Thursday, November 27, 2014

Admitting ignorance and other random thoughts on Thanksgiving

This past weekend, I attended the National Conference of Teachers of English with thousands of my closest friends. The event ran Thursday through Sunday in Washington, DC, with workshops and lectures every 90 minutes. It was exhilarating and exhausting.

I learned a few things about the book industry I didn't know. Among them, young adult authors are enormously popular with teachers. The lines for signed copies would have led you to believe the Beatles were at the event. I also learned just how ignorant I am: aside from Rick Riordan and J.K. Rowling, I know of few other YA authors.

It was Stephen King who said (I paraphrase) if you're not in touch with the popular culture of your times, you're missing out. I'm missing out, so I picked up a few titles and will dive in.

In other news, I was thrilled with a couple milestones this week: the Mystery Guild selected Bitter Crossing as a book club choice; and my agent sold audio rights for all three books on my current contract.

Audio books might not mean as much to some as they do to me. As a dyslexic, I love audio books. I still have boxes of books on tape in my garage. Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexics helped me get through graduate school. My love of books and writing was certainly fostered by audio books. So the sale means a lot to me.

I have much to be grateful for on this day, mostly my wife Lisa and our three daughters Delaney, Audrey, and Keeley.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Promote That Book!

My book, Fatal Brushstroke, was officially released November 18th so I’ve been busy promoting it both online and in person. This is a new experience for me, but I’ve seen plenty of other authors promote their books so I’ve taken some inspiration from them and have come up with a few ideas of my own. Here are some of the promotion methods I’m using this time around. I’m trying to do as much as I can while still making sure I have time to write and finish the next book:
  • I’m a member of the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime. We do a lot of library events throughout Southern California, so I gave my information to our Speakers Bureau Director so I could be considered for events. Several months before my book was officially released, I was on a panel at a library near where I live. It was a great learning experience. If you have something similar in your neck of the woods, be sure to take advantage of it.
  • I attended my first Bouchercon in Long Beach a few days before my book was officially released. I was on a panel, Add Spice to Your Crafts, featuring authors of mysteries that involve hobbies. I was also part of the new author breakfast where I gave a 50-second spiel about my book to a room full of attendees. Both were great experiences, but I realized afterward I never took any photos. Lesson learned: take photos to share on social media platforms. Luckily, the moderator of our panel, Dru Ann Love, wrote a great account of her Bouchercon experience that included a photo of the panel I was on. Check out her account here. Fellow Henery Press author, Gigi Pandian, also blogged about her experience at B’con. She snapped a photo of me at the breakfast and posted it on her blog. Check out her account here
    My book in book room at B'con. It's real!
  • I’ve also had an opportunity to partner with fellow Sister in Crime, Diane Vallere, on a 4-stop tour of Southern California bookstores.
    (We call it the Paint and Polyester tour. The protagonist in her latest book, Suede to Rest, is named Polyester. My protagonist is a tole painter.) Both books are craft-based cozies so they’re a good fit to promote together. With 7 books under her belt (some of them self-published), Diane has tried a number of different methods of promotion so there’s a lot I can learn from her. I feel lucky to be able to draw on her wealth of experience. Partnering with another author on a bookstore tour has been great. And I’ve been better about taking pictures during the tour so I now have photographs to post online.
    Diane and Sybil at Mystery Ink
  • In addition to the in-person appearances, I opted for a 2 week blog tour that commenced the day after my book was officially released and is still going on. Type-Mer Emeritus Hannah Dennison told me about Great Escapes Blog Tours. Lori Caswell puts together free 1-2 week blog tours for cozy authors. All I had to do was give her details about my book, write some blog posts, and answer some interview questions. She took care of finding the appropriate blogs for me to visit and setting up the events. This was such a relief for me not to have to do all the work myself. I cannot speak highly enough of Lori. So, if you’re a cozy author, contact her and see if she can help you out. (By the way, Hannah will be back doing a guest post here on Type M the weekend of December 6th. Be sure to visit and see what she has to say.) Lesson learned: If you don’t know how to do something ask an author who has gone before you.
  • I sponsored a couple Goodreads giveaways of ARCs of my book both right after I received the ARCs and right before the book came out. I reached 1000 people I might not have otherwise. For me it was worth doing.
  • Other random things I’ve done: (a) given bookmarks advertising my book to my hairstylist who passed them out to her other customers. (I didn't force this on her, she volunteered.) I’ve since discovered a number of them have bought the book. (b) given bookmarks to friends and family who have passed them out to people they thought might be interested. (c) held a launch party celebrating my book’s release. Besides being loads of fun, I did sell quite a few books. (d) written guest posts on a few other blogs in addition to my blog tour.
  • For the future: Since my book’s protagonist is a tole painter, I’m looking into ways to reach that audience. The college I attended has an alumni magazine so I’m planning on writing a blurb for it announcing my book’s release. (Yes, I know I should have done this before, but sometimes things just have to wait.)
That’s my take on promotion as a new author. I’m always looking for new ideas. What methods do you use to promote your books?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The flexibility of English

I typed the above title for my post this week with trepidation. I mean, instead of one of my weekly ramblings, it could be the title of a doctoral thesis. I will endeavor to be more brief – and quicker in production!

I am by no means a language specialist, but I’m always struck by the myriad of ways things can be said in English and turn out to have much the same meaning. I’m sure that can be done in French or Italian, etc., but I have heard people with more linguistic skill than I possess make much the same comment.

I deal with trying to change the length of sentences or phrases all the time in my day job of graphic design. Sometimes I don’t have the luxury. The copy I’m handed has to stay the way it is and it’s up to my skill and creativity as a typographer to make it all fit and look good (and looking good is the real trick as well as a complete pain a lot of the time).

(Now, what you just didn’t see behind the scenes as I worked on the above paragraph, was that I had to change up some of the words. In this case it was all to quickly polish the prose. The ‘as well as’ in the parenthetical phrase was used to replace an ‘and’.)

Quite often I’ll look at a particularly long sentence when revising a manuscript, and the first thing that crosses my mind is, What the hell were you thinking when you wrote that mess? My second thought then is, Do you even need it? Generally, the answer is yes. There’s some sort of information that needs to be included.

(My first choice for ‘included’ which closes the above paragraph was ‘in there’. Upon reflection it seemed a bit too casual.)

With my two most recent publications, The Boom Room, and Roses for a Diva, I was faced contract stipulations on word limits, so using smart word choices was more important than normal. With the added requirement of simple, clear two- and three-syllable words for Rapid Read books (The Boom Room is one of these), you can see how critical flexibility in vocabulary can become.

I like to think I have a pretty extensive vocabulary, but faced with many books from the 1800s and early 1900s, I have to read with a dictionary at my elbow. Last time I read a book by E.M. Forster, I had to look up about an average of one word per page.

The problem is that the vocabulary in everyday use has been steadily shrinking for a number of years. Those unfamiliar words in Forster? They’re no longer in general usage (if they ever were). I mourn their loss.

But I won’t be using any of them. Why? Because I don’t think the average reader wants to read one of my novels with a dictionary at their elbow. If I were writing “literature”, I would be more tempted to pepper my prose a few obscure words (if only to annoy reviewers and professors of literature).

Successful writing these days seems to require an immediacy that precludes long, multi-phrase sentences and obscure words.

Within those sorts of restrictions, I’m glad that our choice of words in English is still fairly wide. Want an interesting exercise? Get your hands on a thesaurus from eighty or a hundred years ago, and compare it with a more modern one – meaning one that has been updated to reflect current vocabulary and word usage. The difference between the two is quite striking.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Engraved: Canadian Stories of WWI

By Vicki Delany

I am a crime writer. I write novels and novellas of crime fiction.  I am not a short story writer, although I wrote a few of those when I was starting out as we are all told we should do.  I sometimes incorporate real history and real places into my work, but I do write fiction.

But I decided to step out of my comfort zone one time when I had a story to tell and someplace to tell it.

When the call went out from the Canadian literary publisher Seraphim Editions for creative non-fiction stories about World War One, I immediately knew I wanted to take part.  I had never written creative non-fiction at all. 

Why not give it a try, I thought.

I had a story that needed to be told.

All of his long life my maternal grandfather, Henry Hall, had been a keen reader and had an intense interest in everything around him, people and politics in particular.  When he got older and his eyesight began to fail he found he couldn't read as much as he had enjoyed in the past.  But he could write letters and he wrote long letters to his grandchildren full of observations about the current political situation, and news of all the other members of the family. Then, over one year, he began adding tidbits about his memories of the past in letters to one of my cousins.

She saved all these letters and bound then into a book. Fascinating reading, and I’m delighted to be able to share them with my own children.

My granddad (far left) and his brothers

So young
In particular he wrote about his time in the trenches in France and Belgium in 1914 – 15. He didn't write much about the fighting or the battles he’d been in, but about him and his “chums” wandering the countryside.  His intense interest in everyone and everything around him, comes out loud and clear in the letters. One central story is how he’d decided he had to get rid of his standard-issue Canadian Ross Rifle (which was very second rate and eventually became a political scandal back home) and get a better one. So he set about to steal one.

And that became the grain of my story for Engraved: Canadian Stories of World War I.

About all I had to do was to add dialogue as I imagined it might have gone, a bit of colour (or lack thereof actually, considering we’re talking about the mud of the trenches) some weather.

I’m proud that Bernadette Rule, editor of the anthology, liked my granddad’s story, and I’m proud to be featured in that marvellous book. It looks at the war mostly from the point of view of people you don’t hear much about: army nurses, family back at home, and ordinary soldiers. It forms them all in to a powerful book with a message of pacifism and hope.

So far Engraved is only available in trade paperback, but can be found at all the usual sources. If your library doesn’t have a copy, why not ask them to get one?  

Saturday, November 22, 2014

When Opportunity knocked, I said, go away

America is the Land of Opportunity. While we seek opportunity, sometimes it is thrust right at us and even when the chance to get ahead is this obvious, we might fail to see what fate has dropped in our lap, gift wrapped.

Years ago, during my call up from the Army reserves for Desert Storm (the easy war against Iraq), in the latter part of my deployment I was stationed in Washington, DC. My boss, another reservist, a lieutenant colonel from Utah, suggested that while we were in DC, we should visit our congressional representatives and say hello.

At the time, I lived in California. I called my local congressman and senators, all Democrats. Interestingly, the common response from every office was, "Are you calling to contribute to the congressman's campaign?" Well, no. "Then why are you bothering us?" When I explained that I was returning from the war overseas, the reaction was a big yawn. My congressman from Fresno did agree to meet and I arrived all spiffy in my Class As. One of his assistants told me the congressman was running late. And late. Later still. He never bothered to show up.

My boss had better luck arranging visits with his reps, all Republicans I have to add and none of them asked if we were there to contribute money. I tagged along to visit Senator Orrin Hatch, then the third-most powerful man in the US Senate. Senator Hatch's office looked like an executive suite in a five-star hotel. His secretary was an older, very professional woman who wore a red dress and lots of gold jewelry. She led us to the senator's inner sanctum. I remember black leather furniture, glass cabinets filled with expensive gratuities, and a trophy wall of photos showing the senator with celebrities and honchos of every stripe.

This was the first time I'd ever had a private meeting with such a political big shot. Senator Hatch oozed power and charisma and yet he made it seem like the colonel and I were doing him a favor by taking time out of our lives to visit him. Man, this guy was slick.

He asked my boss and me if there was a favor he could do for us.

Now, to put this in perspective. Lobbyists pay hundreds of thousands of dollars just to sit with a man like Senator Hatch. Not only did we have an hour of his time, he was asking us if there was something that we needed. Within a few weeks I was about to get mustered out and sent home, a jobless veteran. Could I have used a favor from one of the most powerful men in America?

Fuck yeah.

So what did the colonel and I do?

"No," we both answered, "we don't need no favors."

I'm sure that Senator Hatch secretly rolled his eyes at these two clueless goobers in front of him. So he asked again, "Are you sure I can't do something for you?" Wink, wink. Hint, hint.

Meanwhile, my inner Mario must have been picking his nose because the outer Mario answered. "No, I don't think so."

For a third time, Senator Orrin Hatch, a man with his hand on all kinds of levers in the US government, asked us, "Are you sure I can't do anything for you?"

And for the third time, the colonel and I shuffled our feet and replied, "Aw shucks, Senator, we don't need nuthin." Our time was up. We shook hands with our host and left. I imagine that after his secretary ushered us out the door, he said to her, "Goddamn, weren't those two a couple of dense dumb asses."

So dense that it didn't dawn on me until much later, when I was struggling to find any kind of work, that I once had a US Senator offer me the golden key of opportunity and I had said, "Thanks, but no thanks."

Friday, November 21, 2014

Food, Exercise, and Writing

I admit it. I would be a great hypochondriac. Luckily, I'm usually too busy to think about what my body's doing until something happens to remind me I should be attending. That happened this morning. I woke up with a topic for today's blog post – crime theories in crime fiction – and my scribbled notes ready beside my lap top. I sat down, looked out the window at the gray morning, and felt my energy draining away. Along with that loss of energy went my enthusiasm for my post. I spent twenty minutes trying to get it to come together and finally gave up. I decided to have some breakfast to see if that would help.

A famous cereal company would be pleased to hear me say that a bowl of their little O's (with almond milk and a banana) did wonders for my mood and got me back to my laptop. Or, maybe it was the big mug of green tea with honey and lemon that did the trick. In any case, I had breakfast and I was ready to write. That got me thinking about how good nutrition – as opposed to the half-dozen miniature candy canes I munched last night - and exercise might improve my stamina and concentration. Would eating right make me a better writer? Would putting on my running shoes help to garner great reviews?

Somewhere in my bookshelves, hiding from view right now, is a book that I bought years ago. I can't remember the title, but the book is advice about nutrition and exercise for writers. As I recall, the author (herself a writer) advocated sensible strategies such as taking a break from the keyboard to go for a walk and eating healthy meals at the table rather than gobbling snacks in front of the computer. Of course, by now, we all know what we should be doing. But knowing and doing are two different things (my cliche for the day). 

However, I think I may be saved from myself by Harry, my new cat. According to his vet, Harry (weighing in at 19+ pounds) should lose 2 or 3 pounds. He's hefty even for a Maine Coon mix. I don't think Harry understood the discussion we had right in front of him. But now that he is on prescription cat food for his finicky stomach, he seems to be naturally gravitating toward getting more movement into his life. Sure, he likes to sit and look out the window and have a nap in the sun. But he gets up and stretches. He strolls through the house. And now and then, he jumps up and does a dash into the next room. Harry is ready to play any time I reach for the laser light. Only a few minutes at a time – when he's bored, he strolls over and indicates he's done – but Harry is getting up and moving. He's an eight year old, but he is calling on his inner kitten. Want to bet which one of us is going to be looking slim and fit when he goes in for his three month weigh-in?

It is not New Year's Day, but I hereby pledge to spend the next three months getting into shape – fruits, veggies, and healthy protein, exercise at least five days a week, get 7-8 hours sleep. . . can't wait! Three months from now, I'm going to be in shape and ready to write my way onto the best-seller list.

On my way to buy new running shoes (well, walk/run shoes). . .I will not stop for a nap first. I'm a writer on a mission. . .not to be outdone by a cat.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thanksgiving. Already?

I've spent the past two weeks holed up, writing furiously on the next Alafair book, trying to get the first 100 pages in some kind of order so I can send it to my editor for her approval sometime shortly after Thanksgiving. I barely check my email or Facebook or any other electronic media. My house is badly in need of a dusting and a sweep. Meals have been slap-dash affairs. I'm in a bit of a panic because I can't see how I'm going to get this all to come together. In other words, same-old same-old.

And – oh yeah! Thanksgiving is next week for us United Statesians!* This morning Don and I grabbed brunch at a salad buffet restaurant and discussed the menu for the first time this season. Thanksgiving has been something of a problem for us for the past several years since we (mainly he) has so many dietary restrictions. We've been vegetarian for the past thirty-five years, though I've relaxed my meatlessness a lot lately when I'm not at home. Sometimes it's just too much trouble to ask what is in the soup. On top of that, Don is supposed to avoid too many oxalates, so no greens, rhubarb, strawberries, beans or pumpkin. Since the cancer operation, no refined sugar or pure fruit juices, either, and certainly no artificial sweeteners. Stevia is all right, if it's pure stevia leaf and no dextrose.

Have you ever tried to make a non-pumpkin, non-sugar pumpkin pie? Believe it or not, it can be done. Don has become an expert stevia-sweetened pastry chef. He can make a "pumpkin" pie out of pureed butternut squash and stevia which I defy you to tell the difference between it and the real thing. It's the spices that make the pie, I think.

Substituting squash for pumpkin is no big deal, anyway. Ever tried sweet potato pie? My grandmother used to make pies out of the most unlikely ingredients. Whatever she had on hand. Apple cider vinegar pie tastes like apples. One of my favorites was her Ritz cracker pies. I haven't had that since...well, practically forever. The crackers dissolved into a pudding-like consistency. I don't know how she did it.

Speaking of family recipes, I contributed a recipe for my aunt Loreen's chocolate gravy, as well as a little writing and a little relationship advice, to a wonderful new cookbook edited by Lois Winston called Bake, Love, Write: 105 Authors Share Dessert Recipes and Advice on Love and Writing. The cookbook is available on Kobo, iTunes, Nook, and Amazon, in paper and as an ebook. You might come up with something new and fabulous for Thanksgiving. What could be better?
* Many years ago I was checking into a hotel in London, and in the space on the form where I was supposed to put my nationality, I wrote “American”. The clerk looked at it and said, "don't you think that's arrogant? What about Canadians and Mexicans? They're from the Americas, too." To which I replied, "What do you suggest? United Statesian?" Yes, he was rude, but dang it, I never forgot that, and now whether I say it or not, I think United Statesian every time.