is much like your local chapter, except that it exists in cyberspace and provides a common meeting place for those who live where there are no local chapters, for those who are unable to attend local chapter meetings for any reason - or simply for those who want or need a “SinC supplement” in between their monthly chapter get-togethers.

The great thing about the Internet chapter is that it is accessible at any time and from any location - from your home late at night, from your office during a break or from anywhere you travel. We’re here for you 24/7.

We provide information, links to resources, blogs, monthly writing tips and prompts, support and cyber-camaraderie.

Our “members only” site will be launched next week and will include a critique group opportunity and interviews. (We’d love to find new interviewees, by the way! Don’t hesitate to sign up!)

Any questions? Contact Nan Harrington at nan.harrington[at]

Come on in! We’re open for business!

Nan Harrington, President of the Internet Chapter of Sisters in Crime, is a 5th generation Texan, a retired university professor, a wanna-be crime writer (her new passion!), and an inveterate traveler. She lives in Dallas and Cuernavaca, Mexico.

Friday, July 1, 2011

California Crime Writers: A Writing Craft Report

By Jackie Houchin

[Originally published at]

Although I don't actually write crime fiction (I read and review it), I took the Writing Craft workshops at the California Crime Writers Conference, all taught by an impressive lineup of top-notch writers.

"Grammar for Dummies, Part I," presented by author/copy editor June Casagrande, was a fact-filled session that tested our knowledge (in a 66-example quiz), surprised us by revealing many common errors and challenged us to use the best reference manuals (Chicago Manual of Style, Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, and Garner's Modern American Usage).

In "Part II," June explained basic sentence structures (simple, compound, complex), showed many examples of each and powered through 16 specific tips for improving our sentences.

"Cut back on commas!" she said. "I'd rather be in a room with a roaring drunk than see too many commas and semicolons."

Oh, that our elementary school teachers were so informative and fun!

"Crime writers are not expected to be perfect in grammar," she said, "but they do need to come off as professionals." Her workshops and "keeper" handouts will help both newbie and seasoned writers to do just that.

"What's the purpose of dialogue?" asked author Gary Phillips in his "How to Talk" workshop. He picked up a marker, held it poised over a pad clipped to a tripod and looked at his audience.

"To create characters," said one attendee, breaking the ice for further suggestions.

"To move the story along."

"To convey information."

As others spoke, Phillips distributed a handout with snippets of dialogue by several well-known authors.

"Who will volunteer to read the first page?" he asked.

Attendees read aloud paragraphs by Robert B. Parker, Laura Lippman and SJ Rozan, then discussed style, technique and ratio of dialogue to narration.

"There are two purposes for dialogue," Phillips stated,"... to service the plot (summing up information to speed the plot forward) and to reveal characters (the emotional stuff)."

He challenged us to write a scene "about two characters who were high school friends, an ex-prisoner and a college grad, meeting up again for some reason."

Some really good results were then read aloud and critiqued.

In a bit of humorous advice, SJ Rozan told attendees of her "How to Avoid the Sagging Middle" workshop to: "Write 40,000 words of beginning, then start writing the ending."

After the laughter subsided, she taught specifics on how to deal with that most important part of a story.

"What you do depends on the type of problem you have. Are you completely lost? Or have you 'hit a wall' with no place for your characters to go?

"If you are completely lost, you can ... kill someone or discuss your problem with your editor. Write a 'reverse outline' from where you are stuck back to the beginning to see what's missing. Or remember why you wanted to write this book (the theme).

"If you are up against a wall with your characters, you can - on Raymond Chandler's advice - 'Have a guy come in with a gun.' In other words, think outside the box, conjure up five of the most bizarre things that could happen that are not part of the plot (a UFO lands ... a dog runs through with something weird in its mouth ...).

"Trust your subconscious. Offer it some ideas to work out. Remember what your character knows (not you as writer) and think what she would logically do next."

And finally, "If you give up in the middle, you'll never get another one done."

Juliet Blackwell had us take a cold hard look at our commitment to writing in her "Get Over It" motivation workshop by asking, "How badly do you want to write? What is your true writing goal? To be published... make money... get famous? How important is that goal to you - and what are you willing to give up to get there?"

She showed us practical ways to stop sabotaging ourselves and encouraged us by saying, "Young adults are reading a lot right now. They'll be adults soon and they'll want to read your books."

Jan Burke's "Bad Guys and Side Kicks" was another session packed with helpful advice.

"Start with the villain," was her opening comment.

"Why? Well, consider what a mystery is – a whodunnit – a who done it?"

He's the source of tension and conflict. Figure out what he wants and why, and get him into the story quickly.

"Readers learn a lot about the protagonist from the villain."

The victim is also important - and not just a "dead body." Make sure you show the reason why the villain chose this victim. Consider the seven deadly sins. The kind of villain - and his means of killing - depends on the genre. Is it a cozy, a thriller, a classic detective? What drives the villain (revenge, notoriety, fear of discovery, unusual appetite)?

Run out of ways the killer can threaten? Ask what scares you. Brainstorm 50 scary things that don't necessarily cause death (a flushing toilet in the middle of the night).

Other characters need to be tied to the victim, too. Sidekicks can't solve the crime, but they can inform the sleuth, inform the reader, accidentally mislead, have a sense of humor and provide a person the sleuth can discuss the case with.

Burke's best writing advice was to "find three books you love and three books you hate. Study them to see how/why the bad ones failed and the subtle ways the good ones succeeded."

In a "Keynote Dialogue" with Denise Hamilton (Okay, I deviated from the craft tract one time because I was a little afraid of Dorothy Howell's "Love and Sex" workshop), SJ Rozan talked about writing rituals (she needs her mug of Queen Anne tea first), word count (she likes 750-1,000 words per day), brainstorming and spare writing.

"Words are powerful. You don't need that many of them," she said.

Rozan also candidly confessed, "Someday I want to write a James Michener epic with multiple POVs, maybe not even a crime novel."

The wildly entertaining Kerry Madden, in "Understanding the Story Arc," advised us to "get the memories down" and "write through the fear."

She also said, "Don't worry about plot, just write the story and the plot will take care of itself."

This made sense when I remembered SJ Rosen's description of plot. It's the "car" that takes your story to the end - how it all happens. Story is the "journey" of your characters - what the book is about. If the plot isn't working, get a new "car."

Too soon, the conference and the weekend were over. Other writers took the Business, Matters of Crime, and Nuts & Bolts tracks and went home just as determined to put what they'd learned into their writing. Many also left with promises from agents to read their work. All were encouraged by the talented authors who freely shared their knowledge.

"Writing should be a pleasure," said T. Jefferson Parker. "Read something wonderful, something that makes you happy and edifies you. Then go write."

Jackie Houchin is a freelance writer, book reviewer, and theatre critic. She’s a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America and California Writers Club.