Guest Post: Karen McCullough

Welcome guest Karen McCullough, author of Hunters Quest!

What Writers Can Learn From Clickbait

Hunter_final2_200I fall for it all too often: those enticing little boxes at the bottom of news stories or in sidebars on many sites.  They always feature an intriguing image and promise to tell you about the best ten movies you’ve never seen, or the twenty worst celebrity plastic surgeries, or fifteen brilliant tips for paying off your debt. Those clickbait boxes are nearly irresistible.

In just a sentence or two and with a related image, they hook you into wanting to hear the rest of the story. Which is just what we authors are trying to do with our blurbs and book covers. Those clickbait boxes are very good at it. I know I’m not always so brilliant about hooks.

What can clickbait teach us about using covers and blurbs to hook readers?  I think I’ve identified four things. None of these are really new, but clickbait provides good illustrations for just how effective they can be.

  • Your story must have a strong hook and you have to be able to express it in just a sentence or two. That means your novel or short is built on a deep and significant issue or problem facing your protagonist, one he or she struggles to resolve. Novels, in particular, usually involve multiple layers of complications, so boiling down the main conflict two just one or two sentences isn’t easy. But easy or not, it’s essential that you be able to do it.
  • It has to be broadly relatable. Clickbait appeals to things that are intriguing to most people – curiosity, celebrity gossip, the fear we might miss out on something, and concerns about health and finances. Our stories have to be about what is most human in us – the need to satisfy our curiosity, the desire to understand ourselves and others better, our fears and insecurities. A story that doesn’t try to mine some aspect of the human condition or individual concern won’t be interesting to many people.
  • Don’t tip your hand all at once. Structure your story so that there are multiple questions to be answered, but be sure that answering one just leads to more questions and then more questions. I like to think of it as building a ladder of revelations that eventually lead to the overall solution to the main story problem. At the same time, you can start out with all the background.  You want your readers to care about the characters and events, so they need to meet them in action, in the depths of their issues and problems before you feed in how they got to that point.
  • Sound bites – You need a strong through-story-line to keep readers moving forward. In clickbait, the goal is to keep you clicking through slides so more ads can be served to you. That means that they release the full story in small pieces, ending each slide with a bit of a hook to make sure you want to look at the next one. Authors need to be building the story in a similar way, dropping hints and clues, setting up a larger story through smaller ones, and ending each chapter with a hook.
  • Keep the best for last – Don’t tip your hand too quickly. You want to wind the suspense so tightly, people can’t flip pages fast enough. And when you get to it, make it a doozy – a climactic fight, a hair-raising chase, the time bomb ticking down to the very last second. You want your readers to finish the story wrung out but satisfied.
  • Your cover is the equivalent of the little image that accompanies the clickbait tag. It conveys the obvious information of title and author, but the image itself should tell the reader something about the story too. Color, objects, people, fonts, etc. should all help build the mood and offer something to entice the reader. Whether it suggests mystery or terror or humor, it needs to show itself to the target audience in an appealing way that invites them to share an interesting ride.


Blurb for Hunter’s Quest

Kristie Sandford’s vacation is interrupted when a man jumps out in front of her car. She avoids hitting him, but when she stops to see if he’s hurt, he demands she help him escape from the people chasing him. Kristie has an odd “gift” – she occasionally gets warning messages, and she gets one saying he needs her help or he’ll die. Jason Hunter is an NC SBI (North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation) agent working on his own time searching for a friend, an investigative reporter who disappeared while tracking down rumors of corruption in the bureaucracy of a small mountain town. Jason is grateful to Kristie for rescuing him, but dubious when she insists she has to continue helping him. Kristie is attracted to Jason, but the edge of danger she senses in him reminds her too much of the abusive family she escaped as soon as she could.

Still, the message said he’d die if she didn’t help him, and the messages have been right before.







Karen McCullough is the author of more than a dozen published novels in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres and has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy. She’s also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards contests. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She has three children, three grandchildren and lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years.








The Dipped Hat: Adios to Longmire

longmire the hatDid anyone besides me binge-watch Longmire Season Six? Did you notice how many times Sherriff Longmire dips his hat? Seriously, they worked that image into every just about every scene he wore the hat, sometimes more than once.

So, what’s with the dipped hat? My theory is that if you can’t see his face, you can’t read his mood. Until he lifts his head, you have no indication what he’s feeling, what he may be thinking or what he’s going to do next. And, because he could lift his head at any minute, the dipped hat is a visual cue building up suspense. The filmmakers are training us to expect something significant to happen when Longmire dips his hat.

The dipped hat is more flexible, and so more intriguing, than hiding behind a mask. Darth Vader rarely takes off the mask. He stalks about the scene, cape snapping in the wind, growling threats. Even without seeing his face, after one movie, you pretty much know what he’s going to do. The Lone Ranger never takes off his mask and you have a good idea of what to expect from him. It’s the same thing with the masked super heroes: they don the mask, go out and kick butt.

In Jaws, we had the auditory cue: sinister music forecasting death-by-shark. It worked. But, to my mind, the dipped hat, because it is so subtle, and because the reveal can be anything: laughing Longmire, shooting Longmire, digging-a-hole Longmire, is-he-ever-going-to-kiss-Vic Longmire, the uncertainty of what is about to occur is even more suspenseful.

Mysteristas: What do you think? Is it possible to work in a cue like this into fiction without coming across as trite? Are you aware of a writer who used such a technique, well or otherwise?

Recognizing Endings

A writer friend of mine recently commented that she needed 15k more words to end her book.  But when she was 10k words farther along, she realized she needed yet another 15k words.

I had the opposite experience with the last two books I wrote.  Each time I thought I needed another 15k words to the ending, and then on further reflection, I realized that I was actually in the ending.

All of this makes me wonder:  how do we recognize an ending?  We know we have to resolve the main plot of the story, and in crime fiction that means loosely to restore order.  We solve the mystery, we release the tension of suspense, we account for justice  and the criminal in various ways, depending on subgenre.  But there’s more to an ending than resolution.

1.  Endings are also about timing.  When is the time right to end?

In short stories, the form dictates tightness.  In novel length, there’s room to wander after interesting plot threads.  But in the end, all those threads should come together.  In my last book, I realized that extra words really didn’t contribute to the wrap-up in the end.  It was just a detour, a way to put off writing the end.

2.  Endings are also about type.  Is it a “final” ending?  Or is it a pause?

In a stand-alone novel, all plot threads need to be wrapped up or at least suggested.  In a series novel, the ending is more like a pause until the next book.  While the main plot needs to be resolved, some plot threads carry over, to be resolved in later books.  The last book of the series hopefully resolves the questions accumulated throughout.

3.  Endings are also about tone.

When a story is light in tone, it will be punchy and more effective when its ending comes sooner rather than later.  More serious stories with more complex characters have room to grow, wandering down side paths that drive home the point.  There’s a risk in leaving these stories too soon, before the reader is emotionally ready to give them up.

4.  Endings are also about balance.

Long books can accommodate longer endings (defined as that portion of the book that takes place after the climax ends).  But when a shorter book has a longer ending, it feels out of balance, and it just seems to ramble on and on…

It’s not always clear when a book should end.  Endings make us scramble to find resolution and give meaning to what went before.  But one ending that IS clear is the end of our calendar year.  Here’s hoping the end of your year resolves exactly the way you meant!

Interview: Randy Rawls

Please welcome Randy Rawls, author of Jingle and His Magnificent Seven!

JMagSevenFinalWhat’s your idea of a perfect day?

Not something I give much thought to, but when forced to consider it, I suppose almost everyday is my perfect day. Being cancer free for three and one-half years after the diagnosis of Stage IV Head and Throat cancer has given me an appreciation for simply being alive. Every day I wake up is an extra day in my life and the beginning of a perfect day.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase/expression, or meal?

Oh yes. I wear a western hat with a gambler’s block and have been doing so for many years now. I’m well know for it. And my second is Killian’s Irish Lager. It appears in all of my books and on my table whenever it’s available.

Which books/authors inspired or influenced you the most?

None that I can specifically identify. I love good books and good writing. I like to think I learn a bit from each that I read.

Do you listen to music when you write?

Sometimes. I do best with sound in the background, so it might be music or it might be the TV. I don’t function well in silence.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?

Milk chocolate. My books are “clean,” no excess violence, foul language, or gratuitous sex. I trust my readers to have the imagination to read between the lines when required.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?

Jingle and His Magnificent Seven was inspired initially by the desire to write something for all ages (6 to 106). I had written several serious crime stories in a row and wanted to raise the humor level. However, I wasn’t far into J&HMS before it took a turn to the serious. While it kept some of its fun characteristics with Jingle popping in and out and Dot’s appetite, there is nothing frivolous about terrorist activities here in the USA.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?

How biased the media can be. In my next book, Saving Dabba, the media takes a drubbing, deservedly so in my opinion. Also, homelessness. My Beth Bowman series features a homeless group who have befriended Beth—and vice versa. I emphasize the plight of those who are truly homeless.

Tell us about your main character.

Jingle Bell. Jingle is a Santa Elf, the Santa-Elf-in-Charge (SEIC) of the Southeastern Region of the Santa Bureau of Investigation (SBI). He has been assigned to track down Rime, a rogue Elf, who broke into Santa’s computer and stole the Naughty and Nice Lists. When he discovers that Rime is negotiating with the leader of a terrorist cell, he realizes he needs human assistance. He eventually recruits seven human PIs to his cause. The first is Nep Thomas, soon followed by Nep’s girlfriend, Cassie. After that, we meet several of the characters I’ve written about in the past—Ace Edwards and Kit Carsen (Ace Edwards series), Beth Bowman (Beth Bowman series) and Josh Hawkins and Chief (Justice Secured). Bringing in my old friends made the writing much more pleasurable. And, of course, Jingle is happy because they are the Magnificent Seven who can help him achieve success.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.

Not sure this one is appropriate. Jingle is a Santa Elf. That’s pretty basic (and imaginary).

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?

Ken Follett, Earnest Hemingway, Michael Connelly, Harper Lee, Lewis Carroll, John Hart

What’s next for you?

Saving Dabba is my next to be published. It is book 4 in the Beth Bowman series. In it we go behind the scenes of a fanatical group who vent their anger by preaching hatred, marching in the streets, and creating chaos. Beth’s homeless friends, specifically Dabba, are caught up in their hatred. Of course, that makes Beth take a close up and personal interest.


RandyRawls2017Randy Rawls was born and reared in Williamston, North Carolina, a small town in the northeastern part of the state. From there, he says he inherited a sense of responsibility, a belief in fair play, and a love of country. As a career US Army officer, he had the opportunity to learn, travel, teach, and hone talents inherited from his parents. Following retirement, he worked in other ventures for the US Government. Every job has in some way been fun. Even the dark days of Vietnam had their light moments, and he cherishes the camaraderie that was an integral part of survival in that hostile world.

Today, he has short stories in several anthologies, and a growing list of novels to his credit. As a prolific reader, the reads across several genres and takes that into his writing. He has written mysteries, thrillers, an historical, and two fantasy/mystery/thrillers featuring a Santa Elf. The count is now at fourteen and growing. He is a regular contributor to Happy Homicides, a twice annual anthology of cozy short stories. He also has a series of short stories featuring a cattle-herding burro. Wherever his imagination will take him, he follows.

Snow daze

So, we had a little snow in the Northeast. The South getting hit with winter (here’s looking at you, San Antonio) is big news. Pennyslvania? Eh, we’re over it before the snow even accumulates. Listen, I can handle a pretty dusting every now and then, but I’m in a particular part of PA that has a brief autumn and six solid months of winter. I put the heat on in May. I spend most of January browsing real estate listings in Costa Rica. I can only tolerate so much.

So last week, my debut novel Grunge Gods and Graveyards had a Bookbub ad. A surprise my publisher sprung on me at the last minute. If you don’t know what Bookbub is, it’s a daily email newsletter with a list of top ebooks on sale that is tailored to readers’ genre interests. To get an ad is a big deal. It means a lot of visibility and a huge spike in sales. And getting an ad means sales on subsequent titles, which happened for GG&G’s novella mystery. I even saw a boost in sales for an entirely different mystery series.

Writers pour their hearts out into their work. They bleed for their art, and there are two awful things that can happen. People read the work and hate it, or people don’t read the work at all. Art is meant to be shared, discovered, and loved. It’s a passion for those who create it, but it also stirs up passion in those treasure it. As a writer, the worst is seeing lackluster sales on my titles. I am not a Big 5 author with a massive following (not yet, anyway), and so visibility is hard to come by. To see your Amazon ranking plummeting to oblivion, your reviews drying up, your sales tanking is disheartening. The work that goes into one book is monumental — not just the emotional turmoil (I’m the worst writer in the world. Everything I pen is crap), but the actual amount of time it consumes.

I wrote that debut novel when I was pregnant with my second child, although I had been fussing the story for years before that. Then I spent a full six months revising the story through Holly Lisle’s self-directed How To Revise Your Novel course. After my oldest son went to bed, I would go upstairs and work on fixing the book. No TV time with my spouse, no pleasure reading of my own, no laundry or household chores that needed to get done — I would just work. Figuring out whether I stayed true to the theme. Understanding my characters’ arcs. Fleshing out the setting. It was the most condensed writing education I had ever received. And it took up a lot of time. Grunge Gods didn’t get published until my third child was born many years later.

This BookBub ad will help my novel gain new readers. The reviews will come in, some people will hate it, a lot will love it, but at least people are reading it. That’s all I can ever ask.

Winter is a tough season for me. Snow often means no school and being stuck in doors. But I do my best work in the winter. When TV is on hiatus and you’ve seen every Netflix show there is to see, you lose the procrastination bug and you get to work. I love creating stories, but I don’t write just for myself. And I miss that reader feedback and interaction. I miss the connection.

And with that, my PSA: please review an author’s work on Goodreads and Amazon or wherever you buy books. Your reviews help other readers find the work, and it boosts an author’s visibility in a very crowded environment. If you love a book, tell people. If a piece of work connected with you, tell the author directly via Twitter or Facebook or email. We write because we have to, even when it’s dreadfully hard, but it’s worth it if we know it’s making an impact, no matter how small.

Guest Post: Judy Penz Sheluk

Welcome back to Judy Penz Sheluk, author of Skeletons in the Attic and The Hanged Man’s Noose!

Finding the Right Title

ACX Cover NooseIf you read mysteries and find a book with the title H is for Homicide, you’re likely to make the connection: this is one of Sue Grafton’s alphabet series. Ditto for Winter Prey: has to be John’s Sandford’s Lucas Davenport “Prey” series. Then there are the pun-y titles: Prose and Cons (Amanda Flower), Scene of the Brine (Mary Ellen Hughes), Plantation Shudders (Ellen Byron) and so forth. See a pun-y title, and it’s a good bet it’s going to be a cozy.

Of course, not all authors play by any particular rules. Consider Louise Penny. Her titles include Still Life, A Beautiful Mystery, and A Great Reckoning. No correlation there. Yet every author knows that a good title is important. Think In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, and you know this is going to be a dark tale of grisly murder.

When I started writing The Hanged Man’s Noose, the first book in my Glass Dolphin mystery series, the working title was The Blue Dolphin, the original name of the antiques shop that features prominently in the book. I changed the store’s name to the Glass Dolphin when a Google search led me to an actual antiques shop called The Blue Dolphin. But I also knew that a book called The Glass Dolphin (or The Blue Dolphin) wasn’t about to stand out in the crowd.

ACX Cover SkeletonsA few chapters into the book, Arabella Carpenter, owner of the Glass Dolphin, goes into The Hanged Man’s Noose for a drink and a sympathetic ear.  A local pub named after Samuel Lount, a real life nineteenth century politician who was hanged for treason, as soon as I came up with the name of the pub, I knew I had the name of my book.

My latest mystery, Skeletons in the Attic, started life as Calamity Barnstable, the name of my protagonist. Once again, I knew that was never going to work in the long term. And once again, inspiration came from the story itself. Here’s an excerpt:

The attic was every bit as creepy as I expected, a windowless, claustrophobic space, the walls and ceiling filled with pink fiberglass insulation, the air smelling faintly of mothballs. Given the padlock, I had expected it to be stockpiled with valuables. It wasn’t. There was a large leather steamer trunk that looked like it might be vintage, a newer trunk, bright blue with brass trim, and what appeared to be a picture triple wrapped in bubble wrap.

There was also a coffin, full-sized from what I could gather. I took a deep breath, resisted the urge to bolt out the cubbyhole entry, and inched my way over.

Unlike the attic, there was no lock on the coffin. I almost wished there had been, if only to delay the inevitable. I took another deep breath, put on the yellow rubber kitchen gloves I’d brought with me—I’d watched enough episodes of CSI to know the importance of not leaving fingerprints—bent down, and gingerly lifted the lid. It was lighter than I expected, but that didn’t stop me from dropping it abruptly. The thump echoed in the room, scaring me more than I could have thought possible.

Because what I saw lying against the cream-colored satin wasn’t a dead, decaying body, but a skeleton. One that looked decidedly human.

I had been ready to uncover some skeletons in the closet. A skeleton in the attic was another matter entirely.

A skeleton in the attic. As soon as I wrote the words, I knew that would be the title. Because I wanted to differentiate this work from my Glass Dolphin mysteries, I decided to go with “A Marketville Mystery,” Marketville being the name of the town where the story takes place.

Book 2 in my Glass Dolphin series is scheduled for publication in April 2018. The premise: a man is found dead at “hole in one contest” at a charity golf tournament, cause of death, a single gunshot wound to the chest. The title—you have to know it’s going to be A Hole in One.

So, what do you think? How important is a title in your decision to read a book? And have you ever read a book you loved, but almost didn’t read because of the title?


Judy Penz ShelukJudy Penz Sheluk’s debut mystery novel, The Hanged Man’s Noose, was published in July 2015, and in audiobook in November 2017. Skeletons in the Attic, the first book in her Marketville Mystery Series, was first published in August 2016, and will be re-released in trade paperback and all e-book formats in December 2017. The audiobook version was released in November 2017.

Judy is a member of Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and Crime Writers of Canada, where she serves on the Board of Directors representing Toronto/Southern Ontario.

Find Judy on her website/blog at, where she interviews other authors, shares “New Release Mondays” and blogs about her writing journey.

Find Judy’s books at all the usual suspects, including Amazon

GIVEAWAY: Sign up for Judy’s newsletter before December 13th for a chance to win an audiobook copy of either The Hanged Man’s Noose OR Skeletons in the Attic (winner’s choice). Sign up link:


A beginning and an end

December is a weird month.

In the Catholic calendar, last Sunday (December 2) was the first Sunday of Advent. The season of Advent marks the beginning of a new calendar year in the church. In a way, this means I’m at a beginning, much like January is the beginning of a new calendar year and September always feels like the start of something new because it’s a new school year.

But December is also The End. Father Time with his long, white beard is getting ready to hand things off to a brand-new Baby New Year (if you’ve seen the old Rudolph special from Rankin & Bass you’ll have a visual to go with those words). Snow covers the ground. Mother Nature is in hibernation. It feels like the perfect time to cuddle up with a book and a blanket, to look back at the year to see what’s been accomplished, what’s left to do, and what might be done better next year.

Hello, dichotomy anyone?

2017 was the year the universe reminded me this writing gig is a long haul. After so much success in 2016, I went 1 for 6 on submissions for the year. Humbling, ain’t it? Yet at the same time, I’d say the stories I wrote this year were better than some I’ve written previously. I have a number of lovely rejections from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine to show for it. I could let those rejections be “the end,” but I choose to view them more of a “not yet.”

The Girl (my 17-year-old daughter) is also feeling this “beginning-end” tug of war. In a couple weeks, she should receive a decision on her application to her college of choice. An acceptance means the beginning of a new phase in her life and education. At the same time, senior year is The End–the end of high school, prom, curfews, and the ability to rely on parents for all your meals and clean laundry.

So where am I?

Well, some things are definitely ending. After searching for an agent for two years, it’s time to consider other paths to publication. That’s an end…and a beginning. It’s time to close the book on some stories (at least for the time begin) and start new ones, something I’ve already done.

Maybe there is no beginning or end. Maybe time is more like the infinity symbol: looping and twisting, sometimes going up and sometimes dragging you down. Maybe this concept of “beginning and end” is just a human conceit.

See? December is a weird month!

But here’s a definite beginning! We’ve got exciting new things coming to Mysteristas in 2018 and we’re kicking off the year with a contest? You’ve seen our “peeping girl” icon (top of the page at the right). We’ve decided she needs a name and who better to name her than our readership? And we’re giving away a Kindle Paperwhite to the winner!

Here’s how to enter: Comment on this blog, or on our Facebook page, with your suggested name and a contact email address. The contest will be open for the entire month of December and over our scheduled holiday break. It will close at midnight on January 6. We will contact the winner and announce upon our return in January 2018.

And stay tuned for more awesome beginnings next year!