Been off Social Media a while. It feels...good, actually.
I had a whole post written that dealt with the events of last week. And I simply couldn't put you through it. If you're desperate for my take on what happened and what I believe is coming, go to my Facebook page, but there is certainly no obligation to do so if you're as weary of all this as I am.
Instead, I'm going to soldier on, as I have been doing with the latest in a series you know about that I can't identify just yet for reasons. I've been working on it for 14 days, which I know because the word count currently stands at exactly 14,000. Haven't gone over yet, and I never go under 1,000 words a day. That's the rule.
This book is taking me places I wasn't prepared to go, but they're interesting and hopefully will be fun for the reader. You might not even notice if you've read another in the series that this is a little unusual, because I'm not suddenly moving the action to Saturn or deciding the main character can fly. But in my mind it's different, and since my mind gets to see it first, that might be significant.
Meanwhile, there's got to be an idea for the book after this one. With a series, you're really telling one LONG story that has episodes, like a television series. So there has to be some consistency but there always has to be an element of change in each story. You (the author) don't want to keep writing the same book over and over, and there is that danger if you're not thinking ahead. So the idea for the next one, in a different series, is germinating as we speak. If I think it's any good, it might show up at a bookstore near you in 2018. Or not.
But there's also the book I wrote about a year ago and haven't seen since. That arrived in the mail this week with copyediting to be checked against. Go remember what I was thinking a year ago. It was such a simpler time. I read each page and have some vague recollection of my original intention, but the upside is that it's not a bad read. Problem: Reading all day makes me sleepy. Not a good endorsement for my own work, but the truth is it would happen no matter whose book I'd be reading. It just makes me need the occasional nap, is all.
So all at once I'm dealing with the past, the present and the future. It's not always easy to be optimistic but it is necessary to keep going no matter what. Those 1,000 words a day have to get written. If I have any regard for my own reputation it would be nice if I strove for them to be good words. A silly story can inspire, it can entertain, or it can be a colossal pain when written badly. There's time for revision and restructuring later. Right now it's just about writing. A thousand words. Every day. Not just because it's November but because it's my job.
Because the important thing is to keep going.
(I met Jennifer Dwight recently in my capacity as archivist at Colorado College, her alma mater. I invited her to participate in the Dead Guy blog, and I'm happy to say she took me up on it.)
A Conversation Between Two Award-winning Mystery Writers: Michelle Cox, Author of A Girl Like You (2016) and the forthcoming A Ring of Truth, and Jennifer Dwight, Author of The Tolling of Mercedes Bell (2016)
Michelle, I was so glad to meet you at Book Expo America in May this year and to run into you again in July on the book tours for our new books. It’s delightful to meet a kindred spirit and fellow mystery/suspense writer! I loved reading your novel, A Girl Like You, and was charmed by the set and setting (post-WWI Chicago). What inspired you to write a murder mystery set in that time and place?
Thanks, Jennifer! It was fun meeting you as well. And thanks for the compliments about A Girl Like You. As for what drew me to that period, I’d have to say I was inspired by my time working in a nursing home in my early twenties. I had heard so many great stories from that era, and I guess I just fell in love with it. One of those stories, actually, was the basis for A Girl Like You.
But what about The Tolling of Mercedes Bell?—which was excellent, by the way! It really kept me on the edge of my seat—such an intriguing story. Where did you get the idea for it?
When I started working as a litigation paralegal in the San Francisco area, it was the early 1980s. AIDS, the crack cocaine epidemic, and homelessness were exploding. In contrast, rampant materialism infused the new Yuppie culture. It was a dark, dramatic time. I had just moved from Colorado and underwent culture shock in a fairly major way. The cases I worked on were peopled with con-artists, and many of the friends I made here later died of AIDS or had friends who did. Deception seemed to permeate my work and many of my friends’ experiences, so the seeds of my novel were planted.
Michelle, tell us about your background. How long have you been writing? What insights can you share with aspiring writers?
Although I have a degree in English literature, I hadn’t thought seriously about taking up writing—nothing beyond a clever birthday card or perhaps a witty email, anyway—until very recently. Writing is something I always thought about but never had time for or was too afraid to try. But with all three of my kids in school now and relatively self-sufficient, I decided it was time to test the waters. No more excuses!
My first attempt was a sprawling, epic novel that I wrote in 2013 that subsequently went nowhere. I started over in 2014 and happily produced A Girl Like You. And that was it; I was off!
I don’t have a lot of insights for writers, except to say you should try to write every day, not just when you feel like it or feel inspired. It’s a lot like exercise. If you wait until you “feel like it,” chances are you’ll be pretty rotund. The same applies to writing. You have to do it every day to see results.
Also, read a lot!
What about you, Jennifer? What advice do you have for inspiring writers? What does your writing process look like?
I think it’s important for fiction writers to have good liberal arts educations. We need that foundation in order to understand our primary subject: people and the messes they make. It’s essential for writers to read as much and as broadly as possible: the classics of literature, well-researched nonfiction, current events. More important than getting an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, one must have a broad frame of reference for understanding life. We must continually cultivate the skills for expressing that understanding in words. The paramount thing is to be able to think. There is a lot of drivel being published these days because people want to take shortcuts. My writing mentor used to harangue me with this: “Jennifer, it is important to move the brains at least once daily!”
My writing process is very methodical. I develop a plot slowly and outline it in detail. I work on it daily, creating themes and characters and subplots. I spent two years creating the outline for The Tolling of Mercedes Bell. The action for each chapter and the entire cast of characters were developed before I started writing the manuscript. I was well acquainted with the personal history and idiosyncrasies of each character before I wrote the first draft (3 years). The story took possession of my life. I was kidnapped by a muse!
So, Michelle, what are you working on now?
Too much! Currently, I'm working on the edits for Book 2 of the series, A Ring of Truth, which will be coming out in April, so that's keeping me busy. I'm also still doing some promotion for A Girl Like You, still writing my weekly blog, "Novel Notes of Local Lore"—true stories about Chicago's forgotten residents, and, oh yeah! — I just started writing Book 4 of the series. So, it's basically chaos!
How about you, Jennifer? What's your current project?
I am loving the indie author life, but there aren’t enough hours in the day. I start the day with an hour of yoga, to keep my sanity, then divide my time among marketing The Tolling of Mercedes Bell, making public appearances to do readings and meet with book clubs, interacting on social media, reading and reviewing books, attending other authors’ events in the San Francisco area and writing about them, and planning my next novel (which will be related to The Tolling). I write a blog, as well as for various on-line book reviews and paralegal publications, and will soon be writing as a guest blogger on the sites of some attorneys I know. All my publications are also posted on my website, www.authorjenniferdwight.com, which has links to my FB, Twitter, and LinkedIn pages.
What is your Book 3? You mentioned 1 and 2, then 4. Have there been any surprises in your writing ventures that you wish you had known about before you started?
Book 3 of the series has a working title of “The Sound of Wedding Bells,” but that title hasn’t been sanctioned by the publisher, so it could possibly change. It’s all finished, waiting for its chance to come out into the world, so meanwhile I’ve started the 4th, as I mentioned above. No working title yet besides “Secrets.” I keep writing, I think, because I have this fear that if I stop, I’ll never get started again!
I think my biggest surprise so far in this writing/publishing journey is how much time you need to spend promoting. It’s a whole job in and of itself, never mind the writing! Speaking of, you can find me at: http://michellecoxauthor.com/; FB: https://www.facebook.com/michellecoxwrites/; Twitter: https://twitter.com/michellecox33.
What about you, Jennifer? Any surprises? Regrets?
Many surprises, and few regrets. I had very little understanding of the nature of the book publishing industry while I was writing The Tolling of Mercedes Bell. So I had a woefully inadequate grasp of the work that lay before me when I finished the manuscript. This made for blissful ignorance during the creation process, and unpleasant surprises afterwards. I had no idea how hard it would be to research and pitch to literary agents, as a debut novelist, or that there were only five traditional publishing houses which control 85% of the book publishing market, all five of which rely only on agents to screen out undesirable manuscripts. (Nor did I know that fewer than one-third of the authors published by “the Big Five” are female.) I didn’t know that successful agents receive hundreds of submissions per week. It seems to be arranged to thwart the writer and to pay us as little as possible, while the publishers maintain complete artistic control.
Fortunately, I found another way, a nontraditional way with a fine independent press which publishes carefully curated work with great skill. And I was also fortunate to have the resources to allocate to educate myself about publishing (go to writers’ conferences), have a website created, establish an author’s platform, hire a publicity firm, and finance the book tour.
In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t know how hard it would be to become well published before I started writing, and I’m glad I found She Writes Press and met you! Then for us to have been finalists at this year’s Indie Next Generation Book Awards was pure icing on the cake! What joy!
So to new writers I say, if you’re writing because you want fortune or fame, you may be in for many disappointments. The odds are against you. But if you write because it is your passion, then carry on and don’t give up. If the muse has come for you, you must oblige her, and be tenacious.
Michelle Cox holds a B.A. in English literature from Mundelein College, Chicago, and is the author of the award-winning, A Girl Like You, the first in the Henrietta and Inspector Howard series. She is known for her wildly popular blog, “How to Get Your Book Published in 7,000 Easy Steps—A Practical Guide” as well as her charming “Novel Notes of Local Lore,” a blog dedicated to Chicago’s forgotten residents. Michelle lives with her husband and three children in the Chicago suburbs. A Girl Like You has received two starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist and placed as a Finalist in Romance in the 2016 Next Gen Awards. It has also been listed as a top read by Your Tango, Popsugar, Culturalist, The Reading Room, and Buzzfeed and is currently enjoying its second print run. Book two of the series, A Ring Of Truth, will be released April 2017.
Jennifer Dwight is a San Francisco Area author. She writes a blog, a series for the Portland Book Review, and regularly contributes to the several on-line and print publications. Her books include nonfiction legal works and a suspense novel, The Tolling of Mercedes Bell, which was a finalist in the 2016 Indie Next Generation Awards for Thriller and Suspense. The San Francisco Book Review called it “an unforgettable page-turner – a must-read by all!” It has also received excellent reviews from Suspense Magazine, Sunset Magazine, the Portland Book Review, Coastal Living Magazine, Kirkus Reviews, Working Mother Magazine, Brit + Co, BuzzFeed, The Reading Room, and many on-line review blogs. Jennifer welcomes visitors to her website, where there are links to her writings, reviews, and social media, and information about her upcoming events.
by Erin Mitchell
This has been a helluva week. Regardless of your political leanings, we were all surprised by the results of the American presidential election (thanks, pollsters).
Many of us were up way past our bedtimes on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, everyone I know was in shock, one way or the other. So I was surprised to see this boosted post in my Facebook feed:
Whoever runs Craig Johnson’s Facebook page had been boosting these posts—with “Longmire for President” gear—for a few weeks. Which was smart.
Continuing these boosts past Tuesday morning was not.
So it occurred to me that it’s time for a reminder: When we experience a national event, you need to pause your marketing. I always and still use as an example the young woman who was working for a PR agency on September 11, 2001. (And before anyone gets offended, I’m not saying the election was the same kind of event, but it was as significant to much of the US and global population.) This woman decided to integrate the day’s events into a pitch she was sending to media on behalf of her client, a financial services company, starting said pitch with a line to the effect of, “Since we all need some good news today, let me tell you about my client!”
She was fired. The company no longer exists.
I’m a big fan of planning promotions. When doing so, it’s important to pay attention to the World Events Calendar. Know what’s going on, for Pete’s sake! And always—ALWAYS—have a kill switch. If you’re advertising/promoting online and you ad shows up in the midst of discussion of a mass shooting, you’re not going to win any fans.
Be well, folks.
A spam e-mail found its way into my in-box this morning dated 2017. As I was deleting it, I thought, don’t I just wish; the sooner 2016 is behind us the happier I’ll be; 2017 has got to be better.
Then I remembered. Not that I’d really forgotten,much as I wish I could.
I saw a movie once, a long time ago, one of those disaster movies that were popular at the time, in which Steve McQueen or some other a handsome hero saves the tower block/city/world and all its inhabitants from approaching annihilation. In this one I think a giant meteorite was on a collision course with the Earth. I don’t recall much more about it, except a shot of newspapers rolling off the presses bearing two alternative headlines: EARTH DOOMED and EARTH SAVED.
That’s pretty much how the TV news coverage of That Election has struck me for the past few weeks. As a rule I take the view that what politicians of any hue get up to doesn’t impact much on my life, give or take the odd price rise, and that happens anyway. The same goes double for politicians (or would-be politicians) thousands of miles away. (That doesn’t mean I don’t vote; I also take the view that if I don’t play my part in the so-called democratic process, I don’t have a right to rail when it all goes horribly wrong. And besides, women died so I could vote. I owe them.) I wasn’t exactly pleased when George W Bush somehow got one over on Al Gore back in 2000, but it all happened a long way away.
This time it was different. The prospect of someone a perfectly sensible woman (whatever else you may think of her) described as a loose cannon taking on the top job of the world’s most powerful nation was scary. Seriously so. And when I woke on Wednesday morning to the news that it was going to happen, I was pretty sure I hadn’t woken at all but was having a nightmare. Then I woke up again, with a line from an old Don MacLean song in my head: Until you did, I never thought you would. I guess a lot of people never thought a lot of other people would.
A few years ago a dear friend was all packed up and ready to leave the UK if the Conservatives won an upcoming election. Another friend needed to lie down in a darkened room when they did. I’m guessing a lot of Americans are lying down in darkened rooms, giving serious thought to packing a suitcase and booking a plane ticket.
What I really don’t understand is women voted for him. My own gender, which I have always regarded, in general, as the more level-headed and thoughtful of the two. OK, there are always a few mavericks in any social group, but surely, surely, they were outnumbered by a soaring factor.
What was I saying about 2017 being better? I sometimes watch a TV property show in which people are helped to move to a quieter way of life; a reason they often give for wanting to move is that the place they’ve lived for decades has changed. I think I’ll apply to the show, and ask if I can move to a different planet.
No crime fiction connection this week. The real world is scary enough.
First a word from our sponsor: THE QUESTION OF THE FELONIOUS FRIEND is now available for preorder as an audiobook. Audible Studios is offering the third Asperger's Mystery novel from E.J. Copperman/Jeff Cohen starting November 15, but you can order it now. This concludes the message from our sponsor.
More important: My last word on America's longest bad acid trip: Votevotevotevotevotevotevotevotevotevotevotevotevotevotevotevotevotevotevotevotevotevotevotevotevotevotevotevotevotevote.
That was my last word on the subject. And now: There has never been an accurate depiction of writing in movies or on television. I understand why that is true: Watching someone write is almost as much fun as watching the blank screen but offers less hope for improvement. Even people who write in teams like collaborators or television writing rooms are given to long, quiet, inert phases where nothing is happening. The most you can expect in terms of visual excitement is the writer pacing. The largest sign of progress is... typing.
So it makes sense that no film or television program has ever successfully made drama out of writing. Writers in movies and TV tend to be doing something other than writing when we see them. They are solving crimes (Castle), solving even more crimes (Murder, She Wrote), solving crimes based on their work (The Raven), or searching for inspiration while probably falling in love (all other movies with writers in them).
What's interesting about the depictions in popular entertainment is how much the stories get wrong, given that they were all written by, I'm gonna say writers. Assigned with the impossible task of making the routine of someone like me interesting, most writers punt. They fall back on the popular tropes that have worked before and don't try for a new approach. I understand that impulse too, given the high level of difficulty involved. I wouldn't want to have to write an accurate but engrossing portrait of a writer at work.
On the other hand, even writing a character who happens to be an author and, yes, is helping to solve crimes in the Mysterious Detective Mystery series, I have attempted to provide at least a little realism in the depiction. Rachel Goldman is a mid-list mystery author who just grinds it out. She writes 1,000 words a day (stop me if this sounds familiar) no matter what. She hates revisions. She watches the success of other writers and doesn't so much envy it as wonder why she isn't doing as well.
Rachel is constantly noticing things she might be able to use in a future book, and is always slightly disappointed in the way her work turns out. It's never quite what she envisioned, but she doesn't have time for that because she has to get another 1,000 words together for today.
She deals with the publishing business' foibles as many of us do: Rachel mostly ignores the industry and relies on her agent and her editor for information. She knows some booksellers but not enough. She has an assistant (which most of us definitely don't, but I wanted Rachel to have someone to ask for research and to talk to, so her assistant works only twice a week). She deals with her small group of fans gratefully but with some astonishment, wondering why they might be so devoted to her creation.
The whole thing about her character leaping off the page and showing up at her door is another story entirely.
Personally, I'm not looking for the accurate portrait of a working writer in popular entertainment because I sincerely believe it would be too dull to provide much amusement. But if anyone in the business would like to discuss putting Rachel up on the screen, they will find no resistance from me.
Bring it on, Hollywood.
Vote vote vote vote vote vote vote vote vote vote vote vote vote vote vote vote vote vote vote vote vote vote vote vote vote vote.
And as one of the immortal Goons said half a century ago, I’m still wearing my little summer cotton ones. Sorry, guys, too much information there. But you’ve got to love the Goons...
OK, that dates me. I’m old enough to remember the Goons. Anyone have a problem with that? I don’t. Well, only a small one, every time I look in the mirror and wonder how things came to such a pass. I mean, when I was eighteen, I was going to live forever. Isn’t everyone when they’re eighteen? I should have seen the shape of things to come right then, the day a theatre make-up artist painted my face to make it look as if I was sixty... If you think Hallowe’en was scary, you should have been there.
None of which was what I planned to post about today. But it’s cold, touching zero cold, for the first time this year: ice on the windscreen, dustbin lid frozen down cold. And the heating in my workspace has chosen today to turn temperamental on me; I just hope it doesn’t decide to take a permanent hike to wherever dead heating finishes up. So my brain is a little frozen around the edges.
And when it’s cold, persons of my terrifyingly advanced years look for comfort. At the moment, hot coffee and the chocolate chip minis I baked in case of trick-or-treaters. They stayed away, even the small boys next door who planted a tombstone in their front garden, so we have a tinful of very more-ish cookies the size of a twenty pence piece in the UK, probably a nickel in the US of A, which since the Brexit vote is worth about the same, and we have to finish them or they’ll go stale.
For me, comfort also means getting lost in a good book. Which led me to wonder, when I saw this morning that a major international publisher is about to launch a website which ‘recommends’ books to readers (come on, guys, how transparent can a marketing ploy be?), what, exactly, constitutes comfort reading: the hot chocolate book equivalent for cold weather. And conversely, how the dedicated reader goes about extending the boundaries of comfort by finding new authors to add to the list of tried and trusted favourites, who will sometime inevitably not be there when they’re needed.
I have a book wishlist, which goes out on request to anyone who is generous enough to want to mark my passing years with a gift. At the moment it contains fifteen names which have three or more book titles next to them, and a further twenty-one names with one or two titles. Yes, it’s a long list. (There’s also a short supplementary list of books I’ve read but don’t own, and would like to, to fill gaps in series; they’re all by different authors, who are all rich and famous enough not to miss the royalty payment on one book, so I look for those any time I’m in a second-hand bookshop. Sorry, is that too much information too?)
The fifteen names include some of my favourites. Not all of them; for instance I’m up to date with my top two go-to-in-any-circumstances reads, Phil Rickman and J D Robb, so their new titles are on a third list which contains books I’d like as soon as they’re available in paperback. (I don’t have shelf space for hardbacks, even if I could afford to buy them.) The fifteen are authors I discovered when their careers were already well established, so I haven’t caught up with their backlist yet.
They key word there is discovered. Because today’s big question is where do we discover new authors to add to our wish lists?
I’m lucky; I review for an e-zine, the editor of which sends me a list of available books twice a month. I freely confess I do tend to home in on those fifteen names (and the twenty-one too) if they’re there, but they often aren’t; the last two or three lists have consisted of authors I’ve tried and not got along with and other authors whose names are unfamiliar. So I get to add names to my wishlist by homing in on the unfamiliar when it’s handed to me on a plate, or at least an Adobe file.
And friends recommend. And occasionally the weekend newspapers publish a review which arouses my interest. And I browse bookshops. Of course I do. Real bookshops, that is. I’m physically incapable of walking past one, and once I’m inside some strange power takes me over and I find I’m at the cashdesk with three volumes in one hand and a debit card in the other.
But mostly it’s those lists of books for review. I don’t know what appeals to me; there’s little on the lists but titles and authors’ names. And sometimes I don’t get what I expect. But of those fifteen names, more than half are a direct result of books I chose from those lists.
I have a lot of backlist to catch up on. So, as winter draws on and curling up in an armchair with a good book becomes an increasingly attractive way to spend an hour, or two, or seven, I can take comfort in both the books I’m already comfortable with and the knowledge that yet more comfort is there waiting to be found.
I think one of the reasons I've been blocked the past couple of months, and my posts have been mundane and insignificant (and for which I'm terribly sorry) is that it's felt just that--mundane and insignificant, rather than the enormously important event occurring next Tuesday (and I'm already going to say, next week's post will have one word: VOTE). I sit with my wife each evening and watch the news, trying to avoid upsetting or stressful reports about one side or the other. Truth has been so much stranger than any of the novels I've worked on. And in a week, it'll be over, and one large part of the country will be ok with the result, and everyone else won't (and honestly, even many of the folks who will be ok will be convincing themselves). I've got my horse in the race, and I'm biting my nails. And my great hope is that by the time I write this post in TWO weeks, we will be in a better, more peaceful place. Not holding my breath on that last part, but I can hope.
If you are in a state with early vote, do so. And tell your friends to do it.
Back to publishing after this extended nightmare is over.
Now that that's over with:
America's long nightmare is very nearly over. No, no that one, although I think the sigh of relief on Nov. 9 will be audible from Jupiter. I'm talking instead about the fact that this week (in fact, today or tomorrow) I will begin writing a new novel, and the period of inactivity since I turned in my last one will be blissfully done.
So let me say, I'm back! And that's good for America. Because whichever way you're voting, you don't want me hanging around with nothing to do.
I can't tell you anything about the story I'm about to start--yet--but suffice it to say it'll be good to be back at work. I've told you before that I get antsy when there's no work in progress, and nothing I could have started in the last, what, two months? was holding my interest enough to continue. So thanks to Josh and his hard work, I'm back in the saddle (a stupid metaphor) and am concocting story lines even as we speak.
We're not really speaking. I'm typing this a couple of days before you're reading it, unless you read it at some later date or... this is getting complicated. You know what I mean.
Anyway, it'll be a relief of sorts to get into the 1,000-word-a-day habit again. Except that I'll need to come up with that thousand words a day, which is always something of a brain teaser. See, I've often described my work as "comedy with a mystery in it," and I believe in that, but the fact is, those mystery plots are not easy to devise or maintain. That's the rough part of this job.
It was once noted (and I have before quoted) by Joseph Mankiewicz that "the difference between life and the movies is that a script has to make sense, and life doesn't." The same is true in every kind of storytelling. Every notion that comes across my feverish little brain while I'm punishing my keyboard for not coming up with the ideas itself has to add up. I can't throw a plot point out there, decide it's not anything, and just leave it hanging. I can't include some outlandish story twist and never explain it. I have to keep all this stuff in my head for the period of months while writing the thousand words a day.
And being a "pantser" from way back (I grew up in Way Back, New Jersey), I don't worry about the plot holding water in advance. I just try to get through the day's assignment. Often the best plot points come when I'm just trying to find the end of the chapter and keep the reader interested enough to start the next one. I've written myself into many a corner that way, and then had to fight my way out. Some of those are the best story points I've ever written.
Nonetheless I'm looking forward to starting up again, and maybe I'll do that as soon as I finish writing this post. Except... how am I going to start this time?
According to Ruth Franklin's excellent new biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, several houses may have served as the inspiration for The Haunting of Hill House, the novel Stephen King called one of the top two pieces of supernatural fiction of the 20th century (the other being The Turning of the Screw). Jackson collected postcards and photographs of spooky mansions, but Hill House is her own invention -- she drew her own interior plans for it, some of which are reproduced in the biography. And of course the Hill House in the reader's mind is almost certainly scarier than any real place. Nevertheless, I found myself yearning for a visual compendium of all the inspirations for Hill House. (Click on the links for sources.)
Hill House, "not sane," may have been inspired by:
The Chateau de Monte Cristo in Port-Marly, France
Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Germany
Grim's Dyke in London, England (now a Best Western hotel!)
Jennings Hall in Bennington, Vermont
The Everett Mansion in Bennington, Vermont
The Crocker House in San Francisco, California, designed by Samuel Bugbee, Jackson's great-great-grandfather
The Winchester House in San Jose, California
On a related note, the houses used for the two film versions of the novel are:
Ettington Park Hotel in Stratford-Upon Avon, England (The Haunting, 1963)
Harlaxton Manor in Harlaxton, England (The Haunting, 1999)
The 2002 TV miniseries Stephen King's Rose Red is a sort-of kind-of remake of and/or homage to The Haunting. King said in an interview that the Winchester House, above, was an inspiration for it. The house used for filming was:
For benefit of anyone who regards this blog, or my contributions to it, as an ongoing serial – I got there. Final full stop. End of the last chapter. I have a complete manuscript. I’ve been leaving it to rest for a few days, then comes the best part: going in with the editing pencil – metaphorical in the age of technology, but still an essential, and to my mind highly enjoyable, part of the process.
And when that’s done I’ll be left with another dilemma: what do I do with all the bits I left out?
Inevitably when a novel is reworked after several years, things change. The author’s perceptions shift, and the knowledge base from which some of the background detail is drawn expands. I realized as I was reshaping this one that I needed to do more historical research to make sure my characters were in the right place at the right time; and a few items came to light, or at least into my sightlines, which I hope have enriched the world I’ve set out to create.
But the opposite happened too. I reread a few passages and realized I’d over-egged the pudding; tried to give the reader too much information, some of which really wasn’t pertinent or useful, however interesting I’d found it at the time. And some of the reshaping meant linking passages (I’ve heard them called campfire scenes by screenwriters) were no longer needed.
The result is that I have about twenty pages of redundant scenes. And I hate waste. We’re very much a recycling family, but I’m also a squirrel; I won’t throw anything away if it might be useful sometime. I have to be very firm with myself to prevent my fridge and deep freeze being stacked with little boxes containing anything from a small helping of chicken casserole to a spoonful of leftover mashed potato. And my wardrobe is stuffed with garments I really will wear again just as soon as I shed those last few pounds around my hips. And don’t get me started on the books, most of which I will never, never part with.
So it will come as no surprise when I say there are two large boxes in a cupboard in my workspace which bear the label Unfinished Projects. Unsold short stories which need more work; at least three novels which got stuck round about the 10,000-word mark; a couple of non-fiction projects which hit a research wall I never got around to circumventing. More. Much more. And that’s just the paper stuff, from before I created the archive on my computer.
I’ve made good use of redundant scenes from novels in the past; with a little adjustment they can become viable (and in some cases marketable) short stories. A whole novel of 60,000 words once got pared down to 7,000 and transformed into a dramatic monologue which actually made it on to the stage. So surely I can do something with an account of a night in a hospital ward for shell-shocked men during the First World War. And a few hundred words about a militant suffragette who put her energy to work during the war then found the world had no place for her afterwards. And... well, I haven’t really taken a proper look yet, but I know there’s more.
Sorry, blog-followers, that’s it for today. Work to do!
As I was looking through my posts from the past couple of months, I realized that between Jewish holidays, the end of the summer, and parenting three teenagers, my posting on Hey Dead Guy has been pretty weak. It's been pretty rough--to the point where I have been describing my inbox, which has been deluged during my absences the past couple of weeks, as "dystopic."
But it's done now. My Senior is completing his first quarter and his college apps. The Jewish holidays concluded this evening and I'll actually have 7 straight work days uninterrupted. The puppy is slightly less insane. All good.
The question for an agent with a dystopic inbox is this: where to start? Do I begin by answering the "please update" emails from clients? Or by thanking editors who have passed on my submissions? Do I look at the contracts that have arrived the past couple of days? Or do I continue my Fall manuscript submissions? Do I write the editorial letters to prospective clients? Or to current clients? Or do I read the second draft of a manuscript when I am already behind on the manuscripts I SHOULD be submitting already? Plus a couple of clients have new opportunities in different projects.
And the World Series is on.
And the election is in two weeks.
I need a new Holiday.
Sometimes at an "event," where I'll show up to discuss a book and perhaps try to persuade one or two people--and believe me, it's not unusual that I'm talking to one or two people--to purchase one, or two, the readers there will ask questions of the author, who is me.
Most of them are easy to answer. "How long did it take you to write this book?" Usually somewhere in the area of three months, given my 1000-word-a-day habit and time enough to revise. "Are the characters all based on people you know?" Actually, no they're not. "Where do you get your ideas?" Lowe's. Used to be Home Depot, but I disagree with their politics.
"Which one of these is your favorite?"
A favorite? Among my (so far) 18 novels? Including SPOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, coming a mere six weeks from tomorrow? You might as well ask me which is my favorite of my children, and I only have two of those. The favorite is the one you just finished, because thank goodness that's over with. The least favorite is always the one you started with, because it's been 14 years and you haven't seen a royalty check yet. Ingrate.
There are things I like about every book I've written. There are things I absolutely detest about every book I've written. Larry Gelbart once told me he wouldn't watch reruns of M*A*S*H because he'd want to go back and rewrite each one. I completely get that. I'd like to fix all the stuff I didn't see until much later, or that I wouldn't have thought of then but would now. They'd all be so much better if I could just issue revised editions every year. But sales figures and sanity prohibit such a thing.
Besides, reading stuff I've written makes me sleepy, which slows down the process.
And telling you which book was my favorite, if I had one, would be a lose-lose situation anyway. Just because the author likes it best doesn't make it his/her best work. There are sentimental reasons about the time the novel was being written that might color the memory, or a certain character manifested from a cherished memory (I sneak my late father into my books on regular occasions) that make it special to the writer while the reader would never even know such a thing existed, let alone get the emotional benefit.
I tell readers I don't have a favorite among my books because 1) It's true and 2) I don't see how that will help you. If you're interested in an author's work but are not familiar with each title, read the plot description on the back (or the online page for the book--there's plenty of information available). See which one appeals to you. Because what I think is irrelevant to your enjoyment of my work.
Now, I could tell you which PAGE of mine is my personal favorite, and maybe I will next week...
I seem to have explored a lot of aspects of the word-related world over the past mptymumble years; I’ve edited, published and sold books; written fiction and factual short pieces. I’ve even ‘taught’ the craft of writing (quote marks are because you can’t teach people to write – see numerous earlier posts), and talked to various groups of people about the process. Through it all, my main motivation has been having a reason to put words on paper in a way which connects with something in a reader. Because fundamentally, I’m a writer. And reason doesn’t really come into it.
As any writer will tell you (we have a successful one on the blog team – ask him) writing is an addiction. It may not make you a fortune; it may not even earn you a living; and it’s possible to step away from it for a while. But always, inevitably, all writers will be drawn back to it. We can’t not do it. We might as well try to give up breathing.
Which probably explains why, after a lifetime spent in a myriad other ways, and more recently in the face of one of the most demanding years of my life in terms of more urgent things moving in on my time, I finally find myself back where I started all those years, decades, aeons ago when people used to ask what I wanted to be when I grew up.
Despite the inference you might draw from my extensive book collection, I don’t write crime fiction. Never have, never will. My brain simply isn’t wired that way; building the complex puzzle isn’t what drives me. Even when I read it, and I do, voraciously, I’m more interested in what makes the characters tick and how they relate to each other than in working how who dun what before the detective does.
But through everything, the short stories, the journalism, the marketing blurbs, the press releases, there has always been a novel simmering away on my back burner. Never a published one; publishers are so shortsighted, of course. But the tally of completed and in-progress (never just unfinished!) manuscripts is in double figures, and, well, you never know...
Sometimes they simmer for years, then some unknown impetus turns the heat up and they begin to bubble. Which is pretty much what happened a few weeks ago, with the result that my current effort has reached a rolling boil.
I like to think those years have taught me something about craft: where to place a hint in order to create tension, how to construct a sentence so it has the impact and nuance I want, how to show, not tell. But they’ve also taught me something far more important. That craft is ten per cent of the job; the rest is a kind of inexplicable intuition. And sometimes you just have to leave your subconscious to get on with it with no interference from conscious thought.
Twenty-four hours ago I was staring at a blank screen. Three hundred-plus pages preceded it, but the page I needed to fill remained resolutely empty. Nothing was happening; I was close to the end, and the end wasn’t behind an impenetrable wall.
It would have been easy to start panicking; to have come this far and be unable to get to the final curtain was enough to make me scream. But I managed to batten it down and keep my cool. Reader, I walked away. Ate supper, did the dishes, watched some TV. Distracted myself with chocolate. (OK, hands in the air, I have an addictive personality, and if I can’t satisfy one craving...)
Then, this morning, the fog lifted. I remembered a piece of advice I used to offer my students: if the end isn’t working, there’s probably a problem somewhere in the middle. And a scenario began to unfold in my head. The shower isn’t the best place for that to happen; great ideas should really be noted down before they disappear down one of those cracks which open up in the memory after a certain age. But I think I’ve managed to hold on to it. The next hour will tell.
Watch this space...
Jeff’s post about his 14 years in publishing reminded me that I am hitting my 7 year anniversary here at Midnight Ink. It has been a pretty crazy ride, that is for sure. Here are some of the highlights:
My job is a pretty great one. I get to meet amazing people, read fantastic manuscripts, and do my part to bring new books to crime fiction readers. If only I could clone myself so I could do more.
*** I purposely did not name names here. If I started I just couldn’t stop. So big hugs to all, unless you are Dan Malmon. Then you get a pat on the shoulder or a nod.
We've just recently passed the 14th anniversary of the publication of For Whom the Minivan Rolls, the first Aaron Tucker mystery and not coincidentally my first published novel. (I had to look it up, but apparently the book was published officially on October 1, 2002.) So I've been in this business for the past 14 years. And it has been quite the ride.
With the publication of my 18th novel (and 20th book overall, since there are two non-fiction titles) looming on December 6, it seems a good time to sort of take stock and recap. Not about each book specifically, because even I would get sick of that somewhere around Book #11, but about some of the experiences that have come along the way.
With Minivan I attended my first mystery book conventions, which I have learned to say because when you tell people you're going to a "mystery convention," they think you're attending an event and won't know what it's about until you get there. This one was in Philadelphia, PA and was the late lamented Mid-Atlantic Mystery Convention and Book Fair. It was, in fact, the last one held, which worries me because I start to think it's my fault.
There I met Mindy Starns Clark, with whom I couldn't have had less in common except that she turned out to be a very nice person who shepherded me through the event. Mindy remains a friend to this day and actually attended a few of my book launch parties despite living 90 minutes away. She brought her husband and children.
Later that year came my first Malice Domestic conference at which I met a number of friends I am proud to count on my side to this day: Leann Sweeney, Lorraine Bartlett, Toni L.P. Kelner, Doris Ann Norris (hi, Doris Ann!), Con Lehane and Jeff Markowitz, among others. I was operating at this point without an agent and had no idea what I was doing, so watching friendly professionals go through the experience of a larger conference had a great deal of value for me.
And Leann still believes, for reasons that defy explanation, that I stole a chair from the hotel, which I emphatically did not. Leann is given to these flights of fancy. It's probably why she's in the fiction business. The chair is still in the hotel. That's all I'm saying.
That was also around the time I attended my first street fair/party at The Black Orchid, the great NYC mystery bookstore that is also late and lamented. More friends met, including my buddy Chris Grabenstein, now a habitué of the New York Times bestseller list, who introduced me some years later to my current excellent agent. (Hi, Josh!)
I bought my first Harlan Coben book at that party and had it signed.
And that's all from the first book. Perhaps I'd best condense:
Those are just a few highlights. Someday when I'm pretentious enough to attempt a memoir perhaps there will be countless more. But enough about me. (And I have that book coming in December and at least three more next year!)
It's been a pretty good 14 years.
Last month, science fiction author and io9 founder Charlie Jane Anders visited Colorado College as part of our Visiting Writers series. Writers usually meet with students in CC fiction and poetry classes, and Anders was no exception. This time, though, we held the student session in Special Collections, so that we could look at rare and valuable science fiction publications with her.
It was a blast. I put out an 1869 edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a first edition of George Orwell's 1984, an Arion Press edition of H.G. Wells's Tono-Bungay, issues of SF zines such as Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and Pandora, pulp paperbacks of Slaughterhouse-Five and Doctor Who, a 17th century history of monsters, and more. We spent a happy hour or so talking about reading and writing science fiction, and as I said goodbye and gathered up the books from the tables I realized it was the first time I'd ever had all my department's science fiction stuff in front of me at the same time. Glorious!
(Anders is standing in front of a humongous painting by Sandy Kinnee, on loan to the library for one year while we renovate.)
First of all, can I take a moment to applaud the inimitable Jeff Cohen for his stand on behalf of ‘all guys’, whoever they may be. Since we’re not mentioning any names, I’d better not say what I would like to happen on the next TV debate between two people we’re not naming (is there another one scheduled? We’re a long way away over here), though I hope a lot of people on both sides of the gender divide are thinking similarly. And whoever ‘all guys’ are in the relevant context, I hope I never meet them. Or them me. They just might regret the encounter, especially if... Yes, well, let’s not go there.
Enough of that. There are more interesting things to post about. Books, for instance. Today, in particular, the way some authors sometimes choose to step outside their comfort zone and try something new.
The thought was triggered by a book I finished earlier this week. The author is well known for a police procedural series which has gone the distance: small beginnings, then growing fame and popularity, culminating in a top-rated TV series with a very familiar face in the lead role, and continuing bestseller success on the page. Set in a beautiful part of the UK, natch; aren’t all the best TV crime series?
It never occurred to me for a moment when I took this book off the shelf in the shop that it wasn’t one of the series; I haven’t read them all, and these days my memory simply isn’t capable (see yesterday’s place-holder!) of storing a couple of dozen titles on the off-chance that I’ll spot one as I indulge in a spontaneous, I-was-just-passing browse. (Yes, that does mean I occasionally buy duplicate copies. On the plus side, they come in useful as gifts.) But when I started to read it, I soon realized it was something quite different. No series protagonist, not a single familiar character; even the location was eight thousand miles and a whole continent different from usual. And it was great.
Aside from the usual conventions of crime fiction, I haven’t encountered many series authors who are one-trick ponies, churning out the same plot over and over with slight variations – perhaps because on the rare occasions I do, I stop reading the series pretty quickly. But I’ve heard well-regarded authors say that embarking on a new title in a series is like checking what some old friends are up to next, or even like relaxing into a pair of well-worn slippers. It’s comfortable. Not necessarily easy, but you know the world you’re entering. A comfort zone. Stepping outside that comfort zone must be a little like arriving in a strange town, maybe even country, without a map.
Writers or not, we all have our comfort zones. It’s always scary to step outside them, but sometimes it can be hugely rewarding. When I was younger and fitter than I am now, I used to try to step outside mine quite consciously at least once a week. Usually in a small way; I’d try a new food, or visit a new shop. But sometimes it was more. I learned to drive in my thirties, having said I never would, and my life opened up. In my forties I started teaching – adults, not kids; tried the latter in my twenties and almost cracked under the stress – and again found a whole new world to explore. A decade later still I started a publishing company. Lots of people said I must be insane, but I learned a whole new set of skills, met some great people and had a ball. Didn’t make any money, but hey, there are other rewards.
I don’t know how the author of that book felt about the town, and country, he decided to visit, but for me the book revealed a whole new side to him. I hope he enjoyed his journey outside his own comfort zone as much as I did.
Most writers these days attend conferences. It might be a writers conference, a fan convention, or a hybrid. It doesn’t matter if the writer is experienced or is new to the craft, it’s just what you do. You go to learn and to meet people. You network. Agents and editors are also at the conferences. We might be teaching workshops, taking pitches, or just hanging out with our authors. We are also networking – talking to each other and pitching projects. This is one of the pretty cool things about the crime fiction community – we are nice to each other and we tend to support each other. And we make friends, which leads me to an interesting situation…
What happens when someone I have become friends with submits a manuscript to me? That is a very good question. Several of my closest friends also write for me. Mostly those friendships blossomed after acquisitions. But what if I am legit friends with them before they submit? What if I reject the manuscript? What if I like it and I want to acquire it? Will people think I give out contracts to my friends? How do I remain impartial?
Truthfully, I don’t know. I would like to think that I remain impartial. I have rejected submissions from people a truly and genuinely like. But I still worry that my judgment might be swayed. Thankfully, we have options. Usually my first option is to ask a co-worker to read over the ms. I have a few who read a lot of mysteries and I trust. I rely heavily on those folks for historical that come in. There are times though when they don’t have time to read a ms for me. Enter the Reader Report. We don’t do it much for fiction, but we have a built in program where the acquisitions editor can send a manuscript to a reader (generally someone that is well versed in that field or genre). After they have read the ms, we ask that they give us a report on it – in this case, I am looking for confirmation on voice, plot, and if it hits the market correctly. Once the reader has returned the report, we pay them for their time.
What I like about this process is that even if no knows about it, I do. It's important to me.
I have (almost) entirely refrained from discussing this massively insane election season on this site. We are for the most part devoted to the publishing of crime fiction, and my opinions on one candidate or another have been relegated largely to social media. I did make one slip here, and no one seemed offended, but I am cognizant that visitors don't come here to find out what I think about politics and I respect that.
The events of the past few days have brought forth something I feel that I need to address. No, I'm not going to tell you who to vote for if you're an American, although I'm sure it will be interpreted that way by some. That's not my intention. What I feel overwhelmingly obligated to do is to debunk one toxic idea that has been floating around since Friday. If you see that as a denouncement of a candidate, so be it. But that's not what I'm trying to do. Entirely. This is the truth:
No, women. All guys don't talk about you that way. Not me and not anyone I know. We don't do that, we never did, and it's not normal.
What is being discussed on the infamous "hot mic" tapes is nothing less than sexual assault. It is the talk of two men who felt privileged enough to do whatever they wanted with whomever they wanted whether it was desired by the woman or not. That's not "locker room talk" and it's not "boys being boys." And it bothers me when the defense is that "all guys talk like that."
We really don't. I can't begin to tell you how angry I am that I have to defend that position. Luckily, the women who know me don't have to be told it's true about me. But they might think other men really do have this level of degradation and objectification as a default position. And some, I'm sure, do. Don Draper might have retired, but he isn't extinct yet.
But not "all guys." Not even close to "all guys." As far as I can tell you from personal experience, no guys I know. We're all looking at each other right now incredulously. We're astonished this kind of thing is seen--by anyone--as acceptable or "mainstream." It's not. And now, when I walk down a random street and see a woman--any woman--walking toward me, I feel the urge to say, "Not me! I don't say that stuff! I don't even think it!" I don't want them thinking such things when they see my son on the street, either. Because they'd be wrong both times.
A long time ago when I was in my early twenties, I was essentially a walking hormone and unattached. I was working in New York City and living on my own and yes, I spent quite a bit of time with my friends, most of whom were in similar social circumstances, discussing various women we knew and hoped perhaps to date.
Guess what--we didn't talk like that then, either. It's not normal, it's not accepted, it's not okay and it's not to be dismissed as "locker room talk."
And that, in addition to all the rest, is what I object to personally. Now. Vote for whomever you please, but please vote. And when you see or read me, please don't think that "all guys" act like that. We surely don't.
Back to crime fiction next week, I promise.
I’ve just finished a book about terrorism. Earlier in the week I read one with living with a brain-injured child as one of its main themes. I’m about to start one about assisted suicide.
Just a moment, I hear you say; aren’t you supposed to be a big crime fiction fan? Why have you shifted allegiance to books about Big Issues? Have you suddenly become a litfic fan?
Yes, I am. And no, I haven’t. And the odd foray into litfic is no bad thing as long as the author doesn’t put style sacrifice ahead of story, but crime fiction still takes up ninety percent of my reading time.
Each of those three books, and a whole lot more of my recent reading matter, has fallen firmly into the crime fiction category, to the extent that that’s where you’ll find them in bookshops and libraries which dedicate certain shelves to certain types of book. Which is to say, in my experience at least, most of them. Also, I review for an e-zine which specializes in crime fiction, and they send me several books a month.
But that’s the joy of crime fiction, isn’t it? There are always good guys and bad guys; there’s always a crime, and more often than not it’s murder; but there’s also the potential for so very much more.
I once heard a brilliant definition of fiction in general: a slice of life, with the heat turned up, the man said. I’d go further. How about a life crisis, still with the heat turned up? And crime fiction turns the heat up further than most other kinds, creating a glow that can light up just about any issue you like and make it blaze so bright that the reader has no choice but to look at it.
Decades ago, in the era of crime fiction still lauded as the Golden Age, things were much simpler than nowadays. Someone (or several someones) was (were) murdered. How, why, by whom or any combination of the three was a puzzle, which a detective or an amateur sleuth spent a couple of hundred pages working through and eventually solving. OK, that’s an over-simplification, but Golden Age authors didn’t spend much time delving into major real-life issues of the day; that wasn’t what they were about. They were writing escapist fiction, to entertain their readers and allow them to exercise their puzzle-solving abilities and get to the answer before the hero.
And then crime fiction grew up. Yes, there are still murders; yes, there’s still a puzzle. But now there’s more. So very much more.
The book about terrorism was also – no, let’s say mainly – a race-for-the line, save-the-world thriller, and almost to the final page we weren’t quite sure who the bad guys really were. But until I read it, it had never occurred to me to look at terrorism from the other side, and wonder what went on in a terrorist’s mind when he (or she) was planning an atrocity.
The one with the brain-injured child had two particularly gory murders among its climactic moments, and the killers’ guilt or innocence hung in the balance. But now I hope I shall look differently at the twelve-year-old who throws a toddler tantrum in the supermarket queue. The assisted suicide could be murder for gain; ask me in a few days how that one pans out. But the very fact of a novel which addresses the issue will make me think about it.
And that’s just three books. I’ve read hundreds, maybe thousands of crime novels. Sure, some of them are about murders, and solving the puzzle, and very little else, and that’s fine; the TV news bombards us with issues to consider, and sometimes we need a rest from reality. But the best crime novels do more. As well as exercising minds, they open them. They make us think; they throw light on issues we might not otherwise consider – and sometimes that light illuminates a different point of view, which might even make us look at another side of the issue.
And that, my friends, is why I read crime fiction. It’s always about crime – but it’s also about so much more.
For me at Midnight Ink, I am usually busy with a bunch of things on my plate. Then there is this time of the year - when we are do the bulk of work (at least for me) on the Fall 2017 titles. Because of the holidays ahead, our deadlines are also pushed ahead. What that means for me - I have 10 launch meeting coming up in the next few weeks. Each launch meeting (where we decide on the title, series name, cover design, reading lines, etc) takes at minimum two hours of prep time. If it's a new series, it can take twice as long.
I also have four manuscripts to read and three to do developmental edits on. There might be more once I read the first four manuscripts. I cut off the bottom of my to-do list as there are some things I can share yet. But it includes getting in touch with a couple agents, creating two Project Acquisitions forms for books I want to acquire, sorting and turning in my Bouchercon receipts, blah, blah, blah. So much work to do, so little time to do it. Story of my life, lol, though I wouldn't want to be doing anything else.
Jeff Cohen/E.J. Copperman
Tuesday night, October 4, I'll be "appearing" (as if out of thin air) at Moonstone Books/Twice Told Tales in Flemington NJ at 7 p.m. I/we will be signing THE QUESTION OF THE FELONIOUS FRIEND and any other books you buy from our good friend Marilyn that evening (but just the ones I wrote--you can't get me to sign the new Bruce Springsteen book). So if you're even near the area, please drop on by! Here's the info.
Many people of my heritage are spending today and tomorrow in solemn reflection of their past year's transgressions and the possibility of a better year to come. I don't do the spiritual thing so much, but I do have a religious holiday this week and it comes Wednesday night. Please don't call me that evening.
For the first time in many years, the 1974 classic Young Frankenstein will be shown in theaters around the country. Mel Brooks (if I have to tell you who he is, just come back next week) has said he requested the showings as a tribute to the late Gene Wilder and Brooks will deliver a live (on-screen from, the 20th Century Fox lot in Los Angeles) introduction to the film.
It's a lovely gesture and a reminder of quite possibly the best comedy ever made. With a 1927-Yankees kind of cast and a script by Wilder with contributions from Brooks, it's a lovely, faithful homage/lampoon of the great James Whale Frankenstein films of the 1930s starring Boris Karloff (first just "Karloff") as the Creature (later "the Monster"). And if ever a film could be said to exist as a labor of love this is that film.
Brooks was never as clever a director, framing things as Whale would have, playing each joke--and there are tons of jokes--right to the limit but never past it. It's a loving film and staged like a real horror movie except that everyone in it is very silly.
And wow, was there ever a better-cast comedy? I don't think so. Wilder of course takes the part of the young doctor, so disgusted with his family's history that he pronounces his last name "Fronk-on-steen." His assistant (henchman), upon hearing this, insists his name is pronounced "Eye-gore," and given that he's played by the sublime Marty Feldman, the name sticks. The creation (because it wouldn't be a Frankenstein movie if there was no man made of previously-used parts and lightning) is played by Peter Boyle in what might be his finest performance. I could go all the way down the cast list--Kenneth Mars, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr and almost unrecognizably Gene Hackman--and there isn't one who isn't perfect. Not good, not great, perfect. Every one.
Wilder was perhaps the master of playing comedy through character. Feldman is the wonderful character who comments on the action because he doesn't have to care. Boyle is the enormous little child trapped in a hulking dangerous body. Leachman plays menace and heart.
Every situation is set up and executed with care and thought. Every scene is framed and shot with intelligence. It's not just about being funny, although it is always that. It's about being true to the subject matter. That's Mel. It's about being hilarious but with heart. That's Gene. It's about a group of comedy all-stars that know they're doing something special and are clearly having a great time they don't want to end. That's all of them.
So Wednesday night, if you get the chance, go see Young Frankenstein in a theater with an audience. It's where comedy is supposed to be, and this is the greatest comedy ever filmed, I've decided.
And don't look for me then because I will be with my people, after a celebratory dinner, worshipping at our collective temple and hoping for a miracle, that something might be this good again.
It doesn't seem possible, but religious holidays are all about faith, aren't they?
Diane Westerfield guest-blogs for Jessy Randall again this week.
Night Film by Marisha Pessl is a wonderful horror-flavored mystery that should please many a reader.
The protagonist of Night Film is Scott McGrath. He had been a high-flying, arrogant journalist who wrote a few best-selling books. His life is now in shambles. Five years prior to the beginning of the narrative, McGrath attempted to investigate the mysterious filmmaker Cordova. The investigation destroyed McGrath's journalist's career and marriage.
Cordova's daughter Ashley is found dead of an apparent suicide. Our journalist, rather like a film noir detective, is drawn back to the Kordova family against his better judgement. He follows a long trail of clues with the help of a couple of misfits. The path leads the trio to strange places and people in New York City and New York state.
Is the Cordova family involved in dark doings, or is the answer more banal? Where is the line between reality and delusion, or reality and another world? Pessl has constructed a legendary filmmaker with a stable of films and repeating motifs, with such a level of detail that she could have written about a real filmmaker like Kubrick. The protagonist falls into the world of Cordova, and may not be able to free himself.
The horror element in this book is not particularly graphic. The unclear nature of the Cordova family and their activities leaves many things open to interpretation. Much of the "bad stuff", which may not even be real, takes place off-stage and at a distance of time. There is a Gothic touch with the Peak, Kordova's infamous mansion.
An interesting device in the novel is the use of pages that punctuate the text: web sites, police files, notes. These interspersed pages enhance the experience of the reader, who sees the case unfold with McGrath.
Highly recommended if you can tolerate ambiguity and a protagonist who can't escape his arrogance. There were aspects of this novel that reminded me of Rosemary's Baby and Foucault's Pendulum. If you liked both of those, you would probably like Night Film.
Diane Westerfield is a librarian by trade, currently working at Colorado College. She got her MLIS from University of Illinois Urbana Champaign and her undergraduate education from University of Chicago. Among Diane’s interests are genre fiction (especially horror), music, birdwatching, gaming, and studying German. She and her husband Todd live in Colorado Springs with two elderly cats and one big dog.
This will not be a long post.
Viruses – the old-fashioned kind – don’t often lay me low; mostly they know better, take one look at the handful of vitamin supplements I swallow every morning and head for the hills. But once in a while, maybe every five years or so, one creeps past the barriers, and so it was last weekend.
It’s still hanging around, demanding attention, telling me to slow down, take things easy, get back to that cosy armchair and pick up that riveting suspense novel, and I can’t say the prospect isn’t tempting. But there’s real life to be lived as well, so, sorry, Mr Virus, enough now, you can’t have it all your own way.
It did have it very much its own way for just one day. On Monday I moved reluctantly from bed to armchair, then hardly moved at all till bed beckoned again a few hours later. I was fine – well, not fine, but OK, give or take a whole box of tissues and double the usual dose of vitamins – as long as I didn’t try to do anything.
Anything, that is, aside from read. Fortunately a new batch of books for review had arrived at the weekend, so all I had to do was reach out a hand.
I can’t recall a single occasion when a bug has left me feeling too lousy to read. Maybe when I was a small child and hadn’t yet mastered the art, but even then there were picture books.
So – how’s this for a treatment for whatever winter virus (winter? It’s not October yet!) comes calling at your door? Lots of vitamin C; maybe double the usual precautionary dose. Warm drinks, preferably made by someone else. A cosy, well-cushioned chair in a room that’s not too warm, not too cool. If you must (I don’t), your pharmaceutical symptom-reliever of choice. And most important of all, a pile of books by your favourite authors.
Works for me.
This year’s Bouchercon totally rocked. I expected to hate it, I really did, but instead I loved it. I know that folks first question will by, why did I think I would hate it?
I mentioned last week why, but I am going to expand on it today. I’m an introvert. I’m pretty sure you all know that already. Here are things many introverts don’t like: crowds, small talk, being the center of attention, no quiet time or space alone, hugging, etc. Ok, I will totally cop to being ok with hugging, as long as I know and like the person. But the rest – yes, all of that. At a fan conference I don’t get pitched that much. I do get some pitches and I am ok with that – it’s part of the reason why I am there. The exhausting part is being “on” and “available” the entire time. People want to talk to me and I don’t always know why. It could be that they want to pitch me. Or they want to get to know me or Midnight Ink better so they can have their agent pitch me later. It could be a seasoned pro looking for a new house or a new writer that likes what we have done. It could be an agent or fellow editor. Or it could be because I’m single. (Hey, a girl can dream, right?) The fact is, not knowing why someone wants to talk to me is exhausting. I don’t know which hat to put on. So right there is my nightmare – a big crowd, small talk, and being the focus of someone’s attention and me not knowing why. This year I didn’t have much time to recharge either. I tried to visit with all of the Midnight Ink authors, but sadly I was not successful on that front and I do try to make myself available to anyone who wants to say hi. Personal exhaustion and discomfort aside, it’s my job to be there and to be charming.
As taxing as it sometimes is, I don’t want anyone to think that I don’t want to be there. That is the farthest from the truth - because the crime fiction community is my tribe. I get to hang out with amazingly funny and witty folks who make me laugh until I cry. I can lament about the publishing industry and hear gossip about what is going on at other publishing houses. I have so many friends in the crime fiction community that I would be in despair if I had to miss a Bouchercon or Malice. So as much as Bouchercon takes out of me, I am replenished in other ways. I absolutely love it and every year I go home with a new group of friends.
Now I am going to focus on one thing that kept coming up at Bouchercon this year. Diversity in crime fiction. I was lucky enough to participate in the workshop hosted by Sisters in Crime. (I was also very proud to see so many Midnight Ink authors in attendance.) Since forever, it seems, the mantra has been, write what you know. Makes sense in a way, right? If you are cop, you know what happens in an investigation. If you are a baker, you know what goes into baking. But as a white person, can I write an authentic person of color? Can a straight woman write a gay male character? The consensus of the presenters was yes. *Yes, you can.
Hey, what is that asterisk all about? Yes, you can write a character that is outside of your comfort zone/base of knowledge/whatever, as long as you do it respectfully. While there is a seed of truth in every stereotype, if you write all stereotypical characters, you will be called out on it. (And you should be.) Not all gay men are hairstylists and into fashion. Not all lesbians are butch and manly. Not all black people are criminals or drug dealers. Not all Asians run laundry mats or Chinese restaurants. Not all Native Amercians are drunks. You get the point, right? I don’t have to go on naming various groups, right? Those of us who fall into a minority group really just want to see our lives, whatever it is, to be represented authentically and respectfully. I think we have taken political correctness too far in that writers (and publishers) are afraid to offend readers so we have gone so far as to eliminate all diversity in our books. Nobody wants that. And it isn’t accurate. I can’t think of day where I haven’t interacted with a person of color. So why are so many books filled only with white people? Or straight people? Or abled body people?
My advice to writers – write that diverse character and if you are worried about it, ask someone else to read it. I have offered to read manuscripts or partial manuscripts to give the author feedback on lesbian characters. I know many writers who have done the same thing. Our world is not an entirely white male, cis gender, able-bodied world. It may seem that way in crime fiction because that is dominating publishing right now, but we owe it to ourselves and to our readers to do better. Just come from a good place and it will all work out.
As an add on to that, I would also like to say that those of us in publishing need to do better as well. I can only acquire what comes across my desk. I can’t magically make a series with diverse characters appear. But what I can do is say to agents – hey, I’m looking for diverse books. I’m not afraid to acquire a book with a (fill in the blank) character. When I go to writing conferences, I can encourage writers to step out of their comfort zone a little bit. Cause hey, our world is diverse. It is fascinating and heart breaking and scary and kind. Our genre should reflect that.
This is the one thing you'll read today that isn't about The Debate.
Jerry Lewis, at the age of 90, has a new film out now. He didn't write or direct this one, although he did that quite often decades ago; now he's "just an actor." And it's in an indie film about a elderly man who suspects his late wife of 65 years might have had a secret lover.
That's right. Jerry's doing his dramatic thing now.
It's not the first time by any stretch. Lewis made a film with Martin Scorsese (oh yes, he did) called KING OF COMEDY in which he held his own quite nicely and without any shtick against no less a talent than Robert De Niro.
Now, I've never been a huge Jerry Lewis fan despite his growing up in the same town as I did. The man-playing-a-child thing has never really worked for me and I always saw him as something of an embarrassment. I'm not French enough to appreciate his genius, it seems.
But his move into the "serious" is symptomatic of a larger condition, one that afflicts many if not all people who amuse others for a living. No less a personage than Groucho Marx performed Gilbert & Sullivan (granted, not exactly Oedipus Rex but still) in his later years. His brother Harpo played a mute murder witness on television in the 1950s. Charlie Chaplin played a serial killer. Neil Simon wrote plays about seriously dysfunctional families, addiction and mental illness. Carol Burnett, Dick Van Dyke and Lucille Ball all had the urge to play alcoholics and homeless people. Albert Brooks has lately taken to specializing in tough guys in the classier action films. If Mel Brooks (no relation to Albert, in that "Brooks" isn't either's real name) decides to play King Lear sometime soon, you'll know why.
It's about respect.
You see, those of us who decide to be funny professionally--and I count myself on the low end of those, since I do not actually perform comedy or write it for others to perform--get tired of the backhanded compliments. (My favorite is "effortless." HA!) We chafe at being relegated to the kiddie section, thought of as "cute" and "charming" and--in our eyes--not appreciated for the hard work and, dare I say it, talent we bring to the table.
Please don't take this too far. I'm not complaining about being seen as the "humorous" author. It's what I set out to be. And the idea of "effortless" comedy is the way it's supposed to be. If you see the joke coming or the effort behind it, you won't laugh. But if you notice the number of funny mysteries given Edgar Awards or comedies given Oscars, you'll notice they're very few and extremely far between.
Respect comes in a lot of varying forms. Mel Brooks himself was awarded the National Medal of the Arts by President Obama just last Thursday. He had to wait until he hit 90 to get it, but it was a very big honor and Mel accepted it with aplomb, kneeling at the president's feet in a joke about how heavy the medal hung around his neck must have felt. The press then speculated on whether Mr. Brooks had tried to pull the president's pants off.
So lately, with far too much writing time on my hands, I've been trying to decide what my next opus might be and wondering if, after all these years of being cute and amusing, I might want to tackle something that would get some R-E-S-P-E-C-T, as Ms. Franklin put it. (It bothers my daughter that she also insists she is "taking care of TCB," as that means Aretha is "taking care of taking care of business." The redundancy annoys Eve. We raised that girl right.)
Am I at that crossroads in my career? Do I crave the respect of the literary world more than a few cheap laughs in a tawdry (I've been waiting for years to use the word "tawdry") mystery novel? Is it time to dig deep into my psyche and pull out some dark, potentially depressing insight in an effort to be seen as "important" by critics?
My role in the literary world, minor though it is, is the right one for me. I get more joy out of a reader sending an email about a joke in my book than I would out of the National Book Award, which I have a zero percent chance of ever getting no matter what I write (you can ask Nate Silver, and he'll say, "Who?"). I think the world needs more silly people, not fewer. I've read the "important" books. Largely, they are boring. Yeah, I know. I'm a Philistine.
So whatever it is I decide to tackle next (that is not a football reference, as I do not follow football--my sports year ends Sunday), you can count on one thing: It will try to make you laugh. Whether or not it succeeds will depend on who you are and how well I do my job. And maybe there will be some other emotions at play in the story as well, but it will definitely not be completely serious. I don't do that, and I have no intention of starting now.
Who am I, anyway? Jerry Lewis?
A week ago, many of you were in New Orleans either listening to fascinating panels, trying to figure out how the damn elevators worked, commenting on the heat and humidity, or hanging out in the bar (or Starbucks). If you weren’t there, you probably know people who were.
Me? I was on Facebook. Don’t get me wrong...I got to talk with a lot of people and had more soul-restoring hugs than I could count in New Orleans (and ate my fair share of beignets, too). But my official duties were on the Bouchercon Facebook Page.
We tried some new things this year, most notably, livecasting some of the panels and events. It was a bit tricky because the wifi in the hotel was either decent or nonexistent, and sometimes the difference between the two was inches, but overall, it went really well. People seems to enjoy it (especially those who couldn’t make it to New Orleans), and the videos have reached thousands of people.
This is my favorite example from last Friday. (Spoiler alert: it was a panel and a contest and Laura Lippman won by a mile!)
As it has been in years past, Facebook was also a place for people to ask questions and voice complaints. There was nothing I could do about the FedEx shop in the lobby charging a $20 fee to send boxes, but it seemed to help people to have a sympathetic ear.
Almost as soon as folks started departing the hotel on Sunday, the post-Bouchercon posts and articles started appearing. I’ve been doing my best to find and post them all. If I’ve missed yours, please let me know!
So why am I telling you all this? Two reasons:
First, to thank you. Whether you were at Bouchercon and let me catch you on video or visited the Facebook page and clicked like, it’s appreciated.
Second, to ask for your help. At the height of activity last week, the Bouchercon Facebook page was reaching more than 70,000 people, between organic posts and folks mentioning the page. That’s a tremendous audience. And the best part? Every single one of those people is a reader.
As you likely know, Bouchercon is a completely volunteer endeavor. And if the page can reach 70,000 readers with just little old me toddling around, we could connect with even more people with more hands on the proverbial virtual deck. I would have loved to do short author interviews, for example. I had planned to, but didn’t have time!
So while you’re thinking about it, please consider volunteering next year in Toronto. There are plenty of roles to be had...including helping out with social media.
Storytelling is stored deep in our DNA; the late much-lamented Terry Pratchett posited the theory that the world runs on narrativium, which is as essential to life as water and nourishment. (OK, it was a fictional character who did the positing, but don’t try to kid me Sir Terry didn’t believe it, like so many of the thought-provoking ideas lurking under the great yarns he spun.) And as technology advances, it offers new options, new and innovative ways to maintain well-worn traditions – always has, right back to the time when people sent messages to their deities by scratching images with a sharpened stone on a cave or cliff wall.
Technology as it is today never ceases to amaze me. Sometimes in a baffling way, often in a frustrating one, but amaze me it does nonetheless. Last week it grabbed my attention yet again, and introduced me to yet another new and innovative place on the narrative continuum: part video game, part murder mystery, all good fun and a great way to gather a family or a group of friends round a table to pool their mental resources.
It’s called Her Story, and it would have been unthinkable twenty years ago, simply because it makes use of a whole bunch of technological devices which either didn’t exist at all or were in their infancy. It’s based on video clips in a searchable database (hey, would you listen at me, using the jargon!), and relies on the players’ perception and imagination to tease the story out.
Now for the difficult part: explaining how it works and why it’s fun to play without giving too much away. Here goes. The game consists of over 270 video clips, some a couple of minutes long, others just a few seconds. Each clip is part of a police interview; you hear the answers, but not the questions, which in one sequence at least is a little unhelpful to put it mildly.
Players access the clips by searching for words used by the interviewee – but the catch is that no matter how many clips the search word is used in, you only get to see five. And it’s no use searching for the same word again: you’ll just get the same five clips. Lateral thinking is a useful skill here, and possibly a computer skill or three which people under forty are more likely to possess than we golden girls and boys, though we managed fine without.
Choose your search words with care and imagination, and slowly and painstakingly the story will take shape, and build up into something as complex as, say, a Val McDermid novel. For readers of crime fiction for who the chief joy is piecing together the clues and arriving at the right conclusion before the sleuth gets there, it’s potentially a joy – except there’s no sleuth to beat to the punch, of course. For people like me, who prefer to let the good guys on the page get on with solving the crime while we enjoy getting to know the characters and soaking up the ambience, there’s still plenty to like; the sole character is pretty complex, and she paints rich word-pictures of both people and places.
I’m guessing that in some cases here I’m preaching to the choir; it’s hard to believe that in a community of crime fiction lovers (that’s what Dead Guys is, isn’t it?), I’m the only person who has discovered it. I didn’t pluck it from the air, or happen upon it by accident; I was told about it, and word gets around. I learned of the existence of Her Story from my daughter, who is arguably an even more avid reader of crime fiction than I am, and loves playing these kinds of games as well.
But if you didn’t know about it, and you’re interested, here’s a warning: I’m not going to give away spoilers, but Wikipedia does and I expect other sites do too, so if I whet your appetite to the extent that you go in search of the game and are willing to part with real money to play it (nothing good comes free, after all, but it costs less than a paperback book), better take care where you look it up online. It was created – I hesitate to say written, since there’s so much more to it than words – by a guy called Sam Barlow; search for his name plus the name of the game and you’ll find it without any unwanted revelations.
I make no secret of the fact that in general, technology and I do not get along. But last week we found... let’s call it a way of communicating. I don’t promise we’ll be best friends in future, but maybe if there’s someone there to press the right buttons, we may find ourselves chatting in the kitchen at the same party now and again.
Bouchercon was awesome. Do I need to say more than that? I think it was the best cons I have attended. It was a large convention, I’m not sure of the final number, but I expected things to either be overcrowded or completely chaotic. But it was neither. It was perfect. My only issue was that because there were so many people who attended, I didn’t get a chance to visit with some of the folks I normally do. But that is ok because I also spent time with a bunch of new folks. I left the convention feeling totally physically exhausted, but my heart was swelling with love. That is a big win in my book.
Some of the best things about this particular Bouchercon (in no particular order):
Yeah, pretty much everything there was awesome. I didn’t take a lot of pictures this year. I’m not sure why. But scroll through facebook and you will certainly see the highlights.
Right before I left for Bouchercon, I received Stripped Bare by Shannon Baker in the mail. I was excited to see it, but I planned on buying another copy because I didn’t want to break the spine. I flipped to the title page and saw that she had inscribed it to me. That made me happy. I put it on my bookshelf. I even rearranged it so I would see it daily. (A side note: Shannon is a dear friend. Even though her Midnight Ink series is done, I have been so excited to see Shannon’s career take off. She is an incredible friend and I couldn’t be happier for her.)
(yes, that is my happy light. It's a life saver in winter!)
When I got to Bouchercon, Shannon asked me if I opened the book. I confessed that I hadn’t and she hinted that I needed to take a look. For some reason I balked at going to the book room all weekend. I’m not sure why I didn’t want to look there. When I got home on Monday night, my brain was in a complete fog. I was tired (still am!) and my only thoughts were about climbing into bed and sleeping for a week straight. Tuesday morning I overslept of course and raced into work. I hadn’t given the book any thought. When I got home last night, I remembered and tore my apartment apart trying to find the book. I would have bet anyone $100 that I brought home the book before Bouchercon. So I did what any impatient person would do – I bought the ebook. And then the tears came.
I am used to seeing my name in the acknowledgments as a thank you for publishing the book. I always love to see that. And I especially love to show those to my kids who think it’s really incredible to have your name in a book. To me, dedications are different. Most of the time a book is dedicated to a spouse, children, or family members – people who inspire and support the author. To say that I am honored doesn’t even begin to cover it. Thank you, my friend.
It's been a hectic day, filled with meetings, submissions, taking kids to the doctor for their checkups (which confirmed that they are, indeed, teenagers, but didn't offer any solutions). I don't have the head space for a full topic, particularly since the main one I could think of is politics and that's just giving me anxiety. So here are a few short takes.
1) The summer is about editing, but the fall is about submissions. I spent the summer reading and working on manuscripts, with many fewer submissions than I've had the past several years. Editors seemed to be doing less new-author reading, and much more solidifying lists with new books by authors already in the stable. Now I'm in the process of submitting...a LOT of books. It's huge fun, but there's a different feel.
2) Whither Rio? I saw report on BBC World News last night about the aftermath of the Paralympics, which were held on the heels of the Olympics, which were held on the heels of the World Cup. For more than two years, there's been a focus on Brazil and its beauty and enormous problems. Now the athletes and the fans and the press are leaving. But the corruption scandals and violence and poverty remain.
3) Nobody has solved the problem of how to reliably move the dial of book sales. You may have been able to advertise in the NY Times Book Review and expect a bump; or get a book in the front table of Barnes and Noble and assume that the money would inevitably cause increased sales; or go out on tour and expect to speak to full houses (nah, that never worked as much as people said...). But now we have such individualization of sales, and such contraction of retail outlets, that it's extremely hard to move the dial unless you have established yourself either as a YouTuber before the book comes out; or as a franchise author before the internet; or simply catch fire somewhat randomly (maybe by overwhelming critical acclaim; or a particular topic that simply works; or...well, that's why we play the game). There was a short time when social media moved the dial--now it's necessary, and good, but only to stay on par. There is still the chance to sell a lot of books by being chosen for a Kindle Daily (or Monthly, or hourly) Deal. But it looks like Amazon may be glutting the market with price-driven deals as much as some cozy mystery imprints glutted the mystery market with books about murders involving knitting needles and cupcakes--sometimes simultaneously. Part of the value of marketing is increasing discoverability, to rise above the white noise. That's becoming ever harder.
4) The NY Football Giants are 2-0. Here's a GIF of Victor Cruz's touchdown dance. Stay happy!
I have often, in this space and elsewhere, urged those who are not funny to avoid trying to write comedy. This is not stated from a superior point of view, in that I am actually quite incapable of writing an entire story that is serious. I understand the impulse to do the other, but I'm here to warn the humor-impaired off the impulse. It won't be good for you and it won't be good for anyone else.
But the question that might arise from that statement is clear: How can I be sure I'm not funny? It's a reasonable query and one that should be addressed seriously. Alas, if you read that previous paragraph, you know I'm not the man for the job if those are the criteria.
So let's consider it: You think you might not be funny, and that's a problem because you'd like to write a funny story. How can you be certain? Maybe you're hilarious and you don't know it. Or, conversely, it's possible you are the least funny person on the planet but you believe yourself to be the reincarnation of Groucho Marx. Either way, you need a little guidance, and I'm here to help.
Signs You Aren't Funny
I hope this has proven to be the public service for which it was intended. Meanwhile, keep in mind that THE QUESTION OF THE FELONIOUS FRIEND isn't just out there buying itself. Same is true of WRITTEN OFF. And I'm just getting ready for SPOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. Stay tuned.
Diane Westerfield guest-blogs for Jessy Randall this week.
Mr. Mercedes is a cat-and-mouse game between a retired detective and a mass murderer who threatens to strike again. This is a breezy page-turner that will keep the reader on the edge of their seat.
A man plowed a stolen Mercedes (a large, heavy, high-powered edition) through a crowd of job seekers and gets away. The police detective who failed to catch him has retired, and spends his days watching trashy TV while eating and drinking too much. He considers ending it all, but the killer sends him a taunting letter that moves him to action. What follows is a constant battle of wits between the older ex-cop and the arrogant murderer, who is hidden in plain sight. Collateral damage accumulates in the wake of their contest.
This tale has no supernatural element, but based on reviews I decided to read it anyway. I enjoyed it. There were some plot points that perhaps weren't so great, but the characters were interesting. The constant twists and turns made it hard to put down. There is of course the usual Stephen King unpleasantness, which, if you've read enough King novels is something you learn to deal with.
This is the first of a trilogy of related books. I've already begun on the second, "Finders Keepers". Stephen King seems to alternate between easy and literary novels, and true to form, Mr. Mercedes is in the easy category whereas the "Finders Keepers" is more literary - or at least based on literary themes.
Diane Westerfield is a librarian by trade, currently working at Colorado College. She got her MLIS from University of Illinois Urbana Champaign and her undergraduate education from University of Chicago. Among Diane’s interests are genre fiction (especially horror), music, birdwatching, gaming, and studying German. She and her husband Todd live in Colorado Springs with two elderly cats and one big dog.
Chris Nickson in for Lynne again this week. With a new book out (it’s called Modern Crimes, since you insist, and out in paperback and ebook, but only in the UK until the start of 2017. It’s a tale based on Leeds’ first policewomen in the 1920s. Extremely loosely based) I’m on the publicity trail again.
Publication date was last week, but the official launch comes next week (a regrettable incident on a bookstore not having stock for a prior launch has taught me to allow a window), and then a few other events. The first was yesterday, addressing a local meeting of the University of the Third Age, a large group of very engaged retirees. If there’s something similar where you live, I recommend it.
The publicist at the (very small) publisher is doing what she can on no budget. But I’m doing what I can, too. Social media, of course, which is a start, using Twitter, Facebook, blog posts. Yet the idea is to let more people know about me and the book.
Like most writers, I’ve built a local network of media people. Approached sparingly, they’re great contacts. So this Friday there will be a piece in the local morning paper (and possibly even, too). The day before the launch, an interview on local TV. I’m still working on radio for this one.
Public appearances, author events, whatever you want to call them, pay huge dividends. Of course, many writers and solitary people, and the idea of talking to groups is terrifying. I happen to love it. What I do is part history (I write historical crime) and part stand-up. I try to entertain them, and even more to interact with them. Audiences want to feel involved, to be appreciated.
It’s not easy. You have to put yourself out there, to be willing to stand on your hind legs and talk. But as we all know, writing the book and getting it published is only half the story. You have to do the legwork to let people know it’s out. Get it to bloggers, the press, the trades, anyone who’ll write about it and pique people’s interest. Yes, it’s a crap shoot: not every reviewer will like it. You take your chances.
Yet think about this. You’ve put a lot of work into that book. You’re proud of it. There’s no point in just letting it appear and think job done. Others will like it. But if they don’t know it exists, how can they tell?
It’s wearing – I have five events in the next three weeks, on top of a full writing schedule. But this is my job. This is what I do. And I do it the very best way I can. Every writer should, as it’s in our own interests.
(Before I start, one quick response to Jeff Cohen: You NEVER bother me. OK, I'm done.)
So for three straight years, I went to Bouchercon: San Francisco, St. Louis, Cleveland, I followed the roving conference of crime fiction around the country. It was wonderful. I caught up with my growing stable of clients (particularly fun when we engaged in a smack-talk filled bowling contest against Stacia Decker's crew--who had SHIRTS, dammit...). I met with as many editors as a good month of lunches in NY. And I heard panel after panel of writers talking about their craft.
Oh, and the bar, which is REALLY the room (or lobby) where it happens.
But fundamentally, I enjoy going to Bouchercon because in one intense weekend I can reset my expectations, hear where the industry might be heading (or at least one slice of it) and reconnect with a lot of friends I communicate with via email and phone.
Then the bat mitzvahs started. 2014: my second child; 2015: my third. Both bat mitzvahs taking place the week after Bouchercon (which had to be scheduled a month different from each other!). This year, I thought OK, no more kids--I'll get to go to New Orleans! But then a couple we are about as close to as close cousins, and whose daughters are basically nieces, told us that their older daughter's bat mitzvah was the week of September 17. So now we wait until Toronto. Danielle is coming to NOLA, and will serve ably as my surrogate (and perhaps watch her amazing client Ausma Khan win an Edgar?). I will pray for your liver at Emma's bat mitzvah.
And watch out if you go bowling against Team Decker!
Have fun, everyone--let me know what I need to know!!!
It's been almost a month since I finished the first draft on a book that won't be out for another year, and we'll discuss that then. The key here is that I haven't been working on a new manuscript for 28 days.
My family is becoming concerned.
I'm not the same person when I'm not writing. I'm more anxious, more edgy, less fun to hang around with. I don't have that evolving story to occupy my mind and so I think about other things that are less productive, like the presidential election (yikes!) or my usual neuroses (you don't want to know). It's not pleasant for anybody.
When I'm not writing I do crossword puzzles (when I'm not working on newspaper articles or teaching) more than I should. I can be found on Twitter and Facebook far too often. I nap during the day so I can't sleep at night. My usual aid to help me sleep--thinking about the story I'm writing--doesn't really come into play so much.
And already I can hear you say, "But Jeff, the solution is so easy--just start writing something!" If I weren't in such a cranky mood because I'm not writing I would certainly see the merit in your argument, but it ain't that simple. Right at the moment, I'm not under contract to do much of anything and the ideas I have for standalone novels are, let's say, not inspiring me a huge amount.
I started one novel and am currently, after weeks of work, on p. 11. Usually by this point I should be closing in on the 100 page point if you're keeping score at home. It's just not grabbing me. And if I'm not interested, expecting readers to eventually find this little tome enchanting is somewhat more optimistic than typically describes my nature. I'll get back to it, as soon as I run out of excuses not to. When I go to the gym rather than work on a story I'm writing, well, I really hate going to the gym.
I'm looking for sweet inspiration every morning, noon and night/but these days it just keeps on passing me by.--Gerry Rafferty, "A Dangerous Age
When I'm not writing I tend to obsess on what I laughingly refer to as "my career." I focus on minutiae and worry about the future months--sometimes years--before any development can reasonably be expected. I bother those involved (right, Josh?) when there's no need to and then instantly regret it. I concern myself with making up for the expected destitution I will no doubt experience because nobody's ever going to give me money to write anything again, and I don't know how to do anything else.
It's not a fun time, is what I'm saying.
This is not a plea for help, I promise. I'll get bitten by the bug of some story idea sooner or later--hopefully sooner--and that will set the wheels rolling once more. But right now it seems like a better idea to check the Amazon sales ranking numbers (the only ones I have available to me) on THE QUESTION OF THE FELONIOUS FRIEND. Or pre-orders of SPOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. Or GHOST IN THE WIND. Or WRITTEN OFF.
So you see, it is possible to fill the day. I can try to learn the chords to the Beatles' Because again. Or perfect my rendition of Broken by Circe Link. Not for any particular reason, but because the guitar is five feet from my right hand and that seems much easier than anything else. I'd work on my golf swing but I've never actually played golf in my life and this doesn't seem like the time to start.
Time between books. It's happening to a writer you know almost every day. And it makes us crazy. More crazy. Crazier than usual.
Quite a lot of years ago a friend sent me a little picture which is still part of a small display on my workroom wall. It’s a drawing of a woman, and she’s wearing three hats, piled on top of each other. At about the same stage of my life, my daughter, who at the time was still a child but almost as wise and perceptive then as she is now, told me I had four jobs. I think it was four; maybe it was more.
These days I think they call it a portfolio career: a working life in which the employee serves more than one master. Mine was never exactly like that; I gave up the kind of full-time employment which requires selling more than half one’s waking hours to a large organization shortly before my daughter was born, and afterwards I always worked freelance. But the nature of freelance working is that the worker serves any master who will provide an income, so the principle is similar.
In my then small daughter’s eyes, I was a theatre reviewer, a feature journalist, a fiction writer and a teacher (there, it was more than four). I was also her mother – which of course was the most important job of all, in my eyes as well as hers. I’m not sure the friend who sent me the picture saw mother as a separate job; that was what later came to be called work-life balance.
And you know what? Decades later, nothing much in my life has changed. Books have replaced theatre in the reviewer role. Fiction writer never goes away. Mother is a lifetime joy, even she now cooks her own meals and does her own laundry. I don’t teach much any more, and the feature journalism dwindled when I went into publishing, but who knows, both may rear their heads again. And adding proofreader and editor into the mix makes the list even longer than before. Other things have intervened over the years and one role or another has had to vacate space which an additional commitment has moved into, but the number of hats has rarely decreased.
And you know something else? I wouldn’t have it any other way. As a reviewer, I get to read great crime fiction which otherwise I might never come across. Writing fiction (not crime; I leave that to others with the right mix of skills) reveals a quantum universe of possibilities. Feature journalism meant I met interesting people, visited places which opened up new horizons, sometimes literally, and delved into topics which surprised me by how interesting they were. Editing is another way of reading, and a side benefit is that it’s made me more aware of the importance of good style and attention to detail in my own writing. And now my daughter is grown up with a portfolio career of her own, I get to share some of her experience second-hand.
That little picture on the wall has been part of my life for a long time. I smiled when I first saw it, and it still makes me smile when I see it there. My life is still sometimes too full, and has been stressful, but you’ll never hear me complain of boredom.
I'll start this by saying that the third Asperger's mystery novel, THE QUESTION OF THE FELONIOUS FRIEND, will be officially published on Thursday, September 8. That's one day after my brother Charlie's birthday, which is entirely unrelated to the book or anything I'll be posting about today. Happy birthday, Charlie.
Of course I'd love it if you purchase a copy of said book on the day it's published, if for no other reason than the fact that publishers look at numbers right after the book comes out and make predictions about total sales, which affects the possibility that future contracts will be drawn necessitating further books in the series. So there's that.
But this installment in the series (and you don't have to start at the beginning, but you can) is a little different, and the reason for that is that I hate Rain Man.
When the Tom Cruise/Dustin Hoffman movie about a slick Hollywood Yuppie (you could say that then) who finds out he has an autistic older brother was released in December 1988, my wife was pregnant with our son Joshua, although we didn't know him yet. I thought it was a pretty good movie that was somewhat predictable, that Hoffman and Cruise were both very good and that it would win a bunch of awards and people would talk about the "courage" necessary to make it, both of which turned out to be true.
And then I didn't think much of it until sometime in 1994.
It took a while for Josh to be diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning (and even that term is demeaning) disorder (see previous parenthetical statement) on the autism spectrum. He was about six years old when we finally got that official diagnosis after the first psychologist we met told us our son was "eccentric." I had told him we weren't wealthy enough to be eccentric and that Josh therefore needed to be talked down to neurotic, and the doctor clearly believed he had found the genetic link he'd been looking for.
But it wasn't until he was starting kindergarten that we started dealing with other parents on a regular basis, and at various points Josh's Asperger's, which was not a well-known term at the time, would be brought up in conversation. And since nobody had heard of Asperger's, the term "autism" would invariably be mentioned, and that's when you'd hear it.
"Like Rain Man, right?" they'd say with a knowing nod.
Well, actually, no. Josh isn't a bit like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. He doesn't dress in the same clothes every day, he is not a "savant" who can tell you how to win at blackjack or how many matches have fallen out of the matchbox, he does not fly into a rage if he misses a particular television show (although that might have more to do with TiVo), he does make eye contact now and again, he is charming and conversant and it has never once been suggested that he be institutionalized because he poses a threat to the safety of his younger sibling, because he never has.
Are there people with autism who are like the character Raymond in Rain Man? Sure there are. Are all people with autism like the character? Good lord, no. And that's the problem.
The general public hears autism and they picture Hoffman in that movie. The more literate think they know what autism is because they read or saw The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which I know many very smart people loved a lot.
When I created the character of Samuel Hoenig for the Asperger's mystery series (which I was calling the Questions Answered series, but that was then and this is now), I was keenly aware of the danger and the responsibility involved in presenting a fictional character with a disorder on the autism spectrum. What I feared--although I knew my audience would not be anywhere near that of Rain Man or Curious Incident-- was that people with little knowledge of the spectrum would read a book from Samuel's point of view and say, "Now I know what autism is like."
Well, there's a reason it's called a "spectrum." Because the condition affects so many people and affects each in a singular, unique way, it is dangerous to suggest that one depiction, or even five, cover the range of what it entails. The last thing I wanted to do was create a character whose depiction by extension excluded the vast majority of those who would be defined as he was defined.
So that brings us to THE QUESTION OF THE FELONIOUS FRIEND (you thought I'd forgotten?). It has always been my intention to write a novel in which Samuel encounters a number of other people diagnosed with some form of autism so I could depict it as being more than one thing. I believe the first book in a series should engage the reader (they all should) and set up the premise for the series as a TV pilot episode does. The second should reinforce what the first did and settle the main characters' relationships so the reader knows what to expect. That way you can do what they DON'T expect at any time for the rest of the series.
The third book, in my opinion, is where the characters become whole. It's where you can write about them and not the mystery of the week (year). And in this case, it was where I could illustrate a very small section of the autism spectrum.
In THE QUESTION OF THE FELONIOUS FRIEND, Samuel's client (Samuel runs a business called Questions Answered, which does just that) is a young man diagnosed with autism. Because he is aware of his condition and his personal issues with it, Tyler Clayton can't trust that a guy he knows from the convenience store, Richard Handy, is really a friend. He asks Samuel to confirm that fact.
During the course of his research, much happens that complicates Samuel's work, like Richard Handy being shot to death and Tyler being arrested for the crime. But it will also bring Samuel into contact with a number of other people diagnosed with autism, and hopefully the reader will notice that each one acts differently from the others. That's what this book is about for me.
You might find it's about something different for you. Because even the neurotypical are not all the same.
P.S. Yes, today is Labor Day in the U.S., but hey, I have a book coming out on Thursday. If you want to read my comments on the holiday, please see what I said this time last year.
In August of 2016, a generous anonymous donor provided Colorado College's Special Collections with $18,000 for this important text on monsters:
Ulysse Aldrovandi (1522-1605). Monstrorum Historia (Bologna: Typis Nicolai Tebaldini, 1642).
We purchased the book from Paul Dowling's Maryland bookshop, Liber Antiquus. After a telephone conversation invoking Liceti, Piso, and Pokemon, Paul sent us a couple of snapshots from the Aldrovandi Studio in Bologna, showing bones and woodblocks displayed together -- a sort of 17th century Pokedex, if you will (those of you who are playing Pokemon Go probably will; the rest of you probably will not).
I told our anonymous donor that I couldn't wait to show the book to students because it was going to blow their minds.
I was right. Listen to the reaction of the first students at CC to see the book:
Interest in monsters goes back a long way and shows no sign of stopping. See Allison Meier's A Visual History of Society's Monsters for a nice overview. Her article includes a marvelous animated gif of the Aldrovandi monsters made by Kurosh ValaNejad, a film student at the University of Southern California (low-res version below, better version at Meier link):
If I had followed my heart instead of someone else’s head when I was looking for my first job, it’s not beyond possibility that I would have found a niche in publishing. Not the small-scale variety I eventually started up myself at a time of life when many people are thinking about retiring rather than embarking on a new enterprise. I’m talking about the big kind, with glitzy offices somewhere in London, and books by famous authors piled high in the foyer.
The reason I didn’t – well, aside from rank cowardice – was that in my day (as we golden oldies are too fond of saying) careers advice for women mostly consisted of a steer towards teacher training and a dire warning about how fierce the competition was for the jobs we really wanted to do. These days, too late for it to be useful, I’m a little braver. Ten thousand applicants for every vacancy? OK – so why shouldn’t it be me who makes it to the finishing line? Other considerations aside, publishing is one of the few woman-friendly work environments.
But I did make it eventually, mostly through the streak of cussedness which my mother failed to quell; I set up my own company, ran it for seven years, and made a few useful contacts in the wider world of which I was a tiny fragment for those years. Consequently, these days I copy-edit and proofread a few books a year, which puts a little money in the bank and gives me a lot of pleasure.
In fact I’ve just finished the latest copy-edit and enjoyed every minute, especially since it meant I got a sneak preview of the next in a series I’d read from choice. But not every project is as effortless as that one, and sometimes I’m faced with a quandary. For instance, take the last proofreading project I was given. It was non-fiction, an account of a murder which in its time gave the tabloids weeks of headlines, written in a style which resembled fiction more than a factual record.
As a lot of people will know, proofreading is a whole different process from copy-editing. It’s correcting typos, ensuring paragraph indents are uniform, checking for minor glitches which have crept through the earlier processes. The book has already been typeset into its final format, and no one who is part of the production process will thank a freelance proofreader for recommending changes which upset that format. But it’s not always easy; sometimes, when I’m proofing, it’s hard to switch off my inner copy-editor.
A copy-editor is looking for timeline inconsistencies, needless repetitions, sentences which don’t quite say what the author meant, other sentences which don’t quite make sense, that kind of thing as well as the typos and minor glitches. If I see them, even at this late stage, I can’t un-see them.
So what’s a poor proofreader to do? The book has already been copy-edited by someone else – possibly by someone at the publishing house rather than a jobbing freelance like me. Do I ignore the obvious errors I spot, in case I offend that someone as well as making the typesetter tear her hair? Or do I flag up the issues, because if it were my publishing company I’d rather the book went out with as few mistakes as possible?
Answers on a postcard, please... Or as a comment if you prefer. I’d be really interested to know what anyone else thinks: author, editor or reader.
I don't often post twice in a week, but I lost a friend yesterday, a friend I never met and never spoke to. Many of you might feel the same way.
Gene Wilder was a true hero of mine. I don't have many. There are people whose work I admire greatly and people who I might try to emulate under select circumstances, but not many heroes. I define a "hero" as a person who does something so extraordinarily well, and who lives by all credible accounts an admirable, respectable life, that I look up to that person as a model. I never try to be anyone other than myself, but sometimes we all need an ideal to which we can aspire.
For me, one of those people was Gene Wilder. I never actually met the man, although we were in the same room twice. When I was the arts editor of the Rutgers Daily Targum back in the Middle Ages, I made sure to attend a screening of Wilder's film The World's Greatest Lover, a movie he wrote, directed and starred in. Wilder was going to be there, and I wasn't going to miss it.
He came out after the film--which isn't great but isn't bad--had shown and answered questions. I might even have asked one. I honestly don't remember. I do remember having a feeling I occasionally have when confronted with someone whose work I believe truly stands alone--that I don't want to ask a stupid question and sound like a fawning idiot. I guess I didn't do that, because I'd definitely remember.
Wilder himself was charming and personable. He didn't treat college reviewers as the minor league team. He considered each question, gave credit to others--I especially remember him pointing out Harry Nilsson's song for the film--and no doubt suffered some fools patiently.
Many years later, my wife and I attended a session at the 92nd St. Y in New York City when Wilder, who had pretty much retired from acting and rarely spoke publicly, had agreed to be interviewed in depth by Wendy Wasserstein. He was gracious and shy, took a while to warm up to the idea of entertaining an audience, but eventually ended by explaining the origins of the theater expression "break a leg" and how it has been misunderstood for decades. Questions from the audience could be submitted on paper. Mine, regarding his performance in a not-great movie in which he gave a great performance, was not selected.
Like almost everyone else, my real experiences of Gene Wilder were from his astonishingly good screen work. His acting in classic comedies--The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, among many others--was extraordinary among comic actors. Wilder never played the joke. He always played the character. There were no winks to the camera. There was no false move. There would never be a moment that didn't feel real, even in the most outlandish circumstances.
When The Producers was done as a Broadway musical in 2001, it was a work of genius and a phenomenon that can only be compared today to Hamilton, the only other musical to win almost as many Tony Awards. And everything about the show was wonderful, but on our way out of the theater, I said to my wife, "I loved it, but there's just one thing."
She looked at me. "No Gene Wilder," she said.
Matthew Broderick, who took over the role of Leo Bloom a mere 34 years after Wilder had done it on film, played the part well. But he played it as a timid nerd and nothing else. Wilder played it with so much emotion and so much heart that the viewer could extrapolate a complete backstory for the character. We knew how he'd been treated in grade school. We felt the cold shoulders of the women who had repeatedly rejected him over the years. We knew the beating heart of the beautiful butterfly inside that bland caterpillar.
Many people will now remember Gene Wilder--justifiably--as Willy Wonka in the first, real film made from Roald Dahl's novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That's not my favorite Wilder film but it is a staggeringly great performance. A man who could be seen as heartless and cruel comes across as impish and good-humored because the man playing him had such enormous humanity.
In his last years Wilder took to writing books, and while it wasn't his best work, his writing showed more areas of his soul that had gone unexplored in many of his movies. He appeared--I can't know the real man--to have been a man intrigued by human behavior who wished that everyone would just treat each other better.
There are few things a person deposited on this planet can do for his fellow Earthlings nobler than to provide others with a laugh, a smile, a warm feeling. I can't think of anyone who ever did that more than Gene Wilder.
He was one of a kind. We will not see his like again, but luckily we can still see him whenever we choose to do so. That is a great gift. He was a great gift. If that's not a friend, I don't know what is.
Rest in peace, my friend. You are already being sorely missed.
MB: Unless it's a book from a series that I'm already doing, I don't know anything about the script before I get it. The casting is usually done by the audiobook producer (Audible Studios, in the case of The Aspergers Mystery Series) and if they decide on me for the job, that's the first I see of the script.
JC: How do you develop a voice for the narrator (Samuel Hoenig) and then the other characters?
JC: Do you have to refer back to old recordings when a new book comes in to remember how you voiced a character in previous books?
JC: How much more difficult is it to voice female characters? Should I be careful about writing them in the future?
JC: Do you read the whole book before starting, or do you approach it in sections?
JC: What’s the recording process like? What do you do in a typical day?
JC: You’re also a stage, film and television actor. Aside from the obvious, is there a difference to the process of creating a character for an audiobook?
JC: While the Asperger’s books are not written from the perspective of someone who wants to be funny, Samuel’s stories should hopefully have some laughs in them. How are you cognizant of that in the performance, and how do you approach comedy as opposed to something more dramatic?
JC: Because Samuel does have Asperger’s, which he considers simply an aspect of his personality, did you have to do any research before starting THE QUESTION OF THE MISSING HEAD?
First of all, thanks a million to my good friend Chris Nickson for picking up the pieces at very short notice yet again and filling last Thursday’s space with something far more interesting and readable than I could have dreamed up. Friends like Chris are hard to find.
The reason Thursday Dead Guy followers (hi, guys) have been seeing almost as much of Chris as of me lately is something which, in a way, lies at the heart of today’s post.
In one of my many serial lives I used to teach classes in creative writing. At least, there were classes, the brochure said they were called creative writing, and the educational institution which organized them paid me to sit at the head of the table and offer pearls of wisdom to the people who signed up. I’m not sure about teach, because my carefully considered view, based on observation and experience, is that it’s not possible to teach anyone either to be creative or to write. So what I was doing was helping some people whose natural creative streak leaned in the direction of writing to improve their skills.
OK, now that’s out of the way (it’s not really relevant, but I feel strongly about it, so I wanted my position to be clear), I’ll get to the point.
The point is, one of the most important pearls of wisdom I used to offer was this: if you want to be a writer, you have to write. You have to apply your butt to the seat of a chair, pick up a pen or fire up a computer, and put words on paper or screen.
And one of the most common excuses for not writing that were wailed at me was, ‘But I’m too busy! I don’t have time!’
When the person doing the wailing is sitting in a class, the answer to that is simple: in that case, what are you doing here? This is two hours a week plus travelling time which you could spend writing.
Fundamentally, the only possible response to that excuse is, if you really want to be a writer, somehow you’ll find, or make, the time. And for myself, not being one to hand out advice I wasn’t prepared to follow, and because I knew from a very early age that wherever my life took me, putting words on paper was going to be a large part of the journey, I’ve always made sure that the necessary time was factored in. I’ve been writing short stories and novels since I was six years old. Sometimes I wrote other things – papers and essays mostly filled the space when I was in full-time education, though I do have a box of what I suppose is juvenilia dating back further than I care to admit to. But through the most time-consuming bits of life like early motherhood and caring for a sick child, somehow I found that time, because it was something I needed to do: it was an essential part of me.
Sometimes – the ‘teaching’ years, mainly, and later when I went over to the dark side and took up publishing – my output became either sparse or workaday: reviews, bits of not-especially-creative journalism, promotional material. The time was still there, I made sure of that, but the energy was going elsewhere. Focusing on other people’s writing somehow mops up the motivation and spark that triggers one’s own, at least for me. But I still wrote.
So I used to have scant sympathy for the people who wanted to be writers but weren’t prepared to do what it took to write. Sure, life gets in the way and doesn’t leave much space; but if you want to do it enough, you do it. Demanding day job? Take a notepad on the commute. Busy family life? Get up an hour earlier in the morning and take advantage of the quiet. But lately... Let’s say I begin to be a little more understanding. Because it’s not just finding the time; it’s digging deep for that essential energy too, and all writers know that it’s a particular kind of energy which can’t always be called up to order.
My new understanding has grown from a set of circumstances which I won’t bore you with; let’s just say I’ve been faced with, am still faced with, family illness which has taken up time, energy, emotion, in fact just about everything that would normally go into my writing. When you come home after a long day of clinic appointments and/or hospital visits and still have the rest of life to deal with through the exhaustion, putting words on paper or screen isn’t the first thing on your mind. So, though I keep an expression of interest from an editor dating back, omigod, nearly a year, firmly in my sights, the project she showed an interest in has remained untouched for over half that time.
I’m still a writer. I will get back to that project. But for now, for the moment, real life really has to be well and truly my priority. So if you came to my classes and I berated you for not making the time and finding the energy you needed to produce the great novel I knew you were capable of, maybe this is where you were at the time, and I apologize.