Thursday, March 28, 2019

The joy of crime with Emily Ross: an interview

Readers and writers, I am so happy to present to you today an interview with Emily Ross. She is the author of Half In Love With Death (Simon Pulse 2015), a young adult thriller inspired by the Pied Piper of Tucson, a real serial killer who murdered three girls and buried them in the desert. The book was also an International Thriller Writer Thriller Awards finalist.

In this heart-pounding novel set in the 1960s, 15-year old Caroline is still mourning the loss of her older sister, Jess, who disappeared without a trace. The police have no answers and Caroline can't move on without knowing what happened to her sister. Jess's boyfriend, Tony, suggests that Jess ran off to California, and he asks Caroline to come with him to find her. But is she following a lead or being led into a trap?

This is a heart-in-your throat thriller--fast-paced and poetic in its creepiness. I highly recommend you pick this up asap.

I'm so glad that Emily is able to drop by our blog to give us her tips for writing criminally good fiction, and which authors you might to check out if you're a fan of suspense.

Your YA novel, Half In Love With Death, is inspired by the true crime of the Pied Piper of Tucson. Is there another true crime story that you are fascinated with? Or an unsolved mystery that haunts you?

I recently got sucked into the Black Dahlia rabbit hole by the book, Black Dahlia Avenger, by Steve Hodel. Hodel is a retired LAPD detective who believes he’s solved this decades-long unsolved crime and knows who killed Elizabeth Short (a.k.a. the Black Dahlia). He hasn’t entirely convinced me yet, but his book paints a chilling portrait of his disturbed, brilliant father, George Hodel, and of Los Angeles at a time when it was rife with corruption. 

Who Elizabeth Short—the beautiful woman with black curls, paper-white skin and green eyes—really was is also a mystery. Was she a sweet, innocent small-town girl who came to LA to pursue her dreams, or a liar who invented the life she didn’t have to impress people? Was she in the wrong place at the wrong time, or did she know her killer? We may never know. I suppose, like many people obsessed with true crime, I have just enough foolish hope to believe I could be the one who finally figures it out.

You're a contributor to Dead Darlings, a website dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. What advice would you give a novice crime fiction writer?

Read the crime fiction genres you like (thriller, suspense, cozy mystery, police procedural etc.) and write what you like to read.

Figure out as much as you can about the crime in your fiction ahead of time—who did it, how, where, when, and why. But it’s okay if you don’t know everything in the first draft. For example, if you’re not sure who the killer is you’re less likely to point a big red arrow at him or her and you will naturally create suspects who are red herrings. I’m often more imaginative outside my outline so in my first draft I work with a high-level roadmap and fill in the holes as I go along. I nail down the details and clues in later drafts. Whether it’s better to know everything up front or discover things along the way depends on what kind of writer you are. Either approach can work.

The various crime fiction genres follow certain conventions. The crime fiction audience is very aware of them and you should be too. For example, if you’re writing a mystery, the crime usually takes place early in the book and you’re expected to solve it eventually. If you’re going to break a rule you should have a good reason. Much as I resist being told what to do, I find the constraints of crime fiction can make your story stronger and help you to be more creative.

Above all, tell a good story. There are lots of great books out there on story structure. Acquaint yourself with them. Sentences can be polished and made beautiful, but if the story doesn’t work none of the rest will matter.

Setting is key in mystery and crime fiction. A book set in Los Angeles is going to have a very different vibe from a story set in Maine. If you could set a book anywhere, where would it be, and why?

I’ve always wanted to set a novel in my hometown of Quincy, MA. Quincy is an ethnically and economically diverse city with big city problems and a small-town feel. There are gritty neighborhoods and beautiful neighborhoods by the sea. There are dive bars where fights break out and trendy restaurants. There’s tension between the people who have lived here for generations and the folks who are just discovering it. Tension is good for fiction. Whitey Bulger buried some bodies here and it feels like everyone knows someone who knew Whitey and will tell you stories about it. I like the idea of setting a crime novel in this city where everyone knows everybody as they would in a small town, but also where dark secrets and danger lurk beneath the surface.

Recommend a few page-turning reads in the genre of your choosing.

I just finished The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides, a page-turning psychological thriller that rewards with an ending you don’t see coming, but which makes perfect sense when you look back at it. I’d also recommend Final Girls by Riley Sager, Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, and You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott.

As for detective fiction I recently read Louise Penny’s How the Light Gets In and now I want to read everything she’s written and move to her fictional town of Three Pines.

What shows are you bingeing right now?

The Good Place which I absolutely adore. I NEED a Janet.

Also recently devoured the sharp, creative new comedy series Corporate. If, like me, you’ve ever worked in a corporate job that made your head explode on a daily basis, this one’s for you.

Just started watching I Am the Night which interestingly is from a memoir by Fauna Hodel, the niece of Steve Hodel who wrote Black Dahlia Avenger. I’m really curious to see how their two stories intersect.

What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a psychological thriller about a detective who must unravel a dark secret from her past to catch the serial killer who is targeting members of her daughter’s dance team. I think of it as sort of Mystic River meets Seven.

Thanks, Emily, for stopping by. To check out the history behind the Pied Piper of Tucson, to read more about Emily's work, or to follow Emily on Twitter, click on her social media links below.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Google Search: What does it mean…

I’m back with another Google Search segment. I grabbed this screen shot back in November after searching for something:

I don’t remember what I was searching for the meaning of, but I do know it wasn’t any of the Googlebot suggestions listed. It’s 4+ months since I got those search results, so I thought I’d start the same search string today to see what came up. Here’s what I got:

It’s slightly different, but it seems there are three things people are still trying to find the meaning of. It’s a good thing you have me to help you out. 

What does it mean when your poop is green?

Okay, seriously — what’s with our fascination with poop? My cat even pointed this out in my last Google Search segment that she wrote for me. Are people really analyzing their poop this much? Your poop is probably green because you ate some sort of funky food. As long as you’re pooping, does it really matter? As the old saying goes, just sh*t and get off the pot!

What does it mean when your {right} eye twitches/jumps?

If you’re looking for the boring explanation, then your twitching eye is most likely a result of fatigue, staring at your computer screen for too long, being too hopped up on caffeine, or those evil allergies. I know my eye usually twitches when I’m tired. But as I said, that’s all boring. Apparently superstition is attached to the twitching eye. I knew about the itchy nose and the ringing ears, but I never knew you could be in for some good or bad news depending on which eye is twitching (right = good; left =bad). It’s a cool theory, but superstitions aren’t what they used to be. We now live in the age of technology where anyone can debunk any theory (or prove it - cause let’s face it, the Internet will pretty much tell you anything you want to hear) and superstitions don’t hold as much mysterious power as they used to. So what’s the real reason behind all that eye twitching? 


What does it mean when you dream about…

Even though one was about snakes and one was about a person, these searches are basically the same. I think the only thing more confusing to us humans than poop is what we dream about. I think deep down we’re all hoping we can find the meaning of life in those unfiltered moments when our eyes are closed and our subconscious is drifting. I actually do believe that we have the ability to tap into some extreme level of knowledge when our mind is free from the restraints of reality. Dreaming can be powerful. All my book ideas so far have come from dreaming. Reoccurring dreams are the most fascinating to me. Except the ones where I can’t find a bathroom, or the bathrooms I do find have something horribly wrong with them (grotesquely dirty, broken, surrounded by glass walls or no doors, etc.). Those dreams aren’t anything special. They just mean I really have to pee. Which requires me to get out of bed in the middle of the night. Sigh.

To sum up this post, if you want to understand your dreams my advice is to write it out. Even if you’re not a writer. You might be surprised where it takes you.

What are you looking for the meaning of these days?

~ Carrie

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Back Jacket Hack-Job - Touch of Smoke

Here’s the obligatory link to the original BJHJ in case you need a refresher on what this is all about. I needed a bit of a refresher, since this, as a new member of this blog, is my first attempt. And since I have a very recent new release, I'll take this chance to do a little shameless self-promotion. Sorry-not-sorry.

 So, you like Twilight? If so, then too bad, cuz this is not Twilight. But if it WERE Twilight, Rikki Albemarle would be Bella but older because this is not a young adult novel. Rikki is also a lot less clumsy, and she doesn't have a particular intoxicating smell (unless you have a thing for Secret deodorant and industrial disinfectants). She's an EMT with her own self-agency and dreams of a career as an oncology nurse somewhere (anywhere!) outside of her small town of Forks--I mean Evansville, which is in the North Carolina Smoky Mountains instead of the Pacific Northwest, and there's a helluva lot less rain.

And if Touch of Smoke were Twilight, Owen Amir would be Edward, only not all stalkery and obsessive and cold and pale. He's warm and brown and of Palestinian descent. He has a firm understanding of several important concepts that Edward could never grasp like: a) personal boundaries b) consent c) age appropriate relationships and d) mortality. He's also had the good fortune of having grown into adult manhood, and his skin doesn't feel like stone. Sometimes he has flames in his eyes (for spoiler reasons) but he never sparkles.

And if Touch of Smoke were Twilight, the vampires would not be vampires, and there would be no werewolves because nobody in this story wanted love triangles. I'd tell you what the paranormal element is, but that detail is at the heart of this novel's main murder mystery (oh yeah, someone totally dies in this book, but not by being eaten by a vampire or werewolf). However, there are lots of clues from the start if you're the type who pays attention to details rather than just flipping through pages to get to the sex scene(s). And since this is not Twilight, nobody makes you read four books to get to the sex scene(s). And no one has bruises or broken bones or weird hybrid babies afterword. 

So, basically, this book is nothing like Twilight, and you can read the real back-jacket blurb and buy a copy here: Amazon here: Barnes & Noble here: Kobo here: Apple or here: Google Play

Monday, March 18, 2019

The Post-Nigh World

Another quality post brought to you by Steve!
Hey, everybody!

I'm going to level with you: I'm worried.  

I'm worried about the state of the world.  

I'm worried about what the future will bring. 

I'm just plain worried.

It's not politics so much, although there is that, obviously.  I like to believe that history repeats itself, that human beings have certain processes and cycles we go through, and we've kept going through them since the beginning of time.  We have a tendency to compare things to the twentieth century, probably because our parents and our grandparents lived through it.  Iraq was like Vietnam and then we went through a Great Recession not so different from the Depression and now there are Nazis marching in the streets again (for some reason.)

But you can go even further back.  When I read about Napoleon, or John Calvin, or the Borgia popes, it makes me think that the things we think are beyond the pale, people were worrying about centuries ago.  Hell, one of the most interesting things I ever read was an ancient Greek philosopher lamenting about how kids these days were going to be the end of civilization.

So there's ample precedent to believe that feeling like we're living in apocalyptic times is just how everyone always feels.

And yet...

Polynesia's disappearing.

There are islands and low countries that are just...going away.

And when I look around I realize that I miss the seasons.  When I was a kid we had Autumn and Spring.  Now it's just snow.  Just snow, snow, snow into mid March.  And then the summer scorches.  I go right from having the heat on to having the air conditioning on.  Every year is the hottest year on record.  Every year the super diseases get more super.  And people aren't vaccinating their kids anymore (for some reason.)

My generation is supposedly the first American generation that will be worse off than our parents.  That's ominous.  But in a way I feel like we're about to be the first generation on Earth that's going to be smaller than the last.  I just don't see any way that all the apocalyptic weather and political upheaval is going to end without millions upon millions of people dying.

Well...that's not true, either.  I do see one way.

It seems to me that technology could fix all of our current woes.  Technology has changed society in inconceivable ways in the past.  The wheel arrives and everything's just different, all of a sudden.  Gunpowder suddenly makes millennia of castle-building obsolete.  Penicillin.  Hell, even in our lifetimes the internet has made all of the world's information instantaneously available and free.

There's a chance we could turn everything around with some...thing.  I don't know what, really.  I imagine clean, renewable energy could be revolutionary.  3-D printing has the potential to relieve scarcity in a permanent way, which would cause massive social change.  There are lots of things that seem just on the horizon.  But the truth is probably that whatever the next thing is, the magical fix that will allow us to continue as a society, hasn't been conceived of yet.

Which is where we come in.  (You thought I'd forgotten this was a writing blog, didn't you?)  As writers, we have the potential to develop ideas which are timeless and even bullet-proof.  You can't make an idea go away, whether it's de Sade's libertinism, or Verne's conception of the submarine, or Darwin's theory of evolution.

In all of my despair and hand-wringing, in all of my nihilistic self-doubt and worries that we will have made no mark on the world, I see only one glimmer of hope.  The idea that saves us will be conceived of by an author, it will be promulgated in a book, it will be found by the scientists and engineers and philosophers who need it, and we may continue as a species.  If that idea hasn't been written down yet, we, the literary community, need to strike upon it.  And sooner rather than later.

Maybe this is all a bit overwrought and overblown.  But that's the best I can do for you right now.  The alternative is wallowing in a pit of despair.  So.  What do you think will be the great, game-changing idea?  Has it already been struck upon?  Or are you going to reveal it for the first time in the comments below?

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Scrabbling for Words

By Cheryl Oreglia

Christian Wiman asks, "does the decay of belief among educated people in the West precede the decay of language used to define and explore belief, or do we find the fire of belief fading in us only because the words are sodden with overuse and imprecision, and will not burn?" It seems to me we need language that is not only intimate and inclusive but efficacious, words so enticing, stimulating, and moving that the reader is unable to let the narrative go long after ingesting the last morsel. Something that burns inside of us, scorching a path in our soul, embers glowing through the dark night. Our work does not have to overwhelm, it has to invite, and those who reject it will miss the celebration, the banquet, the union of all who showed up in their stead. 

Contemporary writers are not only remaking the language, but they are in the unique position to alter our understanding of the world, and the culture in which we all live. People will reach for a story that resonates with their understanding of the world but they will flock to a story that challenges their beliefs, a reformation of sorts, one that is responsive to the current situation, one that has the ability to reshape our obsolete convictions. I don't want heaven, I want a story that reaches into the agony of hell, that confronts our suffering in such a way that relief comes in the form of fusion, a new amalgamation.

I don't want to read what I know, I want to read that which will make me into something new, drag my worn out vision to the side yard, as if a dog burying a bone. I want to be recast. Wiman adds, "but it cleared the metaphysical air, so to speak; it gave us - would-be believers, haunted unbelievers, determined secularists whose very passion for the book undermined their iron exteriors - something to build on." The capacity to melt iron, this is my longing, where my passion is not only consummated, but forged into something new, something noble. 

Imagine languages that breed, a modern copulation if you will, with a lengthy gestation, eventually the work will need a bigger womb, and suddenly your water breaks on the way to the publishers. The writer gives birth to a story, in the throws of labor, it's painful to push forth a new vision, but before the emergence of this embryonic narrative, you must let everything go. The urge to fight, the resistance of both body and soul, before a gushing placenta, with blood, and amnionic fluid spills onto the floor. It's messy, but then your roman a clef takes her first breath, endowed with the ability to feel, to open ones eyes, magical, miraculous, extraordinary.

In all this glory and grandeur let us not forget our mortality and impermanence, a story has a shelf life, it's finite, but every now and then one breaks through the barriers, and lives on eternally, incorruptible. A messiah so to speak, one that draws us back to ourselves, helps us to see that what we long for is right in front of us. The forbidden fruit, one bite, and your catapulted out into the world. This is our work, earned by the sweat of our brow, painful, intense, bequeathed by those who came before us. 

I'm hopeful that in the hands of contemporary writers our language is safe, "the mystic, the poet working not simply inclined to silence but inclined to valorize it," writes Christian Wiman. We all crave the written word, not only for escape, but to articulate reality, using truth as our sacred standard. The kind of truth that resists decay, because it's got grit, "mind and matter soldered seamlessly together by pain, faith, grief, grace," writes James Wright. 

How's the labor going?  

When I'm not writing for Across the Board, I'm Living in the Gap, drop by anytime, we'll play Scrabble.

Monday, March 11, 2019


Listen, I know seeing your name in print is awesome, but who publishes your work is as important as getting published. I see too many authors eager to get their name out there who end up getting into bad contracts or working with publishers who shouldn't be allowed to be in the business. If you ever have doubts, here are some things you should remember and some you can do to make sure you protect yourself and your work.

1. Ask around

Any writer who's had an awful experience with a publisher is probably willing to share their experience. If you see a submission call but you aren't familiar with the press, ask around. If someone drops you a line saying they want to work with you and you don't know them, ask around. Asking around is normal. It's also a great way to get information that can inform your decisions.

2. Take a look at their platform 

Using Facebook and Twitter is not an art form. That said, some people are better at it than others. Make sure that the folks you work with at least try to have a presence. Trying to sell books is already hard enough. Trying to do so with a publisher with no platform who won't spend a couple of seconds plugging your book on social media only adds to the difficulty.

3. Writing is a job and you should get paid 

Some authors will put up with almost everything, except not getting paid. If a publisher has a history of not paying its authors, you shouldn't become another unpaid author on their roster. Remember: not being published is better than being published by the wrong press.

4. Covers matter 

I'm not here to argue with you. If you don't think covers matter, good for you. If you look at a publisher's catalog and instead of professional covers you see crap that looks like it was put together by an 8-year old trying Photoshop for the first time, it's time to say no and move on. Professional covers speak volumes about the care, time, and money a publisher is willing to invest in putting out a product that attracts readers and makes you look like a professional. Anything less than that is unacceptable.

5. Editing and interior design also matter 

When I open a book and find ten typos in the first four pages, I immediately know I'm dealing with an unprofessional publisher. If you work with them, you look bad. They should care about publishing clean work that's been edited by a professional. They should also care that the interior of your book looks amazing. If they don't care about those things, they don't care about your work...and they are publishing in a way that will ensure readers don't care about your words.

6. Who's on the team? 

This one is pretty personal. I'm talking about those publishers who work with people who are racists or have a history of sexual harassment. In the barrio we say "Tell me who you hang out with and I'll tell you who you are." That also applies to publishing. If the folks putting your work out look like assholes, you will look like one by association. It's not worth it. Look for better people to work with.

7. You're not the only one who should behave like a professional 

Are people answering your emails in a reasonable amount of time? Do they act like someone you'd like to be in an office with? Are they prone to stupid outbursts online? Do they insult potential readers? Do they share bullshit articles without reading them? Do they fail to send writers their money on time? Do they forget to send writers books before events and signings? Do they ignore your calls? You are are pro and deserve to work with pros. Ignore everyone else.

8. Trust your gut 

You know that feeling you get when something is definitely wrong? Don't let your desire to see your name in print silence that instinct. Protect yourself and your work at all times. I've seen dozens on presses fold in the last half decade. The aftermath is always ugly. Pay attention to trends. Look into their sales a bit if you can. Check out their website. Google them. Again, ask around. If something feels off, wait. It could be the difference between a nice publishing experience and a lot of headaches and hassle.


Gabino Iglesias is a writer, professor, and book reviewer living in Austin. He is the author of ZERO SAINTS and COYOTE SONGS. His work has been translated into three languages, optioned for film, and nominated for the Bram Stoker Award and the Wonderland Book Award. His nonfiction and reviews have appeared in NPR, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Electric Literature, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Collagist, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, and many other print and online venues. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

What Are You Avoiding?

Awhile ago, I took a class by Becca Syme called Write Better Faster. (My course was offered via the Margie Lawson Academy, which has a fantastic breadth of offerings and I would highly recommend.) When I signed up for Becca's course, I was hoping it would be a magic bullet. That I would finally figure out why my daily word count is so pitifully low and, more importantly, how to fix it.

*Narrator: It was not a magic bullet.*

But I did figure out why my word count is so low - I screw around on social media when I should be writing. Did I need a course to tell me that? Absolutely not. What the course DID teach me, though, was about "essential pain" and how that factors into my decision to avoid writing.

Without going to deep - and because Becca is qualified to teach this and I am not - essential pain is basically this:

However for me - and maybe for you? - social media is only part of it. My other way of avoiding essential pain? Revising to death.

Case in point: I'm about 55K into my projected 65K novel. I've rewritten the first 100 pages twice. I'm at the "black moment" and I know how the story ends. What I don't know? How I'm going to resolve this situation I've created in a believable way. Talk about essential pain. So yesterday while drinking my coffee, I had a lightbulb moment. Maybe the reason I'm struggling lies at the beginning! Again. Why, yes, I think that's it! I went eagerly back to chapter 1, rewriting, changing my hero's motivation, even changing his name! It was going to be a big job, but I'd edit accordingly, starting from the beginning.

Thank goodness my son had a school football/soccer game yesterday that took me away from my computer. By the time I sat back down to write - after scrolling through social media again, of course - I realized what I was doing. I'm avoiding the essential pain of resolving my black moment and finishing writing my book. Because, let's be honest, there's a whole lot more essential pain waiting on the other side of finishing, too - editing, rewriting, copyediting, formatting, marketing, publishing. Reader reviews.

Does recognizing it make it easier to deal with? A little. I am going back in my manuscript to add a scene because it plays into the black moment I've already established, but the truth is, the only way through it is, well, to suck it up and do the work. I'll see you on the other side. And probably on Twitter.

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