Friday, November 29, 2013

Boxed E-Book Sets: Easy to Set up – Big Potential!

Guest post by Ian Graham, thriller writer 

After a month-long march complete with heralding trumpets and marching pikemen carrying signs of sales, the calendar finally rests on Black Friday and the holiday shopping season has arrived. The internet is replete with advertisements for incredible bargains, and Amazon’s Kindle Store is no exception. Every season, entrepreneurial authors looking to lift their visibility and boost book sales come up with new and interesting ways to attract reader attention, and this year, more than any other, seems to be the year of the boxed set.

All over the Kindle-verse, sets featuring multiple books packaged together are popping up. Some sets feature two or more titles from a single author, while others feature titles by different authors, but with a common theme such as romance, crime, horror, or politics. Last month, Allan Leverone, Steven Konkoly, and I decided to have a go at our own boxed set, and the Black Ops Bundle, Volume 1 was born of our efforts. Jodie contacted me about sharing our book-bundling venture with CFC readers & writers.

As is true with any book project, the behind-the-scenes work is just as important as the final product. Here are some quick points to think about if you're considering taking this avenue yourself and a bit about what we’ve learned along the way.

1) How many authors will be involved?

Whether you already have a group of author friends you’re going to work with or you’re planning on approaching other authors, this should probably be one of the first things to be decided. When we first began talking about our boxed set, we decided that a small number of authors would be best. There are boxed sets available that have as many as nine authors featured, but the minimal amount of space allotted to each author on the cover design doesn't do much for any one individual in terms of visibility, and may, in fact, do a disservice to that author’s brand. Additionally, as with anything, the more people involved, the more opinions there will be on every step of the process, potentially making the planning and design phases very complicated. So, less is more.   

2) How will you price your boxed set?

Prices for boxed sets do not seem to go much higher than five or six dollars, with the emphasis on value. Many sets are priced much lower, several as low as .99. The more authors you have involved, the smaller each slice of the pie will become. Splitting royalties nine or ten different ways hardly seems worthwhile for any one individual, even if sales climb into the thousands. Of course, the reverse side of this is if you have multiple titles available and plan to feature older works by each author. In this case, perhaps the chance at gaining additional readership by being placed in a set with other authors is more important than profit. 

For the Black Ops Bundle, we decided to go with a middle price point of $3.99. This means a reader can purchase three well-reviewed, full-length novels for a little over a dollar each, which is an incredible value. Additionally, at this lower price, someone who has read one of the books featured in the set and liked it may not think too much about re-purchasing it for the other two books. In an effort to trip the all-important Amazon algorithms, we are planning several promotions throughout the month of December that will temporarily lower the price in the hopes of catching a larger profit from the increased visibility after the promotion ends. 

3) Who will handle the publishing of the set and take on the paperwork burden?

If you’re planning on only featuring books from one author, then this point doesn't really affect you, but if a multiple-author boxed set is what you have your eye on, this is vitally important. Combining products by multiple individuals means dealing with multiple individual businesses, each with their own tax liabilities. Unfortunately, Amazon does not have a feature that allows for multiple payees, so one person will have to publish the boxed set through their vendor account and take on the burden of paying the other authors involved. This means that the income from the boxed set, for tax purposes, will be placed on the publisher and whatever business entity they have set up.

If all authors involved live in the United States, this isn’t a particularly difficult issue. Once the publisher is decided upon, each author should submit an IRS Form W-9 to that person so they can be easily, and properly, identified when it comes time to file taxes. To avoid paying taxes on all of the income associated with the boxed set, the publisher will need to file a Form 1099 on each individual author, which will list the amount of money paid to that author and shift that amount from the publisher's income column to the expense column, and will make the individual author responsible for paying any taxes associated with that amount of money.

If you're not in the United States, or if you're dealing with authors located in more than one country, I would recommend seeking the advice of each country's taxing authority or a qualified professional accountant.

Authors, I hope you have found this post informative and helpful. Please take a moment to leave a comment and let me know.
Readers, I hope you'll check out the Black Ops Bundle, Volume 1, featuring three well-reviewed, full-length political thrillers.

Slán Abhaile!

Ian Graham is the author of one novel and two short story collections in the Black Shuck political thriller series featuring former IRA volunteer turned American patriot, Declan McIver. The first full-length novel in the series, VEIL OF CIVILITY, has received praise from professional reviewers in both North America and the United Kingdom, and was chosen as’s Thriller of the Month for September 2013. To learn more about the Black Shuck thriller series or to connect with Ian, visit   

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Is Santa Killing Thanksgiving?

Today is the day our founding fathers set aside to give thanks for what we have. George Washington proclaimed this day a day for the people of this country to unite and be thankful. It has become a day where families make an effort to see one another and even though they often over-eat, they also have some wonderful traditions.

For many years Black Friday has been the big day to shop, but do we really want Black Thursday? Or Black Thanksgiving? Many stores have been traditionally closed on Thanksgiving Day allowing employees to spend time with their families. Last year Walmart, and several other large corporations, decided to start the sales earlier, tearing the employees away from their families. It also cuts the day short for the people who can’t afford to pay full price for those special gifts they want for their loved ones.

I realize the shopper has a choice to not give up Thanksgiving Day in order to take advantage of the big sales, but I personally find it a little disturbing that the stores are pushing the sales further and further into this day of giving thanks. For the last six or seven years my nieces (who have little ones) plan for weeks ahead and get the good deals. They have folders and charts that plot out exactly what the kids want and where they need to go to get the best deals. They get in line around midnight to wait for the stores to open. They bring blankets and lawn chairs and get ready for the big rush. We all join in and help. Some of us stand in line keeping them company or saving their place. Others bring hot chocolate and snacks. It has become another family event and the kids end up with a very bountiful Christmas.

Now my nieces have to make a choice: spend time with their family on Thanksgiving Day, or get the gifts for their children they couldn’t otherwise afford. They have chosen to give up “Black Thanksgiving,” but why should they have to? And what about the employees who don’t have a choice?

Is this just me, or do you think Santa is killing Thanksgiving? What do you think about the sales creeping into this special family holiday? 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Sexy on a Stick, or Broken and Flawed? How do you like them?

By Andrew E. Kaufman-Author of psychological thrillers
The tattooed, bad boy biker.
The sexy, iconic rock star.
The brooding detective with a tortured soul who always finds the killer.
Let’s face it, those characters are likeable and appealing, and they’ll always sell. It’s why we see them every day on TV, read about them in novels. If I’m going to be completely honest, I may or may not have even fantasized a time or two about being a few of them. Maybe even pondered the idea of changing my name to Chance, Shane, or Luke.
But those characters have never felt very real to me; in fact, other than their tough exteriors and chiseled jawlines, there’s not much else I remember about them.
When I sat down to create Patrick, the protagonist in my bestselling psychological thriller, The Lion, the Lamb, the Hunted (and its newly released sequel, Darkness & Shadows), I was hoping to break the hero mold. I didn’t necessarily want perfect—I wanted perfectly flawed.  I wanted a hero who was not your everyday hero.
So how did I do it? I went against the thriller grain and broke some rules.
What I ended up with was a very un-Hollywood male lead who could still be appealing. After stripping down the tough exterior you often see with typical heroes, I allowed Patrick’s emotional vulnerability to not only be blatantly exposed, but to help tell the story and drive the plot. Yes, he’s a victim of a horribly tragic and abusive childhood, but he refuses to remain that way. He’s not out to save the world—he’s desperately trying to save himself.
To further his depth and complexity, Patrick suffers from OCD. He’s a journalist obsessed with making lists, consisting of the same words over and over, page after page. His OCD is a coping tool used to survive his unthinkable childhood. Instead of experiencing his pain associated with the abuse, he instead learned to list it. The problem? What saved him then, haunts him now.
But that wasn’t enough for me. More damage, more layers, more angst. More! I gave Patrick a disease where even the slightest cut can make him bleed to death. While this makes for some great and terrifying action scenes, it’s also a powerful metaphor that runs through these books: his childhood has left him emotionally scarred and afraid of being broken open. With his blood disease, he’s as susceptible on the outside as he is on the inside.
And last, but certainly not least—because he’s never had it—Patrick wants desperately to be loved. And he wants to give love. This is his journey in life, and much like everyone else, he has to find himself first.
Typical? Well, not so much, I guess, when you consider the gold standard for some fictional heroes--but I wasn't going for the standard. I was going for flawed. I was going for vulnerable. 
I suppose it was only after I’d completed the first book, that I became a bit worried about how Patrick might be seen by readers who were hoping for a more archetypal male lead, but I write from instinct, not logic. Was it a risk? Sure, but I'm a firm believer in taking them when instincts dictate, and it seemed to have worked. But even today, I still have difficulty breaking him down and capturing his appeal.
So for balance, I looked for a female point of view. My friend and fellow author, Jessica Park, had this to say:
“Look, I’ve read about the hot, perfect, studly leads. In your books, you give us a character, Patrick, with all his raw, emotional, tortured pain. And you also give us Patrick as a hopeful, determined, insightful, and beautiful person. Female readers fall in love with him because of his willingness to examine his own damage, to tear apart his years of hurt, and to battle against the past so he can find a better future for himself. It’s in his pain, and in his fight, that we see meaningful bravery and strength. That makes for powerful, intoxicating reading. And that also makes us want to scoop up that hottie and take him home with us.”
Authors and readers:  How do you like your heroes? Tough as nails? Sexy on a stick? Metrosexual? Self-actualized? Really, there is no right or wrong, and when I think about it, maybe we actually need them all.
Happy Thanksgiving,  everyone!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Guest Blogger, Jill Amadio talks about her new book, Digging Too Deep

How many authors base all or, more likely, part of their fictional characters on relatives, friends, business colleagues, and law enforcement authorities?  Even someone sitting at an outdoor café can be grist for the mill. Perhaps the old gent at the next table owes his nervous tick to World War II;  maybe the pretty woman sitting alone keeps checking her watch incessantly because a lover is late.

One of my own favorite character studies was as close to home as you could get: my mother. A Brit, as I am, who lived in Cornwall and other small seaside towns all her life, she had the most curiosity about everything than anyone else I’ve ever encountered. I remember most vividly her total embrace of and interest in everything American after she’d crossed the Big Pond for the first time to visit me and my family in Connecticut where we’d settled after living abroad.

Her first time here was during Thanksgiving week and she took to its festivities with great delight. She was intrigued by the Pilgrim figure candles I bought, the Thanksgiving tablecloth and napkins, the fall wreaths and bouquets, and the Great Turkey Feast. In fact, when she left she filled a small suitcase with many of these items. She intended to hold her own Thanksgiving back home each year, no matter the irony.

While I didn’t steal many of my mother’s traits, the truth is that Tosca Trevant, the amateur sleuth in my debut mystery, Digging Too Deep, is - surprise –  a Brit. A gossip columnist, she’d discovered a scandal at Buckingham Palace and is rudely hustled out of London practically by royal order and forced to live with her twenty-six year old daughter in Newport Beach, California. Tosca is not quite as thrilled with the local culture as my mother had been. No nearby teashops and the one she finds doesn’t warm the pot first; her leather miniskirt from her Carnaby Street era evokes remarks, and she waits impatiently each day for a nice, long drizzle, brolly and wellies ready at the front door. For lack of royals to write about in her new environment she decides one day to weed the unkempt rock garden belonging to her neighbor, a renowned music professor.

During her digging, accompanied by mild cussing in Cornish, she unearths skeletal remains. Aha! A chance to be promoted from gossip columnist to crime reporter and return in triumph to England. Sunny California be damned. The story takes off from there and the investigating begins. Tosca’s own curiosity knows no bounds. She and her sidekick, a retired Secret Service agent and geologist who harbors his own secret, uncover coded music clues and more murders.

As can be imagined, my research into classical music, geology, bones and other matters was extensive. I even cajoled Rhys Bowen and her Welsh heritage into checking out how to pronounce a couple of Cornish expressions. Cornish and Welsh are similar and among the six Celtic languages. I also found a Professor of Cornish in Redruth, Cornwall who provided me with a list of rather strange swear words. When he’s not teaching he’s a fierce defender of the Duchy of Cornwall and hopes to see it someday freed from Great Britain. Shades of America! On the cover of Digging Too Deep I pay tribute to his fight by including a flag of Cornwall, a white cross on a black background.

As for Thanksgiving, I experienced my first one in Westport, CT  and went whole hog with décor and food. At turns mystified and fascinated, my mother couldn’t understand why we accompanied the turkey with cranberries and demanded to be told the entire history of the meal. To her, fruits were strictly for pies. Mixing sweet and savory used to be considered almost pagan. In fact, in the UK many people eat pancakes without syrup. While times have changed, of course, my character, Tosca, still clings to a few British habits including brewing her own Cornish mead from medieval recipes. She foists the result upon reluctant neighbors and that’s how she comes to meet the murderer.

As for me, I feel blessed to live in America, and wish everyone a wonderful Thanksgiving and the reading of many mysteries. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Thanks, Amazon, for Promoting My Books for Free!

Jodie's backyard today.
by Jodie Renner, editor & author

Follow Jodie on Twitter.

I can’t afford a publicist, and I'm too busy to do a lot of marketing and promoting of my two books, so I’m really glad I self-published on Amazon, as they’re doing a great job of promoting my books for free.

Amazon, today's leader in book publishing and sales, has a few policies that can be annoying for authors. For example, their policy of highlighting negative reviews drives me up the wall. But overall, my book sales have benefitted far more from some of the other features Amazon provides for their authors & publishers. When it comes to marketing and promoting - and selling - books, they definitely know what they’re doing (far more than I do), so I feel like I have a savvy publicist looking out for me and helping me sell my books.

First, for you newbie authors considering self-publishing your first book, here’s a quick run-down:

- It’s free and easy to publish your e-book on Amazon – and fast (12 hours). But get it edited or at least proofread first, and if you don’t know much about formatting, get it formatted, too. And hire a professional to design your cover.

- If you price your e-book between $2.99 and $9.99, you get 70% royalties on every sale. If you price it above $9.99 or below $2.99, you get 35%. You can change the price any time you like, to offer discounts to boost sales.

For more detailed info on publishing your book on Amazon, see my article, “Pros, Cons, & Steps for Publishing Your Book on Amazon.”

Why I stay with Kindle Direct Publishing:

Earlier on, as an experiment, I made one of my books available on Smashwords and elsewhere, which meant I couldn’t enroll that book in KDP Select, so I lost the benefits of that. Unfortunately, I made very few sales through Smashwords, so it wasn't worth it. If your books are selling well through these other channels, then go for it. Since mine wasn’t, I went back to exclusivity with Amazon and Kindle (KDP Select), and am glad I did.

Here are some of the benefits of KDP Select:

- Lending program. Readers can “borrow” my books from the Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL), and I get around $2 for each borrow (fluctuates).

- Free Promos: I can offer the book for free, for up to 5 days for every 90 days.

- Kindle Countdown Deals. I can take advantage of the excellent Kindle Countdown Deals, where the e-book goes on sale for varying prices (chosen by me) for a specific period of time, decided by me, and Kindle shows readers the normal price and how many hours are left at each sale price. I decided to start my Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power, with a regular price of $3.99, at .99 for 2 days, then $1.99 for 2 days, then $2.99 for 2 days, then back to the normal price. My sales rose significantly as a result of this countdown deal, as did my ranking on Amazon, for that period and a few days after it. And we get to maintain the 70% royalty during this promotion, even when the price goes below $2.99, which is great! And we can monitor sales in real time, to see how the book is selling at each price point.

And readers can check out the Kindle Countdown Deals website regularly, to see a categorized list of books that are discounted.

- Amazon’s Kindle Matchbook Program. If you purchase the print version, or have bought it at any time in the past, you can buy the e-book for a reduced price or even free.

- Amazon’s free promotions. Amazon promotes my book with various features, appearing under other similar books, such as “Customers who bought this item also bought,” “More items to consider,” and “Customers with Similar Searches Purchased” features, and also by their email promos of books, tailored to the kinds of books each customer has ordered in the past. Your book may also appear in Shopping Cart Recommendations, “Frequently Bought Together,” and many other places on the Amazon website.

- Audiobooks through ACX. Amazon has introduced some discounts for readers who purchase both the book and the audiobook. For more on this, see some recent posts here on CFC: "A Movie in My Head: The Fast-Growing World of Audiobooks" by Basil Sands, "Audiobooks Are Here to Stay (At Least for A While)," By Teresa Burrell, and "Listening vs. Reading" by Jenny Hilborne.

Kindle’s “WhisperSync for Voice and Immersion Reading” feature:

You can use ACX to produce a digital audiobook version of your book, and to enable your book for the new Whispersync for Voice functionality, which allows customers to switch seamlessly between reading the Kindle book and listening to the professionally-narrated audiobook across devices without losing their place. And customers with Kindle Fire HD devices can listen to the professional narration as the words of the e-book are highlighted on the screen. Both excellent features!

Also, when customers buy your Kindle book, they can purchase your audiobook at a discounted price.

And you can earn royalties of up to 90% on your audiobook when it’s created and distributed using ACX.

Overall, I'm so glad Amazon-Kindle is doing most of the heavy lifting for me, when it comes to marketing and promoting my books!

Writers and readers: Have I missed some features or programs provided by Amazon or Kindle?

Authors: Have you found it more advantageous to publish across several platforms, not just Amazon-Kindle? Or, how has Amazon helped your book sales? How about other initiatives that have boosted your sales? Share your success stories with us!

Related articles:

Basic Formatting of Your Manuscript

Pros, Cons, & Steps for Publishing Your Book on Amazon 

Jodie has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Writing a Killer Thriller and Fire up Your Fiction (Style That Sizzles & Pacing for Power), which has won two book awards so far. Look for the third book in the series, out soon. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, her other blogs, Resources for Writers and The Kill Zone, or find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. And sign up for her newsletter.  

Friday, November 22, 2013

FBI 202 for Crime Fiction Writers: Interview with Scott Nelson, Part 2

by A.M. Khalifa, thriller writer, Google+

"The FBI has screwed up on occasion and folks seem to remember the bad things that happen more than the good things that occur daily."

On Tuesday, I ran the first part of my interview with Scott Nelson, the film industry’s leading technical expert on all matters FBI.  Mr. Nelson rose to head the FBI's public affairs office where he was instrumental in the creation of America’s Most Wanted, as well as convincing the filmmakers of the Silence of the Lambs to shoot on location at the FBI’s academy in Quantico, Virginia.

In this final segment of the interview, we expand the discussion beyond practical advice for crime fiction writers. He reflects on the times his life was in danger, his reputation as one of America's best door-shooters, and his work as one of the most sought after FBI technical experts in the film industry. Click here for part 1 of the interview.

A.M. Khalifa: Among your numerous accolades, you are also apparently one of America’s most accomplished door-shooters. What’s that all about?

SN: Well, I've been involved in more than one fugitive hunt and I've also provided advice to Hollywood about difficult door entries. Sometimes, the only way to get in is to breach the locking mechanism with bullets. But, this is definitely the last resort and often only under emergency conditions. In J. Edgar the movie, actors used Thompson Machine guns to blast their way into hoodlum hideouts, and frankly, the biggest problem we had there was clearing the set so no one was hit with hot .45 caliber Thompson Machine gun shells as they rapidly spit out the side of that deadly weapon. The Hollywood prop folks did the rest. And, they did it very well. Those scenes looked real to me even though I knew they were not.

AMK: Talking about guns, was your life ever at risk in the line of duty? 

SN: As a young Marine Captain in Vietnam I was lucky to survive. The biggest and toughest battle we fought was to re-take the historic city of Hue from the North Vietnamese Army who slaughtered thousands of residents and occupied the so-called Citadel there. I was wounded by fragments from an RPG rocket.

As a fairly new FBI Agent in Newark, N.J. - commonly referred to as the broken glass capital of the world - I was involved in a huge bank robbery shootout and hit in the face with lead from a bank robbers 9 mm. Fortunately, no FBI Agents were killed, although the bank robbers weren't so fortunate. One died; one was wounded 52 times; and one escaped injury by clinging to the underside of their getaway car. According to the Judge who tried the case in Federal court, the first shot which was fired by the bank robbers was like the splitting of an atom. All hell broke loose.

AMK: I'm glad you made it through. On a lighter note, you've worked with some top filmmakers. What can you tell us about those experiences?

SN: Filmmakers want to tell an appealing story, often with political and/or social overtones. And they want to do it well and be successful. They want the characters to be human, often with deep flaws that the public can recognize and identify with. They also want to be true to the facts - sometimes. The best filmmakers are able to meld fiction with fact and still deliver an appealing story. Plus, these top filmmakers are typically great story tellers with a sense of drama and context.

AMK: What if a filmmaker refuses to heed your technical advice, how do you resolve that? In other words, what happens when technical accuracy clashes with artistic vision?

SN: That is an interesting question, and a common occurrence. Unless it is a documentary, artistic vision usually wins out. And really that is to be expected in fictional pieces. Fact is, technical accuracy can be boring and difficult to sell.

AMK: Last time you said the notion the FBI is always prone to "screw over local law enforcement " is largely inaccurate. But I do know you have an even bigger pet peeve about how the FBI is depicted in popular culture.

SN: I think an even bigger misconception about the FBI is "that they spy on American Citizens." Not so. The FBI operates strictly within the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Rule of Law. True, they run complicated confidential undercover cases, do court authorized wire taps and often conduct surreptitious, sensitive investigations but they do so within the law and to protect the rights of all Americans. They always balance the intrusiveness of their investigations.

AMK: However, with recent revelations about the activities of the NSA, many people in America are arguably concerned whether all security agencies are indeed adhering to the law. Do you think members of the public have a hard time differentiating between one law enforcement agency and the other, and lump them all together as “the government”?

SN: I think many Americans recognize the FBI, but certainly they are fuzzy on the Bureau's investigative jurisdiction - over 350 different criminal violations - and the legal and administrative basis for their investigations. Plus, the FBI has screwed up on occasion and folks seem to remember the bad things that happen more than the good things that occur daily. I do think many folks confuse the various agencies and typically lump them all together. As I recall, there are approximately 19,000 local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies out there. And that doesn't include the intelligence agencies like NSA and CIA etc.

AMK: We spoke about the risk of copy-cat criminals getting inspired by fiction. Recently and after the Boston bombings, Rolling Stone magazine found out the hard way how the public feels about glorifying terrorists. Do you think the mass media is increasingly trying to blur the lines between good and evil?

SN: Yes I do, either consciously or subconsciously. First of all, Evil sells. Big time and that is what the public wants to see. And, evil often fits the media social view that criminals aren't really responsible for their actions and that our capitalistic system is in fact predatory and unfair to the less privileged. Therefore, the good guys deserve to be punished by the bad guys because this levels the playing field.

AMK: I know your work with your private firm and as a technical consultant for the entertainment industries allows you little time for one-on-one literary consultancy with writers. Would you make an exception for a particular project, and what would that be?

SN: Well, even though I find crime writing interesting, time and previous commitments have in the past made this a little difficult. However, I would make an exception for a particular project, time and interest allowing. I guess this would be on a case by case basis.

AMK: Finally, what book did you just finish reading, and what’s next on your reading list? 

SN: Funny you ask. I just finished your book Terminal Rage and also Charlie One Five - A Marine Company's Vietnam War by good friend and Marine Corps author Nick Warr. Like your book, Nick's latest offering is powerful and telling. Charlie One Five tells about a conflict where we never lost a battle but lost the war. And sadly many, many of America's best and brightest. 

From a personal perspective, I find my combat Marine Corps experience correlates with crime stories, particularly from the violent sides, and the dangerous leadership situations that occur during each and every young Marines combat experience. However, boring college text books are next on my list. I teach an ethics/law class next spring so I'm preparing for that course.

Readers: Do you like your FBI agents served nerdy and smart, or strong and infallible? And writers: What challenges do you face when depicting your law enforcement protagonists?

If you have any questions for Scott Nelson, please post them in the comments section below and I will field them and try to get Scott to answer as many of as possible.

A.M. Khalifa, author of international thrillers, writes exhilarating, contemporary stories pulsating with life and unforgettable characters. His debut novel, Terminal Rage, is a layered thrill ride that moves seamlessly from inside a nerve-wracking hostage situation to far-flung locations across the world, challenging readers to stay ahead of its unpredictable plot.

The ebook version of Terminal Rage is now on sale for $2.99 on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Villains need love, too

By Gayle Carline
Mystery Author and Lover of Bad Boys

I've started to get a few notes from my beta readers on my new mystery. The positive comments have buoyed me, and the criticisms have been right on the money. In particular, one reader called me out on a character that is unlikeable throughout the book, then gets the "touchy-feely psychoanalysis" treatment at the end.

Although this character is villainous, they are not the main bad person, so I didn't do as much background development with them as I did for the other characters. This was my error. Even minor villains need attention.

Once I realized my mistake, I started thinking about the evil characters that have slithered across my TV screen this season. They are as rich as any villains I can remember, so rich that I wish I had written them. Here are my favorites:

1. Peter Pan from Once Upon a Time - okay, this is a fantasy, not a mystery show, but the characters are both archetypal and real to me. Peter Pan is one of those characters I grew up with as a Disney kid. He was fun, benignly mischievous, and gallant in the clenches. The Peter Pan from OUAT is none of those things, but he makes so much sense. He has been a young boy for too long. Yes, kids can be sweet. They can also be whiny and petulant and selfish. What should be a joyous innocence has been rotted, like being too long on the vine.

What kind of positive trait could I turn into maliciousness in a villain? It sets my mind to spinning.

2. Red Reddington from The Blacklist - here is a master of evil at work. He is, as his creators have dubbed him, "The Concierge of Crime," completely without morals, working on his own agenda even as he claims to be helping the feds catch other criminals. And yet, there is this unexplained soft spot for Agent Keen. What does she mean to him?

(Note: This clip is creepy.)

He reminds me of the parable of the snake that asks a young girl to carry him across the river, assuring her that he will not bite on the way across, because they would both drown. Halfway across the river, she feels the sting of his fangs and asks why he did such a thing. "You knew what I was when you agreed," he told her.

Red looks like a man who may not actually have been born a sociopath, but who has been trained, through tragedy, to become one.

Both of these villains have been carefully crafted and are pure joys to watch. They are also reminders that I need to pay more attention to even my lesser meanies.

Have any of you stumbled upon any villains recently that you'd love to talk about?

P.S. If anyone's interested in a free book (paperback, ebook or audio), and/or free promo stuff (caps, bags, mugs) and/or gift cards, I'm running a contest on my personal blog. Come on over and win a SPAMMY!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

What Inspires You?

by Michael W. Sherer, thriller author
People often ask me where I get ideas for my thriller novels. And as often as I’m asked, I’m still surprised by it. I think it’s the wrong question. A better question is “What inspires me?”

Ideas are easy to come by, a dime a dozen. Open the newspaper and you’ll be assaulted with plot ideas. Stories about NSA eavesdropping, big business scams and $13 billion settlements, George Zimmerman’s latest brush with the law, even Obamacare are ripe and rife with kernels that can germinate and grow in the soil of a fertile imagination.

The origin of the plot for my first published mystery came from a story my father told me about how an investor cornered the market on shares of a company’s stock back in the ‘50s. The premise of my second book, in which a college student hangs himself in the woods off campus, evolved from a similar incident at my alma mater when I was a student. Blake Sanders, the protagonist of my current thriller series, grew out of a remark the local bookstore owner made about his newspaper carrier. And the concept for Night Tide, my latest novel, resulted from reading an article about a man freed from jail after serving 20 years for a crime he didn’t commit.

Ideas are everywhere. You can’t turn around without practically tripping over them. I sometimes think the most difficult aspect of being a writer is coming up with a) ideas no one’s thought of, or a new way of presenting them, and b) plots that are more thrilling than what’s in the news every day. Truth really is stranger than fiction. It’s our job as writers to take the same old same-old and breathe new life into it. The task—facing all those blank pages waiting to be filled with exciting plots and characters and settings that readers want to learn about—can be daunting.

Which is why I think the question of where inspiration comes from is more interesting. I’m inspired by a variety of sources in many different areas of my life. I play tennis five mornings a week with two different informal men’s groups. I also sub for another group occasionally on Sundays, and I’ve been on a USTA men’s doubles team this fall. On weekdays, I play at 6:45 a.m. every day, and there are days when that hour of the morning seems to come all too early.

My inspiration for showing up every day comes from a few places. Three of the men that play in the MWF group are within spitting distance of their 90th birthdays. If they can get out on the courts without complaint, certainly I can. And in fact, they’d be the first to say that upright and breathing beats the alternative, for which I’m grateful every day. The TTh men are a little younger—most are in their 60s and 70s—and many are better players than I am. They inspire me to play up to their level. And, of course, watching the pros play on Tennis Channel inspires me to take lessons so I can improve even more.

The volunteers at the Homeless Cooking Project, sponsored by St. Clouds restaurant in Seattle the third Wednesday of every month, inspire me to give back to the community more often. I love working in the restaurant—I spent several years during and after college working in the business—and feel even better knowing that I’m helping make really nice, restaurant quality meals for about 500 people.

Writing, Tom Clancy once said, is like digging dirt. There’s little remuneration for many authors, and the process can be long and thankless. So why do we do it? What inspires us to dream up stories and put them down on paper or in digital files, hoping readers will find them? Most of the authors I’ve talked to say they feel compelled to write. They can’t walk away from its siren call.

When it comes to writing, two things inspire me most: reading authors whose work I admire, and those whose work is inferior but for whatever reason is widely read. The former spur me to practice and hone my craft, to try to become a better writer with each book. The latter motivate me to prove not only that I am a better writer, but also that there’s an audience out there for good writing as well as good stories.

My greatest inspiration? The love of my life—my wife, Valarie. She inspires me to be a better person each and every day.

What inspires you? Where do you turn for inspiration?

Michael W. Sherer is the author of Night Tide, the second novel in the Blake Sanders thriller series. The first in the Seattle-based series, Night Blind, was nominated for an ITW Thriller Award in 2013. His other books include the award-winning Emerson Ward mystery series, the stand-alone suspense novel, Island Life, and the Tess Barrett YA thriller series.

He and his family now reside in the Seattle area. Please visit him at or you can follow him on Facebook at and on Twitter @MysteryNovelist.

FBI 101 for Crime Fiction Writers: Interview with Scott Nelson

by AM Khalifa, thriller writer, Google+

Scott Nelson is the film industry’s leading technical expert on all matters FBI. Most recently he was Clint Eastwood’s main point of reference on J. Edgar, the historic biopic of the FBI's founder. A former and highly decorated marine, Mr. Nelson rose to head the FBI's public affairs office where he was instrumental in the creation of America’s Most Wanted, as well as convincing the filmmakers of the Silence of the Lambs to shoot on location at the FBI’s academy in Quantico, Virginia.

I sat down with Scott for a coffee and a chat near Westlake Village in Southern California, where he now runs a global security and risk management firm. I wanted to glean some valuable advice for crime fiction writers. This is is the first of a two-part interview. Click here for part two.

AM Khalifa: During your time heading the FBI's public affairs office, did you ever work with crime fiction writers, and if so, what are they typically trying to research?

Scott Nelson: Yes. Typically crime fiction writers want to know how it works in the real world and then how those basic techniques and tactics can be tweaked to create more interest and more drama. Everyone is looking for that new story, and as times change that new story will always emerge. Plus, old stories can be retooled to present new facts and new views.

AMK: As an FBI insider, what is the number one misconstrued notion about the Bureau that you would like to set the record straight on here, once and for all?

SN: That the FBI always screws over the "locals" (local and state law enforcement). Simply not so. The Bureau works hand in glove with state and local officers and provides ongoing valuable training, research, services and support. In fact, many joint operations are run every day.

AMK: However, I think readers and viewers LOVE it when the smart, omnipotent FBI agent slights the incompetent locals and pulls rank and jurisdiction. They feel secure of a positive outcome when a favorably drawn FBI agent is involved. Do you agree?

SN: Yes, but likewise there is a tendency to show cops merely as doughnut eaters. And therefore, many cops - particularly suits in the front office - are quite defensive and constantly trying to prove their worth. I've been blown off on many occasions by locals who do resent the FBI and their own lot in life.

AMK: How accessible is the FBI as an organization to independent authors reaching out to it for technical information, and what specific mechanisms exist to deal with such requests?

SN: The FBI Office of Public Affairs, Washington D.C. and the Public Affairs Agents in the many field offices are very receptive to independent authors looking for technical information. The FBI is always trying to "tell their story" but the level of interaction and assistance will often depend on the topic, the legitimacy of the work, and the track record of the author. Usually there are some requests that can't be accommodated for a variety of reasons. That is where former FBI Agents come in. They may be useful.

AMK: What useful resources and tips for crime fiction writers seeking to research the FBI or FBI agents can you share with us?

SN: Talk to a real FBI Agent, and don't believe all you hear from the so-called crime experts. There is also a tremendous amount of online information available, including legitimate search warrants, interviews, organization charts, etc. I would definitely take advantage of this information. Much of what authors want to know has already been done. No sense re-inventing the wheel, although new and fresh perspectives are always welcome.

AMK: I've heard you describe the typical look and feel of an FBI agent. Do you think established contemporary novelists tend to get the FBI right in their narratives, or is there room for improvement?

SN: That's a good question. So, I'll ask one myself and then answer it. Do you think FBI Agents are super sleuths, pushy and nerdy? Well, some are but most are not. The Bureau is made up of thousands of men and women with varied occupations, skill sets, genders, and ethnicity. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, military officers, teachers, engineers, etc. are proud to call the FBI home. Real agents are real people with real problems and real accomplishments. Actually, they seek to serve and so they do. Although J. Edgar Hoover promoted the super G-Man, "can do no wrong" concept, which actually helped the FBI solve cases and still does, that view can be more fiction than fact.

AMK: Is the FBI concerned about crime writers inspiring copy cats? And if so, where do we draw the line between freedom of speech and social responsibility?

SN: Great question. Real is often boring, while blood, sex, color, violence and "I can't believe that happened" are often titillating and popular. And repeated. Salacious also sells. Deviants often get ideas from the media and because it is done once, they psychologically give themselves ethical permission to do it again. I do think the FBI is concerned about copy-cat crimes and we often see similar crimes following serious publicized incidents. That said, members of the public have a right to know and make up their own minds. Freedom of speech - not yelling fire in a crowded hall - is paramount. Social responsibility is also tremendously important. The balance between the two is personal, guided by ones ethics, existing laws and regulations, and just good common sense. Doing the right thing is actually black and white and a pretty easy thing for most of us. Writers included.

AMK: Many crime writers go through their careers without ever meeting real-life criminals. Do you think it would add any value for a crime writer to interact with some of the seriously bad people we tend to write about?

SN: Yes. Many stories are gleaned from interviews of crooks, deviants, and weirdos (whatever they are). Human motivation is a complicated thing, and understanding the motivations of seriously bad people can be insightful. Short of that, talking to some real FBI agents and conducting strong research are helpful.

AMK: Do you find your experience in law enforcement gives you an advantage in predicting unexpected twists and turns in a crime novel?

SN: Yes. Been there, done that helps a lot. On the other hand, that experience can sometimes restrict out-of-the-box thinking because frankly, many neat turns and twists are simply figments of some writers' imaginations.

AMK: Are there particular crime story lines you feel are not broached enough that would make for compelling fiction?

SN: My sense is that much of it has been covered in one way or another. But there is always more out there. High tech/cyber crime solving is always of interest as is the more basic terrorist crime fighter profile of an agent winning against great odds. Also, the FBI cracks big cases all the time and many of those offer good story-lines. In general, I think we all like the good over evil story where the disadvantaged crime fighter overcomes all odds to save America, often sacrificing his own life in the process.

AMK: What types of fiction genres and story lines appeal to you most and why?

SN: I listen to books on tape when time permits, often when I'm on the road. I did make a recent exception and read Terminal Rage.....guess that sounds familiar, huh? That story line appealed to me because it fronted a real character with real problems and a noble cause. Plus the good guy won. I must say that stories promoting right over wrong, the goodness of man, and the greatness of America, as opposed to glorifying evil, violence and man's darkness appeal to me.

AMK: Who are some of your favorite writers and your favorite books and films?

SN: My favorite writer is Ernest Hemingway - hardly a crime fiction writer - and I listen to The Old Man and the Sea over and over again as it depicts real life lessons of a good guy underdog overcoming great odds to accomplish something really worthy. As for crime films, my favorite is Silence of the Lambs, and my students always profile Hannibal Lecter in a Psycho Social Criminal Behavior graduate class I teach. We've also studied Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar, but unfortunately I think the writer for that movie was off-target in many respects. On the light side, I watch time and time again Scent of a Woman, Planes Trains and Automobiles, Good Morning Vietnam, Office Space and many other movies some might not actually classify as serious pieces.

Readers: Do you like your FBI agents served nerdy and smart, or strong and infallible?

Writers: What challenges do you face when depicting your law enforcement protagonists?

I send out a monthly newsletter with free fiction, intriguing interviews like this one, and insight on how a thriller novel like mine goes from the printed page to the silver screen. Join me on this amazing journey! Consider signing up as I also run cool competitions, give away free books (not just mine, but by authors I admire), and will protect your privacy and not share your email address with the widows of former Nigerian dictators, regardless of how much they offer me. Pinkie promise. Sign up, now!

AM Khalifa, author of international thrillers, writes exhilarating, contemporary stories pulsating with life and unforgettable characters. His debut novel, Terminal Rage, is a layered thrill ride that moves seamlessly from inside a nerve-wracking hostage situation to far-flung locations across the world, challenging readers to stay ahead of its unpredictable plot.

Monday, November 18, 2013

DiNunzio's Back!

The Accused (Rosato & Associates #12) by Lisa Scottoline (St. Martin's Press hardcover, 20 October 2013).

I love the Rosato & Associates books.  It's easy for any female reader to identify with Bernie, Mary and Judy, and the rest of their staff.  I've always identified most with Mary, who loves her family, but finds them somewhat embarrassing at times.

There are many embarrassing family moments in this story, which opens a party celebrating Mary's partnership at the firm.  Yes, Mary's parents are present, as are "The Three Tonys", friends of her father who treat Mary like a beloved niece, sometimes even "helping" her with her work. 

Uncomfortable with Change, Mary's a little overwhelmed by being the center of attention.  This pressure is eased by the arrival of a young woman hoping to hire her.  Allegra Gardner is thirteen years old, and despite being too young to sign a contract, wants Mary to prove that the young man arrested for murdering her sister six years earlier is innocent, even though he pleaded guilty.  She has her own funds, she says, and her parents are not opposed.

Since she's now a partner, Mary doesn't have to ask Bennie permission to take the case, but Making Decisions has always been difficult for her.  She eventually decides to do it, and finds that it's even more complicated than she'd imagined.

Meanwhile, her boyfriend, history professor Anthony Rotunno proposes to her:  yet another Big Decision to make, and more Change. 

This is a little lighter and more romantic than Scottoline's earlier novels in the series, which may be disappointing to some readers, but I found it to be a  delightful story that I completed in one afternoon.

FTC Full Disclosure:  Many thanks to Edelweiss and St. Martin's Press for the e-galley.

Friday, November 15, 2013

When Writers Shouldn't Read

By Peg Brantley
Evocative Characters. Intriguing Crime. Compelling Stories.

Last Sunday I participated in an author event at a local library. (A shout out for Douglas County Libraries and their support of indie authors!) At that event, and an earlier one for a major bestselling author, sponsored once again by Douglas County Libraries and Tattered Cover Bookstore, I heard authors read from their books.

Readings have historically been an expected part of author appearances. The author shares a little about their process, or their life, or something relevant to their book, and then they choose a passage or two to read aloud to the audience. It's a time-honored tradition.

I'm going out on a very long limb here to say it's a bad idea. And in some cases, a very bad idea.

It doesn't matter how well you think you read, and how much you love your book (I think I read aloud exceptionally well), you need to take a pass. Unless you've had professional training as an actor, the words you've written are best left to the ears and minds of the reader.

Most of the readings I've heard have sounded flat to my ear. Boring, really. Misplaced inflections, odd pronunciations, and either too fast or too slow. My mind begins to wander and I mentally check out.

Unless you've written a children's book and have a room full of four year-olds, reconsider including a reading in your author appearance. You'll probably be ahead of the game.

What do you think? Is it just me?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

What is Your Dream Writing Space?

We just saw what Drew Kaufman refers to as his “Writing Cave” and it made me wonder how many other writers have such a place to write, and how similar or different author space really is. 

When I wrote my first book I was still practicing law. I was working fourteen-hour plus days, seven days a week and had virtually no time to write. So I set my alarm an hour and a half early every morning and wrote every day. I didn’t want to waste a minute of that precious time, so I parked my laptop on the bed and when I woke up I would roll over, sit up in the bed against the propped up pillows, and begin to write. It worked for me, at least for that book.

The rest of my books have been written primarily in my office in a comfortable chair with a desk computer. It’s quiet and no one disturbs me. And my walls are covered with inspirational comments such as this one to the left. It usually gets me started.

Actually, my whole house has motivational comments throughout, but the ones that inspire me to write are in my office. When I get stuck, I take a quick look around the room and read my walls. It usually gets me going again. And when I have deadlines to meet or I just don't feel quite as inspired as I need to be, this sign is a gentle reminder that I need to keep writing. 

So, there you have my “writing cave.” It’s not my “dream” writing space, but it works. My “dream writing cave” would be an office with a wall of glass looking out over the ocean in a quiet spot where I could hear the waves crash against themselves and the smell of sea water would permeate the air. Maybe some day.

Do you writers have your “dream writing cave?” If so, what is it? If not, where do you write?