The (Not So) Great Debate

 Last night, while clicking through Facebook posts, I stumbled across a post that weighed in on the (non?) issue of literary versus genre fiction. I’ll summarize in case you missed updates from the battlefield. Teams have formed around both styles of writing. Each claims ardent devotees who scorn the other side with the sort of rabid disdain usually associated with British soccer hooligans. “Literary fiction” is dismissed by genre fans as snobbish tomes with herculean word counts, as devoid of plot as filled with florid description, favored with numerous obscure literary awards but absent actual readers. “Genre fiction” is written off, in turn, as fluff scribbled by MFA-less hacks, inexplicably popular with the masses and unfairly awarded with higher sales than its worthier cousin. A skirmish in the larger battle over which is the “best” fiction involves the foray of “literary” authors into “genre” fiction and what to make of (and where to shelve) the Frankenstein’s monster-ish cross-genre works such efforts produce.
The article I read focused on the invasion of science fiction by authors better known for literary works. I’m not sure which side of the literary-genre fence the article’s writer came down on or whether she loved or hated the cross pollination. The article vacillated between extolling the virtues of literary authors bringing the perceived superiority of their MFA-sanctioned writing to the pop fiction table and blasting the same authors for obliviousness to the nuances of the sci-fi genre and for being too stuck up to admit they were writing a genre work. I do, however, know where I stand. I have both feet planted in the camp of “who cares what you call it as long as you get something out of reading it?”. The literary and genre fiction labels are artificial constructs invented by people trying to figure out where to display books in stores. The only thing that really matters about books, the only thing that should matter, anyway, is whether the book offers you something that makes it worth the time and effort you invest in reading it. You, the reader, decide what “something” is. Escape, edification, confirmation, inspiration, whatever. You’re the only one who can decide if a book is “good” or worthy or worth it to you because you’re the one reading it. You’re the one investing your precious time and brain cells engaging with the words on the page or on the screen or in the audio file. Not your mother, not your neighbor, not your spouse or child, not your best friend, nor the people around the water cooler, nor some critic opining in a publication you never heard of. Your time, your mental and emotional energy, your decision. Call it literary, call it genre, call it Bob. As long as it tells a good story—again, “good” is your call. Plot, character, language, an abundance of ninja salamanders, whatever you want—and doesn’t leave you regretting hours of your life you’ll never get back, it’s legit.

What’s your opinion about the literary vs genre debate? Favor one over the other? Love both? Think “literary” and “genre” authors should each stay in their lane? Think labels are meaningless? 

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Black moments

Guest post by Sherry Harris Black Moments

Two weeks ago my daughter and I went to a movie right after I’d spent a weekend with writer friends talking about plotting. Instead of just watching the action, I sat there thinking: there’s the call to action, there’s the black moment, there’s the renewed call, there’s the climactic moment, and there’s the return to what will be the character’s new normal. I still enjoyed the movie, but jeez, I wish I hadn’t analyzed it at the same time.

In this particular movie the protagonist has his black moment in the woods, in the mud, during a rain storm. He wallowed for a bit, before he realized he had to go forward, to accept the call, to become the hero of his journey. It made me think about black moments in mystery writing.

There’s a difference between black moments and giving your protagonist trouble. Trouble is: your protagonist is being chased through the dark, she comes to a river, she finds a raft, she shoves off, a terrible storm comes up, she loses the pole she has for steering, she hears a speed boat pursing her and a waterfall ahead. That’s a lot of trouble.

Where does the black moment fit in to all of this? It could be at the crucial moment where she hears the speed boat behind and the rapids ahead. She lies on the raft thinking it’s all over. The storm hammers her. She will either die at the hands of her pursuers or by going over the waterfall. There is no future, the past no longer matters.

The black moment, therefore, is the darkest point before the proverbial dawn.

And the dawn will come—in a mystery at least (unless you’re talking noir). But your character doesn’t know it, not until the renewed call to action occurs.

Picture the protagonist lying there, thinking of the people who depend on her. She can’t give up so she dives into the water, fights the current, and swims to shore—her call to action renewed! Her pursuers think she’s gone over the falls, so she’s free (for the time being) to solve the mystery.

There are lots of opinions about where this black moment should occur in a manuscript. Some people think it should be at the midpoint of the book, some at the end of the second act, and some right before or during the climactic scene. Whoa! What’s a writer to do? People who are strict plotters will probably disagree with me, but I think it depends on your book. It might be slightly different depending on your story and what your protagonist is up against.

Black moments don’t need to stand out with a big neon flashing sign over your character saying: Attention, this is the black moment. Really, you don’t want your readers to stop and think, aha, the black moment. You want it to be part of your protagonist’s emotional journey. In my fourth book, A Good Day To Buy, Sarah’s black moment is when she realizes she’s about to be caught in a lie and will have to face betraying two people she loves. In the third book, All Murders Final, it’s when Sarah wants to walk away from her investigation and leave it to the professionals.

So far, there’s been no wallowing in mud for Sarah, her black moments have been more subtle. But, hey, who knows. Maybe I’ll give it a try some day.

Writers: Do you think about black moments as you write? Readers: Do you spot black moments in books?

Sherry Harris, a former director of marketing for a financial planning company, decided writing fiction couldn’t be that different than writing ads. She couldn’t have been more wrong. But eventually because of a series of fortunate events and a great many people helping her along the way, Kensington published Tagged For Death the first in the Agatha Award nominated Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries. Sherry is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters In Crime, the New England Chapter of Sisters in Crime, and the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters In Crime, where she serves as President.

Sherry honed her bartering skills as she moved around the country while her husband served in the Air Force. She uses her love of garage sales, her life as a military spouse, and her time living in Massachusetts as inspiration for the series. She blogs with the Wicked Cozy Authors.


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Brain overload

 I recently turned in the first draft of my third novel, A Killing in C Sharp. During the last two weeks of writing, I cut myself off from nearly all distractions in order to get the manuscript finished. Cut off, as in, no social media, no podcasts, no blogging, no streaming, no email, no pleasure reading, no dining out. I even skipped Sunday church services. I went to my day job then I came home and wrote. That’s it. I retreated deep inside my mental well and stayed there until I hit send on the email to my editors with my manuscript attached. When I returned from my self-imposed psychic exile to the land of the living all of the things I’d neglected hit me full in the face. Sensory overload. My head hurt, I felt lost, adrift. Everything demanded my attention at once and I didn’t know where to begin. Email, Facebook, Instagram, laundry, grocery shopping, yard maintenance? What to do? As if I needed more to cope with, story ideas bombarded me while I dealt with the practical aspects of catching up with my life. Normally, story ideas stream through my head constantly, like a background podcast. I give each one a little attention in turn–jot down a few notes, scribble a reminder–then move on to the next thing. But to get my manuscript finished I forced thoughts of all stories except the one I was writing out of my head. They’d nibble at the edge of consciousness but I’d shove them away. They paid me back by bumrushing me. They amped up their demands for notice and flooded my brain. I couldn’t choose which to pay attention to first. The story about the cop who investigates the murder of his ex’s new husband? The one about the guy framed for murdering his girlfriend’s twin sister? How about the princess who foils an assassination attempt on the uncle who cheated her out of her inheritance? Or one of the dozen others jammed in my brain? After several days of struggling to make sense of the stimuli flooding my brain, and getting nothing done as a result, I conceded that my brain needed a rest. Some time off. I turned to Facebook. Mistake. There aren’t enough heartwarming stories about furry animals or geeky articles about sci-fi cult favorites in the universe to counteract the toxicity of the current political climate. Two days of FB and I felt worse than I had on my most sleep-deprived writing day. I spent some time on Instagram as pictures of food and flowers are pretty low key but the food had a negative impact on my waistline and wallet. Finally, I turned to technology-free walks downtown–I live in a lovely town, I needed the exercise, and nothing beats a walk for clearing the head–setting cheerful flowers out in the garden, and re-bingeing on some mystery favorites via my streaming services. Rewatching shows let’s me focus on plotting, pacing, and character development instead of just being entertained.  How do you deal with sensory overload?

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What's next?

All the writers I know are finishing a book, thinking about their next one and likely marketing another. The first book is ‘the’ book. The idea that just wouldn’t stay off the page. The next one (or 3 or 30) is a different story. I asked my fellow MissDemeanors how they approach that ‘next project’ question and here’s what I learned: Paula:  It depends on where you are in your career. I advise my clients to write the project they are most passionate about that also makes the most sense strategically. When it comes to my own writing, I try to follow my own advice! Michele:  I’m trying to follow the advice of my agent! I have been living with a new character who is demanding that her story be told and I want to tell it. I’ve been writing it and rewriting it until I feel like I am in her bone marrow. But I am also trying to temper my extreme engagement with Olivia with a sense about how her story will reach people, which means being market savvy. Like it or not, that’s part of the reality. Susan:  I think (or hope) that my next project is a sequel, so that makes things sort of simple. However, I always find myself working on a short story whenever I finish up a novel. It’s a way to explore ideas and figure out if there’s something to them. And of course, I always ask Paula! Robin:  My fiction projects usually start with real-life situations (cyber threats and attacks) that haunt me. Then I create a main character who’s often an amalgam of relevant perspectives and with a reason for that character to be the messenger. The rest of the story flows from the supporting cast. And a chat or several with Paula, of course 🙂 First drafts defy my initial plot notes every time and I don’t fight it. The characters take me in directions I didn’t expect as the story develops around them. I have a lot of fun with it. Cate: I write standalone novels so I am always grappling with what’s next. Fortunately, I feel as though another idea is always percolating. I am finishing up my fourth book and have tentative outlines for three more projects.  Books, both contemporary and classic, are large sources of inspiration for me, as is music. Sometimes I hear a song and combine it with images in my life and stories that I’ve heard and I get another idea. I also have woken up from dreams with an entire three act story (my subconscious is very busy).  I can’t wait to read ALL of your ‘nexts’! Thanks for sharing.

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Fan conferences

 Readers who haven’t heard about fan conferences are missing something. They are – to my mind – a unique opportunity for writers and readers to mix. And honestly, aren’t all writers also readers, so it’s a perfect storm. More seriously, for those choosing which conferences to attend, writers have a to remember that these conferences aren’t about craft. Panels tend to focus on the experience of reading – what’s it like to set a book in a hot climate or why do you write such scary books. If you want a seminar on plot or constructing believable characters pick another type of conference. That said, fan conferences are a chance for writers to have down time with their fellow scribes and network among colleagues. If you are a beginning writer then you can take advantage of the (often) more relaxed atmosphere and get to know some of your favorite authors and make connections that may help your career down the road (when you need that blurb for your first novel). For fans who have no intention of writing these conferences are a vacation. I’ve met mother-daughter traveling teams, groups from book clubs who want to take their reading interest to a new level, and families who use the conferences as a base for their vacation (particularly true in cities like New Orleans). There are large national conferences and small region ones, which means that there is probably an event for all budgets and needs. Some of the ones I’m familiar with for mysteries/thrillers are listed below. -Thrillerfest in NYC every July (a fan conference with a CraftFest component prior) -Bouchercon every fall. This conference is huge (which means a little something for all mystery/thriller fans) and moves around North America (guaranteeing a good vacation spot) -Killer Nashville in August (small enough to have a chance to interact with anyone you want, even the big-name headliners) -Malice Domestic in Bethesda every spring (focus on cozy mysteries but with room to include others. Again, small enough to allow access to the superstars) -Suffolk Mystery Festival (I’m going for the first time this year) I’d love to hear about any other great fan conferences out there!

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It's still May. Short story month.

 I recently spoke to a middle school class in Athens, Tennessee and was impressed by their thoughts on writing, what they were writing and how excited they were about the entire process from inspiration to words on paper to editing (which they informed me was the hardest and most important part!). In this class, and when I meet children or young adults with their parents, one of the inevitable questions is what should I do if I want to be a writer? That’s a loaded question but one of the things I usually mention is name recognition through competitions. (After all, practice and potential resume building aren’t bad for anyone.) Inevitable we talk about short story competitions. Why? There are quite a few of them. And while writing a short story isn’t easier than writing a full length novel it is ‘shorter,’ which hopefully translates into a shorter timeline for completion. While name recognition for a contest winner or short story publication is a great thing, there are other wonderful reasons to tackle the short story. Perhaps most importantly, it is a tool in development of writing craft. Short stories may be short but they have a beginning, middle and end. Their length makes it all the more critical to distill all knowledge into an abbreviated word count. A good short story will always be tight and succinct (whereas a novel can legitimately be lengthy). That leads to the part that the middle schoolers felt was the hardest and most important – editing. A masterful short story is a well edited story. This doesn’t mean that a short story edits out theme or twists or experimentation with POV or any other of the other things that writers use in full length novels. The short story provides space for everything, just judiciously. A theme is the heart of any story! Recently I asked a short story writer what was their biggest piece of advice. The answer: start the story very near the end. Are you a short story writer? Any advice? Any favorites? 

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Book Clubs!

 Writers love books, right? Which must mean that writers love book clubs. After all, this means that people are coming together under the auspices of reading. Recently I’ve talked to several people about their book clubs – clubs of long standing, walking clubs, clubs that meet every month and those that meet four times a year. Clubs that are mainly social clubs and others that are for serious discussion only. The common theme – apart from the books – was that they are all women. This started my quest for a book club for men. Turns out it wasn’t hard to find. Not only did I find a few, I found one that struck me as very special. The Short Attention Span Book Club (SASBC) located in the community of San Luis Obispo, California. The founder, Will Jones, retired from a career in public education (high school English teacher, high school administrator, high school principal) and was interested in next steps. He first started a website called Everyday People where he posted poems he’d written and reviewed books and movies in a section called Short Attention Span reviews. From this the book club was born with the theme ‘short attention span books’ (300 pages or so). Since they started in February 2012, they’ve have only missed a few months and have read well over 50 books. Will sounds like a lot of my friends and acquaintances who are members of books clubs. He has a lot of interests, including traveling, writing and publishing poetry and writing monthly articles for a local magazine, and spending a lot of time outdoors as a backpacker, hiker and rock climber, but he says that the “SASBC has been the most rewarding activity of my retirement because it’s a shared experience with men my age and we talk about literature! Many of us are dealing with the challenges that come with aging, so even though we don’t dwell on those health issues, there’s always a level of support and understanding. We’re a tight group.” As an author I like books clubs because people are reading books, but my exchange with Will reminded me that books are about far more than reading. They are about connecting with people.   Will shared more details about the SASBC:   “We’ve had vibrant, rewarding email exchanges with three authors: Larry Watson (Montana 1948 and American Boy), William Giraldi (Hold the Dark), and Jess Walter (Beautiful Ruins). Larry Watson acknowledged his debt to book clubs and wrote that our club name was the best he’d heard to that point. Two local authors, John Hampsey (Kaufman’s Hill) and Franz Wisner (Honeymoon with My Brother) have attended meetings to discuss their books. We attended a Q&A with Kevin Powers (The Yellow Birds) at Cuesta College, a local community college that had chosen The Yellow Birds as its book of the year. We all got to meet Kevin and have our copies signed by him. “I keep updating our list of possible books to read. I recently added several to the classics column that were written between 1910 and 1920 because one club member has a habit of asking which books we’re reading might still be well regarded in 100 years. “We are a relatively homogenous group: college educated professional seniors, most either fully or partly retired. We rotate houses for our meetings, which start at 7:00 and usually end by 9:00 or 9:15. We have a great time, but there’s very little idle chit chat. We spend a few minutes sharing “what’s up,” choosing future books to read, agreeing on date and location, and then we dive into our discussion. He included a two column list of books (attached below) they use as a resource for choosing which books to read. Books with an x next to them are books the SASBC has read (the final two are the next up in their rotation). A big hit recently was O Pioneers by Willa Cather and he notes that they will probably read the other two books in her prairie trilogy soon. This has made me curious about books clubs – what works and doesn’t work? What are people reading and why?     

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Clues and red herrings

 Mystery and thriller writers are often asked – how do you plot your books? For the truth of the matter is that whether the author plots in advance or flies by the seat of their pants and then fixes, the mystery/thriller writer is paying attention to the clues and red herrings that bring their story to a satisfying end. This makes clues and red herrings the mystery writers stock in trade. They aren’t, however, all of the stock needed to arrive at a satisfying end. I like to think that misdirection is the mystery writer’s friend.   What are some strategies for misdirection?- Innocent characters with strong motives (who must be clearly shown to be innocent later)- Innocent character at the scene of the crime (meaning no motive, but the reader will wonder if the motive will be revealed)- Guilty character who appears innocent (no evidence of motive, weapon or opportunity)- Clues that can be interpreted in multiple ways (and are)- Unreliable narrator (this has been added to the list of popular misdirection techniques in recent years) Strategies require thought and application. Writers use post its and charts, they think about foreshadowing, investigate the rabbit holes of misdirection, and plot backwards from the end to check the sequence. The critical part of all these strategies is a satisfactory conclusion to each point. For what is truly important is that the reader buy into the ending. There is a fine line between the reader identifying the guilty party too early and not being able to identify them at all. The solution should evolve, so that when it is revealed it is the nicest mix of surprise and a satisfied ‘of course’! What are your favorite endings? Was it a big reveal or the steady inevitable construction of clues? (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was one of my first mystery reads and the conclusion was a complete surprise, but when I was reminded of the chair being moved I thought Agatha Christie was playing fair. The clues were all there.)    

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Beginner's Mind

Years ago I had an arbitrary goal to be traditionally published by my 30th birthday. I succeeded, with only weeks to spare. The book was on mountain biking and it launched one of the many twists and turns my life has taken. That particular detour took me into sports journalism for a couple of years. It also helped me land my first agent. I made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot from that episode, including how publishing works and to listen to my next agent because I didn’t then (she’s since passed away and I never got to thank her for her patience with me). Those couple of years made me understand the value of mentors and to seek them out, to approach new experiences with a mind open to possibilities. One lesson, in particular, left the strongest impression. At the time I wrote that non-fiction book, I had also completed my first full-length thriller. My actual intent at the time I ended up signing the deal for the bike book had been to follow in the foot steps of my hero, Dean Koontz. If I could go back and talk to my pre-published self, I would tell myself to be more specific about my goals. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for the experiences and where it all led. But I will say, since then, I tend to choose words around my intentions more carefully. I’ve also learned – and continue to learn – I need to lighten up on myself with the whole arbitrary-goal thing 🙂 How about you, Miss Demeanors? What would you tell your pre-pub’d self if you could? Cate: Find the genre you want to tell your story in before figuring out the story you want to tell. Then, learn the rules of that genre by reading a ton of books in it–those that were formative to the genre’s creation as well as the last three years of bestsellers in the genre. After all that, write your story. Every genre–even literary fiction, which I think is often a genre in and of itself–has rules. If you don’t know them and violate them, it’s difficult to get published. Once you do, go ahead and break them. But, folks want to feel when you flout convention it stems from consideration and reflection, not ignorance. Susan: That’s great advice, Cate. I’m still learning that. I would also tell myself that scenes are the heart of a novel. When you get into a great scene, it writes itself. Someone once told me that good novels have 5 great scenes and great novels have 20 great scenes. (I might have made that up, but I think it’s true.) Tracee: I agree with Cate and Susan and would add: get into good habits of writing discipline early. As with any endeavor this will carry you through the act of creating and editing when all else fails. Paula: What I tell my clients: That if you are in this for the long haul, it’s just as important to be a good author as it is to be a good writer. Alexia: I’d tell myself that getting a book deal is just the beginning of the work. You have to become an editor, a marketing/PR specialist, and a social media expert. Forget all the romanticized fictional accounts of the “author’s life” portrayed in the media. There’s no lollygagging around with a drink in one hand and adoring masses fawning at your feet. This is a job. Treat it as such. Michele: I would tell myself to balance listening to the advice of others with listening to what is in your heart about writing and to not be afraid to take chances. How about you, dear readers? What would you tell your younger writer self? 

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Guest Blog: Finding Balance Among The Multiples

The Miss Demeanors are thrilled to have 2017 double Agatha-nominated and national best-selling author Edith Maxwell visit us today. Edith writes the Quaker Midwife Mysteries and the Local Foods Mysteries; as Maddie Day she writes the Country Store Mysteries and the Cozy Capers Book Group Mysteries. Her award-winning short crime fiction has appeared in many juried anthologies and journals, and she serves as President of Sisters in Crime New England. A fourth-generation Californian and former tech writer, farmer, and doula, Maxwell now writes, cooks, gardens (and wastes time as a Facebook addict) north of Boston with her beau and three cats. She blogs at, Killer Characters, and with the Midnight Ink authors. Find her on Facebook, twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and at Edith’s latest book is Mulch Ado About Murder. From the dust cover: It’s been a hot, dry spring in Westbury, Massachusetts. As organic farmer Cam Flaherty waits for much-needed rain, storm clouds of mystery begin to gather. Once again, it’s time to put away her sun hat and put on her sleuthing cap when a fellow farmer is found dead in a vat of hydroponic slurry—clutching a set of rosary beads. Showers may be scarce this spring, but there’s no shortage of suspects, including the dead woman’s embittered ex-husband, the Other Man whose affair ruined their marriage, and Cam’s own visiting mother. Lucky for Cam, her nerdy academic father turns out to have a knack for sleuthing. Will he and Cam be able to clear Mom’s name before the killer strikes again? UPDATE: Edith is giving away an ARC! Comment below to enter. Winner will be chosen on May 18 at 12pm EDT! Take it away, Edith! Edith:I’m delighted to be a guest here today! Mulch Ado About Murder, my fifth Local Foods Mystery, is coming out on May 30, but it’s only one of the series I write. People often ask how in the world I juggle writing and promoting three or four series, so I thought I’d talk about that today. I’ve been happy writing a book a year about murder on an organic farm for Kensington Publishing. The Local Foods Mysteries were my first multi-book contract. Along the way I acquired a few other multi-book contracts, too. Called to Justice, my latest historical Quaker Midwife Mystery, released a month ago, and When the Grits Hit the Fan, Country Store Mystery number three (written as Maddie Day), came out only ten days before it. And I have a new Cozy Capers Book Group series set on Cape Cod, also by Maddie Day. Book one is due June first. One thing that makes all this possible is that I left my day job four years ago. Writing mysteryfiction is now my full-time job and I treat it as such. I’m at my desk writing by seven everymorning except Sunday. I do almost nothing else in the morning but write (or revise), other thanthe occasional load of laundry. I have found with that schedule and some focus I can write a firstdraft in about two months, which leaves another month or two for revision. I now know I can writethree quality books a year, plus the occasional short story. So I can handle the writing part. Another thing that helps is focusing on one series at a time, and I do my best not to be distractedby the next book until the current one is finished. (Those characters and plots do start talking to mewhen a new book is coming up!) Adding in promotion for multiple books can be tricky, though. Promotion itself isn’tstraightforward. We authors always want to be creating a community of readers. Nobody wants tobe told, Buy my book! Buy my book! That said, I of course want people to buy my book. Andwhen I have, as with this spring, three books coming out in three months, it’s kind of hard to avoidmaking those pleas. I’m always trying to find the right balance. Of course I need to also juggle family, garden, health, and other aspects of daily life, and havefound a sustainable path on that, for the most part. I love that my final full-time job is my favorite,and the one that makes me happiest. I’m living my dream. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Readers: How do you find balance among the various parts of your life? What kinds of things do you juggle on a daily basis? 

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