Month: March 2014

My daily commute

I know that some of you feel sorry for me, living in New Jersey, dealing constantly with the crowds, the big buildings and heavy traffic, and especially having to deal with the daily commute. It’s true. It can be hell, some days, trying to get across the bridge.


This morning, for example, the causeway was flooded. I had to drive almost four miles upriver to the next crossing. And that one was flooded, too.


Exploding the occasional outhouse

Speaking to the Monmouth Writers on Saturday, our discussion moved for some time to the topic of story ideas and where they come from. There are some who will tell you that all of fiction can be boiled down to one of seven basic plots and they may, in fact, be right. But it is also true that there is an infinite array of stories waiting to be told. The universe fairly teems with story ideas.

But you have to go out and look for them. You can’t tell a good story if you don’t live your life. One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from Stephen Kuusisto, in his essay Blow it Up (in Rules of Thumb: 73 writers reveal their fiction writing fixations, by Martone and Neville).

“Sneaking into an adjacent state and exploding the occasional outhouse won’t make you a better writer, but it is true that life lived adventurously will yield unexpected joys or exotic failures.”

I have been exploding outhouses, as it were, for most of my adult life, sometimes in search of a story, and sometimes just for fun.  The story ideas don’t always work out. I never did write that roller-derby mystery.

At least, not yet.

A reminder for my friends in New Jersey

This Saturday, from 10 – 12, I’ll be speaking to the Monmouth Writers at the Howell Public Library. The topic of my talk is Developing Characters that Readers Care About. The event is free and open to the public, but the library requests that you call and register if you plan to attend, 732-938-2300. I hope to see you there.


On Getting Published

“When you die, I believe, God isn’t going to ask you what you published.  God’s going to ask you what you wrote.” (McNally, T.M. “Big Dogs and Little Dogs,” in Martone, Michael, and Susan Neville. 2006. Rules of thumb: 73 authors reveal their fiction writing fixations. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books).

There’s a certain wisdom to that remark, but, with all due respect to McNally and to God, the Almighty isn’t in my target demographic.  God, perhaps,will read my unpublished manuscripts, but the ladies in the Hungry Readers Book Club won’t read my books unless they’re published.

I have been an unpublished author, a self-published author and a traditionally published author, so I believe I may have some perspective on the subject.  There is a difference, although the difference is not necessarily in the writing.  But when you’re traditionally published, they teach you the secret handshake.  And you get the decoder ring.

It took me thirteen years to write my first manuscript.  Twenty-seven years if you count the re-writes.   The Last Bodhisattva isn’t a mystery.  It’s a modern Buddhist parable, a cross between On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, and Monkey, a 500 year-old Chinese folk novel by Wu Cheng-En.  I began writing the book in 1975, at the age of 23, and wrote on-and-off for thirteen years, completing it (for the first time) in 1988.  Believing I had a publishable novel (and knowing nothing about agents, or publishers, or, frankly, anything at all about the book business), I bought The Writer’s Handbook and began sending out queries.  I spent the next year collecting rejections.  I tucked the manuscript away in a file cabinet and went about my life.

And every few years, for the next fourteen years, I pulled The Last Bodhisattva out of the cabinet and did a re-write.  The last time I attempted a re-write, I had just turned fifty and I was having a very hard time relating to the character that I had first written nearly three decades earlier.  I did a complete re-write, framing the story as a memoir.  It was not a publishable manuscript, but it was finished and I was satisfied.

That final re-write did something I hadn’t anticipated.  It motivated me to start writing again.  I had an idea, something about putting a character on a back road in the New Jersey Pine Barrens in the hour before the sun comes up.  Five months later, Who is Killing Doah’s Deer? was finished.  I bought a new copy of The Writer’s Handbook and sent out another series of badly written queries.

But the publishing world had changed since 1988.  Someone told me about print-on-demand and directed me to iUniverse.  Print-on-demand takes advantage of digital technology to print physical copies of a book only after a sale has been made.  By eliminating the costs associated with producing and warehousing a traditional print run, print-on-demand created an inexpensive publishing option and gave rise to what has come to be known as subsidized self-publishing. In 2003, the Mystery Writers of America had a publishing agreement with iUniverse.  As a result, in 2004 I joined MWA and published my first mystery with iUniverse.

Digital technology continues to evolve and that evolution can be seen in the booming e-book market.  Today, it is quite literally possible for an author to finish a manuscript in the morning and upload it to the kindle store in the afternoon.  It is possible, but it is not necessarily a good thing.

A survey conducted a few years ago found that 80% of Americans believe that they should write a book.  80% of Americans can’t hit a fastball, can’t balance a checkbook, can’t cook pasta al dente. As much as I love the notion of a nation of writers, I don’t believe that 80% of Americans can or should write a book.  But if they do, technology makes it possible for all of those books to be published.

The best thing about ebook publishing is that anyone can get a book published.  The worst thing about ebook publishing is that anyone can get a book published.

In an essay in the 1988 Writers Handbook entitled, “Everything You Need to Know about Writing Successfully – in Ten Minutes,” Stephen King offered twelve essential tips, starting with “Be talented.” Being talented requires a writer never to settle for good enough.  It starts by writing the best book you’re capable of writing.  It starts there, but it doesn’t end there.  Because writing a great book is an art, but selling a great book is a business.

I once sent a query to a publisher who loved the manuscript, but declined to publish it.  You see, my book didn’t fit his business plan.  It’s great to have a publisher who loves what you write.  It’s even better to have a publisher who believes he can make money selling what you write.

So, back to 2004 and the print-on-demand release of Who is Killing Doah’s Deer?  I took advantage of my membership with MWA to learn more about the craft and the business of writing.  In 2005, I was debating whether I could afford to fly to a mystery writers’ conference in Chicago. A friend gave me a wonderful bit of advice.  “If you want to be a real writer, you have to start going to the places where the real writers go.”  And so I went to Love is Murder. I attended the “official” panel discussions in the conference meeting rooms, and the “unofficial” discussions in the bar.  I met authors, editors, agents and publishers.  I became part of a community of writers with similar goals.

I attended a panel of editors and publishers.  After listening to them talk, I came to realize that one of those independent, traditional publishers, Five Star, seemed to be a good fit for what I was writing. When I got home, I crafted a query, perhaps the first really good query letter I’d ever written, explaining why I believed they were the right publisher for my second book.

In 2006, Five Star published a hardcover edition of A Minor Case of Murder.   Thirty-one years after starting to write my first, never published, manuscript, I had written something for which a traditional publisher had sent me a check.  And then, in 2009, it happened again.  Five Star published It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Murder.

Meanwhile, the publishing industry continues to evolve.  As a reader, I have not made the transition to ebooks.  I still prefer the feel of a book in my hands. My house overflows with books. New books, like a brand-new automobile before the first ding, pristine, with that new car smell and that shiny new body, practically begging you to take it out for a spin.  And old books, especially old books, worn and tattered like a favorite pair of blue jeans.  But as a writer, I need to remember that different readers like to access stories in different formats – books, ebooks, audiobooks.   I’m a story teller.  As technology offers new ways to access those stories, I need to make sure my stories are available in those formats.

So the hardcover editions are now out of print. But I have a separate publishing agreement with Crossroad Press for  ebook, audiobook and paperback editions of the two titles originally published by Five Star in hardcover.

And now, most recently, I have an agreement with Intrigue Publishing for my fourth book, a stand-alone mystery, Death and White Diamonds. I’m pleased to be part of the Intrigue family.  The book will be released in December 2014. It’s hard to keep up with the changing world of publishing, but the more things change, one thing remains constant – the unbridled joy of bringing a new story to readers. Death and White Diamonds has been stuck in my head for a very long time. I look forward to a time in the not too-distant future when it will be stuck in your head too. That is when the book becomes real. That is the joy of publishing.

And what of The Last Boddhisattva, my first, never published manuscript? In 2006, after selling A Minor Case of Murder to Five Star, I had the courage to do something I should have done decades earlier. I took out my red editing pencil and cut more than 60,000 words from the manuscript. It’s not easy to delete 60,000 words, but it was the right thing to do. The Last Boddhisattva didn’t work as a novel, but it made for a pretty good short story. In 2006, The Sound Bite was published in woman’s corner magazine.

On the topic of secrets between spouses

On her own blog, Ordinarybutloud and her faithful readers are discussing the issue of secrets between spouses.  And I am reminded that in my first mystery, Who is Killing Doah’s Deer?, Officer Sububie explained this all to Cassie O’Malley.

“Ms. O’Malley, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my line of work, it’s that everybody and I mean everybody’s got a secret vice. Everybody’s got something they’re so ashamed of that they hide it from their family and friends. They can’t give it up, but they won’t admit to it either so they end up leading a double life. For some it’s drugs, or booze, maybe it’s a gambling problem. For a lot of people it’s sex, of one kind or another, and they think it’s sick, only they like it too much to stop. But the truth is, for most people it’s really pretty tame. Fast food. Chocolate chip cookies. Bubblegum pop. Boy bands. Pee Wee’s Playhouse. But they think they’d die of the embarrassment, if someone found out, so they hide it. I know a man, a vegetarian, but he’d get a craving for McDonald’s. He’d sneak out at night, and it was so important that his wife not find out, he let her believe he was having an affair. Almost cost him his marriage. Anything was better than being exposed as an eater of Big Macs. You’d be amazed how many people have the extraordinary bad luck to die under circumstances that reveal their secret life.”

Retrospect and Prospect

On Saturday, I caught a train into Manhattan for a brunch meeting with fellow members of the NY Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. MWA NY is not only a wonderful organization, but its members are among the nicest people I know. So, when I was asked to help out with an event this fall, I jumped in with both feet. More about that, later.

We were eating at the Salmagundi Club (I always feel like I should tip my hat to the hansom cab driver and exclaim, “To the Salmagundi Club, my good man”) and I was chatting with another author about the Pine Barrens. People are often surprised to learn of more than a million acres of pine forests and cranberry bogs located less than 100 miles from Manhattan. Sitting in the Salmagundi Club, on 5th Avenue, it was easy to understand why. But on Sunday, that’s exactly where I was, signing books at Lines on the Pines, an annual celebration of artists and authors in and of the Pine Barrens.

ImageThis week I plan to complete the edits on Death and White Diamonds. Then I have to prepare for my next event. On Saturday, March 22, I’ll be speaking to the Monmouth Writers Group, at the Howell Township Library. Here’s the blurb –

Developing Characters that Readers Care About

Action scenes may hook your readers, but it’s the characters that keep them coming back for more. The ability to develop characters that readers care about is an essential element of the fiction writer’s craft. No matter how compelling your plot, readers will not care about your story if they don’t make a connection with your characters. Mystery writer Jeff Markowitz will discuss and offer tips for developing characters that readers care about.

Jeff Markowitz is the author of the Cassie O’Malley Mysteries, an amateur sleuth mystery series set deep in
the NJ Pine Barrens. “You can usually find me at my computer at 5:30 in the morning,” he says, “plotting
someone’s murder.”  Jeff is a proud member of the Mystery Writers of America.

Arts Garage

The party line, when gambling came to Atlantic City in 1978 was that gambling revenue would revitalize a crumbling Atlantic City. Atlantic City by then was past its “sell by” date, a city in decline, it’s glory years a distant memory, it’s road map immortalized by Monopoly (you do know, don’t you, that the streets in Monopoly come from the map of Atlantic City?)

Thirty-five years later, if you try to make the case that the gap has indeed shrunk between the glitz of the casinos and the general depression in the rest of the city, it would be easier to make the case that the old casinos have deteriorated rather than trying to argue that the city has itself been enhanced.

ImageBut that doesn’t mean that people have given up on Atlantic City. I had an opportunity to tour the new Arts Garage in AC.

ImageThe Arts Garage is a collaborative effort of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, the NJ State Council on the Arts, Stockton College and the Noyes Museum of Art. “The Noyes Arts Garage Stockton College is the cornerstone of the new Arts District in Atlantic City with a mission to promote education, provide resources for emerging artists, and enrich the community.  The Arts Garage houses 15 artist studios, galleries, shops, a café, a flexible classroom studio, and hosts special events throughout the year.  It includes a 1,200 square ft. satellite gallery of The Noyes Museum of Art, and is the new home of the African American Heritage Museum and Atlantic City Arts Center.” (

My friend Jen, who works at the Arts Garage gave me a tour of the facility.




It’s rare that I go to Atlantic City. As my friends know all too well, for me, the casinos are not a destination.  A developing Arts District, however, with the Arts Garage as a hub, would bring me to AC. Best of luck to all involved. I hope that you’ll be a big success.