Friday, March 30, 2012
John here. This week, it is my pleasure to welcome Archer Mayor to Type M for Murder.
Archer is the 2004 winner of the New England Booksellers Association Award for best fiction—the first time a writer of crime literature has been so honored. His highly acclaimed, Vermont-based series, totaling 22 novels, features police officer Joe Gunther. The most recent Gunther novel Tag Man (Minotaur, 2011) hit the New York Times best-seller list, a first for Archer.
The Gunther books are one of the most enduring and critically acclaimed police procedural series written today. Mayor is a death investigator for Vermont's Chief Medical Examiner, a detective for the Windham County Sheriff's Department, and has 15 years of experience as a volunteer EMT/firefighter. This experience surfaces in Mayor’s novels, as he integrates actual police methodology with intricately detailed plots. The New York Times has deemed his work “dazzling,” and Booklist declares the Gunther books “among the best cop stories being written today.” Likewise, the Chicago Tribune describes the series “the best police procedurals being written in America.”
His first Gunther novel, Open Season, is available for free on Kindle. Enjoy his post below.
I’ve been at this game since 1975, when I was an editor at the University Press and scribbling my first novel (never published, thank goodness) on a yellow legal pad. Before that was a stint in the newspaper trade, including many nights standing before a layout table, attaching fragments of articles coated with bee’s wax on a master layout of the paper – the typesetter’s retriever sleeping underfoot.
So what? Only that, to put it lightly, times have changed. From hoping to sell a book to a publisher and then returning to life as an editor, or photographer, or who-knows-what (as those same publishers then turned around and struggled to sell to bookstores across the map,) we have entered a new world. Now, it is all about the author (still otherwise employed) selling directly to the audience via web sites, blogs, tweets, and emailed newsletters. Where it used to be the bestseller list, now it’s that elusive “Buzz.”
The consistency throughout, however?—that comment I made about employment as a writer. It has been my discovery—22 novels and 2 history books later—that the publishing industry, made up of so many parts (now largely in disarray,) has, for the last half century, proceeded on the assumption that the producer of its raw material—the writer—should be an amateur, happy to be paid whatever is available. My own agent, years ago, once countered a complaint about struggling to make ends meet in this profession with the advice, “Get a job.”
Truer words were rarely uttered. From some 60,000 annually published American books several years ago, we are now facing anywhere up to and exceeding a million titles—self-published, mainstream published, hardback, paper, virtual, edited, and totally raw. All sizes, shapes, formats, and qualities. The gatekeepers are increasingly the individual readers, and less and less the editors and reviewers that once gave us all a sense of product value.
This is just the way it is. Doesn’t mean the end of the world; doesn’t mean that quality is going to Hell in a hand basket. To me, perhaps paradoxically given all of the above, it simply represents an opportunity for writers to finally represent themselves directly to those whose interest in writing will keep us all alive—readers.
That and my three full-time jobs, of course.
[I’ve been writing full time for 32 years. The other two jobs alluded to? I’m also a detective with the Windham County Sheriff’s Dept, permanently assigned to a child sex crimes unit, and a death investigator for the state medical examiner. In addition to writing novels for St. Martins/Minotaur, several years ago, I also repossessed 14 of my earliest Joe Gunther titles and now publish them myself, available through stores and my website, archermayor.com. I have taken advantage of this good fortune to step into the world of e-books as well. Furthermore, I am exploring a cooperative venture with the Vermont Tourism Department, a Joe Gunther game with Champlain College, and entertaining some audio ideas, too. I also have the series being shopped around Hollywood by a couple of hopeful producers at the moment. The idea, echoing my hopeful closing statement above, is to never sit still and to see my “product” as endlessly adaptable to other formats and avenues.]
A quick glance at my bookshelves revealed that I had no other blonde mysteries in sight. But by now I was curious. Do blondes turn up more often in the titles of mysteries than redheads or brunettes?
As you may suspect, I was allowing myself to be distracted from a task I didn’t really want to do. I was happy to be intrigued by the blonde question rather than going to the Internet to find if anyone else had asked how to get shoe polish off of a hardwood floor. The blonde question was more interesting and less likely to require a trip to Home Depot.
So I turned to Amazon and discovered blondes abound in crime novels. Killer blondes, botoxed blondes, dead blondes, blondes wearing black, cold blondes, and dirty blondes, black-eyes blondes, and, of course, blondes crying murder. Blondes outnumbered their red-headed and brunettes sisters by at least 10 to one in the case of the redheads and even more in the case of the brunettes. The redheads were dead or restless. The brunettes plain or naked.
I thought about this as I leafed through my mental images of blondes. Marilyn and Madonna. Grace Kelly and Sharon Stone.
Lizzie Stuart, my crime historian protagonist, is a brunette. Aside from the fact she is African American, she is more Suzanne Pleshette than Tippi Hedren (remember Hitchcock’s The Birds?). Lizzie gets her hair cut in the first book in the series and has been wearing it in head-clinging curls ever since. Hair problem solved.
But now there is Hannah -- Hannah McCabe, the police detective in my new series. In the first book, she wears a baseball cap at a crime scene because of the sun beating down. She's bi-racial, and I'm pretty sure she's a brunette. But there’s something about her hair that keeps bugging me. That -- as much as the shoe polish on my hardwood floor -- probably explains my fascination with blondes in the titles of mysteries.
Strange how the mind will tease at something and find ways to keep bringing it up again. The book is written. I don't need to know anything else about Hannah's hair. It is irrelevant to my plot, but still . . . I'll let you know if and when I figure out what it is I'm supposed to know.
And, no, I never did find the answer to the shoe polish question. Note to self, stop looking up blonde mystery books and call hardwood floor guy.
Thursday, March 29, 2012
Welcome to the publishing world, circa 2012.
Similar to its well-known brethren, which tracks the viewership of television episodes, Nielson BookScan provides sales statistics on book titles. Logically, editors use this information—sales figures for previous titles—when deciding whether or not to purchase an author’s new work, as one’s sales record might dictate potential for future commercial success. End result: an author is instantly transformed to “just-a-number” status. Considering an average hardcover book sells about 4,000 copies, BookScan is not usually considered a mid-list author’s ally.
This is from a writer who has published four novels with a university press, so I know whereof I speak. University presses can be somewhat prestigious homes for books if the author is an academic, but they rarely produce the sales figures that impress the “big six” publishing houses in New York.
So what is an academic to do (say, just hypothetically, one who has, say, oh, I don’t know, maybe three daughters soon to be college age) if s/he wants to break free of past sales figures and sell a novel to a large New York house and therefore have a chance at greater commercial success?
It is standard policy for the mid-list author to declare doom and gloom when speaking about the publishing industry. It is often a mantra. Yet I have always considered writing fiction to be one of the few hobbies/occupations/callings in which the practitioner may simply reinvent him or herself—and even do so from one book to the next. Where Stephen King became Richard Bachman to see if his books were only selling due to name recognition, John R. Corrigan can become K.A. Delaney to see if his new book could be sold on its own merits rather than on past sales figures.
The glass needs to be continually half-full in the business. If not, you cannot face the blank screen each morning. A pseudonym can be a fresh start.
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
- 79% of people reported that covers played a big role in purchasing a book.
- 40% of people reported that it was their sole driving factor in a decision to buy a book.
- 62% felt covers should be an artistic representation of the book.
Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Why don’t you drop over and see me there and then drop back here to check out the addendum I’ve added on down below?
Here’s something I try to now do whenever I’m on the road signing books. My very successful technique came about during a signing I was doing in concert with Vicki Delany several years ago in Oakville, Ontario.
Vicki and I have done many joint book tours over the years. We work well together, have a great time, and often sell a lot of books – even each other’s on occasion.
On this particular Saturday, traffic was a bit slow in the store, but one gentleman strolled over and engaged me in conversation, lengthy conversation, I might even say deathly interminable conversation – all about the books he’d written. I don’t even remember the point of his diatribe (if there was one), but I do remember he compared his efforts to mine several times, in not too complimentary fashion.
About the same time, some punters showed up and Vicki, dear girl that she is, took to selling my books as well as her own, seeing as how I was in earnest (one-sided) conversation with this gentleman. Unfortunately, I couldn’t manage to catch her eye to help get me extracted from my situation. (Somehow, I’ve always felt this incredible reluctance to be rude to people, but I should have told this guy off within the first five minutes. He just seemed so needy, though…)
Eventually, Vicki did help me out of my sticky situation, but on my drive home that day, I stewed about what had happened to me and how I could prevent it, seeing as this wasn’t the first time it had happened.
And here’s the dodge I’ve since come up with: bring a “publicist” along with you to book signings. This doesn’t need to be a professional, just someone who can pose as a professional. Their job is to stand near the entrance of the store, hand out publicity materials (bookmarks, flyers, etc.) and to direct customers over to the signing table where the august author is awaiting their presence. This little bit of caché adds to the lustre of the event by making you seem more important than you probably are (after all, only A-list authors get a publicist).
But the more important job of your “publicist” is to keep an eye on the signing table and deflect anyone away who is monopolizing the author. A quick “help me!” look can be worked out ahead of time. This deflector can then step forward, peel off the offender from in front of the table and let other people step forward.
When I can get him, I often use my son Karel to do this. He’s very adept verbally, nicely chatty – and really tall in case there are problems. He also used to be a security guard, so he’s good at take downs of little old ladies who are lonely and may just want to talk a bit too much.
Seriously, this little dodge does work quite well. It impresses the hell out of staff, it allows the signing author to get more store coverage for the promo material and makes the author seem more of a “somebody” to the customers who might not otherwise even slow down to look at the signing table.
Try it and see if I’m right.
Oh, and for all of you who live in the towns I’ll be visiting next fall on the Grand Ontario/Quebec Book Tour for The Fallen One, expect a phone call from moi…
Monday, March 26, 2012
It's interesting how the mind works. The mind of a writer, at least. Well, the mind of this writer.
Yesterday, Sunday March 25, an article in the local paper - The Ottawa Citizen - covered Pope Benedict's visit to Mexico. The article's title: 'Brother Benedict, now you're Mexican'. An eye-catcher, that.
For the benefit of readers who don't closely follow - or follow at all - the news from Rome, Benedict XVI - in Latin, Benedictus PP. XVI; Benedetto XVI in Italian; and Benedikt XVI in German - was born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, in 1927, in Marktl, a village in Bavaria. A bit of quick research - on Wikipedia, where else? - tells me that Benedict is not the first Pope of German origin. He's actually the seventh. The first was Stephen VIII, sometimes called Stephen IX, who presided over the Roman Catholic Church from July 939 to October 942.
And here endeth the lesson on the history of German popes. And on the pacacy. Neither the pope, nor the Roman Catholic Church, is the subject of this post. There is a connection with Germany, though. And with Mexico.
What the Citizen article on Pope Benedict brought to my mind was a previous involvement between Germany and Mexico, one that dates back to 1917. That was the second last year of World War One, the so-called Great War. What is "great" about war, I hear you ask? Well, it's a mystery to me, too. But that's what it's called in a lot of history books. In fact, I have used the same designation in my own books. World War One had, and continues to have, an important part in Newfoundland history, where my books are set.
While vacationing in Cuba last month, I finally read a book that I had purchased in 1965. That's 47 years of glancing at the spine of a book that I bought because it looked really interesting. But never, as far as I can recall, did I even open the cover. Well, maybe once or twice. I don't know if anyone else out there has this bizarre personality trait. That is, to buy a book and just think about reading it sometime. I admit to being a compulsive book buyer. I like the look and feel of books. They comfort me. I suspect I am not alone in this. There's probably quite a few of us. We should probably form an organisation. And have a newsletter. And maybe t-shirts.
The book in question is by Barbara W. Tuchman - 1912-1989 - a respected and prize-winning American historian. She described herself as a story-teller. As indeed she was. She had two Pulitzer Prizes to her credit.
Barbara W. Tuchman
For a 1988 PBS video interview of Barbara Tuchman by Bill Moyers, follow this link:
Tuchman's most famous book, one that did win a Pulitzer, is The Guns of August, from 1962. That book tells the story of the political and military events that culminated in World War One, one of the most destructive - and stupid - wars in all of human history.
But it's an earlier book, from 1958, The Zimmermann Telegram, that I read in Cuba, and which is the subject of this posting.
The 'Zimmermann' of the title was Arthur Zimmermann, State Secretary for Foreign Affairs of the German Empire, from November 1916 until his resignation in August 1917.
Arthur Zimmermann The Zimmermann Telegram
The infamous coded telegram that will forever bear Zimmermann's name, and which will define him for all time, was a diplomatic proposal sent from Berlin on January 16, 1917, to the German Ambassador in Mexico, and delivered to the Mexican Government. It proposed that Mexico should wage war against the United States, said action to coincide with Germany's resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1, 1917, in an effort to choke off all supplies moving from North America to the British and her Allies. Germany proposed to provide military assistance to Mexico in its war with the United States, and - most interesting of all - to ensure that Mexico would, in the aftermath of a successful military alliance, regain possession of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
The proposal was even more complicated. The German Ambassador was also instructed to urge the Mexican Government to broker an alliance between Germany and the Japanese Empire against the United States and the Allied Powers. It was a ludicrous suggestion at the time, but gives an eerie echo of the actual alliance between Nazi Germany and Japan that was forged in World War Two. A bizarre example, if you will, of the maxim that says "what goes around, comes around".
The proposal did not succeed. Obviously. In the first place, British intelligence had intercepted Zimmermann's telegram, and had decoded it. The British had broken the German code earlier in the war. The American Government - when it finally accepted that the telegram was real - was predictably outraged at the German proposal. In the end, it brought the Americans into the war on the side of the British and the French, and that swung the balance of the conflict towards the Allied side, and ensured Germany's defeat. And Germany's eventual humiliation in the Versailles Treaty after the war. Which, as history records, brought about the rise of Adolf Hitler, National Socialism, and eventually World War Two. And all that that entailed.
For a Wikipedia article on cryptanalysis and the operations of "Room 40", the section of the British Admiralty that decoded enemy transmissions, go to:
The point of this present post, though, is not just to recapitualte a now relatively obscure historical event, but to note that the actual writing of history can rival any fictional treatment of historical events. And for that matter, to rival fiction of any kind for entertainment value. Barbara Tuchman was a master (the word 'mistress' obviously does not work here) of writing history in a manner so readable that it compares more than favourably with the best fiction of any genre. Her book is fully indexed, lavishly footnoted, and has an extensive bibliography, just as you expect with as serious study of history. But the fact is, it reads like a political-military thriller, utterly absorbing, difficult to put down once begun.
The one great oddity in all this is that it took me almost 47 years to get around to reading the book. Don't ask me why. There is no rational explanation. Except, possibly, to suggest that I am a world-class procrastinator. If not quite a world-class writer.
Saturday, March 24, 2012
Since I am published, as I have five novels from a major NY house (don’t be too impressed, this means I have boxes of remaindered books), when I teach writing I get the impression from my students that I have in my possession THE SPECIAL KEY that will unlock the vault of the “How do I get published?” secret. Sadly, I have to disappoint them by admitting there is no key. I wish I did because I’d use it for my personal gain—lucre and the adoration of millions.
Which brings me to the rules of writing, which are summed up by this wonderful quote by Somerset Maugham:
There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately knows what they are.
Most people chuckle at the quote, as I did at first. But the more I write, the more I appreciate Maugham’s wisdom.
Truth is, no one knows what’s going to hit. Not all the time. It’s a pretty sure bet that the next novels by Robert Crais and Suzanne Collins will be blockbusters. But even the consistent NYT bestsellers falter. There is no literary sausage machine where you dump in words and ideas, flip the switch, and out plops an international bestseller. If that device did exist, then every book would make bank. Even the most savvy agent or editor can tell anecdotes about a particular manuscript they passed on eventually stuffed money in someone else’s pocket.
I’ve learned to caution myself about the advice I give my students. There is a tangible quality to writing, and every work needs a level of competence to make it readable. But to judge writing above that level is where I can get into trouble. It’s easier to critique newer writers as their work is full of craft mistakes. Stories from a more experienced writer leave me wondering if I can tell where the problems lie in the work because it’s just not my style.
In fairness to myself, I have judged books in major contests and my finalists correlated to those picked by the other judges. So my judgment isn’t that far off base...usually.
But when teaching, for every suggestion I might tell students, there’s a mega-seller showing them the opposite. Cut the exposition, but then there’s the work by Stieg Larsson. Add dialog tags to keep the reader oriented, unlike Elmore Leonard with pages of dialog with no attributions. Stay in one POV per scene when Jennifer Egan (A Visit From The Goon Squad) keeps the story plunging forward with her kinetic head-hopping. Plus, I’ve noticed that the more rigid an instructor is in following THE RULES, the less likely that instructor has serious publishing cred.
And we circle back to the how do I get published question?
Nothing new to tell. Keep practicing, keep improving, and don’t give up on yourself. And take writing classes; we impoverished novelists need the money.
Friday, March 23, 2012
The thrill, oh the delicious thrill, of that wonderful call from my agent, Claire Smith, saying she had sold my novel—and to a top publishing house. For real money. In fact, some wonderful subsidiary rights sales quickly followed. I was young. I was happy. I was incredibly stupid. The first words out of Claire's mouth should have been “welcome to the NFL, baby.”
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Barbara here, with a special word of thanks to book clubs everywhere. Spring has arrived, both in the air and in my spirits.
For what seemed an eternity, I’ve been confined to my solitary writer’s garret, wrestling with obstructive characters and unwieldy plots, trying to hammer out the best story I could in my latest Inspector Green novel. It gets dark and claustrophobic in that garret sometimes, and it’s easy to become caught up in gloomy thoughts. Every day there are new stories about the book industry under siege. Beloved independent bookstores are closing, politicians are undermining copyright protection and fair compensation. The market is being flooded with so many cheap and free ebooks that soon no one will believe an author should get paid anything for their work. That is, if the reader can even find the author amid the millions of books on offer. Amazon is trying to drive out the competition, the US Justice Department thinks the publishers are price-fixing as they try to maintain decent payment for their product, newspapers are canceling their book review sections and publishers are cutting back on their lists, print runs and advances.
No one knows where this crazy ride will go, or who will be left standing at the end of it. It’s a scary time, and in the midst of that solitary struggle in the garret, it’s easy to get discouraged. To ask why on earth we writers put ourselves through this? Each time a new book comes out, there is a flurry of exciting events – launches, bookstore signings, readings, interviews – that remind us of the joys of connecting with readers. Between books, especially if it’s a long interval (in my case it’s almost a year and a half since my last Green book, with another year to go), that connection fades. The public spotlight shifts to newer books, and we authors must be content with memories and with hopes for the next book.
This is where the book club comes in. Like most authors, I love talking to book clubs. Invariably the women (they are almost universally women) say wonderful things about the book, and are wise enough to keep any nasty thoughts to themselves. They discuss the characters and plot twists with enthusiasm and insight, and allow the author to see the book through other eyes. They love books in general and eagerly compare and contrast with other books. Last night I had the honour of meeting a book club, and that evening surrounded by good food, drink, laughter, camaraderie and praise went a long way towards reminding me why I love to write. And why, despite all the naysayers, books will never die. It was just what my spirit needed at the dawn of spring.
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
I’ve been around the book game for a lot of years now – on both sides of the fence: writing and production. For example, I’m currently working on a book cover for a publisher (still haven’t received the spine width or the back cover copy) and I have a novel coming out next fall. I have a brother who was in the printing business for many years and I grew up in a photo engraving plant that my dad owned. In a fit of impatience at the glacial pace of getting a book even looked at by a publisher, I also self-published my first two novels. I’ve been around enough to know the ropes.
First let’s talk about the costs behind traditionally-published paper books. Here’s a list of what has to be paid for:
• acquisition: usually readers are hired (and not paid much) to read manuscripts. Editors also will read agented manuscripts.
• legal: if your book is deemed worthy, a contract has to be made up and shepherded through acceptance. Usually, these are a boilerplate contract the publisher has ready and waiting.
• editing: an editor is assigned to work with the writer. Copyediting is still done at most houses, but not with the thoroughness it once was.
• book design: big houses have staff to do this. Smaller houses farm it out (what I’m currently working on).
• publicity: most authors don’t get much help here. The bucks are reserved to promote the star authors’ works – understandable since the publisher will get the best return for dollars spent. Minimally, the publicity cost for most books is to get out review copies and track the reviews, along with producing a bit of promotional material. A small-time author is lucky if the publisher provides bookmarks.
• sales reps: again, in-house or farmed out?
• printing: this depends on how many and what sort of books are being printed (hardcover, trade paper, mass market).
• fulfillment: paper books must be warehoused and shipped. It’s surprisingly expensive. I’m also lumping in returns in this because, sadly, books do come back to the warehouse.
• accounting: this is where I’ll put publishers’ tracking sales and paying out royalties.
And now the list for producing e-books
• acquisition: the same.
• legal: the same.
• editing: the same.
• book design: the same (all books still need a cover).
• publicity: their are some outlets that will review from e-books. Publishers like this idea because they can just fire them off for literally nothing in cost.
• printing: not applicable.
• fulfillment: nowhere near as expensive or involved. Savvy publishers handle e-book sales themselves, but even if it’s farmed out to another company for “shipping” and receiving of payment, it’s still very inexpensive compared to paper books.
• accounting: the same.
I just looked online with some book printers I’ve dealt with in the past. Cost is relative to the number of books printed. Although I don’t have the time to submit a fake RFQ (request for quote) to get you hard and fast prices, I can tell you that 2000 copies of a 300-page trade paperback (5.5”x8”) will cost between $6-$8 each, all in. If a publisher is printing 5000 or more, the price drops dramatically.
Fulfillment costs depend on how your publisher handles this: with their own warehouse or farming it out. Cost also depends on how many books the author publishes. But the cost can be significant. Returns are usually handled by the warehouse, and those cost additionally.
If you’ve paid attention you’ll see that the major costs of publishing a printed book (printing, shipping, warehousing, returns) are not present in an e-book. The ordering is also very streamlined for e-books. Most importantly, e-books are not returnable, and because sales are final, no money is held back by the vendors.
Now, the final thing to understand is the design of e-books. They also need a cover, and a cover is a cover, regardless whether the book will be print or electronic, the design process is very similar. Additionally, the interior design process is similar. However, there is one big difference: the requirements of each e-reader seems to be different. In time this may be sorted out like VHS and Beta tapes were in the dim past, but for now, a publisher must make an e-book available in at least 3 or 4 different formats. That adds to the cost. But not all that much. If a publisher’s designer (whether in-house or freelance) has set up the design correctly, it’s generally just a matter of pushing a button and then checking carefully through the book to make sure nothing “exciting” has happened. Once you’ve done it a few times, it’s pretty foolproof – and quick.
The bottom line here is that it’s far cheaper to publish an e-book. The up-front investment is light compared to print, as are the ongoing costs of selling an e-book – by a lot. Couple that with the fact that both formats are generally published at the same time now. One cover will fit both. If the print book design was handled correctly with an eye to the long range, transferring it to e-book formats is very simple. So an e-book is almost like free money since much of the cost incurred in producing a print book already pays for most of the production of an e-book.
To pick up where John left off in his Thursday post, publishers should be giving a far larger percentage of the money from e-book sales to their authors, because their financial outlay in producing them is so much less. I’ve heard of publishers who offer percentages as low as 15%, which as you now know is grossly unfair to their authors.
Those publishers, quite frankly, should be ashamed of themselves.
Monday, March 19, 2012
The other one, 'Do you put real people into your books?' is a bit trickier. I say, 'No, not really,' which is mostly true. I have to admit, though, that on the odd occasion it's been very therapeutic to dress some pet hate up in a disguise that means even their best friend wouldn't recognise them – and it's friends who are the danger, not the usually oblivious victim – and arrange for something nasty to happen to them.
In general, though, even leaving aside the dangers of libel, I find it more satisfying to create my own fictional character rather than trying to fictionalise someone I know.
On the other hand, sometimes it's a glimpse of someone you pass in the street that catches the imagination. I was driving along one day and noticed an elderly woman standing at a bus stop. She was hunched and weather-beaten, with the sort of nutcracker face which suggests that one day nose and chin will eventually meet and she was wearing shabby men's trousers, a worn tweed jacket and scruffy shoes. But on her head was a totally incongruous purple crocheted hat with a bright bunch of pink, white and purple flowers. I don't know anything more about her, but she became a major character in my book Lamb to the Slaughter.
And there was another borrowing from real life, one that took me completely by surprise. When I started the DI Fleming series I had built up a very clear picture of both her – tall, athletic-looking, hazel eyes and short chestnut hair - and her DS, Tam MacNee – a wee Glasgow hard man who wears jeans, trainers, a white T-shirt and a black leather jacket, summer and winter.
It was only after I'd written several books about them that while I was watching some police dogs in training and admiring their incredible obedience and skill, that suddenly the memory came back to me.
Years and years before, when my husband had been housemaster in a city school, we lived in the boarding house (dorm, would you call it?) and we'd had problems with people coming in off the street and stealing anything they could find. One day I came downstairs in our duplex flat and saw a shifty-looking man standing smoking in our hall – a man, yes, in a black jacket and jeans who held up a warrant card and said, 'Police.'
He was very good company over a cup of coffee. He told me that vandals had broken into a nearby school one night and wouldn't come out but, 'We just got the bullhorn and said, "Five minutes or we put in the dogs," so of course they shot out like rabbits.'
I was impressed. 'What do the dogs do? Round them up and corner them?'
He looked at me as if I was mentally defective and said, 'They bite them.'
It amused me at the time but the man himself disappeared from my memory – or so I thought, until he emerged all those years later as DS Tam MacNee.
So I've been shaken in my claim about not putting real people in my books. And now I'm left wondering who the tall, hazel-eyed woman I know as Big Marge really is.
Saturday, March 17, 2012
I should forewarn you that I am on a bit of a rant today. Perhaps it has to do with getting up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. Or maybe it relates to the endless hours I have been spending lately in bookstores doing what all authors do when a new book comes out, signing books. Or more likely it has come from the hour or more I spent yesterday trying to buy an e-book, as in Canadian e-book.
When I set out to write my first mystery, I decided I wanted to write about my country, its people, its issues, its geography. This despite being told by countless ‘authorities’ that I would never be able to get a ‘Big’ publisher interested in it nor a ‘Big’ agent. And this has indeed proven to be the case. But that is fine by me. I wasn’t looking at it as a major source of income. I was really only interested in my series reaching its Canadian readership, which it has to a degree…
At the same time I also decided I wanted to read Canadian books, books with settings, people and issues I was familiar with and could relate to. Initially this was fairly easy. Most Canadian independent bookstores and Canada’s one and only chain bookstore, Chapters/Indigo, would either have Canadian or local book sections or would identify Canadian books on their shelves. But this is no longer the case.
With most independents having succumbed either to the competition brought on by the chain bookstore or to the slowing economy, I must rely on Chapters to satisfy my Canadian book reading needs. They however no longer identify Canadian books nor do their staff seemed to be familiar with Canadian titles or authors. They do, however, know about the latest hot best seller from south of the border. Moreover most Canadian titles are buried deep in the back shelves, where few people dare wander. Invariably when I go into a Chapters without a book title or author in mind, I come out empty and feeling very frustrated at not being able to satisfy my need.
And having spent the last couple of weekends surrounded by tables filled with books, you know those tables that greet you upon entering a store, I feel even more disenchanted. Try to find a Canadian book other than a Giller or GG winner amongst the piles and you will come up empty. It’s almost as if the management is afraid to admit that Canadian books actually exist.
One of the reasons I do Chapters signings is to get my books into the stores in greater quantities than they normally order in the hope that any books that remain after the signing will be put on those tables that buyers flock to, instead of being buried title out on the mystery shelves. But I am discovering that this rarely happens. Often the remaining books are shipped back to the distributor as returns, this despite having successfully sold a good quantity of books during the signing. So clearly people are buying. Moreover once the book is sold out, it won’t be re-ordered. And trying to get the backlist in is a whole other horror story. I had one lady last week, buy all five of my books, because she was worried she wouldn’t be able to find them again. I have no doubt that I’m not the only Canadian author who faces this frustrating situation.
Now that I am reading e-books I find myself facing the same hurdles. The titles that are pushed to the fore either through targeted e-mails or at login are the hot sellers from south of the border. Whenever I try to hone in on a specific subject, such as mystery and suspense, I have to wade through page after page of titles to find the elusive Canadian title. But usually I give up in frustration, so end up not buying any books. I try to arm myself with a book title or author before I log in, but that in itself is difficult.
Apart from a couple of nationally based newspapers, few Canadian papers or magazines review books anymore, least of all Canadian ones. Trying to find reviews or even lists of Canadian mysteries can be a chore for few mystery reviewers include Canadian titles and those that do tend to have their reviews published intermittently. There are some blogs and websites that are trying to fill the gap, such as Mystery Mavens Canada, Deadly Diversions, Open Book Toronto/Ontario, the 49th shelf and Crime Writers of Canada. And both the Globe and Mail’s online book section and the National Post’s The Afterword blog will also highlight Canadian titles and authors.
But regardless, if I want to buy a Canadian book, I can’t do it on the spur of the moment. I have to spend time beforehand arming myself with a specific title or author, time I don’t always have. I just can’t go in and browse. And if I find this frustrating I worry about how many other readers there are out there wanting to buy Canadian books who find themselves facing the same frustrations and end up either buying nothing or the latest hot seller from south of the border.
Sorry for the rant, but I feel much better. And if you are feeling particularly kind today, why not take the time to search out a Canadian title and buy it.
Friday, March 16, 2012
I’m mentioning it now because during our preparation for the panel, our moderator asked us to think about the first book that we read that made a difference in our lives.
I confess. I couldn’t remember. Nothing came to mind. The problem was I tried to start at the beginning. I tried to remember the first book I had ever read on my own – assuming that would have been the book that set me on my lifelong path as someone who reads, who must read, who feels anxiety when she has no book or at least a magazine close at hand.
But I couldn’t remember that first book or the second or what I checked out the day that I got my library card.
My parents did not read to me when I was a child. They were hard-working blue-collar folks. Neither of them had graduated from high school, barely finished grammar school. But they valued education and books and reading, so they made sure I always had access to books. And I had cousins who were teachers, at high schools and later at university level. So I had books in my world.
But I can’t remember the first book my parents bought me. I can’t remember the first book I read on my own.
Is it just me? Am I the only one with jumbled odds and ends of Dick and Jane and Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole and the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and DC comic books? Robert Frost -- I loved Frost’s two paths in the woods. And Poe’s raven and Emily Dickinson’s buzzing fly. I love animals. I thought I would become a vet, so I must have read animal stories. Peter Rabbit? The Wind in the Willows?
Those were the days when students still memorized speeches such as Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death!” (I’m a Virginian). Then there was Shakespeare. One play each year. The poetry and the speeches and the dramatic monologues are all jumbled up in my head with the books.
In short, I have no idea which book gave me the urge to keep reading. Maybe it wasn’t one book. Maybe it was the joy of reading that reinforced my urge to read.
I’ve always been fascinated by people who say they never read. When I hear this I wonder if it is because they didn’t grow up with books or with parents who valued literacy. Or was it because during their school years they were force-fed books about topics that bored them and once freed from school, they vowed never to open another book? Or, is it really, as some people will say, that they just don’t have the time to read? If they have spare time they’d rather spend it with their family and friends than with head buried in a book.
In truth, reading is an activity that can be isolating. A wonderful activity for shy, introverted children. But also one that keeps them from interacting with other people and perhaps reinforces their tendency to retreat into their own fantasy worlds.
But perhaps that is why some of us became writers when we grew up. And I like to think that at some point we all learned how to make small talk – at least about books.
At any rate, I do remember the book that I loved most as a teenager and checked out again and again from the library. The book was by an author named Agnes Sligh Turnbull. The Day Must Dawn, set on the frontier during the Revolutionary War era.
I really do need to track down a copy of that book and buy it. Then I’ll read it again on a Saturday evening, sitting up in bed with Starlight mints on the night stand. I’ll read beyond my bedtime, and hear in my memory my mother calling to me to turn off my light and go to sleep.
Will it be as much fun this time around? I can’t wait to see.
Thursday, March 15, 2012
Discussing e-rights at Sleuth Fest with a bunch of fellow writers, I was astonished to hear the currently industry standard among the New York publishers is to give authors 25% royalties on e-books.
Now it’s a truism that writers attend conferences to whine about the injustices of the industry. But I have to ask, On an e-book, where is the other 75% going? (A house considering one of my novels currently offers an "author-friendly" 40 percent. Um, someone please define “author-friendly” for me.)
I have heard more than once that it costs between $4 and $8 to produce a hardcover book, and according to a New York Times article, “Steal This Book (for $9.99),” by Motoko Rich, the figure is roughly 12.5 percent of the $26 hardcover list price. Major retail chains typically purchase the product for 50 percent of the unit cost. Recently, bestselling e-books have jumped into the $15 range as publishers claim many of the production costs—author advances, editing, and marketing—remain a constant whether the book is published in electronic, paper, or hardcover format.
What’s the upshot of a $15 e-book? We’ll soon see. But consider this from Rich’s article: “‘I love [David] Baldacci’s writing,’” wrote one reader, who decided not to buy [“Last Family”]. “‘Sorry Mr. B — price comes down or you lose a lot or readers. I’ll skip your books and move on!’”
I grasp the constant costs related to publishing, but it remains hard to swallow a 75%-25% split.
Wednesday, March 14, 2012
No, I have not sold a new series or won the lottery. My husband and I have finally caved in and hired a housekeeper to help keep our rambling apartment under control. Um. Not a daily (as we call them in England) – but someone who comes in regularly and puts our place in order.
Both my husband and I work full-time. He’s an Associate Creative Director for an advertising company and regularly works a seventy-hour week. Like many authors, I too have a full-time job and write in the mornings, evenings and at the weekends. With what precious free time we do have, cleaning house does not feature high as a priority.
Many people are fine about having their home in disarray and I say, lucky you. Personally, I can’t stand it. Maybe it’s a female thing. For me, an untidy house makes my mind spin and concentration hard. I’m easily distracted and if I’m sitting at my computer and there are dust bunnies turning cartwheels on my floor, believe me, they have to go.
So, it was with great joy that I came across a wonderful entry in one of my favorite books—The War of Art: Break Through The Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield.
When I lived in the back of my Chevy van, I had to dig my typewriter out from beneath layers of tire tools, dirty laundry, and moldering paperbacks. My truck was a nest, a hive, a hellhole on wheels whose sleeping surface I had to clear each night just to carve out a foxhole to snooze in.
The professional cannot live like that. He is on a mission. He will not tolerate disorder. He eliminates chaos from his world in order to banish it from his mind. He wants the carpet vacuumed and the threshold swept, so the Muse may enter and not soil her gown.
Tuesday, March 13, 2012
I grew up in a household of two artist-parents. Neither made their livings from art, but both were very talented and would rather have spent their days on this passion than what they wound up doing: homemaking/secretarial and running a photo engraving business. (I’ll let you guess who did which.) What happened, though, to my brother, sister and me was we absorbed my parent’s artistic ethic. My sister is a talented artist, my brother an excellent draftsman, and me? Well, let’s just say I have a keen appreciation of art and a bit of knowledge, but I can’t draw anything more advanced than stick figures. I became a musician, and still harbour a real envy of people who have the ability to draw.
So, based on that, how and why did I get to graphic design? Let’s just say that it was a circuitous route, led by my dissatisfaction with teaching instrumental music. After 23 years of it, I decided that I was no longer able to give my best to my students (the reasons were wide and varied), and it was time to get out. Unless I got really lucky, writing wouldn’t pay my way, so I was keeping my eyes opened for something else I could do.
Since I’d grown up in a photo engraving plant, I had unknowingly absorbed a lot of knowledge about what the graphic arts are and how they worked. I was helping with my dad’s hand proof press (when there was a need of such things), when I could barely turn the crank to make the bed travel down the press. When most kids were still struggling with long division, I knew how to break down an image into 4-colour process negatives, and the basics of setting type (still mostly by hand at that point).
But I became a musician and music teacher. When a life-change was needed, I got offered a job, based on my printing knowledge and skill with computers, plus my organizational ability learned as a classroom teacher, to work in a small design studio. My two bosses (I was the only employee) set about giving me on-the-job training in graphic design. Fortunately, they were very patient with me and good at explaining things, but often felt completely at sea in the early days.
Curiously (and surprisingly), knowledge I had acquired by osmosis when I was a kid became a valuable commodity. At the same time, I made it my business to learn the graphic arts requirements for good book design: covers and interior, since that’s where my interests lay. Maybe I inherited some of my parents’ artistic talents after all. I only needed a computer to help me realize it.
In the end, another thing I didn’t really set out to learn has come to be very valuable. My current publisher’s design department probably finds me rather annoying. I can look at a cover proposal and fire back detailed notes about all the little things that need work to help pull the design ideas together. I bit my tongue with my next book’s interior design, but the cover is far too important not to say something if I can help make it better, so I spoke up. There was the expected push back, but in the end, they did most of what I wanted since my points were very valid. The cover is pretty snappy now, but most wouldn’t be able to say why because the changes were tiny and subtle, but they do work.
How does all this fit into my topic today? (Or, how in heaven’s name is he going to wrap all this up?)
One thing I dislike designing are websites. A web designer must assemble a huge amount of arcane knowledge to work in this field, a world filled with acronyms and formulae that would make the average person’s head spin. I had learned enough of it to be dangerous.
But currently, I have to redesign my wife’s flute school’s website. Biting the bullet, I’m learning a new website compiling program. The for it manual is 1200 pages thick. I barely have a handle on things, but I’m trying to cobble together enough skills to do the job right. Pretty far from writing crime fiction, eh?
Not really. Last night I was adding a div to surround the outer container of my web template (told you it was arcane, didn’t I?), when a plot point in the novel I’m currently working on suddenly occurred to me. I could wrap this point around another point and add a whole new layer to the story, one that could be quite breathtaking at the novel’s end when All Is Revealed.
I wouldn’t have come up with this excellent idea if I hadn’t spent the whole day dabbling in HTML divs, CSS and PHP.
And so for this week, I’ll say TTFN.
Monday, March 12, 2012
The term "prolific" having been mentioned, I will move away from Stride-related issues and write some lines about a writer – unhappily, no longer with us – to whom the term applies readily. The name is Paul Winterton. Some of our readers might know his name; some of our regular bloggers might also. It's a name worth knowing. And if "Paul Winterton" doesn't ring a bell, perhaps one of his pseudonyms will. Andrew Garve. Roger Bax. Paul Somers. In other words, Winterton had as many pseudonyms as I have published titles.
A quick bio. Paul Winterton was born in England, in Leicester, in 1908. His father was a journalist who was also a British MP for the riding of Loughborough, from 1929-1931. Difficult years in Britain, as they were almost everywhere else in the world, with the Great Depression settling in. He graduated from the London School of Economics in 1928, and joined the staff of The Economist at age 21. He stayed there for three years before moving on to the London News Chronicle, for whom he wrote for more than a dozen years. One especially notable assignmment for the News Chronicle was as a foreign correspondent reporting the Second World War from Moscow, in 1942-45, some of the the war's most critical years. His time in the Soviet Union provided him with material for a number of his later books.
Paul Winterton - aka Andrew Garve, Roger Bax, Paul Somers
A fairly detailed bio on Winterton/Garve/Bax/Somers, and a list of his books, can be found here:
My interest in Winterton is long-standing; it goes back to about 1970. One thread even goes back to 1959, although I wasn't aware then that it would prove to be a thread. (I will come back to this.) In 1970 I moved, with my wife and two daughters, to a house in what was then the City of Nepean, long since gathered into the warm embrace of greater Ottawa. One of our neighbours in Nepean was a British couple, he Scottish, she English, parents of two young sons. The older son had the given name "Andrew". (Aha, a clue!) She, Bridget by name, was Paul Winterton's daughter. She was a writer herself, with one children's book to her credit. Oddly, in retrospect, do I not recall that Bridget ever said very much about her father's writing career. Perhaps I just wasn't paying attention at the time. (And, if so, shame on me!) Perhaps a natural modesty on her part was at the base of it. I don't know. In her place, I think I would have bragged about my father's prolific writing; he did after all have more than forty – yes, that's 40 – books to his credit.
I do remember that Paul Winterton visited Nepean/Ottawa once, but I have no recollection of having met him. I am pretty sure I would have remembered. I do have a vague memory of seeing father and daughter setting out for a brisk walk on our street, probably heading for the Greenbelt trails nearby, which went for miles into the near-wilderness. I also have a memory of Bridget's husband John saying that he usually declined to walk with them because their walking pace was more like a determined sprint. From which I gathered that the English take their walking very seriously.
Had I known more about Paul Winterton at the time, it is very likely that I would have read at least some of his books. I read a lot of mysteries in those days, Ross Macdonald and John D. MacDonald being among my favourites.
But back now to the nebulous thread from 1959. In that year I was still an undergraduate at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John's. One evening I went to see a film, A Touch of Larceny. The film starred James Mason (famous for playing Field Marshal Rommel in two films, The Desert Fox and The Desert Rats), Vera Miles, and George Sanders. Mason was a brilliant actor, one of my favourites of all time, able to play a villain, a tragic hero (the Rommel part), and he also had a deft touch for light comedy, never better displayed than in A Touch of Larceny.
I saw the film only once, the year it was released, but Mason's performance, and the film itself, stayed with me over the decades. Sometime in the 1980s, I managed to capture the film on VHS tape, probably from a public television screening, either on PBS or the Ontario semi-equivalent, TVO. I still have it somewhere, packed in a box with several dozen other VHS tapes. Ever since I have been waiting for it to appear on DVD, but so far no luck.
Then, about a month ago, I discovered that the entire film, in a very clean copy, is available on YouTube:
The film, of course, was made from one of Winterton's novels, The Megstone Plot, from 1956. Several other of his books have also been made into films. As one writer noted, his books lend themselves very naturally to film scripts.
It was after I found A Touch of Larceny on YouTube (Oh, happy day!) that I decided to look for Winterton's books. The Ottawa Public Library has only one: Counterstroke, from 1978. A quick search at Amazon.ca revealed that only one of his books, No Tears For Hilda, is available new. Many more are listed as available used. Chapters-Indigo does rather better; while none of his books appears to be available in hard copy, a large number are available in eBook format.
The difficulty finding Winterton's books is just a bit sobering, and more than a bit sad. He was prolific, he was very, very good, and he was well-regarded. But it's now hard to find his work in a format – other than used – that Winterton himself would recognise; i.e., the printed page. Perhaps his books are more readily available in Britain. One online source states that he thinks it's overdue that his books should make a comeback. But it hasn't happened yet. One hopes that will change. And soon.