Monday, July 23, 2018

Working for Other People.

I went shopping today.  When I went to the checkout, only four manned tills were open, all with a long queue, so of course I went to the self-check-out instead.  You notice I call it 'self-checkout', not 'automated' checkout.  It's not automated.  If I didn't operate it, it would just sit there.  So the supermarket obtained my work free, and pocketed the profit.

Then I went to fill up the car.  It was raining; I stood outside filling up with the smelly nozzle and then went across to pay the cashier who was sitting there, warm and dry.  Remember the days when you sat in your car, warm and dry and with nice clean hands while the paid assistant filled it up, wiped the windscreen and collected the cash?  'Self-service' - huh!  We're not serving ourselves, we're serving the company. More free labor, done by muggins here.

Never mind the customer. Now it is all about the big companies' profits while down at the bottom of the food chain, we suckers give our services free   Or, moving into the area closest to our hearts, or at least our wallets, for derisory financial return.

A comprehensive report on authors' earnings in Britain disclosed that since 2005, authors have seen a 42% drop in earnings.  The average annual income is now £10,500, and only 50% of authors rise above that figure.

Well, we often have it explained to is that it's because there's is no money in publishing..  But let's take the example of Penguin Random House.( A random example, you could call it. Couldn't resist that -sorry.) Profits in 2005 were $1.828 m.  And in 2017?  $3.359m.

Book sales in Britain are booming - up 7% this year. That's on the back of our work - no authors, no book sales. I guess if you work in publishing, you can expect an increase in  wages which will already be well above the minimum wage level, and possibly a bonus as well, but I doubt whether many of us will find this reflected in our own income.  Happy, indeed, the author who, for hours worked, earns anything approaching the minimum wage.

Books are cheaper than ever before and Amazon takes care that it will stay that way.  It makes more profit when it sells more books and sees to it that publishers fall into line.  And of course the royalty on every £10 book sold is less than if it were £12. So, just like the supermarket, just like the gas station, the big company benefits from our loss.

We go on doing it for a number of different reasons.  Most of us feel driven to write.  Most of us get huge pleasure out of seeing our books in print and get real joy from hearing about the pleasure we give to others.  Most of us like earning such money as we are offered.

But sometimes, on a curmudgeonly day when figures like these come out,  I do feel really quite cross about it.  Quite cross.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Weekend Guest Blogger: Reed Farrel Coleman

Called a hard-boiled poet by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan and the noir poet laureate in the Huffington Post, Reed Farrel Coleman is the New York Times-bestselling author of thirty novels, short stories, essays, and poetry. He writes the Jesse Stone novels for the estate of the late Robert B. Parker and has been hired by film director Michael Mann to write the prequel novel to the movie Heat. Reed is a four-time Edgar Award nominee in three different categories and a four-time recipient of the Shamus Award for Best PI Novel of the Year. He lives with his wife on Long Island.

Bob’s Company

By Reed Farrel Coleman

Recalling those days in 2013, I realize what a risk we were all taking. Probably a good thing I didn’t overthink it back then. Also a good thing that neither the estate of the late Robert B. Parker nor GP Putnam Sons had a bout of buyer’s remorse. I had hired on to take over the authorship of the bestselling Jesse Stone series. When I was offered the chance, not only didn’t I overthink it. I guess I didn’t think about it at all. I jumped. And as with many of the best things in life, jumping was the way to go. But you can’t avoid the thinking forever.

Having taken the gig, I had a lot of things to figure out. Should I try to imitate Bob’s writing style? How could I be true to Jesse and yet make him my own? These two questions are actually bound together, because the language a writer uses, the style he chooses, affect how the reader sees the character. And believe me, when you take on a beloved character, one portrayed on TV by Tom Selleck, you better have some idea of what you’re doing. You see why it was a good thing I didn’t overthink it before saying yes?

I’ve told the story many times about how my conversation with my friend and colleague Tom Schreck helped me decide how to handle taking on this responsibility. Tom is a huge Parker fan—even has a cat named Spenser—and an even bigger Elvis Presley fan. When I told Tom that I wasn’t sure if I should try to imitate Bob Parker’s style, he said this: “Reed, I’ve seen the best Elvis impersonators in the world. Some of them are really amazing, but there are two things I can’t get past. No matter how good they are, I never forget it isn’t really Elvis up there and they can never do anything new. They’re trapped.” Those words decided how I would handle the series. I decided to be true to the characters and to the format—short chapters, lots of dialogue, lots of banter between Molly and Jesse—but that the style would develop as I wrote the novels.

Well, my fifth Jesse Stone novel, Robert B. Parker’s Colorblind, is due out on September 11, 2018. The first four I’ve done have all made the New York Times list. I give the credit for that to how well the reading public loves the Jesse Stone character and, I guess, to the fact that I’ve made some good choices. Still, through the first three books, Jesse never quite felt like my character. I was always very conscious as I wrote of Bob Parker’s presence. It wasn’t quite like asking myself what would Jesus do, but it was something like that. Not until I wrote Robert B. Parker’s The Hangman’s Sonnet, my fourth Jesse novel, did Jesse begin to feel even a little bit like my character. Oddly, I hope he never feels totally like mine. I enjoy Bob’s company and would hate it if he ever stopped looking over my shoulder.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

This week in the life of an American and an American Writer

I’m away from home this week, on a consulting job in central Massachusetts, where I’m leading a workshop for a group of excellent high school teachers. After a long day on Monday, I returned to my hotel room, sat down with a sandwich (a consultant’s dinner, for sure), and turned on the TV, to see the media reaction to President Donald Trump’s presser following his “summit” with Vladimir Putin.

I clicked from CNN to MSNBC to Fox. Many were calling Trump’s decision to side with Putin rather than his top justice department officials a low point in the history of the presidency. I do not disagree, and I will position myself here in the name of transparency: I am a registered Independent who did not and will not vote for Trump.

However, a funny thing happened on the way down my liberal road.

In 2014, writing as D.A. Keeley, my novel Bitter Crossing was published. It was followed by two more mysteries featuring protagonist Peyton Cote, a single mom and a US Border Patrol agent. There was a little chatter four years ago about making a TV show based on the books. Of course, and as anticipated, nothing came of it. Fast forward to 2016 and the un-presidential Presidential election: Trump’s rhetoric had US borders on everyone’s mind, and a little more TV-series chatter was heard. Then, in early 2017, a producer got involved. Months later, there was a director and a writer. This spring a pitch was created. And late last week, I was told multiple networks wanted to see/hear the pitch.

What does any of it mean? Not a hell of a lot, not at this point, anyway. But it’s interesting to me for a couple reasons: border issues mean plot ideas for me. For instance, Peyton, a single mom, would have strong opinions about separating parents from children. She would, as an agent, also be required to toe the company line. There’s something else that's interesting here as well, and you’ve probably picked up on it: I’m no fan of Trump; however, border issues, even if raised by someone I don't much like can mean relevance for my series. And I don’t know what to think of that.

As an aside, I’m re-reading The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in hopes of teaching it in my class this fall. It’s fast, accessible, and offers a rich sense of place, if you’re looking for a summer read.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Characters On Vacation

Apparently, my characters have all taken the summer off.

Not sure where they’ve gone. Maybe they’re at the beach or they’ve gone to cooler climates. All I know is, I’m trying to work on the next book in my series, Ghosts of Painting Past, and I’m having a doozy of a time.

Perhaps they’re refusing to cooperate because it’s summer and this is a Christmas-themed book. Not usually a problem. I’ve been known to listen to Christmas music or read Christmas-themed mysteries in July. Maybe it’s because we had a heat wave a while back. Kind of hard to write about Christmas when it’s 87 inside the house.

I go through something similar to this at the beginning of every book. Barbara did a great job talking about what it’s like to write a novel in her post last week. Right now I’m in the hair-pulling frustration phase.

Even though I really like my ideas for Ghosts, I still feel a bit uneasy. It’s one thing to have an idea, it’s another to create a 75,000 word mystery out of it. It does help, though, knowing other writers have similar problems.

I’m more of a plotter than a pantser though my outlines are fairly minimalistic. Before I can begin writing, I need to know how the story starts, how it ends, and some major plot points along the way. I also know who my major characters are (my suspects, victim(s) and my recurring cast) and what their secrets are, what they’re trying to make sure no one knows about in the story.

This time around because of the deadline noise swishing around in my head (you should be further along, you won’t make your deadline, etc.), I tried to take a shortcut, to start writing before I really knew all of my characters. Didn’t work out very well. So I’ve gone back to thinking about all of them and writing bits and pieces of scenes as they pop into my head.

I know I’ll eventually get to the point where the story is getting down on the page faster, but it’s still an uneasy place to be. All I can do, though, is take one day at a time.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Summer Reading and What's Hot Right Now

By Vicki Delany

I read far more in the summer than the winter. I like to sit outside in the sun by the pool with my book whereas inside over the winter I seem to be doing things.  This year I have a brand new deck and the weather has been fabulous (hot and sunny) and so I’ve been plowing through books.

Image result for cartoon reading by the pool
Vicki Reading (not exactly as shown)
This week I've read The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware (loved it) and Forty Dead Men by our own Donis Casey (totally different than Westaway but also great).  As an aside, let me say that I think Donis is one of the best writers working today who can really (and I mean really!) capture the times and the people she’s writing about, which is a farm family in 1910s Oklahoma.

As a reader my favourite type of book is the ‘modern gothic’ or standalone psychological suspense, and right now there’s an overwhelming number of them out there.  If we can get away from the “Girl Who” or “The Woman in” titles these are basically domestic thrillers in which women, mostly, are faced with a sudden, unexpected threat that turns their world upside down.  The threat often comes from the past, as long buried secrets are revealed.  Writers like Ruth Ware, Paula Hawkins, Kate Morton, Tana French, Cate Holahan.  Prince Edward County’s own Linwood Barclay has been writing this sort of book for a long time. It was with Linwood’s work that I first came across the phrase “domestic thriller” although being about men dealing with family life, his books don’t quite hit the group I am talking about.   But they’re always good and no one does twists quite like Linwood.

As always when a particular type of book suddenly becomes popular the market is flooded and some are a lot better than others. I didn’t get very far with The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn because I found it so very derivative.

As a writer, I seem to have been ahead of the curve. I’m very happy these days writing cozy mysteries and I love the characters and worlds I’ve created, but I can’t help but think I might have been too early for the boat.

My first two novels were exactly what’s so popular right now: standalone domestic thrillers with dual storylines (i.e. something that happened in the past affecting events of today). Scare the Light Away and Burden of Memory were published by Poisoned Pen Press in 2005 and 2006. After that I switched to the Constable Molly Smith series, because everyone said you have to have a series. I tried my hand once again with a modern gothic in More than Sorrow, which sorta sunk without a trace.

I might not be writing that type of book anymore but I’m glad so many people are. I’m looking forward to some great reading this summer. Tell me, readers, any books or authors you can recommend along the lines of what I’m looking for?

Friday, July 13, 2018

Writing as Play

Reading Donis's post this morning reinforced what I was thinking about last night. Yesterday I was in New York City attending CraftFest -- one of the options offered at the International Thriller Writers (ITW) annual conference. Attendees can also register for Master CraftFest, PitchFest, and ThrillerFest. ThrillerFest (the part of the conference with panels) is underway, but I couldn't stay.

My one day at CraftFest was exactly what I needed. I attended several excellent workshops led by bestselling thriller writers. But by lunchtime I was beginning to wonder how I would ever resolve my problem with structure -- a thriller that spans eight months. Luckily, I had left the ticket I needed to get into the ballroom for lunch upstairs in my hotel room in the envelope I hadn't opened. By the time I got back downstairs I was in the awkward position of a latecomer who finds the meal has already started and most of the tables seem to be full. I spotted an empty seat and crossed the room, praying it wasn't being saved for someone. That was when I got lucky. The seat was open. The writer on my left introduced himself and we started to chat. He told me what he was working on. I told him I was working on my first thriller and engaged in serious structure wrangling. My table mate listened and made a suggestion. When I saw him later in between sessions, we continued the conversation.

He thought I might want to try something done by writers in other genres such as sci fi and fantasy. He suggested I think of my point of view narratives as individual -- but intertwining -- novellas. That idea intrigued me so much I spent the rest of the afternoon thinking about it.

Then I attended my last workshop of the day. I was intrigued by the title of the workshop -- "The Structure of Revelation: An advanced workshop on the craft of reimagining your novel." The workshop instructor was Walter Mosley. He presented his thoughts on the topic as a section of a monograph he had written for the occasion. He made references to literary classics as he was discussing the thriller as a novel and the process of writing and then reimagining. But the image that I latched on to -- other people said the same during the Q and A -- was his description of how a child would approach a blank page. Instead of freezing up or being overwhelmed, a child would play. A child would let his or her imagination run riot.

That was the message that I needed at the end of the day. I went upstairs, emailed my agent to confirm our breakfast meeting on Thursday morning before I caught my train, and then sit down to play for a few minutes. Point of view had come up several times in the workshops I'd attended. I wanted to experiment with writing in the present tense. First-person, present tense for all four characters. I copied and rewrote my first few chapters. I was astonished at the results -- and having so much fun that I kept at it right through the cocktail party I'd planned to attend. It was after nine when I finally went downstairs to pick up some dinner from the hotel's market cafe. Then I went back upstairs and thought some more about structure and playing.

Over breakfast, I told my agent about my conversation with my fellow writer and where that had taken me. A book with four POV characters divided into four parts (by the seasons of the year -- from April to December). Within each section, a chapter from a POV character, each beginning on the same day. Part I, Spring 1939, begins on Easter Sunday. (Third person, past tense, but my experiment was eye-opening).

For those of you who are pantsers, starting out with this much structure probably seems serious overkill. But my agent "got it" -- and agreed that as long as the plot is rolling along, the structure will keep readers oriented and allow me to do what I want to do: (1) focus on 1939 and the events I want to explore, and (2) develop the characters and follow them over the course of those eight months.

Thank you to my lunch companion for helping me to think through my problem. Thank you to Walter Mosley for encouraging everyone at the workshop to play. Thank you, Donis, for reminding us about living life as a work of art. 

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Life As A Work of Art


July has been very weird, thus far. Maybe Jupiter is in Scorpio or Mercury is retrograde or Morning Becomes Electra. As usual, a lot of the recent discombobulation is due to my beloved husband Don, who is the light of my life but a lot of trouble. He went for a routine eye exam Monday morning, and ended up having emergency eye surgery Monday afternoon. He's been getting shots in his right eye every 6 weeks for the past several months because of a busted blood vessel, and yesterday the doc said that his eye pressure had risen so much since the last appointment that he had to get it fixed RIGHT NOW before it damaged his optic nerve. Seems new blood vessels have grown to take the place of the broken one, but they inconsiderately grew over the place that drains the fluid in the eye and blocked it. Of course the only surgical center that could do it on such short notice is an hour away from where we live. So we raced up there and he had the outpatient operation at about 4:30 Monday afternoon during a raging thunderstorm. Then I had to schlepp him all the way back up to North Scottsdale Tuesday morning for a post surgical check and removal of the bandages.

Apparently it went very well. His eye pressure was down lower than it had ever been. Don has five more doctor appointments (for various organs and body parts) before the end of the month. Fortunately he can drive himself to get the lab tests before the appointments, but I really want and need to go with him for the actual doctor visits. Mainly because he often can't remember what the doctor told him. So anyway, I'm feeling whiney. I want to be writing. In truth, I think I’d like to go back to painting and drawing, as well. I used to be a pretty fair artist. In fact, Don and I have quite a bit of our own art on our walls. (Literally. I’ve done a couple of mural pieces.)

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I’d like to live my life like a work of art. Many years ago, I wrote a scene for one of my earlier books in which I had a character say that she thought her mother, Alafair, didn’t have to create works of art, since her life was a work of art. That phrase, "her life is a work of art," has been rattling around in my head for about thirty-five years. The minute I wrote it, I instantly thought of Cheryl Dillsaver, who was a friend I made when I was a freshman at Oklahoma State University. We called her "Cher". It was the ’60s, after all.

Cher was a fine arts major, a painter, and just as arty and flamboyant as you would expect a ’60s artiste to be. Her canvases were large and splashy and colorful, and she was a liberal and a protester, like we all were, and a good friend to me during that first year away from home.

My father died before the next academic year started, and I went home to finish my undergrad degree at another university, whereas Cher finished up at OSU. We did see one another off and on over the next couple of years, though. Much to my amazement, given her politics, she married an Agriculture major and moved to a tiny little Oklahoma town and became a housewife and mother. Shortly after she married Bill (who was a great guy, by the way), she invited me to spend the weekend with her at her tiny little house in her tiny little town while her husband was away at a conference.

I accepted with alacrity, mostly because I enjoyed Cher’s company, but partially because I was curious about how she reconciled the life she had chosen with her previous artistic ambitions.

It didn’t take me long to see that she hadn’t reconciled anything at all. She was exactly what she had always been — a real artist. While I was there she showed me not only the painting she was doing, but the interior decorating, the beautiful dress she had made for herself, her plans for a garden. I still remember to this day the awe I felt over an apple pie she made. I thought that it was the most beautiful pie I’d ever seen. And that’s when it occurred to me that she was an artist to the very core of her being. Her entire life was a work of art.

I’m talking about conventional arts, here, but I certainly haven’t forgotten that gorgeous apple pie. There should be joy and creativity in cooking, and sewing, and gardening, and cleaning. I used to feel that. I’d love to feel all of that again. Perhaps I’ll ease myself back into the art of living, Dear Readers, a little at a time.

By the way, I heard from my former roommate at OSU that Cher died a few years back. I don’t know what she died of, but I hope she lived her work of art right to the very end.