Wednesday, January 21, 2009

On the St. Martin's Malice Domestic Contest

Meet Meredith Cole

JRW: Today's JR guest is Meredith Cole. Meredith has done what so many of us hope and try to do - she won a major writing contest - the St. Martin’s Malice Domestic Best Traditional First Mystery Competition. We know lots of people who'd like to be in her shoes so we asked her to tell us what it's been like.

MC: St. Martin’s Minotaur has several wonderful contests that allow unagented writers to send in their manuscripts directly to the publisher. They choose the one they like and give the winner an advance and a publishing contract. Sounds pretty incredible, huh? It is, and, amazing enough, it happened to me.

Before I became a novelist, I was a filmmaker and screenwriter. I directed two feature films (“Floating” and “Achilles’ Love”), and found the process of trying to cajole 20-50 other creative people to do what I wanted not always satisfying. I wanted more control over the storytelling process. I started writing screenplays exclusively, and then realized how few screenplays are ever made into films. I was a finalist for the Chesterfield, and won a New York Foundation for the Arts grant in screenwriting, but my scripts stayed in a drawer. And then I got pregnant, and I knew that there was no way I was going to be back on the set anytime soon.
I’ve always loved to read, and mysteries have been some of my favorite books. So I used some of my downtime during my pregnancy to write a mystery with a setting that was dear to my heart—my artist neighborhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I made my sleuth, Lydia McKenzie, a photographer since I’ve done enough photography to know my way around a camera, and crafted a plot I thought was downright entertaining. The trouble was I spent pages and pages giving the backstory of my characters before all the entertaining stuff kicked in. Needless to say, no one was particularly interested in my first novel.

But I loved my characters, and, since I’m incredibly persistent and stubborn, I came up with another book idea for them that was even more closely tied to my characters. This time Lydia is having a gallery show of her murder recreation photographs, and she finds out that someone is killing her models just like her photos in POSED FOR MURDER. I began to shop the book around and I also entered it into the St. Martin’s/Malice Domestic competition in October 2006.

While I was waiting to hear back from the competition, Lydia still wouldn’t get out of my head. So I wrote a couple of short stories featuring her and her neighbors and friends. One called “Out in the Cold” ended up in the anthology MURDER NEW YORK STYLE, and the other, “Exercise is Murder,” was in Ellery Queen Magazine’s Department of First Stories in June 2008.
In February 2007, I found out from my judge that I was a finalist. I was incredibly excited but I was also knew I had to be realistic. Only one book out of all the hundreds written and entered could win. So no one was more shocked than I when I got a call from Ruth Cavin, an editor at St. Martin’s Press, telling me that I had won…

JRW: A legendary editor, we might add...

MC: At Malice Domestic, where I was officially announced as the winner, I began to learn what a big deal the competition really was. Many writers have started their careers with the contest, and I was so pleased to meet Julia Spencer-Fleming and Donna Andrews at the conference. St. Martin’s Minotaur not only published their first books, but has continued to nurture their very successful careers. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to follow in their footsteps, and very excited to have my first book, POSED FOR MURDER, come out at last on February 17, 2009.

If you want to find out about the competition I won, or any of St. Martin’s other competitions, check out their website:

JRW: Meredith Cole's winning book, POSED FOR MURDER, hits store shelves February 17, 2009. She is a member of the MWA NY board, and she blogs at If you're in the neighborhood, stop by Partners & Crime, 44 Greenwich St, NYC. Tuesday, February 17th, from 7-9pm for Meredith's launch party! It's going to be great!

Visit Meredith at


  1. Your book is out -- finally -- in less than a month! Yay!!

    I was wondering, and I hope you don't mind me asking ... as a filmmaker, you probably learned elements of storytelling for the camera. Besides the obvious camera/page differences, what others did you discover during your creative process in this medium?

  2. I'd live to hear more about your filmmaking life, too. I love to watch the DVD commentaries on my favorite movies simply for the glimpses into what it's like to make movies; the creative choices, etc.


  3. Yahoo for Meredith--your book is going to kick-butt! (from one contest winner to another ;-)

  4. What interesting questions! In filmmaking, you work to change the basic story into a series of images and sounds that show the mood and texture of what is going on. The crook of an eyebrow, a red coat, and a camera angle that's slightly askew all subtly influence your audience's perceptions. It's a real challenge, and if it's done well, you don't even realize it.

    I think the reason I took a break from working in film is because I'm basically a control freak and perfectionist. When you have a shot in your mind, but you can't get the cinematographer to do it the way you want, and the actor is having an off night, and your costume director forgot the red coat... it's an exercise in frustration. I really prefer to write the scene down exactly the way I want it to look on the page and not have to deal with all the personalities. Which isn't to say that I won't go and direct another film someday if offered oodles of money...

    I always say that film school spoiled me for movies, because now I always watch them with a critical eye. I enjoyed the movie Doubt, but the use of crooked camera angles every time something was questionable or strange got really old really fast.

  5. You guys are great cheerleaders! I really appreciate all the words of encouragement Jenny, Rhonda and Kristina.

    It's strange how I started out thinking of novel writing as a solo thing and filmmaking as a group activity, but now I'm realizing how important it is to have the support of a writing community. I certainly couldn't get through my launch in one piece without the encouragement of so many great writers. Thanks!

  6. Ha! And here I am mostly clueless about filmmaking and I thought the same thing--it felt so heavy-handed when they did that. Also the shot of the stairs as someone was descending in the downward spiral. I hate being hit over the head with a message--which is why I hated that movie with Tom Hanks in which he was dying of aids. It felt SO histrionic to me and hugely manipulated by the director.

  7. My husband has a hard time watching a movie with me because I do all of those things...("why'd they do that??")

    I first met Meredith at Malice a few years back and I'm so thrilled that PFM is coming out in a few weeks. It really does take a village sometimes..when I talk about the mystery community to outsiders I probably sound like a Moonie, but it really does help to get tips from those who've gone before you.

    Two questions...How is the editing process different in film and in writing? (e.g. how much do you do on your own versus what others ask for, etc.)What's been the best advice you've gotten so far, Meredith?

  8. Thanks for having me on Jungle Red today. It was a great day when I met Rosemary... Her book is coming out the very same day as mine from Minotaur, which makes us--what? Pub date sisters?

    Great question about the editing process. Editing a film is a process of taking all the "takes" you shot and whittling it down to the ones you feel best tell the story. They are often mind numbingly repetitious, and you're forced to make choices based on whether or not the actions match another angle or shot, or whether or not the city is shooting up fireworks during one of your takes (this happened to me a lot in Pittsburgh).

    And then later you get to the part that is more like editing a novel to me. You smooth out rough edges. You redub the sound. You take out a few frames here and add in a few frames there to make it flow better. You rearrange scenes, and sometimes even go back and reshoot. You add music. You color correct.

    Editing either is slow and time consuming for me, but I think that is where the "true" novel or film is born.

  9. Oh, and there was another question. The best advice I've ever gotten? That is a tough one. I think the best advice I can offer is to meet lots and lots of published writers on your way to being published. And then listen to them. Really listen. They'll have tons of useful advice that will hopefully help you, too.

  10. Hi Meredith, welcome to JRW and congratulations on the new book! I was just this very instant reading SAVE THE CAT, a book on screenwriting by Blake Snyder, when I decided to surf over and see what was up at the blog. He makes screenwriting seem so logical. He keeps saying over and over that the writer must know what his/her script "is", and then who it's about. Now I'm reading the chapter about structure--it all seems so easy...I'm yearning for something like that right now! Do you know that book? Have any comments on the difference between writing a novel and a screenplay?

  11. Hi Roberta! Thanks for the question. In some ways writing a screenplay is easier than writing a novel--there's no internal monologues, there isn't lots of description, your characters are roughly sketched in (all so the director and actors can play with it and have something to do), and there's a lot fewer words on the page. :)

    But a script is very dependent on plot. If you have no plot, and don't have the dramatic arc of the story/3 act structure in place, then the script ends up sitting there like a lump. It's easier to see the difference in a case when a critically acclaimed novel is made into a film. If there's tons of introspection and not much action for the characters (show rather than tell!), it usually ends up getting panned.

  12. Hi Meredith,
    I'm reading with a lot of interest. I'm doing the opposite, writing a screenplay after novel writing. And I agree, in some ways, it's easier, but also, not as satisfying. It's all structure. And you've got to be so spare and spot-on with the details. Congrats on the St. Martin's contest!

  13. Hey Meredith!

    Oh--remember when we met? Ar Crime Bake, how many years ago? And you told me your plot--and I thought: Wow. That's fantastic. And I knew there were big things ahead for you.

    And as for video versus on-the-page editing--I think they're very similiar. I've worked in TV for 30 years--and editing is one of my favorite things to do.

    Everything has to advance the story. Everything has to fit together. No tangents. It has to build. Beginning middle end. A balance of narration with dialogue. And silence.

    Many a marginal story of mine has been--as we call it--"saved in the edit booth." Just like in revisions!

    Roberta--I love Save The Cat. Brilliant.

    Meredith, are you working on the next book?

  14. Meredith,

    Congratulations! that is marvelous!

    Joann B.

  15. Congratulations, Meredith! That is marvelous!


  16. Hi Meredith! Congratulations as well!

    I need to add my 2 cents here as it relates to what Meredith was saying about editing and Jan noted about the sparseness of scripts. By the way, while sparse, they need to have visual words that the director (and actors) can que from in the scene descriptions. From my perspective these descriptions need to snap, the more vivid the better. However, there is a balance that must be struck in the descriptions. At the same time, the dialogue must carry insights into the character, as well as character arc.

    So, keeping all that in mind, I think writing a script can have the same level of intensity, especially in light of the fact that you are trying to anticipate how your descriptions will come across to other parties - the director and actor(s). Whereas in writing a novel - whats you says is what you gets - no more, no less. At that point each reader becomes an interpreter. However, there is greater mass of context that you can shape. Whereas, that luxury does not exist in a script.

    I saw "Snow Falling on Cedars" this past week-end and talk about interesting camera angles and framing. Must be my month to notice that because I just now remembered "Cidade de Deus", the City of God, using a similar camera technique. I never realized how much story could be told just by scene framing and good acting. I loved it in "Snow Falling" when there was no dialogue but the camera work completely carried the message. I gained real respect for editing. There were long moments of no dialogue from time to time, but the acting and framing said it all.

    In line with that, I was once told - don't use flashbacks - if you do chose placement very carefully. The following week "The English Patient" was released. The whole movie is a flashback! So much for screen writing rules. In "Snow Falling" flashbacks intertwined - in some respects I liked the effect - it brought a sort of presence to the past actions in the movie - in a sense it took the action of the flashback and put it in the present so that the action of the present could be better understood. The downside is that a few times it became confusing. Was this a present scene or a past scene.

    Meredith and Hank - it's clear from your comments about the importance of a editing in getting to the final. However, and I'll address Meredith here - do you have any comment about flashbacks.

    And again, congratulations.


    By the way the best screen writing reference I have ever seen or used is:

    "The Screenwriter's Bible" by Dave Trottier. I told Dave it fell on my head in a BN one time when I was looking for a way to treat something. At first I scoffed at the title - I said, yeah, another bible promising it all, but was very pleasantly surprised when I opened it.

  17. Thanks everyone for stopping by! Yes, I could never forget meeting you, Hank... I was so excited about your first publishing deal, and now look at you--a zillion awards and so many amazing books on the shelves!

    I am working on a new book that is ALMOST finished, a second Lydia McKenzie book. And looking ahead to the next and the next.

    Jan--good luck with your screenplay! I wrote one after finishing my first book, and it felt a little like a vacation (the pages went so fast). But it is quite a different process, and has its own challenges.

    MTV--Everyone has their pet peeves and no-nos when it comes to screenwriting. I'm not a big flashback fan myself, but I have enjoyed films where the whole film is a flashback. I think it depends on how it's done, really. The technique of using a gooey soft focus shot into a flash back for a few minutes and then back to the action jolts me right out of the story. But then someone else might like it, and might get it to work just fine.

    In any case, I think it's important to try to avoid all the pet peeves that are usually the mark of an amateur since you are usually hoping to sell it to industry people (and not be so crazy as to direct it yourself like me!). Also, so many others need to read the script and interpret it (the director, the cinematographer, the producer, the actor, etc.), so the real challenge is to be clear while still staying spare.

  18. In regard to Hank - yes once she gets going stand back.

    Hank - I think you could be the human incarnate version of nuclear fusion!! Nuclear Fusion is to sun as Hank is to life!!

    Meredith -

    Thanks for the opinion on flashbacks. If you get a chance check out "Snow Falling on Cedars" - I thought it was a different way to use flashbacks. It's a who dunit with some social commentary.

    To me the flashbacks acted to intensify the "relevance" of the current scene.

    Of course at the end of the day my comment was... wow that was a complciated way to tell a story. Still artistically interesting.

    By the way my wife doesn't like the way I dissect movies - both as I'm watching, during toilet breaks and after :-)! The good news for her is I make no audible comments while watching.

    I like to look at what works and what falls short for me. So, I do watch with some intensity.