Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What Makes A Hero?

Recently I was asked to participate in a local authors event in support of our military veterans, providing assistance in adaptive housing, equipment, and other gap type services not funded by the VA. The commitment is minimal, in comparison, and the rewards to the vets are potentially big, so I said yes to one in April 2012, and a second when it is organized. It is an honor to be asked, and my pleasure to help out.

But it begged the question, what makes a Hero? My heroes were my sports idols when I was younger. The way Bobby Orr redefined the way hockey was played, the class and grace defined by Carl Yazstremski of the Red Sox, and the unwavering dedication to hard work and the pursuit of excellence embodied by Larry Bird, all meant something more in the way they rose to every challenge.

As I grew, I learned all of the traits I found to be heroic changed and became embodied in my father. Dad worked long, hard hours in his own business, and rose again when it failed. He put forth every effort in pursuit of the better life he wanted for himself and his family, putting himself second to all of us. I think these are just some ways to look at what makes one a hero, and perhaps it is , after all, a very subjective observation.

I read the works of my fellow writers on this site, and I see some contrasting styles amongst all the main characters. Aaron Lazar's Gus is a thinking man's hero, with his focus, like my father, on the wellbeing of his family and community at large. Marta Stephens' Sam Harper is a darker version, driven by a sense of justice in the face of all obstacles, while Kim Smith's Shannon Wallace is the fish out of water who learns to conquer her fears. All are different, but all are heroes.

So I ask you, my friends and colleagues, what makes a hero to you? I would love to hear your opinions, and will keep my eyes open for them.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Talking to Dogs, by Aaron Paul Lazar

copyright, aaron paul lazar 2012

I've been talking to my dogs an awful lot lately.

Yep, there they are. Balto and Amber. See those big brown eyes? They are the best listeners in the world. Both dogs are bred to be "therapy" dogs, anyway, with Balto being half-King Charles Cavalier Spaniel and half-standard poodle and Amber, a female half-King Charles and half-Bichon. They are officially called Cavipoo and Cavichon, but I call them my best friends.

A few weeks ago when my wife was in the hospital and almost died on New Year's Eve (you can read about her near-death experience here), the dogs were left alone most of the day because Dale was in the hospital and I was at her side all day. The dogs seemed traumatized (like the rest of us) and every morning before I headed up to the hospital I took their soft little faces in my hands and looked them right in the eyes.

"You'll be okay today, Balto. Your mom'll come home soon. And I'll be back tonight, I promise. Everything will be okay and we'll get back to normal before you know it."

The anxiety in their faces was just so hard to take. So I tried each morning to calm them down, taking special care with both. Their usual routine is to lay on Dale's bed all day long - comforting her with their constant presence.

Was I really just calming myself down? It's possible. Self-comforting is a learned skill and I think I've mastered it over all the years and trials we've endured. Then again, I do believe dogs have souls and that they are the best example of how to behave on this planet. You've all seen the doggie emails that go 'round the web - the examples of how they love unconditionally, how they're always happy to see us, no matter what, how they are always at our side, etc. etc. Dogs are the best, aren't they?

Anyway, I find myself talking out loud to them more and more. Especially since my wife is now in a safe, downstairs bedroom (too tiny for two) and I'm upstairs all alone now, at least for a while. Well, I'm not really alone, because the dogs sleep with me and the three cats sleep with Dale. ;o)

So, each evening, I talk to them about which Midsomer Murder we'll watch, or when we're going to bed, or tell them about my dreams in the morning. Yeah. Really.

Am I nuts?

Maybe. I mentioned this to Dale this morning and she laughed. "You always talk to yourself, anyway, honey. And you know what they say about that!"

Uh-huh. You either have money in the bank, or you're nuts. Well, there's not much money in the bank, so...

I guess changing from talking to myself to talking to my dogs makes me seem a little saner? Who knows. ;o)

I'm just glad to have my buddies.

Aaron Lazar


Aaron Paul Lazar writes to soothe his soul. An award-winning, bestselling Kindle author of three addictive mystery series, Aaron enjoys the Genesee Valley countryside in upstate New York, where his characters embrace life, play with their dogs and grandkids, grow sumptuous gardens, and chase bad guys. Visit his website at www.lazarbooks.com and watch for his upcoming Twilight Times Books releases, ESSENTIALLY YOURS (MAR 2012), TERROR COMES KNOCKING (FEB 2011), FOR KEEPS (MAY 2012), DON’T LET THE WIND CATCH YOU (APRIL 2012), and the author’s preferred editions of DOUBLE FORTÉ (FEB 2012) and UPSTAGED (JUNE 2012).

Friday, January 27, 2012

First Impressions, by Joylene Butler

copyright 2012, Joylene Butler

Remember your first date, the one that changed your life forever? Good things fell into place because you took past lessons learned and turned the evening into a wonderful experience.

Submitting your opening chapter to an agent or publisher is like a first date. First impressions mean everything. You submit a clean copy, write an entertaining story, but most importantly present them with a first chapter they can’t put down. You begin with a hook, (generally the story question), end with a hook, and in between show a consistent POV, and introduce an engaging character with a clear goal.

I know all this, you’re probably thinking. So why do you need me to tell you what you already know? Maybe you’ve even had a book published. You’re a pro. You can deal with the rejections. It’s not your story that’s the problem; it’s the publishers.

All that may be true, but it won’t help you get your book in print.

Too often beautifully written stories fall short by not including a poignant and exciting first chapter. When criticized for not doing so, the authors justify their actions by saying the chapter needs to set up the story and all that other stuff will follow. What’s sad is although they’re highly gifted writers, they may have just forfeited their chance at obtaining a contract.

By the end of chapter one, a checklist of components needs to be included to ensure that the publisher reads on. They need to know you have what it takes to sell books. What’s the promise you made in the first line of chapter one? That you’ve written a drama that will end softly, without a hook to entice the reader to turn to chapter two? It’s not enough to write well and hope they hang in there long enough for the suspense to eventually knock their socks off.

Many excellent articles exist online that will aid you in determining if your opening has the elements of a good first chapter. If you don’t already own Donald Maass’ handbook WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, check it out. If you’re not a follower of Alexandra Sokoloff’s blog, join. Alex also teaches a workshop on the Three-Act Structure that is a must for all writers. Dissect your favourite authors’ first chapters. If you can understand why you like theirs, you should be able to apply those elements to your own.

Never underestimate the importance of a first impression. Can you imagine what would have happened if you’d shown up wearing dirty stained clothes? Maybe hadn’t shaved or showered, or bothered brushing your teeth. You talked with your mouth full or completely dominated the conversation. Chances are you’d still be that same awesome, wonderful person today, but single.

Your first chapter needs to start in the middle of the action and end with a hook. It needs to have a three-dimensional protagonist experiencing change. And of course, it also needs to include goal, setting, conflict, and disaster. Who’s your narrator? What does your protagonist want? Where are they? What’s stopping them from getting what they want? What terrible thing ends the chapter?

Strong, solid, concise writing is an essential quality of any first chapter. But if you don’t give the reader a reason to turn the page, they won’t. Life is full of too many distractions.

--happy editing

Author of Dead WitnessBroken But Not Dead , and the e-book version of Dead Witness

"Man's heart away from nature becomes hard." Standing Bear

cluculzwriter at yahoo dot ca



Thursday, January 26, 2012

Writing... for me

I am interested in knowing the benefits of querying and publishing in today’s volatile book market. Why would anyone subject themselves to this arduous task when there are so many other avenues such as self-publishing, and indie publishing?

Recently, a friend of mine underwent this trial called submitting and found that there were some unfriendly waters out there.

There is always the initial excitement one feels for every query sent out – electronic and on paper (some things never change). I won’t go into detail on the evolution of publishing right now, but just know that the new and magical e-revolution has become a true love for many (or a painful divorce from paper for others).

The evolution of publishing – at least for me – has become like a wanderlust, a searching for something. And I believe it may be affecting my ability to write.

Writing is a part of my who I am, I recently discovered. I tried to deny it, tried to override it with lots of other things, including photography, but found that it is like another arm, or leg. I can be many things but inside, I am a writer. Everything comes out of that writerly side too, I might add.

I can shoot photography or video until the cows come home, but I am always telling a story with that. I also imagine myself as characters throughout my workday, which proves at least to me, that I am a writer first and foremost.

And I am wondering if trying once again to send my work out into the publishing ether will result in anything more than reopened old wounds, bruises that won’t heal, and headaches from beating my head against the wall.

Keep watching, folks. You may see me do some amazing things this year. (and no that does not mean more head-banging)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

On Writing Again

Finally, after months of not writing (long story, health issues, couldn’t be helped), I looked through my work that’s been in perpetual progress for what seems like an eternity and began to write again.

Granted, the creative juices didn’t flow back in all at once.  No, it was more like a trickle, drop by drop until I found my voice and got back into the character’s head again. 

But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. My writing was always in the back of my mind. Its absence was as painful as the anticipation welling inside a child's head while he sits in his doctor's office waiting to get a shot. I knew my return wouldn't be easy and I was right. It took a lot more than desire to force myself into the old chair in front of my computer to concentrate on the plot.

Just like a runner warms up before getting on the track, I had to prep my mind which had turned to mush over the past several months I spent dealing with matters that had nothing to do with writing. Life and family comes first and don't we all know it.

At any rate, the best way to “prep” is by reading. Sometimes, I’ll read random chapters from my favorite novels and let the author's words soak in.   I also love reading about unsolved crimes and turn the clues around in my head and wonder why.  It makes for a great, “what if.” And then there are the how-to books and journals.  I have more than I can count and a few of my favorite are stacked up on my desk now as I write to remind me that if I did it before, I will do it again.
Sadly, that first chapter I’d written months before—the one that seemed so perfect didn’t feel terribly right any more.  It’s not a bad chapter. In fact, I actually like it. It's just not the perfect beginning. I’m not sure yet what I’ll do with it. It’ll probably get bumped down possibly to third or fourth. The important thing though is that after a few days, I wrote a new beginning. It's short and may not the best--it is after all a first draft. Ironically, but not news to any writer, I spent more time on the opening paragraph—that all important portal to the rest of the book, than I did on the remaining 800 words.

Time will tell if they are the perfect opening words. Still, I tend to beat myself up when I can’t get it “right” and when that happens, I love reading quotes about writing from other author. That's when I know I'm not alone. 

Consider these little gems a pep talk.

“Never polish the first chapter until the last chapter is written.” –Tony Hillerman
“If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” – Stephen King
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” –Earnest Hemmingway.

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” –Sylvia Plath

“The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness.” –Tim O’Brien

“To write it, it took three months; to conceive it three minutes; to collect the data in it all my life.” –F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Writer's block…a lot of howling nonsense would be avoided if, in every sentence containing the word WRITER, that word was taken out and the word PLUMBER substituted; and the result examined for the sense it makes. Do plumbers get plumber's block? What would you think of a plumber who used that as an excuse not to do any work that day?

The fact is that writing is hard work, and sometimes you don't want to do it, and you can't think of what to write next, and you're fed up with the whole damn business. Do you think plumbers don't feel like that about their work from time to time? Of course there will be days when the stuff is not flowing freely. What you do then is MAKE IT UP. I like the reply of the composer Shostakovich to a student who complained that he couldn't find a theme for his second movement. “Never mind the theme! Just write the movement!” he said.

Writer's block is a condition that affects amateurs and people who aren't serious about writing. So is the opposite, namely inspiration, which amateurs are also very fond of. Putting it another way: a professional writer is someone who writes just as well when they're not inspired as when they are.” ― Philip Pullman

“Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound.” ― William Goldman

About the author:

Marta Stephens writes mystery/suspense.

THE DEVIL CAN WAIT (2008), Bronze Medal Finalist, 2009 IPPY Awards, Top Ten, 2008 Preditors and Editors Reader Poll (mystery).

SILENCED CRY (2007) Honorable Mention, 2008 New York Book Festival, Top Ten, 2007 Preditors and Editors Reader Poll (mystery).

Her books are available in paperback and most electronic format. Find them online at http://www.bewrite.net , Amazons, Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Books-a-Million. For more information about Stephens and her writing, visit www.martastephens-author.com

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Book Review - Forever Young: Blessing or Curse

Book Review: Forever Young: Blessing or Curse

I have been on the AARP mailing list for a little while now. Not only does my body not do the things I once could, it makes the most interesting noises when I try. So the concept of a Fountain of Youth, the ability to return to a younger version of me with all the wisdom of the older me, has a certain appeal. In Forever Young: Blessing or Curse, Morgan Mandel has fashioned an intriguing story about an experimental pill that promises to transform the user's body back in time. The heroine of the story, a 50-something widow named Dorrie Donato, returns to her dream self, a young and vital woman in her mid twenties, and enjoys all the perks associated with her relived youth. And her late husband’s boss is right there by her side, showing her all the advantages that youth and beauty hold for the woman willing to take the Forever Young pill.

Little does she know the cost of being forever young, and the role her husband’s research into the drug played in his untimely death. Not until she is seduced, drugged and rendered pregnant by the enigmatic Angel Man, the man who introduced her to Forever Young, does she find the hidden secrets of her husband’s death, and her blessing becomes her curse.

Morgan Mandel weaves a story of romance, intrigue and suspense deftly blended with a true artist’s touch. It is an enjoyable story, with characters you care about and a truly satisfying ending. A self-published book, Forever Young is well done with good editing, a sterling sense of pacing, and is well worth a place on your reading list. Ms. Mandel's book makes the point that self-published books need not take a backseat to traditional publishing. A good read, an enjoyable story well told, doesn’t need a big publishing house.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Glimpse of Spring

It's mid January in upstate New York. Today I have to switch gears into eagle-eye mode, and go through the print ARC of Terror Comes Knocking, book two in Moore Mysteries. My publisher, Lida Quillen of Twilight Times Books (newly announced as a Writers Digest top 100 market for writers!), is pushing hard this year to get a good chunk of my work out in the next six months. Two books this month, and one per month through June. So, needless to say, I haven't had a lot of time to sit and work on my WIP, nor luxuriate in the pure pleasure of writing. It's been synopses and back cover blurbs, cover art tweaks, and so much editing I can hardly see straight.

I'm not complaining. Honest. I'm thrilled that we'll be able to catch up with publishing the books I've been writing within the next few years. Only four more to tweak after these are out. Once we're done, it'll give me more freedom to think about and focus on one book at a time. Maybe then I'll be able to remember what all of my characters are up to without having to scratch my head and wonder which series I'm in.
But I'm not writing this little piece today to chronicle my "to do" list. No. I wanted to tell you that in this third week of January up here in the cold northeast, I had a glimpse of spring yesterday!

The weather has been strange all over this year, hasn't it?  Our first "real" snow storm in Rochester came about a week ago. We've only been plowed out once so far! And we've had plenty of 40 and 50 degree days where rain fell instead of snow. Matter of fact tomorrow it's supposed to soar to the forties again.

So, it was rather appropriate when we finally got a real cold snap over the past few days. The thermometer hovered under eleven degrees this morning, and didn't go above twenty-three yesterday. But while we were running errands all morning -- mostly delivering and picking up Balto and Amber from their wonderful groomer, Bonnie Mason -- the sun shone so strong and so hard that it became unbearably hot in the van.

I unzipped layer after layer, enjoying the sites of the snow-covered hills. The beauty of our area --  glacier-carved rolling hills and lakes -- never fails to astound me. I feel the old jaw constantly dropping while driving around the curvy roads I've traveled thousands of times. It affects me the same way every time.

But there was something about that sun warming my skin, the intense white purity that poured into the van, that shot a signal through my body and brain.

Spring. It's coming.

Tomatoes. Peas. Soft soil slipping through my fingers. The thrum of the tiller churning through the dirt. Ripe round fruits hanging from the vines.

Oh, yeah. It's coming.

Pretty soon I'll be pulling back the black plastic and checking the moisture level in the soil. Too wet to plant? Or dry enough to get those early March peas in the ground.

I feel my garden engine humming. It's going to be so good this year, not like last year's swampy disaster. Well, sure, we had a garden, but it was so soupy all spring and summer that it probably will go down in history as one of the worst producers regarding quantity and quality.

But not this year. Oh, yeah. It's gonna be good.

Now, where's my Stokes Seeds catalog?


 The author and three of his grandchildren

Aaron Paul Lazar writes to soothe his soul. An award-winning, bestselling Kindle author of three addictive mystery series, Aaron enjoys the Genesee Valley countryside in upstate New York, where his characters embrace life, play with their dogs and grandkids, grow sumptuous gardens, and chase bad guys. Visit his website at www.lazarbooks.com and watch for his upcoming Twilight Times Books releases, ESSENTIALLY YOURS (MAR 2012), TERROR COMES KNOCKING (FEB 2011), FOR KEEPS (MAY 2012), DON’T LET THE WIND CATCH YOU (APRIL 2012), and the author’s preferred editions of DOUBLE FORTÉ (FEB 2012) and UPSTAGED (JUNE 2012).

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Contest and cons

Having a Zen Day
Good morning, Murderers! Haha. Well, if you think about it, you like Mb4 and are a follower of the blog, so that makes you a murderbyfour-er. Or to keep it cool, murderer.

So who's going to a con this year? Who's entering a contest? Who's querying an agent with their hot topic?

I am!! At least, I hope to. I always try to make the local con, Mid South Con although I missed it last year. It is always a really fun one, with an outstanding writer's track. If you are in my region, go to this one!

Also, if you are going to save up to go to one, Killer Nashville, in the middle of Tennessee has to be on the list too, because it is in August. Plenty of time to save for that one.

I am probably not going to enter many contests, but I may host one. Anyone interested in winning one, two or all three of my Shannon books? If you have been procrastinating on buying them (and come on, they are digital downloads-slow much??) -- here could be your chance to get them ALL!

I need some good ideas for contests too. Any suggestions out there in Murderland?

What about querying an agent? That is always in the back of my mind, but so far, I have not done it. Too chicken or else just comfortable with what I already have accomplished I guess. With the popularity of digital books now, I think more people are just going with it and doing the agenting themselves. Would love to hear your thoughts.

Have a "zen" day, Murderers.

Monday, January 16, 2012

How to Convincingly Put Legal Work in Your Novel by Chris Shella

copyright 2012, Chris Shella
As a criminal trial lawyer, nothing irritates me so badly asto see fake non-convincing law scenes on TV or in the books I read. I know tothe average layman, it seems real, but to someone who is in a courtroomeveryday it’s irritating and annoying. I tell you my annoyance get even worsewhen it is a corporate lawyer or a civil litigator trying to detail a murdertrial or even a plea bargain. Those guys detailing a criminal case is akin to anelectrician telling you how to do your plumbing. They may have a general idea,but you wouldn’t want to risk your house on their opinions. You may ask, whatare my bona fides to make such assertions? I am a criminal trial lawyer who hastried more than 100 major felony jury trials and handled more than 50 murdercases in New York, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and North Carolina in both stateand federal court.
Whew, now that I have that off my chest, let me give thethree ways I advise that you can insert convincing legal work into your work offiction.
Convincing legal work can make or break your legal thriller.If readers are truly immersed in your work they can see hear and smell thecourtroom you put in your work. If something doesn’t ring true or soundsunauthentic, readers can end up getting hung up on a fake detail that makesthem distrust your work and therefore dislike it. Now I know it doesn’t makesense to go to law school(incurring hundreds of thousands in debt) and trycases for about ten years until you understand criminal trial work but here area few short cuts:
1.     Sit your butt in a courtroom for a month to two months and watch what goes onthere.  I know a lot of folks think they can just ask there cousins’ brother’s friend about what happens in court, but there is nothing like seeing it yourself. Sitting in a courtroom you will see the tension in the relationships that is rarely portrayed in books. Sitting in the courtroom wil lallow you to observe the nuts and bolts of the criminal practice. No one can explain a plea and the intricate dance it is unless you see it yourself. From the clerks, to the police, to the lawyers, and defendants, it is almost a ballet how they interact.
2.     Read anecdotes and the books of famous criminal trial lawyers. Dick Deguerin, Racehorse Haynes, Johnnie Cochran and others have all written autobiographies that talk about their cases and lives. Reading these books is a great starting place. All of these lawyers talk about their cases and how the cases they tried proceed.

3.     Talk toformer defendants. Some of the most informed people on how I justice systemworks or doesn’t work are those who have been punished and incarcerated. Idon’t mean the jailhouse lawyers but maybe your cousin who went to jail for DWIhas more insight into the law than the real estate closing lawyer who you knowpersonally. Criminal defendants who have been convicted and then exoneratedwould be even better. They can tell you about the mechanics of a legal systemthat victimized them. You would be surprised about how much of the law isunderstood by someone who has been convicted and filed their own appeals and filed writs of habeas corpus  out of necessity because they don’t want to spend the restof their natural lives in jail.
I know that this isn’t all inclusive but it is guaranteed togive you a better sense of the criminal justice system than “Matlock” or “TheFirm”. This advice will give your work the air of authenticity that is thehallmark of interesting writing. These shortcuts aren’t exhaustive but theywill give you a definite start of making your legal thriller pass the smelltest.

Author Chris Shella is a graduate of Morehouse College and the University ofTexas Law School and started his legal career in Long Island, New York at theNassau County District Attorney’s Office. He is admitted to the practice of lawin New York, Maryland, the District of Columbia, and North Carolina. Shella isalso admitted to the federal court in the Eastern District of North Carolina,the Middle District of North Carolina, U.S. District of Columbia, the FourthCircuit Court of Appeals, the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals,the Eastern District of New York, and the Southern District of New York.He isalso admitted to the Bar Of The United States Supreme Court. He and his caseshave been covered on Court TV, CNN, and in the New York Times, and other mediaoutlets across the globe. He has represented everyone from lawyers to majordrug traffickers to a serial killer in Baltimore. His two most famous case arethe Vegan Baby Case and his defense of the Duke Lacrosse Case accuser for thealleged murder of her boyfriend.
Chris now resides in Durham, North Carolina, with his wife and son.

His latest book is the legal thriller, ReasonableFacsimile.
You can visit his website at www.reasonablefacs.com.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | LinkedIn | Amazon| AmazonKindle | Barnes& Noble | Lulu| Borders

About Reasonable Facsimile

Can Jasper Davis pull himself from his life of loose women, liquor, andgeneral debauchery in enough time to win a murder case and possibly save hisown hide? Jasper Davis is a criminal trial lawyer in Baltimore who has slowlybut surely become like the drug dealers and lowlifes he represents. He spendsmore time with hookers than clients and more time drinking Jack Daniels than studyingthe law books. Simply put. he is a shade of his former self. In ReasonableFacsimile, Jasper is in the middle of a first degree murder trial when hebecomes the suspect in the murder of a DEA agent who was set to testify againsthis client. Jasper is so far gone on women and liquor he sees his trial skillsdeteriorate right before his eyes. Jasper is confronted by the situation is hegonna continue to be a reasonable facsimile of a human being or is he gonnabecome the man he once was.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Book Review: PELICAN POINT by Douglas Quinn

review by Aaron Lazar

PELICAN POINT Is my first Douglas Quinn mystery. I had a feeling I'd like the story in advance, because I got to know the author as a fellow writer and thoroughly enjoyed his blogs and our relationship. (Note: I don't write reviews as favors, I only report what I honestly thought after reading the book.)

The plot and tension were enjoyable in their own right, but what really hooked me was the sense of place. Webb Sawyer lives in a stilt house on the water, and his life is fully enveloped in fishing. Fresh fish for breakfast, fish for lunch, fish with every meal. My father was a fisherman, so I enjoyed the details around this passion of Webb's and particularly loved the descriptions of the waterways and boats, and the critters living in and around the area.

Also, I became enamored with the rather "crusty" main character. Webb is not a perfect man. His history of fatherhood isn't something he is proud of, but he knows it and is trying to make up for all the years of being separated from his son, Preston. The frail relationship between the boy and his father seemed real and genuinely depicted. Webb also isn't the most sensitive man, isn't looking for a long term relationship with a woman (so it seems), and is quite self-centered. Yet, I found myself growing fond of his quirky ways.

One aspect of the main character that came through loud and clear, and which I loved, was the fact that he's a "man's man." I loved his action-taking and the strength and purpose he showed when his son was in serious danger. Webb's character arc completes when he redeems himself in the end.

The villains were real and frightening, the action tight and unwavering, and all in all I would recommend this mystery as a nice winter read, especially for those of us in the north wishing for warm weather!

Aaron Lazar

P.S Click on side bar cover to buy.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Dreams while awake

Watching the world go by

I am posting about dreams. No, not the sleeping kind. But those that usually go along with goals.

Are you goal-setting, dreaming this year of a published world? Is 2012 going to be YOUR year? I say that every year. I do not set goals but as in all things, wing it. I usually hit close to my mark. I haven't thought very far ahead for 2012- but I will.

I wrote and edited two books last year, and will see them come out this year for all the readers out there who are starved for a new Shannon Wallace mystery, or a new YA from me. So yea, last year was a good one for writing.

I love a new year because it is sort of like a clean slate. You can go out and make the 365 days into whatever it is your heart desires. What are you wanting from this one?

Are you moving yet? The world is moving past you, rushing toward their dreams. Are you on the dream train yet?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


copyright 2012, Robert Sutherland  

Many times, while browsing the mystery section in used bookstores or the public library, I come across a book (even by a familiar author) whose title strikes no note of recognition, and I find myself wondering whether I’ve already read it. I study the front cover, and the blurbs on the back cover, and perhaps scan the first paragraph or two, but still can’t tell whether I've encountered it before. So, hoping for the best, I take it home and settle in for a pleasurable read—but (somewhere in the first or second chapter) discover, to my dismay, that I have read the story previously (and know for sure that I don’t wish to read it again). Perhaps you’ve had this experience too. It’s happened to me enough times that I’ve often been led to ask, Why did this book and its title prove to be so forgettable? (And , on the heels of that: Conversely, why are some other mysteries so hauntingly memorable—even after only one reading?)

I’m tired of asking these questions. It’s time to explore some possible answers to both of them. Following the advice of the King of Hearts in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I’ll start at the beginning, and hope that when I get to the “end”, I’ll be able to stop.

Since Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue appeared in 1841, the mystery story has evolved through many permutations into a rich and diverse genre with many subcategories. While specific works may variously foreground such elements as forensic science, police procedure, amateur sleuthing, courtroom drama, psychological profiling, cryptanalysis, ethical dilemmas, deadly pursuit, erotic romance, and specialized information on such topics as medicine, coal-mining, the theatre, gambling, Egyptian archaeology, computers, horse breeding, glass blowing, vampires, cats, quilts, and food, the fundamental purpose of mysteries is to provide entertainment. Whatever else readers of mysteries may learn about the human condition or cooking soufflés, they read them basically to be entertained.

By its nature entertainment is evanescent, experienced in the present moment, confined to the “here and now”. Once the moment has passed, the entertainment is over, and the quality of the experience can at best reside in one’s memory. With some entertainments, the quality of the experience can be vividly recollected. With others, the memory of the experience fades into oblivion.

Ephemeral entertainments aren’t to be disparaged: popular culture has always valued them. Though they offer transitory experiences, the persistence in society of melodramas, penny dreadfuls, gossip tabloids, vaudeville and circus acts, sentimental romances, celebratory song and dance, whimsical cartoons, stand-up comedy, board games, strip clubs, radio and TV variety shows, formula Westerns, “weird tales”, sitcoms and soap-operas attests their value in satisfying people’s needs for adventure, humor, escape, diversion, titillation, competition, spectacle, etc. And so with mystery stories: if they provide entertainment while being read, that’s principally what’s asked and expected of them; while they’re doing their job and being enjoyed, whether or not they’ll be remembered isn’t the point.

And typically, fans don’t read mysteries with an eye to remembering them. They read to relish the moment:  enjoying the chase, matching wits with the detective(s), watching the interplay of interesting characters, participating in crime-solving investigations and the apprehension of the perpetrator(s).

Professional mystery writers, on the other hand, are concerned with making creditable contributions to the genre and building a loyal base of readers that will net them sales. As contributors to popular culture, their primary goal is to provide remunerative, enjoyable entertainment. They may be quite content to garner sales by producing ephemeral (and forgettable) works. But there is a bonus for them in writing memorable books: the more memorable their stories are, the greater is their remuneration in the long term, for readers who recall a good experience will return to enjoy their other books, and will spread the word to friends.

For readers, whether a book is remembered or forgotten is largely a matter of individual taste. That will vary from person to person, and book to book. Those who don’t like police procedurals may not be able to recall those they’ve read; those who do like and remember specific procedurals may have negative reactions to (and forget) the cosy whodunits they’ve read, the psychological thrillers, or mysteries set in remote historical periods. Readers who don’t like Nero Wolfe or Miss Marple may not recall the stories featuring them that they’ve read, but may remember the books they’ve liked featuring Sharon McCone or Lord Peter Wimsey.

While personal taste and specific preferences may determine which books we remember and which we forget, there may be other determiners as well. For example, while reading a particular book, we might be so distracted by external life circumstances that we’re unable to focus sufficient attention on the story to experience it fully. Both of these—readers’ individual tastes and their degrees of distraction—are beyond the author’s control; and if either or both cause a book not to be remembered, there is no way the author could have prevented it.

But there are a number of things over which authors do have control that may determine whether a particular story is remembered or forgotten.

Since people read mysteries to be pleasurably entertained, it’s likely that a story with little entertainment-value will not easily be remembered. Therefore, if authors want their books to be remembered, they must take pains to keep readers continuously entertained with
engaging characterizations, the development of an unusual premise, interesting settings, engrossing action (including chases and physical conflict), suspense, misdirections, moody atmosphere, witty dialogue, and puzzles to solve.  But authors should be aware that even if mysteries do provide pleasurable entertainment they still may be forgettable.

In my opinion, the following (which decrease the entertainment-quoient) will go far toward assuring that a story will be forgotten:

1) Flaccid, poorly drawn characters who are feebly developed and realized. Characters that are flat, static, stereotyped, excessively shallow, irksome, boring, or dull tend to be forgettable.

(Authors can increase a book’s entertainment-quotient (and memorability) by creating contoured, three-dimensional characters who dynamically undergo change; who are individualized, complex, “imperfect”, capable of surprising themselves and the reader, and of evoking the reader’s curiosity, concern, and sympathy.)

2) Uninteresting dialogue that doesn’t advance the story or reveal character.

(Talk that doesn’t lead anywhere, that’s tedious, repetitious, banal, predictable, and full of cliché provides nothing to linger in memory.)

3) Disruptive pacing that frustrates or bores the reader, and works at cross purposes to the development of plot or storyline.

(Pacing orchestrates the reader’s emotional responses by regulating the relative speed at which events unfold, crises arise and are resolved, information is presented, and secrets revealed; it adjusts dynamics by balancing mounting tension with breathing space and calming respite; it determines the duration of scenes, highlights certain elements for emphasis, and maintains forward motion. Failure in any of these functions can weaken the narrative, causing it to become less effective, and therefore less memorable.)

4) Not playing fair with the reader.

(Readers of mysteries expect authors to challenge them, and they willingly give themselves over to the entertainment promised; but they in turn expect authors to play fair with them, providing them with all the clues they need to solve the crime, not disturbing them with inconsistencies, contradictions, and unresolved questions (very irritating), and not pulling rabbits out of hats by springing information on them that hasn’t been prepared for previously.  When authors don’t play fair, readers feel cheated. Even angry—which is not conducive to their remembering the book as a pleasant entertainment. Even if they forget the book itself, they well may remember the author as one who cheats, and avoid other books from that pen.)

5) Boring, predictable incidents which readers have encountered a hundred times before;
6) Inaccurate facts and information recognized as such;
7) Irritating, careless word-choice;
8) Sloppy writing in general.

(All of these tend to make a story forgettable.)

Both in life and in fiction, crimes—particularly heists, kidnappings, and murders—often exhibit repetitious similarities from case to case, familiar and predictable patterns in their motivations and execution. These similarities tend to make fictional crimes blend together in the reader’s memory, where, in time, they become indistinguishable and no longer uniquely identified with the books in which they occurred. When this happens, the memory of having read specific books frequently dissipates altogether.

This tendency can be contravened—as, for example, by an author’s making the circumstances surrounding a particular murder (including the killer’s motives and the mechanics of its execution) so unusual, shocking, or bizarre (and the methods of solving it so ingenious) that the murder stands out from others which readers have encountered elsewhere. While a clever author may succeed in presenting a murder “memorably”, the basic reasons why murderers kill are few and quickly stated. Most murders are premeditated and volitional (though some killings can occur without planning “in the heat of the moment”). I discern four basic types, which I’ll respectively designate ‘wanton’, ‘aggressive’, ‘defensive’, and ‘punitive’; each type has certain motivations associated with it.

WANTON MURDER  (which excludes warfare, and accidental or inadvertent homicide) is caused by various psychopathologies:
(a) sadistic cruelty;
(b) envy and jealousy;
(c) delusional fixations that produce serial killings, random massacres, or the slaughter of family members;
(d) terrorism, and other fanaticisms, where assassination of specific individuals (or perhaps the killing of multiple victims) serves specific ideological or political ends;
(e) hate that focuses on members of particular groups; and
(f) lack of empathy, that enables professional assassins to carry out contract killings for hire.

In AGGRESSIVE MURDER, perpetrators kill to gain something they desire (money, power, advantage, position, status, sexual access, etc.) and/or to remove obstacles that prevent them from achieving their desired ends  (such as rivals or obstructionist and inconvenient “gatekeepers”).

In DEFENSIVE MURDER, perpetrators kill out of fear (of discovery, of being exposed, of being bested or humiliated; of losing possession or control of something desired (money, power, status, position, reputation, love, turf, life itself). This category would include pre-emptive strikes when threatened, and killings to conceal the commission of crimes.

In PUNITIVE MURDER, perpetrators kill to achieve revenge, retaliation, retribution. This category would include state executions [judicial murder], feuds, duels, “honor killings”, and perhaps arranging contracts of murders for hire.

Since avid readers of murder mysteries have been over this familiar ground repeatedly, it’s not surprising that they will forget some of the books they’ve tramped through. Many of the books weren’t written specifically to be remembered, but were conceived as ephemeral entertainments; others, which might have had aspirations to be memorable, were too mediocre and unimaginatively pedestrian to provide anything for the mind to feed upon. To understand why some books are memorable, we’re led back to those indispensable features already discussed: pleasurable writing; the working out of an unusual and intriguing premise; sound plotting; effective pacing; original, engaging characters; accuracy of specialized information; interesting and stimulating dialogue. I suspect it’s much harder to write a memorable book than one that’s forgettable.

To conclude this inquiry, I should mention the role that titles play in forestalling or assuring a book’s forgettability.

A distinctive and memorable title may help readers to remember that they’ve read a particular book—even though it may not help them to recall specifically the substance of the story. (Examples:  Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely; Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse; Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar and The Way Some People Die.)  Besides its being a convenient and more or less unique call-name for a book that’s favorably impressed a particular reader, the title can also serve as a branding signifier that comes to be a memorable icon in itself: The Murders in the Rue Morgue; The Maltese Falcon; The Hound of the Baskervilles. I say can, because not all titles are able to achieve this status—in and of themselves, or for particular readers.

P. D. James’s title Shroud for a Nightingale helps me to remember that I’ve read the book it names, and something of the story as well; but her title Devices and Desires draws a blank on both counts. Tony Hillerman’s titles (e.g., Listening Woman, Skinwalkers, A Thief of Time, etc.) are sufficiently distinctive that I not only remember them, but know from them whether I’ve read the books. However, even when I know I’ve read the books, his stand-alone titles don’t help me recall the substance of their stories; to recover that, I would have to sample the text.

Authors of a lengthy series sometimes establish similarities linking the individual titles to signify the books’ membership in the series and/or their sequential position within the run; but this device may offer scant help to readers trying to recall whether they’ve read a particular book in the series. Sue Grafton’s titles in her alphabet series (‘A’ is for Alibi, ‘C’ is for Corpse, ‘D’ is for Deadbeat, ‘E’ is for Evidence, etc.) are too generic to provide much memory-jogging information about the respective stories they name; I’ve read many of the books in the series, but when I’m in the bookstore or the library, I cannot remember whether I’ve read ’K’ or ‘F’ or ’T’. (Although I very much enjoy her books while reading them, I nonetheless find them quickly forgettable as individual stories; and the alphabet titles provide little help in recalling them.)

The same is true of Bill Pronzini’s Nameless detective series.  I enjoy the books, but they leave me with little more than a general impression of an entertaining read, an engaging protagonist, and competent writing. Pronzini’s single-word titles (Undercurrent, Hoodwink, Deadfall, Breakdown, Hardcase) are almost no help in letting me know whether I’ve previously read a specific book (and none at all in recalling the story). John D. MacDonald, in his twenty-one Travis McGee novels, includes a color in each of his rather poetic titles (e.g., Pale Gray for Guilt, A Tan and Sandy Silence, Free Fall in Crimson, The Lonely Silver Rain), and though I’ve read all of the books in the series, from the titles alone I find it difficult to remember almost anything about the individual stories themselves. Erle Stanley Gardner’s eighty-two Perry Mason mysteries all have the same formulaic title, “The Case of the _______________ (the blank to be filled with such potentially helpful phrases as “Terrified Typist,” “Lucky Loser,” “Duplicate Daughter,” “Restless Redhead,” “Troubled Trustee,” “Worried Waitress,” “Glamorous Ghost,” and “Grinning Gorilla”). But even with alliterative and clever call-names to jog the memory, eighty-two of them are a lot for readers browsing the shelves to recognize and recall.

Rex Stout’s eighty-seven Nero Wolfe mysteries have individualized, non-linked titles much like those of stand-alone novels, and—not surprisingly—share the same general strengths and limitations of stand-alone titles for recalling the books themselves and their stories. Of course, some titles (whether linked or stand-alone) do provide cues that help one to remember both the book and its story’s substance. Agatha Christie has a few titles that, for me, seem to be helpful in both of these regards: And Then There Were None, Murder on the Orient Express, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and A Pocket Full of Rye. Also, for me, Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios, Laura Lippman’s Baltimore Blues and Charm City, and Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time seem to fulfill this double function.

Please note that I’ve specified these titles as helpful “for me”—a necessary qualification, since, inevitably, every reader will have a personal set of responses. It can’t be otherwise; each of us has our own reading history, our own inventory of tastes and preferences, likes and dislikes, our own unique experiences with the works we’ve encountered. In view of this, my attempt, in the present inquiry, to reach a generalized understanding of why it is that we find some titles and stories so forgettable, and some so memorable, seems, on its face, to be palpably absurd—especially since we haven’t even read the same books! Where is the common ground, the shared experience that would validate my generalizations?

Well, the common ground is our shared experience of standing in bookstores and libraries trying to determine if the book we’ve just pulled off the shelf is one that we’ve previously read.  In this inquiry I’ve tried to suggest some reasons why we might have trouble remembering. Some causes are personal to us as readers. Some reside in the works themselves. As a type of genre fiction, mysteries (and all their various subcategories) are subject to certain conventions and narrative protocols that impose broad similarities upon them. It takes an exceptional work to exceed the constraints of the genre; and if we are able to read those works under ideal conditions, and with proper attention, they will have a good chance of being remembered. But the great majority of mysteries in a fan’s reading history will not surpass the genre’s conventions; many will have been designed by their authors as ephemeral entertainments to serve the moment, and many others will be dull, boring, unimaginative, or poorly written. In other words, for most of us who read a large number of mysteries, the majority of those that we read won’t easily be retained in memory. Consequently, we probably should resign ourselves to the sad necessity of resigning ourselves to frequently having to wonder, “Now, have I read this one before . . . ?”—and simply taking our chances. 

I can hear the King of Hearts saying, “All right, you’ve come to the end. Now stop.” And stop I shall.

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE:  Robert D. Sutherland received his Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa, and retired as Professor of English at Illinois State University, where he taught Linguistcs, History of the English Language, Old English, and Creative Writing. He has served as editor at The Pikestaff Press from 1977 to the present http://www.pikestaffpress.com. His publications include Language and Lewis Carroll (a scholarly book), two novels, The Farringford Cadenza and Sticklewort and Feverfew (which received the 1981 Friends of American Writers Juvenile Book Merit Award for author/illustrator), essays, and poems. He currently lives in Normal, Illinois with his wife Marilyn and three well-contented cats.

Reviews of The Farringford Cadenza and Sticklewort and Feverfew may be found on my personal website.  Signed copies of both books may be purchased from The Pikestaff Press website
http://www.pikestaffpress.com. Unsigned copies, from Amazon.com or Baker & Taylor.

He manages a blog for writers and readers of mysteries to which anyone may contribute: http://mystery-writing-vergil.blospot.com

Postings and comments should be sent to him at rds@robertdsutherland.com for moderation.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Message From God

copyright 2012, Aaron Paul Lazar

My wife almost died on New Years Eve.

I've been married to Dale for 30 years, and we've been together forever even before we were married. We've been soul mates from the beginning, and I can hardly remember a day when we weren't side by side.

Life has been good to us in multiple ways. We always loved horses, and before we had our children, we enjoyed many years of wonderful rides in the rolling hills of the Genesee Valley. We'd canter through the fields, the old canal path, and thrilled to the beauty of nature, frequently satisfying our primal urge to explore.

Our biggest blessing, however, was the gift of our three beautiful daughters. And now we've been equally blessed with four wonderful grandchildren.

But life has also been fraught with a fair share of challenges. One of these is Dale's MS. She was diagnosed in 1990, and has suffered a great deal in the past few decades.

On Christmas, 2011, I contracted the worst virus of my life. It was like a cold, but it also gave me fevers, chills, total exhaustion, and I ended up with bronchitis and a sinus infection. I missed the whole Christmas vacation, and ended up infecting Dale, whose lungs succumbed. It turned into pneumonia, and on New Year's Eve, right in the middle of the family dinner/game night, her breathing suddenly got terrible and we had to call the ambulance to bring her to the hospital.

In the ED she was diagnosed with pneumonia and sepsis. She almost died that night. We had to make decisions about "do not resuscitate," and other horrible options.

But my dear survived, after many hours of worry. The next day, she was in the ICU. That evening she had a "dream" that felt so much more real than any dream she's ever had, we're calling it a vision. She can't stop talking about it.

Life for Dale in general was filled with suffering, and no matter what new meds we tried or what alternative solutions we went after, there seemed to be no solution to her symptoms. She's always believed in God and Heaven, but I knew she was feeling rather forsaken over the past decade.

She doesn't feel this way anymore...

During this startlingly real vision, Dale traveled through a dark tunnel. "It wasn't scary. It was peaceful and warm," she said. At the end of the tunnel, she was met by a brilliant, warm light. (I know, you've heard about this from others. Guess this is another confirmation that it really happens!)

"It was so overwhelming, I felt like I was being embraced by God, but it wasn't just an outward hug, His whole being went into mine, and I felt Him become one with me. I couldn't see Him, it was just pure, warm light. I felt so peaceful, more so than I ever have in life. I could see things clearly, not like in this life where all the colors are dull to me. The colors were brilliant, vivid, and beautiful. I felt like He enveloped me with His love, that His whole being came into mine, comforting me. I have never felt so wonderful in my entire life, and I didn't want to leave Him, it felt so good."

She said at one point she got a glimpse of Hell, a dark and scary place. At first she was afraid she'd go there, but then she got her hug from God. She also glimpsed something incredibly beautiful on the sides of the light - she vaguely remembers colorful, riotous gardens.

This one amazing moment in her life -- something she's needed for a long time -- told her so much. "God is giving me strength to carry on. I felt Him urging me to take care of myself, to do the right things for my body. And now I know that when this life is over, I will be with Him. There's nothing to be afraid of now. We're preparing to join Him in what will be our ultimate reward. It's so comforting, because you know what's there for you afterwards."

Dale is not a super religious person. She doesn't go to church. She doesn't read the Bible. She's pretty much isolated from society, due to her illness. But she's always lived her life with true Christian values. She shows great strength and compassion. She has amazing empathy for others, and she never asks for anything except lots of good books to read.

In the past few years, she's been horribly depressed, always asking, "why is this happening to me?" and never receiving any answers. She's also usually more of a skeptic than believer when it comes to miracles. But this experience changed her completely.

Now we both know - no matter what happens in this life, it's just the beginning, just the trial we endure before we reach our true life, the one where God holds us in his embrace, where beautiful gardens abound, and where we will feel the most wonderful, blossoming joy and happiness that it all will have been worth it.

I'll never forget the expression on Dale's face when she told me about this - she couldn't stop talking about it, she was enthused, inspired, her eyes alight. I've never seen her like this, and the strength and power of His message has stayed with her.

No, it wasn't a dream. It was so much more than that; it was a message from God.

"Hang in there," He told her. "You can do this. I am here for you."

She wants everyone to hear about her experience, and I'm happy to be her voice.

Heaven is real. God is waiting. And I, for one, am looking forward to it. Especially if those gardens don't grow weeds. ;o)



Aaron Paul Lazar writes to soothe his soul. An award-winning, bestselling Kindle author of three addictive mystery series, thrillers, love stories, and writing guides, Aaron enjoys the Genesee Valley countryside in upstate New York, where his characters embrace life, play with their dogs and grandkids, grow sumptuous gardens, and chase bad guys. Visit his website at http://www.lazarbooks.com and watch for his upcoming release, THE SEACROFT (2015) Aaron has won over 18 book awards for his novels and finds writing to be his form of "cheap therapy." Feel free to connect with him on Facebook or his website; he loves to connect with readers!