Apr 212014

Jeff Cohen

The following is a true story, but it is also an allegory. (Classy, huh?)

Not long after my wife and I were married and the dinosaurs died off, we bought a house in which we no longer live. (Right away, allegorical, no?) It was the first house I'd ever owned, and the first one in which I even considered the idea of renovation. 

The front room was nice, but small, and it would have opened to the dining room, which had clearly been added on to one side. Except there was a problem: There was no entrance to the dining room through the front. You had to walk back into the kitchen to get in. The wall on the dining room side had a built-in shelf which could barely hold much of anything and was almost entirely decorative. Nice, but not useful.

Hang in there, writing fans. I'm going to tell you a serious truth in a little bit.

To make a long story... just as long as it would have been otherwise, we decided to create a door by taking out the not-so-useful shelf and then cutting a door into the wall. But I'd never done any actual renovation before, so I called in my expert, who happens to be my closest friend, a guy who actually knows how these things work, and as a bonus, is six-foot-two and strong. The kind of person you want around for home improvement as opposed to, say, me.

I was, to put it lightly, tentative about the idea. Not that I didn't want the doorway, but I wasn't sure about my own ability, and after all, was about to cut a great big hole in a wall in my house.

But my friend, who asks to remain nameless (which makes it difficult when you want to call him), assessed the situation for about ten seconds. "You want to get rid of the shelf and make a doorway, right?" he asked. Jessica and I agreed that he had the basics of the situation down, okay.

"You sure?" he asked.

I nodded.

"Okay." He balled up his fist and punched the dining room wall right behind the shelf. A hole appeared, and the shelf fell out on the other side. I was glad we hadn't put anything on the shelf. "That's the first step," he said.

See, that's the biggest secret of writing, or for that matter anything else you're nervous about doing. You just have to have the nerve to do it. And once you do, you'll see that the process itself isn't all that mysterious or scary. It's something you learn to do well by doing it.

Does it help to know about drywall and how far apart wooden studs are, and what is a weight-bearing wall? Of course it does. Studying ahead is helpful, but it doesn't always take the fear out of the task. The only thing that removes them effectively is taking the plunge and doing it.

So if you're wondering what special process you need to employ, what music to put on, what foods to eat, what typeface to use (Times New Roman or Courier), what type of thesaurus to consult, just relax. You'll figure that out before you go.

The first step is the tricky one. Just ball up your fist and hit that wall. The worst thing that can happen? You break your knuckles.

Maybe you should use a hammer, now that I think about it.

Apr 132014

You guys! Some thieves tried to steal a pair of ruby slipper replicas from a Staten Island hotel! The best part is, there were three of 'em, a woman and two men, so it's almost as if Dorothy, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow were to blame (I'm figuring the Cowardly Lion would have been too cowardly to participate.) Mystery writers, wouldn't this make a great heist story, with a few modifications? Someone please write that novel. Thank you. And thank you, Jezebel, for calling my attention to this theft.

Apr 072014

Jeff Cohen

It's been one of those weeks where my mind has been elsewhere, but don't worry: I won't bore you with the reasons. Suffice it to say life has thrown us one of its hilarious curves, and we're coping. It'll be fine.

So when it came time to post, I sat for a while trying to focus and not necessarily bringing my "A" game. When something like that happens, I usually ask myself a few questions, and that tends to lead to the hint of an idea. Most of the time.

This week's question: What can I offer our readers that they can't get everywhere else? The answer was fairly depressing (not much), but after some reflection, it occurred to me that I've often been asked how one can write things that are funny. So I thought I'd offer a few pointers, in the form of rules. This is done because rules can be presented in a fashion that requires fewer words while taking up more space, creating the illusion of value-added content. 

There are times I think I should have gone into marketing. Then I try to think of how to market my books more effectively and realize maybe it wasn't my calling after all.

Rules for Writing Funny

  • If you're not a funny person, save us all the suffering and don't try to write funny. I will compensate you by not trying to write serious.
  • Consider what is the accepted, conventional way to write your scene--and then do the opposite.
  • The same with characters. Avoid the cliche. Do the unexpected. Write a surly, threatening florist. A singing dentist. A hit man with a Ph.D.
  • Let your character have a sense of humor. People who don't get the joke are useful, but as secondary characters, not carrying the show.
  • Try to think like a Borscht Belt comedian. This doesn't help, but it's a fun exercise.
  • Never think about things that made you laugh. For one thing, they've already been done. For another, you don't want to use someone else's idea, even if it's not a conscious effort. Not only is that bad legally, but your readers will no doubt notice as well.
  • Pay attention while writing dialogue. If a character says something that could be cliched or familiar, you have the potential to make fun of the situation even while advancing the plot.
  • Don't write "wacky" situations because you're sure they'll be hilarious. They won't. They'll just remind your readers that the story they're reading is supposed to be funny, and they'll wonder why they're not laughing. Uh-oh...
  • Know when not to write something funny. Death is, generally speaking, not a riot. Injecting what passes for humor into a murder scene blunts the emotion. Let it play out, and make fun of the aftermath.
  • Don't censor yourself. I'm not talking about "bad" language; I'm saying the best comedy ideas come subconsciously. Let them happen and don't fret over each word. This is just a first draft.
  • By the way, there is no such thing as "bad language."
  • Don't create stereotypical or exaggerated characters without noting that they are those things. Otherwise, the reader will wonder why nobody's saying anything about that ridiculous personality in the scene.
  • Comedy is not possible without pain. Don't try to make everything sunny and light. You'll lose your edge. 
  • On the other hand, if nothing but tragedy is visited upon your reader, making him/her laugh is a pretty tough job. They call it "comic relief" for a reason, and it doesn't mean, "reading a graphic novel to make your headache go away."
  • Listen to the dialogue in great comedies of any medium. Don't try to copy them, but take note of what works and what doesn't.
  • It helps if you're a little crazy.

That's it for this week, kids. Go ahead and try these suggestions. If you write the world's most hilarious book and become a massive bestseller... I'll probably be jealous. I'm just letting you know in advance.

Mar 312014

Jeff Cohen

You can observe a lot by watching--Yogi Berra

Dear People Who Are Not Writers:

Writers are not better than you. We are not special. We are not chosen. We are not in some way set apart from the vast multitudes. Writing is not a super power. It is a skill and a craft, like carpentry or shoemaking or making a good omelet.

What good writers do different from most in that we might pay more attention. We are observers, because we are storing away experiences outside of our own that we might be able to tap into when we need them.

And that is why I like to watch people do things, especially things that I'm not good at doing.

I once saw (and wish I could find again) an online video, without narration, of a luthier making a custom acoustic guitar. Choosing the right wood, carving it into the proper shape, finishing it with the right stain and the right sealer, inserting the pegs and notching the strings. It was a wonderful video that gave me a feeling of great respect. I've never used what I learned in a book, but that doesn't mean I won't.

Lately, due to a series of circumstances begun by a squirrel, I have had men in my house building a staircase, and now one of them is finishing the cosmetic touches on it, staining and polishing the stairs themselves, painting the risers and the walls. He looks at me funny sometimes, because every once in a while as he works, he'll look up to see me watching with great interest. 

He'll go into great detail about why he's doing things that way, seeming almost apologetic about it, as if I'm accusing him of taking too long or charging too much. I'm not. I'm watching how something gets done that I don't know how to do.

My wife gives me a similar look every now and again because I'll sit at the kitchen table and watch her cook. She'll stop and look. "Yes?" she'll ask. I just like watching her cook. I like watching her do most things, but in this case I find cooking to be something of a mystery, and she doesn't, so I spy on her when she's practicing the craft. 

It's not simply that I might want to use the knowledge in a future story; I have an honest curiosity about process. I'll watch documentaries about how certain films or albums were made because I admire the work and want to know how it was accomplished.

We should all have great respect for those who can do things we can't do. I look at waitresses who can balance six heaping plates of food on one arm and deliver them gracefully and I am impressed. I see piano tuners who can quickly and accurately predict D# by ear and I applaud. I go to concerts and watch the bass player for a while because nobody else is, and I wonder how he manages to create melodic lines from an instrument that is supposed to be kept in the background.

So if you're at work someday and you see a short, overweight bearded man watching you with what seems like undue fascination, don't call a cop, particularly if he resembles the photo to the right of the guy with the guitar. I'm not a stalker or a depraved sex fiend (I'm pretty sure). 

I'm just a writer; that's all.


Don't come looking for me tomorrow night. It'll be the first game of the season for my New York Yankees, and that is as close as I ever get to a religious holiday. The phone will not be answered.

Mar 282014
Who would be your dream mash-up? (For instance, Sherlock Holmes thrown together with Stephanie Plum.)

By Paul D. Marks

(I think I understood this week's question a little differently. I thought mashing it up was teaming two detectives together, rather than merging them into one. So, on that basis, here goes.)

In this corner we have Kathy Mallory, Carol O'Connell's tough as her long, red fingernails, NYC police detective. And in this corner, we have Mickey Spillane's violent and brutal PI Mike Hammer. What a team.

If you're a bad guy you better watch out if these two are coming at you.

Hammer has frequently been labeled a psychopath and Mallory has been called a sociopath...by her own author, Ms. O'Connell. These two would be the solve it or kill 'em Dream Team. And any bad guy's worst nightmare as they tag-teamed them into submission.

Not only would Mallory and Hammer hammer on the bad guys, they would probably hammer on each other. And given each one's characteristics, I'm not sure who would come out on top.

Mike Hammer and Kathy Mallory – old school, brutal misanthrope vs. cold analytical not-give-a-damn-and-want-to-do-things-her-way-or-the-highway NYPD detective. Hammer is reminiscent of Dirty Harry (or vice versa as Hammer came first). Of course, now that I think about it so is Mallory. Mallory is sort of like a cat going after a mouse. She is beautiful to look at but cold and ruthless, without any remorse. Efficient and cool in pursuing her prey. She's relentless, a computer expert, who digs in deep and finds things no one else finds, sees things no one else sees, robotic in her efficiency. Somewhat emotionless, though one gets the idea that there are emotions she won't always admit to going on under the surface.

And Hammer makes Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade and most other classic detectives look like kids playing cops and robbers in a playpen. For Hammer, the law is just an obstacle standing in the way of justice – or at least justice as he sees it – and one that can be gotten around by pretty much any means necessary. The end justifies the means. He has his own code and he will enforce that code, since the actual statutes and codes often let the badguys off. He doesn't give a damn about little things like laws, Miranda Warnings and other niceties. All in all you might say – and this is being kind and gentle – that Hammer is a thuggish, sexist, sadist, misanthrope. But probably a fun guy to have a beer with...

If Raymond Chandler thought of Marlowe and other detectives as modern knights errant, Spillane's Hammer is the tarnished knight, maybe the Black Knight, but he's no Darth Vader. He hasn't gone over to the dark side – he just uses dark side methods to help those who can't help themselves or who society is slow to help, if at all, find some semblance of justice.

Some readers have asked for a kinder, gentler Mallory. And the badguys would certainly like that. But O'Connell states in a Publishers Weekly interview: "PW: "Mallory’s drive remains as intense as ever, and she’s still lacking in warmth." Carol O'Connell: "Sometimes readers ask for a kinder, gentler Mallory. I explain that if I do that, I’ve got no book. These are character-driven novels, and I like the way the lady drives. In that respect, she has a vehicular-homicide way about her: always a challenge to go through a red light before it can turn green. I suppose I could try to warm up her image by giving her a dog, but the dog would be frightened all the time."

And if the question of a kinder, gentler Hammer was ever posed to Mickey Spillane I'm sure he would have thrown his drink in the questioner's face and laughed him out of the bar.

Some men, the good, the bad or the ugly, would be intimidated by Mallory. I don't think Hammer would. On the other hand, I don't think she would be intimidated by him. Wonder if they'd even find a little romance, if Hammer could tear himself away from Velda and Mallory could act human for a change.

The question I'm left with is would Mallory and Hammer beat the bad guy to a pulp or each other? Now that's a mash-up.

And I'd like to congratulate Catriona for winning The Bruce Alexander Memorial Historical Mystery Award for Best historical mystery novel at Left Coast Crime last weekend for "Dandy Gilver and a Bothersome Number of Corpses." She gave a terrific and very moving and touching acceptance speech.


Had a great time at Left Coast Crime last weekend. The conference was fun and interesting. Met lots of new people and reconnected with old acquaintances. And Monterey and the drive up and back is nothing short of stunning.

Mar 252014

Josh Getzler


Recently, Danielle and I were discussing a number of queries we had received where the setup and buildup were outstanding, the manuscript was rolling along, we were wondering “hmm, I wonder how this will play out,” and then…

BANG—Conspiracy of Templars!

BANG—The evil bully is actually an alien!!

BANG—The GOVERNMENT is out to get the 12 year old!

(No, this is not about any specific query, but a type. If you think this is about YOUR query, read on, then revise!)

OK, so here’s the thing: If you are writing a big international thriller, a YA adventure with Save-the-world written all over it, or epic fantasy, then fine. Go ahead with the Uncle Who’s Really a Triple Agent from the 28th Century.

But the books we were reading where this was happening were smaller in scope; mysteries and domestic dramas and YA novels that were, in some fundamental ways, cozier than that. It’s not necessary for a kid to find enough nitroglycerine to destroy the world three times over in the neighbor’s garage; he can find a stash of porn or a couple of kilos of coke. The bad apple down the block could have issues smaller than being three light years from the planet Xenon.

My point is pretty basic. Most novels have a built-in scope, where the reader is nodding along and where the suspension of disbelief is reasonable. When a writer, for reasons of ambition or because it seems cool, or in order to work out a tricky plot point, goes beyond scope, it is jarring. Eyes roll. We ask “Why????” We don’t want to read further, or we ask the author to walk it back.

Sometimes the writer will make a reasonable point: “We always hear that books need to be BIG in order to ‘make an impact in the market,’ and that’s what I was trying to do.” OK, fair enough. But almost all the time, the issue is far less about the true Bigness of the story and more about trying to compensate for a plot deficit.

And also understand, I’m not saying don’t be ambitious. I don’t want only tidy dramas in small towns or, you know, Good Expectations. But when you are thinking “OK, what if the dog can fly?” PLEASE be sure that you set it up that the spaniel drank a whole mess of magical non-poisonous jet fuel for dinner. 

Mar 242014

Jeff Cohen

Cathy Genna, the business development manager at CathyBarnes & Noble in East Brunswick, NJ, throws amazing author events, and I can state that from personal experience. Having been her guest more than once, I know Cathy as someone who not only loves books but actually reads them, and who really enjoys the company of authors. It's always a pleasure to see her go to work at an in-store event. I'm excited to go because I know she'll see to it that there are no empty chairs, and she'll have some surprises along the way. 

So when she was incapacitated at the beginning of this year by a bad fall that laid her up in a cast for weeks, I decided to ask Cathy a few questions about what makes a great book event. All those interested in such things (and I feel obligated her to point out that Marilyn does wonderful events at Moonstone, too!) should take some hints: 

1. You are a wizard at drawing a crowd for an author event. What’s the secret?

I strive to shape events that excite readers. My success is I truly love to read,  I love the stories and their writers, so my customers/readers can hear and see my enthusiasm is genuine. 

2. What should authors do to be ready for a talk/signing?

Authors need to be ready to engage the readers, make the event festive.  People in general like to feel good, smile and laugh. 

Books are like going on vacation, so when an author comes with a smile on their face you already have made a friend and honestly a loyal reader to come. 

The reader wants to know more about the writer, their characters and also who you are, what makes you tick kind of. Meaning; think about and bring with you something the reader does not know about you already. No matter how small. Like your favorite flavor of ice cream...really anything. It makes that author event unique and special.  Believe me, the reader does not forget and they now have bonded with you. 

3. Is it better to have a theme (a topic) for the event, or just to meet the readers?

Themes are fun but not necessary. I've found the most important is that authors who come together for an event should be able to feed off each other, that in turns amps up a  relaxed atmosphere. The shyest of readers will be comfortable and will interact with you all as well. 

4. How do you feel about readings?

As long as you can convey enthusiasm and the part you read is enticing, then it's a win.  

5. Is it helpful to have multiple authors at one event, or do you prefer to focus on one at a time?

Multiple author events are my most successful hands down. The readers do purchase more than one author's books, usually one from each.  I've found that multiple author events are the most successful.  The more the merrier: It automatically creates a party feeling of sheer FUN.  The crowd also multiplies! 

The best part is the authors get new readers and they are very loyal. My customers are proof of that. They return with their monthly list and you are on it!

6. How do events differ (if they do) by genre? Are romance author events different from mystery author events?

Book author events do not differ by genre in my Photoopinion. The basic elements are the same. 

7. What do you read for pleasure?

I just love to read!  I read all sub genres of romance, I love cozy mysteries and fiction too. 

Life is not easy at times. I read for the pleasure, to smile, laugh, I like a good plot with twists and ones with a happy ending.  When I read a story I become part of the town you the author created. I am a friend to your characters and genuinely enjoy every book to its fullest. 

8. Is it more difficult to draw people to a bookstore now in the age of e-readers?

Unfortunately yes.   

9. Without mentioning names, what are some of the best and worst author visits you’ve organized, and why?

The purpose of a booksigning is to  put the author's face and name in front of the reader.  The best authors visits are when an author is assertive,  comes dressed casually but looks professional and isn't preoccupied with anything at or on the table- this makes an author approachable to the reader. 

A "successful" booksigning is when an author shows up, their books are there, and I sell one book or a 100 books. 

The worst starts with an author who does not want to be at the event.....

10. How important are the snacks?

Very, snacks bring comfort and life to an event.  

Mar 192014

Josh Getzler

As I wandered past the ever-diligent Danielle's desk this afternoon, I saw her lean back and shake her head.

"This is impossible," she said. "I know I need to stop asking for partials, but I don't want to miss any, and I could read for a month and never catch up."

Danielle's issue is a common one in the literary agent's world, and reflects one of the real conundra in trying to evaluate manuscripts. You NEVER want to miss a Great One, and so the temptation is that every time you come across a query with potential, you want to ask to read more. The problem is that, well, you then need to find the time to go through these partials.

It's a problem because these are neither the M and Ms of initial queries, where we read a handful at a time; nor are they the meals of full manuscripts, where we invest a great deal of time and energy to satisfy ourselves. So they end up in the queue, like the large slices of pie in a diner's rotating display, where we really want to eat them, but where they are too big for a snack and too small for a meal. But we know, in our hearts, that they can be delicious.

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