How I Write

My next DIAGNOSIS MURDER is due in March. I have the broad strokes of the story…. but that’s it. The broad strokes. The equivalent of  book jacket copy. I’ve still got to come up with the actual story.  I’ve
been able to procrastinate by doing research on the period, which has given me some plot ideas, but I’ve still got to figure out the  murders, the clues, the characters and, oh yes, the story.

This  is the hardest part of writing… the sitting around, staring into space, and thinking. This is writing, even if you aren’t physically writing.  A lot of non-writers have a hard time understanding this. Yes, just
sitting in a chair doing nothing is writing. A crucial part, in fact.
It can be hell,  especially when you are on as short a deadline as I am.  Everyone has their own method… this is mine:

Want to find out more? Check out my article at The Mystery Morgue.


Veteran novelist & ghost-writer James Reasoner weighs in on the Michael Gruber debate and, as it happens, has a point-of-view that I share…

I don’t know the details of the
contract(s) between Gruber and Tanenbaum, but if Gruber agreed that he
wouldn’t reveal he was writing the books, then he shouldn’t have
revealed it. I understand the frustration he must have felt — I once
ghosted a book that got glowing blurbs from big-name folks who never
would have blurbed a book with my name on it — but a deal’s a deal.

He also talks about the unspoken rules about writing series novels under the publisher’s "house names."

Of course there are varying
degrees of secrecy on these things. Some of my house-name Western
contracts say that I can’t publicly claim authorship but that I can use
the books as professional credits within the industry.

I’m sure it’s common knowledge in publishing circles that folks like Margaret Truman and William Shatner, for example, don’t write their own books and that editors are well aware of who really does do the work… but I doubt most readers know when, or if, they are reading ghosted books. I’m sure there are readers out there who think Don Pendleton writes all those EXECUTIONER novels…

Speaking of James Reasoner, mystery fan Aldo Calcagno raves aboutthe author today on Ed Gorman’s blog.

Reasoner may be one of the most underrated writers
around today. TEXAS WIND is a classic, but how many people have had the
opportunity to read it (Thankfully PointBlank has republished the book).


Screenwriter John August  discusses the perils of exposition on his terrific screenwriting blog.

Always ask yourself: Would the character actually say this, or is he
only saying it because you need the audience to know some fact or
detail? If the answer is the latter, you’re writing exposition and not

That’s not good.

The  advice he gives applies as much to writing novels as it does to writing scripts.

Wherever possible:

  1. Show the information, rather than having a character say it.
  2. Try to follow a natural line of thought:  A to B to C. 
  3. Simplify.  The reader may not need to know everything.
  4. Keep your hero active in learning the information, rather than passively listening.
  5. Balance natural speech patterns with efficiency.  People rarely say things as concisely as they could.

Avoiding exposition is hard, especially in plot-dependent stories.
But it’s one of the first things a reader notices, so spend the time to
deal with it.

Blog for Buzz?

Author Dave Zeltserman has started a blog. Why?

Several reasons. One to be quite candid, to try to
create some buzz for my books. One of them has the potential of being
big. The editors looking at it now are calling it a high concept book.
A crime novel centering around outsourcing. Hasn’t been done before –
at least not that I know of. More about Outsourced in future posts.

When I started this blog, I certainly didn’t do it because I thought it would get me buzz…or more readers or viewers, though I certainly mention my books and TV shows a lot. Then again, writing books and TV shows is what I do, and is very much a part of who I am, so it would be hard for me to have a blog without talking about those things

So why did I start a blog? I did it because….hell, I don’t know. Probably for the same reasons I have a website with a discussion board and why, for many years, I ran a BBS for screenwriters from a computer in my garage.  I guess I like to yak and gossip and rant and pontificate about things that interest me. I like to publish. I like to broadcast.

It runs in my family, that’s for sure.

My Mom had a weekly newspaper column for years, wrote a non-fiction book, and has a blog now.

My brother Tod, an acclaimed literary novelist, has a weekly newspaper column and a website.

My  sisters Karen and Linda have individual websites, a shared website and a shared blog... and in November, their first book is coming out.

My father Alan was TV anchorman, my Uncle Burl was a DJ (and is now a bestselling author of true crime novels)…so the media is in our blood. And what is a blog, if not another form of print & broadcast media?

Do you think blogs actually create buzz for an author? Has it created buzz for me? Will it create buzz for Dave? Let me know.

Writing Sex Scenes

Author Laurell Hamilton talks on her blog about the difficulties of writing sex scenes when you just aren’t in the mood.

I’m supposed to do a sex scene today. Usually it’s not a problem, but today was one of those rare days when I’m just not in the mood…

Most of the time the biggest problem with writing a sex scene for me is the fact that with real sex you have the actually sensations, the immediacy of your own bodies reactions. In a book you have only words, black and white, only words to try and convey so many amazing experiences. Words seem so inadequate for it sometimes. But on one of the rare days when I get up and sex just isn’t the first thing on my mind, then a sex scene becomes a different kind of challenge. How do you get in the mood when you aren’t? How do you capture that mind set when what you’re doing in real life is refinacing your house, or walking the dog. How do you stay in the mood when the mundane world is so busy you aren’t even thinking about your own sex life let alone a fictional character’s love life?

When she lived alone with just one small dog she had an unconventional solution to breaking that particular form of writer’s block.

I put on lingere, lit candles around the computer, and tried to treat it almost like a romantic evening with a real person. It actuallly did help. There’s something about slipping on the thigh highs and black satin and lace, with some unhealthy but kick-ass shoes, that just does it for me.

Oddly enough, that’s exactly how I dress when I write DIAGNOSIS MURDER.

I haven’t had to write a sex scene in some time, but when I do, I don’t try to be slick about it, or make an effort to get my readers excited. I try to make it real in the context of everyday life, not RED SHOES DIARY.

In the first draft of my first book, .357 VIGILANTE, my hero was impotent, unable to get it up because of all the violence in his life. When I turned the manuscript in to my editor, he was shocked.

"The hero can’t be impotent," he cried. "This is a men’s action adventure novel. Not only does he have sex, he has GREAT sex!"

So I rewrote the sex scenes. I made them utterly ridiculous. They defied logic. They defied gravity. All the hero had to do was glance at a woman and she’d collapse into multiple orgasms.  A few days after I turned the manuscript in, I got a call from my editor.

"I read the sex scenes," he said.

I figured what he was going to say next was that the book was rejected and my contract for two more was canceled. I was wrong.

"Not only were they hot," he said, " they were real."

I was relieved…and deeply depressed. If those scenes were real, than my love life was pathetic. Or, at least, more pathetic than I already thought it was.

The last time I wrote a sex scene for a book was for my novel THE MAN WITH THE IRON-ON BADGE, which is coming out next fall. The sex is urgent, sloppy, awkward, and funny. Not the least bit erotic but, I hope, real.  Here’s a snippet from it:

I’m afraid the surprise and excitement were too much, because I came in about three minutes. But I don’t think Carol minded, it calmed me down and allowed me to concentrate real hard on getting her off. And believe me, it took my complete attention. Pleasing a woman, especially Carol, isn’t easy and with me, at least, there’s a lot of potential for embarrassment and humiliation…

If you’re a writer, what is your approach to writing sex scenes… and if you’re a reader, how do you feel about reading them?

Reading the Proofs

I always look forward to reading & correcting the page proofs/galleys — the final, typeset version of  my books.  I haven’t out-grown the thrill yet. To me, that’s when a book truly feels real. And reading it isn’t a chore, except for the time it takes away from my other work.  But author Sandra Scoppettone doesn’t feel the same way about her galleys.

Having to read it again is hideous.  I don’t feel like reading it.
It’s interrupted my writing schedule.  In fact, it feels like torture
having to read it.  But this will be the last time.  Once a book is
published I never read it again.

It’s usually been such a long time since I finished writing the book that it feels as if what I am reading was written by someone else.  I enjoy it. That said, I don’t go back and read my books again, not that it’s any kind of hard-and-fast rule with me. It has just worked out that way. There are a lot more things out there that I’m interested in reading than my own work.

How do you other authors out there feel about reading your galleys?

The Surprise Character

Author Sandra Scoppettone had an experience writing the other day that I can certainly sympathize with:

I had my protagonist searching a
hotel room for clues to the missing man. She opened a wardrobe and the
body of a naked woman fell out.

I didn’t plan this at all.  It
happened.  I have no idea who she is or what she has to do with the
missing man case.  The woman falling out of the wardrobe was the way I
ended chapter two.

I’m 4 pages into chapter 4 and I still don’t
know anything about her.  The police have arrived now.  Don’t have any
idea where this is going to go.

Yes, it’s a bit scary not to
know, but it’s also what makes writing without an outline fun.  Maybe
tomorrow I’ll find out who she is.

I write with an outline, but this kind of thing still happens to me all the time. Well, it does when I’m writing books, not in television, where the outline is, to use a cliche, set in stone after it has been approved by the studio and network and distributed to key department heads for production purposes. But I digress..

I refer to my novel outlines as "living outlines," I keep revising them as I write to take into account these little surprises along the way or new ideas that occur to me.  I finish my outline around the same time I finish my books. 

The most troublesome, unexpected change I had to deal with was in my book MY GUN HAS BULLETS. I had a character, Eddie Planet, who was supposed to die very early on. But I fell in love with Eddie, and enjoyed writing him so much, that I kept putting off his death, until I finally accepted the fact that I couldn’t kill him. I was stuck with him for the whole book. Well, that threw my entire plot into disarray. It screwed up every plot turn. I spent the whole book trying to solve plot problems on-the-go.  But I think it was a much better book because I kept Eddie alive… and, in fact, I liked him so much, he became the central character in the sequel, BEYOND THE BEYOND.

I think it’s those surprise characters and unforeseen twists that make writing so exciting.  No matter how well you plot a story, the book always seems (to use another cliche) take on a life of its own.  Or, to use Sandra’s example:

The Surprise Character. I know who she is now. She was
identified by the detective’s client. This happened yesterday. I was
shocked to learn who she was. I ended chapter 5 with this revelation.

morning I woke early and before I went back to sleep I kept writing
opening lines of chapter 6 in my head. But I didn’t use any of them
when I went to work this morning.

Since chapter 5 ended with a
name I had to open chapter 6 with more information about who this
victim was. In learning this I’ve set myself a lot of new problems. I
still don’t know why she was found where she was or why she was
murdered. Needless to say, I don’t know who killed her…

…So what? That’s part of writing a novel. Any novel. Not only a mystery.
I think all good novels are mysteries to the author until they’re

Speaking of which, mine won’t be if I don’t spend less time this blog and more on my manuscript! I’m outta here. Enough procrastinating…



Is it Okay to Have an Opinion?

My comments on this blog about Ken Bruen’s THE GUARDS has sparked a spirited debate here, on Sarah Weinman’s blog, and several other blogs out there. A number of people… authors, in particular… are upset that I posted my criticisms of the book publicly. Author Charlie Stella, on Sarah’s blog, wrote:

Goldberg doesn’t get what all the excitement is about? Okay, fair enough. Like some of the commentators, I don’t get what all the excitement is about some other writers … and I’m sure there are people who upchucked their lunch at reading my stuff as well. I have to wonder why Goldberg took the public potshot, though … unless the guy is just another jerkoff.

To which, Jennifer Jordan wrote:

I didn’t interpret Mr.Goldberg’s post as a pot shot but perhaps you feel any opinion made in a public forum is such. What I got from it, in the end was more a feeling of tiredness with the P.I. genre. It could well be that he hoped to incur the reactions that he’s gotten because, as Sarah said, these very reactions say a lot about Bruen’s writing. He could have made these comments about quite a few authors and not had the ‘public outcry’ that he has here. The outright anger is a testament to Bruen, who is the only author that can instill fear in me by saying he’ll come into town for a drink. That is the biggest damn drink you’ll ever take. Oddly, I don’t see many jumping to Kathy Reichs defense.

I think that’s because Kathy Reichs doesn’t hang out at Bouchercon or at other "crime writer events" socializing with other authors and mystery lovers. Ken Bruen does.

And he’s also a very, very nice guy with a strong literary voice and sharp prose. Kathy’s prose isn’t as accomplished.

He’s greatly admired by a tight-knit group of noir lovers and authors. Kathy Reichs isn’t.

He’s also received numerous accolades for his work from respected novelists and crime writing organizations. Kathy Reichs hasn’t.

But I think the most significant difference, as far as Kathy being fair game and Ken being off-limits, is that she’s a lot more successful, commercially, than he is. Far more, in fact.

Which raises an interesting issue, one that John Rickards, on his blog Empire of Dirt, discusses:

Patricia Cornwell brings out Trace and everyone slates it. Everyone. Come to that, everyone freely uses her, along with Dan Brown, James Patterson etc. etc. as examples of kinda crappy commercial fiction.

No one objects. At least, not round here, virtually speaking.

Is there some ‘upper ceiling’ of commercial success or profile above which a writer becomes fair game for those outside? Is it because few, if any, of us – the reader, the other writer, the reviewer – know these people in person and can therefore say what we like without fear of reproach?

Is there, at least amongst people ‘in the industry’ – and this is where Craig’s comment comes in – a sense that you shouldn’t shit where you sleep? Rather like Hunter S Thompson’s observation of the Washington press corps in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 that they were too chummy with the politicians they were covering and that so much was kept ‘off the record’ because journos didn’t want to offend their friends on the Hill – are we so cosy with one another that we’re afraid of saying what we think?


I’d be curious to hear your answers to that question.

Personally, I think if Kathy Reichs hung out at conventions, was more active in professional organizations (PWA, MWA, SinC) and was friends with lots of authors, and crime writing aficionados, she’d "off-limits" as well, regardless of the creative merits or commercial success of her work.

Top Fives

Mystery Ink polled over 50 fiction writers, reviewers and other assorted
readers, asking them to name their five favorite books they read during the
year. A list of those, well, lists are up at their website.  T. Jefferson Parker’s CALIFORNIA GIRL,  Scott Phillips COTTONWOOD and Ken Bruen’s THE GUARDS show up a lot. Here’s my list of five.

My brother Tod’s LIVING DEAD GIRL also shows up in a couple of the  lists…including this mention, from author Thomas Perry:

Dead Girl
by Tod Goldberg — Probably the most skillful and unusual
piece of crime fiction by a young writer I’ve read in years.

If I were to expand my list to include, say, the top ten books I read this year, it would also include:

  • Larry McMurtry’s four Berrybender novels (which I think of as one book spread out over four volumes).
  • Frederick Manfred’s  The Scarlet Plume.
  • Paul Quarrington’s Fishing with My Old Guy
  • Dan J. Marlowe’s One Endless Hour
  • Lawrence Block’s Hitman novellas and short stories (which I also think of as one book. I thought the novel he wrote with the character, though, was rather weak).

That’s not to say I didn’t read a lot of other great novels this year, including many listed by others at Mystery Ink,  but these are the ones that will stick with me for some time to come.

Still More on Publish America

On Ed Gorman’s wonderful blog, novelist Richard Wheeler mentioned that he had dusted off an old, unpublished novel entitled BIG APPLE, and that it was being published by Publish America.

This intrigued me. Why? Because Wheeler is a very successful author, with dozens of well-respected, Spur-Award-winning westerns from major publishers to his credit. And he’s got several new hardcovers coming from St. Martin’s/Forge as well as another series of paperbacks from Pinnacle Books. 

He certainly doesn’t fit the profile of a typical Publish America customer/author. So, given the recent controversy surrounding the company, I asked him about his experiences with the  company. Here is what he said:

I was attracted to PublishAmerica because there is no initial fee and they even offer a one-dollar advance, thus providing some semblance of a trade publisher.

It was a grave mistake. They make their profit not by marketing the books but by gouging the authors. The shallow 20 percent discount, plus inflated shipping charges (around $5 per book), meant that I paid more than the list price of the novel unless I ordered very large quantities. Ditto retailers. A twenty percent discount for retailers, plus inflated shipping meant that no bookseller would stock the book. (That is why you find on-line retailers adding a surcharge.)

They are not in business to sell books to the public; they sell printing services and books to the amateur authors who come to them, and can make their entire profit from the author, without selling a copy to the public. The disincentives are deliberate. They don’t want to bother with booksellers and make it hard for a bookseller to order from them. They also don’t really care whether an author can earn anything from his books. Because of inflated shipping costs I could have ordered my books cheaper from a retailer than from PublishAmerica.

He goes on to say that iUniverse is "the gold standard in the POD field."

Through the Authors Guild back-in-print program I have put nine reverted titles back into print at iUniverse, and have seven more in process. They have done an excellent job with these. But always remember that all these POD publishers regard the author himself as their primary source of income.

At least iUniverse, unlike Publish America, is upfront about it.

It should be noted that the Authors Guild Back-In-Print program is free to authors of previously published, out-of-print, work (and are members of the Guild). Otherwise, iUniverse charges a stiff fee to publish original manuscripts, which is, presumably, what would have happened if Wheeler went to them with BIG APPLE, a book he wrote in the 80s but wasn’t able to sell.

Publish America doesn’t charge that stiff fee, they just get it out of you in other ways…