Inside my CIA Career: Encounter with a Spyplane

Inside my CIA Career: Encounter with a Spyplane

FLYING

Several years ago, my husband got his private pilot’s license and we owned a small Piper aircraft. Our son was in kindergarten and promptly fell in love with all things aviation.

This rubbed off on me. Our family was soon immersed in flying stories, books about airplanes, model airplanes, and innumerable trips to the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum to see among, other aircraft, the SR-71 Blackbird spyplane.

I even wrote an aviation adventure story for my son, entitled THE SECRET BLACKBIRD. It was the start of a Hardy-Boys-meets-Dale-Brown middle grade fiction series. The second book in the series was entitled THE PACIFIC GHOST.

Both books remain on a floppy drive (!) in some desk drawer and were never published.

The real secret Blackbird

Work gave me another reason to be enthralled with the SR-71.

In the 1950’s, as the Cold War ramped up, the CIA wanted a way to peer down at the Soviet Union to determine military capabilities and such. The U-2, built by Lockheed’s “Skunk Works,” was doing the job, but was slow enough to be shot down, as happened to pilot Gary Francis Powers.

Lockheed built a new plane for the CIA. The new aircraft was designed to defeat Soviet air defenses by flying higher and faster than anything else in the world. This meant a whole host of innovations, materials, designs, etc.

The single seat A-12 OXCART emerged after 2 years of development. The overall design and titanium construction was the basis for the more well-known SR-71, the Air Force variant. The two-seat SR-71 was slightly larger and carried a different camera and sensor load.

SR71 and Oxcart spyplanes

Comparing the SR-71 and the A-12, courtesy cia.gov

 

After flying 29 missions in Southeast Asia During the Vietnam War, the OXCART program was shut down. The SR-71 Blackbird continued to fly and became infinitely more famous.

A scale model of the A-12 hangs from the ceiling of the atrium connecting the two main buildings of the CIA Headquarters compound. I have a paper model created for the CIA’s 50th anniversary.

What happened to the A-12?

Eight are in museums. One stands guard over the CIA Headquarters compound.

Encounter of a distant kind

I drove onto the compound one sunny day shortly after the A-12 OXCART was installed on a special platform with two stars carved into the marble to remember the CIA crew members who died in the line of duty.

Now, general parking at CIA HQ is a bit like Disneyworld. You have to remember which parking lot and which row.

But that day, there was no need to memorize my parking space. The nose of the A-12 OXCART was pointing right at my car. Perfect line of sight.

When I was ready to leave, I just had to follow the trajectory to my spot.

I was in awe of the enormous sleek black aircraft, a reminder of our intelligence heritage. I crossed the parking lot to the massive titanium plane and read the information display before heading inside.

The day passed. When I was ready to head home I took another walk around the A-12 before following its nose to my car.

Except like a portrait whose eyes follow you, the A-12’s nose pointed at all the cars in the parking lot. Acres of cars.

For the next hour, no matter where I walked in that $%&$# parking lot, every time I turned around there was the A-12 in the distance, pointing straight at me.

I eventually found my car.

But now I know why they call it a spyplane.

See the aircraft on the CIA compound in this short video from the National Air and Space Museum:

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Inside my CIA Career: the Coup Kit

Inside my CIA Career: the Coup Kit

Coups

My official resume says this about the 5 years during my CIA career when I was an all-source analyst:

Performed all source analysis of geographic topics of intelligence interest in support of US national security, including National Intelligence Estimates

Action officer during 24/7 analytic coverage of coup d’état events in Africa, the South Pacific, and East Asia.

Let me direct you to the phrase “coup d’état.” When you are an intelligence analyst assigned to cover a country, and that country becomes engulfed in civil unrest, a military takeover, etc., you are the person expected to pull all the information together, provide analysis of fast-breaking events, and brief stakeholders, i.e. key decision makers like the President.

Related post: Inside my CIA Career: Analysis

Carmen Amato in the South Pacific

In the South Pacific, circa 1988

Step 1: Ask

The first question to be answered in a coup event was always “Are any Americans in danger?”

If the country is a major US partner or ally, if the US has a national security or geographical interest there, or if someone in the current administration has ties to that country, then there’s even more pressure to swiftly assess the situation, distill facts, and provide judgments in written reports and verbal briefings.

Step 2: Get a list

When I was an analyst, there were so many coups in Africa, the South Pacific, and East Asia that we developed a checklist of what to do if there was a coup in your country. My boss Jerry, who favored plaid sport coats and ran around in his socks, was an experienced officer who kept a “coup kit” in the office.

It was an actual box with checklists, phone numbers, and exemplar reports from previous coup events so when things fell apart in your country and you were called into the office at 2:00 am, you weren’t starting from scratch as the phone rang off the hook.

Related post: A taxi ride in Fiji and other tales

The coup kit also included a blanket and snacks.

Coup d’états aren’t always fast. A prolonged coup event could be a grueling marathon of reporting, briefings, targeting planning, and meetings scheduled to coincide when people across the world are awake.

Few meetings take place at your desk, but could be held at the State Department, the Pentagon, etc. I recall a particular week-long coup attempt in a country that was an important strategic ally for the US. We worked in three shifts to ensure 24/7 coverage, constantly trying to make sense of fragmentary and conflicting information.

Teams had to prep for twice daily video conferences, a stream of ad hoc special reports, and the regular intelligence publications.

Jerry’s coup kit was a great lesson in giving yourself the best possible advantage when you know hard things loom ahead.

Step 3: Apply the lessons

I’ve tried to adapt that lesson to being a mystery author by developing systems to streamline my publishing efforts and create repeatable processes. Every so often, I update my writing coup kit with checklists and resources to help me navigate the publishing world. A system of clipboards keeps everything organized.

Red cabinet in my office

Red cabinet in my office

And snacks.

What’s in your coup kit?

Backpack photo by Zephan Ayoob on Unsplash

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Inside my CIA Career: The Analytic Puzzle

Inside my CIA Career: The Analytic Puzzle

First Job

My first position with the Central Intelligence Agency was as a political analyst. The official CIA website describes analysis jobs as:

“Collaborative. Problem-solvers. Critical thinkers. These are the qualities needed for CIA analytic positions. The ability to study and evaluate sometimes inconsistent and incomplete information and provide unique insights that help inform decisions.”

The website offers more about being a political analyst at CIA:

“You will support policymakers by producing and delivering written and oral assessments of the domestic politics, foreign policy, stability, and social issues of foreign governments and entities. Your analysis will examine these actors’ goals and motivations, culture, values, history, society, decision making processes, and ideologies in the context of how those elements affect US interests and national security.”

In short, you are solving puzzles. Complex, ill-defined, and hidden puzzles.

For the first five years of my career, I did just that. It was a terrific introduction to not only the US intelligence community and US military but also to the challenges of international diplomacy.

Carmen Amato in Fiji

In the South Pacific, circa 1988

Information from multiple sources crossed my desk. I had to sift through the details to find patterns and  motivations. Sometimes key details were there and clear as a bell. Those times were rare.

Mostly, the puzzle pieces didn’t fit together. The story was murky and incomplete. You always wanted more and better pieces.

Related post: Wordsmithing at CIA

Former CIA Director (and Secretary of Defense) Leon Panetta, writing in WORTHY FIGHTS, put it this way:

“In the real world of intelligence . . . breakthroughs are the result of patient and resolute work, the slow accumulation of facts, each of which may seem ambiguous but that collectively add up to a hypothesis.”

Teamwork

Teamwork was imperative. Not only do teams of CIA analysts work together on a problem or a publication, but analysts work with those in other agencies.

Analysts connect with counterparts in other government agencies and the military, consulting and often collaborating.

I became close friends with a State Department officer who made baby quilts when my children were born. I also had a bit of a crush on a Marine colonel who headed up a community-wide task force (this was before I was married, ahem).

These experiences inspired the task force scenes in 43 MISSING: Detective Emilia Cruz Book 6. Emilia is assigned to a task force to investigate the mass disappearance of college students, a crime that mirrors real events in Mexico.

She teams up with a difficult cop. Meanwhile, she’s been offered a fortune to derail the effrt:

“What’s going on?” Cardenas split a chocolate bar from the stash in his desk drawer and handed her half.

“The Avilas,” Emilia said. She had coffee in one hand and chocolate in the other. As if staying calm wasn’t enough of a challenge. “I think we need to check them out again.”

“But the rally motive doesn’t fly.”

“There has to be something else,” Emilia said. “Too many threads connect to them.”

“We weren’t saying they’re blameless.” Cardenas frowned. “Avila still told the police chief to turn the students over to El Choque. But the more compelling motive lays the blame on Flores.”

“I suggest we go down two tracks on the theory they’ll converge,” Emilia said. “Both Flores and Avila. If we dig deep enough, one of them will give away the motive.”

“Is this women’s intuition?” Cardenas asked.

Emilia jiggled her knee impatiently. “It’s the analysis. There’s no way to arrange all these links that doesn’t put the Avilas in the middle.”

To her relief, Cardenas nodded. “All right,” he said.

“You take Flores,” Emilia said. “I’ll work on the Avilas.”

Lennox was still waiting for her call. Waiting for her to say she could wrap up the task force in return for $50,000.

43 MIssing

Get 43 MISSING on Amazon. Read for free with Kindle Unlimited.

Style

Being an analyst meant writing in a disciplined style and specific formats, including for the Presidential Daily Brief, which David Priess wrote all about in THE PRESIDENT’S BOOK OF SECRETS: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America’s Presidents. A bit of an academic tome, but with great historical vignettes.

I have to credit one of my first bosses with teaching me how to write. As opposed to academic writing, which usually follows a fact-fact-fact-conclusion format, intelligence publications—for readers who are perpetually pressed for time, like the Secretary of State–follow a key-judgments-fact-fact-fact format. I was fresh out of grad school, buoyed by my Master’s thesis and successful defense of it at a major academic conference. Switching my mindset was tough. I will always remember Jerry, who was partial to plaid sport coats and running around the office in his socks, taking the time to coach me.

Now as a mystery and thriller author, I really appreciate how being a CIA analyst forced me to become a disciplined writer. I learned how to construct an argument and create useful outlines. There was no waiting for the “muse” to strike before getting down to work.

Carmen Amato at CIA 2016

At CIA Headquarters, with my Career Intelligence Medal, November 2016

But that fact-fact-fact drumbeat has proven hard to shake. I may be writing fiction now, but often find it a struggle to be humorous, use pop culture references, or drop qualifiers like “almost certainly.”

But I’m almost certainly trying.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

5 Excellent Phrases to Sound Busy and Important

5 Excellent Phrases to Sound Busy and Important

Some time ago, I took a break from mysteries and read BRIDGET JONES: MAD ABOUT THE BOY by Helen Fielding. It was time for some mind candy and Bridget Jones–books or movies–always delivers.

The book was written in the same diary/inner dialogue familiar from the first two Bridget books, but with a bit more emotional heft. Bridget is now a widow with two small kids, trying to get her life back together and date again.

Fielding reuses some of her best lines from the first movie (she was one of the screenwriters) to reestablish Bridget’s voice and the tone of the characters’ interactions. For example, Daniel Cleaver’s first set of dialogue in the book is virtually lifted from the silver screen and Bridget is again wonderfully airy about looking “busy and important.” In fact, the phrase “busy and important” is repeated several times and is clearly a Bridget/Helen favorite. And it should be, because it helps to set and maintain the character’s voice throughout the book.

Phrases like that occasionally stay with me long after I’ve finished reading or heard someone utter the words. A clever phrase can evoke an image, establish a character in a way that resonates, or lets me form a mental picture.

Although I’m very busy and important today, here are 5 favorite phrases that sing:

Attractively damaged man

This phrase was included in a magazine article about 30 things you should do before you are 30, including coin a phrase. Regrettably, I have lost the magazine and the author’s name but it was a very funny article and the phrase seemed to perfectly describe far too many men I met in my 20’s.

Structural tension

This is a phrase I’ve heard bandied about in relation to government agencies that don’t perform well and businesses that go under. It seems to be a neat way to blame poor decisions on a wiring diagram.

And I meant it to sting

The books of British humorist P.G. Wodehouse are a treasure trove of wonderful expressions and this is a delicious riposte that works even when you’ve said something inane and the target has left the room. Attributed to Wodehouse’s iconic character Bertie Wooster.

A face like late Picasso

Can there be a better description of what someone looks like? This is from one of the Harry Hole mystery novels by Norwegian author Jo Nesbo on the occasion of Harry looking at himself in the mirror after one of his drinking/drugging binges.

And trouble ensued

There’s a musical folly called Spaghetti Western Swing on Brad Paisley’s Mud on the Tires album that combines dialogue and music into a story about cowboys and bad guys in the Old West. The voice actors are famed musicians from the Grand Ole Opry. The whole thing is pretty funny—there’s laughter in the background so you know they were having a good time taping this—and at one point before the guitar swings into high gear someone says this phrase, creating the perfect imagery.

Well, time to be off doing something busy and important.

And trouble ensued.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

10 Winning Rituals to Bust the Broken Resolution Cycle

10 Winning Rituals to Bust the Broken Resolution Cycle

We make resolutions, fight the good fight for a while, and then lose track and lose heart.

Sigh.

This year,  break the resolution-defeat-discouragement cycle before it gets going. Start some rituals instead. These 10 help me keep writing, hit deadlines, and generally stay sane.

 1. Make a daily to-do list

Have at least 3 specific things on the list you want to get done that day. Nothing vague like lose weight. One should relate to a larger goal. The list needs to be written down—on your phone, on a sticky note. Don’t keep mental lists, they are easily misplaced and fatiguing.

2018 update: I’m giving Triple fold-out planning folios from Levenger’s a try. With the whole week on one expanding accordian card, I can easily carry over unfinished tasks from one day to the next.

 2. Own a Calendar

Put it on the wall, on your phone, in a planner. Get into the habit of looking at the month view rather than just the day or week layout. A month gives you a larger perspective for planning purposes. Don’t just let the year happen.

 3. Watch or Read Some International News

The world is a big place! Know what is going on beyond your own doorstep. It will stretch your brain, give you new perspectives and give you something interesting to say in an interview, cocktail party, or the first day in a new job. Try BBC News.

4. Keep a Small Victory List

Especially when things seem bad, you need to record the small victories. Got the child to stop crying, remembered to set up that automatic payment into your savings account, brought a mug to work to drink office coffee instead of buying a latte, etc. After a few weeks of keeping such a list, you’ll recognize talents you didn’t know you had.

5. Say Hello and Goodbye

We can enrich our relationships with just a hail and farewell. Greetings are such simple things but they provide acknowledgment and respect.

6. Thank the person who prepared or brought your meal

In our house, the dinner prayer always ends with a thank-you to whomever cooked. At a restaurant, we always thank the server. Gratitude for food sometimes gets lost in a fast food culture but it is basic good manners and always appreciated.

7. Eat at least 1 meal/day with an identifiable vegetable component

We can’t live by carbs and fried stuff alone. Eat something green, something fresh. Your colon and arteries will thank you.

8. Save Money

Put something in the bank every month or every payday. If you can set up an automatic deposit to a savings account, do it. Doesn’t have to be a lot. But the ritual of paying yourself first will pay dividends (pun intended) down the road.

9. Make a Schedule for Checking Your Finances

Every 2 weeks or so, check all your online banking accounts (write a reminder on the calendar!) Open up the statements that came in the mail and got dumped by the sofa. Have a folder for tax-related items and stick stuff in there. If you pay bills online, know when credit card bills are due and pay them ahead of time.

 10. Stretch in the morning

Get out of the bed and stretch. Feel the spine crack. Do a few arm circles. Touch the old toes. Get the blood going. See, a small victory already!

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Chatting with Police Procedural Author Linda Berry

Chatting with Police Procedural Author Linda Berry

Linda Berry’s PRETTY CORPSE was one of the best police procedural novels I’d read in a long time and I read alot! She has a number of other books in the works and I was thrilled that she had the time to chat.

1  Carmen Amato: Linda, thanks so much for stopping by. As you know, I write a police series and am always interested in the genre. I was excited to read your new police procedural PRETTY CORPSE. It was excellent! Tell us how you came to write such an authentic yet imaginative novel.

Linda Berry: Thank you so much for reading PRETTY CORPSE, Carmen. I’m thrilled that you enjoyed it. Coming from a seasoned mystery writer, that’s a high compliment.

To write authentically, I do extensive research. That doesn’t mean I let my fingers do the walking. For PRETTY CORPSE, I did dozens of ride-alongs with various female patrol officers in San Francisco. I chose the night shift when the city was rife with criminal activity, and I got to see these courageous women in action. Several of my characters were inspired by the female cops I came to know. Many of the side stories in PRETTY CORPSE are based on actual events relayed to me by police officers.

I lived in the bay area at the time, and happened to meet Officer Nancy Guillory. She had just won the medal of valor, the highest decoration for bravery exhibited by an officer. I asked if I could interview her for a police thriller I was developing. She enthusiastically consented, and that began our journey—real life feeding fiction.

2  CA: How do you create multi-dimensional fictional characters, including your lead character Lauren Starkley? Her life is very complicated, with a powerful backstory. Yet she’s a character we can all identify with.

LB:  As a life long artist, I’ve learned to be a keen observer. I watch people—their nuances, expessions, body language. I spent a lot of time observing female officers, and I interviewed them extensively. I saw beyond the uniform, to women who LOVED their jobs, and had completely different personas in their personal lives, where they took on the roles of wives and mothers.

Creating multi-dimensional characters comes with years of writing experience. I was a copywriter/art director for 25 years. I now use words as my medium to paint a scene, to give breath to characters. I read great books, of every genre, and I study technique. I take what I learn and put it to practice.

3  CA: You chose San Francisco as your setting and described it so well throughout the book that I could feel the drizzle soaking into my shoes! Why is that city a good setting for a mystery? How do you use setting to create and build suspense?

LB: The story is set in San Francisco because Officer Nancy Guillory worked there, and that’s where I did my ride-alongs. Also, I knew the city well, after living in the Bay area most of my life. It is a very atmospheric city—with the ocean, rolling hills, the mist, rain, and fog, the city smells and activity, and the rich diversity of architecture and people. Wonderful elements for an author to draw from.

4  CA: Your knowledge of police procedures shone through in PRETTY CORPSE. The villain’s motivation was very inventive, too. How did you research the novel?

LB: The captain of the station gave generously of his time. We discussed many of the scenes up front and he laid down procedures, codes, and officer conduct. He also set me up with many people who accommodated my needs, from the medical examiner to homicide detectives. As far as the villain, I was in a great critique group at the time, really seasoned and talented writers. I thank them for pushing me beyond my comfort zone to make the villain more ominous. I kept plugging away until I had well developed characters, and twists and turns that were really surprising. The first draft took about a year to construct.

5  CA: You can invite any author, living or dead, to dinner at your home. What are you serving and what will the conversation be about?

LB: Good question. Do I only get one dinner? One author? So many influenced my work, I couldn’t pick just one. I would invite Ann Perry, Louse Penny, Kathy Reichs, Craig Johnson, and John Grisham to dinner. I would serve mystery food—dim sum—Chinese dumplings, because they are delicious and what’s in them is a mystery until you try them.

6  CA: What can we expect next from you? Another police procedural?

LB:  Part Two of HIDDEN comes out in September, a mystery with a contemporary western setting. QUIET SCREAM will be out soon too. The protagonist is a female detective who has a big city homicide background. Suffering from cop burnout, she takes a job as sheriff of a small town where the crime is nominal. And then a serial killer moves into her district.

7  CA: Can you leave us with a quote, a place, or a concept from a book that inspired you?

LB: Here is my all time favorite author quote:

“Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stare at the walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing.”

 ~Ray Bradbury

More about Linda Berry: The themes of Linda Berry’s novels are murder, suspense, and romance. Her latest, Pretty Corpse, follows a gutsy female police officer who hunts a rapist, only to find the tables turned, and she becomes the hunted. Layered into the story are complicated relationships with her daughter, her mother, her partner. For professional reasons, she struggles to resist her maddening attraction to her captain.  Visit www.lindaberry.net to find out more.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Playing Big as an Author

Playing Big as an Author

I was on Facebook recently (who among us can’t start a sentence that way?) and someone in a writers group asked what was our biggest concern. My answer was “Playing small.”

Does anybody else feel like this?

Although I’ve been a published author for 5 years, I can’t shake the notion that I’m playing small. My dream is to rank alongside authors like Jo Nesbo, Ian Rankin, and Louise Penny. Yet my day-to-day goals are pretty tame. I’m pushing the boulder up the mountain but with teeny steps, not long strides.

I’m not sure why. I mean, I do alot. Enough to sound convincing on Anne R. Allen’s blog with a recent guest post entitled “What’s Your Author Strategy? 3 Mini-Strategies To Jumpstart Your Career.”

Am I lazy? Have a hidden fear of rejection? Afraid of taking risks? Hello, Dr. Freud?

Related: 5 Lessons after 5 years as an Indie Author

These thoughts have been plaguing me since that Facebook a-ha moment. So imagine my surprise when I found  PLAYING BIG by Tara Mohr. She’s a professional coach and her book is all about why women play small and how they can start playing big.

Her research and advice crosses all occupations and interests. While her target audience is female, I think her ideas are for everybody.

The main themes in PLAYING BIG are about believing in yourself, shutting out negative self-criticism, forming action plans, and advancing a purposeful agenda. Mohr offers a ton of actionable ideas, peppered with case studies and her own experiences.

For example

One of her chapters is about “unhooking” from praise and criticism, a seesaw many new authors ride. Mohr writes “One of the most important mental shifts a woman can make to support her playing big is to stop thinking of criticism as a signal of a problem and to start thinking of criticism as part and parcel of doing important work.”

Mohr goes on to urge readers to check out reviews of favorite authors. Read all the praise, then all the criticism. “The polarization and diametrically opposed opinions . . . become almost humorous. Reading a handful of reviews, it becomes obvious that any substantive work draws a wide range of reactions.”

Playing bigger

I’m still mulling over PLAYING BIG and thinking what I can do to lengthen my stride. I’ve started a list.

First entry: Spend less time on Facebook.

But seriously. What does playing big mean to you?

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

5 Lessons Learned in 5 Years as an Indie Author

5 Lessons Learned in 5 Years as an Indie Author

It is hard to believe but I’ve been a published independent author for 5 years. In May 2012, after a tearful breakup with a publisher, I released THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY via Amazon and Createspace. Once headed down the indie author road and loving the creative freedom that came with it, I kept going in that direction.

So far, I’ve published 5 Detective Emilia Cruz novels and a collection of short stories with the same character, plus two suspense novels.

After 8 books, I’ve accumulated a few lessons learned:

In charge of the railroad

As an independent author, I’m totally in control of every aspect of writing and publishing. Not only do I set my own production schedule and quality control, but there’s branding, marketing, and outreach to consider.

I’m the only one running the railroad; stoking the engine fire, laying down track, taking tickets, and serving drinks (that I mixed myself) in the club car.

I wanted all of that creative control when I started and I still do. I revel in the complex writing life I’ve created and the skills I’ve acquired along the way. I know my characters well and love the process of creating multi-layered mystery plots. Learning Photoshop and WordPress allowed me to create the branded website and social media platforms I envisioned.

Doesn’t mean everything is easy.

But owning it all is exciting. I’m an entrepreneur.

Volume sells

We all chug along at our own pace but in today’s environment, the more you write, the easier it is to gain traction and be discoverable.

Amazon’s Author Central pages showcase an author’s books all in one place. Ebooks can lead a reader from one book to the next with links in the text.

This means that 1) the more books you have, the more likely your backlist is to sell, and 2) books in a series sell better than one-offs.

The question I get most often is “How many Emilia Cruz novels will you write?”

As many as I can.

You can always choose to fight

Now and then, the train slows and a cinder gets in my eye.

I find myself staring dully at lists full of Important Things to Do and not doing any of it. Or looking at meh sales stats because Everybody’s Books Sell Better Than Mine. I wish I made enough to hire a big-deal PR firm. I wish the LA Times and the Washington Post book reviewers had me on speeddial.

But would I trade this railroad for one led by a different conductor with competing clients and a controlling interest in my schedule and plot ideas? Who swallows up X% of my income?

Uh, no.

The author blues are best fought with action.

Stoke the engine. Write something new or query a blog for a quest post. The feeling will pass.

Everybody wants your money

There are hundreds of marketing and promotion options for increasing a book’s discoverability.

Over the past 5 years, I have been swayed by the siren call of Generic Marketing. Sucked in by great copy promising to get my book in front of Important Book People, land more reviews, be the Book of the Day, or feature my book in a list touted by a Publishing Insider Publication. None of it paid off.

At least all were legit. Sadly, there are an incredible number of scams out there preying on indie authors.

Finally, I got it. I should be laser-focused on the specific audience for the genre of my books.

The Detective Emilia Cruz novels are a police procedural series. My audience likes intense plotlines, visual settings, and authors like Jo Nesbo, Ian Rankin, and Louise Penny. Now my Mystery Ahead newsletter caters to those interests, I target that audience in Facebook and BookBub ads, look for guest posts on mystery-themed blogs, and so on. Much more effective and better value for my money.

I’m not alone

Being in a community of writers makes a huge difference in terms of confidence and productivity. Of particular note, the Mexico Writers Facebook group has been a inspirational source of support, fun, and creativity.

A monthly local critique group has sharpened my prose and increased my coffee consumption. A weekly memoir group brings me into contact with people from all walks of life and makes me think outside the mystery writing box.

I’m grateful to all the writers willing to share their time and attention with me, but the readers are the stars along my personal walk of fame. Now and then, a reader reaches out to tell me they enjoy the Emilia Cruz series or that they cooked the recipe and how well it turned out (there’s a recipe from a scene at the end of every book). Many email me after reading the monthly Mystery Ahead newsletter. A number of readers emailed gasps about the end of PACIFIC REAPER.

I’m not the only one on the train. A few more board every day to talk, laugh, and share stories.

Meet you in the club car.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Taxes and the Mystery Author: Winners and Losers

Taxes and the Mystery Author: Winners and Losers

In May I will celebrate my fifth year as a published author. For most of that time I was what the IRS would term a “hobbyist” but in April 2016 I embraced full-time authordom. Here were my priorities:

  • Publish AWAKENING MACBETH, the romantic thriller that I’d written years ago and serialized in 2015.
  • Polish this website, both to boost my author branding and to hone my online skills.
  • Position the Detective Emilia Cruz series as one that deserves shelf space alongside international mysteries like Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole Series, Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series, and Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko series.

The taxing reality

As I printed out receipts for the accountant, the year’s wins and losses stared me in the eye:

WINS

Signed an option contract with a major US network for a Detective Emilia Cruz television show. I don’t know if it will become reality; the operative word is “option.” The validation felt good for a couple of days but my glass remains half empty until something actually happens.

Appeared on NPR’s Alt.Latino show to talk about Latino mystery authors and the music soundtrack to the Detective Emilia Cruz series. It was an awesome experience and host Felix Contreras will forever be in my personal Hall of Fame for the opportunity.

Steadily rising newsletter readership. The Mystery Ahead newsletter gives readers solid information and entertainment, as well as letting them know about my books. Mystery readers and writers get protips, books reviews, interviews with authors and bloggers, and more.

The website, after an unwise flirtation with Genesis and a web design studio with sketchy notions of customer service, looks polished, professional, and informative. And I did it all myself. I’ve defined my signature color, created a classic logo, and add more content every week. The framework is Divi by Elegant Themes.

Rebranded the Detective Emilia Cruz series with new covers drenched in the sunny colors of Mexico. Graphic designer Matt Chase has been incredible to work with. The new covers helped refine branding across social media platforms and the new Mystery Ahead newsletter.

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Rebranded THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO with a new cover in keeping with the romantic suspense genre. It is the book’s third cover in five years and I love it.

The hidden Light of Mexico City

LOSSES

Advertising that didn’t show results. Only advertising that specifically hits targeted readers, like BookBub, is worth the money. No more generic “Book of the Day.”

Paying for a book cover for AWAKENING MACBETH through a 99Designs.com contest. The winning graphic artist either did not understand directions or for other reasons couldn’t deliver everything. I didn’t have the skill to replicate the cover design and wasn’t going to pay someone else to redo it. I ended up using a different cover consistent with the new cover of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY.

Big ticket literary reviews—my jury is out. Pricey literary reviews are useful for quotes and to fill that space on your Amazon sales page. But quality can be inconsistent. The Kirkus Review for KING PESO (Emilia Cruz #4) was worth it, with telling insights into character, action, and setting. On the other hand, the Kirkus Review of AWAKENING MACBETH was merely an inaccurate and dull synopsis.

As if the review wasn’t enough of a disappointment, the debut of AWAKENING MACBETH, which contains my most imaginative and inventive storyline, was a mess. The Kindle file became corrupted not once, but twice, and the launch fizzled. I lost interest and went back to work on the next Detective Emilia Cruz. I feel bad about that.

Marketing mindset

My mental transition from hobby writer to professional author is still a work in progress.

I’m fairly introverted and reaching out in marketing mode is hard. Don’t get me wrong. I love answering emails from readers, chatting on Facebook, trading pins on Pinterest, and receiving invitations. I’m an accomplished public speaker and a good guest who does her homework.

But I’m squeamish about making the first move. When it comes to asking for reviews, guest appearances, or signing up to give a talk . . . well, I’d much rather sit in Peet’s Coffee and write another scene or a blog post or something for the Mystery Ahead newsletter.

Speaking of, the next edition of Mystery Ahead comes out 19 March. Use the form at the bottom to subscribe and you’ll also get a free copy of the Detective Emilia Cruz Starter Library.

Now go do your taxes.

 

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DEL RIO by Jane Rosenthal Jane Rosenthal joins the small but vital community of authors using fiction to reveal the complexity and heartbreak of the US-Mexico relationship. DEL RIO confronts the issues of human trafficking and migrant labor and delivers a compelling...

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ALL THE DEVILS ARE HERE by Louise Penny An entry in the Gamache mystery series that doesn't take place in Three Pines? What is the world coming to?? Paris. The premise Armand Gamache is once again head of Homicide for the Sureté de Quebec. He is on vacation in Paris...

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Exciting News and Author Views

Exciting News and Author Views

It’s always exciting news when you learn something about yourself.

Recently, I’ve figured out that disappointment doesn’t mean failure. Frustration doesn’t mean giving up. And creativity is a muscle. The more you work it, the more you have.

But first, the bad news

AWAKENING MACBETH is a romantic thriller with a paranormal twist. It’s my first book NOT set in Mexico (that I will publish, that is) and the first thing I’ve ever written that has the word “paranormal” attached to it.

Last October, I submitted AWAKENING MACBETH to the Kindle Scout program, which provides a platform for readers to select books, based on cover, description, and excerpt, that they would like to see published by Kindle Press. This means that while the book would be available to Kindle readers, the same as all my other books, Kindle Press would actively promote the book in return for a 5-year exclusivity contract.

AWAKENING MACBETH was not selected.

Now, the good news.

AWAKENING MACBETH was not selected.

Bear with me. The silver lining here is that the book will be released with no strings attached, which is important as I look at film rights options, foreign language sales, and other ways to reach new audiences.

Alas, the cover

The cover of AWAKENING MACBETH is being troublesome. For those regular readers of this blog, you’ll remember that when I released excerpts of the book as a serial last year, this was the cover image:

Print

Some readers noted that it could be a vampire story, which it is not.

So for Kindle Scout, I went through the excitement of a design competition with 99designs.com, which resulted in this cover:

Awakening Macbeth novel

But the feedback on this is 1. Her hair looks fake (the artist had to change the color from brunette to blonde and it got helmet-esque), and 2. This could be a pirate or bondage story. Ahem, none of the above.

While I am disappointed in the result of the 99designs experience, I’m excited to be confronted with a new design challenge. So stay tuned, a new cover will grace the release of the book later this month.

Of course, Mystery Ahead newsletters are ALWAYS the first to get book release news, so if you haven’t signed up, better do it now.

Don’t remember the premise for AWAKENING MACBETH? Here you go:

Shattered by her father’s death, history professor Brodie Macbeth has terrifying nightmares. In her sleep, people will kill for a secret Brodie doesn’t know.

Blame it on the grief, everyone says. Brodie tries, but it takes meeting Joe Birnam, an Iraq War vet with his own demons, before she can finally let go of the dreams and learn to love.

Yet when a colleague makes a shocking claim and demands her father’s secret, Brodie realizes that the nightmares are a real and deadly game. The prize? Joe Birnam’s immortal soul.

But Brodie doesn’t know how to play, let alone win.

Friends in high places

Over the last two weeks I’ve been lucky enough to be featured on several bookish websites, talking about KING PESO and sharing some excerpts. KING PESO is the 4th Detective Emilia Cruz novel, in which Emilia tracks down a cop killer even as she is reassigned to an all-female patrol unit.

I also had a chance to talk to Mary Rosenblum, author, teacher, editor, and powerhouse behind The New Writer’s Interface. Mary’s services fill the gap for independent and emerging authors that once upon a time traditional publishers filled: content editing, structural critique, blurb writing, etc. More than that, she’s an astutue publishing insider who knows how authors need to position themselves and their works for success.

We had a great conversation about what got me writing and what advice we have for new authors. Check it out here.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Anne R. Allen’s Essential Tips for New Authors

Anne R. Allen’s Essential Tips for New Authors

Lately, several emerging authors have asked me what to focus on as they start their careers. For a pro opinion, I turned to Anne R. Allen, author of How To Be A Writer In the E-Age. Anne writes the essential blog for today’s writers at http://annerallen.com/. When I asked her for a few tips, she shared this great advice:

1) Concentrate on writing short work (both fiction and personal essays).

Yes, you’ve got that novel or memoir you’re pounding away at, but spend at least half your time on short pieces. Short stories and essays will help you hone your craft and get you published in journals and anthologies. They might even make you some money. Some short story contests have big prizes.

And yes, you can write some of those short personal essays on a blog—either your own or as a guest—which will do amazing things for getting your name out there.

When you finish a short work, it gives you a wonderful feeling of accomplishment, and you can send those out to contests and journals and anthologies. There’s nothing more empowering than getting something in print and putting “published author” after your name.

2) Don’t write in a vacuum.

Take a class, join a critique group, find beta readers or a critique partner. You want to do this fairly early on. Writing in a vacuum can lead to bad habits and unrealistic expectations. Learning to write well is a long, steep learning curve. Don’t stay stuck at the bottom longer than you need to.

3) Read contemporary books in your genre.

If you only read the young adult books from your own youth or you read the regencies or mysteries you loved 20 years ago, you won’t be able to compete in today’s market. What was hot then will be clichéd now.

4) Network with other writers.

There are lots of great online social media groups and forums. (Some are fantastic and others not so much, so run if you see any trollish behavior!)

Blogging is a great way to network with other writers, and there are great blog networks for new writers like the Insecure Writers Support Group.

Simply commenting on well-known writing blogs gets your name into search engines and raises your profile. Get to know people and get known!

Genre groups that welcome both amateurs and professionals can be especially helpful, like RWA, SCBWI, and Sisters in Crime. They usually have online and in-person meetings.

You may be lucky enough to live in a community that has in-person writers clubs that meet at local libraries or bookstores. Network anyplace you find kindred spirits.  But you want to be online too. That’s where you’re going to make your sales and establish your career.

Online networking is a great way hear about agents who are looking for work like yours and to learn from people who are self-publishing and decide if it will work for you. This is where you’re going to find out about the business and learn the latest scams to stay away from (there are always scammers looking to pounce on newbie writers.)

5) Write everything down.

Don’t “talk out” your novel or story. Jot down your ideas—in notebooks, on Evernote, or whatever program works for you to save those thoughts, names, settings, weird stories that you can work into plots. Take it with you everywhere. They will be a goldmine later.

Thank you, Anne!

To learn more about Anne R. Allen and mine her trove of great advice, check out http://annerallen.com/ and her book How To Be A Writer In the E-Age.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

10 Ways to Get a Clue

10 Ways to Get a Clue

How many moving parts does it take to build a mystery novel?

Do you want the short answer? (lots)

Or the long answer? (lots and lots)

Building Blocks

Now, I’m not whining over the terrible fate of being a mystery author. Actually, I like being a mystery author. I like building intricate plots and craftily connecting seemingly disparate elements that you never expected. I like writing cliffhanger chapter endings and dialogue that kills (pun intended).

But it does take alot of scribbling and planning and editing and coffee drinking, all while elbowing (literally) the dog away from the keyboard. Sometimes all goes swiftly, other times not so much.

Right now, as I slog away on the 4th Detective Emilia Cruz, KING PESO, I’m stuck on the little matter of how one key bit of evidence is revealed to Emilia.

Elementary, my dear Emilia

How can Acapulco’s first and only female police detective Emilia find the clue without getting herself into more danger? Here are the choices:

1. Snitch (also known as stoolie) on the street tells her: Emilia pays somebody for information

2. Online research and discovery: criminal posts a YouTube video, information is about a business with a website or listed in a business registry, etc

3. Part of a parallel investigation: another cop finds out somehting relevant to her case and shares it

4. Forensic evidence: DNA testing; fibers or dirt provide context and additional information, tire treads, etc etc

5. Anonymous caller: tip comes in through a hotline or to police station

6. Ballistics: gun used has a history known to the police

7. Autopsy results: something about manner of death or body provides important information

8. Cold case files: the current case is linked to a past unresolved case

9. Photography: video or still photos capture information relevant to her case

10. Witness: witness at the scene of the crime tells all to Emilia

Hmmm. #10 would be so easy.

I hate easy . . .

Got an idea? Leave a comment and help an author out!

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

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