The Best Thing I Ever Wrote by Mar Preston

So far it’s the series of short eBooks on “Writing Your First Mystery.” These five eBook primers on the architecture of the mystery novel are close to the best thing I’ve written.

ebook-bundlePartly because they seem to reach out to the solitary writers out there, maybe a beginner, who has a burning idea that tantalizes, and they don’t know what to do with it. Writing a novel, a whole novel from beginning to end, seems unimaginable. Were you not there once, my friends who have some novels to claim?

Amazingly, new writers email me with thanks sometimes, with questions other times. It’s a pleasure to respond, and keep in touch with them. I recognize the aloneness they feel with an idea burning bright and nobody to talk it over with. I live in a village with many writers, but none of them write crime fiction. While many of our writing issues cross over, problems like tight crime scene plotting don’t. Our reference points are different.

My heart and soul went into “Writing Your First Mystery”, then “Plotting …” then “Creating Killer Characters”, then “Editing …” then “Finishing Your First Mystery.” Everything I knew, the mistakes I’d made, and the lessons I’ve learned along the way went into them. It’s me, distilled down to the essence.

Recently “Editing Your First Mystery” was published.

editing-e-book-coverDo I feel this series is the definitive statement on writing crime fiction in our times? No, of course not. But they are mine. In these eBooks I spoke directly to the new writer captivated by an idea. I wrote about fear, doubt, and persistence. I insisted that mystery writers had to be readers across a wide range of our genre. I collapsed the plot issues of a crime fiction novel and dealt with the problems we all grapple with: who’s the detective, who’s the victim, who are the red herrings? What’s the inciting event and the thrilling chase scene that may be the second last chapter?

This series on the fundamentals of crime fiction writing allowed me to speak in my own voice. I could disagree with some current “rules” of crime fiction, and espouse others. I encourage new writers to listen to their own voices and avoid current “fashions” in crime fiction. I don’t think that established writers with the loudest voices are always right. We may have seen the lesson in the last Presidential election about the consequences of group think.

Maybe there is a place for adverbs and dialogue tags. Time will tell.

They are available separately or bundled together at






The Swag From A Writers Conference

A contrast in what I took home from two writers’ conferences I attended recently: the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA) conference in July 2016 in Las Vegas;





And, Bouchercon 2016 the worldwide mystery conference in New Orleans in 2016.





I’ve been to quite a number of writers conferences all over the US and Canada since I took up writing murder mysteries. The intent of these two conferences is quite different. The Public Safety Writers Association meeting I’d call a craft conference. Bouchercon is a fan conference.

It’s easy to lose yourself amid roughly 2000 attendees at Bouchercon, catching glimpses of Harlan Cobden, Michael Connelly, and Sara Paretsky. The panels are chosen to entertain, not instruct. Usually the conference is held in cities that have a lot of sparkle and interest.  Okay, PSWA was in Las Vegas, but Las Vegas in July.


PSWA was the conference I should have gone to first, back when I was writing my first police procedural No Dice in 2009. The one where I could have learned the most.

Half the writers registered are law enforcement types of one kind or another, most retired: fire fighters, EMTs, and forensic specialists. The other half are mystery writers who want to get it right. Right in the sense that the law enforcement aspect of your work makes sense.

The first day of the conference offered an intensive session on improving writing skills led by Mysti Berry.  Public safety types are moving out of their comfort zones and learning new skills. Imagine how difficult it is for experts in their field to become novices. The conference was limited to 50 participants. That way probably everyone got to be showcased on a panel.  For the writers it was a chance to pick out an informant you thought you might connect with.

I also liked the good mix of information on the publishing marketplace, the ever-present dilemma of point of view, writing short stories, and the many different types of editing. If you kept your ears open, no matter what your perspective and breadth of experience, you could learn something.

I don’t want too many more people to apply to this conference. Please. I like that it’s small. Over the course of three days, I could have talked to anyone. I just plain ran out of social energy at the end. I boldly suggested going out to dinner with people I didn’t know. I didn’t feel that intimidating force field of energy around big names and cliquish groups that scare me off being myself. We were all there to learn. And have a good time.  We all have war stories to share.


Bouchercon in New Orleans was great as well, but in a very different way. I could have chatted up Charlaine Harris in the lobby.  I didn’t because I don’t like intruding on strangers, but I could have.  You’re at Bouchercon to network, promote your latest book, see and be seen.  I came away full of good food and memories of the French Quarter: I met some terrific new people.

But if you’re careful of your travel budget, make sure before you register that you know which way the conference is tilted: fan or craft. It will make a difference what you take home besides a lot of books, bookmarks, and a tote bag full of swag.


PS   I came home to find my new book, 5th in the series of Writing Your First Mystery, proofread and ready for the next phase of production. Check out the boxed set of the series.








Why not give up if your books aren’t selling?

Liking a book–or not–is subjective.  It may be something as simple as the setting is a place where a reader may have broken up with an old girlfriend. Your reader picks up your book and the first five pages remind him of heartbreak. That is not a judgment on your book.

Your book description may have conveyed the impression this was a light-hearted “cozy” featuring cats and an amateur detective. Instead your book is really noir, dark in tone, and not something your reader is in the mood for. Again, not a judgment on your book.

Your reader may read only a few books a year and faces your book with many competing agendas for his time. Just because you read dozens of books a year and are in the habit of reading, too many others aren’t. They’re TV watchers, or gardeners, or like to hang out with the family in their leisure time.

Another book may have taken precedence. All this publicity over Harper Lee’s new book may have compelled your reader to take another look at To Kill a Mockingbird. Or a popular summer beach read.

Your first five pages may have started slow. There’s no zing there to keep the reader turning pages and to drag them away from the TV.

A speaker, at one of the first writer’s conferences I went to, said when you’d written a million words you’d be published. I’d written about 5000 at that point so you can imagine how those words resonated. Now when writers no longer have to struggle past the bottleneck of agent and publisher to publication, these words may no longer to true in one sense.  You can publish your second draft, without the advice of an editor, critique group, or proofreaders. Your mother loves it. That’s good enough.

The reason readers may not like your book is that you may not be at the top of your game yet, sad to say. Your next story, or your next novella or full-length piece of crime fiction may be the one that grabs notice.

Sometimes it’s perplexing to look at two books side by side and wonder why one succeeds and another doesn’t.  It’s all subjective (when you hit all the high points that are currently popular in your genre.)

The important thing is to honor your own voice, to keep going when the shadows creep in and darken your optimism.  Keep going when the most published author in your critique group, the one with the most insistent loud voice, tells you to make your heroine a hero, rewrite the ending, or just give up on this story. Don’t do it. Persevere.

If you have completed a manuscript that has a beginning, middle, and end, with a plot that makes sense, characters that are alive and engaged with each other, and a colorful setting—whatever else is wrong with it can be improved.

starsIf your spirits are sagging, along with the middle of your story, don’t give up. Take an online writing course, find a critique partner, trust a friend who loves reading your genre. If you’re ready to listen and learn–and take helpful criticism to heart–there are techniques you can learn to improve your writing.

Did anybody sit down and draw like Michelangelo after a few tries? Play like the master cellist Pablo Casals? Till his death at 96, Casals practiced every day “because I feel as though I’m making improvements.”

You get better at it the more you write. No one else brings to your manuscript the same life experiences that color the characters, setting, and plot that you are writing. Your story is important.


I know a little about writing mysteries and the craft of telling stories. You might check out my eBook series on “Writing Your First Mystery.”



The Perseid Meteor Showers – 2016

Last night I witnessed the Perseid Meteor showers from a nearby peak in the Central California mountains. A huge, yellow half moon hung in the sky overhead and the stars were bright.

Of course my friends and I were not the only people excited about seeing the best viewing of the meteor showers at their yearly peak.  Nearby Mount Pinos is a popular viewing star-tracks-1247850__180  spot for amateur astronomers for what’s called dark-sky observing in the summer and fall months.  (MP)

A large paved, flat area lies at the end of the road that leads you up and up a twisty mountain road to 8300 feet. There were hundreds of people already there at 1:00 a.m. Maybe there were more. It was dark. As we parked the car and neared the center of the lot we got a lecture on good observing manners from an informed amateur astronomer who kept telling us she didn’t know anything, but obviously was more informed than we were.

You could only guess who the people were because it was so dark and chilly. We donned parkas, hoodies, and gloves. Did I mention it was chilly? And dark?

What impressed me was the respectful hush. This was hardly your hooligan football crowd. Voices were low, car lights were turned off immediately out of respect for the astronomers. The night was as silent as it gets amid hundreds of people. Parked cars ringed the lot along with RVs and camping vehicles. People had driven hours  to get out of their cars and turn their eyes skyward.

Knots of people gathered around telescopes and cameras set on tripods in low-voiced conversation about the technical challenges of astronomers and astrophotographers. I’m told the regulars know each other and take observing seriously. In winter the lot hosts the nordic base camp for x-country skiing and is the base for several surrounding campgrounds.

space-1106759__180The four of us placed our blanket on the pavement, lay back, and got ready for the show. Wow! Flash! Streak! “Did you see that one!” Swift as a camera flash they darted across the sky. Gone in a moment. No do overs. A transitory moment.

You had to be looking at exactly the right sector of the sky to see them, and heads don’t exactly rotate on a stalk which would have been convenient. Observing requires patience. The comet is not casting off meteor showers every second.

What got in my way was having recently seen a fireworks competition in Montreal. The largest pyrotechnics competition of its kind in the world, the Montreal International Fireworks Competition has been going strong since 1985 and remains one of this city’s top summer attractions.

The occasional Wow! Flash! streak of a meteor across the sky didn’t compare and I didn’t try.  I was there on a mountain peak with my friends enjoying a wondrous show that people everywhere in the world were seeing, perhaps not all at the same time. But we had all stayed up  late and carved out  a moment from the secular world to sense the infinite.

For once the world was united in a common experience.


Join me if you like in reading other observations about life, crime, writing, and living in the world.




The Fickle Crime Fiction Muse

The hard work of writing my crime fiction novels has brought me joy, some success, and even enjoyment, this setting down of dark crime fiction for others to read.

But once in a while the passion fades. And it becomes plain work that I just don’t want to do. I learned long ago that you can’t publish a fine book and hope that it will attract readers. Sadly it doesn’t work that way.

What I don’t enjoy is the constant striving that’s called marketing. To me, it feels like pushing and shoving, shouting and grabbing. I wish I could believe that I have written a crime novel that everyone in the world will love and it’s my duty to share it with them. That’s what you need to spend your own money to find readers. To jump up and down waving your book at passing traffic to get attention.


Yet the murder mystery game has introduced me to some fine people, other writers and fans of the genre. These writers’ conferences I go to are fun. I still love to read crime fiction. I love to keep track of other writer’s lives and writing careers.

I’ve enjoyed the chance to say what I really think about the way we behave in this wrong-headed society we live in. Writing a mystery allows you to sneak in a little social commentary, to put words in character’s mouths and arrange them in situations that light up your own world view. Damn little chance, though, or readers rebel. You can’t get preachy.

Maybe there isn’t the same mystery in the game for me nowadays. I’ve learned, over the course of many year’s study, as much about police procedure in big and small departments as is necessary to know to create a fictional world that is convincing. I’ve learned something about story craft, character creation, and storytelling. I’ve got some chops, a little inborn talent. What I’m lacking right now is momentum.

I’ve got a crime novel in the can that’s been edited and proofread, another eBook nearly completed on the craft of writing mysteries, and enough short stories to put together to make another book—and I just don’t have the energy or purpose right now to take the next steps to bring them into the market.





I don’t know yet where these feelings will take me. For one thing, they’re feelings and feelings come and go. Facts remain. I’ve had some success measured by modest sales and visibility.

I’m waiting for my Muse to sneak up behind me and crash a picture frame down over me so that I can see my reality with a new perspective. The answer probably isn’t falling in love instead of taking a break from writing.  Or taking up an absorbing interest like golf? Moving to Montreal? I love Montreal, but oh, the winters.

I do know that the Psyche always provides what is needed. Not always on demand. Usually the answers are found in the application of fingers to keyboard. I know now to keep writing through the hard times, exploring a short story perhaps. Plenty of ideas came to me while I was in Montreal recently.

Perhaps when I say it out loud like this, I’ll hear myself finding that springboard to launch myself off into what’s next in life. It could happen. My fickle crime fiction muse will return.

And how do you get yourself out of fallow periods like this?


Critique Groups and Beta Readers

Writers with more than one publication seldom work alone without help from a critique group, a writing partner, or a paid editor. This means they are sharing their Work In Progress (WIP) or completed drafts with peer reviewers. Good writers will acknowledge that feedback from an impartial viewer  can spot loose ends, plot holes, sentences and even paragraphs that flap like a flat tire.


Other lucky writers have an in-house partner or best friend who is that impartial reader who can give feedback on the WIP. But often people who love you can’t articulate how  to fix a particular fault in a manuscript. Other writers can.

Often successful writers will workshop WIPs through a critique group.  The most useful group in my case are fellow crime fiction writers. Poets, memoir or screenplay writers operate with different rules and structure.

Usually members send around an agreed upon amount of pages by email in the week before the meeting. Reading aloud pages at the meeting is not as useful as  printing out that week’s submission and returning it with comments marked up on the page. When you’re reading your own work you can add inflection and meaning that may not lie there on the page. Plus you need a moment to reflect before opening your mouth and offering opinions on what you just heard.

The best critique groups are small and composed of your peers who are writing at your level. You don’t want to be the beginner in a group of seasoned pros.

Your role is to help group members write well. Their goal should be to help you write the book you want to write. Take care not to rewrite your work according to the strongest voice in the group, or the most published member. Record comments so you can listen  later. If you’re anything like me, you stew over the negatives and forget all the positive things that were said.


A bad critique group can sabotage you to the point you want to go home and drown yourself. Don’t commit yourself to a new group right away. Be very careful who you entrust your work (your heart) to. Listen to how members give feedback.  Is it kind? Is it helpful? God knows it’s hard enough to write without some mean-spirited hack sniping at you out of jealousy.

Editing and writing are separate skills. The best writer may not give the most helpful feedback, or may not be able to articulate weaknesses in your writing, and more importantly, how to fix them. If you want to get more from your group, give more. Read each submission carefully and give it all the time you can afford.

If you catch yourself saying, “My critique group loves it. I’m not changing anything,” watch out. Your critique group is not every reader.  For that you need precious beta readers. Anyone you can hornswoggle into doing this is valuable to some extent. Beta readers are fans of the genre you write in and willing to read the entirety of your best first draft. They are somewhat similar to your critique group members, but your critique group may have read Chapter IV seventeen times. Beta readers have fresh eyes.

It’s not easy finding the right critique group or partner. Personalities, writing styles, and time commitments get in the way. Applying seat of pants to chair for the long periods of time necessary to write well is a lonely enterprise. Letting the right people into your writing life can ease the I Wonder Why I Bother syndrome.

What are your experiences with a critique group or with beta readers?

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A Reader’s Attention Span

freee ebook downloadHow long do you give a new book to hook you? Readers of contemporary fiction don’t have the attention span and discretionary time that readers had in the 1900s. Or even a decade ago. Now, readers will skim until they get to the point where something interesting happens. Or they put down the book and never finish it.

Thousands of pages have been written on the topic of the first five pages of your manuscript. According to agents and acquisition editors I hear speak at writer’s conferences, those first few pages are the make or break point.  They determine whether you’re going to be offered a contract, or get a call from an agent willing to take you on.

If your fiction–short story, personal essay, or novel—doesn’t connect, the editor or agent will never get to the good part where the story really takes off. It may be there in chapter two, around page 20, but if there’s a typo, or a dream sequence, a flashback, your piece is flipped face down on a towering pile of rejects.

Sometimes there’s a typo on page one. A misspelled word. A cliché that’s so old and hoary the agent—or reader—groans. Something like:  “Little did I know that today would be the day I would meet _____ and my life would change forever.” These are strong indicators that bad writing, more cliches and typos are piled high in the pages ahead.

Today we start the story when something happens to tip the protagonist—the teller of the story—into a world of trouble. He’s been sailing along in the world of finance, say, or kick boxing or Tenth Grade when something happens.  Something big that’s going to knock him flying. This captures the reader’s attention.

The protagonist is presented with a problem that will carry him to the finish of the story, where to some extent he has solved the problem, done something that he couldn’t do in the first pages, grown and changed along the way.

New writers think they have to work in the back story, fill in what’s been happening to the central character or characters or readers for the last five years. They worry that readers will be left not knowing what’s going on. I’m of the opinion that readers are at least as smart as I am. What went before can be implied, or filled in later in the story.

But if I open with my character rambling around in his head about Wall Street or the Indochinese family of kickboxing sports, I’m losing readers who couldn’t care less.  They want to see something happen.

They don’t have to know how my protagonist—the detective in my case—got his first job as a stockbroker, or became a kick boxing champion. If I throw a likable character into the fire in the first few pages, they’ll keep reading. We fill in ourselves. What would I do if I discovered a major fraud by my trusted employer friend? How would I enter the cage if I knew my opponent had all but killed the last guy who went up against him?

That’s part of the joy of picking up a new book. What would I do? Would I catch the clue the murderer left? Would you?

Check out for yourself how long you give a new book to hook you. Check out my first three Santa Monica crime novels in a boxed set.

Have I followed my own advice?


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The Books I Need

After what’s felt like a long, cold winter, I’m packing up my house, getting ready to move. I can’t bear the cold in my Central California mountain village. Since I grew up in northern Ontario, I know this is baby cold. I must have thin, runny blood since moving to California.

Moving means taking a look at the books I need in my life. I’m a fast reader and go through books way too fast. I’m always scrounging for something to read. Some of my books I want to keep, but which ones?

I mostly read fiction when I read actual books. I read nonfiction online, not that that makes a lot of sense. Since I write crime fiction, the fiction I read is—no surprise—crime fiction. But I’ve collected paperback and hard-bound reference books on police procedure, police science, and forensics. Those I keep.

I keep all the hardbound Margaret Atwood novels and the John Updike’s and the John Sanfords.

Most crime fiction novels I read once. Some of them I read all the way through and enjoy. Those I pass on to my mystery reader pals at Sisters in Crime Bakersfield meetings. They pass on books to me and these have collected in the six book shelves I have throughout my house. I go to writers conferences and there are always books available and books for sale.

I’m looking at those six book shelves now. The real estate person gave me that look that suggested I just might have hoarding tendencies. She says most of the books have to go.

This hurts. Naturally I’m not going to throw out the dictionary my parents bought me when I went away to university, or the Norton Anthology I used in my first English classes. This is where sentiment and nostalgia creeps in and I must suppress it ruthlessly. I don’t dare to go through the boxes of photos because of the avalanche of emotion.

When I was young and foolish I thought that having books on my shelves said that I was smart. I don’t care anymore whether people think I’m smart and that’s a freedom to put books in other people’s hands who will appreciate them now.

Some are going to the English teacher at the nearby correctional institute. Lots of inmates can’t read and using these books as teaching material makes me feel good about giving them away. Our nearest library is 18 miles away. Some will go to the Friends of the Library Sale.

I’m finally giving up my Guide to Literary Agents 2005. Some books don’t have any value to anyone.


Check out my newest eBook on Finishing Your First Mystery for tips to anyone having trouble completing your fiction manuscript.


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Left Coast Crime Conference

I’m off to the Left Coast Crime Conference 2016 in Phoenix this weekend, three days with my fellow fictional crime aficionados. During the excitement of registering on Thursday morning, meeting and greeting old friends, I will be given a conference tote bag that probably weighs 20 or 30 pounds. It’s like Christmas morning unpacking that tote bag.

I’ll find a thick conference program that outlines each day’s events and panels. The panels are your chance to see and hear an author you admire interact with three other panelists and a moderator, fielding questions about their craft, their process, or their plot and characters. Authors on panels are expected to be informative and entertaining and open a window into the life of a working crime writer.

For example one hour-long panel: 5 Shades of Violence: How much should you have in a mystery? David B. Schlosser (Moderator) with Lisa Alber, Brett Battles, Glen Erik Hamilton, and Lori Rader-Day.  They span the gamut from a little violence to a lot. Here’s the panel I’m on: Murder is My Business: The pros, cops as protagonists. Robin Burcell (Moderator) Matthew Iden, Janey Mack, Lisa Preston, and myself.   We all write what is known as police procedurals, that is fiction where the story is told through the point of view law enforcement of one kind or another.

The tote bag will also contain free books from an author or a publisher promoting an author’s new work. The books range from cozies to hard-boiled and lots in between. Graphic violence, sex, and world view determine how these books are classified: with cozies the violence and sex take place off screen and the mood is light. With hard-boiled fiction the murders are bloody, the sex is steamy, and the characters can be amoral, and definitely the mood is dark and the world view jaded. We all like something different.

In a drift at the bottom of the tote bag are postcards and bookmarks. Editors and proofreaders advertise their services as well, as well as publishers. Bookmarks can be the traditional narrow strip. Authors with a number of titles choose a larger, wider format. Book marks can also be found in the hospitality room where people meet to take a breather and grab a cup of coffee between panels. It’s a great place to strike up a conversation with somebody you don’t know. Most everyone is there to network and meet someone new.

Not everyone who goes to writers conferences is an author. Readers and fans come as well for a chance to follow an author they like to the signing table to buy a book and have a moment’s conversation. Authors come to meet publishers and agents. One agent tells the story of being followed into a bathroom and having a manuscript slid under the stall door. This is not the way to get the attention of an agent.

Each conference I attend features an hour-long interview in a ballroom with a notable author. This year Tammy Kaeler (who writes about murder in the world of auto racing) will interview Ann Cleves, Gregg Hurwitz, Catriona McPherson, and Chantelle Aimee Osman.  If any of these names are unfamiliar to you, they are well known in this world and worth checking out.

The author/reader breakfast is fun. Each author pitches about their work for two-minutes moving from table to table around the ballroom filled with readers and other authors. It moves fast—just enough to intrigue a reader with the general nature of an author’s work. Perhaps a mention of a particular location or type of crime is enough to make you remember an author’s name and check it out when you get home.

These conferences are open to anyone. They move at a breathless pace and when you’re overwhelmed there’s the hospitality room or the hotel lobby to slow down and catch your breath. You often find other authors doing the same thing. Many authors are extroverted introverts like myself. There’s a crank we can turn in the middle of the back to turn on the glittering, outgoing personality for a time, but by nature we need the solitude and meditative silence to polish the crime stories we all love.

Think you’d like to attend? Ask me about the next one. Maybe we can go together.




Sisters in Crime LA Chapter – A Sigh at Leaving the Board

I am leaving the board of directors of Sisters in Crime Los Angeles chapter, ending my two-year term with the Holiday party at the South Pasadena Women’s Club. I want to say thank you to my fellow board members, the Sisters and Misters for the chance to learn from you. All seasoned mystery writers, they have made the 210-mile round trip drive to Los Angeles worthwhile and pleasant. And taught me a lot.

Each year the Los Angeles Chapter either puts on the California Crime Writers Conference or publishes an anthology of member’s writing. I observed and participated in the behind-the-scenes details of staging a sell-out conference. Thirteen stories were accepted by the anthology editors and I watched and learned how those anthologies are being marketed.

Over twenty-four Sunday afternoons at the South Pasadena Public library, I was part of the audience to welcome speakers from all walks of the crime fiction life. Here’s a sample: Pis, forensics experts, the Secret Service, FBI, LAPD and well-known mystery writers sharing the lessons of the craft.

Now I’d  like to share what I learned. An opportunity to launch a Bakersfield chapter of Sisters in Crime has arisen at the suggestion of Cherry Mattias, DVM, a fellow mystery writer.

Our first guest speaker, Marilyn Meredith, a Valley writer is the author of close to 30 published books, including the Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery series and the Rocky Bluff P.D. series. For 10 years she taught for the Writer’s Digest School, served as an instructor for the Maui Writers’ Retreats, and has given presentations on my writing subjects for many different groups. She’s a member of Mystery Writers of America, three chapters of Sisters in Crime, and blogs regularly for The Stiletto Gang, Make Mine Mystery and Ladies of Mystery as well as her own blog where she also hosts many authors.

Our plan is to reach back into the Sisters in Crime Los Angeles chapter and invite the many fine writers I’ve come to know over these last two years as speakers in our fledgling chapter.

Please wish us luck. I want to keep in touch with all of you I’ve come to like and admire.