Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Author Guest Post - Donald Levin

Donald Levin describes himself as smart, ironic, perceptive, stubborn, and skeptical. His writing is realistic, engaging, moving, complex, and fast-paced. Here’s how he answered his questions:

Describe your most productive writing venue. What makes it best for you?

Over two decades as a professional writer, I’ve written in almost every circumstance you can imagine . . . in cubicles in large writers’ bullpens, in private offices, in hotel rooms, in bookstore cafes, in coffee shops, in libraries, in my car, on my front porch, in client offices that were so dismal they made me happy I could get up and leave but sorry for the people who had to stay there . . . What makes a venue productive depends on what I’m trying to do. When I’m rewriting or editing, I can pretty much work anywhere, any time.

But when I’m composing something new, the game changes. I need two things: somewhere that allows for the quietude of mind necessary for me to do creative work, and someplace where I can get into a routine of settling in to write for hours. When I began drafting my latest novel, I couldn’t write in my usual home office in the basement because a flood had made it uninhabitable. I was on sabbatical from my teaching job so didn’t want to go into school, where I knew I’d be interrupted constantly. I couldn’t afford a short-term lease on an office so I tried out several of the libraries around where I live, and settled on one in particular where I felt most comfortable. It was a large, quiet, clean well-lighted place with an alcove that perfectly suited me. I went there every day at opening time and worked all day, and in four months finished the draft of 120,000 words. The place was perfect . . . it was in the middle of a small downtown so I could take lunch breaks nearby and stroll around for an hour, it was not so loud and busy that I couldn’t focus, nobody knew me, and I could settle in for hours every day. I was able to get into the habit of producing writing, and it was lovely.

I know lots of people don’t have the luxury I had, but it was perfect for me.

What is your most productive time of the day (and do you need caffeine)?

When I was younger my most productive writing time was at night . . . after my day job was finished I could concentrate on writing into the night and still get up to work the next day. Ah, youth! Now that I’m, um, not so young, I find my focus is better if I start work in the morning. That doesn’t mean I always start writing right away, but I need to be sitting at my desk at the same time every day and be able to devote a substantial chunk of time to it. Flannery O’Connor used to say it was important for her to be sitting at her desk in case any ideas came so she’d be there to catch them and that’s how I feel too.

My second most productive time of the day is around 3 p.m. For some reason, after the activity of the morning and the interlude of lunch, I seem to kick into high gear again around three. It’s a mystery.

Caffeine is a must in the morning, as a stimulant and as part of the writing ritual. Park the car, grab a cuppa coffee from the local barista, spread out on a library table, and settle in to work. Nothing better! Some people I know use alcohol or marijuana to grease the wheels or focus the mind but neither of those work for me. Just like finding the best venue, the secret is to find what works for you and then go with it.

How many books do you read in a typical month? Do you read in your genre while you are writing? What’s your most recent “great” book?

I’ve been a voracious reader my entire life but in all that time I’ve never actually counted the number of books I read. Some people keep a reading journal, which I approve of but don’t seem to have the desire to do. But I’m reading constantly (usually one book at a time), and when I finish a book I feel out of sorts until I start a new one. How many I read depends on how much time I have available. Recently I had back surgery and with a lot of time on my hands I went through about a dozen hefty books in a month. I read both in and out of my genre though I’m getting pickier about books than I used to be. Once I could find something to value in even the worst book and would stick with it to the end . . . knowing how hard it is to write a book I would feel I owed it to the author to finish. As I get older I’m finding myself bailing out of more books. There seems to be a tendency to publish more massive door-stoppers than ever before, and unless it’s to my taste I find myself losing interest before the end. I love Pynchon and tried to read Bleeding Edge (which I was looking forward to because I liked Inherent Vice (not, repeat, not the movie), but around page 300 I gave up because it wasn’t working for me. I don’t feel so bad about doing that anymore . . . maybe because time is getting more precious to me.

For the past few years I’ve been reading more non-American novels, particularly mysteries, which are what I write. American mysteries IMHO are laboring in the shadow of the hard-boiled, wall-to-wall violence of an earlier time, and not only don’t I find them compelling but I feel they’re dangerous in their cavalier approach to violence and sensation with little else to recommend them.

My most recent great book is a tie between Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten. Neither of these are genre novels, though they are both energized by terrific plots and don’t have the glacial movement of the typical literary novel. It’s hard to write a great mystery, I think . . . it’s harder to break new ground when you have to honor (or upset) well-established conventions of the genre. But if you think differently about what a “great book” means and consider mystery series as one long continuous novel, then it’s possible to approach greatness in the totality of a series . . . my best candidates would be what the Swedish couple Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo did with their Martin Beck series, what Henning Mankell does with his Wallander books, and what Ian Rankin does with Rebus.

Name three not well-known authors you would recommend and tell us what you like about their writing.

It’s hard to narrow it down to three but here goes . . . All of the three authors I’m going to mention have the same joys: wonderful characters who come alive between the pages of the books, stories that capture you quickly and draw you through the entire novel, books with a crucial connection between character and plot and setting, and books that engage and enlarge our sympathies in some important way. These are, not coincidentally, exactly the characteristics I strive for in my books.

Giles Blunt is a contemporary Canadian mystery writer who has the John Cardinal series set in northern Ontario. His work is richly textured with a constant interplay between character, story, and location . . . the books couldn’t take place anywhere else than northern Ontario. Compelling stories and believable characters keep you reading.

The Dutch writer Janwillem van de Vetering published a series of Amsterdam detective stories from the late 1970s through the 1990s. Having spent time in a Zen monastery (and written about it in a couple of memoirs), he wrote novels that were inflected with a wonderfully droll sense of Buddhism. Again, he features great characters and compelling mysteries. Though in his later works he moved his trio of detectives from their native Dutch soil to the States, and in those books they lose touch with the settings that energized the books, he’s still worth reading and enjoying.

He’s not well-known today and it’s hard to find his books anymore but in his day Ross McDonald was among the top writers working in the detective genre. He opened the American hard-boiled detective novel out to encompass social critique, and in his later books began to probe the psychoanalytic underpinnings of his mysteries. I inhaled his books, sometimes two a day. For anybody who hasn’t read him, he’s indispensable in learning how to move a story along.

There are so many others . . . the Scottish novelist William McIlvaney, the Swedish authors Hakan Nesser and Kjell Eriksson, the Norwegian Karin Fossum, the Irish writer Adian McKinty . . . email me if anybody wants to know more.

What themes do you regularly employ in your writing?

Both of my Martin Preuss novels (and the ones that will follow, including the third book that I’m writing now) are about the failure of love, the cascading consequences of greed and violence, and the cruelty and brutality we inflict on others consciously or unconsciously.

What motivates you to write?

First, I love to do it. Honestly, everything about writing is a total pleasure for me. I love to spin out a fictional world that invites readers in for an experience that engages them and leaves them changed and moved by the end of the book. I love building houses in what Fay Weldon calls “the City of Invention.” I love using language. I love the psychomotor activity of putting words on a page, either scrawled along laboriously with a pen or sped along on a keyboard. (I’m not wild about rejection, but that comes with the territory; you have to focus on the joys and not the agonies.)

Second, in a larger sense, all art for me is a way to celebrate the world. The visual arts are a way to celebrate the visual world, and music a way to celebrate the aural world. Writing is a way to celebrate the human world . . .  to touch people’s minds and hearts, and enlarge our sympathies about the joys, sorrows, and possibilities of being human.

And finally, Virginia Woolf said the artist doesn’t create, she “makes visible.” There are aspects of this world of ours that I would like to make visible, and crafting stories is my way to do that.

How did you develop the idea for your most recent work?

Like much of my writing, The Baker’s Men—the second Martin Preuss mystery—had its genesis in a single moment, kind of like an inspirational Big Bang. One afternoon several years ago I was driving down the street in Ferndale, Michigan, the city where I live just outside Detroit, which is also the setting of my mysteries. I saw a man half-walking, half-stumbling down the sidewalk with his hands on top of his head. He didn’t seem to be in distress, just sort of dazed. And I remember thinking to myself, “Now THAT’S the beginning of a novel.”

It was ripe with the kinds of questions we want our readers to ask: Who was he? What had happened to him? Where was he going? I kept that image in my mind until I had the time and space to be able to sit down and actually start the book. I knew I had to take the story someplace from there pretty quickly, so I went to my trusty folder of story ideas and interesting articles that I save (I’m always on the lookout for ideas for my books and poems). There I found the perfect way to continue.

I found an older article I had cut out from one of the local alternative newspapers several years before. The article described a crime that took place at a small family-owned bakery in Detroit. Two men were shot (one was killed) and a third man escaped. The murder was never solved. The article was actually about the devastation the bakery owners suffered in the aftermath of the crime, but the overall situation caught my imagination when I first came across it.

That situation became the inciting incident for the book that turned into The Baker’s Men. The man I had seen walking down the sidewalk morphed into the third man who escaped from the shooting at the bakery, which I now located in Ferndale. I changed most of the details about the crime (its location, the owners and their situation, the motive, and the victims) and repopulated it to suit my purposes. Then finally put my Detective Preuss on the case and it became his book.

But that’s not the only source for this novel. The other source was a tale my parents told me years ago something that happened to one of their friends. I can't say much more about it because I'll give away too much of the mystery that’s at the heart of the book . . . but like the article in the newspaper, I carried this story in my head for a long time (in this case more than twenty years) because I knew it would wind up in a novel someday. And it finally did, in The Baker’s Men.

What was the best piece of writing advice you ever received and why was it so valuable?

The best piece of advice on writing I ever read was from novelist John Gardner, who wrote this in On Becoming a Novelist:

Finally, the true novelist is the one who doesn’t quit. Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or ‘way,’ an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world. Its benefits are quasi-religious—a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfactions no non-novelist can understand—and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough.

That sentiment has seen me through some very difficult times in my writing life, including a period of almost ten years when, despairing of finding anything close to success as a novelist, I stopped writing fiction entirely. I was having no success in placing anything, and just got too discouraged to continue. I’m not sure it was writer’s block (which suggests you want to write but can’t) as much as having lost the little holy flame that keeps us going.

Finally I came to terms with what “success” means . . . it’s not fame and riches but knowing that you are doing the best, most honest work you can. It was only when I realized the thunderous truth of what Gardner was saying that I was able to understand that I needed to write, regardless of what happened to my work. Once I realized that, it freed me up and I was able once again to let my creative drive find an outlet in writing fiction.

What Gardner says is what artists in every field discover for themselves: the satisfactions are all in the work.

Here's a quick blurb for The Baker's Men:

Easter, 2009. The nation is still reeling from the previous year’s financial crisis. Ferndale Police detective Martin Preuss is spending a quiet evening with his young son Toby when he’s called out to investigate a savage after-hours shooting at a bakery in his suburban Detroit community. Was it a random burglary gone bad? A cold-blooded execution linked to Detroit’s drug trade? Most frightening of all, is there a terrorist connection with the Iraqi War vets who work at the store? Struggling with these questions, frustrated by the dizzying uncertainties of the crime, and hindered by the treachery of his own colleagues who scheme against him, Preuss enters a whirlwind of greed, violence, and revenge that spans generations across metropolitan Detroit.

Reviewers have called this book “riveting” and “gripping,” with “the emotional unraveling of a complicated crime with well-developed characters and background drama.”

For more information about Don and his books check out his website https://donaldlevin.wordpress.com/

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Sneaks and Subversives and Society Belles: An Interview with Karen Abbott

by Tina Whittle

Karen Abbott’s latest book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, weaves together the stories of four very different women—a socialite, a farm girl, an abolitionist, and a widow—who became spies during the Civil War, two working as operatives for the Confederacy and two for the Union. A meticulous research, she is a featured contributor to Smithsonian magazine’s history blog, Past Imperfect, and also writes for “Disunion,” the New York Times series about the Civil War.

She graciously agreed to share how she came to write what USA Today calls “sizzle history” and gives us a sneak preview of topics to come in her Savannah Book Festival presentation (Saturday, February 14th, at 2:50—3:50 at Trinity United Methodist Church in Telfair Square).

Tina Whittle: Your writings—including your latest book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy—focus on real women whose stories don’t show up in history texts. What drew you to their stories?

Karen Abbot: Obviously, history is mainly written about men, by men, and for men. And every time I’d read a historical account—of reform efforts, of the evolution of entertainment, of war, of anything—I’d immediately ask: what were the women doing? And not just any women—what were the “bad” women doing? The defiant, revolutionary women? In the case of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, I wanted to find four women who lied, seduced, wheedled, plundered, spied, drank, avenged, stole, and murdered their way through the American Civil War. Of course these women had no vote, no straightforward access to political discourse, no say in how the battles were waged, so I wanted to spotlight the ways they were able to change the course of the war—and, in the process, their own lives.

TW: And such fascinating lives they led! Two of them Union, two Confederate, all of them defying cultural expectations through their activities both on the battlefield and behind enemy lines. In a culture where the word “feminist” often provokes controversy, what can contemporary women learn from their nineteenth-century counterparts?

KA: I am loath to tell women—of any era—how they should be conducting themselves or how they should label themselves. But were it not for those incredibly brave and (for the time) radical 19th century feminists, women today would not have the luxury of debating the semantics of that word. One of my favorite anecdotes about Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew: every year, when she paid her property taxes, she included a note objecting to not having a vote. All four women in the book were well ahead of their time, in many respects.

TW: Yes, that was one of the first things that struck me as I read your book. Despite differences in the four women’s political beliefs and socioeconomic statuses, there was a skill each wielded as finely as any weapon—the ability to manipulate societal expectation.

KA: Absolutely! These women masterfully exploited society’s ideas and expectations of “womanhood.” War, like politics, was men’s work, and women were supposed to be among its victims, not its perpetrators. Women’s loyalty was assumed, regarded as a prime attribute of femininity itself. But after Confederate operative Rose Greenhow was captured, there arose a question—one that would persist throughout the war—of what to do with what one Lincoln official called “fashionable women spies.” Their gender provided them with both a psychological and physical disguise; while hiding behind social mores about women’s proper roles, they could hide evidence of their treason on their very person, tucked beneath hoop skirts or tied up in their hair. Women, it seemed, were capable not only of significant acts of treason, but of executing them more deftly than men.

TW: Your biography states that you are a native of Philadelphia who now lives in New York City. How did the Civil War South find its way onto your writerly radar?

KA: I spent six years in Atlanta, and was immediately struck by the way the Civil War seeps into daily life and conversation down there in a way it never does up North. It was quite a culture shock to see the occasional Confederate flag on a lawn, and to hear the jokes about the “War of Northern Aggression.” The point was really driven home one day when I was stuck in traffic on Route 400. For two hours I idled behind a pickup truck emblazoned with a bumper sticker: DON’T BLAME ME: I VOTED FOR JEFFERSON DAVIS. As soon as I got home, I began looking for Civil War heroines.

TW: It’s obvious to any reader that you do a lot of research—the endnotes to Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy are a novella-length work all their own (approximately sixty pages). How do you manage to find—and keep—the storyline amidst so many facts and statistics and competing narratives?

KA: My goal was to tell the story of the Civil War through the perspectives of these four women, and to tell it in a way it hadn’t been told before. It was important to me that the women’s stories all connect in some way, that there was a cause and effect, that one woman’s actions influenced another’s circumstances. So it was a challenge to map out all of these connections, especially since I’m sort of a technological Luddite; I’m sure there are programs to help writers keep track of such things, but I don’t own or operate any of them. Plus, I’m very tactile; I like to physically move the puzzle pieces around and see where they might fit. At one point, I printed out the entire book and spread it all over my apartment floor—a bit difficult when your apartment is only 600 square feet. I also am addicted to post-it notes and outlines; by the time my research is finished, I’ll have a 100-page outline of the book’s major events and the sources I’ll need to write them.

TW: Are you planning on doing research while you’re in Savannah, famously gifted to Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas present from General Sherman?

KA: I love Savannah—I used to visit fairly often when I lived in Atlanta—and I’m excited to get back there. I think I’ll have to do the “March to the Sea” walking tour. And also eat as much shrimp and grits as possible.

TW: Savannah is a great place for both eating and exploring the dark corners of history. The attraction of shrimp and grits needs no explanation. What is it about the notorious and nefarious that catches your scholarly interest?

KA: I’ve always been interested in “dark” subjects, all things hidden and mysterious. When I was a kid, maybe 13 or 14, I used to write stories about murderous, cross-dressing matrons and submit them (fruitlessly, of course) to Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock magazines. I’d blame at least part of this interest on my Catholic school education, which—at least in my experience—elevated subversive and taboo topics by refusing to discuss them. Of course I wanted to prod and poke and examine the things that were kept just out of reach.

TW: So now that you have three best-selling books on the historical nonfiction shelves, what’s next?

KA: My next project is a novel, based on a real-life Gilded Age con artist. The historical record is too insufficient for a work of nonfiction, so I’m trying my hand at fiction. It’s challenging me in different ways; now I actually have to call upon my imagination to invent, to put flesh on the historical bones. The one frustration about history is that dead people don’t always say or do what you want them to, and I’m looking forward to having more control over that.

TA: And we’re looking forward to that next book!

*          *          *
Karen Abbott is the New York Times bestselling author of Sin in the Second City, American Rose, and, most recently, Liar Temptress Soldier Spy, which was named one of the best books of 2014 by Library Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, Amazon, and Flavorwire, and optioned by Sony for a miniseries. She has written for the New York Times, the New York Times Book Review, the Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian magazine, Salon, and other publications. A native of Philadelphia, she now lives in New York City with her husband and two African Grey parrots, Poe and Dexter.

Tina Whittle is a crime fiction writer living and working in Southeast Georgia. Her Tai Randolph/Trey Seaver mysteries have garnered starred reviews in Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal. The fourth book in this Atlanta-based series—Deeper Than the Grave—was released in November from Poisoned Pen Press. You can read more about her and her work at www.tinawhittle.com.

[ This interview was originally published on the Savannah Book Festival Blog and the Low Country Sisters in Crime blog on 2/5/15. ]

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Kindle Scout and Me

Have you heard about the relatively new Kindle Scout program? If not, I’ll tell you about it in a minute. If so, I’ll tell you why I chose to try it.

But first, here’s how I came to my decision to try to qualify for this Amazon publishing venture and here is the link where you can nominate my book, Ant Farm.

The situation before Kindle Scout

The Seamus McCree series is published by Barking Rain Press (BRP), a small publisher. The books have generated positive reader reviews. The few professional reviews they have received have also been positive. But BRP does not have the resources for any kind of major publicity campaign. While I have done what I can to promote the books, one aspect I have not had any control over (nor would I in a traditional publishing contract) is the ability to aggressively price books to generate a larger reader base.

I have confidence that if I can get people to read a book in the series, they will want to read more about Seamus and friends and the scrapes they get into. If I were persistent and produced a book a year, by the time I had five or seven books in the series, I would have built a bigger following and the series might have traction. Was there a better way?

My electronic equivalent of the bottom drawer contained the first novel I wrote with Seamus McCree. I referred to it as my practice novel because, through its dozen drafts I learned how to write a mystery. It was good enough to garner an agent offer, but not strong enough to be published, and so six years ago, I put it aside. Last fall I reread it. Ant Farm had good bones, but needed major work to bring it up to my current standards. With effort, I could make it an excellent read.

If I self-published that reworked story, I could use it as a marketing device to help bring readers into the series. It could be a loss leader for the series. I could hook readers with Ant Farm and continue to provide good stories with Bad Policy, Cabin Fever, and Doubtful Relations (the manuscript I put aside to rework Ant Farm). Done correctly, I could build the Seamus McCree “franchise” more quickly.

After hemming and hawing at this change in plans from finishing Doubtful Relations first, I decided to tackle Ant Farm. I rewrote, re-edited, sent to beta readers, re-edited, proofread, and now it’s ready to go.

While I was revising, Amazon announced the Kindle Scout program. Briefly, it is a way for Amazon to get great content for their Kindle ebooks and Audible audio books based on reader nominations. An author submits a complete book in one of three genres, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Romance or Science Fiction/Fantasy.

Amazon staff reviews the submission, which includes a book cover, logline, blurb, author bio and some optional questions the author can answer. If they appear reasonable, within a couple of business days the book is listed and available for nomination. My direct link is https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/3IATL9SA04ZS2

Disadvantages of Kindle Scout Program

Extra preparation

Submitting to the Kindle Scout program cost me no money and only a bit of time to jump through their hoops.

Unlike traditional publishing where the publisher produces the book cover, for Scout I had to submit one. Since I had planned to self-publish anyway, I already had a cover prepared. However, I had to develop a logline with a maximum of 45 characters, a short blurb (max 500 characters), cram my author bio into another 500-character limit, and choose three questions to answer, each in 300 characters.

I can use the logline for promotion, and the other stuff didn’t take too much time, and I had no extra cost, so the process was not much of a burden.

Loss of Pricing Control

Recall that one of my reasons for independently publishing Ant Farm was to maintain pricing control so I could generate free and reduced price opportunities to introduce people to the Seamus McCree series. Amazon, as the publisher, controls all pricing decisions. They will decide if the book is $2.99 or $5.99 or whatever. They’ll decide whether to provide free days.

Loss of Timing Control

If selected, Amazon determines when the ebook version of Ant Farm will be published. Had I not gone this route, I could have had the ebook available currently. That possibly cost a bit of revenue, but not much.

Kindle only

If accepted, my ebook will be available only in the Kindle format sold by Amazon or loaned through their Prime and Kindle Unlimited programs. No Barnes and Noble, no Kobo, no Scribd or Oyster. Amazon generates about 75% of my ebook sales. That means hooking my wagon to their horse gives up 25% of that potential revenue if all things are equal.

But will they be equal? I don’t think so, which brings us to the advantages as I see them.

Advantages of Kindle Scout Program


The primary reason I wanted to independently publish Ant Farm was to generate more readers for the Seamus McCree series. I believe (no facts on which to judge as the program is too new) that Amazon will want the early books to succeed. As of this writing, the Kindle Scout program has selected eight books in November, eight in December, and so far only one in January [update: three now selected].

If they choose my book, it will be one of the first published, and I believe they will make sure those books will do well. They will promote the heck out of them, and they can do that much better than I, because they have the platform for it.


The Kindle Scout program pays a $1,500 advance for books they publish. That advance would cover the editing and book cover costs I’ve incurred. Whatever royalties I earn would be profit.

Free Publicity

Participating in the Kindle Scout program provides 30 days of free publicity for Ant Farm and by extension the entire series. Even if not selected, at the end of the 30-day period those people who nominate the book receive an email from me thanking them for their interest and inviting them to keep in touch with an email address and link to my website.

Plus, during the nomination process I will use social media to generate interest in Ant Farm’s participation in the program. If others retweet and share Facebook posts, it provides additional content for new people to learn of the series.

As the saying goes, “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” [Update: several people have told me they have purchased Bad Policy based on reading the selected chapters of Ant Farm.]

Exit Strategy

The initial contract with Kindle Scout is five years. However, if the ebook does not meet defined monetary goals, an author can cancel the contract in as few as two years. My contracts with Barking Rain Press have a three-year lock in. In reading Kindle Scout’s contract, it’s clear they intend the authors to be successful and if not, let them out of the program. So, if it is a bust, I can exit after two years, self-publish on all the platforms, and move on.

My conclusions

It comes down to giving up total control and ebook retailers to gain Amazon’s marketing power. Given my current level of sales, I think it provides a good risk/return tradeoff. Others may be in different places in their writing careers and could come to a different conclusion for them.
In case I haven’t been obvious. If you haven’t nominated Ant Farm yet, I hope you will. If you have, then thank you very much. I am offering extra praise for those who help publicize Ant Farm’s quest by letting others know.

It’s a good book, although I am a bit prejudiced.

~ Jim

[Update: This blog was originally published 2/1/15 on Writers Who Kill. As of this posting, Ant Farm has retained its "Hot" Label through the first seven days, thanks to all the people who have responded to my request to check the book out and nominate it if they like it. Thank you so much.]