Category Archives: One Writer’s Journey

A Volunteer’s Perspective: Bouchercon 2017 Anthology

Bouchercon (pronounced Bough-chur-con) is a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization, which holds an annual convention in honor of Anthony Boucher, a distinguished mystery fiction critic, editor and author.

In 2017, Bouchercon will be held in Toronto. The first Bouchercon took place in 1970 in Santa Monica, California. Recent Bouchercons have been held in many cities across the United States, including Albany, NY, Saint Louis, MO, Raleigh, NC, New Orleans, LA, and Long Beach, CA.  Future conferences are scheduled for St. Petersburg (2018), Dallas, (2019) and Sacramento (2020).

Because Toronto is my home patch, I signed up as soon as registration opened in 2015, and checked off the “Volunteer” box. It wasn’t long before I agreed to take on the task of working on the Bouchercon anthology. These collections of short crime fiction are a means of fundraising for a local charity; the judges, the editor, and the authors do not receive any payment or royalties. The charity for A PASSPORT TO MURDER is Frontier College, a Canadian national literacy organization.

I learned a lot as a volunteer on this project. Here’s a bit of a rundown:

Step 1: Interview four publishers to determine the “Best Fit.” Important considerations included being an Mystery Writers of America approved publisher, past experience producing anthologies, and a commitment to contributing to the charity after publishing costs had been recouped.

Step 2: Selecting the publisher (with input from the Bouchercon Chairs and other volunteers). The publisher selected was Down & Out Books, who had published prior Bouchercon anthologies, and agreed to contribute all profits to Frontier College.

Step 3: Selecting three judges to read the submissions, and an editor. This responsibility fell primarily on the part of the Bouchercon Chairs, with input from the volunteer committee.

Step 4: Defining the guidelines and timeline. We were open to submissions from November 2016 through January 30, 2017. Here’s the fine print:

  • The story must include travel and at least a strong suggestion of murder or a plot to commit  murder
  • Story length: a maximum of 5,000 words
  • Electronic submissions only
  • Formatting requirements:
    • .DOC format, preferably double-spaced
    • Times New Roman or similar font (12 point)
    • Paragraph indent 0.5 inch (or 1.25 cm). Do not use tabs or space bar to create the indents
    • Include story title and page number in document header
  • Maximum of one entry per author
  • Open to writers who have been previously published, in any format, and those who have never been published
  • The story itself must not have been previously published in ANY format, electronic or print.
  • Please remove your name or any identifying marks from your story. Any story that can be associated with the author will either be returned for correction (if there is time) or disqualified.

Step 5: Set up an Excel spreadsheet to log all submissions. Author name, email, story title, story/batch number, date received, date to judges.

Step 6: Each story received was stripped of any identifying marks (yes, about 50% of authors left them in under “Properties.”) Log the story, author information (from entry form), and rename the stories, i.e. Batch 1, Story 1 would be B1-S1, and so on. Batches of eight stories were sent to the judges. Each story submission was acknowledged within a day of receipt.

Step 7: In all, there were 116 submissions, of which approximately half came in on the last two days. About a dozen came in during the last hour. Three came in after 11:55 but before 11:59 p.m. This surprised me (and the judges). It also served as a reminder to me: Don’t be so last minute! It’s just plain annoying and you run the risk of something going wrong (i.e. internet problems) and missing the cutoff. The latter “almost” happened to one author, who managed to squeeze in at 11:59 p.m. with a panicky email saying their internet had been down all evening. If it had been the next day, it would have been too late. (The dog ate my homework comes to mind as an excuse).

Step 8: The judges did their thing, reading and rating each story as the batches arrived. I did not read any of the stories. Two stories were disqualified for having known characters. One story, judged “the best” by all three judges, was rejected because it did not meet the travel criteria. It was my unhappy task to inform those authors of the decision. One story came in at 4,015 words. Since it was not a last minute submission, I returned it to the author, who managed to get it to 3,999 words. But had it been last minute, it would have been DQ’d.

Step 9: After the judges culled the list down to 24 stories, I submitted them, and their comments, to the editor,  John McFetridge. John pared the list down to 18.

Step 1o: Draft a rejection and acceptance letter, and send them out. It was more than a bit humbling to send myself a rejection letter, but the competition was fierce, and I know a lot of great stories from some very well-known authors didn’t make it in. I’m going to revisit that story, hopefully make it stronger, and find a new home for it.

What’s Step 11? Not sure…yet…but one thing is certain. My work on the anthology is not yet done. To see the list of authors who did make the cut, visit the website. Kudos to all who made it. It’s quite an accomplishment.

To register for Bouchercon, or find out more about it, visit the Bouchercon website

 

Before They Were Authors: Nalini Warriar

Winner of the 2002 QWF McAuslan Award for her first book, Blues from the Malabar Coast, Nalini Warriar spent her childhood in Assam and Mumbai. She worked as a molecular biologist before turning to writing. She lives in Napanee, Ontario. Her latest novel, Fireflies in the Night, has been chosen as ‘Best Indie Books 2016’ by Kirkus Reviews.

Here’s Nalini’s story:

I set my first novel, The Enemy Within, in the scientific world I’m familiar with. I wanted to portray the inner workings of a federally funded scientific research center and took all the liberty the setting allowed me to. I tried to keep the science part to a minimum but the story got away from me. I followed where the characters and story took me.

The novel is set in Canada-in French Canada-with a female protagonist who is a minority within a minority, a situation perfectly suited to the unique social and political climate in Quebec. I had plenty to work with, inspiration coming at me from all sides: my workplace, the malls and the community. It took me more than six years to find a publisher, partly because I was so out of the literary world in Toronto. And I wrote in English. Local presses did not ‘read’ English, in Quebec City, I must stress. The editors told me they didn’t know what to do with my book. Translation did not come to their minds. Plus my novel was not the story of the ‘immigrant experience.’ With a name like mine in Quebec City, they expected a story steeped in hardship, poverty, violence and I don’t know what else. I was unique. My book is unique. This was too much uniqueness for me to handle. So I moved away from Quebec and now am happy to call Ontario my home.

My second novel, Fireflies in the Night, was published in 2016. Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review and it was chosen as ‘Best Indie Books 2016.’ It is a finalist in the Foreword Reviews Best Indie Books 2016. I couldn’t be prouder.

My latest book, Green Monkeys is a cozy mystery, and is about clinical trials and drug research.

I worked as a cancer researcher and around the time I hit my very own mid-life crisis, I remembered a forgotten dream: writing. I’ve loved books and the places they took me. As a child, I devoured fairy tales. Novels set in far off places are my adult fairy tales. In a house full of family and noise, words spoken in a language I hadn’t heard in decades, set off a series of memories. Working in a lab was a perfect balance. In science, the writing is factual, short and concise. And above all, there were guidelines in order to prepare a manuscript for submission to scientific journals. I found these same rules in the literary world as well. They were familiar, un-daunting.

Organization skills and discipline were a few of the other characteristics I took away from my science job and transposed into my writing. In the lab, I followed a protocol; I established parameters; analyzed the results and drew conclusions. This required organizing and following a timetable. At the end of the experiments, I wrote the article with a synopsis, and conclusion. Pretty standard stuff. I did the same with my writing: I organized pretty notebooks and pencils; booted my laptop; and poured over my notes. I always kept one in my lab coat pocket. I observed all the other stressed out crazy scientists, the rooftop terrace that I had my lunch on; and made notes about whatever and whoever struck. This was my raw material.

At home, after dinner, I sat down at my desk, plugged my ears with music and wrote with no obvious purpose. I like novels with good structure and a consistent voice. I disliked change of tense within a paragraph or chapter and I hated it when authors jumped from the first person to third person in their books. So I did none of the things I disliked and embraced everything I admired, aiming for a structurally sound base and strong characters.

Balancing science and writing came easily to me. I put up with science as it gave me the liberty to obsess about writing. I never thought about my science when I was creating. And science never gave me as much pleasure as writing. In the end, I ditched science and opted for writing full time.

 

Find Nalini Warriar on Facebook. Her books are available through all worldwide outlets of Amazon.

Before They Were Authors: Judy Penz Sheluk, Act I

One of the most common questions I receive when I attend author events is “What did you do before you were an author?” The question sparked the idea for a blog series, and so far it’s proven to be very popular with authors and readers alike. Because the reality is, none of us were born authors, and most of us have worked in a variety of jobs.

I was a teenager, about sixteen, when I got my first part-time job at a grocery store. It was called Sunnybrook Food Market and it was located at Midland and Lawrence in Scarborough, Ontario, about a mile and a half walk from my house, and a ten minute walk from school. To say Sunnybrook Food Market—long since out of business— was a discount grocery store would be putting a gloss on it,  but they were willing to train, and they paid us every Friday without fail.

Now you might be wondering how that job impacted my writing all these years later, and the short answer is, it didn’t, with one exception. There was another student there, Camilla. Once Camilla knew that I liked one of the stock boys, she made it her mission in life to date him. And she succeeded. Fast forward a few decades to The Hanged Man’s Noose and you’ll meet Camilla Mortimer-Gilroy. Those of you who have read the book know that Camilla is the woman responsible for breaking up Arabella and Levon’s marriage. Coincidence? I leave it for you to decide.

I left Sunnybrook a year later (not entirely my idea, if I’m being honest — it seems they actually expected me to pay for all the chocolate bars I ate). As for Camilla, I don’t know what became of her, and I don’t remember the name of the stock boy, but in my fictional world, they got married at eighteen and divorced at twenty. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

Publication News!

I’m beyond excited to announce that the sequel to THE HANGED MAN’S NOOSE has been picked up by Barking Rain Press for publication in March 2018. If you’re wondering what that has to do with golf, here’s the first hint: the title is A HOLE IN ONE, and yes, the murder takes place on a golf course…more details closer to publication.

Those of you who know me personally (or have friended me on Facebook) know that I’m a passionate (if not particularly good) golfer. I wish I could say I was allowed to write off some of my golf games in the name of research, but alas, such was not the case. That said, I’ve played plenty of nasty par 3s that served as a template for the crime scene.

What happens now that the contract has been signed? That depends on the individual publisher. With Barking Rain, it means that I’ve had to break down the manuscript into 52 separate .rtf documents (one per chapter). The co-editors have been assigned (thank you Ti Locke and Anita Lock for taking this on) and our deadlines have been set for each stage of the editing process as we prepare for ARCs (Advance Reader Copies) by October 31st.

Stay tuned. The journey has just begun. FORE!

 

 

If you haven’t read THE HANGED MAN’S NOOSE, you can find it at all the usual suspects in trade paperback, Kindle, Kobo, and Nook. Read some of the reviews here. 

 

 

One Writer’s Journey: Exercising the Writing Muscle

At the Essa Public Library in Angus, ON

This past Saturday, I was invited to a “Meet the Local Author” event at the Essa Public Library in Angus, Ontario. There was a terrific turnout, and I was able to chat with a number of attendees before and after the event. One of the most common questions I get asked, both at events, and during author interviews, is if I have any writing advice. In my February 17th post, I talked about becoming a professional writer, with a nod to  the queen of the amateur sleuth mystery, Agatha Christie.

But what if you’re not quite ready to become a “professional writer?” What if you just want to hone your craft? Here’s the best advice I can give you:

Make time to write every day. The writing muscle is like any other muscle; the more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes.

If you exercise regularly, you know the truth of this statement. Exercise regularly and you start to feel better. Stronger. Suddenly, you’re making better food choices. You’re parking as far away from the mall entrance as you can, instead of circling around the wheelchair accessible parking, looking for a spot right next to it. You’re in control and proud of it.

You also know that a couple of days off can lead to a week off, which can lead to a month off…and before you know it, you’re sitting on the couch, eating junk food, watching reality TV, and feeling sorry for yourself. What the heck happened to that buff-body-in-progress?

The same thing can happen with writing. As long as you’re writing every day—even if it’s just for thirty minutes—you’ve got a work-in-progress. Maybe it isn’t perfect, maybe it’s not even very good…but as every day goes by, it gets better, easier. It becomes something to look forward to, instead of something to avoid. It becomes part of your daily routine.

You don’t have to start big. Even marathon runners start with that first mile and gradually add more distance every week. Writing is no different. Think of it as a word marathon and don’t forget to enjoy the journey!

SPECIAL UPDATE: The Kindle version of Skeletons in the Attic is on sale for $1.99 (regular price $4.99) until March 15th. Find it on Amazon.  US & UK only.

My Publishing Journey: Becoming a Professional Writer

Agatha Christie, 1949

“There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you’re writing, and aren’t writing particularly well.” Agatha Christie.

I spent the better part of my teen years and early twenties devouring Agatha Christie books, until I’d read every one, though my preference leaned heavily to stories featuring Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. I even went so far as to read Christie’s six romance novels, penned as Mary Westmacott.

My fascination with Christie fueled my desire to write murder mysteries. But like Christie, for many years I was an amateur. Actually, amateur is overstating it. I was more of a “want-to be” writer. You know the type: the person who says they’re going to write a book “one day.”

For me, “one day” took about three decades from the time I put down Curtain, Hercule Poirot’s final mystery. In between, I worked as a Credit & Collections Manager, a Sales and Marketing Coordinator, and over the past thirteen years, a freelance writer and editor. It wasn’t my fault, you see. I was waiting for the muse to show up. I knew once the muse made an appearance I’d be ready to write that book.

Except the muse never came for a visit. Not even after I bought some shiny new writing software for my computer. [Here’s a head’s up for those of you who don’t know: you still have to WRITE the story!]

Barry Dempster

Sometime in the early 2000s, I decided to take a creative writing class taught by Barry Dempster, an award-winning Canadian author and poet. It was Barry who told me, “The muse will never come unless you let her know you’re going to be there. Make time to write every day, even if it’s only for thirty minutes, even if all you’re doing is sitting there, staring at a blank page. One day, the words will come.”

They did. Faced with ten days off of all my freelance gigs, I started writing my first book, The Hanged Man’s Noose, on Christmas Eve 2011. I wrote every day, including Christmas and New Year’s Day. By the end of that ten-day period, I had a few chapters written. It never got easy…but it did get easier, and by February 2013, I’d finished writing and revising the book. Then I tried to find an agent, and when that didn’t work out, I went to work looking for a publisher.

I knew how elusive that muse could be, and I knew I should start another book, but I couldn’t bear to write the sequel to a book I hadn’t sold. I started Skeletons in the Attic, determined to make it as different from Noose as I could: Noose is written in third person, with multiple (primarily two) POVs. Skeletons, on the other hand, is written in first person, and entirely from the POV of the protagonist, Calamity (Callie) Barnstable. But this time, the Christie quote actually applied to me. Somewhere along the line, I’d stopped waiting for the muse to show up and graduated from want-to be writer to amateur writer to professional.

Some days, the muse is slow to appear, but that doesn’t stop me any more. To quote Agatha Christie once again, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”

The Fine Art of Procrastination

I’m going to let you in on a secret: I procrastinate, even when I have a deadline looming large—or perhaps because I do and suddenly it all begins to feel a bit overwhelming. Here are my top 5 ways to fritter away the time I should spend writing:

Pinterest: Don’t get me wrong, I love Pinterest. If I’m looking for a recipe, or how-to build a wood shed, Pinterest is the first place I look. I have 26 boards relating to movies, books, TV shows, running, golf—the list goes on—and because my profile is linked to my author website, occasionally Pinterest will bring me some traffic. But Pinterest can also be a place where I spend way too much time pinning pins instead of spinning a yarn.

Facebook: The original time suck! I used to have an author page only, so I could justify the time spent finding and scheduling posts. In February 2015, Facebook changed the rules and everyone with an author page had to have it linked to a personal page. Now I’m able to double the time I spend on Facebook…of course, on the plus side, I’ve made a lot of new friends!

Googling Under the Guise of Research: Research is as much a part of writing as the actual writing; some might even argue it’s more important. After all, one wrong fact and you’ve lost the trust of your reader. It’s when I start googling things like “was there a full moon on May 1, 1980, when my protagonist, Callie Barnstable was born?” That might be important to know if I was writing a vampire series. I’m not.

Gaius Charles as Brian “Smash” Williams in Friday Night Lights

Who was that actor in that TV show I watched last night and why can’t I remember what he/she was in before?: The ultimate mind niggle that won’t let go. It happened to me recently, when I was marathon watching the excellent series, Friday Night Lights (I don’t know how I missed it originally). There’s an actor, Gaius Charles, who played Brian “Smash” Williams, and I’m thinking…where do I know him from? I’m running the shows I regularly watch in my mind, and saying, nope, nope, nope, when suddenly I remember: Grey’s Anatomy. He was Dr. Shane Ross. This of course, leads me to do another google. You never know when Gaius Charles trivia can come in handy.

Office Cleanup: Cleaning up my desk drawer, sorting my paperclips by color (because what self-respecting author would have those plain metal paperclips), tidying up my bookshelf, typing up labels for my file folders using a different font…

Do you have a favorite way to procrastinate? I’d love to hear about it!

One Writer’s Journey: Creating a Fiction Town

Main Street, Newmarket, Ontario

When I started writing Skeletons in the Attic, I wanted to create a fictional town that readers could believe in. I also wanted my protagonist, Calamity (Callie) Barnstable, to be a fish out of water. I decided to make Callie a single woman born and raised in the city—Toronto, Canada, in her case—who’s forced to move to the town of Marketville.

Callie describes Marketville as “a commuter community about an hour north of Toronto, the sort of town where families with two kids, a collie, and a cat moved to looking for a bigger house, a better school, and soccer fields. It didn’t sound much like her…” and while she’s not keen to move there, she doesn’t have a lot of choice.

As a former city girl, also born and raised in Toronto, I can remember feeling much the same way about the town of Newmarket, which is also a commuter community about an hour north of Toronto. Nevertheless, my husband, Mike, and I bought our first house there in the late 1980s (houses in Toronto being outside of our financial means). Newmarket and the surrounding area have seen considerable development since then, but I can still remember my mom saying, “They have houses that far north?”

The plaque dedicated to Samuel Lount, located outside the Holland Landing Community Centre. Lount’s Landing is a much fictionalized version of Holland Landing.

Mike and I moved again in 1990 to the neighboring—and even smaller—community of Holland Landing, which served as partial inspiration for Lount’s Landing in my novel, The Hanged Man’s Noose. Lount’s Landing’s Main Street, however, was inspired by Newmarket’s Main Street. That’s the great thing about being a writer and fictionalizing a setting. You can pull your favorite things from one place and put it in another! In the case of Marketville and Lount’s Landing, I’ve also taken the liberty of making them much more “small town” than they actually are.

*This entry is an abbreviated version of my Jan. 14th post on the Mystery Thriller Week website and serves as an introduction to a terrific initiative for authors and readers. For more information, visit About Mystery Thriller Week. The countdown is on!