Saturday, December 3, 2011


by Chris Redding

Everyone asks writers where they get their ideas. It isn’t an easy question. The answers vary with each author and can even vary with each book.

Blonde Demolition, a thriller with some romance, is my latest release. This book is the confluence of two ideas. One is that Robert Crais wrote a book called Demolition Angel. I loved that title. Bought the book solely on the title and of course enjoyed it. He is Robert Crais after all. So I wrote the book I would have called Demolition Angel, but of course I couldn’t call it that. Thus was born Blonde Demolition.

The other is that for many years my husband’s volunteer fire company hosted a fair to raise money. Games, rides, food, and beer. The guys who ran the beer tent were an exclusive group, and I was one of only a few women they let pour beer. We called them The Beer Gods. They often bugged me about writing a book about them. When I searched for a location to begin Blonde Demolition, I came upon the fair. Think about how hideous it would be to set off a bomb during a local carnival. Maybe not a big target, but there isn’t a lot of security, so one could easily plant a bomb. And no one would be expecting it. Thus was born the beginning of Blonde Demolition.

I had a lot of fun writing this book. The tension between Mallory and Trey kept me going until I wasn’t sure if they were going to resolve their differences. Trey is your typical bad boy. He knows about women, but he doesn’t really know about relationships. Mallory is damaged. She was an orphan who had never been adopted and therefore didn’t truly understand what family meant until she joined the fire company.

This made the story all that more interesting for me. Using my home state of New Jersey made the setting come alive. I knew the places I used very well.

As writers, we are absorbing items all the time. Places, ideas, plots. We never know when we will use them. They are part of our arsenal as writers.

If you plan to write, you also need to be an observer of the world around you. You never know when you’ll happen upon a character or a setting that you think you’ll use in a book. I often think about where I’d hide a dead body in the most innocuous of places. (Crayola Factory!) Never stop looking around. That’s the best advice I can give a writer.

I hope you’ll enjoy the end result. Blonde Demolition.


You just can't hide from the past...

Mallory Sage lives in a small, idyllic town where nothing ever happens. Just the kind of life she has always wanted. No one, not even her fellow volunteer firefighters, knows about her past life as an agent for Homeland Security. Former partner and lover Trey McCrane comes back into Mallory's life. He believes they made a great team once, and that they can do so again. Besides, they don't have much choice. Paul Stanley, a twisted killer and their old nemesis, is back. Framed for a bombing and drawn together by necessity, Mallory and Trey go on the run and must learn to trust each other again―if they hope to survive. But Mallory has been hiding another secret, one that could destroy their relationship. And time is running out.


Chris Redding lives in New Jersey with her husband, two kids, one dog, and three rabbits. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. When she isn’t writing, she works part time for her local hospital.

Other Books by Chris Redding:

Corpse Whisperer

The Drinking Game

Confessions: Volume One


A View to a Kilt


Saturday, October 29, 2011

Suspense: Creating and Sustaining it

My long essay "The Importance of Suspense in Mystery-Writing: How Authors Can Create and Sustain It--And Why They Must" (which appeared in installments on this blog) is now available as a single, unified publication able to be downloaded free of charge on my personal website:
Go to MY WRITINGS...ESSAYS...On Writing; find the file's highlighted title. It is published as Primetime Monographs #2. Click on the title and you will be linked to the master file for downloading. Enjoy.


Thursday, October 6, 2011

The 9 Best Mystery Books for Kids

Life is confusing for kids: Everyone’s taller than you are, you don’t know the rules, and most jokes go right over your head. The world’s one big mystery waiting to be solved, which might be why mystery stories have always had a special appeal for young readers. By jumping into books about underage sleuths, they get to identify with someone in a similar situation who’s also trying to figure out the world around them — and who gets to go one step further and actually solve the case. If you’ve got a young reader — or if you just want to relive a time in your life that was both simpler and endlessly complicated — give these titles a look.

1 The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin (ages 9–12)

Winner of the 1979 Newbery Medal, Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game is that rare children’s book that talks up to its readers, not down. The plot revolves around 16 people at an apartment building who are gathered to hear the will of local eccentric millionaire Samuel Westing. The twist is that the will is a series of clues that divides the group into eight pairs who are each challenged with solving the riddles and figuring out who killed Westing. It’s a smart, occasionally spooky book that’s perfectly pitched at middle schoolers, and at under 200 pages, it’s a quick read.

2 The Eleventh Hour, Graeme Base (ages 4–8)

Graeme Base’s animal illustrations are things of beauty, and his style made Animalia a work of art instead of just another book about the alphabet. The Eleventh Hour brings that style to a dinner-theater mystery aimed at younger readers that’s still a pleasant experience for older ones. The stakes are predictably low: The crime is a missing meal, not a mangled corpse. Still, the artwork makes it a good choice for early readers who are starting to show their curiosity about the world.

3 Windcatcher, Avi (ages 9–12)

Another Newbery winner, Avi’s Windcatcher is a mix of mystery and adventure. It’s not quite the puzzle for readers that some of the other books on this list try to be, but that’s not really Avi’s goal here, either. The book’s a slender one even by YA standards (running maybe 130 pages) and its mystery comes in the form of buried treasure and lost shipwrecks. It’s a nice change of pace but still fun enough to get kids thinking.

4 The Maze of Bones, Rick Riordan (ages 9–12)

The Maze of Bones is the first book in the series The 39 Clues, and though author Rick Riordan (the Percy Jackson & the Olympians titles) had a hand in developing the overall story, the only book he actually wrote is this one. The book is centered on the Cahill family, a world-famous clan whose members include everyone from Mozart to Napoleon. The story kicks off when two young members of the family are given a choice after their grandmother’s death: take $1 million and just walk away, or search for the 39 Clues and change the world. What makes the mystery-adventure so engaging is the way it blends books with online media, tying websites to plot lines. A great choice for tweens.

5 The Mysterious Benedict Society, Trenton Lee Stewart (ages 8–12)

Published in 2007 (and followed by a pair of sequels), The Mysterious Benedict Society is a full-on novel for kids, running several hundred pages as it weaves a tale of gifted children who band together to solve a mystery and stop a villain from using his own gang of children to rule the world. The idea of a school for gifted kids is nothing new, but what makes The Mysterious Benedict Society work so well is that its heroes unite through brain and will power, not might or magic.

6 Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective, Donald J. Sobol (ages 7–12)

There have been more than two dozen Encyclopedia Brown titles published since the series started in 1963, and there’s nothing like the original for jump-starting a child’s puzzle-solving side. Donald Sobol’s books are engineered as mini-games for readers, and each "case" is brief enough to keep the pace from flagging. Generations have been raised on these books.

7 The Name of This Book Is Secret, Pseudonymous Bosch (ages 9–12)

Pseudonymous Bosch (real name: Raphael Simon) gets a lot of mileage in this fantasy mystery out of his sense of humor and commitment to making the act of reading a real experience. Most kids probably aren’t familiar with the idea of metafiction, but they know it when they see it: sly narrators talking about the story they’re telling, stories that become about themselves, etc. It’s Dr. Seuss, just dressed up a little. The Name of This Book Is Secret plays around with those ideas as it invites young readers to travel with a pair of children investigating a secret society, and it does so with such skill you can see why there have been three sequels to date.

8 Skeleton Creek, Patrick Carman (ages 8–12)

Skeleton Creek is a nice mix of horror and mystery, or at least the type of horror that’s palatable to 6th graders. What makes the book so rewarding is Patrick Carman’s epistolary style, roping in blog posts and journal entries to complete the story. Clues and passwords used in one part of the book allow the reader to explore an official site that ties into the other part. It’s a smart idea and a great way to present a mystery to younger readers who might find fiction daunting.

9 The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick (ages 9–12)

Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret was published in early 2007, and it’s the perfect children’s book for a generation that will be raised on mash-ups. Running more than 500 pages, the book is a mix of text and illustration that uses both to tell a story, and it’s that blend of picture book and graphic novel that makes the experience so enchanting. It’s a winning story, too, revolving around an orphan who lives in a Paris train station in the early 1900s and finds himself drawn to the clocks and gears that remind him of his absent father’s passions. A good read for all ages.

Jay Smith

Criminal Justice Degrees Guide

Sunday, September 4, 2011

When Well-planned Book Marketing Stategies Fail

When Well-planned Book Marketing Strategies Fail

The occasional failure of well-planned and well-executed promotional efforts to generate book sales is an issue that perhaps requires more discussion than it normally gets. In marketing my novel The Farringford Cadenza I’ve experienced two such failures which colleagues might find interesting (and even useful). I certainly find them interesting—as well as irksome and puzzling. I’m sure some of you have had comparable experiences you might like to share.

It’s always disappointing when a well-planned marketing strategy fails to produce sales; and it’s particularly frustrating when, to the best of your ability, you’ve done everything “right”: identified the target audience, done the necessary research to design promotional materials for an effective “pitch”, and delivered those materials into the proper hands. On two occasions while promoting my mystery The Farringford Cadenza (The Pikestaff Press, 2007), I’ve found that—contrary to logic and counter to informed intuition—my hopefully scattered seeds fell on stony ground.

CASE 1. Since the novel has classical music as one of its chief components, and its main action is organized around the avid pursuit by a number of diverse characters of a missing manuscript of a cadenza for solo piano, it seemed to me that professional musicians would be a logical niche audience to receive promotional materials. These materials consisted of a letter that described the book (briefly summarizing its action), depicted its cover, and provided purchase information. In addition to the book’s being well reviewed in a number of venues, two concert pianists and the former principal flute of the London Symphony Orchestra had praised it, and these endorsements were included in the materials.

To obtain my list of professional musicians, I researched the teaching faculties of all the nation’s major conservatories and university music departments. I list them here not to be pedantic, but to show the number of schools and their geographical distribution: Boston Conservatory, U. of Cincinnati, Curtis Institute, Eastman, Juilliard, Levine School of Music, Manhattan School of Music, U. of Maryland, New England Conservatory, Oberlin Conservatory, Peabody Conservatory (located in Baltimore, MD, where much of the book’s action takes place, and which enters into the story, though under a different name), San Francisco Conservatory, USC at Los Angeles (Thornton School of Music), Cleveland Institute, Yale, Indiana U. (Jacobs School), Interlochen Arts Academy, Blair School of Music (Vanderbilt U.), Bard College Conservatory, and Illinois Wesleyan University.

From these various institutions, I selected the faculty members who were to receive promotional materials on the basis of (1) their instrumental specialties (piano, flute, trumpet, violin, etc.), (2) their academic interests (composition, theory, musicology, etc.) and performance histories, (3) where they had done their own training (and particularly if they had studied at Peabody), and (4) what their non-musical interests were (writing, reading, collecting). From the twenty schools of music I selected 369 individuals whom I thought would be the most likely to find my promotional materials interesting. I assumed that if they purchased the book (and liked it) they would tell their colleagues and friends, lend their copies out, and purchase additional copies as gifts (a promotional ripple effect). My timing had the letters arrive in early autumn, well in advance of holiday gift-buying. Altogether, I spent almost three months doing research, selecting recipients, and preparing and mailing the 369 customized cover letters. These efforts resulted in one sale—an outcome that I found not only disheartening, but baffling.

The niche marketing strategy had seemed valid: contacting a carefully selected group of musicians (performers, composers, musicologists, etc.)—teachers all, deeply committed to music, and to nurturing the next generation of practitioners. The flatline response was not only contrary to what I perceived to be the logic of my plan, but counter-intuitive as well. Was I na├»ve to think that musicians would be interested in my novel? Is it possible they don’t read mysteries, or for that matter, any sort of fiction? Are they too busy teaching, performing, traveling, and practicing to read at all? Was there something about my promotional materials that didn’t resonate with 368 diverse people? Having carefully crafted my pitch, I’m at a loss to know how I could’ve improved it. I find this non-response a real-life mystery that I haven’t yet solved.

CASE 2. Two years ago I decided that I should make a concerted effort to market the book to public libraries. Because there are many hundreds of libraries in the United States, and my promotional budget is limited, it seemed reasonable to launch an experimental trial run before committing printing and postage money to a broad-based scattergun approach. Since much of the action of The Farringford Cadenza takes place in Baltimore and on the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, I focused on a regional effort, targeting public libraries in the State of Maryland and in Christiansted, St. Croix, where theoretically there would be local interest.

While Maryland has some prestigious freestanding libraries like the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, many libraries in the state are housed in County systems, in which a main library situated in a particular town has administrative jurisdiction over a variable number of branch facilities in other towns. When I was visiting my son’s family in Ellicott City, I asked the acquisitions librarian at Elkridge Branch Library (the one near his home) if Elkridge would consider purchase of The Farringford Cadenza. The librarian said that she didn’t have the authority to purchase books; that those decisions were made at the Central Library for Howard County, located in Columbia.

Using the website which lists all U. S. libraries alphabetically by State, with addresses, I compiled a list of Maryland libraries and obtained the address of the public library in Christiansted. I decided to pitch my inquiry to the chief or main library in each of the Maryland County systems. It seemed logical to assume that if the acquisitions staff at a particular main library purchased the book for their collection, they might make a blanket purchase for all the branches in their jurisdiction.

Back in Illinois with my targets identified, I again prepared promotional materials: a letter with a brief description of the book, depiction of the cover, and the endorsements as before, with an order blank for purchasing. But in these materials, I highlighted that the action took place in Baltimore (or respectively, in Chistiansted) as a detail that might catch the staff’s interest, and included ISBN and LCCN (Library of Congress Control Number). As a special incentive, I announced in large font that libraries purchasing directly from the publisher would receive a discount of 33 1/3% from list price ($10.63 net for a book priced at $15.95).

In all, there were thirty libraries on my list. I printed the customized letters and once again stuffed envelopes and affixed first-class postage. Later, in May, 2011, I arranged (free of charge to me) for Association Book Exhibit (ABE) to display the book in Ocean City at the Maryland Library Association convention, in the hope that seeing my book’s cover might jog the memories of County acquisitions staff who’d received my materials. How many sales resulted from all these efforts? Not one. It was as though a black hole had swallowed everything.

I began my experiment by targeting libraries in the State of Maryland, thinking it stood to reason that interest would be relatively high in the region closest to the scene of action (Baltimore). But even if interest was quickened, it didn’t translate into sales.

In both of these cases I did the best I could to frame approaches that would generate sales. My research was thorough, my planning meticulous, my presentation and wording of materials carefully calibrated for specific recipients. In targeting the musicians, whom I saw as a logical and “natural” niche market, I tried to think outside the box. In targeting the Maryland libraries, I employed logic and a systematic approach that simply didn’t bear fruit. The question remains: if my efforts in Maryland were so futile, should I approach other libraries in other states with individualized mass mailings? Would a campaign in Oregon be more successful? Oklahoma? Minnesota? And should I try the Maryland libraries again? Marketing gurus tell us that frequently multiple exposures are required for an advertisement to impact a potential target: maybe on the fifth encounter the target will take notice and act on it. But to balance that, there’s a popular definition currently floating about that may be worth considering: “Insanity is when you try something and, finding that it doesn’t work, you try it again the same way, confident that the outcome will be different.” I’m not inclined to spend the time, energy, and money on continuing the experiment with 49 other states.

The library failure, like that of the musicians’ campaign, is frustrating and discouraging. But like many failures in promotion, its cause may lie in variables beyond a marketer’s control—external events, a bad economy, shrinking acquisitions budgets, habits of buying in bulk from jobber-distributors rather than directly from publishers. The musicians’ lack of response is more problematical.

Though they are disappointing, failures are inevitable accompaniments to marketing. Promoters must be prepared to take them in stride, as bumps in the road, and go marching on. Good marketers must think outside the box, using analysis and imagination to discern potential new markets and to devise innovative and effective ways of reaching them. And in planning strategy, they must strive always to do everything “right” as the best hope for achieving success.


Personal website:

Pikestaff Press website:

Also published on Murder Must Advertise blog (September 3, 2011)

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Book Cover Design

The timeworn adage asserts, "You can't judge a book by its cover". True enough. But if it's an effective cover in its design and content, it will provide a great deal of information about the book that will help the viewer in deciding whether to read or purchase it. For self-publishing authors, and for any authors who are able to exercise some control over the design of their book covers (because they either design the covers themselves, or hire someone else to do it with whom they're able to consult), it's essential to know what makes a cover effective. While I am going to focus primarily on books printed on paper, many of the principles discussed will apply to designing and creating covers for e-books as well.

Covers are extremely important: they can visually establish a "branding" icon for a book or for a series; they become identified with the text in readers' minds (recalling one will recall the other); and they help to sell copies. In the marketplace, I think poorly designed covers far outnumber those that are effective. This is a pity. But it does give those books with well-designed, effective covers a marketing advantage. An author may get only one shot at marketing a particular title, and a good cover may go far toward contributing to the success of that effort.

In designing a cover yourself, or in hiring a professional designer to do the job, there are several key principles to keep in mind which will serve as guidelines for planning and executing the cover's composition, and for evaluating its effectiveness.

First, it's an error to conceive a cover's overall design primarily as a graphic composition (a "pretty" picture) rather than as an esthetically-pleasing tool with work to do. This is a mistake that many designers make.

For, to be effective, a book cover must accomplish a number of objectives: it must (1) catch the potential reader/buyer's eye, (2) pique that person's interest and curiosity, (3) represent fairly the nature of the book (i.e., be congruent and consistent with the book's subject matter, theme, content, etc.), and (4) provide basic information useful to purchasers, reviewers, booksellers, and librarians (title, author, price, bar code, ISBN, publisher's imprint, blurbs (if any), and category ('a novel', 'poetry', 'how-to', 'humor', 'scholarship', biography, memoir, etc.)--all of this in a clear, uncluttered, legible, and quickly-graspable fashion. That's a lot of work to do.

In short, a cover is specifically designed to call attention to the book, attractively present it to the public, and convince the viewer to read or buy it. Visually, it must be sufficiently striking to stand out among (perhaps) hundreds of competing covers displayed on shelves, racks, or tables, causing the viewer to focus on it (even across a crowded room) and say, 'Hey, I want to check that out,' and go pick it up. A badly-designed cover can actually hinder sales.

Like record jackets and posters, book covers are a specialized and complex art form. They combine esthetics and "grab" with workaday information. [I think of Alphonse Mucha's work, Toulouse-Lautrec's and Maxfield Parrish's advertising art, and James M. Flagg's Uncle Sam pointing at the viewer to say "I Want You".] Esthetically, a book cover must satisfy three audiences: (1) the artist who designed it, (2) the author whose book it's announcing, and (3) the publisher, whose taste, savvy, and professional competence are being represented in the marketplace and to the world at large. If the author is a self-publisher, these three audiences may be one and the same.