On the Case

October 4, 2009 - 12:57 pm

Despite living in a competition-soaked society, I’ve never been big on contests. Somehow the win-win model has always been more appealing.

But that changed a few months ago when I heard about the Minotaur Books/Malice Domestic Competition for the Best First Traditional Mystery Novel (http://us.macmillan.com/content.aspx?publisher=minotaurbooks&id=4933).
The competition is open to all first-time authors who have penned a mystery in the “cozy” tradition exemplified by Agatha Christie. So the ground rules are: no excessive violence or graphic sex, suspects and victims must be acquainted, the person who solves the crime must be an amateur, and the main characters must be, if not likable, then at least intriguing.

The sole winner will walk away with a book contract and a $10,000 advance. In addition, he or she will enjoy celebrity status at the annual Malice Domestic Convention in Arlington, Virginia, hobnobbing with the greats and near-greats of the mystery-writing world.

Other Competitions

St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books also sponsors three other prestigious writing contests: the First Crime Novel Competition, the Best Private Eye Novel Competition and the Hillerman Mystery Contest. (You’ll find rules for all three at the link above.)

For those wedded to mystery writing, In Reference To Murder offers a comprehensive list of competitions for novels, plays and short stories at http://www.inreferencetomurder.com/html/contests.html.

For other genres, a good place to start is the Writer’s Digest site at http://www.writersdigest.com/annual. The organization sponsors writing competitions in 10 separate categories ranging from spiritual/religious and memoirs to magazine feature articles, rhyming and non-rhyming poetry, and television scripts.

Writers Beware

Unfortunately, the world—and the web—are not always safe places. In the case of writing competitions, scams and snares abound, and savvy writers will want to research every contest carefully. For an excellent overview of the dangers, I’d suggest checking in with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America at http://www.sfwa.org/for-authors/writer-beware/contests/.

A Personal Update

This falls into the category of an-incident-that-will-seem-funny-to-me-somday-but-definitely-not-now. Soon after sending in my application for Malice Domestic, I received a notice informing me that all manuscripts are first screened by regional judges. Those deemed worthy are then forwarded to St. Martin’s editors in New York.

It all seemed reasonable enough. Until—with a little help from Google—I discovered that my screening judge was a reporter for the Grand Rapids Press.

So, in other words, a person who works for one of Michigan’s most conservative news journals and lives in the heart of the state’s Republican stronghold will be evaluating a manuscript that is quintessentially Ann Arbor, deals with a politically charged subject, and is left-of-center in its views and values.

The image of a snowball in hell comes to mind.

Of course, to be fair, it’s entirely possible that my Grand Rapids evaluator is someone who brings unimpeachable professionalism and objectivity to the task at hand. I'm holding on to that thought.

Stay tuned.

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October 2, 2009 - 10:09 am

What’s in a name? A great deal—when a book is involved.

As I mentioned in my last entry, the title Mantra for Murder  existed long before the novel came into being.  Proof of that lies in the musty, dusty boxes that clutter up our basement. Somewhere in all that moldering cardboard is a cache of Mantra for Murder notes dated 1988. Or 1989. Or thereabouts.

While I may not remember the exact year, I do remember the exact aha! moment when the phrase swam into my consciousness. I was immediately fixated on that title.  Felt strangely connected to it.  Even possessive.

So once the actual writing process was underway,  I began trawling  search engines on a regular basis, fearful lest some other writer might have scooped me and stolen “my” title.  Happily, for more than four years, the only references I could find  related to a phrase embedded in an obscure white paper delivered by a Scandinavian ambassador (no kidding) at a long-forgotten United Nations sub-conference. 

Safe! Or so I thought. 

But I’d forgotten that The Fates have an ironic sense of humor.

You know what’s coming…

I completed the book. Still no problems.  I began sending out queries to agents. That was when it happened.

After a lapse of several weeks, I’d decided to do a title search. And there it was: The Mantra for Murder Series, the meta-headline for a brand new  set of mysteries penned by Diana Killian.

Talk about a jaw-dropping, heart-stopping, fall-off-your-chair moment.

Once I could breathe properly again and had exercised every cuss word that came to mind, I quelled my incipient paranoia,  rolled up my sleeves, started doing research in earnest.  And discovered—amazingly enough—that, except in the case of a few highly specialized corporate publications, titles can’t be copyrighted. 

What to do?  This web site was already up and running. Queries had been sent. Besides which, my ornery DNA was fired up. So of course I refused to part with Mantra.

This is where you come in.

Until now, I’ve held on steadfastly to the title. Still, I’m not entirely comfortable with that decision. For one thing, there are marketing considerations such as the inevitable confusion of books and brands.  For another, it’s more than a little humiliating to be using a title appropriated by someone else—in such a public way.

And what about the rightness of it?  The ethics? (To get a reading on that, I should probably confer with Jeanine DeLay, chief blogger and civic ethicist at http://www.A2Ethics.org.)

What would you advise?  Hold on? Or let go? Fight? Or desist? Stay with the old?  Or try something new?  Toss a coin? Consult the I Ching?  If you have thoughts on the subject, please share them. I could use some fresh thinking on the subject.


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September 29, 2009 - 10:17 am

I’m not sure if the launch of any new blog, including this one, qualifies as an achievement or an embarrassment. After all, at last count there were more than 150 million bloggers toiling away. Does the world really need another one?

But I do want to stay in touch with those who have shown interest and support—and who may be curious about the future of Mantra for Murder. And curious as well about trends in publishing and agenting, about writing, book competitions, the art of crafting book proposals, options in self-publishing, and even more daunting topics such as the future of the book.

So this blog will be a grab bag of ideas and topics, all related in one way or another to books in general and mystery novels in particular (including mine). One regular feature will be the Critic’s Corner which—by mid-October—will also be accessible through http://www.goodreads.com.

Thanks for reading! I hope you’ll join in the conversation through the “contact” link on this site.


At the Ann Arbor Writer’s Conference last May, keynote speaker and best-selling author Elizabeth Kostova (The Historian) noted that she had spent ten years researching, writing and refining her novel. Ten years! I was more appalled than impressed—until I realized that my own journey into fiction writing had begun nearly five years earlier.

The Happy Part

For nearly two decades, Mantra for Murder was a title in search of a plot. All I had to show for my efforts was a dog-eared file overflowing with character sketches, failed outlines and pages of abandoned first lines, first paragraphs and first chapters. Somehow, nothing jelled.

Then came the 2004 presidential election, a.k.a. Black Tuesday. And by Wednesday morning, I had my plot. In a weird way, it was as if the book took off at a gallop and was daring me to catch up.

There were setbacks along the way, among them a so-called “buzz expert” at one Ann Arbor Book Festival who was offended by Paul (my favorite character, who happens to be gay), who rolled his eyes at the politically flavored plot, and who assured me in bombastic tones that the novel would fail. It took me six months to stop believing him and start believing in myself again. But in May of 2008, I had the soul-satisfying pleasure of writing the last paragraph of the last chapter.

That’s the happy part. Before I knew about the dire state of the U.S. publishing industry, the gate-keeping system of literary agents, the tremendous commercial expectations placed on writers and their work, and the shape-shifting tendencies of “the book.”

The Mysterious (and Maddening) Part

Timing, they say, is everything. And in the case of Mantra for Murder, my timing was very bad indeed. In fact, it couldn’t have been much worse.

When a former vice-president of Borders Books, a friend of a friend, agreed to make a few phone calls to publishing contacts on my behalf, he came away shocked and amazed. Every conversation, he said, was the same conversation. The new strategy: trimmed lists, a focus on name-brand authors and sequels, and a virtual moratorium on new, untested writers.

What that man learned from his publisher friends underscores the fact that the very future of the book as we know it is in jeopardy—from forces economic, technological and cultural.

For years, reading for pleasure has been in decline. Which is bad enough. But suddenly Kindle® and its relatives are challenging—and to a large degree replacing—paper-and-ink. Suddenly books are being uploaded, downloaded, shared, forwarded. Suddenly on-line readers are being asked to judge which manuscripts deserve hard covers and shelf space. Suddenly tens of thousands of desperate writers are self-publishing. Suddenly literary agents are refusing even to consider new writers and those who do are going out of business. Suddenly bookstores are folding and fading, giving way to cyber sellers. Suddenly established authors are admitting that the most successful writers are of necessity the most successful marketers.

Suddenly the industry is in free fall.

In Pursuit of “The Book”

And there are so many related questions: What makes a book, a book? What will books be in the future? And where will they be? In bookstores? In cyberspace? On web sites?

I don’t have answers. But I do have trusted guides. One of them is Karl Pohrt, former owner of Shaman Drum Bookstore and an expert way-finder in exploring the future of the book. In recent years, Karl has moved from guarded optimism (http://blogs.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendId=1498849...) through profound loss (http://annarborchronicle.com/2009/02/17/column-open-letter-from-a-distre...) into a state of open-minded, open-ended dialogue and discovery as he explores “the culture of bookishness” for annarbor.com (http://www.annarbor.com/entertainment/books/welcome-to-annarborcom-bookl...).

More than merely smart, Karl is wise. And experienced in the ways of the book world. If his ideas provoke any thoughts on your part, I’d love to hear them. And if you know of other worthy thinkers on the subject, let me know who they are.

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For more information about Mantra for Murder
Phone: 734/761-8440 • Email: lindafitz@mantraformurder.com