Winthrop Risk, Detective



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!


Time for a little shameless promotion

I wrote this mini-mystery for kids who are outgrowing picture books but aren’t ready for a full-blown novel. Four entertaining chapters of mystery, the school bully, loyalty, and finding out who your friends are.  Available on Amazon and Kindle.  And don’t forget to write a review!


It Doesn’t Have to be Real


I have a confession to make and some of you may find this impossible to believe, but I have never read the Harry Potter series.  I’ve seen bits of the movies as there seems to be a Harry Potter marathon every other weekend, but I’ve never watched one all the way through.  I promise to read the books soon.  Really.

I finally caught the beginning of the first movie yesterday.  The scene in which Harry is finally rescued from his horrible aunt and uncle opens with a long shot of a lighthouse on a very lonely and empty piece of earth.  My first thought was, “That’s ridiculous.  Who has access to an isolated lighthouse when they want to escape the mail?”

The writer part of my brain, which occasionally gives me the silent treatment for weeks on end, spoke up and said, “It doesn’t have to be real.”

Hmmm.  No, it doesn’t.

My WIP, the sequel to Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster (Amazon and Kindle), isn’t set in a fantasy world.  It involves actual children in the real world.  No magic, no super powers.  Reality is something I try to avoid, but it’s necessary for this particular series.  I have other stories, some finished and some in various stages of creation, that are decidedly not set in reality.  Those that are unfinished got bogged down somewhere along the line and I couldn’t figure out where until I saw that lighthouse yesterday.

Most of what I write, the stories that are not yet published, exist in the realm of tall tales and fairy tales.  Animals talk.  Magic exists.  The impossible happens.  Winthrop Risk is improbable.  Most children aren’t detectives who sound like Humphrey Bogart, but everything about Winthrop is possible.  A talking bull, a wombat who tries to fly, and a man buying a spell that will make his neighbor unhappy, are all impossible.  Nothing can drag those characters into the realm of fact.

The lighthouse scene in Harry Potter reminded me, because I needed to be reminded, that the worlds and situations I create don’t have to be real.  I don’t have to worry that my young reader simply won’t believe it.  That’s what they want–make believe.  I can go anywhere I want to go and people impossible places with impossible beings.  I can unhook the sleeper car from my brain’s locomotive and let it roll along the tracks until it finds a place to rest.  And once there, who knows what will come out of the forest to greet it.

It doesn’t have to be real.

We’re All Still Writing

I just read a wonderful book about writing, “Still Writing–The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life,” (Grove Press) by Dani Shapiro @danijshapiro, so let me start by saying I give it very high marks and strongly recommend it.  This isn’t a book about the fastest way to get an agent or the latest marketing gimmicks.  It’s about writing and being a writer.

What a relief.

I’ve read several books about writing over the years. They serve as a sort of creative boost for me when I can’t seem to get the words out. I feel, in some way, that these books give me permission to want to write.  I wish I could explain that.  I guess I sometimes feel like I’ve walked into the lobby of a private club and I don’t have an ID card to show to the guy at the desk.  I keep expecting the bouncer to show up and tell me I have no business being there.

When I read an interview with a writer, the thing I most want to hear about isn’t how they got their agent or how they got published–I want to hear about their process.  What is their day like?  Do they write at home or in a café?  In pajamas in bed, or dressed and in an office?  Are they outliners or do they write as they go along?  It’s not that I can’t figure out my own writing process (I know very well how my brain works), but I continue to be fascinated by how other writers get the job done.

Other writers.  Did I just include myself in that category?

Confession:  For those who don’t know me, I am a newly self-published children’s author (Winthrop Risk, Detective–The Mystery of the Missing Hamster available on Amazon and Kindle).  Check it out.

I remember years ago when the idea of self-publishing was considered something to be embarrassed about, as if people were sitting in their basements writing porn.  “Vanity publishing” they called it back then, because obviously anyone who thought they knew better than the publishing world had to possess a monstrous ego.  Picture a would-be author spending a small fortune to have their book printed, only to be left with boxes of unsold books stuffed in an attic someplace.  There was no Amazon back then, no Kindle.   It was risky, and I don’t know if anyone was actually successful at it.

The simple truth is that if you can’t get agents or publishers to consider your work (or you just want to bypass them altogether and maintain creative control) and you decide to self-publish, you had better be sure the publishing gatekeepers are wrong.  Very wrong.

The ease of self-publishing has, I understand, cluttered the literary landscape with a lot of badly written or badly edited books.  I guess for some people the desire to be published races past their desire to write and edit well and the result is…unfortunate.  I think I’ve avoided that particular pitfall.  I hope you will, too.

Trying to Prime the Pump

With the first book in the Winthrop Risk Mysteries out, I’ve been trying to get back to writing the second book. I love the main character, Winthrop.  I didn’t want to create a character who starts out afraid of his own shadow and grows to realize how great he really is at the end of the story.  No.  That would make him a pansy and I don’t like pansies.  I wanted a character who, though smaller than the other kids and considered a loser, had great self-confidence and knew exactly who he was from the very first sentence.

Carrying that character forward is really the easy part.  His Chandleresque dialogue is a blast to write and I actually came up with most of that before I had the plot in place for the first book.  There will be a couple of recurring characters.  The difficulty is that while writing a child’s version of a mystery, one can’t introduce any dead bodies, drug dealers, or torrid affairs.  It has to be clean and not too scary.  Some form of theft is OK, as long as the bad guys don’t carry weapons.  I’m working on making the setting creepy by focusing on Winthrop’s school and how it looks at dusk.  My young characters aren’t allowed out to roam the streets after dark on a school night.  The exact nature of the mystery and the motive continue to elude me, though I’ve jotted down several possibilities.

I’m not one to read mysteries.  I will watch the occasional “cozy” mystery on TV and I’m a rabid fan of Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock.  I spent a good part of yesterday watching a few cozy mysteries and the formula is pretty much the same in all of them.  Not a great deal of violence, but a lot of dead bodies.  They all seem to involve someone (usually a woman) who isn’t a detective but always manages to outwit the local police department and solve the mystery before they do.  I picked up another Raymond Chandler book in the Philip Marlowe series for inspiration, and a book about writing mysteries.  Letting the analytical portion of my brain work on one thing allowed the creative portion to spit out the occasional idea, and I kept my pen and notebook handy to catch them before they were forgotten.

I’ve heard it said that some people want to be writers and others want to have written.  Having written, I find myself luxuriating in the feeling of getting back to the blank page, the random notes, and thinking about what comes next.  It’s good to have written, but being a writer is where the fun really is.

And so, the deed is done…

I did it. My first book, Winthrop Risk, Detective, is officially listed on Amazon and will also be available on Kindle in a few days.


Now I have to get the word out. When I was submitting the story to traditional publishers, I had trouble categorizing the book, and that may have hurt my chances with them. It isn’t a picture book but it isn’t a novel, either. It’s a four chapter book that falls somewhere in between. A child of about 9 years of age should be able to handle it alone.  It runs about 36 pages and is a fun read, if I do say so myself.  Because the hero in the story uses a child’s version of 1930s detective vernacular, I included a little glossary of terms in the back of the book.  I hope you’ll check it out.  I plan for it to be a series (The Winthrop Risk Mysteries) and book two is in the very rough first draft stage.  Many thanks to the Lake Saint Clair Writers group for critiquing the manuscript for the first book and giving me the thumbs up.

Now THAT’s a Playground


That, boys and girls, is the courtyard of the apartment building in which I grew up.  Second story on the right. The current occupant has an air conditioner in the kitchen window, which I find puzzling. My cousin Irene took this picture a few years ago.  When I first saw it, I thought something was missing but couldn’t put my finger on it.  Then it came to me.  No clotheslines!  When I was a kid, the entire courtyard was crisscrossed with clotheslines running between the two buildings. I guess everyone has a dryer now.  No more pulling frozen blue jeans off the line and standing them in a corner to thaw out.

When we were very small, the landlady would attach a hose to her kitchen sink and feed it out of the ground floor window, second down on the right, so we could cool off in the summer.  We put on our bathing suits and enjoyed that treat just as if we were at Coney Island.

Looks pretty bare, doesn’t it?  Oh, but what adventures we had back there.  Back in the seventies, the landlord had a brilliant idea (no doubt fueled by copious amounts of ethanol).  He would bust up the concrete and plant grass.  Instant playground!  We were thrilled, as you can well imagine.  The nearest park was about a quarter of a mile away and not safe for children to be in without an adult.  One summer day, they took a jackhammer to the concrete, starting just about at the line in the foreground of the picture, leaving big chunks of busted concrete where the jackhammer broke them.

And that was that.  For reasons never explained to the kids in the apartments, the broken concrete was never removed.  No grass was planted.  Which was just friggin’ awesome.

Broken slabs of concrete can be used in so many ways.  We created forts for our GI Joes (the ones with lifelike hair and beard, not regulation in any way).  We dared one another to run across the rubble as fast as possible without falling and suffering countless gashes.  We drew pictures with chalk. One day, we tried to build an animal trap, though I don’t really know what we expected to catch back there.  We found a nice round slab about two feet in diameter.  As we rolled it along, we noticed a bunch of nasty-looking bugs clinging to the bottom.  Not the cockroaches we knew so well but alien things you don’t generally see in the concrete jungle.  Screams erupted and we all jumped away.  Except for my sister. Betrayed by her reflexes, she stayed in place just long enough for the slab to land on her foot.  She spent most of the summer in a cast.

Good times.

The courtyard is shaped like the E on an eye chart.  You’re looking at the center leg.  Along the spine, there’s a chain link fence and about a four-foot drop into the neighboring courtyard.  A thin ledge runs along the opposite side of the fence.  Walking its length was a test of bravery we each had to pass.  The truly brave could climb onto the flat roof of a garage whose back faced the courtyard at the far left end.  The heroic could leap from the roof and land without breaking any bones.  I made the jump many times.

My brother buried his turtle back there in an area where the concrete had crumbled long before the jackhammer incident.  Not allowed to have a dog or a cat, I named every alley cat back there and sometimes snuck them food. I worried about them when it got cold. When one died, I grieved alone.

We buried treasure and made pirate maps for the others to follow.  We told ghost stories.  We imagined.

The picture shows that somewhere along the line, they repaved the courtyard.  They paved over forts. They paved over buried treasure.  They paved over a world no adult ever saw.


Unless Love Builds the House

Found an old photo of yours truly with the stuffed dog I discussed in this blog post.


Each year, I stand before the rack of Mother’s Day cards, searching for one that doesn’t make me want to projectile vomit. I don’t know who writes these things, but their concept of motherhood is somewhere north of the rainbow.  Father’s Day cards aren’t quite as bad, but they still promote the image of a very good father.

I’m not a sentimental person, by nature.  I grew up in a family that didn’t show affection.  Nobody hugged.  Nobody said, “I love you.”  Good grades were expected.  Bad behavior (real or imagined) was brutally punished.  You got by with what you had and didn’t ask why you did without the things other families had.  My parents didn’t speak to one another or to us unless they found something to yell about.

It wasn’t always that way.  I can remember things being quite different up until I reached the age of five.  We used to wait in front of the apartment every evening for my father to walk down from the subway station so we could all give him a hug.  I remember the smell of cigarettes and the feeling of the winter cold clinging to his black overcoat.  Before I went to kindergarten, I would wake up early in the morning while my father was in the kitchen drinking his coffee and listening to the radio.  I had a little white toy dog that was stuffed with sawdust that I carried everywhere.  Eventually, a small hole opened in the bottom and left a little trail of sawdust wherever I carried him.  Sitting on my father’s lap, he would pretend to be horrified by the dog “pooping” all over the kitchen table.  It was the same routine each time and I always laughed. I remember sitting on his lap in his recliner and falling asleep with him.  There are old home movies of him feeding me ice cream.

Sometime in the mid to late sixties, my parents’ marriage came unhinged.  They never spoke unless they were arguing.  He took to sleeping in the recliner most nights.  I don’t know what happened, but I think my father got caught having an affair.  He became a very angry and abusive person.  He drank a lot.

I have no warm memories of my mother, not even in those early years before she and my father decided they hated each other.  She doted on the boys, tolerated my oldest sister for her housekeeping skills, and lavished affection on my other sister.  She reserved her hostility for me.  Everything was my fault.  Things would be so much better if I weren’t around.  No one would ever love me and I would die alone. The words were more damaging than the routine beatings.  In later years, my oldest sister would say I took the brunt of the abuse because I was the strongest of the six of us.  I was the one she couldn’t break.  The result is that I have no emotional connection to my mother.  Even worse, my father joined her in taking his anger out on me.  He’s the reason I never wear yellow, but that’s another story.

For about ten years, I had no contact with my mother at all.  About two years ago, I attempted mending fences and managed to get most of the siblings in one room with our mother.  She’s old now and doesn’t remember much.  Even so, I only see her about once a year and never go over there unless another sibling is with me.  I guess I still expect her to unleash one of her ugly tirades on me and want a witness there so she can’t call me a liar later on.

While we weren’t on speaking terms, I didn’t bother with the charade of sending her a Mother’s Day card.  This is the second year since I have resumed the practice.  You see now why the gushing sentimentality of those cards makes me feel sick.  I go through card after card, looking for one that is respectful but not full of praise for a job well done.  It’s hard.

Why am I telling you this?  I don’t know.  I guess I want you to realize that this is a tough day for some of us.  I read Facebook posts today offering sympathy to those who have lost their mothers; but nobody talks about having had a bad mother on Mother’s Day.  It’s sort of taboo.

I have tried to be a good mother to my sons, though my short fuse has made it difficult at times.  I’m very close to them both and I know Mother’s Day doesn’t hold the dread for them that it does for me.  Still, I wonder if all of our lives would be better if things had been different in my family.

It’s tough to build a house without the right tools.

Tasteful Butchery Well Done

Different writers seem to favor different parts of the writing process.  For some, it’s the brainstorming of ideas.  For others, it’s getting that first draft down.  A lot of writers, though, seem to shrink from the editing/rewriting part of the process.

As I continue my writing journey, I find myself having the most fun when editing or rewriting.  At that stage, I feel like the initial pressure to produce something is gone and the creative give and take with the manuscript can begin.

When I’m short on writing time, as I have been for the past several months while hubby is laid off, I keep the writing bug alive by reading books and blogs about writing.  In fact, I start each workday by reading through the blogs I follow and hitting a few of the freshly pressed for the day.  Right now, I’m reading Writers on Writing.  It’s a collection of  New York Times essays written by famous writers.  I’ll admit, there’s an awful lot of self-indulgent crap in there, but something I read this morning struck me as brilliant.  Author Paul West had this to say:

“I stay up long enough, usually, to correct what I’ve written, and on occasion to carve it up, then go to bed with that elated shiver of tasteful butchery well done.”

Tasteful butchery well done.  The whole book was worth that one quote.

I can chalk up my struggles with the WIP to stress and being overworked for months; but even in the midst of the turmoil, I’ve managed to give the story some structure.  I love the search for and discovery of ideas, the playful dialogue, and getting the first draft down, even though it’s tough right now.  But the part where I get to sit on my porch with a typed draft in front of me, red pen in hand, and smooth out the rough patches–that’s when I feel most like a writer.

Don’t be afraid of or dread rewriting and editing.  Savor it.  This is where we go beyond being overgrown kids with wild imaginations.  This is where we become writers.

Tasteful butchers, all.

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