Winthrop Risk, Detective




If you’re a lousy writer…

…what do you do?

A young woman recently posted on a Facebook page for self-published authors how painful it was for her to read the cruel reviews of her book on Amazon.  I read through the comments, and our fellow authors tried very hard to explain to her why the book was tanking.  They were amazingly kind and diplomatic about it.  Several went through the trouble of reading an excerpt and then offering a critique.

The young lady had apparently been through some traumatic experiences and wanted to share her fight with the world.  Her intentions were good.  She hoped reading her story would help someone in a similar situation.

The problem was, she couldn’t write her way out of the proverbial paper bag.  Her spelling was awful, and she didn’t seem to know the basic rules of grammar.  The spellcheck and grammar check functions on her computer were either ignored or disabled.  Her thoughts, according to other writers, were scattered and rambling.  The manuscript read like a very rough first draft.

They all gave what amounted to the same pieces of advice.  She had to pull the book.  She needed a professional editor.  She needed to revise, revise, revise.

To that I added that she should take a refresher course in basic grammar.  Yes, I said it nicely and encouraged her to continue to hone her craft.

I don’t know if she has it in her to become a good writer.  It isn’t enough to have a compelling tale to tell–you have to know how to tell it.

Look, we’re writers and we want to be published.  There’s no shame in that.  The shame lies in manuscripts that are clicked into existence before they’ve been properly bled over.

So, what’s a lousy writer to do?  Well, if you aren’t willing to do the work, stop.  You aren’t a writer.  You’re a wannabe with romantic notions about walnut-paneled offices, tweed jackets, and brandy snifters.  This is real life, not a Hallmark movie.  Get a grip.

Read.  Familiarize yourself with words and how other writers string them like lovely pearls across the page.

Reeducate.  Take a grammar course at your local adult education center or on-line.  All that sentence structure stuff Sister Margaret Mary tried to pound into your skull really does matter.

Read about writing.  I was having trouble getting started because I was trying to write straight through from beginning to end and knew nothing about plotting a story.  I found it helpful to read a couple of books about writing in my genre and figured out where I was going wrong.  But be careful not to let reading about writing take the place of actual writing.  That’s an easy trap to fall into.

Revise your manuscript again and again until you’re satisfied with it, and then give it to an impartial reader for a critique.  Writing groups are excellent for this purpose.

There is a certain wonderful drudgery to writing.  It’s exhausting.  It’s exhilarating.  It’s the most intense love/hate relationship you’ll ever have.  There are days you give up and swear you’ll never go back to it.  But a few days or weeks later, the Muse returns with flowers and chocolates and apologizes for being such a jerk, and off you go.

Finish the sentence for me:  Any job worth doing is worth doing __________.


I’m Not My Mother

I recently celebrated my birthday, which reminded me that I need to send for a copy of my birth certificate. Somewhere among Fort Dix, West Germany, and Michigan it was lost.

My birth certificate is something of a puzzle to me. I have five siblings, all with a first and middle name. My first name is Mary Jane but I have no middle name. My parents told me it was because my first name was a double name and a middle name wasn’t necessary. When you’re different from your siblings, you’re simultaneously proud of the distinction and hurt by it.

I accepted their explanation until I was about 17 and signing up for driver’s training at school. I had to produce my birth certificate and asked my mother to give it to me. I took it out of the envelope and read the details of my arrival, noting that I was born in the morning. But looking at it a second time, I noticed that it listed my first name as Mary and my middle name as Jane. Middle name? I don’t have a middle name. I’m Mary Jane, or “MJ” to family and friends. I’m not Mary. My mother’s name was Mary.

Surely, the folks who printed the birth certificate had misunderstood and listed my name incorrectly. A typo, that’s all. I would have to correct it. We were living in a different state at the time and this was long before the age of the internet, so I had to write a letter explaining my problem and send it via snail mail. A few weeks later, I received the necessary form and filled it out. My mother seemed a bit miffed when I asked her to sign it, though I didn’t understand why and knew better than to ask. I then had to mail it to my father for his signature, as my parents were long since divorced. I have no idea what his reaction might have been.

A few more weeks, and I received a corrected birth certificate. I had them list my first name as “Mary-Jane”, adding the hyphen to prevent confusion in the future. It never occurred to me to give myself a middle name. I was just MJ, as I had always been.

Had my mother not reacted the way she did when I asked her to sign the form to correct my birth certificate, I might have forgotten all about it. If you’ve read some of my earlier posts, you’ll know my mother and I had a very bad relationship. It didn’t start when I was a teenager. She just didn’t like me, let alone love me, and I knew that from the time I was a very small girl. Why, then, would she give me her name? I have two older sisters, one of whom was her favorite. Why didn’t she name her Mary? I find myself wondering about it. By the time I came along, my parents’ marriage was falling apart; and by falling apart, I mean they were openly hostile to one another. Did she name me Mary just to piss off my father? Did he then insist everyone call me Mary Jane instead of Mary, just to piss off my mother?

I can only speculate about my mother’s hatred for me, since it was always present. Her first child was a boy, followed by my two older sisters. Was she hoping that her next baby would be another boy? Did she think that would make things better with her husband? It was the early sixties after all, so that sort of thinking wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. Her sister had given birth to a boy just a month earlier.

The funny thing is that my father doted on me when I was very small. He said I was a beautiful baby who was born with a head full of dark brown hair. I used to sit in his lap. There’s an old home movie of him feeding me ice cream when I was about two years old. We used to take naps in his rocking chair. I wonder if my mother was angry because he didn’t hate me, because he wasn’t upset that I wasn’t a boy, and yet her marriage was still a disaster.

I’ll never get any answers, as both of my parents are dead now. By the time I was five, our apartment had become an emotional minefield. My parents never spoke and my father began to disconnect himself from his children. At least I know that he loved me for a few years.

To this day, it irks me when someone calls me “Mary” (no offense to all you Marys out there), and I’m lightning-quick to correct them. I’m MJ. I am not Mary. I am not my mother.

The 25th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards

I’m not one for contests; but a year after self-publishing my first book, I thought the publicity from winning a Writer’s Digest contest would help my abysmal sales.  Unfortunately, I didn’t win.  What I didn’t know when I entered was that each entry would receive its own critique from one of the judges.  To be honest, that made me a little nervous.  What if they hated it?

Each book was judged in six categories:

  1. Structure, organization, and pacing.
  2. Spelling, punctuation, and grammar.
  3. Production quality and cover design.
  4. Plot and story appeal.
  5. Character appeal and development.
  6. Voice and writing style.

In each category, a score of 1 (needs improvement) to 5 (outstanding) was awarded.

I scored “5” in every category.  Blew me away.

The judge’s commentary is below in its entirety.

“Winthrop Risk, Detective, is a lively mystery where Winthrop tries to find a missing hamster!  This book has some great lines in it.  Right from the start I knew I’d like it when I read, “I live in the big city, where dreams are broken…like a piñata at a birthday party.”  And that’s just the first simile.  One after another rolls off the page in perfect 40s noir.  There are no pictures in this book, but the cover fits the story well and grabs your attention right away.  The plot was strong, the red herrings were tricky and explained well, and the overall solution was believable.  All in all, the story was an absolute delight to read.  I only struggled a bit with a 40s noir-style so prevalent in a book for third graders (and younger) as they would likely stumble because of the “alternative language” of yesteryear.  I appreciated the definitions after chapter four, and think this book read from a parent to a child is an easy sale…but as a self-directed story, I think it might do better as an audiobook.  But I’m a bit divided.  This book is an excellent and thoroughly enjoyable read.  How can I possibly give it a negative mark in any area?  I think it may just need the right visionary or market to help it find a home.  I also suggest, because of the age group, teaming with an artist for an occasional piece of artwork that supports the story.  That would also add to the book’s length and perceived value.  You’ve definitely got a great book here, and a unique, memorable voice that I couldn’t help but read myself and then share with my entire family.  It made them as happy as a dog sitting under a toddler’s high chair.  We need more Winthrop Risk!”

Before I decided to self-publish (Amazon and Kindle, by the way), I did send the manuscript out to a few places.  Unfortunately, I got no response.  At all.  Not even an email.  I self-published based on my own confidence in my work and would do it again; but the judge’s review of the book, from someone who actually works in publishing, was still a surprise to me.  Clearly, my work has merit.  Why didn’t the houses I submitted the manuscript to think so?

As I’ve long suspected, the acceptance or rejection of a manuscript is a highly subjective decision.  Whatever you’re working on or currently shopping around, don’t be discouraged by those rejections or by the silence of no response at all.  When you’ve done the hard work of revision and polishing and know you’ve put together something wonderful, don’t doubt yourself simply because the person who pulled your manuscript out the slush pile can’t see it.

I wrote a terrific little book.  I hope you’ll check it out.  Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster available on Amazon and Kindle.

Happy New Year!


What Do Your Memories Smell Like?

I keep a bar of Yardley Flowering English Lavender soap, still in the box, on my desk.  I guess that requires some explanation.

When I was a little girl, I attended Our Lady of Angels school in Brooklyn.  We sat at  wooden desks with fold-down seats, an indentation to hold a pencil, and a hole that once held an inkwell.  We’re talking old.  The front and one side wall of the classroom held enormous blackboards that ran the length of the walls.  The windows were so big it took two kids to open one.  The girls wore itchy woolen uniforms.  We had both lay teachers and religious, both nuns and brothers, though the brothers only taught the upper grades at the time.

The nuns lived austere lives in the little convent across the schoolyard.  I had the chance to go inside the convent one day to help one of the sisters carry some boxes.  It was so clean and quiet.  The corridor was lined on either side with the nuns’ cells.  The floor was covered in brilliant blue carpet that muffled the sound of my hard-soled shoes.  A statue of Mary stood on a pedestal at the end of the hall, flowers resting at her feet.  I was living at the time in a two-bedroom apartment with my five siblings.  I was seven years old before I got my own bed.  Clean was impossible and quiet could only be found in the pre-dawn hours.  I wondered what it would be like to live in that clean, quiet convent where I could even have my own room.

Luxuries were something nuns were not allowed.  It was rumored they weren’t even allowed toothpaste, so they brushed their teeth with baking soda.  When the end of the school year came around, it was customary to give the teacher a little gift.  For the nuns, my mother always chose a gift box of Yardley Flowering English Lavender soap.  It was a gift they clearly appreciated–a welcome change from the plain soap they used every day.

The smell of that soap conjures up wonderful memories of the last day of school.  It was a day of watching the clock.  A day of sweating in the heat of an early New York summer.  There were no fans or air conditioners, and those big windows facing the treeless street only pulled in the heat beating down on the sidewalk.  I sat in my woolen green uniform, report card in hand, waiting for the bell to ring.  When it finally did, I felt the way I imagine a prisoner would feel on being released from the penitentiary.  Freedom.  “No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks!”  Trips to the park.  Bike riding along the path under the Verrazano Bridge.  The beach.  Hot summer evenings playing in the open fire hydrant (we called it a “Johnny pump” back then).  All the good things a child daydreams about on a Tuesday in winter, right after the teacher announces a pop quiz.

I sit at my desk, trying to make enough money to pay a few bills, and I think of where I’d rather be.  I pick up the box of soap and inhale the wonderful flowery fragrance.  For just a moment, it’s the last day of school; and any minute now, I’ll be free.

Indie Spotlight Picture Book Writer MJ Belko – I Don’t Read Mysteries

My friend and mystery writer, Anita Rodgers, invited me to write a guest blog on her blog, Writer Chick ( Check out Anita’s mystery series on Amazon and Kindle!

Anita Rodgers Mystery Writer

Today’s indie author is MJ Belko. In her article she discusses the irony of not being a mystery reader and yet having written a mystery picture book for kids. Take it away, MJ.

I Don’t Read Mysteries

I don’t read mysteries.  I know, a pox upon me.  I don’t mind watching them, but I never felt compelled to read one.  I’m more of a nonfiction reader.  As a writer, picture books are my wheelhouse.  So, how did I end up writing Winthrop Risk, Detective—The Mystery of the Missing Hamster, an early reader with a nine-year-old detective who sounds like he just stepped out of a Raymond Chandler novel?

I certainly don’t have any disdain for the mystery genre.  I’m a rabid fan of Benedict Cumberbatch as a modern version of Sherlock Holmes.  I loved Derek Jacobi as Cadfael on PBS.  But write one?  Not on your life.  Plot twists…

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Don’t Look Now, But…

Reblogging because I don’t want these lives to be forgotten.



When 22 people died outside a concert hall in Manchester, England, the media coverage was wall to wall.  The cry went up that something must be done! Journalists followed the investigation.  Press briefings were scheduled regularly. With broken hearts, we pored over color photographs of the victims, many of them only children, and we listened to bystanders describe their horror.  The world grieved as the story unfolded for a week.

Five days later, 29 Christians in Egypt died when terrorists attacked their bus. Forty-two others were seriously injured and the assassins got away.  That story vanished in less than 48 hours.  No color photos.  No interviews with authorities. No tragic details.

Here’s what you probably never heard.  The Christian group of parents, grandparents, and children were traveling in two buses to pray at a monastery. Their vehicles were stopped by terrorists outside the town of Minya.  After the buses were…

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World Book Day



For Mrs. Burgio

I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer until I was in the third grade. I had this great teacher, Mrs. Burgio, who was one of the few lay teachers at the time at Our Lady of Angels in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. She was the audacious type who eschewed the linear pattern of desk placement in favor of creating small groups. Each group had a name. Mine was the Blue Jays. She set up “learning stations” around the room. We had one for science, one for math, one for reading, and another for art. Each day, we were given time to visit the station of our choice and learn on our own. In a school ruled by nuns, this teaching style was downright seditious. At some point during that year, I wrote my first poem. It was awful, and I was hooked.

The year Mrs. Burgio directed the eighth grade’s all-girl production of Fiddler on the Roof, my class had the chance to sit in on a few rehearsals. I had never seen a live performance before and I was entranced.

Mrs. Burgio was also a woman of great foresight. Brooklyn in the late sixties and early seventies was a place full of very young drug addicts. I well remember seeing a neighbor’s daughter being carried, unconscious, up the apartment steps by a group of friends. Drugs were everywhere; and at the age of about nine, my classmates and I were approaching the day when we would have to make our own decisions about whether or not to use. You have to understand that at the time, drugs weren’t considered especially dangerous unless you overdosed. Drugs were mind expanding. Drugs were fun. Drugs were cool. If you didn’t at least smoke weed, something was seriously wrong with you. Mrs. Burgio took the unheard of step of talking to a bunch of very young kids about drug abuse. She taught us about addiction. I remember her saying, “If I had to draw a picture of someone who uses drugs, I would draw a picture of them with a big fish hook in their mouth.” That image stuck with me and despite enormous peer pressure in later years, I never touched the stuff.

We all meet people who impact our lives, maybe even change our direction. Mrs. Burgio was the first who did that for me, and I loved her for it. I found out that I’m good with words. At home, my daily lesson was that I wasn’t worth the time of day and that all I did was make everyone else miserable. But in Mrs. Burgio’s third grade class, I found the thing that would define and sustain me.

Thank you, Mrs. Burgio, wherever you are.

Bold, Beautiful Bastards

I just read Laurie Gough’s ( Huffington Post piece, Self-Publishing: An Insult to the Written Word published on December 29, 2016 (

As most of you know, I’m the self-published author of Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster (Amazon and Kindle), so Ms. Gough’s assessment of self-publishing and “wannabe” writers pissed me off more than just a tad.

Ms. Gough opines that self-publishing is “…an insult to the written word, the craft of writing, and the tradition of literature.”  She fears that “…writing itself is becoming devalued.”  In her mind, self-publishing is something bad writers “resort to” when they can’t get a traditional publisher to back their work.  It’s acceptable, she says, for a writer to self-publish “…especially if they’re elderly.  Perhaps they want to write their life story and have no time to learn how to write well enough to be published traditionally.”  In other words, let the old folks self-publish because they might croak before they’re good enough to grab the attention of an agent.  How generous of her.

You get the impression someone put her up to this.

I will concede her point that there is a lot of crap out there. But there are also people with great potential who just haven’t quite learned how to polish a manuscript that could have used a few more trips through the sieve. It’s the ultimate school of hard knocks and the marketplace will weed out the less than serious authors.  Gough’s article hysterically labels self-publishing and self-published writers as disrespectful, wannabes, an insult, and taking short cuts.  Indeed, the only similarity she sees between published and self-published books is that “…they each have words on pages inside a cover.”

Well, golly gee! That there sounds like hubris to my wannabe ears!

Ms. Gough is clearly laboring under some false assumptions, the tip of her nose having obscured her vision.  Let’s review.

Gough feels self-published authors haven’t been at it long enough and rush their manuscripts to print. Really? It took me more than a year and multiple revisions to write Winthrop Risk, which is a simple four-chapter mystery written for early readers.  I labored over every word, every character, and every scene. It was critiqued by my writing group. Rushed to print? Not on your life. I busted my ass and it’s a damn fine book.

What about those gatekeepers Gough has such high regard for?  The gatekeepers have a nasty habit of getting it wrong.  We’ve all heard the stories about famous authors whose manuscripts were rejected over and over again before finally becoming bestsellers.  Sometimes it’s as simple as which intern happens to pick your envelope from the slush pile.  It’s something of a crap shoot. In fact, I suspect a great many manuscripts are never read, particularly if they’re submitted on line. I once got a rejection e-mail seconds after hitting “send”.  Most publishers won’t even consider a writer who lacks an agent, and far too many agents don’t want to work with an unknown.  The gatekeepers Ms. Gough is so fond of have dug themselves a nice little moat and filled it with crocodiles.  Excuse me while I go around the castle and maintain ownership and control of what I worked so hard to create.

I know a fine writer who went the traditional route.  She queried an agent and won representation.  A publisher expressed interest in her work and asked for some revisions, which were dutifully supplied.  Then the publisher decided they weren’t interested after all.  Screw that.

Is self-publishing an insult to the art of writing? Who decides? Is it the same type of educated knucklehead that decided a crucifix in a jar of urine was art? My idea of what makes a good children’s story is very different from a lot of what’s out there today. I hate political correctness and hold in the greatest contempt authors who use children’s publishing to push their particular ideology; but if you’re a social justice warrior with a love for F-bombs, you’re pretty much a shoe-in.  Books along the lines of “Timmy’s dog was run over by a bus today” or “Hey, mom! Grandma’s dead!” or “The problem with white people is…” may be popular with adults, but no normal, healthy kid wants that for a bedtime story.  The written word may not be getting the respect it deserves, but that disrespect isn’t coming from me.  Blame the gatekeepers.

Ms. Gough seems to have gotten stuck in some sort of time warp as she confuses old school vanity publishing with self-publishing.  I have great news for her.  I didn’t pay a dime to Kindle to get my book out there.  And I didn’t spend one minute “…sitting back and waiting for a stack of books to arrive…” at my door.  Publishing on Kindle is free and the books are printed on demand and shipped directly to the buyer.  Much more eco-friendly than traditional publishing, by the way.  Maybe Gough has watched too many movies.  I’m reminded of Dennis Farina’s character in “Authors Anonymous” as he sits at a folding table at the local hardware store, trying to sell copies of his awful book.

I’ve only sold a handful of books and I have no marketing apparatus to help me.  I’m flying blind, but I’m flying. I’m doing what I’ve always dreamed of doing and I’m doing it well.  I’ve done it on my terms, held true to my own vision, and I don’t have to share the little money I earn with the publishing bullies.

So to all my fellow self-published authors who write and create wonderful art without representation and without fetters, bravo.

Brazen, bold, beautiful bastards, all.


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