We want you to bid on Jeff's books--it's for a great cause, and the books are terrific. So forget about this post, and go back down one day, and help out Murder By the Book.
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.
Start of a busy time for me, as if I'm not always busy! Today I am flying to Winston-Salem for a board meeting for my church. And just around the corner is the Edgars followed by Malice Domestic. I am so excited for this year and I'm looking forward to seeing a bunch of friends. But it today, it's me, my coffee, a book to read, and a kajillion manuscripts loaded onto my kindle. I am ready for flight!
(I should have posted this yesterday but it ended up being a crazy busy day getting stuff done before I left. 😳)
See you all next week!
So for the past couple of months, my posts have either been brief or nonexistent. That’s because, for the second straight spring semester, I’ve taught The Role of the Literary Agent to the terrific students at the NYU School for Professional Studies. It’s on Monday nights until 9, there are preps and grades and all manner of work that ended up crashing the party of my time. (Also the new puppy was—and is—insane, and I found myself on very long walks most evenings.) Oh yes, and the only thing more insane than #Layla is the election, which also heats up on Tuesdays.
So now the semester is over, the dog is (slightly) more manageable, and the election…well…no. And hey, as my dear friend and client and co-Dead Guy Jeff Cohen has pointed out more than once, this week has included Opening Day for baseball, where optimism reigns. So let’s think of this week as a new Opening Tuesday for this Dead Guy. I’m back, and I’m starting every seventh day.
Next week I’ll be in London for the London Book Fair (Interleague Play?), and that’s usually one of my favorite posts of the year. I’m totally jazzed up when I’m at the Fair—I love the experience of 15 meetings a day in a weirdly-configured convention center, followed by cocktails and socializing with people who are usually identified by email tone. I feel like I understand my job and industry much better. It’s funny, though: The first time I went to LBF I left kind of depressed—people seemed to be uncertain where the business was going. Last year, though, whether because I understood the lay of the land better or had more books to pitch or…something…I left feeling excited and optimistic.
And this year, for the first time, two members of HSG will be going, and the indomitable (and on a selling hot streak!) Danielle will be coming as well, now in her role of Foreign Rights Manager. And that’s the other thing about this year—and this time of year, when I often take stock of where we are as a company—we’ve grown. A couple of weeks ago, the insanely talented photographer Michael Soluri came to our office and took new photos for our website. He sent us our proofs today, and the group shot of the now SIX of us made me look twice. I said to my partner Carrie, “Hey, we look like a Firm all of a sudden.” And it’s true. And very cool.
So I look forward to the next several months, where I’ll be writing about publishing; some music, probably; the experience of seeing a child of mine look for, apply to, and (hopefully!) find a college to attend; and most likely some discussions of how people treat each other. That’s been on my mind lately, and I think it bears analysis. By the way, if there is anything you’d like to see from this blog in the coming weeks, please just let me know.
But in the meantime excuse me--#Layla needs to go for a #walk.
I am pleased--no, tickled--to report that during the week of April 10, I will be in the #1 position on the New York Times bestseller list.
You don't believe me (as you would be wise not to)? Just click here.
See? Right there at the top of the middle grade (hardcover) list: The book is called Jacky Ha-Ha. And it's my ticket not only to cracking the list, but to hitting it immediately at the top spot.
What's that you say? The authors of the book are listed as Chris Grabenstein and some guy named Patterson? Yes, that's correct. I didn't say I had written a book at the top of the bestseller list, just that it had gotten me there.
I'm a character in the book.
Yes, it takes place in middle school and the character is not specifically a 58-year-old curmudgeon, but when you turn to p. 111, you'll see my name right up there in the cast list for You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, the show the kids in this particular school are about to begin rehearsing. And just in case you're thinking, well, there are plenty of guys called Jeff Cohen this little brat could have been named for, let me give you the description (p. 131):
"Jeff is a bundle of energy, curly hair," (Editor's note: See photograph, right) "and quirky eye tics." Not sure where Grabenstein got the eye tics from, but come on. That's me (at that age--I'm hardly a bundle of energy now). I know mostly because Chris alerted me to this the day after the book was released.
The fact is, Chris is a good friend and needed a wiseguy character for his latest collaboration with Mr. Patterson. Since beginning with the wonderful John Ceepak/Danny Boyle, Chris has found great success in middle grades books like his own Mr. Lemoncello's Library series and in collaboration with the ultra-bestselling author he knew from both their days in advertising. Chris even had a very nice New York Times feature in the Real Estate section (!) a couple of Sundays ago.
Authors are not without their egos and their jealousies. Yes, we love to see our peers do well, but we're also wondering why that wasn't us. That's okay; it's a human response. Grabenstein and I started in this whole odd book business around the same time. I remember meeting him at the Black Orchid during one of the wonderful block parties they used to throw (alas, the place is no longer there and the parties have not continued) and picking up his book because somebody told me Chris "writes funny," which in my world is a challenge. Nobody's allowed to be funnier than me.
Well he's not, but it's close.
I will gladly stop a busy afternoon if there's a new Ceepak book, which alas Chris tells me is not coming anytime soon. They're funny but with heart, the narrator is a developing character who evolves from book to book, and Chris always makes you want to turn pages. His ability to plot and to have secondary mysteries that are tied to character and get to the core of the story leaves me in awe.
I have no jealousy for Chris Grabenstein. I begrudge him nothing. I am thrilled for the great success he's found. That's the absolute truth.
And now he's gotten me to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. That's a friend.
Besides, Jacky Ha-Ha is charming and smart. Written as a remembrance by a narrator who is now an Oscar-nominated actress and alumna of SNL, it tells a story of growth and worry. It's 1990 and Jacky's mom, a Marine, is deployed to Iraq waiting for the order to move in, so she has a good deal of anxiety. At home she's having a hard time behaving because she like to make jokes as a defense mechanism and needs an audience, which too often consists of her peers in the classroom. But one teacher sees something in her, and maybe that's going to make a difference.
Jeff Cohen is one of her pals and quite frankly, I think we need to see more of him. Perhaps a sequel will delve more completely into his complex psychology and heroic talents, most of which consist of being quick with a joke (clearly a fictional conceit). I believe he's a character who cries out for a book of his own.
One of these days I'll write a character named Chris Grabenstein and see if it helps my sales. I'm not entirely altruistic.
P.S. Opening Day has been postponed until tomorrow (when I'll be teaching in Philadelphia and won't be able to watch). So you can call me today, but expect me to be grumpy.
If you're anywhere near Colorado Springs on Monday, April 11, come hear the amazing Ross Gresham read from his new mystery novel White Shark as part of the Colorado College Visiting Writers Series. Anyone who pre-orders his book at the reading will get a t-shirt!
Also reading that night: Ann Myers!
Hope you can come!
by Erin Mitchell
Readers: Yay or nay on author newsletters? I've never liked them and think social media and my own website do a good job. Am I missing out?
I think authors should do newsletters…with some caveats.
Newsletters should tell readers a story and provide useful information. If their sole purpose is to sell stuff, there’s no point. But not all your readers will see every social media post, so providing links and recaps of anything important in a newsletter makes sense.
I like author newsletters that include snippets that are useful, fun, funny, or seasonal. Talk about your books, yes, but don’t only talk about your books.
Newsletters should be short and readable. They should have your voice. They should have links. Think of them as an email…you’re writing an email to a friend. You’re not making a presentation to The Board.
The content that you write for your newsletter shouldn’t be confined to it. Once you send it out, it should be cross-posted on your website, Facebook page, Pinterest board…you get the idea.
Being readable means newsletters should be easy to read on mobile devices. That means complicated HTML layouts are out. One of my favorite authors sends his monthly newsletter through Constant Contact using a custom HTML layout that makes it damn near impossible to read on anything other than a computer. It makes me sad every single month because I want to read his newsletter, but I read a lot of email on my phone or iPad (as do many of your readers…trust me).
And if you’re going to go to the trouble of doing a newsletter, make it easy for people to share it—on social media and by forwarding it.
Of course you should never, ever sign people up for your newsletter without their permission. That said, I’m not a fan of the double opt-in. I sign up because I mean to; I shouldn’t have to reconfirm my intention by clicking a link and then get yet another email confirming that I clicked the link. That process is just annoying (to me…might be just me, though). Also, if your unsubscribe process takes more than one click, you need to fix that.
Marketeers used to spend a great deal of energy figuring out exactly when to send newsletters to get the best response to them. There used to be rules for this based on their figuring, but I think those are all gone out the window. Generally speaking, I like to send them mid-day, because there’s more of a chance you’ll catch people when a little diversion is welcome. Fridays used to be taboo, but no longer. Same with weekends. The only time I still try to avoid is the middle of the night.
If you have a big mailing list that you’ve been growing for a while, it’s a good idea to clean it occasionally so you’re not paying to send email to addresses that are long since abandoned. I use DataValidation.com for this.
So…what do you think? Author newsletters, yea or nay?
It was first brought to my attention last Friday, and seems to have stayed in the public eye for most of this week. Then I saw it was on a couple of news websites and in several newspapers, and I understand it started on Twitter, which I avoid like the plague; I don’t know if this qualifies as going viral, but I think a lot of people saw it.
Yes, folks, I appear to be one of the publishers (ex-publisher in my case) who rejected J K Rowling. In case you take as little notice as I do of what circulates around the World Wide Web, the good lady posted a couple of rejection letters she received when she was trying to sell her first Robert Galbraith book without letting on who she really was. One of them, the rather patronizing one which suggested she join a writers’ group or take a creative writing course, wasn’t from me. The other one was.
A point or two in my defence.
One, all my letter said was that my little company now belonged to a larger company, and we were unable to accept new submissions. The absolute truth, my friends. Only a few weeks earlier I had signed the paperwork and placed my tiny empire in better funded hands; my only connection with them since the deal was done has been to edit some books for them.
Two, it’s unlikely I actually read the extract she sent me. By that point I had begun to distance myself; it would have been so, so disheartening to find the work of genius that would have put our name up there on the publishing map, but too late to benefit from it. Well, yeah, OK, that’s what did almost happen, I suppose.
Three, the finished novel, which currently resides on my bookshelf having been acquired and read when the rest of the world acquired and read it some three years later because it was by J K Rowling, was about a third longer than our maximum length. And that maximum length was clearly flagged up in the guidelines on our website. So, strictly speaking, the lady hadn’t done her homework. (Though to be fair, she had done enough homework to suss out that we didn’t require new submissions to come via an agent; most publishers, especially large ones, do require this this days, and did back in 2010. Which is maybe why she chose us.) So it’s not beyond possible I would have turned it down on purely practical grounds.
But all the above notwithstanding, I haven’t been able to stop myself daydreaming and ‘what iffing’ over the past few days. What if she had submitted it six months earlier, before I decided to sell? What if I had looked at it, loved it, and suggested she cut it back to fit our length remit – and she had agreed? What if – and this is the big one – she had somehow worked out a way to agree to our marketing policy, which was completely author-centric and relied on bookshop visits, local media coverage and fronting publicity events like our murder mystery evenings?
And then, what if after a few months her real identity had leaked, pretty much as it did anyway? It would either have made our fortune, or bankrupted us, depending on how understanding the bank, the printers etc were about swift payment. Larger publishers can weather that kind of storm, but many a small company has become the victim of its own success.
Nearly six years on, I can look back with only a little nostalgia, and regret for what might just possibly have been. I’m very glad indeed Ms Rowling didn’t decide to go public with those letters a few months after I sold up. That might have hurt.
Meanwhile, do I qualify as the Decca of the book world? (The record company that turned down the Beatles, for those with shorter memories than mine.) Or do Constable Robinson, authors of the other letter she posted, enjoy that honour? After all, I think I can say I didn’t really reject J K Rowling. In one way at least, I didn’t get the chance.
I'm knee deep in reading submissions. I have to find 8-10 manuscripts to fill my Spring/Summer 2017 and Fall 2017 catalogs. It's not like I need to acquire them all at once, but acquisitions is a tricky business. You never know how long it will take, how many rejections there will be before you find the one... and then you have to find 9 more. I can find a book in a day or in a month. I have made some offers recently that I was outbid on. Makes me sad, but also makes me happy for the author that they are getting a good deal. I am always curious about what the final book looks and reads like. Did the editor who acquired it share the same thoughts I had? Did they ask for some big changes? Is it being pubbed in hardcover or primarily as an ebook? Interesting times we are living in, that is for sure.
Anyway, one bright point in my day is that I have received a proposal from an established author and I am very excited about it. I started reading a previously published book and I am totally hooked. This makes me happy. Very, very happy.
Ok, so I'm back to reading. Can't wait to get back to this book and I will definitely announce it here when I have a signed contract in hand. :)
I am very clear about this: I make things up for a living. That is to say, nothing you'll read from me (with the possible exception of this blog and my two non-fiction books) is true. None of it happened and none of those people--again, with one exception I used with permission--is real. My job, as I see it, is to amuse and entertain. Reality just gets in the way of that.
That's why I have not seen any episodes of The Making of a Murderer or The Jinx. I have not listened to Serial, either "season." I'm not watching any of the current The People vs. O.J. Simpson. I'm not even a fan of In Cold Blood in any incarnation.
True crime honestly doesn't interest me. I understand that some people love the details of the case and want to know whether the accused (there always seems to be an accused) "did it," whether the victim will--despite remaining dead--get justice. I'm not saying those people shouldn't find all this stuff absolutely riveting. It's a perfectly legitimate form of storytelling and for those who find something in it, more power to you.
It's just not for me, that's all.
I do tend to read non-fiction, partly because fiction reading has become something of a busman's holiday for me. I've always said that I don't read much crime fiction because I don't want someone else's voice in my head when I'm writing (and these days, luckily, I'm pretty much always writing), and I do mean that. Even subconsciously there should be no plot point seepage into my own work. I wouldn't ever steal an idea from another writer on a conscious level but I don't want even the possibility to exist.
Also, one of the reasons a person gets into this game is that nobody's writing the book you want to read, so you have to write it yourself. And that is not insignificant. I do write the kind of book that keeps me interested, largely because you deal with it for a few hours but I have to live with the story for months. I trust that by not boring myself I will hopefully not bore the reader.
But the non-fiction I read tends to be in the areas of historical profiles or biographies. True crime never enters into the mix. Frankly, it's a little depressing for me to begin with and I'm not interested in speculating (as so much of the current crop seems to expect the consumer to do) on whether the party at the center of the investigation is guilty or not. One of the things I've always liked about crime fiction is that we pretty much always get to find out who the culprit is at the end of the story. There is rarely a question left open. In fact, editors have been very clear with me about not leaving anything dangling at the end of a book, even in a series novel. So you get your closure no matter what.
Also, true crime tends to deal with the sensational events, almost always murders, that are meant to pique the public's imagination through the hideous nature of the crime and/or the spectacularly bizarre personalities at the center of the issue. In that way true crime is not all that different from crime fiction. We focus on strange, or at least unusual, crimes (almost always murders although I'd love to write one without) and oversized personalities. The problem is, as Joseph Mankiewicz once noted, "the difference between life and movies is that a script has to make sense and life doesn't".
I'm not interested in getting that close to a sociopath. I prefer a little humor in what I use to fill that "free time" I keep hearing about. For me, the idea of getting that deep into a situation in which someone actually lost his or her life is deflating: Maybe the guilty party is caught; maybe not. Either way, the victim stays dead and I find that disturbing. Yes, people should be exposed and punished when they do something wrong, especially that wrong. But does it make everything okay? Not really.
In fiction, we can make the victim someone nobody liked or someone inconsequential. If we want, we can invite the reader (audience) to care about the victim and offer some idea of restoration in the criminal's comeuppance. A writer can focus on any aspect of the story (I prefer to emphasize character and hopefully humor) and downplay others (like death and terror). That's me. I'm not suggesting it has to be you.
So I won't be checking in on any of the real-life murderers on TV these days. In fact, I don't watch any "reality programming" because I can't think of one that's not insulting to my intelligence or simply uninteresting. Again, this is a matter of personal taste. I will watch some stuff I can't even call a "guilty pleasure" and wouldn't recommend to you at all. But it fills a need for me (and no, I'm not talking about porn).
That's why I'm not a fan of the true crime genre. So if you refer to whomever that murderer who was made might be or some other "famous" killer and I look blank, you'll know why.
In my head, I'm busy making up something else.
P.S. Opening Day is 7 days from today.
by Erin Mitchell
In case you’ve been stuck under a rock in a soundproof cocoon for the last several months, it’s election season in the good old U-S-of-A, and people have some strong opinions about candidates.
We seem to be down to two on each side, and when folks aren’t wigging out about the one from their chosen party who isn’t the one they support, they’re positively freaking about the prospect of someone from the other party winning.
So, what’s an author to do?
When it comes to social media, like most SM questions, there is no right answer. But there are a few things worth considering.
Like it or not—and I’m not meaning to diminish the art involved in writing novels in saying this—books are a product that you want people to buy. And just as I won’t shop at certain stores because I disagree with some of their corporate policies, some readers will not buy books from authors with whom they disagree politically.
So if you decide to express political opinions publicly, you run the risk of losing part of your potential reader audience.
You do have options, though. If you have a Facebook profile, for example, you can adjust your privacy settings so only friends see your posts and then only accept friend requests from (or send requests to) people you know. Everything on a Page is public, but on a Profile, you can control who sees what.
On Twitter, everything is public by default. You can choose to make your account protected, which means that only people you approve will be able to see your tweets. Same goes for Instagram.
It’s worth considering, too, what you stand to gain from posting or commenting on politics. Some authors have a great deal of influence with their readers, and this isn’t something that should be taken lightly. Chances are good, too, that many of your readers’ life circumstances are different from your own, and so with influence comes a certain responsibility.
I’m not a fan of hate-mongering under any circumstances. I think it’s possible to disagree civilly. But if you express an opinion—pretty much any opinion—on social media, sooner or later someone is going to have a go at you. When they do, the best (and simplest) thing to do is delete and (depending on the circumstances) block. That person was never going to buy your books anyhow.
Is it November yet?
My mother dismisses it as trash, though I don’t think she’s ever actually read any. My friends read it as light entertainment between heavier-weight litfic titles. My daughter, who is the most intelligent person I know, seems to love it as much as I do, but leans towards the golden age end of the genre. My husband just reads anything I put in front of him. Well, maybe not anything, and he does make a few choices of his own, but mostly what’s on his to-read shelf is something I’ve read first.
And me? I do read other stuff, but mostly it’s crime fiction, and not just because I get four or five a month to review. My current book wishlist, which is always lengthy, consists of ten non-crime and about sixty crime novels. And what I read off-list seems to fall into a similar proportion.
Mostly I don’t think about why this is. I just enjoy crime fiction, that’s all. Except... That’s not all, is it? There’s an underlying need being fed here. I’ve probably said this before, but I make no apology for that today. Especially today. Especially this week. The thing about crime fiction is this: between those covers, right is done, justice is served, and the bad guys, whatever their agenda, get some kind of comeuppance, cosmic if not legal. (Especially true of the golden age sub-genre; I draw no conclusions on my daughter’s behalf, but I can’t help wondering...) This principle doesn’t apply in the real world, on either a personal or a global basis. Bad things happen to good people, and bad people get away with bad things. So in its sometimes gory and violent way, crime fiction is a comfort.
And today, while the world, and Europe in particular, is in shock yet again because of the actions of a bunch of idiots who can’t understand that their way is their way and doesn’t have to be everyone’s way, and that real-life violence is never, never a solution to anything, I can escape, albeit briefly and temporarily, to the fictional world I’m currently visiting and relax for a while.
That’s why I read crime fiction. And that’s enough for today. You really do not want to hear me rant about people who plant bombs and kill innocent bystanders just to draw attention to their highly suspect cause.
That is a question I am facing today. Yesterday I started reading a submission. From the synopsis the agent provided, I wasn't sure if I should even look at it. It didn't seem like a fit for me. But I read a few pages and the next thing I know, I am late leaving work to pick up my kids. Last night I had wished that I had brought the ms home with me or sent it to my kindle. Started reading again when I got in this morning. I didn't want to like it... but I do. And I can't figure out if it's salable or not.
The agent described it as a thriller, but I wouldn't call it that. Definitely funny, in an odd ball sort of way. It's so unique that I can't even begin to describe it without the author or agent recognizing it immediately.
Very rarely have I found myself in this position - having really loved a book, but thinking I probably won't acquire it. Because if we can't figure out how to sell it, we will lose money. Not too long ago I acquired a ms that was fantastically written but the sales of the first book were so poor that we cancelled the next book. I'm afraid this book would fall in that same category. Unless I can figure out a way to sell it to our sales department. Because at the end of the day, it's about sales. If we can't sell it, it doesn't matter how much I loved it.
I will have to ponder this. It will swim around in my brain until I can come up with a plan. I'll let you know how it works out.
Well, my plan was to write a nice, light post about the end of my semester at NYU, where my students were excellent and my teaching felt a lot more comfortable than last year...and I woke up to another terrorist attack, and terrible, stupid, politicized reactions to it in the US. So I'll hold off a week, kiss my family, and think of the good in people.
Things I Like About Being A Crime Fiction Author
Things I Don't Like About Being A Crime Fiction Author
Overall, there are far more and better items in List #1 than List #2 and always have been. I love this job. Thanks for letting me have it.
It is 14 days to Opening Day.
So, as you may have heard when I was crowing about it two weeks ago, my husband Ross Gresham has a book coming out this May. He's been gathering together a list of blogs relating to mystery fiction, and do you know what blog keeps coming up?
This one! This very one!
So, that's cool!
Here are some of the blog lists currently out there:
Tomorrow I’m having lunch with a very good friend.
Yes? I hear you say. And?
OK, it’s not an unusual activity. Women talk to each other, and sometimes we do it over lunch. This lunch, though, is a working lunch. The friend is so generous with her time and expertise that she has read a hundred-thousand-word first draft of a novel I’ve been revising, and is going to give me some feedback.
Which leads me to ponder on the value of feedback in general. Not specifically this feedback on this novel from this friend; I know it will be useful, because she’s done it before and she’s never less than perceptive. In fact, she’s one of very, very few people I trust to provide a useful opinion, full of suggestions I can work with – and maybe even a solution to what I know is an overriding major problem.
But in general, just how useful is another random person’s opinion of your/my/anyone’s work?
I’d better declare an interest here. For the past thtymumble years I’ve run an appraisal service, editorial consultancy, call it what you like, offering exactly that, from me and assorted acquaintances whose area of expertise is different from and complementary to mine. It’s not that I consider myself particularly qualified to do this, but there are people who seem to think what I tell them is useful, usually when they’ve had time to think, and stop sticking pins in my effigy. Besides, a disinterested pair of eyes on a piece of writing rarely goes amiss, if only to pick up the typos which invariably slip through the most meticulous proofreading by the author. So I suppose you could say I approach this question with a certain amount of bias.
On the other hand, giving advice is always a lot easier than taking it. I’m as guilty as anyone of slapping my forehead and screaming You’ve missed the point! I may even be thinking in terms of pins and effigies myself by this time tomorrow. But it won’t be for long. Because I think I’ve discovered the secret of useful feedback – the only kind worth looking for.
The secret is to find someone you can trust to come up with a better way, and not just a different one, or worst case scenario, the way they would do it, which, if only they could understand, would make it their piece of writing and not yours.
I’ve been given both kinds of feedback, and I’ve listened to it being given to other people. As well as the consultancy role, I’ve also, in the past, run writers’ workshops and contributed to writers’ groups which operated on similar lines: a whole bunch of random people offering their views. And something I learned early about groups of writers was that asking a dozen people for their opinion of your work results in thirteen different opinions, possibly all conflicting. It revealed another secret: most of all, you have to trust yourself. OK, not easy; writers, I’ve found, have insecurity and self-doubt built into their DNA; I think it’s there and well established long before the rejection slips start arriving. Sometimes it’s hidden under a carapace of defiance and apparent conviction that it’s the commissioning editors who are blind, not the work that doesn’t make the grade, but that carapace is thin and brittle, and I’ve yet to meet a self-published author who isn’t privately (or not so privately) in search of a conventional publisher.
All the same, under the doubt, whatever its manifestations, there’s usually a small voice of reason. Or possibly protest. All you have to do is listen out for it, and it will tell you whether a piece of advice or opinion is
a: exactly the point that’s been hovering on the edge of your consciousness for days; or
b: something worth considering when you embark on your next draft; or
c: maybe something that would work for the person that’s giving the opinion, but a country mile away from what you’re aiming at.
Of course, if you’re still reading, you’ve realized by now that all the above is as much for my benefit as anyone else’s. My carapace may be built of editorial experience and people’s positive reactions, but when it comes to my own work it’s as fragile and vulnerable as any first-time writer’s. It’s kind of the nature of the game. And to compound the problem, I’m totally (and painfully) aware that there’s a big problem at the heart of the work my generous friend has looked at for me, and I’m not at all sure how to resolve it.
But if there’s a better way to improve a piece of writing than by seeking input from someone you trust to be honest, perceptive and completely un-self-centred about it, will somebody please tell me what it is and where to find it?
I'll be speaking on How to Make (Fictional) Murder Funny at the Ewing Branch Library in Ewing, NJ this Sunday (March 20) at 2 p.m., so please register and drop on in! I'll be signing books and talking to the audience afterward. Love to see you there if you're in the area! Only 33 spaces left, so make sure you register!
Two recent incidents have me questioning the concept of voice in writing characters. They're unrelated and possibly unimportant, but they've hung in with me for a few days and why shouldn't I dump them on you given the chance?
The first occurred over a period of a couple of weeks. Against my true instincts I have purchased a gym membership and as a result did something else that conflicts with my better judgment: I got an audiobook of someone else's work to listen to while I'm plodding away on the treadmill or the elliptical every morning.
In this case it was Once A Crooked Man by the actor and director David McCallum, who at 82 has apparently decided working on a weekly TV series isn't enough and has taken on writing a novel to fill the hours. And as loyal visitors to this blog know, I have been a McCallum fan pretty much all my life, so I begrudge the man nothing. I'm not going to post a review of the book because I don't review books here and besides, envy is such an ugly emotion.
Nonetheless, the exercise during exercise proved to be a somewhat troubling one. It's one thing to read a novel and hear the words in your head even if the author's actual voice is well known to you. It's another entirely to hear the author reading the book aloud into your ears. When the author is also an accomplished actor, the characters' vocal patterns and accents take on a real life of their own. But more than anything else, the rhythm of the words becomes not so much predictable as familiar. Before you know it, you can hear that tempo in you own words.
And that's the problem. I'm trying to write 1000 words a day and now I have Illya Kuryakin's voice in my head. My sentences started getting longer. My tone was more polite (the last thing a Jersey guy needs). I started being just a little Scottish. Not really, but the sentence structure definitely was there.
I've often said I won't read other crime fiction while I'm writing, but now I'm always writing. And while I'll confess that I don't read as much as I used to anyway, the platitude I've offered that I don't want the other author's voice in my head is now proving itself true. I have to take a moment before I start typing and remind myself that I'm writing in Rachel Goldman's voice for the second Mysterious Detective mystery, and not in McCallum's for his standalone thriller/satire.
The second, and more disturbing, incident involving voice came late last week when my wife and I were at the home of some close friends for dinner. Our good friend--we'll call her Judy because that's her name--was asking about the writing and what's coming up and all the usual questions. I try to make the answers entertaining, at least for me because I've heard them all before. And Judy is one of the few friends I have who not only buys the books when they come out but actually reads them. So that's something to respect.
But at one point in the conversation, she mentioned casually that whenever she reads one of my novels she hears only my voice. I think she meant it as sort of a compliment, in that the words seem realistic and casual enough to be from an actual human being. But the fact that I'm now writing four mystery series and a very good friend thinks all the first-person narrators sound like me was very distressing.
I mean, I work hard to try to differentiate among my characters. I'm a firm believer in character and I write from one protagonist's viewpoint in each book. So the Haunted Guesthouse mysteries should sound like Alison Kerby, the Asperger's mysteries should sound like Samuel Hoenig, the Mysterious Detective books should sound like Rachel Goldman and the upcoming Agent to the Paws series should, in theory, sound like Kay Powell telling you the story.
If they all sound like me, that means I've done a poor job of creating credible, believable, realistic characters and giving them separate personalities. They're all me and that just have different names. That would be a problem. A big problem. Maybe I'm not as good as I thought I was.
Now, I realize that Judy's comment was more about knowing the author and less about the quality of the contents. If I'd been reading McCallum's book and not listening to his recording, I probably would have still had a version of his voice (likely from 1966) in my head because I'm familiar with what he sounds like when he's speaking. And I've never met the man.
When I mentioned to my wife that Judy's comment had stung, she was surprised. When she reads my books she hears my voice, she said. It's about expectations and not execution.
But it's still taken me a few days and I haven't totally shaken it yet.
P.S. Opening Day is 21 days from today.
Well, I’ve tried to ignore it but it won’t go away. I’ve tried thinking that sooner or later things would go too far, the monster would flounder and sink under the weight of its own inflated ego and its attempts to be the answer to all problems. Or everyone would just get disgusted with the constant barrage of its intrusion into every aspect of our daily lives. Donald Trump? No, he’s not going away either, but my topic here is Amazon (my fingers cramped even typing that!) and specifically its adventure into bricks and mortar bookselling.
I find it amusing that several years ago Jeff Bezos vowed that he would do away with the paper book; it was a technology past its time, and by now everyone would be reading on electronic devices. Apparently that hasn’t worked out to his plan; people have this stubborn attachment to the look, feel and even smell of these antiquated contraptions. They like to collect them. They like to share them with their friends. They like to decorate with them. Not only that, they like to buy them in actual shops from booksellers who listen to them, guide them, and love books as much as they do. Thus paper books are still here, and bookshops are beginning to thrive again.
A (can I just call it that? I’m having a hard enough time thinking about them!), being A, cannot let any area of commerce exist without trying to dominate it. Even if it meant conceding that paper books are not going to be shelved (pardon the pun) anytime soon, they saw that there was a growing trend toward physical bookstores, so they had to open one too. Last November, their first shop opened in Seattle, and it appears that there will shortly be another in San Diego. Although the rumor that they were planning ultimately to have 400 or more physical bookshops turned out to be hype by an owner of multiple malls with vacancies, it does appear that there are plans to expand the franchise.
As I did some searching to find out how this first bookshop from the behemoth that has worked so hard to put me and my kind out of business was being received, I turned to another mystery bookshop owner’s blog. JB Dickey, of the Seattle Mystery Bookshop, has over the years been much more outspoken (and much more articulate) than I about his near neighbor. In searching the archives of his blog, I was momentarily confused. No category for A? Ah, I should have known. It’s under “SPECTRE.”
SPECTRE could not be a more apt name. It is in every aspect of commerce that I can think of. Books, of course, where they started. Food. Clothing. Housewares. Television. Electronics. Cloud computing. Smart phones. Furniture. Jewelry. Toys. Publishing. If they don’t sell it, they control other on-line retailers who do. Last month, Bloomberg News reported on A’s project “Dragon Boat,” a fulfillment service that would control delivery of goods from factories in China and India to doorsteps in the United States, the UK, and elsewhere. So UPS, FedEx, and even China’s Alibaba will have a new competitor. Why would I ever think that they would leave book retailing in shops out of the empire?
This all may sound like the rant of a frustrated small retailer trying to survive in a new economy. And some of it is. I see the view of the other side. What’s wrong with economies of scale leading to lower prices? Why should a busy person trek all over hell’s half acre when she can sit home with a cup of tea, or something stronger, and shop for all her needs? Why shouldn’t a less well known author whose books might never make it onto the radar of the buyer at a little independent shop have a chance to be reviewed to death and sell books to the whole country? And honestly, I am getting older and am not going to be selling books here forever. As far as I know, A, or SPECTRE, has no plans to put a competing store in Flemington, New Jersey, or anywhere close by. My customer base is growing as people tire of the on-line “recommendations” based on some programmer’s analysis of people’s preferences. But I still harbor some fears.
Reading some of the commentary on A’s first foray into bricks and mortar bookselling initially gave me some hope that they might actually fail for once. (Well, not for the first time; there was the Fire Phone). Books are stocked based on the same algorithms that are used in the on-line store. SPECTRE knows what you should read. All the books on display have 4 or 5 star ratings online. No obscure title recommended by the bookseller which turns out to be the best book you read all year. The personal touch is still lacking. There are actually fewer titles than one would find in a typical independent bookshop. Books are all displayed face out, ten or more deep. No crawling down to the lower shelves to find those hidden treasures all book lovers dream of. (I might mention here that, had I the space, I would display all my books face out. But that one copy of what I may actually consider a mistake I made in ordering is spine out, on a lower shelf. A prize to be unearthed by some lucky browser.) You would be amazed at how many people spend time going through all the shelves where the spines are the only part of the book in view. Rather than handwritten shelf talkers from the bookseller’s own knowledge, Amazon and Good Reads reviews are printed for each title. I could write another post solely on what I think of the value of these online ratings and reviews. Authors have asked for reviews saying just do one, doesn’t matter what it says, it’s the numbers that count. Many reviews are by people who openly state that they haven’t read the book! If someone tells me a book has 5 stars on A, my response is “So?” (For the record, I never review on A, and gave up Good Reads when they became part of the Empire of A. I also do not sell books published by A.)
All of that sounds very encouraging for us independent booksellers. Most of it came from articles or posts written by booksellers. I think they are whistling past the graveyard. A is not known for perpetuating its mistakes. They can always hire all the unemployed booksellers at slave wages to give their monopoly the aura of the personal touch, and rearrange their shelves to look more “homey.” If I sound bitter, it’s because I fear that A will do everything in its power to be sure it is the sole source of books.
One interesting aspect of the A book store is that there are no prices on the books. The customer can find out the price either by using an APP on his phone, or by scanning the bar code at a kiosk. More data to feed the algorithms. Not only do they know what you buy, but what you thought about buying. Certainly A is not the only company gathering data from every move we make; all I have to do is look at the ads tailored to me on Facebook, or Google, or any other online service I use to see that my every action is recorded. When I do a Google search, I don’t get a complete picture of the topic, I get what the algorithm thinks might interest me. But I am a perverse human being, and my purpose in searching may not be what they think it is. Will a monopoly bookseller offer only what a computer algorithm thinks is what you want? Will those serendipitous finds disappear forever? Or, worst of all, will books that aren’t “good” for us, which cause us to think independently or even rebelliously, be hidden from view?
A couple of weeks ago I went to see a movie.
This may not qualify as news in many people’s lives, but we’re not really movie people; the kind we enjoy don’t need a huge screen and surround-sound to make them work (maybe aside from James Bond) so we’re usually content to wait till they come round on TV. Shifting our a***s off the sofa and going to the cinema is something that happens two or three times a year maximum.
But this one had a certain appeal, and my elderly mother wanted to see it, so to the movies we went.
None of which is especially relevant to the issue it raised which forms the meat of this post, but there you go; digression is my middle name.
The point was, this movie was a kind of triple-length remake of a TV comedy show which was so popular that the re-runs just keep on re-running, and on a terrestrial channel, what’s more. (Do you still have terrestrial channels in the US, or is everything cable or satellite? Here we have five. And actually, the inimitable Frasier keeps re-running on one of them, but that’s by the way.)
This show was pretty inimitable too, which was why I approached the movie with a certain scepticism and trepidation. What if it didn’t work? What if just wasn’t funny any more? What if they should simply have left well enough alone?
The biggest difficulty they faced was that the original is more than forty years old. With very few exceptions, the original cast are all dead, and the exceptions are now too old to play their original roles convincingly. In the event it was OK. Not a brilliant solution, because these things rarely are, but not a disappointment. We left the theatre thinking, if they were casting the TV original today, those are probably the actors they would cast.
Which, as these things do, got me thinking.
There have been quite a few attempts to revive old favourites of late. James Bond was kept alive by several pens after Fleming’s demise, and more recently has been placed in the hands of several distinguished authors, each of who produced a decent enough spy thriller. There’s a publishing phenomenon called the Jane Austen Project, which has so far tasked four authors, including two major crime writers, to rework the novels in a modern setting. I’ve read two; they’re fun, but I’m not sure they bear much relation to Jane Austen.
And of course there’s Sophie Hannah’s resurrection of Hercule Poirot. Which, I confess, I haven’t read. And I’m not even sure there’s a ‘yet’ there. Which is no reflection whatever on Sophie Hannah herself; she’s a brilliant novelist.
All these projects, and a whole lot more which appear from time to time, beg the big question: Why? When a character or a concept is so fixed in readers’ minds, so iconic, so unique, should they be left alone at their rightful point in history? Or is it OK for a new generation, with new priorities and attitudes, to put its own spin on them? Because however hard an author tries to stay with the original concept, I don’t think it’s possible to keep his or her own psyche out of it. There’s a school of thought which claims that all characters in fiction represent an aspect, however minor or deeply buried, of the author’s own personality. If that’s true, Bond is an aspect of Fleming, not Sebastian Faulks or William Boyd; and Poirot is part of Agatha Christie, not Sophie Hannah.
Don’t misunderstand me here; all the people I’ve mentioned, and most if not all authors who have undertaken similar challenges, are talented and competent writers in their own right. But so were the authors whose characters they set out to recreate. And it’s not as if the recreators (is that a word?) lack ideas and characters of their own; they all have enviable track records, and show no sign of slowing down.
So my question is this: is there any justification, any real reason apart from profit, for bringing other people’s popular and high-profile characters back to life. Or should we leave these points in literary history alone – and let sleeping dogs enjoy their rest?
Midnight Ink is owned by Llewellyn Worldwide. Llewellyn has been in business for over 100 years. They started out in astrology and now is a major player in all things metaphysical. Besides publishing our own books, annuals, calendars, and tarot kits and decks, we also are the US distributor for several international metaphysical companies. Today we received somewhere around 13,000 coloring books from one of those accounts. We already have at least half of them sold. The only problem is that we need to put our barcode over the one printed on the book. So every single one of those 13,000 books has to be unpacked, stickers, and packed up again. One of the managers sent out an email asking us to go help sticker if we had the time.
That is where I snorted coffee out my nose. Extra time? I get taking one for the team, I really do. In the past I have picked orders in the warehouse when they needed help. But that was when I was doing 24 books a year, not 36-42 that they are asking of me now.
So what am I up to today? I created a PCS (Project Cover Sheet) for a title I wish to acquire. Our editorial board meets Thursday morning so I will present it tomorrow. I finished a proposal and I am going to try to get that into the meeting tomorrow, but only if I can get the PCS done in the next hour. As always I had a bunch of emails to answer. One was working out the terms of an offer. I started some research on ebook pricing to present to the sales manager. On my list to do that I haven’t gotten to yet is filling out my travel request for the Edgars and Malice Domestic and I need to turn in the receipts from Left Coast Crime. I finished a manuscript I started the other day. And now I need to spend some time thinking about it. It needs some tweaks to make the plotline stronger. It may look like I am staring off into space, but I am actually turning the story over in mind. It will probably take another full read for the pieces to fall in to place. So yeah, I am staring at my cube walls. But only for a few more minutes… because I have that second PCS to get done.
Oh, I also got a rockin t-shirt in the mail from my new author crush, Lori Rader-Day.
Oh, oh, I am also like five days behind on my celebrating women writers posts. Yeah, that one slipped off the to do list. I shall make up for that as soon as… well, I’m not making any promises.
In the current American election cycle--one which is almost awe-inspiring in its horrific weirdness--there has come to the forefront one truth that any thinking person from this country or any other must embrace in order to save the nation and possibly the future of humans on Earth.
Since the maestro of fake news left the airwaves last August, a number of substitute anchors have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to fill his spot. All of them are good and some approach the brilliance Stewart achieved virtually every day, four days a week, for more than 16 years. But none of them is filling the void. This election--and events in the world as a whole--are just too frightening for our rising terror to be assuaged by anyone except the master himself.
I'm not talking about the late-night talk shows with a band, a desk, a curtain and the host who makes the occasional topical joke during the monologue segment before asking the latest actor about his new television show. I'm looking for someone who can make an audience (mostly me) laugh uproariously on a reliable basis when acting as the country's steam valve, letting us feel the outrage and the absurdity at the same time. Someone who can leave me after a half hour actually feeling less bombarded by the events themselves.
That's happening now, but not enough. Let's examine the contenders.
In the wake of Stewart's abdication a number of his ex-colleagues have attempted to make their own mark on the state of fake news, and all of them have done a good job. A couple have done remarkably well, in fact. But not well enough.
Easily the best of the bunch at this moment (these things are fluid) is John Oliver's Last Week Tonight, a Daily Show-esque endeavor from the British expat who was a longtime correspondent with Stewart and has not been at all shy about noting that in his work. Oliver has refined the process on his HBO show, delivering far more international stories than Stewart ever attempted and devoting a healthy segment each week to one issue that is examined in depth. It is the best example now on television of a program that can make you laugh helplessly while growing increasingly angry over something you might not have completely understood before. Last Week Tonight is sublime in ways that even Stewart's Daily Show could not be, and that is wonderful. The problem: It airs only once a week, and it takes long hiatuses between seasons. Once the half-hour is over, you have six days and 23.5 hours until you can feel this way again. Staggeringly great, but not enough.
Still, there is The Nightly Show with Stewart's "Senior Black Correspondent" emeritus Larry Wilmore. After a somewhat awkward start in early 2015, Wilmore has been steadily improving to the point that he now is a reliable source of necessary outrage and laughs. His ensemble of Nightly Show contributors includes some real gems in people like Mike Yard and Grace Parra, among others. Some of the sketches still go on too long and the panel in the third segment of each show remains kind of odd, but Wilmore himself makes dents in the lack of Jon Stewart, and does so, thankfully, four times a week, just as often as Stewart used to work. It's still a work in progress but it's one that's showing a lot of promise and is still pretty new. Very encouraging.
Much, much newer is Full Frontal with Daily Show alumna Samantha Bee, who has mostly abandoned her character from that show and sharpened her criticism to be more often straight on rather than constantly ironic. Both work for her, but she's in the first few shows of a new series and still has to work out some kinks. A lot has been made of her being "the only woman in late night," which is true but is not the point of her show, and that's good. While Bee's onstage rants are working, they're coming a little too fast to absorb all of it, and some of the sketches are not working as well. But the field pieces where she went to talk to actual Syrian refugees were informative and wonderful while still being funny. The show has to learn to skewer the politicians it gets in its sights (which it normally does) and not the "civilians" who might not be as involved in the problem (something it does occasionally). It's very promising, but too small a sample to know exactly how things will play out. Definitely worth watching every week.
And that brings us to what is, alas, the least impressive of the bunch so far. While still a good stage for satire and commentary, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah is not close to living up to its predecessor yet. And it's unfair to make the comparison, but everybody is doing exactly that. The styles are a study in contrasts: Where Stewart would be incensed, Noah is amused by the crazy Americans. Stewart was a participant, an advocate; he was one of us. Noah is an interested observer from elsewhere who rightfully finds us to be odd and irrational but isn't invested. He'll point out what's crazy, but it doesn't bother him. When Jon Stewart built up a head of steam it was a joyous thing to behold. Trevor Noah unleashes one-liners and many of them are clever, but they don't really build emotionally because he's not emotional about them. He laughs at his own jokes. Again, not bad by any means. The jokes are still funny and Noah is charming, even if he goes too easy on most of his interview subjects, something Stewart learned not to do. It'll be interesting to see how much different this show looks a year from now when the host is more comfortable with the job. My guess: It will be more aimed at people considerably younger than me and cover more international news. That's fine, but it's only a guess. Another guess: Trevor Noah will not be doing this for 16 years.
We need Jon Stewart back because none of these substitutes fills the enormous vacuum he created in leaving. And there is good, if somewhat vague, news: Apparently the man himself is working on short pieces that will be released by HBO, but digitally on various platforms that I, as an old person, will need help finding. There's no public timetable and no word on what the format might be, but at least there will be communication from Planet Jon and hopefully--dare one say it--he might make this election cycle just a tiny bit less terrifying.
If that's possible.
P.S. Opening Day is in 28 days. It can't possibly happen fast enough.
An American friend is coming to visit for a few days next month, and since she’s never been in my part of the UK before, we’ve been exchanging e-mails for the past few weeks in order to discuss what she would like to see while she’s here. A stately home, a village with a lot of history, a wonderful bookshop are all on the agenda – and so are leisurely dinners with lots of opportunity to chat and put the world to rights. One of her e-mails suggested, with a certain sense of resignation, (sometimes it really is possible to gauge the tone of an e-mail) that since so much is happening in our respective countries at the moment, we’ll have plenty of politics to discuss.
Readers, I hope not.
It’s not that I lack political views, and I know my friend doesn’t either. And it’s certainly not that we might disagree violently, and therefore blight our rare few days under the same bit of sky. I like to think we’re both right-thinking adults with a sensible approach to life and the ability to see past rhetoric and propaganda.
It’s just that... well, do we have talk about the EU referendum and the presidential election? Aren’t there more important things to talk about? I have a house groaning at the seams with books, about half of them crime fiction; my friend is almost as big a fan as I am, hence the scheduled visit to the bookshop. Can’t we talk about that instead?
Besides, aren’t the media and the pundits and everyone else in the public eye, not to mention the interested parties themselves, saying more than enough already? Aren’t both events claiming so much airtime and column inches that talking about something else comes as a welcome relief?
I missed the radio news item yesterday morning, about how Super Tuesday panned out, so I asked my husband what had happened. He summed it up in a sentence, and not a very long one. And frankly, that was all I needed to know. Which was why, the same evening, I reached for my reading glasses and current book-in-progress and turned the volume down when the TV news settled in for a ten-minute session on the same subject.
And as for the referendum... We’re planning to be out of the country on the day of the vote anyway – not deliberately; we’d booked the flights long before anything actually happened. All the same, I really wish someone would tell me what it’s all about. Dave says in, Boris says out, and that aside, all the news coverage seems to focus on which members of Parliament are going to be given access to which pieces of information; no one is making any attempt to explain exactly how my life will change as a result of the vote. I might start listening if someone did, but fudging and hedging and displacing seems to be the way politics works. Real issues? What are they?
Don’t get me wrong; I firmly believe politics is important. Done properly, it does affect our lives. I just don’t see how it’s possible to do this very important job properly – or at all, if it comes to that – when the priorities are a) winning the next election so that everyone keeps their job, and b) each top guy making his mark, which seems to entail getting as much coverage as possible in the media so that when he finally loses his job, his name is the one at the top of the list for something new and lucrative. I came to the conclusion long ago that the wrong people go into politics, and the best people to do the job are probably the ones who want it least.
I feel I should apologize for this post. I really didn’t mean to go off on a political – or anti-politician – rant; a blog devoted to crime fiction is no place for it. It was one of those don’t get me started... situations. But I did start, so now I’ll finish, as the guy on the quiz programme said.
Everyday is a national something day. And every month is a national something month. I don't pay much attention to those, unless it's something like mental health month or national margarita day. I mean, it's hard not to support those two, right? I don't know why, but I noticed a meme or something reminding average folks that March is Women' History Month. And for some reason it stuck with me. I decided that every day this month I am going to post about a woman writer. I think that I consider this me being a book advocate. I will talk about books or authors that have touched me in some sort of way.
The first day of the month I chose Lori Rader-Day. I finished reading The Black Hour on Sunday on my return flight from Left Coast Crime. I have to admit, I was really worried that I was going to cry on the plane. I feel like I was the last person in the world to read Lori, but I am going to talk about The Black Hour a little bit anyway. Holy character development! I loved Amelia. The book opens with her returning to campus after she was shot in the gut by a student. She is broken in both body and spirit, as she has no idea whey a student who hadn't taken any of her classes, would attempt to kill her. She is mourning her lost life. As the semester opens, she takes on a teaching assistant, who unbeknownst to her is obsessed with the shooting. At first she asks Nath to help her dig into the why but later pulls away and asks him to stop. There is also a local reporter who is pressuring Amelia because he believes she knows more than she is saying. All three of them stumble toward a resolution that was a pleasant surprise.
These are characters that I fell in love with. If you haven't read The Black Hour, I highly suggest you go out and get yourself a copy as soon as possible. It is not surprising to me that Lori won a few best first novel awards and was shortlisted for many. It's the real deal.
For today, the 2nd, I chose Patricia Highsmith. I love the way she presents these monsters - sociopaths and psychopaths - in such a way that you as the read sort of cheer for them. She is a master of psychological suspense. I don't reread many books, mostly because of time, but also because I know what is coming and that disappoints me in some way. Yet for Highsmith, I can reread without issue.
I don't know yet who I will pick for tomorrow. Your guess is as good as mine! I am excited to see what comes up. I hope it will generate discussion about authors that may not be as well known as they should be. Check my facebook for the daily choices. :)
Coming tomorrow...tonight I'm watching Super Tuesday results.
If you have not read or seen The Maltese Falcon, there will be some spoilers ahead. But you should read it and see it.
Thanks to the good people at TCM, last week I was able (as was anybody else who felt like ponying up enough for a movie ticket) to see The Maltese Falcon (1941) on a movie screen for the first time in my life. I've read the novel more than once and seen the movie on TV screens more times than I can recall, but it had been a while and never in its intended venue before.
As always, the story was damn near perfect. The cast from top to bottom couldn't be better. The screenplay is essentially the book in movie format (there's an apocryphal story that John Huston threw the novel on his secretary's desk and said, "Type this up.") and it's wonderful. There are a couple of very minor false notes (Whose voice is that saying, "It's a fake! It's lead!"? It's surely not Sydney Greenstreet's) and they make absolutely no difference. If you can see this film in a theater, do it. If not, watch it on the best TV you can find.
But there's a common fallacy about crime fiction writing that this novel and this film do their very best (and that's really good) to debunk. There is a dirty little lie going around that cozy mysteries focus on character while other, more "serious" crime novels are devoted more to deep themes, complex plot maneuvers, airtight investigations and story mechanics.
Well, try to imagine The Maltese Falcon with a different set of characters. Imagine that we got Harvey Lichtenstein, newly minted PI straight out of Stamford, rather than Sam Spade. Assume that Casper Gutman was instead Jack LaLang, fitness buff. Consider Joel Cairo gone and place Biff Springfield, womanizer and feed salesman in his stead. Brigid O'Shaughnessy? Nah. We've got Shirley Smith, cosmetics clerk at the local five and dime.
The characters are what make any story work; without them you might as well simply issue a list of plot points as a Facebook post and wait for the comments to pour in. Characters are the brain, heart and soul of the story. Whatever you're writing is dependent on them for the humanity your story needs.
And The Maltese Falcon is chock full of characters. Over the top? You bet they are, and thank goodness for it. If you saw this crew walking down a street, you'd either double over in laughter or hurriedly cross to the other side. But you'd sure as hell notice them, and that's what makes this story the great fun it remains to this day. Yes, a fun noir. Imagine.
The idea is supposed to be that hardboiled noir (of which this is perhaps the prototype) should be depressing, full of cynicism and hopelessness, that every step the main character takes brings him closer to the inevitable doom he probably deserves. Is Sam Spade a glittering, white-horse hero? Good lord, no. The conversation in my car after the movie was about what a complete jerk he is most of the time, and you root for him anyway. He's the only character in the whole story who'll tell you the truth whether you want to hear it or not. He's actually enjoying the work most of the time, and he's almost always in complete charge of any situation he enters. I am crazy about Sam Spade as a character and know I couldn't possibly write anyone like him.
Part of the appeal in the film is that Humphrey Bogart is just so damn good at being Sam Spade that it's impossible to think of him as Rick in Casablanca or Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny. Yes, they look and sound the same, but the character at the heart is always more important to Bogart than being himself on screen. Here, he's tough and vulnerable, deadly serious and playful, tender hearted and absolutely cold-blooded. Yet he never seems contradictory; the character is just nuanced and written so well it makes an author's ego feel stomped upon. Nobody's that good.
Sam's supporting cast is so full of personalities it's almost embarrassing. Casper Gutman alone should have his own series of novels. Huge (in every direction) and of a bygone era, he actually believes he is acting within a set of rules, that he is a gentleman. Even when he's ordering people to be killed and threatening torture. He is the armchair Indiana Jones, a man who searches for rarities because he wants them for himself.
Usually "the girl" in such stories is either a flat-out femme fatale who is clearly leading our hero through her own plot only to discard him ruthlessly once he is of no use to her, or a dimwitted damsel who will surely need to be rescued at some point or another. Hammett's Miss Wonderlay/Leblanc/O'Shaughnessy has major elements of the first and pretends to be the second, but she's really neither. One of the great joys of the film is watching Mary Astor talk about how she's "been bad" and watching Bogart enjoy her discomfort. He's on to her from the first minute, and the movie's last few minutes of him trying to explain his code to her are among the best scenes appearing in any movie anywhere ever. The dialogue is almost verbatim from Hammett.
I'm not even mentioning Cairo or Wilmer Cook, Effie Perrine or Iva Archer, Tom Polhaus or Lt. Dundy. Each has a purpose and a personality, something lacking in the by-the-numbers books whose authors think character is simply something that facilitates plot points. They are people who would have their own stories to tell, and that's the point. Each of your characters is the star of his/her own book. They believe the story is about them, and who are you to argue?
So having experienced the 1941 Maltese Falcon as it should be seen, I can tell you confidently: Don't you dare believe character is only for cozies, or even that the "gimmick" in cozies is more important than their population. Pay more attention to plot than people at your own risk.
It is 35 days until Opening Day.
It’s that slow time of year. After the holiday rush, January and February are a drag. It may be a great time to stay inside and read, but I think most people are catching up on the “to-be-reads” or wallowing in all the gift books they received. Skies are gray; cold and wind are not the ideal conditions for shoppers to stroll our lovely little town looking at the cute boutiques.
Despite the overall dullness, there has been a lot of excitement in this little town of mine. Not the kind that brings tourists – the kind that pits otherwise nice, sane residents and business owners against one another. It’s not even a clear “residential versus business” battle; it’s a clash of outrageous personalities, fed by the opportunity to vent ad infinitum on social media, and those who line up on each side based on half-truths and untruths meant to sway – who? Sounds a lot like our national political situation, doesn’t it?
The details of the controversy are too convoluted to be explained in a blog post, and would only be read by those of you who have run out of Ambien. Whichever side is right or wrong, life will go on. What concerns me is that the resolution of the issues in dispute will have less impact than the way the debate was waged. Some parties took to Facebook, in local “groups” formed to convey information (e.g., “When is the power coming back on?” (Not even the electric company knows); “Why is the highway closed?” (Another trucker went through a New Jersey circle at high speed, load shifted); “Who knows a good dermatologist?” (Not me)) and used these groups as forums to personally attack others who disagreed with them. These were not anonymous trolls trying to be snarky or hurtful because they had nothing better to do with their time. These were clearly identified residents, business owners, and town officials. The controversy will subside, but I am not sure the damage can be undone.
In all fairness, most of those who were attacked refrained from responding in kind, and wrote only about their views on the matter at hand. Those of us who stayed out of the fray but read avidly formed opinions about the attackers that were more telling than any of the points they were trying to make about their targets, and gained new respect for those we were being told were idiots. I find it hard to believe that those graceful “idiots” who seemed to slough off the insults weren’t deeply hurt. The targets may not respond in kind or seek revenge, but I don’t see how they will ever view their tormentors as people they can trust or work with in the future.
What’s happening at the national level is troubling to me, but I am not impacted in my daily doings by the nastiness. I just turn off the news and pray that the sane majority turns out to vote in November. The local controversy, though, has gotten me thinking about what really is happening in our world. We seem to have all sorts of programs in the schools to teach the young that bullying is wrong. If a student in our high school had posted about a fellow student in the vitriolic tone that some adults in this community used, he or she would be subject to all sorts of discipline. Are we teaching them that it’s OK to do this when you’re an adult? Children learn from the way we behave, not from lectures on good behavior. Yet the abusive behavior is rampant in the media (even without the politicians). Reality shows seem to glorify “getting over” on someone, or at least out-shouting them. Ditto the talking heads on the news networks supposedly presenting opposing views, but actually trying be the loudest and most noticed. As the war for ratings continues, the ante is upped daily. The only good part is that the talking without listening, and at the same time, leads to such cacophony that nothing is heard by the viewer.
It does seem that the atmosphere of attack that we live in has actually convinced some otherwise intelligent people that the way to achieve one’s goals is to assault, at least verbally, anyone in the way, even if that “anyone” happens to have the authority to stop you in your tracks. I sat at a town council meeting Monday evening where the issue at hand was whether to disband the business development group that has been doing good work, but has refused to be accountable to the town council which is funding it with tax dollars. Many parties spoke for each side, and the council members listened, even extending the time for public comment until everyone was heard. I was appalled when one of the trustees of the business development group, who had been told in an earlier gathering of supporters of his own position that he should not speak because his Facebook posts had made him toxic, got up. As he attempted to plead his case to those who would decide, he made a nasty personal comment to one of the council members, whom he had attacked relentlessly online, and who had not responded to him, and followed it up with a “gotcha” grin. He seemed surprised when the vote went against him. Does anyone really believe that if your snark is clever enough, you’ll be rewarded?
Several commenters at this meeting suggested mediation as an alternative to disbanding a group which has done some fine work. Sadly, things had reached a state similar to many couples on the brink of divorce; there is so much anger that any counseling or mediation is impossible. This anger was fueled by the examples we see daily of winning by bullying and the ease with which this can be accomplished on social media. Instead of telling my friends in conversation what a jerk I think my neighbor is, I can now tell the entire community. I win! I show how clever I am by humiliating someone I have to live near and work with. And then wonder why nothing gets done.
On a brighter note, there was another major issue decided at Monday evening’s town council meeting, and this one with little controversy. An aging historic hotel in the center of town has been vacant for eight years, and has gone through two unsuccessful attempts to redevelop it. Despite the display of childish behavior by some of our citizens over the last few months, a developer presented beautiful plans which seem to have a chance of succeeding. He also has the resources to accomplish it. The lovely old building will be leveled, but it has been so neglected it’s about to fall down. Sentiment over the years has been to preserve it, but even those of us who love old landmarks have faced the reality that it cannot be saved and has become an eyesore dragging down the main street. Sentiment at the meeting was to mourn our loss but move on. There was actually a lot of mature adult behavior in this case. I guess there is hope! (If you want to see where all the famous reporters stayed during the Lindbergh trial, visit Flemington soon. Or you can see where the photographers did their work by visiting my shop.)
by Erin Mitchell
I’ve been using the term “Book Advocate” for a few years now. It started because there were cases where “book blogger” or “reader” or even “loudmouth” didn’t quite describe the group I was referring to, even though Book Advocates can be some, all, or none of these.
I’m pleased to see the term popping up more frequently, because I think it respects and acknowledges the value that Book Advocates bring to the proverbial party. (And yes, I’m taking full credit for it!) This morning, I saw that NetGalley is using it prominently on their site, and I realized that they’re defining it (much) differently than I do, so I thought it might be helpful to explain the term as I use it, why Book Advocates are important, and how you can find them.
Before I start, I should mention: There are, of course, exceptions to each of these "rules," which aren't really rules at all.
Some Book Advocates write reviews, online or elsewhere. But not all do. Their influence might come in the form of direct recommendations to friends, family, colleagues, frenemies, strangers, or book club members. They are people who talk about your book, but not (just) through reviews.
A lot of Book Advocates get ARCs and/or galleys for free. Sometimes they request them. But they also buy books, for themselves and others, and check them out from the library.
Your Number One Fan
Book Advocates are different from your Annies (see: Misery). They’re not the folks who send you five emails every week, comment on every single Facebook post, reply to each of your Tweets, and know your home address. (These people can be valuable too, of course…or scary, but that’s a subject for a different post.) Book Advocates are the ones who know—and talk about—your stories because they love them, and want other readers to experience them. They appreciate your storytelling. That simple.
Book Advocates are the people who clear their calendars to read your new release, and also make a point of reading your backlist.
Book Advocates participate in their reading community, online and in person. They chime in on discussions. They go to events. They have friends who read and ones who don’t. They are the people who, when you meet them, will gush and go all fangirlorboy, and then will have a substantive conversation with you.
Some Book Advocates work in the publishing industry, but many do not. And here’s a real shocker: Not everyone who works in or near publishing is a Book Advocate. Not every author. Not every publicist. Not every editor. Ok, you get the idea. Some people work in publishing because it seemed like a good idea when they started. To some, it’s just a job, and often one they’re good at, but they’re not Book Advocates.
Most authors and books only have a handful of Book Advocates, like maybe five. You’re really lucky if you have ten of these folks. They’re not a quantity proposition.
So, why do Book Advocates matter? Simple. Few books get the marketing oomph from publishers to be breakout hits. Book Advocates won’t make or break your book, but they are the people who support your storytelling career. And sometimes they are the architects of a book’s success.
Ultimately, Book Advocates are people who love your books, and share their adoration in meaningful ways with other people.
How do you find your Book Advocates? Short answer is, “pay attention.” And whatever you do, pleasepleaseplease don’t pay attention to these folks only to ignore them as soon as you find a modicum of success. (Yes, I’m bitter because yes, this has happened to me.)
To find your Book Advocates, look for people who…
You’ll know them when you find them. And when you do, treasure them.
Two unconnected things first, then I really will post about something interesting, at least to me.
One: today is my lovely sister’s birthday. A big, nasty one with a zero at the end, but we’re not talking about that, or even noticing it. The chances of her seeing this are small, since she’s already en route for a great day out, but happy birthday all the same, Jan. And the age thing... You kind of stop thinking about it after a while. Until the next big one approaches.
Two: When Microsoft updated all kinds of things last week whether I wanted it to or not, it swallowed up all my e-mail contacts. Or more accurately, when I switched the computer on the following day, all my e-mail contacts had disappeared, and the only thing out of the ordinary that had happened was those updates, but I suppose it’s not beyond possibility that the two aren’t connected, but I’m a natural sceptic. I’ve retrieved about half the contact details that went missing; if you think yours might be among the other half, send me an e-mail and I’ll put it back where it belongs.
Enough of that. Today’s real matter is the cold. More precisely, the way cold weather affects crime fiction – apart from making me reluctant to stray far from my beautifully warm home, and therefore giving me more time to read said crime fiction. I’m currently about three-quarters through a book set in Alaska, the part of it which is inside the Arctic Circle. And as I lay huddled under a normally cosy duvet last night, devouring a couple more chapters as husband watched football on TV downstairs, I found myself wondering if our heating system had broken down.
It hadn’t. Nor had I forgotten to put my pyjamas on. It was just that the author’s description of two people in the cab of an eighteen-wheeler without the engine running, when the temperature outside was minus forty-something, was so damn good.
And it got me thinking about other books set in sub-zero temperatures, though in general not Alaska. If it’s done well, you shiver as you read, even if it’s high summer in the real world.
Ann Cleeves’s Raven Black. One of Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series, though without checking I can’t recall which. Chris Nickson’s Cold Cruel Winter, second in his Richard Nottingham series. Others which I could list, but you probably have your own favourites, so I’ll stop at three.
They all reminded me of a small-scale theatre production in which the first act was high summer, and second the depths of winter, and the real world was sweltering in a heatwave. Yes, guys, I shivered through that second act. And last night, when the radiator in the bedroom was hurling waves of warmth into the room so that it was seventy degrees plus, under my duvet it was cold.
It’s shivery-cold outside at the moment; winter seems to have arrived at last after weeks of perpetual cool, wet autumn. But sitting here in my lovely warm office, I’m positively toasty. I’m about to go and get some lunch, though, and will probably head off to Alaska (in a literary sense only) while I eat. So I’ll come back shivering.
And that, my friends, is the art of good writing.
And yet I just wrote a memo indicating that June 1 was too early to expect something to happen because "Publishing at its best isn't that efficient."
Spring is around the corner. Pitchers and Catchers have reported. And just think: By the time June 1 comes around, the primary season will be over and the torture that is this political winter will be over.
In the meantime, here is an onion ring that is in the shape of the Obama logo.
A week ago today I put the first finishing touches (there will be more months from now) on the second book in a series that won't start until about this time next year. And if you think that's confusing, imagine how I feel. I'm two books in now and I'm fairly sure I'm the only person on earth who's read the whole first one.
As it happens--since it occurred to me at one point to add it all up--that manuscript, due for 2018, marks the 20th novel that will be published under one (or both) of my names. That went fast. And I'm not counting the two novellas, one short (10,000 words is short?) story and at least two complete unpublished novels I can remember. There are also two nonfiction books in print and a number of proposals that have at least 50 pages of novel in them and were not sold. That's the biz.
The thing about finishing a manuscript is that it's a real living contradiction. The writer (or at least me, as I speak for no other writers) feels the weight of the world lifted from his shoulders. This enormous task begun months ago has been completed and one can stop thinking about it when trying to fall asleep at night. For a while. It feels like reaching the top of Mt. Everest, only with air. I understand that I haven't written a major piece of Literature, but a book is not a shopping list. Celebration seems appropriate.
But the rest of the world, including those with whom we live and work, have no sense of this. I say, "I finished the book today," and they respond, "Oh, good. When should we start dinner?" There's something just a tad anti-climactic about the moment.
(The same is true of the day the book goes on sale in stores and elsewhere, by the way. A few people post "happy pub day" on your Facebook page and the rest of the world goes about its business.)
This is not a complaint; I don't expect ANYBODY to bake me a cake when I finish writing a draft, believe me. There's just a dichotomy between the way the author's mind works and the reality in the rest of the world. It's like the world of a Donald Trump supporter: We have a feeling we know to be real, but the rest of the world, operating rationally, does not recognize the commitment.
People like to talk about how writing a book (or writing anything else) is a solitary pursuit. Aside from those who collaborate, writing is something done by oneself; it's true. But we're not all that alone. We have the characters in our heads who need to show up, three-dimensional and breathing, on the page. And they are an eclectic and interesting bunch, at least in my case. I have to imagine Alison, Paul and Maxie, then Samuel and Janet and Vivian, then the (upcoming) Rachel Goldman and Duffy Madison, then the (even more upcoming) Kay Powell, her parents Jay and Ellie and the cast of characters, some of whom are not so human, who surround her.
But we also work with actual walking-around people like our agents (thank you for keeping me busy, Josh!), editors, copy editors, cover artists (although to be fair we just see finished work) and booksellers all the time. My life is so solitary that I have over 1,200 Facebook friends, and I actually know about 50 of them.
Others are readers, and if you're a smart writer, you have to have them in mind while you're working, too. Not that a writer should ever write something just because s/he believes readers want it. The adages about writing what you want to write and hoping people will like it are true up to a point. The healthy way to have readers in mind as we write is to remember what they know and don't know about the plot we're concocting, how they (hopefully) feel about our characters and the situations we write, and what we need to do to best convey the story in the most effective way.
When a writer finishes a manuscript, the temptation is to shout from the rooftops: It's DONE! I've DONE it! The key is to remember that everyone else is saying either, "Oh, good. When should we start dinner?" or "When do I get to read it?" And most times we don't have the answer to either question, at least not one the person asking will find adequate.
More than anything else, though, what finishing a manuscript means is: It's almost time to start the next one. And I did. I had allowed myself 14 days before the next writing had to take place. Instead I started in three days. I couldn't stand the inactivity in my head.
Writers are nuts.
P.S. It is 35 days until Opening Day.
Or maybe you are and I'm late to the party. (Marilyn Thiele already knows how terrific the books are.) I picked up The Drowning from my library's leisure reading section and was immediately hooked. Then found out to my delight that it was part of an eight-book series of crime novels that take place in the Swedish resort town of Fjällbacka, which is a real place that I now want to visit (even though the main characters in the series find the summer tourists irritating).
The novels have everything I want in my mystery books. Lovable characters who are interesting and flawed, a little bit of humor here and there, and the kind of pacing that makes you want to call in sick to work (even though I would never do that) (I really wouldn't -- but oh how I wish I could sometimes).
As of this writing, the official author site had been hacked, so I won't link to it. Presumably the problem will be cleared up quickly so that Läckberg's 12 million readers can find out what's next for the author.
I have to be somewhere else at 12.45 today, so I had my morning all planned out, to make sure all the essential stuff got done before I leave.
Like this blog post.
I even knew what I was going to post about.
But you know what they say about good intentions. And didn’t John Lennon say something about life happening when you’re busy making plans? And you may know what I say about technology.
Warning: rant coming up.
When I was offered Windows 10 free of charge a few months ago, I thought, OK, Microsoft don’t often give stuff like that away. So I downloaded it. And it was fine. Mostly.
But it has one little habit which I’m finding increasingly difficult to live with, mainly because it seems to choose exactly the time I least need the hassle. I’m telling you, it knows. I can see it rubbing its little hands together in glee as it puts my life on hold for the foreseeable future.
It turns itself off and installs updates at ten minutes’ notice, giving me two options: do it in ten minutes, or do it now. Not, do it tomorrow when you have more time, Lynne; or better still, when would it be convenient to do this, Lynne?
The consequence this morning was that I lost the use of my computer for an hour and a half while Windows 10 provided me with updates I probably shan’t even use. And now I’m almost out of time to do all those essential things before I have to go and be somewhere else. And that’s ANNOYING.
Are you listening, Microsoft? I don’t suppose for a moment that you are, but in case anyone is – can you please tell me if there’s a way to schedule those pesky updates at a convenient time?
Can anyone, Microsoft or not? I’d be so grateful!
Rant over. I have to go and be somewhere else. Next week I’ll post about something more interesting.
There's a problem with writing crime fiction, specifically a mystery novel. You have to figure out who the guilty party is in advance.
Sure, snicker if you like, but it's easy being the reader. You just follow the story along the way the writer laid it out, perhaps trying to outwit the author and the characters, but finally able to simply pass judgment on the work. You liked it or you didn't, and that's the way it should be, but you didn't have to come up with the concept and more specifically the solution to the crime before you picked up the book.
This is no indictment of readers; I cherish each and every one who ever decides to pick up one of my books and read it. I'm saying there's a responsibility the author has to be prepared and I don't always manage that.
I am a pantser.
That's correct, I write by the seat of my pants. I start with a concept and let it dictate the rest. I make up the story as it goes. Quite often the 1,000 words that get written on a given day have a surprise for the reader that was just as big a revelation to the author. It just happened to me yesterday but you won't get to see that shocker until 2018. Sorry about that.
Choosing a culprit is no small matter and it should, in my mind, be done early. But I almost never do that. For one thing, I'm afraid that if I know from page 1 who did the crime I will write that character with the knowledge in my head and s/he will become so conspicuously and obviously guilty the fun for the reader will be drained right out of the book and have to be mopped up off my office floor when the file is sent to the publisher.
So it's not often that I single out a killer before I start writing. It's important to have a number of suspects the reader can meet and wonder about for the body of the novel. I go through the same process as I write. Let the sleuth dig for information and see where it leads. There is a line through my books even if you don't see it right off the top. One thing leads to another. Eventually a solution to the mystery will present itself.
It's not that I wait until the "reveal" page to decide on the murderer (although to be honest I have done that once or twice). Somewhere through the process, usually when I'm trying to distract my mind at night trying to sleep, a character will present him/herself and I will hit on the right solution. Keep in mind, the best type of killer (for a novel; the real kinds I try to avoid whenever possible) is one who makes sense in the context of the story--who could do the crime, who has motive, who benefits from the death of the victim, who is capable of using the weapon of choice--and also be something of a surprise to the reader, because they seem to like that sort of thing.
After this many novels (the one I'm writing now will be #20 and if you think that's astonishing, imagine how I feel) it's hard not to repeat oneself, and that's a problem. The last thing a mystery writer wants to be is predictable. And by extension, the guilty party must not be one who jumps out on page 18 yelling, "It was me! I did it!" Despite my best efforts to create fun characters and put laughs into the prose, there appear to be people out there who read these things for the plot. Go figure. And if they see the solution coming from miles away, it dampens their enjoyment of the experience.
As an author, you don't want that.
So if you're writing a mystery story of any kind (and let's face it, any story that starts with a question--which is almost every story--is a mystery story) and it happens to involve a murder, be careful about your choice of killer. Be crafty. Be sly. In some cases, be tricky.
My best advice, if your process is like mine: Don't decide just yet. There'll be time for that later. But don't wait too long or the revision process will be agony.
P.S. Pitchers and catchers report in 3 days.