Pitching Grisham and Doing-In Your Ugly Babies: An Interview with author Tony Vanderwarker

What happens when Tony Vanderwarker, the founder of one of Chicago’s largest ad agencies, decides he wants to write fiction? He connects with author John Grisham and learns to do-in his ugly babies. Here is a wonderful story of mentorship and the trials and errors of being a writer. Thanks to Beth Terrell for conducting this interview.

Enjoy…and be inspired!




Clay Stafford
Founder of Killer Nashville 

Tony Vanderwarker

Tony Vanderwarker

KN: Please welcome Tony Vanderwarker to the Killer Nashville blog.  Tony, could you tell us about your path to becoming a professional writer? When did you know you wanted to be one? How did you get started?

I’ve always wanted to write novels, I think as far back as a teenager. When I was in the Peace Corps in Africa in my late teens, I wrote oodles of ersatz Rimbaud poetry and three or four meandering novels – all of which I burned when I came upon the disasters some years later. But I did get interested in film through working with the government’s film unit and went to film school at NYU. I ended up making a major motion picture, which got minor attention, so I decided to write shorter films. I then went into advertising and cashed out of the business in my late forties. I’ve been writing novels ever since.

KN: Did you always write thrillers? What drew you to the genre?

I began writing comic novels, but they didn’t sell, so I tried thrillers figuring I’d imitate my friend (author) John Grisham. Wrote a couple and got lucky. John offered to take me under his wing and teach me the secrets of thriller writing. So the novel I have coming out, Sleeping Dogs is the one I wrote with him over a period of about five years.

Sleeping Dogs by Tony Vanderwalker

Sleeping Dogs by Tony Vanderwarker

KN: John Grisham was instrumental in helping you come up with the idea for that novel, wasn’t he? Could you tell us about that?

At our lunch when Grisham offered to mentor me, he said, “Okay, we need a plot. You said you had a couple ideas, let’s hear them.” I pitched the first, swing and a miss. The second he shot down also. So I pitched the third as I began to sweat.

“So there are actually seven unrecovered nukes scattered around the U.S. as a result of mid-air accidents and collisions during the Cold War,” I told him.

“You’re kidding,” he said.

“No, all over the place, Georgia, North Carolina, Oregon – the Pentagon claims they are harmless.”

“Whoever heard of a harmless nuke? What if the bad guys got a hold of one?”

So with Grisham engaged, we began a long and arduous process of crafting a novel together.

And the interesting part is, when Sleeping Dogs ran into a glut of similar thrillers on the market, I pulled it and wrote a book about writing with John called Writing With The Master. It got picked up and the publisher also decided to publish Sleeping Dogs. So both came out on Feb 4.

KN: Two books on the same day? That’s pretty impressive. What does your writing schedule look like?

I write from 9-12 in the morning, that’s usually when I run out of gas and my dogs get tired of lying around in the studio. They are lousy on plots and terrible spellers, but they contributed the title of my novel.

I take off weekends and holidays. Otherwise, it’s rigorous. I’m lazy and have a dread of the blank page so if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t get any work done. I do two to three pages a day, many of my ideas come to me when I’m half-asleep in the middle of the night. In the morning, my bedside table ends up looking like a bunch of stickies were shot at it.

Writing With the Master by Tony Vanderwarker

Writing With the Master by Tony Vanderwarker

KN: But you’ve worked hard to make the technical details authentic. How much and what kind of research do you do?

Lots, Siri is with me constantly. I’m always asking her crazy questions like, “What did Mussolini have to do with the Mafia?” or, “What’s the difference between an mk mod 47 nuke and some other one?” She’s a tireless co-worker. But it really depends on what kind of book you’re working on and how familiar you are with the territory. Bubonic plague is something I know nothing about (fortunately) so Siri and I are spending a lot of time on that. Reading up on nukes took months. But the ad agency stuff comes flying out of my head faster than I can get it down.

KN: And how about your personal experiences? How do they inform your work?

My life seeps into everything I do. I was having lunch with my publicist a couple weeks ago and she asked about my kids. I described my daughter, who is a theatre director, as a tough and resolute person who is not afraid to tell anyone to go jump. And Sharon said, “Could she have been the model for the lead female characters in Ads For God and Sleeping Dogs?” I hadn’t realized it, but she was right on. Probably included a bit of my wife also since she comes in the same size.

KN: What do you hope readers will take away from Sleeping Dogs?

That nuclear weapons are scary as hell and we ought to pay more attention to how they are stored and handled before we create a catastrophe. Sleeping Dogs brings to life the possibility of terrorists recovering one close to a major population center and coming close to detonating it, immolating millions and making the Eastern Seaboard uninhabitable for centuries.

KN: That does sound scary—and is a message a lot of people probably ought to hear. So how do you get the message out? What sort of marketing and promotion do you do?

The whole nine yards: social media, website (tonyvanderwarker.com), writing websites, email lists I’m on, Kickstarter, plus I have two publicists, one at my publishing house, the other a freelancer I’ve hired. I began marketing this book back in June 2013 and I’ll continue until I’ve bored everyone to tears and is begging me to stop.

KN: What’s next for you? 

Two directions: First, I’ve resurrected two comic novels I wrote years ago and am bringing them out later in the year, probably from a publishing house I’ve started with a friend. So Ads For God and Say Something Funny will be coming back to life. I’m also writing new comic novels as well as another thriller. The comic novel is titled Client From Hell and is about the Mafia taking over an ad agency. The thriller is a sequel to Sleeping Dogs.

KN: You have some pretty eclectic interests as a writer. What authors have inspired you?

The list is endless, but particularly Ford, Franzen, Updike, Kesey, Grisham (for his stories), Hiassen (for his humor) and above all, Cormac McCarthy.

KN: Any advice for aspiring authors?

Be patient. Words are tricky characters and don’t always do what you want. And slow down, speed kills good writing. And about your work, ask yourself the question one of Fellini’s characters posed in 8 ½, something like: “Is this really remarkable or just the foot of another cripple in the sand.” Ruthlessness is as much a part of writing as imagination. You have to be able to do-in your ugly babies.

Tony Vanderwarker is the founder of one of Chicago’s largest ad agencies, and is the author of the memoir Writing With the Master: How a Bestselling Author Fixed My Book And Changed My Life about his experience being mentored by John Grisham while writing the thriller Sleeping Dogs (both released by Skyhorse in 2014). He has also penned the forthcoming novels Ads for God and Say Something Funny. Website: http://tonyvanderwarker.com/.

Posted in Guest Blogger Series | 1 Comment

Things Readers Want to Know/ Author Del Staecker

If you’re a seasoned author, you get asked the same questions by non-writers. If you’re a beginning author and haven’t yet found your stride, sometimes you find yourself asking the same questions. It’s always beneficial, even for the most seasoned pro, to note how other craftsmen do things. I’m always learning. I think that’s why Killer Nashville is such an incredible experience for me every year. An interesting writer for me is Del Staecker who literally locked himself in an isolated Idaho cabin to write his first novel by longhand just because it was something he always wanted to do. From there, success followed. So here’s the questions Del might have asked back in those days and here also are the answers he gives from his seasoned hand. Experience is always the best teacher, unless you’ve got someone like Del and you’re willing to listen. Thanks Del for taking the time to share.







Clay Stafford
Founder of Killer Nashville

Author Del Staecker

Author Del Staecker

At readings, signings and other appearances, readers often ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” “How do you create characters?” and, “Do plots just come to you?” I encounter questions such as: “Where do your characters come from?” “Do you create profiles?” “What makes a character a good one?” and, “How do you make dialogue sound so real?”

I have not been trained to be an author. By that, I mean I have not received instruction through an MFA program, or writer’s seminars—formal or informal. For me, writing has come from a life of reading and personal experiences, and although I attended college and received an excellent education, I am a self-taught writer. Correction, I am more a storyteller than writer.

But let me share what I know about creating, developing, and (upon occasion) completing written works worthy of publication.

Q- Where do ideas come from?

A-I allow my memory to wander and my imagination to work. I jot down ideas and occasionally thumb through stacks of notes. If an idea has life—staying power—it jumps out of the pile and demands more thought. I have the beginning of a story, then the characters go their own way. For example, Tales of Tomasewski began when I imagined the experience of searching for a street hustler I knew many years ago. What the character and the person searching for him did is the story—it emerged from their actions.

Q-Are plots outlined?

"More Tomasewski"/Del Staecker

“More Tomasewski”by Del Staecker

A-Nothing is planned. I never know where the story is going. What happens is inexplicable and devoid of method. Strong characters extend good plots. When I began writing The Muted Mermaid, it was one story that grew into three books (Shaved Ice and Chocolate Soup being the other two parts). Tales of Tomasewski started as a single short story and grew into a novel. Subsequently, it has led to contracts for two additional books based on the lead character.

Q-Where do characters come from?

A-From life’s experiences. Each character is a person, or parts of a person, that I have met. Sometimes the traits from several persons blend into one character. Jake Thompson (aka Jan Tomasewski) is a blend of an acquaintance from my college years and many of the people I grew up with on Chicago’s Southside.

Q-What about constructing and using character profiles?

A-No. Characters are represented by their actions and their participation in the situations in which they are embroiled. In fact, the characters take off based upon their own energy, and as real personalities, they are finding their place in a particular universe. I believe the author’s imagination is a creator of that universe. More than once, I’ve awakened from a sound sleep to overhear their conversations. Occasionally, they talk to me.

Q-What is the secret to a good character?

A-They are engaged in activities that seem plausible for them, they exchange thoughts in believable dialogue with other good characters, and they perform deeds in settings that are a fit for them. If their conversations sound authentic and the settings seem real, then the characters are real to the reader.

Q-How is realism attained?

A-The characters do it all on their own. Once their universe exists, I am just a storyteller—an observer, a reporter, informing readers about the world the characters inhabit. My job is to get the description right.

Q-Getting back to profiles—what if a character “goes rogue?”

A-If they are real, then characters can be contradictory. In fact, at times they must be. Also, characters develop. Over time, we all change. Sometimes we grow, and sometimes we regress. Strict adherence to a profile would stifle the “real-ness” of a character. Remember, consistency can be boring. Granted, characters have recurring traits. Ledge Trabue’s quirky stomach and The Professor’s love of food are elements that are timeless and solid for them. Jake Thompson’s sarcasm is eternally his.

Q-How about killing a character?

A-One reader gushed, “I love how you kill people!” Telling that reader the truth was easy. I do not kill any characters. Simply, the characters do their thing. Characters are eliminated by other characters as action unfolds.

Q-What’s the key to writing believable dialogue?

A-Listen to the conversations that characters are having and simply repeat them. After letting things set for a while, I return to each dialogue and read it aloud. Listen as if you are there.

I hope I’ve been helpful in shedding some light on the writing process. My coming to the world of writing books for publication was based upon a lifetime of reading and experiencing life. I do not claim any special expertise, just love for a good story.

Del Staecker is an Executive committee member of the International Association of Crime Weriters, Chair of the 2014 Dashiell Hammett Prize Committee, and author of five crime thrillers. His Ledge Trabue trilogy, The Muted Mermaid, Shaved Ice and Chocolate Soup, is set in Nashville and New Orleans. Visit his website at www.delstaecker.com.

(To be a part of the Killer Nashville Guest Blog, send a query to contact@killernashville.com. We’d love to hear from you.)

Posted in Guest Blogger Series | 3 Comments

The Thing About Theme / Author Frank Zafiro

“Theme” is an oft-misunderstood term. It’s one of those techniques that can take a writer’s work to a new level, but it is also a concept that can lead to hours of confused discussion. In this week’s Killer Nashville’s 52 Weeks of 52 Guests Bloggers series, former police officer, crime writer, and writing teacher Frank Zafiro gives one of the simplest and easily understood definitions of theme that I have ever read. He also takes the mystery out of what theme is…and what it isn’t. And, he gives techniques for working theme into a story either before, during, or after one has written the first draft. Enjoy this article, use Frank’s techniques, and see your own writing take a universal leap.

Happy Reading!

(And Happy Writing – using Frank’s excellent advice).





Clay Stafford
Founder of Killer Nashville


Frank Zafiro

Author Frank Zafiro

What is theme?

My wife teaches middle school English and History. Anyone who has worked with seventh graders knows how it is both rewarding and maddening at the same time. Usually maddening, actually. Theme has been the big bugaboo for these kids this year, and my wife’s struggle has been to successfully define it in a way that twelve year olds understand.

In novel writing workshops, I’ve experienced the same issue, only with adults. Part of the problem is that there are a lot of different opinions and definitions out there, and some of them can be confusing or even contradictory. For example, some people will tell you that the theme is the moral of the story. Are they wrong? No, not really. But honestly, I don’t think that’s entirely correct, either. Rather, it’s the moral of the story that addresses the theme.

See, confusing discussion already. And I’m sure some people are nodding their heads while reading that last passage, in total agreement, while others are violently shaking their heads and screaming words about my mental capacity that rhyme with “soar on” or “mummy.”

But here’s the thing about theme.

Forget about it. At least for a while.

Yes, I know that sounds sacrilegious. And honestly, if you’re the kind of person who carefully plots out your novel and follows that construct religiously, this approach might not work for you. But if you outline loosely, or not at all, then forgetting is the perfect solution.

There are really only three approaches to theme, logically. They are:

  1. Begin with the theme in mind.
  2. Discover the theme as you write the novel.
  3. Forget about theme altogether.

    At Their Own Game

    At Their Own Game/ Author Frank Zafiro

Option one is for those careful, meticulous planners. And if that’s you, my hat’s off to you because I think it’s actually difficult to pull off. It seems a little forced to me, but in all likelihood, that’s my own psychology at work there and not anything you should rely on too much. If option one works for you, then it works. Forge on.

Option two is the most exciting one for me, and the technique I almost always employ. I think of a good story (usually beginning with a good “what if”) and focus on the story and the characters. Somewhere around the middle of the book, if it remains a good story and the characters have come alive for me, themes emerge. As I recognize those themes, I might purposefully write the latter half of the book with those themes clearly in mind. For instance, if redemption is the theme I’ve discovered, as was the case in Waist Deep, the main character’s actions and his attitude toward those actions might reflect this theme. Certainly, when I crafted the final scene for this novel, the theme of redemption was on the forefront of my mind.

The thing about option two is that when you write that first revision you’ll end up working on sprinkling elements of whatever themes you eventually discover into the first half of the book. You may also be pleasantly surprised when you unearth references to the theme already in place, there before you even recognized the theme yourself. That’s one sure way to know your theme is definitely the right one.

Option three is not a bad way to go, at least for a first draft. I’ve had writers, particularly in workshops, tell me that they don’t have a theme in mind and their book doesn’t have a theme. I always point to the three options and say that they are obviously going with option three, then. But I also say that if you write a compelling story with engaging, real characters going through some kind of meaningful events…well, then, I defy you not to have a theme or three come out of that. Rather, I think the challenge will be, upon re-read and revision, to find the theme and strengthen it.

How to do that, by the way? I think a light touch is best. Let it come out in the things that characters think, say, and do. Show it through the changes that characters undergo. Or simply by what happens. Events are a great tool to underscore theme.

This always leads us back to the question that I opened with. What is theme?

Let’s stick with a simple answer here. One that even seventh graders can understand and use.

Theme is what your story is about.

That’s it.

Now, I don’t mean plot. That’s what happens in the story. Theme is what it all means.

Themes tend to be about serious issues, even if the story itself isn’t a serious one. A theme is often something you can express in few words, or even one. Things like redemption or justice or unconditional love. This is why themes have a universal appeal, across social, national, and gender lines. Everyone has an idea about love, for example. Or revenge. Everyone can relate.

Is it really that simple? Can’t a book be about more than that?

Of course it can. Take any college lit course and you’ll encounter complexity of theme beyond your wildest dreams. But as a writer, particularly a genre writer, and particularly in a first draft, does it need to be that complex?

I’m saying no. It doesn’t.

You can forget about theme, for a while at least, and just write. Make that story sing and those characters dance, and at some point in the process, theme is going to tap you on the shoulder and announce itself. Then you can consciously work it in, using all the craft you can muster.

I think that is the most organic, purest approach, because when you go about it this way, you realize you’ve actually been writing about a theme the whole time. And if you’re doing that, then it must be something important. Something worth writing about.

That’s theme.

After serving in the U.S. Army, Frank Zafiro became a police officer in 1993 and retired in 2013 as a captain. Frank has written numerous crime novels, including the River City procedural series (begins with Under a Raging Moon), the Ania trilogy with Jim Wilsky (begins with Blood on Blood) and Stefan Kopriva mysteries (Waist Deep, Lovely, Dark, and Deep). Most recently, he has released the hard-boiled novel, At Their Own Game. In addition to writing, Frank is an avid hockey fan and a tortured guitarist. To learn more about Frank, visit his site at http://frankzafiro.com.

 (To be a part of the Killer Nashville Guest Blog, send a query to contact@killernashville.com. We’d love to hear from you.)


Posted in Guest Blogger Series, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Madness and Media: An Ethical Exploration / Author Bruce De Silva

Author Bruce De Silva goes, not only into the mind of a serial killer, but into the court system designed to hold him in Killer Nashville’s 52 Weeks, 52 Guest Bloggers series https://killernashville.wordpress.com/category/52-guest-blogs-series/

Never say never.  That’s one of those things we all probably learn with age.  Edgar-winning author Bruce De Silva swore he would never write a story about a serial killer.  But he did.  Sort of.

What he has written is a story that haunts you.  What kind of person is safe for release and, if everyone knows a prisoner is a time bomb, is it right to release him?  Or is the court system allowed to invent charges to keep certain people behind bars after they have served their time for the public good?  Doesn’t happen?  Yes, it does.

This is one of the most intriguing and informative studies I’ve read in a long time and we couldn’t find a better author than Bruce De Silva to fictionalize it.  This story will make you think.

I can see why Bruce De Silva wanted to write “Providence Rag,” even if it is something he said he would never do.  This is not a story about where do you get your ideas, but how do you exorcise them for your mind.  Some stories such as this- haunting and ethical- need to find a voice.

Happy Reading!  You’ll think about this one as you sleep.

Clay Stafford, Founder of Killer Nashville

Bruce De Silva

Author Bruce De Silva

I’ve never thought myself as squeamish, but novels about serial killers make me squirm.  It’s been that way ever since my real-life brush with Craig Price, AKA the Warwick, R.I., Slasher.

Price enjoyed stabbing his victims over and over again, long after they were dead.  He was already behind bars when I was assigned to spend several weeks researching a magazine article about him, so I was never in danger.  But my god, the story was an ugly one.  Once it was published, I was sure I never wanted to get that close to evil again.

So two decades later, when I retired from journalism to write crime novels, I vowed never to write one about a serial killer.

Ever since Hannibal Lecter, novelists and screenwriters have competed to make each new serial murderer more twisted than the last; and I didn’t want to be a part of that.  Besides, I told myself, there are plenty of serial killer novels.  Did we really need another one?

But the Price case never stopped haunting me.  It worked on my subconscious, the place where novels are born.  Eventually, the compulsion to fictionalize it became too great to resist.

The result is Providence Rag, the third novel in my Edgar Award-winning series featuring Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter for a dying Providence, R.I., newspaper.

It is a serial killer book, but in my defense, I would argue that it is a most unusual one.

In the novel, the murders are committed and the killer caught in the first seventy-five pages.  The rest of the book explores an impossible moral dilemma: What are decent people to do when a legal loophole requires that a serial killer be released-and when the only way to hold him is to fabricate new charges against him?

Price, the real killer, butchered two women and two children, before he was old enough to drive.  Just thirteen years old when he began killing, he was the youngest serial killer in U.S. history.  But that’s not the interesting part.

Providence Rag by Bruce De SilvaWhen he was arrested at age 15, the state’s juvenile justice system hadn’t been updated for decades, and when they were written, no one had ever imagined a child like him.  So the law required that juveniles, regardless of their crimes, be set free and given a fresh start at age 21.

The law was promptly rewritten so that this couldn’t happen again, but in America, you can’t change the rules retroactively.  So the authorities were faced with releasing Price after he served only six years for his crimes.  Former FBI profiler Robert K. Ressler was horrified.  If Price gets out, he told me, “you’ll be piling up the bodies.”

But Price did not get out.  Twenty-five years later, he remains behind bars, convicted of several offenses he supposedly committed in prison.  I suspect some of these charges were fabricated, but in the very least it is obvious that Price has been absurdly over-sentenced.  For example, he was given thirty years for contempt of court because he declined to submit to a court-ordered psychiatric examination.

Have the authorities abused their power to prevent Price’s release?  Quite possibly.  Should he ever be set free and given the chance to kill again?  I don’t think so.  The ethical dilemma this case poses has always fascinated me.  No matter which side of the issue you come down on, you are considering something that is reprehensible.

I wrote the novel to explore the implications of this.

The real-life conundrum hasn’t caused any soul-searching in Rhode Island-at least not publicly.  Everyone seems content to let Price rot in prison.  And who could blame them?

But a novel is fiction, after all, and Providence Rag is in no way intended to accurately depict real events.  In my book, the ethical issue at the heart of the story haunts Mulligan and his colleagues at the newspaper.

Some of them argue that authorities who are faking charges against the killer are perverting the criminal justice system.  And if they are allowed to get away with it, what’s to stop them from framing someone else?  Besides, isn’t the journalist’s mission to report the truth?

Other’s argue that if they break the story and the killer is released, he is bound to kill again.  And if that happens, the newspaper would have blood on its hands.

The dilemma eventually embroils Mulligan, his fellow reporters, his editors, and the entire state in a heated confrontation over where justice lies.

Bruce De Silva, author of the Mulligan crime novels, has won the Edgar and Macavity Awards and has been a finalist for the Shamus, Anthony, and the Barry Awards.  His fiction has been published in eleven languages.  Previously, he was a journalist, editing stories that won nearly every journalism prize including the Pulitzer.  Visit his website at www.brucedesilva.com

(To be a part of the Killer Nashville Guest Blog, send a query to contact@killernashville.com. We’d love to hear from you.)

Posted in Forensics, Guest Blogger Series, Law Enforcement, Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

An Interview with 2014 Killer Nashville Attending Editor Bryon Quertermous

All the agents and editors who come to Killer Nashville are looking for new authors. We make sure of that before they are invited. Sometimes, though, we see a new house that is incredibly hungry. And, for us, that’s a good thing. In our Guest Blog – which in this case is more a question and answer – Bryon Quertermous, commissioning editor for Exhibit A Books (distributed through Random House), sits down with us for a little one-on-one to build the excitement as we move forward to when he arrives at Killer Nashville this August looking for new literary talent. I’m hoping everyone who reads this will come to our FREE AGENT / EDITOR ROUNDTABLES at Killer Nashville, meet Bryon and our other acquiring agents, publishers, and editors, and maybe – like so many before – get up from the table with an editor or agent interested in acquiring your next book. Thanks Bryon for talking with us. And so the excitement builds… Happy Reading!

Clay Stafford
Founder of Killer Nashville

Bryon Quertermous

Bryon Quertermous

Bryon Quertermous: In an effort to help spread the word about our phenomenal new crime fiction imprint, Exhibit A Books, and to help me find the next generation of crime writers, I’ll be attending the Killer Nashville conference this August. To help those who aren’t familiar with myself or Exhibit A Books, I sat down with Killer Nashville organizers to answer some questions.

Killer Nashville: Welcome, Bryon. Let’s start with a little bit about Exhibit A books. What can you tell me about the imprint?

BQ: Exhibit A is the crime fiction imprint from Angry Robot Books. Our aim with Exhibit A is simple: one look and you’re hooked. Whether it’s a hard hitting procedural, shocking psychological mystery, international noir tale or something entirely new, this is an ethos we’re running right through from our acquisitions strategy to our eye-catching marketing strategies, covers and distinctive branding. Exhibit A is the new focal point for compelling fiction in the crime fiction community. We’re looking for authors who are not only great writers, but great ambassadors for the Exhibit A imprint, with a solid emphasis on fostering close relationships between authors and readers and producing books that can be enjoyed by all readers from fans of Castle to life-long historians of the genre.

KN: Tell us me about your background as an editor. Is it something you’ve always wanted to do or did you fall into it?

BQ: Editing is something I’ve always wanted to do. I was the editor of my college newspaper and college literary magazine because I love finding new writers and encouraging them and sharing their work. After college, I spent a year in New York City working for Random House with their crime fiction and science fiction imprints before deciding I hated being poor in the city and moved back to Michigan. Since then, I’ve worked whatever editorial jobs I could find, including starting my own award-winning crime fiction magazine Demolition, which I ran for four years. I also worked as a freelance editor and as an editor with Harlequin’s digital-first imprint Carina Press.

KN: What are you looking for in a submission?

BQ: There are a lot of things that go into getting my attention with a project, but the most important of those is a cool, engaging voice. I can help an author fix a plot or make characters better, but if an author doesn’t have a compelling voice I’ll have to pass. Aside from that, I’m also looking for authors who get what we’re trying to do with Exhibit A and want to be part of our family. We like to try new things and challenge some of the traditional publishing status quo so authors who are eager and inventive really get us excited.

KN: So many small presses don’t have the ability to pay advances or get their books into major stores. Is that a problem for Exhibit A books?

BQ: Far from it. We do pay advances and have a very generous royalty structure to get more money to the author faster. We’re distributed by Random House in the US, which gets us on the shelves at major chains such as Barnes and Noble and Books-A-Million among others, including prime placement with online booksellers and promotions such as Kindle Daily Deals.

KN: What do you say to a writer who says, “I had a friend who made a million dollars self-publishing his book. Why should I send my book to you if I can do it myself and keep all of the money?”

BQ: As I said before, we’re looking for authors who want to be partners with us. Some authors are also great at business, great and design and packaging, and great at promotion. Other authors either don’t have these skills, or don’t have the time or money to put into publishing their own books. We offer a stable of professional editors, cover designers, production geniuses, and publicity and sales staff to help our authors. We take on the risk and the upfront aspects of publishing and let the authors concentrate on the part they’re the best at: writing great books. But we do realize we’re in a new and exciting environment and work with our authors to broaden their exposure. We don’t do non-compete clauses, and we encourage our authors to self-publish books that might not fit our mission and to publish with other traditional publishers if they choose for other projects.

KN: How do you pronounce your last name?

BQ: Kwuh TER Muss. Like Thermos.

KN: Thank you, Bryon. I know our attendees are looking forward to meeting you in August!

Bryon Quertermous was born and raised in Michigan. His short stories have appeared in Plots With GunsThuglit, and Crime Factory among others, and in the anthologies Hardcore HardboiledThe Year’s Finest Crime and Mystery Stories, and Uncage Me. In 2003 he was shortlisted for the Debut Dagger Award from the UK Crime Writers Association. He currently lives outside of Detroit with his wife and two kids and is  the commissioning editor for Angry Robot’s crime fiction imprint Exhibit A Books. His first novel, Murder Boy, will be published by Polis Books in 2014.

(To be a part of the Killer Nashville Guest Blog, send a query to contact@killernashville.com. We’d love to hear from you.)

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Blending Humor and Tension in a Traditional Mystery / Author Nancy J. Cohen

There’s nothing funny about murder. Or is there? Mystery, romance, and how-to author Nancy J. Cohen navigates the delicate balance between bloodshed and laughter in her guest blog, “Blending Humor and Tension in a Traditional Mystery.” Here’s a great way to laugh your way into the perfect crime. And for even more great tips from Nancy, check out her book “Writing the Cozy Mystery.” Happy Reading! (And Happy Writing – using Nancy’s excellent advice). Clay Stafford Founder of Killer Nashville

Nancy J Cohen (Photo by Lasky)

Nancy J Cohen (Photo by Lasky)

How do you maintain tension in a humorous mystery? First, look at the source of humor. If it’s the sleuth’s wry attitude toward life, humor is inherent to how she’ll view things. It’s in her nature, and no matter the circumstances, her attitude will prevail. Or perhaps the humor is situational. This can be momentary, or it can relate to a subplot that lasts throughout the story. Regardless of the source of your story’s humor, it doesn’t negate the fact that a murder has taken place. Someone’s family is grieving. As the sleuth gets closer to the truth, the killer will increase his attempts to stop her. So tension builds toward a confrontation we know is coming. Foreshadowing can aid in this suspense as can other writing techniques. It’s a delicate balance between the two elements. If your readers expect a humorous story, you can’t kill off a favorite character or go serious with a child in jeopardy or a rape scene. You have to conform to reader expectations of the genre, especially in a cozy mystery. Your story can still be suspenseful. The sleuth has to uncover the clues before someone else gets hurt or killed. In my writing guide, Writing the Cozy Mystery, I detail some of the techniques a writer can use to raise tension. The trick is to blend these elements with the humor inherent in your story. For example, in Shear Murder, Marla—my hairdresser sleuth—discovers a dead body under the cake table at her friend’s wedding. She summons her fiancé, Detective Dalton Vail. Imagining the look on his face will elicit a smile from fans of my Bad Hair Day series. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Catching Dalton’s eye, she signaled frantically. He’d know what to do. When he reached her side, she sagged against him. “Don’t look now, but there’s a dead body under the table,” she murmured under her breath. “What?” “You heard me.” She smiled tremulously at a couple who strolled past. Could they tell she was sweating? That her face had lost its color? That she was about to lose her dinner? Dalton half bent, his dark hair falling forward, but then he straightened with a grin. “Good one, Marla. You almost got me.” She shuffled her feet. “I’m not kidding.” Any minute they’d call for the cake, or Jill would broaden the hunt for her sister. Chewing on her bottom lip, she lifted a portion of the drape so Dalton could see for himself. Her stomach heaved as she almost stepped on a trickle of congealing blood. “Holy Mother, you aren’t joking.” He gave her an incredulous glance that she read as, Not again.

But even funnier is the subsequent scene where Marla tries to keep the bride from discovering the murder until after the cake cutting ceremony. She has to prevent the bride and groom from coming over. So Marla decides to bring the cake to them. It was fun to write this scene where Marla and Dalton carry the heavy cake toward the newlyweds. They’re interrupted en route, and Marla sweats as the cake on its piece of cardboard gets heavier and heavier. This incident is a perfect example of humor blended with tension.

"Hanging By A Hair" by Nancy J. Cohen

“Hanging By A Hair” by Nancy J. Cohen

Another example comes in Hanging By A Hair, #11 in the Bad Hair Day series. Dalton and Marla have wed and moved into a new neighborhood. At their first homeowners’ meeting, Dalton gets into an altercation with the president who happens to be their next-door neighbor. Cherry, the community’s treasurer, warns Marla and Dalton about the fellow.

“That man has secrets to hide. Better not push him. You don’t know what he’ll do.” Marla got an inkling of what Cherry meant when a plastic bag of dog poop showed up on their circular driveway the next day. She’d just stepped outside at seven o’clock on Friday morning with Lucky and Spooks—their golden retriever and cream-colored poodle— when she noticed the item lying on the asphalt. Hauling on the dogs’ leashes, she veered over to verify her observation. Then she rushed back inside to inform her husband. “I’ll bet it’s him,” Dalton said, rising from the breakfast table where he sat drinking coffee and watching the news. “Let me get my fingerprint kit. I can prove it.”

The absurdity of Dalton checking the plastic bag for fingerprints elicits a chuckle from readers who’ve already come to know these characters. And where did this scene spring from? Personal experience. We found the same thing on our driveway one day, a gift from a nasty neighbor. Lots of personal incidences make their way into my stories, but that’s fodder for another blog. As you can see, humor stems from your characters or the situation. Raising a chuckle while the tension rises works well in a traditional mystery. Let it evolve naturally, and readers will come back for more.

Nancy J. Cohen writes the Bad Hair Day mystery series featuring hairdresser Marla Shore, who solves crimes with wit and style under the sultry Florida sun. Several of these titles have made the IMBA bestseller list. Nancy is also the author of Writing the Cozy Mystery, a valuable instructional guide for mystery writers. Her imaginative romances have also proven popular with fans. Her titles in this genre have won the HOLT Medallion and Best Book in Romantic SciFi/Fantasy at The Romance Reviews. Active in the writing community and a featured speaker at libraries and conferences, Nancy is listed in Contemporary Authors, Poets & Writers, and Who’s Who in U.S. Writers, Editors, & Poets. Currently, she is serving as President of Florida Chapter, Mystery Writers of America. When not busy writing, she enjoys reading, fine dining, cruising, and outlet shopping. Visit her website at http://nancyjcohen.com.

(To be a part of the Killer Nashville Guest Blog, send a query to contact@killernashville.com. We’d love to hear from you.)

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Killer Nashville’s Featured Books / Thursday, February 27, 2014 / Reviewed by Clay Stafford

DEATH CANYON by David Riley Bertsch
KILLER’S ISLAND by Anna Jansson

Killer Nashville Featured Books

Dear Murderous Reader –

This week my reading was all over the place. I went from a mystery-western, to a Swedish version of a deranged killer on Martha’s Vineyard, to a whacked-out mental trip inside the head of a man falling apart in New York City. For my ADD brain, nothing could have made me happier, especially knowing two of these authors are debut.

Death Canyon by David Riley BertschDEATH CANYON by David Riley Bertsch

Debut author. Great new mystery/thriller. This book is the start of a series; but this story is so good, I’m not sure how Bertsch is going to top it using this scenario and these characters following this much fictional destruction.

The beginning gets my attention: earthquakes in Wyoming, men getting rid of the body of a friend of theirs in a watery gorge, and a group of half-naked Native Americans participating in a “relations” dance, which to this reviewer of Irish decent, looks a lot like the Celtic rituals of old.

Death Canyon is much better than the initial generic blurbs offered. This is an intertwined story of species’ rage and greed – both human and nonhuman. I really didn’t see in advance where this story was going (didn’t see it coming until page 157), which made it fun. This isn’t a story about fly-fishing and murder set in Jackson Hole; this is a story of avarice to the point of annihilating the human race, the propulsion to the end of the world as we know it. What starts small blows up to world-ending proportions. The backstory plays out with perfect pacing; not too much at the beginning, and then only peppered nicely when the explanation is needed. And add all the crazy and unexpected elements: Rocky Mountain wildlife, ex-lawyer, politics and corruption, Mafia thugs, real earthquakes in Wyoming (what’s up with that?).

In the beginning, Bertsch thanks his wife and family for giving him the courage to write this book. I thank them, too. There is a long career ahead for this new writer. Someday, I would like to take a little trip to Jackson, Wyoming and do a little fly-fishing with Bertsch. When the ground starts shaking, he would be a good one to have nearby.

Killer's Island by Anna JanssonKILLER’S ISLAND by Anna Jansson

I’m a fan of the differing perspectives in foreign novels (yes, my fellow Americans, there is a world outside the U.S.) and I’m a particular champion of the dark world of Swedish mystery writers. Killer’s Island is the action-packed seventh Detective Inspector Marian Wern book and the second of Anna Jansson’s – I think – translated into English, this one skillfully retold by Enar Henning Koch. I wish I spoke Swedish because – after reading this book – I’d love to read the rest in the chronology and also view the Swedish TV series based upon the character of Wern.

The story starts with a decapitated young nurse dressed in bridal clothes (hopefully not from Jansson’s part-time life as a nurse herself). Killer’s Island is part mystery and part scientific thriller. The supertech villain does a tremendous job playing cat-and-mouse with the police and Wern. What drew me in were my feelings for the victim. This is one of those books where, if you can figure out the motive, you can possibly figure out the killer. All deaths in this novel are taking place on an island – I love confined places stories.

What I got from this book: I have a new author to explore. With over 2 million copies of Anna Jansson’s books in print in over fifteen countries, I can only read two of them! We definitely need more translators and more publishers like Stockholm Text to get onboard sharing works such as this around the world.

The Last Time I Died by Joe NelmsTHE LAST TIME I DIED by Joe Nelms

Okay, this one made me pause. Highly different from my normal fare. At first, I wasn’t fond of the novel, but I couldn’t stop reading. That’s crazy. The reason is because the writing is just too darn good. Then after I got sucked into this character’s mad descent, the character was so complexly written that I couldn’t give the guy up. You’ve got to read this book! The last book I read that did this to me was Fight Club. I read that book once, but when the movie came out (starring a young Brad Pitt), I saw it (literally) six times at the 99-cent movie theater. This novel had the same effect on me. It’s a story I don’t think I would ever be able to write and it amazes me authors such as Nelms can turn out a world such as this.

This is a first-person novel of a man looking back at his unraveling life while his present life falls apart. The psychological first person format helps the reader view it from the main character’s perspective, even the fantasy of his detached self, where I began to wonder – and this is what the book is about – what is real and what is not? Sometimes I think the guy is going out-of-body for a detached third-person, which is freaky unto itself. It’s a dark book filled with caverns of repressed memories. The main character is a man focused on the negative who clearly sees the negative in others and acerbically – even laugh out loud – describes them. Reading this book is like watching a slow death. I can only imagine how tired Nelms was at the end of each day as he worked on this novel. For character studies, you don’t beat this one. It brings new meaning to the old phrase, How do I make you love me? As I read, I kept hearing Elton’s Blue Moves album in the background. You know, citing this character and in my own armchair-psychologist’s opinion, sometimes forgetfulness can be a good thing; I’m convinced that it is not always best – and I’m sure health professionals would disagree – to go digging in old tired mental graves. Obviously, this is a thrilling story that interested Nelms and one that he cathartically needed to write, definitely one you need to read, and a new author whose next book you should eagerly await.

Well, this should give you a few eclectic titles to read over the next few days. Get in touch with these authors, learn about them, and tell them you would like to see them at this year’s Killer Nashville.

And remember, if you buy your books through the links on Killer Nashville, you’ll still get the great Amazon discount prices, but – better yet – a portion of the proceeds goes towards the educational events sponsored by the good volunteers at Killer Nashville. So support Killer Nashville while you’re supporting our featured authors!

Until next time, read like someone is burning the books!

Clay Stafford
– Clay Stafford is an author / filmmaker (www.ClayStafford.com) and founder of Killer Nashville (www.KillerNashville.com).  As a writer himself, he has over 1.5 million copies of his own books in print in over 14 languages.  Stafford’s latest projects are the feature documentary “One of the Miracles” (www.OneOfTheMiracles.com) and the music CD “XO” (www.JefferyDeaverXOMusic.com). A champion of writers, Publishers Weekly has identified Stafford as playing “an essential role in defining which books become bestsellers” throughout “the nation’s book culture.”  (PW 6/10/13)

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Remember that these books are listed at a discount through Amazon. You also don’t have to purchase the version that is featured here. Many of these books are available in multiple formats: e–book, hardcover, softcover, and audio. Enjoy!

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