Friday, October 31, 2014

The Beginning, the Middle, and the Middle

Do you know what kind of book I really, really, really don't like? Books that have a beginning, a middle, and a middle.

This concept was presented this month by novelist Mark Stevens at the annual event "Conversation with Authors" sponsored by the American Association of University Women. I immediately understood his point.

I feel cheated and betrayed when I've read such a book. It's happened to me a number of times lately, even in crime fiction. I understand that I might be setting myself up for this experience when the genre is contemporary literary fiction, but in all other categories, it used to be strictly taboo. In older classic literary fiction it didn't happen either. It was understood that the reader expected a story, not an experiment.

Endings do not have to be happy, or even be very satisfying, but I want to understand what happened. No fair if the author if simply stops writing and wanders off.

It may seem puzzling to those properly trained to hear literary fiction referred to as a genre. According to the great creative writing teacher, John Gardner, it's best to think of all writing that way. It helps sweep away the fog hanging over your intention. He wrote that everything is genre and the easiest way to understand this is through the categories (genres) attached to music. Musically, one has composed an opera, a folk tune, a ballad, an aria, a choral composition, etc.

If your offering is literary fiction and billed as such, I expect a book with a fresh distinctive voice, mastery of language, complex characterization, and ideas worth thinking about. I expect passionate books wherein the author cares about development and craft. And I expect a real story.

Books without endings are surprisingly easy to write. Blissfully easy. I've been tempted to do this a number a times myself. Especially when things aren't going well. But having been blessed or cursed with a rather pragmatic view of work, I've never fooled myself.

An unfinished novel is an unfinished novel. No ending is no ending.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The shy guy's guide to a book signing

Let's get one thing straight immediately: Rick's recent post about book signings is the gospel. But I know that book signings aren't easy, especially if you're introverted by nature, so I'd like to continue the thread here.

It should be pointed out that regardless of your personality you can't afford to be passive. This past weekend, I had two events. Now, I'm not the world's most out-going author, and the first venue was a place where I'd never previously signed. But the table was near the door -- always a must -- and Friday-night foot traffic was steady.

Perhaps the best thing I did all night, aside from hand-selling 19 copies, was accidentally pitching to the store owner to get myself invited back.
I spotted a middle-aged man looking at a book display.
"Do you like mysteries?"
He turned around. "Actually, I do."
"Well, I'd love to tell you about my new book. It's about a single mother and border patrol agent in northern Maine."
We chatted for a few moments more, then he said, "I like you. Nice pitch."
He went on to tell me he owned the store and would tell his manager to bring me back in May when the sequel was released. Success at a booksigning can come in many forms.

I find eye contact to be everything. Some people entering the store have no intention of stopping to meet you. They are intentionally looking the other way, they are in a hurry, or they obviously have other pressing matters. You know what they're doing by avoiding you -- maybe they have groceries in the car; maybe they're late for a coffee date -- regardless, they don't want to talk. I let these people go. On the other hand, you also know when someone enters the store and simply doesn't notice you. I find that, like Rick, my simple "Do you like mysteries?" is enough. Most people respond affirmatively (only two at my last two store events said "No" outright). The fact is that most bookstore patrons do enjoy mysteries or the subgenre offshoots.

I also think you need to know your target audience. And, believe me, coming from a guy whose first five novels are about a professional golfer -- a clear-cut (and clearly small) niche -- this is important. Now I have a wider range of buyers, but middle-aged women seem to be the most interested group. So, following my opening question, I have a follow-up 10-second description: "This is the first in a series featuring a single-mother who's a border patrol agent." A lot of people stop, trying to conceptualize exactly what the hell that is. Now they pick up a book and read the jacket description. Unlike Rick, I don't usually offer a teaser line. Mostly because I don't have a great one. And if your teaser isn't great, it's a dud. So if they are clearly considering, I suggest they read the opening paragraph. While they're reading, I go with a simple, "If you're interested in the book, I'd love to sign a copy for you or answer any questions you may have." And people do have questions -- from the writing process, to plot details, to research and procedural details involving the Customs and Border Protection. Most people who have spent this long at the table and learned that you're not such a bad guy will buy a copy.

I'd love to hear more from our readers and/or my Type M colleagues about signings.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

National Cat Day

Today is National Cat Day. Founded in 2005 by Pet and Family Lifestyle Expert & Animal Welfare Advocate Colleen Paige, the day is meant to celebrate the cats in our lives and encourage their adoption. 

What’s National Cat Day without pictures of cats? Here are the two who graced our lives for many years until they moved on to the great playground in the sky. Both were rescues. The black cat was Maleficent (Mally)

and the orange tabby
was Maxwell. We used to refer to them as our Halloween cats. (Seems appropriate for this time of year.)

Cats and other animals abound in cozy mysteries. There are the Pet-Sitter and Pet Rescue Mysteries by Linda O. Johnston, the Cat Who Mysteries by Lillian Jackson Braun, the Mrs. Murphy Mysteries by Rita Mae Brown and a slew of others. I found this list compiled in 2007 on of cat theme mysteries: I’m sure there are a lot of new ones since then.

I love cozies. I read and write them. I’ve heard a lot of people try to explain what makes a mystery a cozy, but I’m not convinced there’s a clear definition. For me, it’s usually a “I know it when I see it” kind of proposition. But most people seem to agree that a cozy doesn’t dwell on violence and has little or no sex in it. The emphasis is on solving the crime and restoring order to the protagonist’s world, something that doesn’t always happen in real life.

Cozies often involve amateur detectives, i.e. ordinary people. I think the reason there are so many cats and other animals in cozies is because these kinds of mysteries are about murder intruding on ordinary people’s everyday lives and animals are a part of that everyday life. Just look at the billions we spend on our pets every year. Yes, billions. The Los Angeles County Library acknowledged the importance of animals in our lives this past summer with their Paws to Read program. If you’re going to write about the average person’s life you’ve got to mention a pet here and there.

My own book, Fatal Brushstroke, is a cozy. In it, computer programmer and tole-painting enthusiast Rory Anderson discovers the body of her painting teacher in her garden. Well, she’s not the first one to find the body. There's this neighborhood dog: “A fluffy ball of fur named Mitzi was the first to sniff out the intruder, alerting the unsuspecting residents of Seagull Lane to the grim discovery.” Rory may not have a pet of her own, but she comes across a number of them throughout the book as someone would in real life.

Today I’m going to curl up with a cozy mystery and celebrate the cats who've brightened  my life. What about you?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A bit more on book signings

Me and my publicist, Karel.
I’ve done three book signings and one book launch so far. In two days, I will be doing another launch in Ottawa (a city of note these days, sadly) with blogmate, Barbara Fradkin whose hometown it is. That’s on the evening of the 29th so if you’re in the Ottawa region and would like to attend, just leave a comment here and I’ll fire over the details. I’ll also be doing a Halloween afternoon signing on Bank Street in section of Ottawa known as The Glebe.

So why the update and itinerary? Well, because book signings and launches operate completely within the realm of Murphy’s Law. Whatever can go wrong, often does. The fact that those stumbles are generally completely out of the control of the poor author make them that much harder to bear.

So what’s gone wrong for me? Well, let’s see… The night of our launch in Toronto, we had rain of near biblical proportions. While the turnout was okay, it was disappointing. We’d been expecting twice as many people. What can you do? Next evening was lovely. We picked the wrong day. Luck of the draw.

As for signings, I’ve enjoyed them all but there have been trials and tribulations. How about books not being delivered to the store (postponed signing), day changed the night before the event (scheduling snafu), books in the store but so cleverly hidden no one could find them for about a half hour. All of it infuriating, but out of the author’s control.

My job as I see it is to be pleasant and welcoming to all, whether they be store staff who are having problems or readers who are rude or thoughtless. You know what? Getting angry will get you absolutely nowhere. Being kind certainly gets you a lot farther.

On a slightly different front, you’d expect fiction authors to be keen observers of the human condition, wouldn’t you? Why not bring that to bear for book signings? If you read my post last Tuesday, you’ll know that I’m a believer in having a strong, well-rehearsed, concise pitch. What if your pitch seems to be missing the mark? How do you know? Well, first indication is too many people are walking away. You hooked them into coming over to find out more, but after your message they say (more or less), “Thanks but no thanks.”

A subtler tell is there eyes, expression and body language. If they’re looking around as you speak, if there expression hardens, or they seem fidgety, you’re not going to sell a copy to them, but since they’re still listening, you can try another tack on the fly. What should you say? I can’t tell you that, but you write, don’t you? Try to come up with something. On my current round of signings, I’ve refined my pitch about three times. The results have been good.

Really think carefully about what you’re saying and to whom. If a woman comes by I ask, “Do you like reading mysteries?” If a male walks by I’ll ask, “Do you like reading thrillers?” Since my novels are a bit of both, I’m not stretching the truth. While I would prefer asking if they enjoy reading crime fiction, I don’t because all I’ve ever gotten are blank stares. I also don’t say something to general like, “Do you like mysteries?” because it isn’t as clear. I have seen first hand the effect another author got when she asked, “Do you like murder mysteries?” As someone pointed out, the word murder can make too many people uncomfortable, even if that’s what your novel is built around. The key here is to experiment a bit and then observe.

Lastly, I forgot to mention something that’s proven very helpful: bring a friend or relation who is open and friendly to be your “publicist” for the signing. I did this on Sunday since my son Karel was free and it was very useful for a number of reasons. First, the publicist can stand at the entrance to the bookstore and send people your way. I always give my publicist a handout of some sort so those who can’t stop immediately will maybe be coaxed over after they’ve gotten what they came for. This is especially effective when it’s a parent bringing a child in. While their little one enjoys the kid’s section, they will quite likely read your handout. Often they stop by the signing table on the way out.

Also, your publicist can peal off a person who wants to chat with you at length. Unless you’re a real Somebody, most people won’t wait around to talk if someone is occupying your time. Often these talkers are other writers, and for some reason they very seldom buy your book in the end. So basically, you’re wasting opportunities to chat with readers who might by your book — and you get nothing in the end. Your publicist, upon seeing these can generally coax them away with a kind word or two.

There’s a bit of cachet that can accrue to you by having a publicist in tow. It means you’re important to the publisher. Only Important Authors travel with publicists. What I usually have my person say to the bookstore manager is something like, “It’s my turn to help with signings this weekend. I’m here to greet shoppers coming into the store and help the author.” You’ll notice this really isn’t a lie, just a bit of truth stretching. To people greeted at the entrance, we’re a little more untruthful, but only slightly: “Hello. I’m from [name of publisher] and we have one of our best-selling mystery authors here today to sign copies of his latest novel. Want don’t you go over and see him? His novels are really great reads!”

You’ll also have someone to talk to while you’re driving home.

Saturday, October 25, 2014


It's that time of the year. Halloween. Fright time.

Although we prefer to be safe and sound, we all love a good scare. Horror is a popular theme in literature. But why? What's the attraction of fear?

It's fear as entertainment that we enjoy. Let me explain. This is what happens when we get scared:

First the stimulus. Since we're primarily visual creatures, the object that frightens us is usually processed from our eyes to the visual cortex in our brain. The visual cortex pings Red Alert! to the cerebral cortex. That in turn tells the emotion-processing parts of your brain, the insula and amygdala, that there is a threat. At the same time, the cerebral cortex starts producing neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and glutamate to jazz up your physiological response--flight or fight! 

Now the good part of all this--the payoff for getting the pants scared off us--is what happens next and almost simultaneously. As more clues are absorbed by the cerebral cortex--the zombie jumping out of the closet was your sister in costume, the creepy thing in your shoe was a Gummy Bear, the serial killer you're reading about can't escape the pages--the alarm is deemed false. Then the insula and amygdala are told to settle down and gamma-aminobutyric is released to soothe your jangled nerves. Ahhh! By now though, the hypothalamus has been telling your adrenal glands to pump out adrenaline and endorphins. Beside helping to dull pain and energize muscles, adrenaline also sharpens your senses, which heightens the experience. And we know that endorphins are the brain's pleasure cocktail, also produced by exercise and sex. Basically, as you recover from the scare, your mood has been boosted with plenty of feel-good chemicals. I'm surprised that the pharmaceutical companies and their lackeys in the government haven't made getting scared illegal! And once you get your pants scared off, you're free to produce even more endorphins. Either alone or with company. Enjoy!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Keeping Secrets

I'm reading the proofs of my next book (What the Fly Saw). In one scene, my protagonist, Hannah McCabe, is having drinks with another detective, Sean Pettigrew. They agree that they are friends who can keep each other's secrets. Their conversation got me thinking about the secrets we keep and those we share.

In one study I looked at about secret-keeping and disclosure, the subjects tended to have confided a secret to at least one other person. That person was someone to whom they felt emotionally close. Generally, when we keep a secret to ourselves, it's because we feel shame, embarrassment, guilt, and/or fear the consequences if the secret becomes known. Keeping a secret can be stressful. But the prospect of having that secret revealed or discovered may seem even worse. Of course, crime fiction thrives on secrets -- secrets that threaten a relationship or a career, secrets that place a victim in the power of a blackmailer, secrets that are worth killing to preserve. In crime fiction, characters with secrets that are unrelated to the crime that the sleuth is investigating provide false leads and red herrings.

As writers, a part of getting to know a character is to get him or her to tell us what he or she keeps secret. What has she never told anyone? Under what circumstances would she reveal her secret? To a best friend? To a lover? To a lawyer or a minister? How would she react if the person she confided in betrayed her by telling her secret?

Secrets are a gold mine for a crime writer because there are so many possibilities and combinations – secrets from the past, secrets from the present, secrets that are private matters but could have public consequences, state secrets and trade secrets, secrets gathers by infiltrators and informants. Secrets can be written down, whispered in ears, kept on computers, buried in a hole in the backyard, be in code or in plain view, told to the parrot or whispered with a last breath. Secrets can be the mad wife in the attic or the baby that was given up for adoption and turns up at the door.

Personally, I like family secrets. In Death's Favorite Child, the first book in my Lizzie Stuart series, Lizzie learns that her recently deceased grandmother, Hester Rose, has lied to her. Hester Rose claimed not to know who Lizzie's father was or where Lizzie's teenage mother went when she got on a bus and left town a few days after Lizzie was born. The secrets that Hester Rose took to her grave become a part of the series arc – questions that Lizzie eventually tries to answer.

A really useful secret – whether one that the character is keeping or one that she is trying to learn – makes that character feel vulnerable. There may be nothing shameful about the secret by modern standards, but the character dreads exposure or dreads learning the truth. A good secret goes to that character's sense of self and how he or she wants to be perceived. A good secret makes a character cringe when he imagines having it whispered from ear to ear among the people he knows.

I don't know yet what secret Hannah McCabe is keeping to herself. We have only been together for two books. I suspect that her deepest, darkest secret is not one that she would tell her colleague and friend, Pettigrew, over a drink after work. It could also be a while before she's willing to tell me. After all, she knows I'm going to use it to make her life difficult.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Happy Samhain

I miss the way Halloween used to be. When I was trick-or-treat age, back in the Middle Ages, as soon as darkness fell on Oct 31, the streets of my suburban neighborhood filled with seas of little hobos and pirates and witches. It was literally a mob scene.

And the treats! No store-bought mini-Snickers for us mid-century ragamuffins. Sadly, it’s not a good idea to give out homemade treats any more, unless both the giver and receiver have undergone a background check. I’d be loathe to let my kid eat a stranger’s cookie. But in those halcyon days, my sisters and I always came home with a pillow case full of little bags of cookies and brownies, apples and packs of Juicy Fruit gum, dimes and nickels, licorice whips, Slo-Pokes, Hershey Bars, and my very favorite treat of all time, popcorn balls! No homemade treats these days. Maybe not even door-to-door trick-or-treating. But then again, Halloween didn't used to be all about candy, either.

In one of my past working incarnations, I owned a Celtic gift shop. I imported gift items from Scotland, Ireland, and Wales - all the Celtic countries, in fact, which include Man, Brittany, and Galicia. This time of year is a very big deal for Celtic peoples, for midnight on Oct. 31 is the turning of the year – Samhain, or Celtic New Year, and the origin of our Halloween. This is the time when the veil between this world and the next is at it's thinnest, and those with eyes to see are able to see right through to the other side, where the dead live. Some Celtic people would light bonfires on Samhain eve to guide the souls of loved ones, and make lanterns out of hollowed out turnips to lead the dead home for their annual visit.

My husband remembers that every Halloween, his father would dig a pit in back of the house, line it with bricks, fill it with wood, and light what they called a "bonfire", though it was more like a good sized campfire. The family would sit around it and roast wieners and marshmallows on sticks and stretched-out hangars. He has no idea where the family tradition came from, but I'm guessing it was passed down through the family from the misty past, for such traditions are remarkably enduring. So, if you live in the country or don't worry about being fined for building an open fire in your back yard, stretch out those hangars and get yourself a bag of marshmallows, and take a trip into the past with some campfire s’mores.

Put a slab of Hershey bar on top of a Graham cracker, put a melty-hot roasted marshmallow on the chocolate, top with another Graham cracker, and enjoy.

By the way, Samhain is pronounced "SHAW-win." In Gaelic, that mh makes a "w" sound in the middle of a word.