Friday, June 12, 2015

What I Learned at the 2015 California Crime Writers Conference

Last week I attended the California Crime Writers Conference (CCWC), and wow did I learn a lot! For the last few years I've focused on attending mystery conventions where I get to meet readers, instead of the craft-of-writing conferences I attended while learning how to write a mystery novel. But CCWC was a fantastic reminder about how much all writers can continue to learn, no matter where we're at in our careers. Plus, it was fun!

The conference is a joint project between Sisters in Crime Los Angeles and SoCal Mystery Writers of America. It takes place every two years, and this was my first time attending. SinC LA president Diane Vallere and SoCal MWA president Craig Faustus Buck were the co-chairs. Their efforts, along with dozens of other volunteers, made it a fantastic weekend.

The first day of the conference included a signing for the new Sisters in Crime LA anthology, LAdies Night, published by Down & Out Books. All three editors and all but two of the contributing authors were in attendance!

It's a great lineup of authors (Julie G. Beers, Julie Brayton, Sarah M. Chen, Arthur Coburn, L.H. Dillman, Bengte Evenson, Cyndra Gernet, Andrew Jetarski, Micheal Kelly, Susan Kosar-Beery, Jude McGee, Gigi Pandian, Wendall Thomas) and editors (Naomi Hirahara, Kate Thornton, Jeri Westerson). My short story is "Tempest in a Teapot," an impossible crime mystery starring magician Tempest Mendez, a side character in the Jaya Jones treasure hunt mystery series.

LAdies Night authors and editors at the California Crime Writers Conference
(Thanks to Jackie Houchi for the group photo, and Anne Cleeland for the pic of me)


Next up, panels! So many great ones. The three that were the most eye-opening to me were a bookseller panel, a librarian panel, and panel where agents and editors reacted to opening pages. I jotted these tips in my notebook:

Bookstore Partners
  • The staff from Mysterious Galaxy had some advice I hadn't heard before: Don't do a reading at your event! Instead, tell personal stories about you and your book. People can read on their own, but they want to know what's special and interesting about you. (Readers, is this true??? I usually do both at an event.)
  • Want to do an event at a bookstore? Contact a bookstore three months in advance, ideally four. And to generate the most interest in your book, the month or so around your release date is really important -- though that buzz only applies to in-person events, not to a bookstore hand-selling your book, which can happen at any time. 
  • There's a thing called a White Box, containing Advance Reader Copies and other promotional materials, that American Bookseller Association members receive. 

Marketing Through Libraries

  • Ask your local library "What's your collection development policy?" to find out how books are added to their system. There's no one system that all libraries use to build their collections. 
  • Like bookstores, libraries like to have four months advance notice to schedule events. 
  • Many libraries have book clubs. 

Author Idol
A panel of agents and editors judged the brave souls who anonymously submitted the first pages of their unpublished manuscripts. The America Idol-style format wasn't for the thin skinned, but it was incredibly informative.

The first page of each manuscript was read aloud, and agents and editors raised their hands as soon as they would stop reading. The agents/editors then explained what it was that made them raise their hand -- sometimes it was as simple as the fact that it wasn't something they represented. (The lesson for unpublished writers: once you've polished your manuscript and are getting ready to submit it, do your homework to find out what an agent represents and a publisher buys.)

The exercise drove home the importance of the first page grabbing the reader on many levels. And yes, several of the first pages didn't receive any raised hands, meaning everyone wanted to read more.

Agents and editors on the "Author Idol" panel 

Keynote speakers Charlaine Harris and Anne Perry gave inspiring speeches, and also discussed Elmore Leonard's "10 Rules for Good Writing." They agreed with almost everything on his list, but like with everything in life, the real answer is, "it depends." I've always been a firm believer in knowing the rules before you break them.

Charlaine Harris and Anne Perry discussing Elmore Leonard's "10 Rules of Writing" (moderated by Craig Faustus Buck)

Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules for Good Writing

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said"…he admonished gravely.
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

And the most important rule is one that sums up the 10: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.


Outside of the official program, one of the best things about attending events like this is getting to catch up with people in the mystery world, plus make new connections. In addition to catching up with writer pals I rarely see, I met amazing new people, and got to see both of my editors! (If you enjoy my books, it's in large part thanks to them and the rest of my editorial team.) 

With my awesome editors: Terri Bischoff from Midnight Ink & Kendel Lynn from Henery Press

Lunch with Naomi Hirahara

I also ducked out of the conference hotel for an excursion to the Magic Castle. Though I write about several magician characters, I hadn't ever visited this famous magicians' playhouse. Thanks to mystery writer and magician Stephen Buehler for getting me in!

And thanks again to the team who pulled off such a great CCWC!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Now available: short story "Tempest in a Teapot" in the new Sisters in Crime LA anthology "LAdies Night"

Last week marked the official release of LAdies Night, the new Sisters in Crime Los Angeles chapter anthology. The book features my new short story "Tempest in a Teapot," an impossible crime mystery starring magician Tempest Mendez (one of Sanjay's magician pals who lives in LA).

Based on the type of mysteries I write, I was resigned to the fact that I'd never have a pulp-style book cover, even though I love that classic mystery graphic style. But now that I've begun writing short stories published in collections with other authors, I'm getting a much wider range of book covers. I'm so excited about this stunning cover from Down & Out Books!

LAdies Night anthology's AWESOME cover!

The release coincided with the California Crime Writers Conference, a joint project of Sisters in Crime Los Angeles and SoCal Mystery Writers of America. Nearly all of the contributors were in attendance, and all three editors were there.

Anthology editors Kate Thornton, Jeri Westerson, Naomi Hirahara.

At the LAdies Night signing. (Thanks to Anne Cleeland for the pic!)

We did a joint signing, and I had all the authors to sign my copy of the book. I can't wait to dive into reading all the stories!

Anthology contributors at the California Crime Writers Conference. (Photo courtesy of Jackie Houchin.)

Friday, June 5, 2015

Jaya Jones and The Hindi Houdini in Edinburgh

Last week I shared a recap and photos from my writing retreat in Edinburgh, where one of the highlights was revisiting the Edinburgh setting of "Fool's Gold," my novella prequel to Artifact. Jaya and Sanjay solve a mystery at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival that involves Scotland's famous Lewis Chessmen.

The novella was published in 2012 in Other People's Baggage, and this May was the first time I'd been back to Scotland since the mystery came out! So of course I had to stop by both the Edinburgh Fringe Festival office and the National Museum of Scotland where several of the chessmen are on display.

My Lewis Chessmen replicas, next to my book in which they appear.

Why are the Lewis Chessmen so intriguing? In addition to their origins remaining a mystery, the 12th century pieces themselves have so much personality, as can be seen in my photos below.

The Berserker biting is shield is one of my favorites!

When I was a kid spending the summer in Scotland with my mom while she did academic research, I got to attend the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the world's largest arts festival (also purportedly the world's largest street festival) that takes place each August.

Several years after I attended the festival, I performed in a theatrical production in Edinburgh during my junior year abroad. Since I doubted I'd ever again perform in Edinburgh, when I became a writer it occurred to me that I could send my characters there!

So I combined the Lewis Chessmen with the Ed Fringe Festival in the locked-room mystery novella "Fool's Gold."

All historian Jaya Jones wants is a relaxing vacation in Scotland before starting her first year teaching college. But when a world-famous chess set is stolen from a locked room during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Jaya and her magician best friend, The Hindi Houdini, must outwit actresses and alchemists to solve the baffling crime.

The novella is connected to Diane Vallere's "Midnight Ice" and Kendel Lynn's "Switch Back." Four years ago, Diane, Kendel, and I had the idea of collaborating on a project. The result was Other People's Baggage, a collection of interconnected mystery novellas featuring our mystery series characters. The premise: These are the stories of what happened after three women with a knack for solving mysteries each grabbed the wrong bag.

We're still friends after collaborating, so either we did something right, or nothing can tear us apart! And this year, the third books in each of our series came out.


“Midnight Ice” by Diane Vallere (A Mad for Mod Mystery Novella, the prequel to PILLOW STALK). The third Mad for Mod Mystery starring Madison Night, WITH VICS YOU GET EGGROLL, came out April 14, 2015.

“Switch Back” by Kendel Lynn (An Elliott Lisbon Mystery Novella, the prequel to BOARD STIFF). The third Elliott Lisbon mystery, SWAN DIVE, came out March 17, 2015.

“Fool’s Gold” by Gigi Pandian (A Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mystery Novella, the prequel to ARTIFACT). The third Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mystery, QUICKSAND, came out March 10, 2015.

Kendel Lynn, Diane Vallere, and Gigi Pandian in 2012 at Mystery Ink.

This weekend I get to see my Other People's Baggage collaborators Diane and Kendel at the California Crime Writers Conference June 6-7, 2015!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Edinburgh Writing Retreat to Celebrate my 40th Birthday

I'm home from Scotland, where I celebrated my 40th birthday with the writing retreat I envisioned nearly four years ago while going through chemo. (The story behind this trip can be found here.)

I've been pretty good at hanging onto my post-cancer seize-the-day mentality, so I rented an apartment in Edinburgh and invited my local writer's group to join me for a writing retreat vacation. Nearly half of them were able to make it! Rachael Herron, Lisa Hughey, Mysti Berry, and Emberly Nesbitt hopped on a flight to Edinburgh.

The Writing Retreat

I was so happy to discover that we were compatible travelers! We were all on the same page about writing all morning to meet daily writing goals before heading out for adventures exploring the city. I spent most of my writing time plotting a new mystery novel set in Edinburgh.

Mysti Berry, Gigi Pandian, Emberly Nesbitt,
Lisa Hughey, Rachael Herron

My favorite writing spot in the cozy kitchen of the Edinburgh apartment.

Writing at the Elephant House Cafe, where I used to study during my junior year abroad in Edinburgh, and where JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book

Visiting the Bedlam Theatre, where I performed on stage 20 years ago as a student


Exploring the City

A birthday meal at the Witchery by the Castle

Mysterious Edinburgh

Edinburgh was the perfect city for inspiration for the new mystery I'm writing with ghostly, Gothic overtones! These were a few of my favorite mysterious encounters. 

With how much I love puzzle plot mysteries filled with enigmatic clues, it's hard to believe I hadn't previously experienced a live action puzzle escape game. Dr. Knox's Enigma was the perfect introduction to one!

Mary King's Close is one of the tours that takes people underground to explore the centuries-old streets beneath Edinburgh's Old Town neighborhood. The modern day central city is built on top of the dark, narrow streets that once housed the city's poor. (A "close" is a narrow alley.)

Like with Dr. Knox's Enigma, in these underground tours the true mysterious history of Edinburgh is sprinkled with fanciful drama. Fact and fiction merge in ghost stories and with figures wearing the real-life beaked masks plague doctors used to wear to combat disease.

A "kirkyard" is a churchyard / graveyard. Greyfriars Kirkyard is famous for the story of Greyfriars Bobby, the terrier who is said to have spent more than a decade guarding his owner's grave, up until his own death. The faithful dog was then buried not far from his owner.

Getting out of town

Revisiting the Edinburgh Setting of "Fool's Gold," the novella prequel to Artifact

In 2012, I collaborated with mystery authors Diane Vallere and Kendel Lynn to write Other People's Baggage, a collection of interconnected mystery novellas featuring our mystery series characters (Jaya Jones for me, Madison Night/Mad for Mod for Diane, and Elliott Lisbon for Kendel). 
Baggage claim can be terminal. This is what happened after a computer glitch mislabeled identical vintage suitcases and three women with a knack for solving mysteries each grabbed the wrong bag.

The story I contributed to the collection was "Fool's Gold," which takes place in Edinburgh. It's set during the annual Ed Fringe Festival, the huge arts festival that takes place every August.

Fool's Gold

All historian Jaya Jones wants is a relaxing vacation in Scotland before starting her first year teaching college. But when a world-famous chess set is stolen from a locked room during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Jaya and her magician best friend, The Hindi Houdini, must outwit actresses and alchemists to solve the baffling crime.

Lest this highlights post get taken over by the fascinating histories of the Lewis Chessmen and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I'll do a more detailed post on my "Fool's Gold" inspirations next week!

I'll end with one of my favorite images from the trip

Now I need to come up with an excuse to do this again! 

Monday, May 4, 2015

Malice Domestic 2015: Highlights and Photos

The 27th annual Malice Domestic mystery convention wrapped up yesterday. I attended the traditional mystery convention as both a mystery fan and an author, so between being a fan-girl and putting on my professional writer hat, the three-day event was a bit of a whirlwind.

I'm at the airport, drinking plenty of coffee and green juice to recover from the long weekend, so it's time to share a recap and photos:

Welcome to Malice Domestic
Upon our arrival, this mysterious projection was waiting for us.

Malice Go Round

The first full day of the convention began with an introduction to Malice for first-time attendees, an informational session for people interested in volunteering, and then Malice Go Round: Like Speed Dating, But With Authors. 

There were 20 tables with eight readers and two empty seats; authors paired up and visited each table and gave a 2-minute pitch about their books. I passed out postcards of Quicksand and The Accidental Alchemist out of a magician's hat, since stage magicians are a common element between my two series. (Sorry, I was on California time, so I didn't think to take any photos of the event!)

Welcome Reception

This year marks Midnight Ink's 10th anniversary, so they hosted the welcome reception with a special cake and books by all of their authors. 
Midnight Ink authors at Malice.

Sisters in Crime

Malice Domestic and Sisters in Crime are probably the two most important groups that brought me into the mystery fold. I love connecting with my Sisters at Malice, and at a convention of several hundred, the SinC breakfast is one of the best ways to see everyone.

Don't worry, SinC President Catrina McPherson is left-handed, so a broken arm can't slow her down.
SinC President Catriona McPherson and
Vice President Leslie Budewitz at the SinC breakfast.

The Sisters in Crime Dorothy Cannell Guppy Scholarship was given out at the breakfast. The yearly scholarship that pays $1,000 for a SinC Guppy to attend Malice Domestic is being offered by agent Meg Ruley to honor her long-time client.
Dorothy Cannell and Leslie Budewitz presenting the first
Guppy scholarship to attend Malice Domestic.
Also announced at the breakfast was the exciting news that the Eleanor Taylor Bland Crime Fiction Writers of Color Award, originally planned as a one-time grant for an emerging writer of color, will continue!

Frankie Bailey and I were involved in the inaugural grant committee last year, when Maria Kelson was awarded the first grant. Her work in progress is terrific.
Frankie Bailey and Gigi Pandian.

Ellen Byron, Gigi Pandian, Diane Vallere, Kendel Flaum.
(Kendel is my editor at Henery Press - if you're enjoying QUICKSAND,
the third Jaya Jones treasure hunt mystery, she's the one who saved it!)
Wondering about the boas? It was thought up a few years ago as a way for SinC Guppies to easily find each other at the large Sisters in Crime breakfast.
The Guppies gathering for a photo at the end of the Sisters in Crime breakfast.

The Sisters in Crime Guppy chapter meets for lunch every year, and it's a great opportunity to put faces to names we know online, in a smaller setting.
SinC Guppies gathering at Booeymongers for lunch.

Attending Panels

The Golden Age of Detection Panel

This was one of my favorite panels. I love Golden Age mysteries, plus check out the lineup of panelists! Mystery scholar Doug Greene moderating, with Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine reviewer Steve Steinbock, author and scholar Martin Edwards, and fiction and non-fiction writer (and Sherlock Holmes expert) Daniel Stashower. I'm tempted to do a recap of the entertaining and informative panel here, but I'd ramble far too long, so I'll post panel notes separately at a later date.

Steve Steinbock, Doug Greene, Martin Edwards, Dan Stashower.
I'm looking forward to reading this new book by Martin Edwards on the Golden Age of mystery fiction that's out this very week.

Academic Mysteries Panel
Susan Van Kirk, Lori Rader-Day, Debra Goldstein, Triss Stein, Neil Plakcy.

Best Short Story Agatha-Nominated Authors Panel
Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine editor Linda Landrigan (moderating),
Kathy Lynn Emerson, Barb Goffman, Edith Maxwell, Art Taylor.

My Sleuthing Duos Panel
Meeting for coffee to plan our panel.
Tracy Kiely, Gigi Pandian, Ritter Ames, Hannah Dennison, Wendy Tyson.
I hadn't met fellow panelist Ritter Ames before, and I was happy to learn about her Elizabeth Peters-inspired series. (My to-be-read pile of books grew exponentially this weekend...)

Stepping outside of the hotel to recharge

Green juice run with some of the Midnight Ink crew. 
Tracy Weber, Linda Joffe Hull,
Terri Bischoff (my fabulous Midnight Ink editor), Catriona McPherson.

Tulips were in bloom all around the hotel.

The Banquet

Pal Cynthia Kuhn (top row center) was awarded one of this year's William F. Deeck-Malice Domestic Grants for unpublished traditional mystery writers!
Past and present grant-winners with committee chair
Harriette Sackler (top left).

The Agatha Award Winners

My local Sisters in Crime chapter had not one but TWO
Agatha winners: Rhys Bowen and Penny Warner
(seen here with Parnell Hall - thanks to Penny for the pic)
Best Contemporary Novel: Truth Be Told by Hank Phillippi Ryan

Best Historical Novel: Queen of Hearts by Rhys Bowen

Best First Novel: Well Read, Then Dead by Terrie Farley Moran

Best Nonfiction: Writes of Passage: Adventures on the Writer's Journey by Hank Phillippi Ryan (ed)
(This is a book full of essays by members of Sisters in Crime.)

Best Short Story: "The Odds are Against Us" by Art Taylor

Best Children's/Young Adult: The Code Buster's Club, Case #4, The Mummy's Curse by Penny Warner

Sara Peretsky was given the Lifetime Achievement Award this year. Caroline and Charles Todd were the guests of honor, and Ann Cleeves was the International guest of honor.

Closing Ceremonies Tea
Cindy Brown and Gigi Pandian before the closing tea.
There were many hats to be found at the tea. It used to be more of a tradition, and there's a mini movement to bring it back. (I don't yet have a photo of the Henery Press authors with their hats, but I'll add it when I get a copy.) 

Poirot and Miss Marple were on hand at the tea, just in case anything untoward were to have occurred.
Poirot and Miss Marple.

And now it's nearly time for my flight to Edinburgh, Scotland, where I'm doing a week-long writers retreat with my local writers group to celebrate my 40th birthday. This was an idea I had while going through cancer treatments four years ago, and I can't quite believe it became a reality. But on the heels of Malice Domestic, it's perfect timing. As I type up this recap, I'm reminded again of how inspiring it is to connect with other mystery fans and writers. I'm going to take that inspiration with me to Scotland.