Forgot it was Tuesday (Silly 3-day weekend). Post I've been wanting to write coming to you tomorrow. It'll be about the Modifier Zone Redeux...
"We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness..."
To the Americans, like me, who read this blog: Isn't it great that our country was founded on these words? Isn't it great that our country was founded on words?
There is a tendency in the U.S., and perhaps other places, to confuse patriotism with a belief that a country (or a government) must never be seen as being wrong. To criticize or point out problems is considered treasonous or close to it. But this country was conceived based on the idea that nothing is perfect. Our constitution was immediately amended and continues to be to this day; it is a living document that is never meant to be finished.
That's because we're built on ideas. Other places became organized because everybody already lived there or because the monarch decreed it. The United States was somebody's idea. Writers put together the concepts that would initially establish the nation but left open the possibility that changes over time would be necessary.
So the unquestioning dedication to a pledge of allegiance, the inclusion of patriotic songs at sporting events, the almost religious dedication to the flag--these are all things that, if you truly believe in them, have value. But if they're just part of the reflex of belonging to a group, if they exist because we must not question them, they run counter to the idea that started this country.
It has now been 240 years since the words above were written and signed as a statement of clarity and defiance, of purpose and explanation. We celebrate the words and we celebrate the traditions, but we should also keep in our minds the idea that was behind it all.
All people (because even Jefferson, perhaps especially Jefferson, is subject to amendment) begin life as equals. Each person is entitled, by virtue of being a person, to certain basic rights: Life. Liberty. The chance to be happy.
I celebrate those concepts. I am proud of the fact that my country came to being because of them. If I don't stand up when a recording of Kate Smith is played at a baseball game, that is my way of being patriotic. This place was conceived to revel in differences and to question everything.
I absolutely love that.
This is a revolution, dammit! We're going to have to offend SOMEBODY!--John Adams, "1776"
First of all, many thanks to Chris Nickson for stepping into the breach (again) when my own times became a little too interesting for comfort and both my spare hours and my energy had to be directed elsewhere. If you enjoyed his blog posts, try his books!
And I’m afraid that’s the last mention crime fiction will get in this post. Sometimes I have other things on my mind.
An e-mail from my sister a couple of days ago read: Ooops, another Brexit. Nothing to do with politics; this was far more important. Football. Which my friends across the pond call soccer. It’s being played big time in France at the moment, and the UK’s four countries separate into their component parts for the purpose of Euro 2016, the biggest tournament this side of the World Cup. Scotland didn’t make the cut, which left England, who were expected to qualify, at least by their supporters, and Wales and Northern Ireland, who weren’t, by anyone at all, really.
Regular blog-dippers may recall that my national affiliation, on account of birth and blood, is very firmly to Wales. And guess who, against all the odds and expectation, are the last team standing in Euro 2016? My boys are doing great; they scored first against England, beat Russia three-nil, fought off Northern Ireland, and now they’re in the quarter-finals.
England, on the other hand, collapsed against Iceland, a country with a population the size of Leicester, a city which also made footballing history earlier this year.
And I don’t even like football.
It just goes to show that interesting times doesn’t always suggest bad stuff.
On the other hand...
My own personal interesting times lately have mostly involved wrestling with what is laughingly called the best health service in the world. I’m sure this description was once true, but I’m surer that it’s now used ironically, despite the plaudits heaped on it by an American friend who visited the UK recently and found herself in need of urgent medical attention.
Try this for size:
A sixteen-week gap between diagnosis and any form of treatment for a potentially life-threatening illness.
A surgeon who invented a patient’s job on his record without ever having asked what it actually was, and got it insultingly wrong.
A whole series of nurses and doctors (I lost count) who failed to get the patient’s name right because they simply didn’t read the notes.
A letter from a doctor dated three days before the date of an investigative procedure, the results of which were included in the letter.
A referral from one medical department to another related one which took three months to process – for a condition which was caused by someone screwing up, should never have happened at all, and should in any case clear up by itself in a few weeks.
All this and more, at a time which is especially stressful for patient and family without additional administrative hassle.
I could go on, but I don’t want to depress you if you’re planning a trip to the UK. They say the NHS is free. Maybe that’s because no one would pay the bill if there was one.
So, as you see, I’ve been having really interesting times, and they’re not over yet. And that’s before I even mention Brexit.
I suppose I have to, don’t I? I’ll just say this: I don’t know who was more surprised (or appalled, for that matter) by the result: the In camp or the Out one. But if it gets UKIP off our TV screens, it can’t be all bad.
A question I often get is “do you have national distribution?” And the answer is yes. Of course I will be using Midnight Ink as an example, but you can extrapolate your questions from what we do when you are talking to a publisher.
First we have internal sales reps that sell to some bookstores and to the big outlets (I will talk about indy bookstores next). Our sales reps go to Barnes and Noble for face to face meetings to present our books. That salesperson also works out co-ops with them. (I will talk promotions in the near future.) We go to Books a Million. Other internal reps sell to:
Baker & Taylor
Thorndike (large print)
We also do advertising and co-op with these folks. There are a bunch more places our internal salespeople sell to, but these are the biggies.
Here is the one thing that authors need to know – we can NOT make any of these companies stock books in specific stores or distribution centers. They buy and stock according to their own expectations of sales. They usually stock the stores in the region the book takes place and/or where the author lives. I don’t know how many panicked emails I get from authors reporting to me that the store can’t order books because their Ingram or B&T doesn’t have any in stock. This is why I always suggest that for signings and events, the store should always order directly from us.
So, as you can see, we sell to the large stores and distribution centers. What about indy stores?
We have commission sales rep groups throughout the country. I think we have every area covered except Texas. These various rep groups will visit a store and present our titles (including Llewellyn) to the bookstores. This is a very good thing! Back when I owned my store, I loved meeting with the rep groups. I bought more from the reps who came into the store versus the ones who called or emailed to take my orders. It is simple – by being in the store, talking to me and looking around, they had a better understand of my customer base and what I could sell. I even had sales reps tell me that I wanted to order LESS of some books. And while that may seem crazy, it was a very good business decision. Sales reps don’t just want to sell a ton of books. They also need good sell through. It does the rep no good to sell a store 100 copies and then have 80 returned. Much better to sell them 25 or 30. Better for the publisher, the store, and the rep.
One last thing about distribution… when we receive books into the warehouse (we are all in one big building here) as soon as the books are entered into the system, we beginning the shipping process. B&N has their own distribution warehouses. We ship to one location and they sort and ship to their stores, which is why they are sometimes slower to get on the shelves. Stores are free to start selling the print books as soon as they get them. Quite often that is 3-4 weeks before the publication date. (Ebooks are always released on the pub date.) Even with that lead time, we ask authors not to plan any events right on the pub date as occasionally a snafu occurs.
OK, I think that is it. If I missed anything, let me know!
So this morning we said goodbye to our girls, off for seven weeks at camp in the Berkshires. Sunday, we will drop The Boy at Skidmore for a pre-college program. As usual, I will list everyone's summer reading--a pretty good, well-considered list, from which they chose strong books. They are:
Ita (rising 8th grader): The Chosen, Chaim Potok
JJ (rising freshman): Soul of an Octopus, Sy Montgomery
Joe (rising senior): Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Layla (failed Dogwarts): Working on Go Dog Go, PD Eastman
It's summer (finally!) and that means things tend to slow down. The publishing business is pretty much on hiatus until Labor Day (except for writers, who plow on throughout, and no doubt agents, right Josh?). All there is for me to do is write and tell you once again that WRITTEN OUT is now available from Crooked Lane. I won't mention the very positive review of the upcoming THE QUESTION OF THE FELONIOUS FRIEND from Kirkus Reviews, although now I have mentioned it so you know what I liar I am.
But since the pace is a little more relaxed at this time of year, I thought maybe we could devote today to a slightly off-topic topic. Lately, after a spate of... a while... I started listening to some new music, albeit not all from new artists. I am after all a geezer and should not be expected to keep on the cutting edge of new material. But assuming there might be a few other tail-end Baby Boomers checking in here every week, let's look at some new releases because they've been on my mind and for no other reason.
First, a quick mention of methodology: I pay for the music I listen to, just as I pay for the books I read, the movies I see and the food I eat. I do not steal other people's work. If you do, please don't mention it to me. My stomach is so easily upset.
As for the way I critique music: Like everything else in the arts, it's completely subjective. I like what I like. You like what you like. In all probability they are not exactly the same. That's okay. It doesn't mean one of us is right and the other wrong. It means I like what I like and you like what you like. Good. More employed artists that way. So onto the latest:
After a spate of only 40-something years, The Monkees (of all people) have put out a new album of music and not another "Greatest Hits" or "Unheard Tracks" rehash. This is new material, albeit some that really is from forever ago but you've never heard it before. And it was produced, played, sung and arranged this year, not in 1966 for the most part.
I'll admit that when I heard the news I was, let's say, skeptical. But it turns out Good Times really is a very good album. It opens with Micky Dolenz, finally starting to get credit for having a really good voice that hasn't lost very much at all since the "hey-hey" days, duetting with of all people the late Harry Nilsson--and a young Nilsson, to boot. The album's title song is taken from a demo tape Nilsson (who wrote for the band when it was a TV phenomenon) made but that was never recorded by the Monkees. Here Dolenz, who was a close friend of Nilsson, gets to play with his pal one last time and it's a great deal of fun.
Besides Nilsson, songs are written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond, Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, and band members Peter Tork, Michael Nesmith and Dolenz, among others.
Much of the album hits the same emotional points as a vintage Monkees album but the production by Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne (with whom I played softball when I was in my twenties and he was maybe 12) is impeccable and not at all dated. Yes, the 13 tracks are probably two too many but the whole album comes in at less than 40 minutes and is garnering respect from those who would have dismissed the band in its heyday. (And yes, Nesmith took part and has a couple of lead vocals. The late Davy Jones does get a vocal on Love to Love taken from old tapes, and it's nice to hear him one last time.)
After a break of a mere five years, Paul Simon is back with Stranger to Stranger, which has been getting massive critical acclaim and incorporates exotic instruments and sounds that seem to have inspired the brilliant songwriter and performer. The problem is, listening to the album is too much like work. It was probably a lot more fun to record it than to hear it.
It's not that Simon doesn't have good ideas--he always has good ideas--but the melodies are more like a grumpy man mumbling than a great artist spreading his wings. Simon has clearly decided that there's no reason to appeal to a listening audience anymore (in other words, no hooks), meaning he can make music just for himself. That's fine. An artist should be free to express himself as he sees fit. And a few of the tracks (like the single Wristband) are interesting to hear. But overall, I've only gotten all the way through it twice and I had to force myself to pay attention. It might be great, for all I know, but it hasn't stuck with me at all, and I am a long-time Paul Simon fan. He is one of the few artists (I can think of only the one) to whom I have written a fan letter. This one just didn't grab me.
On the other hand, as virtually everyone on the planet now knows, the original cast recording of the resplendent Hamilton will get into your head and never leave. That's fine, because you won't want to banish it ever.
You'll recall--if you're a regular reader and given to such things--that my family and I saw the musical a couple of weeks ago after a seemingly endless wait having bought tickets before last Thanksgiving. As a last birthday surprise for my wife--the occasion for which said tickets were purchased--the recording was waiting in the glove compartment of her car when we were driving home from the performance. It went into the CD player then and I don't think has been out since.
It's one thing to hear a middle-aged Jewish woman quoting rap lyrics around the house or having a 27-year-old explain the Presidential election of 1800 to you a few times (or more). It's another to get repeated listenings to a work this diverse (ethnically and stylistically) and truly appreciate the scope and the ambition of the whole score. It's a marvel to hear and better than that, it's so entertaining that the music, which ranges from hip hop to speed rap to pop to Broadway to girl groups and back again, will occupy your mind.
I managed to steal the CD from my wife's car and make a condensed copy for my car. It hasn't been out of the player for a couple of weeks. It probably won't leave for some time.
Not brand new, but anything by Circe Link and Christian Nesmith (see Michael Nesmith, above, and note that he is frequently referred to here as "Papa Nez") is worth hearing. Take a listen. Smart lyrics, genius arrangements and some of the friendliest music you'll ever hear. Their latest is a collection of covers called Side Dishes which is fascinating but the original albums are the real treats. Either way, what's not to like?
After falling in love with Jane Steele and its author, Lyndsay Faye, I've been reading The Gods of Gotham, the first in Faye's three-book series. It's soooo good! I don't talk about every mystery book I read here at Dead Guy, but I have to talk about this one because it's kinda meta. It's a mystery novel that takes place in 1845 in New York City. The protagonist, Timothy Wilde, is a member of the newly-formed NYPD.
Pause for a second here to contemplate the idea of New York City without a police force. Apparently, in the pre-1845 era, there were watchmen and guards and things, but the New York Police Department didn't exist. And when it was formed, it didn't really know exactly what its job was, or how to do that job. It had no automatic authority. The "copper stars" on the force were in fact widely mocked and disrespected.
(The Oxford English Dictionary has the first use of copper to mean police officer in 1846, probably from copperstick; it has the first use of cop in 1859 and says its origin is American. According to the the Grammarphobia Blog, the word cop doesn't come from the stars, but from the verb form of cop.)
So, this is a detective novel that takes place at the birth of the idea of the detective. I researched the history of detective fiction in an earlier post, but it didn't occur to me to think about the history of actual detecting. Faye's protagonist, a former barkeep, has an attention to small details akin to Sherlock Holmes's, and he's able to use his skills to solve crimes; in reward (spoiler alert), he's promoted at the end of the novel from plain old cop to a new kind of profession, one we readers know as "detective," but he doesn't yet.
I'm looking forward to the next book in the series, Seven for a Secret.
Waiting For Feedback – The Sequel
Last Thursday I mentioned that I was in limbo, waiting for comments from my agent on my newest book. No doubt you’ve been on the edges of your chairs ever since, wondering anxiously if I’ve heard yet.
There was an email yesterday. To everyone she deals with, saying she’ll be on holiday from three weeks from June 29. A little over a week away, as I write. I replied – of course – asking when she’ll have her feedback for me. I’d like to get everything fixed and off to the publisher before she leaves, if possible.
There was a response. She hopes to have comments for me today (Thursday). I hope so. I really do. I’m also involved in going through the proofs of a book that’s coming out in September as well as working on a new book.
But…things are as they are. Hopefully the changes she suggests will be few and early next week it can wing its way to the publisher.
An update. The manuscript arrived back with comments on Wednesday afternoon. No huge changes, but some things that needs a little work. So I know what I’ll be doing for the next few days.
And I can start an entirely different limbo.
Wish me luck.
How do we measure success? As a writer, as an editor, as a person?
Are you successful when you sign your first publishing contract? When you get your first advance check? When your book is finally published? When you get a good review? When you get a starred review? When you earn out? When you get that next contract? When you are an award finalist? When you are an award winner?
As an editor, when am I a success? When I sign an author? When that book gets a starred review? When it wins an award? When a book I acquired hits a bestseller list? When I have my own imprint? When NY houses come calling?
Am I successful when I own a new car? A home? When my boys graduate high school and head to college? When I can vacation whenever and wherever I want to? When I can afford to retire when I want to?
I think we all kill ourselves to be successful. We work harder and longer. We take on more responsibilities. We juggle more than we can handle. But does that make us successful? Who decides that?
You do. Did you finish your first novel? That is a success. You set out to do something and you did it. You achieved what you attempted. That manuscript might be in the back of your drawer, never to see the light of day, but that isn’t a failure. Because you made another goal – to write the next one. And you kept at it until you landed an agent or an editor. You got a publishing contract. Even if that book doesn’t earn out or become a best seller, you also reached another goal – being published. Every step of the way is as accomplishment. A success.
I’m not very good at recognizing success in myself. Because I am always comparing. Some days I feel like I am a success. Most days I don’t. We are all a work in progress, right? So let’s make a deal. I will stop beating myself up for doing XY or Z better if you all will start celebrating every success. J
I'd like to talk for a moment about a miracle.
Now, those who read this post regularly might remember that miracles are not part of my belief system. I generally put my trust in science and verifiable fact ahead of faith in pretty much anything. But there is the odd exception at which I marvel, even if I'm not attributing that phenomenon to any higher power.
And I speak here of speaking. I talk of talking. Am I not being clear?
Human conversation just knocks me out. It amazes me in so many different ways. It makes me stop and shake my head in wonderment when I actually consider what's going on when two--or better, more--people get together and just talk. About anything. Yes, even the election, although I would like to take something of a break on talking about that. Suffice it to say that I have no argument with people of color assuming the color isn't orange.
But that's beside the point. Conversation. Think about it. You have a thought. You take that thought and convert it to a verbal expression. Then you voice that expression to someone who can hear it. That person hears what you're saying (or signs it, if that is the mode of communication), comprehends it (assuming you're being coherent) and responds to it almost at the moment you are finished expressing that thought.
That's amazing. We humans have the ability to compute and analyze verbal communication we didn't know we were going to hear and respond to it pretty much immediately. How is that not a secular miracle?
Now. Let's talk about dialogue. That's right--the words writers put into the mouths of their characters in an attempt to get them to communicate with each other (and, quite frequently and unfortunately, to dispense plot information). When you're writing dialogue, your character who is not speaking at the moment doesn't know what is going to be said. S/he doesn't have a written transcript of the coming speech and in all likelihood does not have hours or days during which to fashion an appropriate response.
Your characters are having a conversation. They are not trading speeches. It makes me crazy when writers of novels, screenplays, theater works or any other fiction refer to things their characters say as "speeches." When you're talking to the guy at the Post Office and you ask if Forever Stamps (best deal ever) will always be valid postage--something that should be obvious from the name, I'm just saying--are you making a speech? No, you're not. You're having a conversation. That's what your characters are doing, too.
Conversation assumes that the people involved can't foresee what's coming. It assumes that the thoughts being expressed, no matter how long they're been in the person's mind, are just being put into words for the first time. Conversation isn't perfect. It isn't gorgeous. It's sloppy and improvised. It's human.
That doesn't mean dialogue in a story should be people grunting and being inarticulate. Stylized dialogue is fine in the right setting. Banter is my favorite game to play. Do most people talk like that? Probably not. Does it work for my story? I like to think so. But the message to be taken away from all this blather is that your dialogue needs to sound like your characters. It needs to be real for them. It needs to sound like they're having a conversation and making it up as they go. That's conversation.
And that's a miracle.
P.S. By the way, get a copy of WRITTEN OFF. Here are excerpts from a few reviews.
I’m in for Lynne for a couple of weeks. Hello (again)
I’m in the middle of the waiting game. The manuscript for my new book is with my agent, awaiting her comments and suggestions. Make those changes, then on to the publisher. It’s the fifth in a series, but each time, on every single occasion a complete books goes off into the ether, I hold my breath.
A couple of people (including Lynne) have read it and offered comments and constructive criticism, all taken on board.
I suppose I’m not the only one who indulges in extended breath-holding with each new novel (and this is number nineteen or so). But it’s a very humbling exercise each time, like being a beginner, and that’s not always a bad feel. It stops me feeling jaded and keep me very much on my toes.
In a very (very!) strange way, I’ve come to relish the not knowing. That way, if the publisher wants the book, my sense of relief is much stronger. And, let’s face it, unless you’re a big-selling author, it’s never a foregone conclusion. You’re only as good as your last royalty statement.
Right, I’m going back to holding my breath. I’d be interested to know whether others suffer from the same fears. And maybe I’ll have a bit more to report next week…
I think I speak for all my DEAD GUY colleagues when I say the events over this weekend in Orlando, FL are unthinkable, unpardonable and absolutely unacceptable. No matter who you might consider voting for it is clear that action needs to be taken. I know what I think should happen. Consider what you think and contact your legislator immediately to let him/her know you will not let the status quo stand. Too many families are crying today. It's not okay and it's not "the cost of doing business." It needs to stop.
This weekend saw my wife hit a birthday that had a 0 in it. Since I did not marry a person whose age was in the single digits and we have been married for 29 years, you can probably make a decent estimate of the number involved. That's not relevant.
The point is, whenever such an occasion comes around, I plan something a little more spectacular than I might if the numeral in question ended in a 3 or an 8. One year isn't any different than another really, but we do tend to mark these occasions more significantly than others. Once I organized a surprise birthday party and convinced friends to fly in from Cleveland, Chicago and Honolulu, among other places. The next time a 0 was involved, our children and I took my wife to Rome for a week.
You might have heard of the show. It's gotten a little buzz. So I bought the tickets last November and we sat in seats where only the lower half of the set was visible. They were the last four seats available in the theater. Last November. For a performance that took place this past Saturday.
Well, everything you've heard is true. The blend of hip hop beats, mile-a-minute rap and Broadway song styles is dazzling. The storyline is enlightening and presents history in a way that has already proven to be mesmerizing to young people of all stripes. My daughter teaches algebra to high school students in the Bronx. Not one of them can afford a ticket to Hamilton. If you think they haven't memorized the lyrics to the songs, you are mistaken.
The talent on that stage is astonishing and the inventiveness never stops. Two hours and forty-five minutes go by in a flash. As an audience member, you're moved and amused and devastated and any number of other emotions in rapid succession. I don't know how much play there has been with the facts of the first Treasury Secretary's life, but it rang true even as the style was completely 2016.
And that brought me back to the essence of storytelling and why a good story well told always works. Interest an audience, get their attention, make them care about what goes on. It will take you places and take them places. It will make a difference. It can change the way things are. And as we've seen most painfully, things can use some changing.
By the way, the latest story I have told, WRITTEN OFF, the first Mysterious Detective Mystery, is officially published today. It's gotten some very nice reviews and the readers who have contacted me seemed to have enjoyed it a lot. This is usually the post where I do my best to get you to buy a book, but there was too much going on. And a significant birthday treated to a significant story told in an unusual way.
(We also got as many friends and family as we could to video birthday messages and had my son the filmmaker edit them together into a DVD. And next March my wife and I are going to Hawaii. If the IRS asks you, it's for Left Coast Crime.)
You can't get tickets to Hamilton, but when you can, do. Or buy the soundtrack. But you might want to take a look at WRITTEN OFF, too. After all, there isn't just one story worth telling.
P.S.: In order to better celebrate (that is, shamelessly promote) the publication of WRITTEN OFF, I'll be visiting the book club and signing copies at Booktrader of... wait for it... Hamilton (NJ) Wednesday evening at 7:30. Please drop by if you're in the area--all are welcome!
Also, I'll be blogging all over the place this week (what a coincidence, no?):
Cats, Books and More Cats (spoiler alert–there’s no cat in the book): Week of June 12 Speculating on what I’d do if WRITTEN OFF happened to me)
Dru’s Book Musings: June 14 (Publication Day!) A Day in the Life of Rachel Goldman (Plus a book giveaway!)
Jungle Red Writers: June 15 (The Day After Publication Day!) About my dad, not about WRITTEN OFF (too much)
Interview at Shelf Pleasure (hey, we don’t name these things): June 17
Kings River Life: June 18 How do you publicize a nutty book?
Stuff & Nonsense: June 22 On characters doing what they want
Raymond Chandler famously praised Dashiell Hammett: “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare, and tropical fish.” Two pages into a Charlie Stella crime novel (like his latest, Tommy Red) and you can’t help but feel it: he gives murder back to the people whose lives involve murder, not the teenage models who play cops and crooks on television. And no one does street talk like Stella. He’s George Higgins. Let’s hear him in action:
Gresham: By this point there’s a sort of national myth of the mafia, an army of guys in the same gorgeous suits, all-knowing, all-powerful, and even kind of noble. On TV they arrive in a fleet of black Cadillacs and the show is over. Your books move in and around the world of organized crime, but your depiction is of a rougher, more casual group. What’s your reaction when you see slick stereotyped mobsters?
Stella: I don’t see them anymore. There was a time the big shots dressed that way. I’m talking very higher ups. Captains and above, although I guess some wiseguys (soldiers) did if they were into it and had the scratch. The guys I knew weren’t. Formal ceremonies, yeah, but walking around all duded up? Those were the very high ups, the ones didn’t have to get their hands dirty anymore. Even those, however, traded in the Cadillacs for the foreign models. They spoke a great game of patriotism, believe it or not, and most were rightwing patriots clueless about politics in general, but then they bought Italian suits and drove foreign luxury cars.
To be fair, I went through my Cadillac/sports jacket phase. The jacket was required on certain nights, even for associates. Used to drive my wife at the time nuts that I’d get dressed to go out with the boys but never with her.
Gresham: And the cops—in your novels, the cops aren’t far from the crooks. Instead of virtuous police force, a blue wall, these are guys with names and ex-wives and mortgages to pay….
Stella: Oh, there’s a blue wall all right … it’s just a blue wall of omerta. That politically correct 99%-of-all-cops-are-heroes bullshit is just that, bullshit. Cameras (from cellphones and otherwise) are starting to show the real story. You can knock that 99% down to 60-40, and depending on where you’re doing the research, the 60-40 can go back and forth as to what percent is dirty versus clean.
Gresham: Your latest, Tommy Red, is a lean machine, at just over 160 pages. You mention that you cut it down….
Stella: It was YUUUUUUUUUUUUUUGE before a friend read it and said, “What the fuck, man?” Yeah, I usually overwrite, but with Tommy Red I’d started it back in the MFA program (Star Island) and went in and out of it over and over … once Gavin Borden (the friend) told me it was too much (it was making him dizzy), I cut it down to size.
Gresham: You’ve been at this for a while. What have you learned, as far as approaching a novel? How do you it differently than when you started?
Stella: Patience. Can’t be enough said for it. I was kind of turned off to writing crime novels the last few years and have engaged in several other projects, including the non-fiction Dogfella, but then immediately after Tommy Red came out I started a new crime novel that isn’t mob related. It is dirty cop related and I’ve written half of it since the end of April. Whether it comes to fruition or not is no longer an anxiety issue for me. I used to think I had to pump out one a year. I’m gonna be sixty and I enjoy reading as much as writing, so … it’s all patience and an acceptance that this writing stuff isn’t going to be my ticket to financial paradise. I made a lot more money on the street than I do from writing and working. A lot more, but I never minded working for a living and writing keeps me out of trouble. You learn patience over time, I guess.
Gresham: How about navigating the publishing world? Any advice? Lessons learned?
Stella: I’m probably not the right guy to ask about the publishing world, although I’m very happy where I am now. Stark House came through a very nice guy and terrific writer, Ed Gorman. I’d gone to battle with my prior publisher and just didn’t give a fuck if I had to start over. Turns out I didn’t, but that was all Ed. He recommended me to Stark House and Johnny Porno wound up being their first original crime novel.
I don’t do well with authority figures. I don’t do well with fraternities either. I dropped out of the MWA a long time ago and I don’t buy into the ass kissing most businesses require. I write books. That’s the deal I made with myself. I’m fortunate to have a publisher I trust, and I don’t think or care about the politics within the business. My agent does the right thing by me, especially in Europe, and my first six novels I retain rights to bring in some change with ebooks. The best advice I can give is get ahead of the publicity thing as best you can (something I’m not good at) and understand that there’s leg work involved in hawking books. Sometimes it’s pleasant and sometime it isn’t. Mostly it’s good, but be prepared for people who’ve had a bad day … or just assholes who assume they can treat every author like a used car salesman. I told one to go fuck themselves when they assumed I’d eat their condescending sarcasm bullshit. Should’ve seen the look in their face when I showed up to that convention. “Oh, you’re Charlie Stella.” “Fuckin-A, I am.”
Those are probably important, too, the Bouchercons and Thrillerfests, and whatever they call them now. I don’t go to them because the few I did attend reminded me of frat rush parties and I’m still a GDI, but they are essential to networking, I guess.
Gresham: You write about violent men. I’m thinking of Tommy in Tommy Red, or Washington Stewart, one of the leading man in Rough-Riders, or…well, it’s quite a list. When you’ve spent the morning inside the heads of some of these guys, do you ever find that it takes you a while to come out?
Stella: Never. Movies still influence me that way, but not writing. I’ll watch a movie I like, The Drop, for instance, with Tom Hardy playing Bob Saginowski, and I immediately want to write. In that case it wasn’t the character that stayed in my head, it was the memories of what goes on that makes me want to write. That was overblown fiction, make no mistake, especially as regards the take on Super Bowl Sunday (there wouldn’t be a dime in cash that night), but just the atmosphere brings it all back (memories). The guys at the start sitting at the bar, the give and take with Gandolfini’s character, etc. That’s the stuff that stays in my head, but once I’m writing and stop, I usually want something to eat.
Gresham: Is it true you wear a purity ring? On your hand or on your toe? [Editor’s note: this is a joke about jewelry available to Bernie-Or-Bust believers.]
Stella: I’m a purity MF’er, yes, it’s true. I know what corruption does over the long haul, so I’ve turned to my version of Jesus, Bernie Sanders, at least until he endorses Lyin Crooked Hillary, but my fingers and toes are too fat for rings. I’m thinking of having one tattooed around my neck, but now that I’m pretty much turned off to the NFL and in love with the NHL, my next tattoo should probably cover my Buffalo Bills logo with a Lightning Bolt. A purity Lightning Bolt.
Seriously, wisenheimer (as I step on my soapbox), we as a society have become so used to government corruption, the likes of the two frontrunners is no longer a big enough concern for revolution (the nasty kind, never mind political revolution). That said, it’s why I didn’t choose to become a police officer back in the day, because I more than likely would’ve started out like so many of those poor bastards, with a sense of moral justice and self-righteousness (purity?) and wound up a dirty cop for any number of reasons. I’m currently reading Kill Anything That Moves about the countless untold My Lai massacres during the Vietnam War, and it is a sobering reminder of how and why some of the violent shit perpetrated by law enforcement occurs. That blue wall mentality is no different than what is taught in the military. Perhaps necessarily so, but the results those mindsets yield are often tragic. How can we blame anybody when we allow the people running the show to be hardcore corrupt pieces of shit? I’m all for Bernie’s political revolution, but I’m thinking we’re headed for a much more physical one a lot sooner than we might want to believe. At some point, the toys (video games, reality TV shows, cable series loaded with T&A, the free porn, the heroin, etc., all the distractions that are American exceptionalism—sarcasm intended) just aren’t going to quell the storm. Eventually people will get bored with all the opiates and wake up.
So, yeah, to answer your question … I’m a former criminal turned purity MF’er … and you know what they say about former addicts, right? Biggest ball busters on the planet …
Charlie Stella's books:
Tommy Red (April, 2016) Stark House Press
Dogfella: How an Abandoned Dog Named Bruno Turned This Mobster's Life Around--A Memoir (May, 2015) Da Capo Press (Ghostwriter)
Rough Riders (July, 2012) Stark House Press
Johnny Porno (April, 2010) Stark House Press
Mafiya: A Novel of Crime (January, 2008) Pegasus
Shakedown: A Novel of Crime (June, 2006) Pegasus
Cheapskates: A Novel of Crime (March, 2005) Carroll & Graf
Charlie Opera: A Novel of Crime (December, 2003) Carroll & Graf
Jimmy Bench-Press: A Novel of Crime (December, 2002) Carroll & Graf
Eddie's World: A Novel of Crime (December, 2001) Carroll & Graf
Every writer I know has a notebook, or an ideas box, or in these technological times a computer file which performs the same function. And though I don’t suggest for a moment that any writer needs to be fed ideas, sometimes little real-life incidents can come in useful as background detail.
So I offer a small incident from my recent real life, which any writer who happens to be passing is welcome to make use of.
There I was, two o’clock in the morning, fast asleep, or rather, not long awoken from that state. At first I thought husband was responsible; his nightly wanderings bathroom-wards are a regular feature, and though I usually sleep through them, he does occasionally bang against the bed and utter a word he probably wishes I hadn’t heard, thus dragging me from the depths of slumber.
But no, there he was beside me in the bed, still enjoying the depths of slumber himself.
So what had woken me? Unfamiliar noise can do it, and there were indeed rather odd sounds coming from outside the window: thuds and strange whispers, accompanied, I realized when I turned my head, by a flickering yellow light penetrating the curtains. Someone arriving home after a late one, I thought, being less quiet than they think. The yellow light was probably a car’s flashing indicator which hadn’t yet been turned off.
But something made me get out of bed and go over to the window to investigate. And it’s a good thing I did. Our next-door neighbours, whose front driveway borders our front lawn, divided only by a row of shrubs, are in the throes of extensive building work, and on that driveway is a rubbish skip which had been full of wood offcuts. Not any more. They were ablaze. Flames were leaping several feet into the air, and sparks were flying in all directions.
The skip was only a foot or two from the front of the house, and the neighbours’ car was parked immediately behind it. The blaze had clearly been going for a while, and there was no sign of panic, or even movement of any kind, from their house; their two small children were on half-term holiday from school, so I assumed the family had taken the opportunity to go away. In any case, they’re fairly new neighbours, so we haven’t (well, hadn’t; we have now) exchanged phone numbers, so apart from sidling past the flames and hammering on the door, which would have been dangerous, I had no way of alerting them.
Meanwhile – wooden window frames, car full of petrol, leaping flames...
By now husband and visiting daughter were awake, and there was some discussion about what to do. It didn’t last long; the solution was obvious. I called the fire service, who arrived promptly and dealt with the problem with a well-aimed hose.
It wasn’t until next day that we discovered the entire family, young couple and two children, had been in the house all the time. The firemen had woken them, even though the fire had failed to, possibly because their sleeping arrangements during the building work mean they’re at the back of the house.
There it is, folks: a small slice of real life, laden with ‘what if?’ potential. Use it, ignore it, do what you will with it.
PS Everybody needs friends, and one of mine has jumped to my aid as I spend a couple of weeks dealing the family issue I may have mentioned earlier. Chris Nickson has kindly volunteered to fill this slot. Thanks, Chris.
One of the fun things of my job that I don’t spend enough time on is the developmental edit. I have decided recently that I needed to spend more time on it. I’m not sure what parts of my job that will eat into, but it’s a very important step and I don’t want to short change it. That being said, some books don’t need much of an edit. My revision requests aren’t a reflection of me, I don’t think. They are requests which I think will make the story stronger. I do my very best to stay out of the story. I hope that make sense.
When a manuscript comes in, I usually read it quickly the first time through. That gives me the plot and any holes or issues will stand out. I make some notes, but not many. The first read is like a gut check – am I sucked into the story, does the mystery hold up, will it sell? At this time I decide if I need to do another read and a developmental edit. I also get notes from the production editor. If our notes match up, I add in anything else I have and then I send those off to the author. But if the book needs more, then I do a second read.
(I want to add in here that if author A gets little or no edits than author B doesn’t mean that author B sucks. It is all a process of continuous learning. Instead of lamenting that you got an editorial letter, instead think, hey, this editor acquired my book because they believe in me and my writing and this editorial letter is going to make my book stronger and tighter.)
So begins the second read. I start with the printed ms, a notepad, and sharpened pencils. As I read through the ms, on my notepad, I record the important information for each chapter, including characters and the info about each one. In the margins of the notebook I also note the day to establish a timeline. If there is something that is really bugging me, I make stars all over it so I when I finish the ms I can easily find them. The notepad notes are the big picture. On the ms itself, I make notes too. Those are usually little things like typos, would a character say that, this sentence doesn’t make sense, etc. The second read can take me a good ten to twelve hours for a 300 page cozy ms where the first read would be two to three hours. The more details the longer it takes.
Once I have completed the second read, I ruminate on the book for a bit. I might step away from it for a day or two. Then I go over my notes. Sometimes it’s very clear on what needs to be done, cleaning up the timeline, adding some red herrings, beefing up a subplot. Sometimes I need to think on it a bit more. Once I’m feeling I have it all sorted in my mind, I type up my notes and send my notes and the production editor’s notes to the author for revision.
I often forget the compliment sandwich. You know:
Just finished your manuscript. You did a great job! I love it XY and Z about it.
I do have some revision requests that I have attached. If you can make those and get your revised ms back to me by XXX, that would be awesome.
Again, I just wanted to tell you how much I love this book. You are awesome!
Once in a while an author will say they don’t want to change something. Then we talk about it. Maybe there are other ways to get around the issue I have. Maybe not. At the end of the day though, the content of the book is the author’s story to tell. If they refuse to make a change, that is ok. I only ask that when I send revision requests, that the author takes a step back and look at the book critically, to determine if what I am asking will make the book stronger or not. Not only do I want our books to be awesomely plotted and written, but I also want it to sell a kajillion copies. Sometimes those things don’t go hand in hand, which sucks, but no one has ever called writing or publishing an easy or fair business.
So there it is – developmental editing. That is what I have been doing for the last three days. J
So I'm sitting at my desk and the doorbell rings.
First thing that happens is the dog goes berserk. Of course, our dog goes berserk when a doorbell rings on television and now that we can keep the windows open, pretty much anytime someone walks by the house, so that's not terribly unusual. I tell him to be quiet, he doesn't obey, and I walk to the door. We have our rituals.
After Gizmo finally shuts up I open the door and there stands a woman in her early-to-mid thirties, I'd say, although I'm a terrible judge of age in pretty much everybody, so for all I know she's 108 or 16. The door has a screen in it and I don't want to let the dog out to lick this person within an inch of her life, so I say, "Can I help you?" I mean it literally. I have no idea if I am capable of aiding this woman. Probably she wants to tell me about a political candidate (New Jersey's primaries are tomorrow and for the first time in decades at least one of them actually matters). Probably I want to get back to Words With Friends--hey, it has "Words" in the title, so it's part of my job--and would like to get rid of her ASAP.
"I'm Rachel Goldman," she says.
I chuckle involuntarily. "Sorry," I say. "I don't mean to be rude. I'm a mystery author, and my new book has a character named Rachel Goldman."
"I know," she says. "I'm her."
I'm so stunned I don't even mention the correct grammar would be, "I am she." Instead my erudite mind comes up with, "Huh?"
"I'm the character in your book. You wrote me. You created me. I don't know what to do.You have to help."
My head starts to hurt. Even Gizmo looks a little confused, but he's a beagle and that's how they look. "In the book, WRITTEN OFF, this is what happens to Rachel," I said. "Her main character, Duffy Madison, shows up at her door." (Actually he calls and then shows up at a book signing, but this is more concise.)
"Yeah," the woman says. "How meta can you get? Can I come in?"
This must be the weirdest campaign pitch in history, but it works; I let the woman into the house. "I'm not sure what it is you're trying to accomplish, Ms..."
"Goldman. Rachel Goldman. You should know. You named me." She sits on the armchair without asking, which is probably what the Rachel Goldman in WRITTEN OFF would do and... wait a minute.
"This is a joke, right?" I ask her. "Somebody who's read the book paid you to come here and pretend to be my character? You're very good, by the way. You must have really studied the book."
"I haven't read it," she answers.
That's what Duffy Madison tells Rachel in the book. This is getting weird. No. It's been weird since the beginning. Now it's getting eerie.
"Why are you here?" I ask. "You think you're the Rachel Goldman from my book, fine. Go be Rachel Goldman. Duffy comes to her because he's a consultant with the county prosecutor's office and he thinks she can help him solve a missing person case. Why did you come to me?"
She fixes me with a grin. I'm fixed now. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. Gizmo thinks bad.
"The book hasn't even come out yet," the woman points out. "You don't know if people are going to buy it. I don't have any money. I need a place to stay. You got a spare room?"
I think about the room my daughter vacated to go teach in the Bronx. But she might be back in a few weeks, or not, and... Wait. "No," I tell this nut. "You can't stay here. You're wearing nice clothing. Your hair is well coiffed. You're carrying a purse. I'm thinking you got all that stuff somewhere."
She shrugs. "This is what the woman in your book would look like," she says. "I'm her. You didn't write her naked and broke. I'm saying you owe me. I carried a whole novel for you, now I need another week before the book comes out to get myself together. If enough people buy the thing, maybe I'll be super-successful and I'll be out of your hair. If not, well, you can always kill me off in the next one." Her eyes look straight at me like she's challenging me to think of the blood--or ink--on my hands if I decide Rachel (in the Mysterious Detective Mystery series) must die.
"What proof do you have? Anybody could show up at my door and say she came out of my book. How do I know--"
The doorbell rings and Gizmo loses it again. I hold up a defensive hand to tell "Rachel" I'll be right back and actually step outside the steel door and onto the stoop so I can talk to this new visitor without a beagle baying his brains out in my ear.
I bolt back inside and lock the door in his face. Something feels odd. I'm sweating and it's not that hot out. My mind is a little hazy. I shake my head violently to clear it. When I look up, a woman and her tween-age daughter are standing in my living room. "I'm Alison Kerby," she says. "This is my daughter Melissa. There are ghosts here."
Then I sit up in bed, just like in the movies. I look around the dark room and hear the hum of the air conditioner. My wife scuffles a bit on the other side of the bed but stays asleep. I lie back down because there's no one here to see I just woke up and sat bolt upright, making a fool of myself.
I really have to stop eating Raisinets before bed.
WRITTEN OFF, the first novel in the Mysterious Detective Mystery series, will be published by Crooked Lane Books next Tuesday, June 14. If you want to get this crazy woman out of my spare bedroom, I hope you'll pick up a copy. (It's also available for pre-order as an audiobook.)
First of all, thanks to my good friend Chris Nickson for picking up the pieces last week when I found myself dealing with some family issues. The problem’s still around, so you may be seeing more of Chris over the next few weeks. He really is a good friend.
And I’ll be seeing him, literally, in a couple of days; the play he posted about last week goes live this weekend, and as usual Chris sold himself way short. I’ve ‘met’ the character – and the actor – he wrote it for, and read all the books the character features in, and if you happen to be in Leeds on Saturday afternoon, you’ll miss a treat if you pass it up.
Meanwhile, I have a job – yes, an actual paid job – to finish, and as these things often do, it’s set some thought processes in motion.
Most of the jobs I’m asked to do are copy-editing: the final stage of editing before a book is typeset into the format it will be printed in. For the uninitiated, the process partly involves going through the text looking for anomalies (such as oak trees in full leaf in November, or a jacket that changes from denim to khaki halfway through), or small inaccuracies which haven’t already been spotted by the development editor, like a siren on a police car a decade before sirens were introduced. It’s also ensuring the book meets the publisher’s house style requirements: -ise or -ize endings, double or single quotation marks, where to use italics, that kind of thing.
Mostly I’m checking for missing words, unclear punctuation, over-wordy sentences which blur the meaning... anything which could get in the way of the words saying exactly what the author intended. I’m also looking for my own pet bugbears: too many -ing words; repetition which clearly isn’t for effect; physical impossibilities like empty bottles of wine, and ‘sipping his coffee, he said...’. And I’m smoothing out any sentences which feel a little clunky.
I act as the six-month gap between finishing what feels like the final draft and going back for the final dust and polish: the distance which allows the author to see all the glitches that didn’t jump out before. My task, in short, is to try to make sure the author has written the book s/he thought s/he had written.
So what qualifies me for this important part of the process? You may well ask; I don’t have a clue. I went to school at a time when grammar, including proper use of punctuation, were considered important, so I learnt the rules. I read a lot, and I mean a lot, of fiction, so I’ve absorbed a lot about when it’s OK, even necessary, to break those rules. And they say practice makes perfect, and though I make no claim to perfection, I’ve practised a lot; I must have copy-edited well over a hundred books over the last twelve years or so. Is that enough? Most people I deal with seem to think it is, and I remain constantly aware of the need not to tamper with the author’s ‘voice’, but I’m never quite sure if I’ve gone too far or not far enough.
This current job, though, isn’t copy-editing; it’s the last stage of all. I’m proofreading the typeset manuscript, picking up any remaining minor glitches before the book goes to print.
And I’m not finding it easy. Missing words and unclear punctuation, fine; they need to be sorted. But what about those clunky sentences? My trouble is I’m incredibly picky, and I keep wanting to copy-edit. I know I mustn’t change anything that isn’t essential; if I do, I’ll upset the author who’s written it, the editor who’s smoothed it out, the typesetter who’s fitted it into the right number of pages, the production manager who has a schedule to keep to...
But it’s a fine line between desirable and essential. And who am I to decide what clunks anyway?
I had planned on blogging about... well, I don't remember. Which happens when I get a headache and this one feels like a migraine might be on the horizon. Before that happens, I first wanted to comment on two things that caught my attention today.
I'm reading a manuscript for the third book in a series that I acquired. I was quite a ways into it when I saw the name of one of my other authors. And then my name. It was pretty funny to me. It was like seeing those Disney cookies. Or like in one of the Charlaine Harris books, Sookie runs into Lily Bard from the Shakespeare series. Sort of an inside joke. But my question for you all - is it cool for readers or annoying? Do you notice? Do you care?
Ok, the noggin is hurting a little too much to keep typing. More later my friends.
I thought I was going to write this article upon returning from the Liberty VS Lynx game at MSG with my 12 YO badass basketball-loving daughter, but when I got home our son wasn't finished studying for finals, I had to arrange for his sisters' trunks to be delivered to camp later this month, and #Layla the puppy peed on her dog bed. So...tomorrow.
It's been brewing for a long time, but I feel this Memorial Day is the time for me to finally come out of the closet and admit to my true self. Given the level of mockery, disdain and, yes, hatred directed toward my people, there is some risk involved in this revelation. But I am strong enough and sure enough to state it unequivocally and without reservation.
Comedians, politicians and people with very little tolerance for anything have been decrying the rise of a "PC culture" in America. And no, they don't mean that not enough people are using iMacs. They're complaining that it's not okay for us to use terms considered offensive to some groups, and that jokes aimed in the direction of an ethnicity, religion, disability or point of view are no longer acceptable to the general public.
Personally, I say boo-hoo to that, but it's beside the point.
There are still a few groups who, even in our supposedly too-polite world (has anybody been reading the newspaper lately?) are considered not off-limits. It's still okay, for example, to make fun of overweight people. It's not outside the realm to mock short men. (Stop me if you sense a pattern here.) You want to write characters from the South who are stupid and bigoted? Enjoy.
But undoubtedly one of the weirdest groups to deride is owners of the Prius. The little hybrid car from Toyota that looks a little goofy and isn't built for the Indy 500 is frequently sneered at by comedians. People on the road actually pass us when we're driving well above the speed limit because it's a supposed embarrassment to let a Prius drive faster than you. Owners of said vehicles are asked if it's "really like a regular car" and told that we're smug just for having purchased one.
Some Prius owners are smug. Not as many as those driving Mercedes or Audis, but some. When you sell enough of a product (say, more than three) the chances are good some of the owners are going to be smug. Yes, like to mention that we can get 51 miles to the gallon. Sure, we might feel we're doing more for the environment than a suburban dad driving a Chevy Silverado to his job at an insurance office. Imagine that. Is it possible we think of this dinky little machine as a status symbol? I won't say no. But I bought my first Prius when I was 48 years old. It was my midlife crisis car. Aren't there points for not getting a red convertible?
Worse, I own a Prius c, the even smaller, even weirder-looking version, that can be parked in the glove compartment of most SUVs. People see it, look puzzled, then see the "Prius Hybrid" plate on the back, and I can see their faces change to something approaching disgust.
Are people subjected to disdain for driving a Honda Accord? Do buyers of Volkswagen Jettas have to justify their purchases on moral grounds? Is it assumed that because you tool around town in a Hyundai Sonata your very personality is in question?
Frankly, it gets a little wearying. The rolling of the eyes. The late-night TV jokes. The insistence of having decent pick-up when up-ramping on the New Jersey Turnpike. All I wanted was a car that would cost less on the weekly gasoline bill and maybe do less damage to the planet.
Hath not a Prius a fuel pump? Hath not a Prius axles, steering wheels, brake shoes, windshield wipers? Powered with the same (though admittedly less) fuel, damaged with the same sideswipes, subject to the same bird poop, cleaned by the same car wash, warmed and cooled by the same heater and air conditioner, as a gas guzzler is? If you prick our tires, do they not go flat?
In other words, what's your problem?
All I'll say is this: my wife and I took a trip to presidential estates in Virginia one weekend not long ago. We drove from central New Jersey to Alexandria, Virginia (George Washington's Mount Vernon) and then to Charlottesville, Virginia (Thomas Jefferson's Monticello). Then back. Including a few short side trips for dinners and whatnot, that's about 650 miles.
We filled up before leaving and once before the return trip. That was it. Total gasoline cost: Less than $40. I commuted to Philadelphia the day after we returned. I'm still driving on that tank of gas.
If I'm being smug, I don't want to be... what's the opposite of smug?
P.S. Today is Memorial Day in the U.S. It is a somber occasion that acknowledges and honors those who lost their lives in the conflicts their governments undertook. It's not just about barbecue and it's not Veterans Day, which comes in November and honors all those who fought in those conflicts and survived to tell the story.
I just finished reading a wonderful book, Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye. It's not a mystery novel per se, but it has many elements that mystery lovers will recognize and enjoy. Some reviewers have described it as a re-imagining of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, but I don't think that's quite right -- Jane Steele (the title character of Jane Steele) refers to reading and re-reading Jane Eyre and comments on the similarities and differences between her life and the life of Jane Eyre (the title character of Jane Eyre). So, to me, that isn't a re-imagining. Jane Steele is an orphan, an avid reader, and a governess, so she can't help but compare herself with Jane Eyre. She's also a murderer, the most likable murderer I've ever found in literature. I look forward to reading Faye's other novels now that Jane Steele has brought me to her work.
Lynne asked me to sub for her this week, so…
As writers we often think we can do anything with words. Write crime, non-fiction, plays, poems…
That hubris usually lasts until we attempt it. Then, over time, that sense of possibility creeps back. I know. Instead of my usual historical crime novels, I’ve written a play, and it’s going to be performed next week.
It’s a one-woman show, with a wonderful actor, and the character comes from my series of late Victorian police mysteries. Actually, she’s the leading character’s wife, a force of nature.
But you don’t need to know the details of how it came about. Suffice to say that it’s here. We’re not performing the whole thing because we’ve had no money for a director and real rehearsals, having been turned down for a couple of grants. Instead, there are selected scenes, two love, scrip-in-hand, full costume. Another one recorded as an audio play, and the last recorded on video (by a pro, free!) in a Victorian pub at Abbey House Museum in Leeds.
That has meant changing the script around so the scenes will work in this context and yet remain coherent. Also, that I’ll be onstage between scenes, framing them.
With a book, you do most of the work alone. With a play, completing the script is where it all begins. Essentially, this has become a collaboration between the actor and myself. We have plans, and the possibility of money. She deserves to be paid – everyone involved deserves that. For now, though, it’s on a non-existent shoestring.
The play is part of Leeds Big Bookend Festival, which accepted it just from my description, a wonderful act of faith.
I plunged into this with my eyes closed, and I’m not sure I’m even learning to dog paddle yet. We have something with this play, I know that, and I want to help it go wherever it can.
But one thing I’ve learned is not to write any more plays.
Let’s see if I can remember it.
Growing up in the upper Midwest means I come from a bowling family. I started when I was 8 and bowled through high school. Then I took about ten years off, but picked it up again when I moved home to Wisconsin. This last weekend I bowled in a tournament with my two sisters. It was down in Iowa and I had a lot of fun except for when I got stopped for speeding. But that comes later, for now, back to last Friday.
I drove down early to have lunch with my friend Matthew Clemens and his wife. It was the best four hour lunch I have ever had. We talked life, books, publishing, bowling, and life. It was grand. The perfect way to transition from work mind to vacation mind.
The tournament format is six games on Saturday and three on Sunday. Saturday was doubles followed by singles. Sunday was team. But before bowling, one needs to get off to the right start!
Yep, I started my day with Lucky Charms. And it worked! All season long I struggled and had not rolled a 600 series. But Saturday morning I did.
That is me on the top with a 241! That meant on Sunday I was doing the same thing. A bigger bowl of Lucky Charms and I was good to go. And let me tell you, it was as good as I have ever done. Yep, I bowled a personal best on Sunday. Check it out:
I bowled a scratch 715. I bowled out of my mind! The third game I had all strikes going into the 8th frame I think. I left a split and failed to pick it up. Heck, I forgot what bowling for a spare looked like. I was more nervous trying to pick the spare up than I was rolling the first ball. Anyway, the whole day was a bit surreal.
After all the fun though, I had to say goodbye to my sisters and friends as we headed out in different directions. It never fails to make me cry as I drive away. I would blame that on getting a ticket, but that was all about my lead foot and nothing about tears in my eyes. Here's hoping that I make enough money from the tourney to cover that ticket.
And finally, here is a pic of me with my sisters. Thanks for inviting me and letting me win this time. :)
Tiffany, Tammy, and Terri
This past Sunday evening, I went to a book club. That's not unusual. What was unusual, however, is this: The club was discussing one of the books I represent, The Yid by Paul Goldberg; and the head of the club had not told the members of the club that I was involved in the publication of the book.
It was fascinating--one of the most interesting hours I've spent in ages. I got to do what I almost never get to do: Hear a true focus group of readers discuss a book I worked on without censoring themselves because of any fear of saying the wrong thing or offending me.
It was great. First, it was nice--most of the people liked the book without reservation. And the ones who had concerns, were mostly discussing elements we knew were either challenging or had caused the book to be rejected by a good number of editors before Picador took it on: It has a lot of characters, all of whom speak in weird combinations of English, Russian, and Yiddish. Some were frustrated that the storyline was a bit hard to follow at times, that it wasn't always linear, that it veered occasionally into magical realism. One reader wished the book had been written in the original alphabets, so there would be long swathes in Cyrillic and Hebrew letters. I could see our editor blanch.
But more often, they praised the writing, the unusual storytelling style, the ambition of the prose, the historical accuracy. I found myself wanting to thank them--or answer the complaints.
At the end of the hour, the leader of the club introduced me, and I talked a bit about the publishing history of the book, and asked a couple of questions of my own (Can a book about a group of Jews who reject Judaism; where the only person who says Kaddish is an African-American communist, and the only True Believer a Christian woman; could that book be considered a Jewish book? The answer, unhesitatingly, was yes, which made the author, when I told him, both pleased and kind of bemused.).
Then, because it WAS a Jewish book club, reading a Jewish book, we went into the dining room and ate dessert.
The wonderful Shannon Jamieson Vazquez, who edited an even dozen of the stories I've written, once told me she found me unusual among my colleagues: I was the mystery writer who most hated killing people.
As usual, she was completely right. I am not especially interested in violence. I don't really care what the method of the murder might be. Motivations to commit the act always seem stupid in my mind--really, there was no recourse other than to kill somebody? Exactly how much did you need that rare butterfly or the parcel of land in California (it's always in California)? Yeah, you were mad that your wife cheated on you, but so were another thousand spouses, and that's just today. You couldn't just get a divorce? Revenge-cheat? Take up chess?j
The method of murder is just as odd in my opinion. People living in suburban Indiana take each other apart with medieval axes? Citizens of Pittsburgh fly in an exotic plant to create just the right poison? My friend Luci Hansson Zahray, otherwise known as The Poison Lady, tells me a person can overdose on pretty much anything. For your character it has to be that species of Amazonian Strychnos? Really?
I'm not saying I'd ban all murders from all books; of course I wouldn't. Fiction is meant to be free and in some cases hyper-dramatic. I get that, and I have personally murdered more than 20 people in books and short stories. I don't have a problem with the existence of murder mysteries; they have provided me with a nice living and I find writing them to be enjoyable. When the writing is going well.
We are told as crime fiction writers that murder "ups the stakes" in the story and makes it more exciting for the reader. I tend to think that if your characters are involved in answering an interesting question and they themselves are not boring people, there are other topics to be explored.
One hedge against this--and it's one I've used in the past--is to write a supposed murder that turns out not to be a murder in the end. It gives the writer a nice surprise moment toward the end of the story where the assumed victim shows up breathing. I'm not above utilizing that one. But I am interested in writing something else once in a while. A heist? A missing person? A lost dog? Something? Maybe. Not sure if my publishers would be thrilled, but I'd like to give it a shot.
It makes me wonder if readers feel the same way. Do you really need there to be a killing (or four) in every book for the story to be interesting? Is that an absolutely essential part of the mystery reading experience? I'm asking this seriously and would welcome answers in the comments below.
What about a mystery with no murder? Not even the hint of one? What do you think?
It only happens on TV or radio. Never with movies, and definitely never with books. Though maybe both will come; apparently people can’t cope with disturbing fictional scenarios without support and counselling any more.
You don’t know what I’m talking about, do you? Sorry. I’ll explain.
It seems that every time I switch on the radio or TV these days, the credits are rolling on one drama or another and the voiceover is telling me the number to call for help if I’ve been affected by the issues covered in the programme. I do watch or listen to some of them, and although I often want to throw something at the screen or shout at the character being affected by the issue to kill the b****** or get out of there right now, I wouldn’t say I’ve been disturbed in any way. Stirred, maybe. Occasionally made furious because the scriptwriters aren’t letting women solve their own problems (I firmly believe TV drama should contain an element of role-modelling), but not disturbed on my own account.
But OK, some people are; I get that. Obviously the helpline numbers are meant for people who watch the show and get upset because characters are facing issues they’ve faced themselves in real life, so I suppose it’s a good thing in some ways. But come on, folks, it’s fiction. It’s not real. And you can switch off.
There’s no doubt it’s the job of TV and radio drama to raise awareness of current real-life issues. That’s what drama is about: crisis, and how people deal with it. Someone once described drama as life with the heat turned up. Someone else described fiction as a charting of moments of change in the characters’ lives. And change and crisis often go hand-in-hand.
There’s an ongoing saga at the moment regarding a long-established radio soap here in the UK. (If you’re not in the UK, read on – you’re probably oblivious to what’s been going on. If you are in the UK, chat among yourselves for a while; you know what I’m talking about, you can hardly have missed it.) This show acquired a new editor a couple of years ago, and since then the heat has hardly fallen below boiling point. Which has had a lot of people up in arms, because that just wasn’t the style of this show. Issues, yes: major agricultural changes and crises (it’s set in a country village, and most of the characters have farming connections), and the occasional extra-marital affair, episode of domestic violence and character dealing with long-term illness. Even a rape, once. But all generally low-key, with nothing to frighten the proverbial horses. But since the new guy took over we’ve had the village threatened with life-changing developments including a catastrophic flood, the threat of a new road straight through one of the farms, a wedding that never happened, a baby with Downs syndrome (though that could have started under the previous regime, I lose track of time), and most significant of all, a tale of domestic coercive abuse which has continued for nearly three years and culminated a few weeks ago in a near-death experience for the abuser. Which had women all over Britain on their feet and cheering!
(And at the end of every episode came the voiceover - ‘If you’ve been affected by issues in this programme...’ I suppose people do tune in by accident, but I can’t help thinking that anyone who had really been upset by the storyline would have stopped listening months ago. And in any case, probably has access to far better support than a radio helpline number.)
So what am I saying here? Certainly not, don’t broadcast the potentially upsetting storylines, especially not when the rules of drama mean everything is going to be OK in the end, which gives out a positive message to anyone still suffering. I think my point is, trust your audience, drama producers. We’re not stupid. If we’re deeply affected by the issue you’re portraying, we know where the off switch is, and we know where to go for help. Just tell the story; don’t apologize for it by offering a generic helpline number. And make sure the good guys win in the end.
And maybe don’t spin the story out for three years. I know that happens in real life; women in abusive relationships soon have all their energy and self-belief drained out of them by the abuser, and lack the strength either to hit back or to walk away. But this is fiction, not documentary. Fiction telescopes real-life situations; it’s one of the ways it holds its audience’s attention.
I’m waiting for the day I open a book and find a helpline number on the copyright page, just in case crime fiction enthusiasts are disturbed by murder. We live in a very careful world.
I just returned from watching the New York Mets play the Washington Nationals at Citifield with my lovely wife Amanda and my lovely client, the urbane ESPN anchor Adnan Virk. The game was a matchup of stud pitchers--Max Scherzer for the Nats (who had struck out 20 batters in his last outing) and Noah "Thor" Syndegaard for the Mets (who had hit 2 home runs in HIS last outing, and actually entered the game with a lower ERA than Scherzer). We knew we were going to see a true old-fashioned pitcher's duel, and my over/under for total hits for both teams combined was seven (turned out it was 9). I thought the game would end 3-1; it was in the end 2-0 Mets.
Most important though, was the time of game. So often, major league baseball games run 3:15, 3:20. This is simply too long. Endless pitching changes, long innings, general inefficiency. The great thing about tonight's game is that even with two plays where the umps reviewed tape to determine the call, the game lasted a highly manageable 2:40. We still had time to talk and take in the atmosphere, but the game never became oppressive. And watching a game with a person who makes his living watching sports is a treat. Adnan's observations are effortless and still trenchant, with great background.
We got home at 11--and now it's time for bed. And thanks to Thor and Scherzer for their efficiency.
(I'm currently on the road back to New Jersey from Charlottesville, VA. This was written before I left.)
I always get just a little bit amused when--and this happens much less frequently than it used to--a novelist (or playwright) complains publicly about the adaptation of his/her work for film or television. I live in the hope that some day I get to be as badly abused as some of these writers, because at some point we're going to need a new car.
In truth, it's the fans who tend to be more appalled at the "Hollywood treatment" (usually Vancouver) given their beloved books. We might recall the brouhaha that exploded when Lee Child's beloved Jack Reacher was played on film (and will be again) by a man who had the temerity not to be very tall.
When I daydream about my works making it to a screen of any size--and I do--I never cast the movie in my head. I swear to you I have never given a moment's thought to who would play Alison Kerby or Samuel Hoenig or Duffy Madison (of the very-soon-upcoming WRITTEN OFF). The brains in the office buildings can cast anybody they like. I'd prefer it be someone who can act, but the writer has no control over this sort of thing and my hair is gray enough already.
No, I consider much more deeply who would write the screenplay for said venture. In a perfect world (my version), naturally that would be me. But the fact is, I've already written the story in another medium and there was a reason it was a book and not a screenplay. I've written screenplays. A LOT of screenplays, in fact. (Don't bother looking up my IMDb page because I don't have one--nothing's ever been produced.) If I wrote a novel it was because that story felt like a novel to me. I'd love to take a crack at an adaptation sometime, but I'm a realist and I know that even if I am hired for that job, there will be rewrites and there will be other writers. Aaron Sorkin gets his screenplays made verbatim. That's the whole list of writers who have that kind of respect.
So who would I want to write the screenplay (assuming I'm not the first choice and Sorkin is busy)? Well, I'm not going to name names, mostly because that's limiting oneself and besides, I still want to harbor the fantasy. It's the writer I care about, then maybe the director--especially if it's a theatrical film we're talking about--perhaps the producer (particularly in television) and then if one has time, the cast.
Personally, as long as nobody's wearing a Spandex costume and taking down CGI buildings, I'm okay with it.
I am not worried about people stomping on my books. Even if a miracle of luck were to happen and some producer wanted to adapt them, and even if that producer turned the novels into something I myself wouldn't recognize as my story, the books would still exist. I have tons of them and I'm about to get more. After WRITTEN OFF will come the Samuel Hoenig novel THE QUESTION OF THE FELONIOUS FRIEND in September (hi, Terri!) and then the Haunted Guesthouse book SPOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL in December. Shelf space in my office is somewhat limited already.
So the books will be there, and readers can open them up and immerse themselves whenever they like. If you think the movie is going to desecrate your memory of a beloved story, here's what you do: Don't go. Don't watch it on TV. Re-read one of the books.
I am a dedicated fan of the STAR TREK TV series from my childhood. The real one, with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. When it was announced there would be new movies "reimagining" the franchise, I was intrigued. Then I saw the first movie.
Fool that I was, I saw the second one, too. There will be a third this July. I'm not going. I can watch the episodes and theatrical films I grew up on whenever I want. That can be the reality for me. And JJ Abrams and whoever Paramount has decided is next can make their movies and shovel in the money. Good for them. I'm not interested.
It's an honor and a compliment to a writer that someone wants to take the work s/he has done and create a new version of it for a wider audience. That's wonderful and any author should be pleased to see it happen. But just because something's on film or TV doesn't mean it's the "official" version of that story. You, the audience/reader, get to decide what is your version. Stick to it. Cherish it; it's yours. We write it for you.
If someone else has another version that works for them, that's great. You don't have to subscribe. This is a free country for at least the next six months.
My husband Ross Gresham's novel White Shark officially comes out May 18 (this Wednesday!).
Over at Nigel Bird's blog Sea Minor, Ross interviews himself about the book. Extras, from Facebook: Ross posted the interview with the statement "When it's an interview with self, there's no one else to blame." Friends made various comments comparing Ross's hair to Billy Idol's (since the interview is titled "Dancing with Myself"), accusing Ross of throwing himself softballs, and praising his manhood (perhaps I should say "his own" manhood since it was Ross praising his own manhood). We also got a link to the Temporary Knucksline review of the book. No one stated the obvious, so I will do that here: Ross Gresham is a hunk.
A few days later, a consortium of women mystery writers interviewed Ross at their blog, Mysteristas, asking questions such as "What’s your idea of a perfect day?" (Ross's answer may surprise you) and "If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?" This last question has had me putting together an imaginary get-together of David Bowie, Prince, Frank O'Hara, Robert Rauschenberg, Judy Garland, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Not that any of them are mystery writers -- but wouldn't that be a cool table at which to sit?
Addendum, May 31: East Coast Don reviews White Shark at Men Reading Books, saying "Clever, funny, and dark; a good prescription for a beach read. So take White Shark to the beach this summer. More fun than digging moats or hunting for sand crabs . . . just keep an eye out for Nausset's shark."
Addendum, July 11: Patrica Abbott reviews the book at pattinase, calling it "a well-written, fast-moving story with a protagonist you will like."
I had to smile the other day when a character in a book I was reading felt she had to draw attention her partner’s use of damn in her presence. Apparently this man, who appeared normal in all other respects, and was very well-realized by the author, was so restrained when it came to the kind of situation which usually gives rise to expletives that this was the first time in a long-standing relationship that she had heard him say it.
I smiled because no fan of crime fiction who regards ‘bad’ language as a no-no is going to get beyond the cosy sub-genre (which I should say this was.) For myself, I enjoy a good cosy as much as the next reader, but my tastes run quite a lot further as well. I do like to ring the changes. And I review, so if I edited out anything containing questionable language, my choices would be severely limited. Fortunately the f-word has never fazed me, and I even stopped wincing at the c-word, at least in print, some time ago.
Provided, of course, that the context is right.
There are some authors whose work I choose not to read. One expletive after another really doesn’t make for interesting reading, and soon loses its impact. It’s become a cliché, but clichés only become clichés because they’re true: over-use of ‘bad’ language is quite simply lazy writing. There are always more imaginative alternatives.
On the other hand... I’m reminded of Billy Connolly’s view of the weather: there’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes. Which is why I’ve put the word ‘bad’ in quote marks several times.
While over-use of those words beginning with f, c and sh (and no doubt others I’m less familiar with as well – I did have rather a sheltered childhood, though I can swear in Welsh) rapidly becomes repetitive and tedious, the simple fact is that people use them in real life, (yeah, OK, me too, especially the sh-word, far too often for polite society), and without them there would be an awful lot of unrealistic dialogue.
So as well as smiling at the mild-mannered character for who a sotto voce damn was, um, out of character, I was moved to wonder how he would have reacted if he had, for instance, dropped a hammer on his toe.
When I was publishing, I exercised a little editorial privilege, and asked my authors not to use the c-word. I can cope with it in print, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it; call me sanctimonious if you must, but it strikes me as the very acme of the worst kind of sexism to take a word which applies to an intimate part of the female body and use it as a term of abuse usually aimed at a man.
I suppose the analogy can be stretched a lot further. There are other words for female parts which get used in much the same way. And why use a word as an abusive adjective when, in its correct context, it refers to an intimate and usually pleasurable act between consenting adults? So yes, I have to agree, my little personal prejudice against one word doesn’t bear close scrutiny. But wearing my editorial hat, I object just – OK, almost – as strongly to alright instead of all right, and onto instead of on to. And don’t get me started on apostrophes...
But it always depends on the context. Reading a wide range of crime fiction means putting individual bias aside, and that’s what I aim to do. As long as it’s in dialogue, and it’s what the character would say, I can even cope with solecisms like different to if I have to! The occasional f-word I take in my stride.
Which could be why I blinked a little at an out-of-character damn.
So this week, the Booksellers Expo (BEA) moves from New York City to Chicago, and for the first time in many years, I won’t be attending. Danielle has a client—the marvelous Mimi Cross, speaking on a panel—so she wins, and will be flying off to Chicago on Thursday.
I think it was a huge mistake by the BEA to move the expo. I know it’s the way it was done for many years—like Bouchercon, it moved around the country, giving different areas the occasional opportunity to host the publishing industry. It allowed booksellers from the local region to come and spend less money than if they travelled all the way to New York. It’s fair to do it that way.
But it’s going to make for a far less interesting fair than when it’s held in New York; and it will have a detrimental effect on the professionals in the publishing houses and agencies based in New York—the vast majority of the industry.
Since BEA settled into the Javits Center, publishers and agencies have used the conference not simply to put up booths and showcase their books for the sellers and librarians, but also to allow their employees to walk around the fair and see what the competition has to offer. If only the most senior editors and publicists are attending the fair in Chicago this year, in the past I would walk around Javits and see everyone from editorial assistants on a half-day excursion to four or five mid-level folks standing around and schmoozing. It’s old home week, and it lets the less experienced (if they are paying attention) to get a real sense of the scope and breadth of the industry.
And you could get a sense of how Publishing was doing as a whole, too, by the tenor of the floor. Right after the big layoffs of 2008-9, and for a few years following, BEA was tentative and uninspired. Everyone was looking over at the Amazon booth the year it arrived, and walked stealthfully by the digital publishing companies. It wasn’t really until 2014 that I started to see a bounce in the collective step. In Chicago, only the highest-ranking officials will be there, and they will be on message. Booksellers and librarians can create their own buzz, but it’s only a segment of the real story, which will be missing.
Booksellers and librarians (and authors), too, enjoyed the excuse to come to New York for a few days, even if they spent half their time either commuting to the Far West Side to the Center or complaining about how horrible Javits is. But publishers feted them, and they got to go see where the pulse of the business in the US really emanates from.
This takes nothing away from Chicago itself—I’m really bummed I’m not going to go see my friends there. I’d be writing the same post if it were in Los Angeles or St. Louis or even (God Forbid) Philly. (I joke.) I simply believe that the most valuable locale for the most significant book fair in the US ought to be where the vast majority of people who work in that industry are located.
So to everyone on their way—have fun! Post and blog and take pictures and tell me I’m wrong! With all this complaining, I’m insanely jealous. I hope it’s amazing (and if you’re going to be there, go to Mimi’s section!
I’ll look forward to next May 31, when BEA returns to New York.
So let me get this straight: According to a book that has become the latest in a series of "sensations," I am to de-clutter my house by following one simple rule: I hold every object in my house next to my body, and if it doesn't give me joy, I get rid of it.
Now, I haven't read the book (I barely read anything I didn't write anymore because I just don't have the time, but I am listening to The Three Musketeers in my car), so I'm willing to bet the method has been somewhat simplified in the press. Those devious bastards. First they create a presidential candidate out of an orange rind and a bird's nest and now they're telling me to hold my dining room table against my body to determine if I should keep it.
The idea here is that one needs to divest oneself from the amount of clutter that fills the modern home, and I couldn't agree more. We have more junk in this house than in most third-world countries, and they wouldn't want most of it either. But this particular method of neatening seems a little... let's say inefficient for my taste.
Since I am in essence a simple man (stop laughing!), I would like to question the logic of this particular philosophy. I think there are flaws that would benefit from my input, perhaps for the inevitable sequel, Maybe Joy Was Too Strong a Word.
1. If I'm only keeping objects that bring me joy, what am I going to use the next time the toilet is backed up?
2. There are objects that bring me great amounts of joy that I can't physically hold against my body. My refrigerator is just too damn large, and if you think I'm going to cozy up to it myself, well you don't understand exactly how I get joy out of that thing.
3. I don't get any particular feeling when I hold the dining room chairs next to my body, but I'm definitely going to need to sit on something the next time we invite people over to eat.
4. Do I have to hold every single vinyl record I've ever owned close to me, or can I just hug the cabinet they're in and move on?
5. There's a bottle of Joy under our kitchen sink. It doesn't exactly elate me. What to do?
6. I read an article last week saying dogs don't like to be hugged. We've become so attached to Gizmo. Do we have to discard him, or can we just call that one a draw?
7. Do I have to hug everyone who walks into the house really tightly and then decide whether they can stay? I mean, I don't know where the plumber's been.
8. Hugging each kitchen knife seems not only odd but dangerous. I'm not sure they give me joy, but eating an entire turkey without utensils would be messy and selfish.
9. Just because something doesn't give me joy now doesn't mean it won't at some time in the future. Right now my Yankees cap is giving me anything but joy. Is that always going to be true? (At the moment, frankly, it seems that way.) Note to all who might want to gloat right now: You are just being mean and should be ashamed of yourself. I don't trash talk, ever.
10. If I'm joyful all the time, how the hell can I write anything?
P.S. Listen to Circe Link.
For anyone dipping into this blog for the first time, (or regulars who haven’t been paying attention) I review crime fiction for an e-zine. Four or five books a month, which introduces me to new authors and allows me to keep tabs on a few more. So what are the odds against this happening?
Two books, chosen from a list of about thirty, one by an author whose name was familiar, the other by someone I’d never read before. There was no indication of the theme or storyline, other than the single word Psychological in both case. As a general rule I like psychological thrillers by female authors, so they were obvious choices. And:
Both had damaged female protagonists.
Both were written in the first person, and present tense.
Neither had a murder at the centre of the plot.
Both began immediately after the natural death of the protagonist’s mother.
The basic premise in both cases was secrets that began to emerge after the mother’s death.
And oddest of all, it slowly became clear that both mothers had been harbouring exactly the same secret!
I ask again, what are the odds? It’s certainly never happened to me before. The books available for review are an eclectic bunch – police procedurals, accidental sleuths, PIs, psychological, gritty, cosy and all points between, and I try to choose a variety. I get a lot of pleasant surprises, discover quite a few new authors – well, new to me – and add backlist titles to my book wishlist all the time. Very occasionally I struggle, but I’ve only ever once failed to finish a book, and I must have reviewed close to two hundred over the years.
But never before have I read two books in quick succession with the same style and basic premise.
I haven’t written the review(s) yet, so it would be unethical to name them. Maybe in a few weeks, when my words of dubious wisdom are out there for public consumption. Suffice to say both are worth your attention if you enjoy a good psychological thriller. But maybe not one after the other...
Having just returned from the Edgars and Malice Domestic, getting pitched is on my mind. I took a few this weekend, which is normal. I think all of us editors and agents do. It's a little trickier at a fan conference though compared to a writers convention. So a few do's and don'ts according to Terri.
All this seems silly to write up because it feels like common sense. But there you go. Quick and easy. Basically don't be a jerk and everything will be fine!
Have a great Wednesday folks!
I'll make this short and you can decide if it's sweet. Murder by the Book, the well-known and well-loved mystery bookstore in Houston, TX, suffered pretty severe damage in recent heavy rains, taking on flooding that will be under repair for months. McKenna Jordan, owner of the store, isn't interested in charity to help repair the damage, but she is happy to have people buy books, gift certificates and other merchandise from Murder by the Book to get the store closer to its accustomed state.
For fans of the work of the elusive E.J. Copperman, here's the pitch: The upcoming WRITTEN OFF will begin the Mysterious Detective Mystery series featuring Duffy Madison, who might or might not be the living embodiment of a character featured in crime novels by Rachel Goldman. There are in existence two Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) of WRITTEN OFF and you can have one of them! All you have to do is help out Murder by the Book!
Both ARCs are now available for purchase by auction on eBay. One can be found here and the other here. High bid on each gets the ARC and a five-week (or so) sneak peek of WRITTEN OFF, with free postage. So feel free to bid! ALL proceeds will go to buying gift certificates to Murder by the Book which will become prizes in a contest we'll be announcing here next week!
Murder by the Book is a unique store with friendly ownership and employees who care about the genre and love books and authors. I've been there a few times to sign books and there is no more pleasurable experience for a writer to have. So let's help get the store back on its feet--bid! A signed ARC of WRITTEN OFF could be on its way to you! Bidding ends this Friday, May 6 at 10 a.m. and 10:20 a.m. so don't be late. And if you don't want to bid on the ARCs, please do some of the things listed above and keep a Houston landmark of mystery alive!
I've played a ton of mystery games on my iPad, so many that I could've sworn I already wrote this post. The three games below are my favorites. They're all available on iOS and they're noirish and fun.
Detective Grimoire: Secret of the Swamp is stylish and a bit silly. It reminds me of Broken Age -- a colorful world, a distinctive look, very polished. I'm not the only one to compare the two games -- this reviewer calls Grimoire the antidote to BA!
Puzzle Agent and its sequel (Puzzle Agent 2, Electric Boogaloo, just kidding it's Puzzle Agent 2) have goofy jokes and a cartoonish design. Yes, as with most point-and-clicks, you have to run back and forth between locations and talk to characters multiple times, but in this game it's not annoying, somehow.
Agent A has a cool, retro-futuristic feel, like the Jetsons or old Bugs Bunny cartoons. I love the fact that both Agent A and the villain, Ruby la Rouge, are women. I also love that the game advertises itself as playable on shoe phones.
It’s no secret – I love series. Merrily Watkins, Eve Dallas, Dalziel and Pascoe etc etc etc: bring it on. New series too – both the ones I discover when they’re halfway through and the ones which only become series when I find there’s a second, then a third and fourth, featuring a character I enjoyed.
But it occurred to me the other day that keeping a series going must present its author with a whole set of challenges which are quite different from coming up with a brand new idea/scenario/cast for each new book.
There has to be enough in each title that’s familiar. I’ve heard series fiction described as pulling on a comfy old pair of slippers, and to a great extent that’s how it needs to feel. For myself, I think of it more in terms of meeting up with some old friends and going along with them on their latest adventure, and I think a lot of people see it that way. I gather Phil Rickman got some flak over The House of Susan Lulham, because two regular characters were only mentioned in passing and another great favourite only appeared at the end of the phone. I didn’t find it a problem, but maybe that was because it was a novella, less than a quarter the length of the other books in the series; I coped fine with 25,000 words without Lol or Jane, but 150,000 might be a different matter. (OK, I know the maths don’t compute; I’m a words person, never was any good with numbers.)
The familiar is an essential element – but no one wants to read the same book over and over, so each new volume must be different too. A new adventure, maybe in a new place, new situations for the protagonist to deal with so that s/he develops a little, becomes deeper and more rounded. And maybe a new ongoing character or two as well, and some development for established ones. J D Robb does all that with great deftness. Through the early Eve Dallas novels, Eve and Roarke each unearth information about their pasts: things which help them understand who they are and why they turned out the way they did. Then new characters appear, entangled in whatever murder (it’s always a murder) Eve is investigating at the time – and reappear in subsequent books, form relationships of their own, move their lives on to a new phase.
Robert B Parker is often cited as an example of how to write a gripping series without moving the protagonist very far from where he started, but somehow that seems like a cop-out to me. People develop, move on, have lives outside immediate events; why shouldn’t fictional characters be the same? My favourite series characters have families, backstories, lives. They feel real, as if they could walk into the coffee shop where I’m having lunch with some friends, and I’d recognize them. And when I finish the latest in the series, I itch to read the next, to find out what she’s going to do about the pregnancy, or how she’s recovering from the rape, or if he’s going to be prosecuted for hitting a bad guy over the head with a rock, or if he’s going to come out of the coma.
There’s more. When I discover a new series character – Harry Bingham’s Fiona Griffiths is one, Martin Walker’s Chief of Police Bruno is another – I need to catch up with their past. And I’m sure I’m not alone in that – so why are early titles in an ongoing series allowed to go out of print? It took me years to fill the gaps in Reginald Hill’s sublime Dalziel and Pascoe series, and even then a lot of the earliest volumes came from secondhand shops. Take note, big publishers: not everyone wants to go down the e-book route. There’s something supremely satisfying about looking at a row of paperbacks with similar style covers, and knowing each one is a link in a chain which began with the first and continues as far as the series has progressed. A list of titles on an e-reader is absolutely not the same.
I’ll end there. I need to find out what Fiona Griffiths is up to in the latest in her uniquely brilliant series by Harry Bingham.
(Note from Josh: 35 years ago, my cousin Glen took me to the Brendan Byrne Arena somewhere in the swamps of Jersey to see Bruce Springsteen in concert on his tour supporting The River. I had heard about the experience of a Springsteen concert--the energy, the ferver of the fans, the way Bruce left it all on stage. And I left the Meadowlands in awe. This winter and spring, Springsteen has been on the road again, now 67 years old, still playing The River--and so much more. When my son Joe, who's almost 17, was infuriated that my wife and I got tickets to a show without him, we figured out a way to get him a ticket to another concert. We went last night. Here's his report.)
You can only hope to make so many people happy and on such a large scale. On Monday night, I caught Bruce Springsteen on the final stop of his The River tour, in which he and the E Street Band played the entirety of the 1980 double album followed by an hour and a half of bonus goodies. I was accompanied by my dad and some friends from our synagogue who were courteous enough to invite us. Barclays Center was packed to the gills with men and women of all ages (including Chris Christie, apparently), setting an attendance record for the venue. Aside from The River, it was nothing but crowd-pleasing classics and covers. Aside from the ones from The River, there were no bummer tracks to be found - nothing from The Rising, no “Born in the U.S.A.” The Boss came to please, and boy did he.
Before I proceed with the review itself, let me just add that this was something of a coming-of-age experience for me. It felt almost ceremonial having my father take me: he was a Bruce Springsteen fan years before I was even born, and he was ready to make sure this budding music enthusiast could share in that experience with him. Getting to discuss music with Dad has helped us bond a lot, so getting to share music with as big a venue as this was an experience I’ll never forget.
In short, this was a classic rock fan’s dream come true. Nothing but the hits - “Born to Run,” “Rosalita,” “Thunder Road,” “10th Avenue Freeze-Out,” and lord knows how many others. There were moments of Bruce grabbing his sidemen by the shoulders and having them belt into the microphone with him. He thrust the mic into the crowd, knowing full well that he’d be greeted with a thousand voices knowing each song by heart. Crowd-surfing! Selfie-taking! Covers of The Isley Brothers and John Lee Hooker! Even a transcendent Purple Rain. Inviting fans onstage to dance and sing along. If he was tired, he didn’t show it: it was his last U.S. tour stop and he aimed to please.
Truth be told, I only heard The River for the first time right before the show. In his opening remarks, Bruce said it was his attempt at being more mature and introspective following his grittier early records - an album encompassing a thousand emotions and styles at once. Honestly, hearing it live helped me appreciate this a lot more than I did just listening to it. His melody skills evolved, incorporating his earlier Phil Spector-influenced sound while also taking some clear influence from the changing musical trends at the time (Songs like “I’m a Rocker” or “You Can Look [But You Better Not Touch]” would fit in well with the slowly emerging garage rock of the ‘80s). Certainly, it’s got a pretty wide range of styles: slow ballads (“Independence Day”), down-home honky-tonk (“Cadillac Ranch”), gospel (“Fade Away”), and, of course, the tales of troubadours in love/dealing with life that are so very Bruce Springsteen (“The Ties That Bind, “Jackson Cage”). Not every song is created equal - the slower ones tend to drag (note from Josh: One day you'll like them more...)- but with the way the Barclays crowd shouted along with all of them, you’d figure every they were all standards by now.
Bruce just feels like a guy who's so happy to be doing what he’s doing. For the roughly three and a half hours of non-stop performing, he always had a huge grin on his face, playing his tracks with gusto and palling around with the band and the audience. One especially adorable moment came when, during the requests, he brought up a 10-year-old girl whose sign declared she knew every word to “Blinded by the Light” and put her to the test. Everyone sang along and cheered in encouragement, and it was capped off with her getting her poster signed and the Boss admitting she knew the words better than him. After a while, it felt less like a concert and more like a family reunion. All of us were united by a love for Bruce and his music, so whether we came from New York or New Jersey or Mars, we all shouted along and screamed our lungs out because you can only experience something like this once in a while. He’s a Kennedy Center Honoree and inductee into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, but most importantly, Bruce Springsteen is a happy, nice guy who wants to put on a show for us. As long as he has that ability, I say we let him and I hope you can all have an experience like this (with Bruce or otherwise) at some point in your life. Sometimes, the idols are idols for a reason.
 For he is Bruce (or The Boss), not Springsteen. Doesn’t matter if you’ve met him or not; it feels like he’s on a first-name basis with everybody.
This past weekend much of my family gathered at my house for our 45-minute PowerPoint Seder (now in HD!), a ceremony that dates back at least six or seven years and celebrates our limited attention span as well as a few jokes to keep things lively. It's our way of upholding the longstanding tradition while jettisoning the parts of it that we have always considered, well, to say any more would be to annoy people for whom such things are sacrosanct and the one thing we do agree upon is that such people are entitled to their opinion. I have no desire to sound oppositional.
But that's not the point, anyway. At one moment during the evening, one of our guests noticed the box of copies Crooked Lane Books generously sent last week of WRITTEN OFF, E.J. Copperman's soon-to-be-published first edition in the Mysterious Detective Mystery series, of which you will no doubt be hearing quite a bit in coming weeks (trust me). And he picked up one of the copies and said, in very impressed tones, "Oh! Your new book is in hardcover!"
Yes, it is. I'm not sure why people think that's the interesting aspect of the novel, but it is undeniably being released in a hardcover edition rather than the trade and mass market paperbacks that the Haunted Guesthouse and Asperger's Mystery novels (not to mention the late lamented Double Feature series, of which you also might be hearing a little something--or not--in a few months) have been.
Now, I enjoy the hardcover editions as much as the next guy, assuming the next guy would love to have a novel published even if it were carved in stone or written out in whipped cream. Someone wants to read my words and I'm a happy man.
Still, I am a little concerned about the lack of respect the paperback book is getting these days, particularly as it pertains to mystery novels.
It is no secret that the number of paperbacks, especially mass market editions, is shrinking in the publishing business. I was not a business major in college and I hold absolutely no knowledge of marketing strategy, as any attempts I have made to publicize my work might indicate. But as an entertainment medium I defy you to find a better value on this planet than the mass market paperback book.
Think about it: Movies are now about $15 a ticket in many areas and usually come in around two hours in terms of entertainment time. TV was free when I was nine years old, but now comes in the form of a cable or satellite subscription, a streaming service, Netflix or Hulu or some other Jetsons-style video-on-demand medium I was writing about as a futuristic dream in trade magazines in the 80s. Bottom line, if you're not picking up the networks on your rabbit ears, and even if you are, you're paying for television. And I know there are some out there who refuse to acknowledge they watch television because they're just too sophisticated for the witless fare to be found there, but they are mostly lying. If you don't think so, look at the comments section on any web site that covered the last episode of Downton Abbey and see if you find some unexpected names there.
Anyway, you're paying for TV. You're paying for music--or you should be, if you don't want to deprive artists of compensation for their work (and you really should be listening to Circe Line and Christian Nesmith if you're not already). An album (remember those?) of music will cost at least $10 on iTunes, for you old fogies who go that way, or more for a (gasp!) CD of the stuff. They last under an hour in most cases.
A paperback book? Depending on your reading time, the average experience has to be at least six hours. Paperbacks cost about $7.99.
That means, from a writer's point of view, you have to sell more books--a lot more books--to be profitable to a publisher and collect royalties above the advance you were (hopefully) paid when you signed the publishing contract. It means you have to work harder to please more people while still writing the book you wanted to read in the first place. Yes. Mass market paperbacks are a harder way to make a living for a writer than hardcovers.
And I love hardcovers. They feel great in your hands, the spines don't wrinkle and splinter, the words are larger and there's an actual dustcover, which is nice because... it avoids dust? I love hardcovers. But I'm also a huge fan of paperbacks and hope they remain with us for a very long time. They are the literary medium of the masses and that should count for something. More people read your book. What's better than that?
Fight for your paperbacks, America. And everywhere else. Keep them coming and keep them cheap. They're minute-by-minute your best entertainment value anywhere. They deserve to be saved.
P.S. For those who are attending the Malice Domestic conference in Bethesda, Maryland next weekend, but E.J. Copperman and I will be attending, and depending on how you look at it, it'll be impossible either to see us in the same room or not to see us in the same room. Your call. Whichever one of us is there will be on a panel called Ghostly Murder Saturday morning at 9. One or both of us sincerely hope to see you there.
The awards season seems to be upon us, though I sometimes wonders if it ever takes a break. One of the UK’s biggies, the Costa Awards, announced its 2015 winners a couple of months ago, and the book trade e-newsletters I still opt to receive, more out of nostalgia than anything else, seem to mention a different one every week. In fact three shortlists have been flagged up in the past week, and CrimeFest next month will yield up several more.
I don’t think there’s much doubt that winning a major award raises the profile of the author; and being shortlisted seems to do quite a lot for sales. But beyond an initial flurry of interest when a shortlist is announced, I’m moved to wonder what happens to the runners-up afterwards. I’m not even going to say ‘gallant losers’. Being shortlisted means you’re pretty damn good. All the same, it’s a little like winning a major sporting tournament like Wimbledon or the golf Masters, or even a Grand Prix race; does anyone remember who came second?
I was shortlisted for an award myself once, so I know how it feels to be a runner-up, even if the shortlisting itself comes a huge surprise (yes, really, it did), and the prospect of winning is a dot on a distant horizon. I can’t even say I came second; book and publishing awards don’t announce the top three in reverse order – you either win or you don’t, which means there are several runners-up. But the simple fact is that, although I’ve seen the winner’s name listed a few times under ‘previous’ when the award has been relaunched for another year, none of the other names on the shortlist ever get a mention.
So how was it for me, darlings? When I received the news, I set about finding ways to use it to promote the books I was publishing. That, after all, was the whole point. Press releases went out, useful people were informed – but aside from a two-paragraph mention on an inside page of the local paper, where I should fess up I had contacts, I don’t think any of it saw the light of day.
On the night it was great. I basked in a glow of warmth as I stood alongside people who knew a thousand times more about publishing than I did (which is why being shortlisted at all took my breath away), enjoyed a delicious dinner, and applauded with genuine enthusiasm when a veteran of the industry was declared the winner.
Afterwards it was something to tell my friends about – the ones I could rely on not to think I was showing off. And since then? Just a pleasant memory for me alone.
I wonder how many runners-up in book awards have the same experience. I'm guessing most. I mean, can you remember who else was shortlisted the year Mark Billingham won the Theakstons prize at the Harrogate Crime Festival? (Make that years plural! The man’s brilliant!) Or even last year’s Man Booker, which included American authors for the first time? To be honest, a year later I often struggle to recall who won, much less who didn’t, though it did wonders for their sales when the news was fresh.
It can do wonders for a career too; I could, but won’t, name several authors who rose from ‘well-respected’ to ‘famous and hugely popular’ after they won a major award.
But not a single one who took the same giant step because they made the shortlist.
Or am I completely misreading the situation?
Good morning all. Sorry I keep forgetting to post on my day. UGH. So I will make this short and sweet. I have a few questions -
So another London Book Fair is in the rear view mirror, and I’m sorry to be done with it. This was the most energetic and active of the three Fairs I’ve attended, and the optimism of the professionals there gave everyone a spring in his or her step and a bit more patience for the crowds and the espresso lines.
From the HSG side, we had a busy and productive couple of days. To show you the pace, I’ll just give you a sense of our schedule:
Monday evening: Leave JFK at 8:30 PM
Tuesday morning: Arrive Heathrow at 8:30 AM (In between, read 450 pages of manuscripts, drink a nice red wine, and sleep…45 minutes or so). Speed through Passport Control, crawl through West London in a cab, get to the hotel, shower and change, and arrive at the Olympia in time for a 1 PM meeting. One note: This year, we made two extremely important decisions, which ended up making a huge difference in the experience of the Fair: We rented a table in the Rights Center, so we had a place to sit and meet people, rather than having to run around the room to everyone else’s tables; and Danielle Burby came along. Danielle has taken over our Foreign rights sales, and by tag-teaming the meetings (and occasionally taking simultaneous meetings), we were able both to meet more foreign agents and not do all the talking. So we were fresher at the end of each day, and were able to bounce conversations between us.
One thing to know about Book Fairs as different from Conferences or gatherings like Bouchercon or Thrillerfest: While those are all about authors meeting each other and agents and editors, this is really a Trade Show. Everyone we met with was either a co-agent from a foreign territory, an editor, or a client. A few (lost) authors approached us to try to pitch us their books, but this (or Frankfurt or Bologna or BEA) is not the place for it. Danielle spent two months coordinating the week, and every minute was pretty much scheduled out.
So anyway, we had our first meeting at 1 on Tuesday, after getting the first of…many coffees. We then had eight meetings. Then went to a reception from a film company. Had a beer, met three old friends in the film world, and had Curry #1 at Woodlands, the best veggie Indian restaurant in London. Then to the hotel, crash, and…
Up on Wednesday. Meeting #1 is breakfast at the hotel with Emad Akhtar, editor extraordinaire at Michael Joseph, who has been working with our client Chris Mooney on going-on three thrillers now. Emad is a fascinating, smart guy—both committed to traditional publishing AND wanting to see it push forward into the modern age. We walked over to the Olympia—a nice 15 minutes, bracing ourselves for the crowds and the chaos.
And for me, the rest of the day was taken up with 14 more meetings, ranging from our brilliant German co-Agent Tilo to an exploratory discussion with a software developer based in Spain with a program designed to make our agency more efficient. Then drinks at a local pub in Notting Hill and another reception. And the day is really taken up with a combination of pitching to co-agents the books we’ve retained the translation rights to, and convincing publishers to do more marketing for the books they’ve already bought. These days, so much of the discussion is about discoverability that it dominates discussion.
Finally we were talked out. And that happens, almost every day, and requires a real unwinding. For me, I often walk the streets of London, just looking around, trying not to think about the day but rather to just relax. I realized I was hungry, found Curry Joint #2, and had a delicious second supper. It’s not that I don’t eat terrific Indian food in New York. It’s just that I really always want to eat it in London. Also fish and chips, although there’s an Irish pub on the Upper West Side that solves that the rest of the year.
The hotel I was staying in had a lovely small bar, and I ended my evening with a solitary nightcap—that Wednesday was one of the most satisfying days of my career—it felt sometime mid-morning that Danielle and I had really hit a stride, and the agents and editors were listening to us, and we just knew we were making our points with clarity and emphasis. We’ll see how that bears out in the next few months, but it was a cool feeling.
Thursday was a sprint—early wakeup and pack, another breakfast, another nice walk to the Olympia, this time dragging my suitcase. Then only four meetings—Danielle had four more after I left—and it was off to the airport (and Duty Free chocolate and booze). We leave with so many new contacts, so much more business, so much follow-up.
Here’s the tally:
30 meetings in 19 hours
15 territories, from Brazil to Russia to Korea to Spain (which has gotten off the canvas to start publishing books again)
Nine coffees, black
12 bottles of water, carbonated
4 sandwiches to complement the rest of our meals
Four different beers
Three different whiskeys
Four NYU Publishing Students who found me on the Floor of the Rights Center and even called me Professor Getzler!
Three changes on the Tube from Piccadilly Circus to Kensington High Street
One great Fair
Okay. Let me explain why I lie so much.
In my regular walking-around life, I try to tell the truth the vast majority of the time. For one thing, remembering the lie is exhausting, and besides, I have very little to hide. So the actual facts are usually what you'll get from me.
But I have another, less public life that I don't talk about much. And in that one, I lie my brains out quite frequently. Not on important points, but in the details. I don't have one area of my life I'll tell the truth about in that area. And keep in mind, I write fiction for a living, which is a form of lying (although some will say the real truth comes out in fiction), and that's not even the circumstance I'm discussing.
That's right. I fill out surveys.
I don't remember exactly how I got started, but there are a couple sites that offer "rewards" for answering a few questions, or sometimes a LOT of questions, and I've found the practice to be something of a palate-cleanser when I'm writing. I can stop thinking about what Alison, Samuel, Kay or Rachel is going through at that moment and just respond to prompts that are simple. It's sort of a mindless way to be mindful, and in the end you get some air miles or a gift certificate to an online retailer or two.
So every once in a while I get an email prompting me to check in and see what the topic is going to be today. And almost immediately, I start lying.
The survey generally begins with a screening process. That is, a few preliminary questions are asked to see if the survey subject (that's me) fits the demographic the client (usually a company trying to figure out if people will or already do like its product). So they ask my age, and I tell the truth. I'm 58. Deal with it. They ask my gender. Once again, no reason to deny that I'm male. I figure most of these things are filled out by women, so I'm something of a novelty and that might get me into the survey easier. Fine.
Then the survey will ask for my zip code. I change that one every time it's asked. None of their business exactly where I live. They can ask the NSA if they're that interested. Quite frequently the next question will be about my annual income. No chance they're getting a straight answer on that, because for all I know they're a front for the IRS or people hoping to find rich people's houses to rob on a given evening (in which case I'm actually pretty safe, but that's not the point).
If there's an option to answer, "I'd rather not say," I'll click that, and more times than not I'll immediately get kicked off the survey. That's the way it goes. But sometimes there no such out switch, so I'll vary my answers. Tell them my family of four is subsisting on $5000 a year. Go for the middle of the pack. Close my eyes and click on something, just to see if I'm wealthier than I think I am. I never, ever tell the truth. It's just a rude question. You don't answer those.
I have no such compunction on questions about my health or sexual orientation. Those come up rarely, but if they're there, I'll usually tell the truth. Usually.
Now, if I actually get admitted to the survey, I'll answer all the questions about the product and the subject matter honestly. I don't want to screw up the results of the survey or I wouldn't have agreed to do these things to begin with, $10 gift certificate or no $10 gift certificate. They get the straight data from me where it counts.
But if you want to know my annual income, you'd better be my accountant. And I know what he looks like; he used to be married to my cousin.
Pretty much everything in this post is true, by the way. Almost all of it. As is the fact that WRITTEN OFF is coming June 14 and advance readers are emailing to say they like it, which is always very nice. And the Audible version will be available, but I don't know when exactly. The narrator emailed a few days ago with a question or two.
I told her the complete truth.
We celebrated Ross's novel White Shark at a book party and reading this week. (The book was supposed to come out in time for the party, but it's been slightly delayed.) We were in a beautiful venue, Bemis Great Hall at Colorado College, a place where you might hold a Lord of the Rings style banquet with a troll attack thrown in:
Ross was a little disappointed because he felt people weren't laughing enough. I suspect the room, as awesome as it was, dampened the sound of laughter. (Another laugh-dampener: our fifteen-year-old son, who shushed me when I laughed during the reading. I'm not sure if this is because I was laughing too loudly, or too much, or if it was simply because I am a mom and he is a fifteen-year-old.) From where I sat, I could hear lots of laughter.
And anyway laughter isn't necessarily exactly what you want when you're a mystery author, right? Ross's book is very funny, but it's not ONLY funny -- it's a mystery, after all, with murder and various kinds of cruelty and corruption.
And sharks! Our daughter Celie dressed accordingly:
And so did our cat, Sandy, who is remarkably easy-going about costumes:
This is an odd time of year for me, has been most of my adult life. Before that, in fact; as a student it was the time of year when the weather was beginning to beckon us outside, maybe even to the beach (my college was right next to one of the UK’s most beautiful islands), but the calendar insisted on a heavier workload than usual because end of year exams loomed a month or so away.
Now, the garden is ablaze with daffodils, I’ve been able to shed a layer of scarves, woolly hats etc when I set out on my daily walk. This morning, en route for a lunch appointment, I even ransacked my wardrobe in search of a jacket to replace the gorgeous scarlet duffle coat that’s kept the chill out all winter. But my mind keeps demanding to know where nearly a third of yet another year has gone, and when I realized the London Book Fair had begun, I even got a pang or two of, yes, nostalgia.
There’s so much I don’t miss about publishing. Not that I was ever really part of the gang; for that to happen, you need to be being doing it on a much bigger scale than I could ever have contemplated, and you need to be in London, where all the networking goes on. But I did make friends with one or two of the cool kids, though I’m not one of nature’s cool kids myself, and I’m not really a networking sort of person. I tend to hide in a corner while other people work the room.
I certainly started to enjoy the few events I attended. Book launches were always fun, and a chance to put faces to e-mail headers. CrimeFest, the UK’s version of Bouchercon, was a place to make new friends and meet up with the ones I made the year before – and a lot of them turned up during my one visit to Bouchercon too. Making new friends was arguably the best thing of all.
And for a day or two each year at the London Book Fair, I almost began to feel as if I belonged in that world. I’d book meetings with an agent or two, someone who might buy subsidiary rights, and almost always our lovely American distributor, put on my smart suit and transfer the contents of my handbag into a briefcase so that I was walking the walk, then I’d spend time talking with the people I’d arranged to meet, saying hi to a few more I recognized, and simply wandering around soaking up the busy, book-laden atmosphere. Over the years I sold audio and large print rights to a few books, learned a few things about the book trade that passed me by up here in semi-rural middle England, even picked up a new sponsor for the short story award I was still running until the publishing company seeped into all my available time.
So yes, there are things about publishing that I miss.
But I think there are more things I don’t.
Trying and mostly failing to convince bookshop managers that our books weren’t self-published (anathema to them even now) despite the different authors’ names on the covers and the bona fide distribution company they ordered them from.
Going into bookshops and not finding our books on the shelves, especially after an author had made a monumental marketing effort and maybe achieved some newspaper coverage, or in one or two cases, a mention on TV. Disheartening for any small publisher, and surely a chicken-and-egg argument for the shop; books are often impulse buys – how do they know it won’t sell if it isn’t there in the first place?
Being harangued down the phone by an author whose work didn’t meet our criteria.
Having to disappoint authors who were too polite or too realistic to harangue me.
Worse, having to tell an author whose work I loved that his/her books simply hadn’t sold well enough.
So when the weather is beautiful, the London Book Fair is in full spate and those nostalgia pangs strike, I think I can be forgiven for damping down my usual positive nature and deliberately thinking of the things I don’t miss.
If I didn’t, I might miss the rest just a little too much. And who knows where that would lead?
One of my favorite weeks has arrived—greetings from Kensington, where I write with a belly full of curry, a whisky by my side, and the first 8 of 26 meetings during the London Book Fair under my belt.
This year, I’ve been joined by Foreign Rights Manager Extraordinaire Danielle Burby, and for the first time we have taken a table at the Fair in order to be better organized (and not spend half the day running around like chickens with our heads cut off…) While next week I’ll be able to give a better indication of international trends based on our conversations, on our first day Danielle and I were both surprised (pleasantly) by the desire expressed repeatedly for books with feminist themes—or at the very least strong female protagonists. Considering the eye-rollingly sexist backlash to the latest Star Wars trailer that indicated the presence of another female leading role, we were delighted to hear several editors request feminist science fiction or fantasy novels.
Generally, the mood is more optimistic about sales possibilities than the past couple of years, even though particularly European publishers still say they aren’t really out of the woods yet. Our vantage point—the GOOD part of Siberia, as we called section 28V—allowed for excellent people watching, and you really can see the value of a convention like this one—it’s old home week, but not a boondoggle. EVERYONE has days packed with meetings.
We saw a couple of authors who conceivably mistook LBF for Thrillerfest attempt to pitch editors or agents, who really were having none of it. When we were sitting looking straight ahead, we were simply girding ourselves for the next hour and a half of meetings. There really wasn’t even much time to wander the main publisher booths on the Floors—we’ll do that during an hour off tomorrow.
And once the day was over, it was time for a stop-off at a film-world party in Soho (not in the rain) and a supper of dosas and chana masala at Woodlands, my favorite restaurant in London. We know that before we blink twice we will be on the plane back to NYC. Our hope is that we will bring home some knowledge and the prospects for deals with us, along with magazines featuring 1D, coffee from Fortnum and Mason, and perhaps a duty-free Macallan. More next week.
Update, Thursday, Apr. 14: I am told that Arnold Drucker passed away early this morning at the age of 93. The fact that I posted about him this week was a complete coincidence, but a friend of the family saw the post and let his children know about it. I hope they understand (and I'm told they do) that the piece was written with great affection, and I offer my sincere condolences.
One of my favorite real-life characters of all time has never made it into a book I've written because I just haven't been able to find the proper context, and because I don't think anyone would believe it.
Arnold Drucker sold consumer electronics equipment in Newark, New Jersey. When I first encountered him I was prepared to use the money I'd saved up working at a men's clothing store in Irvington, NJ one summer to buy my very first stereo component system. Remember those?
My brother, who was about to leave for college and wanted a stereo to take with him, had saved up his salary from the wholesale jewelry business he'd worked at for a number of summers, had heard about Drucker's from our uncle, who had bought... something there. I tended to go from summer job to summer job until I almost sliced off my finger working in the deli department of a Shop Rite and decided the next summer to try for a newspaper internship, which I luckily got. It was harder work, but much safer for my hands.
So we got into my 1965 Chevy Impala, a car big enough to land aircraft on the hood, and headed into downtown Newark, a drive of maybe 15 minutes. There was free parking at Drucker's if you bought something and we were primed to be big spenders. And that's when I first laid eyes on Arnold Drucker.
He was a middle-aged man, probably younger than I am now. Bald with white tufts of hair on either side. He was slim and energetic, a wheeler-dealer of an electronics salesman who knew what everybody needed based on what he had in excess stock and how to get the best price (for him) out of the negotiation. I found him fascinating. If you want to (kind of) see for yourself, you can get a glimpse here.
But the really interesting thing about Drucker's was that Arnold was selling room-sized speakers, large tuners, turntables, cassette decks (and 8-tracks!) as well as televisions and I'm pretty sure major appliances. He was the only salesman in the facility--there were other guys who get your merchandise "from the warehouse" and help you get it into your car--and you had to wait in a long line to get to talk to Arnold. Some customers were there for the stereo equipment, some were there for the air conditioners, some were there for the vacuum cleaners and others wanted a large, heavy tube TV. Others just came for a Snickers bar and a copy of the New York Daily News.
Drucker's was run out of a newsstand in an office building.
It's true: The whole of the electronics empire was contained in a newsstand. Newspapers and candy bars were out front; the sample electronics were behind the counter. Virtually nothing sold there (aside from the newspapers and candy bars) was on the premises. The big box items were kept in another part of the large building, the basement if I remember correctly. You made your deal with the Mr. Haney of electronics himself, then he wrote up the order and handed it to a minion who would meet you in the parking garage with your merchandise. It was a lot like buying olive oil from Don Corleone, except I'm fairly sure most of Arnold's stuff was at least purchased legitimately. Most of it.
We ended up spending a fortune at Drucker's that day (about $350--each!) and I still have the speakers I bought that day. I'm pretty sure they're in my basement. They were the size of end tables and could be used as such. And I'm sure that a properly equipped iPhone could blow them out of the water today. It's the march of progress and that's not always a good thing.
The Moroccan bazaar aspect of Drucker's was what I found most interesting. Nobody who came with a well-thought-through list ever ended up with what they had decided upon. Everybody drove out of the lot with what Arnold had wanted to sell them and were happy with their choices. My brother and I bought the exact same stereo system because he'd convinced us these were absolutely the best components available at the price we could afford. I'm not an audiophile, which is probably good in this case, and it sounded great to me. It followed me to college, then home, then to my first apartment and when I decided to upgrade I went to Drucker's new store, which he had bought in a more suburban area to compete with the coming Crazy Eddie avalanche.
It was a real store, no cigar stand, and there were staff salesmen. But if you gave any of them the least bit of trouble about what they wanted you to buy, you got Arnold.
Once when my friend Jeff Pollitzer wanted to buy some new speakers for his car--yes, we used to install our own--we drove out to Drucker's. Pollitzer knew what he wanted. Arnold knew what he wanted to sell this kid. He brought out a box of the not-Jensen (or whatever brand Pollitzer had asked for) speakers, for more money, and leaned over confidentially.
"Channel Master," he said as if it was a state secret. "I know the name. You know the name."
We didn't know the name, and neither did anyone else. Not even Mr. and Mrs. Master.
Pollitzer ended up with a third choice, as I recall. He didn't buy the Channel Masters, but he didn't get what he'd come for, either. The speakers sounded fine and everybody was happy, but Arnold had clearly lost a step in the move and the store didn't last very long after The Wiz and Crazy Eddie started taking over the territory.
You couldn't even buy a Three Musketeers there. I mean, what's the point?
P.S. Opening Day was last week. You missed it. Luckily, there are 158 games left to be played.
You know that old chestnut about what you’d choose if you had one chance to rescue something when your house was on fire? Leaving aside people (I like to think they’d run at least as fast as I would), I’ve always drawn a blank. Maybe my laptop, or at least the memory stick on which I occasionally remember to back up my files, but since neither actually lives in the house, they might survive anyway. And other than that, I can’t think of a single object which I feel strongly enough about. Also, since fire is my Room 101, I’d just want to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible.
So I think it’s fair to say that things, stuff, aren’t/isn’t hugely important to me. Very few things are irreplaceable, and losing everything I own could just be somebody up there telling me it’s time for a new start.
So a couple of things in the media recently made me shake my head in puzzlement.
One happened this morning. I was about to head out for my daily walk when husband called me back to tell me about J K Rowling’s chair – the one that gave her backache when she was writing Harry Potter, for which someone has just paid four hundred thousand dollars in an auction. My initial reaction was, some people have more money than sense. And when I read the part about the chair giving her backache, that reaction increased tenfold.
The other was a few weeks ago. Lovely daughter volunteers in a charity bookshop, and occasionally someone donates a book which raises rather more than the couple of pounds most books are priced at. In this case, someone had donated a copy of William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience (click here for the full story – if it works, thanks to wonderful daughter for telling me how to do it), and an early draft of a famous song by a famous band had been scribbled inside by the band member who wrote the song. 1990s rock music is a mystery to me, but someone clearly felt this was an important find because it raised twelve thousand pounds for the charity.
I’m delighted for the bookshop’s charity, of course, and I gather Ms Rowling’s charity supporting orphans will get something from the sale of the chair, which is also very good indeed. But I still don’t really get it. Why does an uncomfortable chair suddenly become worth many thousands of dollars because it used to belong to J K Rowling? And why is a rock star’s copy of a rather scruffy book of poetry worth enough to buy a new car (or a lot of famine relief) because he scribbled a song draft in it?
Husband and I have had not unrelated conversations over the many years we’ve been together, along the lines of, why is that painting we saw in a gallery, which we hate, worth a couple of million because it’s signed by some guy called Picasso (sorry, Pablo, nothing personal), while this one on our wall, which we bought because we saw it in a shop window and loved it, probably isn’t worth the peanuts we paid any more?
He doesn’t get it either, so I’m not alone. And I can honestly say that if that elusive big lottery win came up tomorrow, paintings, chairs and rare books would not figure on my shopping list.
And I’d love it if someone could explain.