Thursday, October 31, 2013

Thinner?

This is an interesting year. For the first time in six years, I have new novel-length works coming out, which has offered a glimpse at changes in the industry.

Changes, I must say, that aren't flattering.

I feel like I've stumbled upon an old friend, one who was once lovely. But meeting her six years after we knew each other so well, I can't help but realize how much she's changed. Typically, it seems, people gain a few pounds as they age. But in this case, my once-lovely friend, that beautiful crime-fiction publishing industry, has grown so thin I barely recognize her.

For starters, where the hell have all the independent bookstores gone? I'm fortunate to live in western Massachusetts, which has a handful of indie stores (World Eye Bookshop and Mystery on Main Street, among them) within a half-hour. But I tried to call  on my old haunts in northern Maine, where I lived when the Jack Austin series was being published. Not only has the local indie store gone under, the chain store in the region's sole mall is gone. This means there are literally no bookstores in a town of 10,000 people. The gods of Amazon must be smiling.

Publicity help has also diminished. I've always been with small presses, a fact I both love and hate. The publisher for my December novel has told me any store events hinge on my ability to generate them. Publicity budgets are stretched thinner than ever -- as you all surely know -- but it seems now that if you want promotion, you really must generate it yourself. So I've spent a couple days in the car driving around the area, shaking hands and meeting managers at area stores -- which I enjoy -- but which would also be much easier if someone from the publishing house had greased the rails first.

At the end of the day, though, the mystery genre is still full of great individuals; and I'm lucky as hell and absolutely thrilled to have two novels sitting on my coffee table in the next six months. Now, I just have to sell them.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Making Up The Word Count: My Top Ten Tips


Frankie’s post, Revising with “The Raven” last week was brilliant. I love the idea of synchronicity. In fact, some of my best plot twists are sparked from watching television programs – and they don’t have to be mysteries, either. It could be a re-run of “Bewitched” or a topic on a talk show.

My process for revising is very similar to Frankie’s and I love it, too. A young woman I work with told me she was writing a book. Recently, I asked her how it was coming along. “Oh! I’ve finished,” she said with a big smile to which I replied, “Congratulations! The hard part is over. Now the fun begins.” She looked at me blankly and said, “No. It’s done. I’m done.” She had written one draft and that was that. She had no intention or desire to write another. I’m not sure if she got published … I’ll ask her …

So I have my first - seriously grim - draft. Actually, it’s the second draft really because the first one is just throwing words and ideas down on paper. As an aside … for those who know and love  Bird by Bird, Ann Lamott's classic book on writing, here is what she has to say on Shitty First Drafts. It’s worth reading.

But I digress. This second draft is 50,000 words. I need to add in another 20,000 or 25,000 to reach my goal of 75,000. For those unfamiliar with word=page count, that will bring it up to approximately 300 pages.

So, my next step is to add in texture and layers. Here are my top ten tips for making up the word count:
  1. Add a new complication. For example, “what is the worst thing that could happen?” Even something simple like losing car keys or waking up with the flu works. It can take the story in a totally different and unexpected direction.
  2. Add in transitioning scenes or expand scenes you’ve just glossed over. These could include fleshing out a character as long as it doesn’t become fluff-and-filler.
  3. Add another goal or change a goal for a major character.
  4. Complicate the villain situation. Remember, the villain is a hero in his own story. Try to understand his point-of-view.
  5. Take a look at your supporting characters. Can you give them more to do? Kill one off? People get killed for four reasons: They have something. They heard something. They know something. They said something.
  6. Add a non-combat scene between the hero and main antagonist.
  7. Explore mistaken beliefs. Writing guru Lisa Cron tells us is to ask these two questions. "What is actually going on in the story’s “real” world?" and "What does each character believe is going on and how does that make each character act in that scene?"
  8. Make your setting more real by slipping in tiny nuggets of information – economics, social history or culture and, in my books, unusual British customs. 
  9. Add in a plot twist. This could be a secret relationship, a past trauma or past crime, an illness or disability or a hidden phobia or weakness.
  10. And finally - add in weather. In deference to Elmore Leonard’s rule of “Don’t open with weather” I think sprinkling it in is acceptable.


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Is it serendipity, or is there something else at work?

Otis Redding: The King of Soul
Okay, I’ve finished my work – at least for now – on the two publishing projects I’ve had on the go. Time to relax, right?

Actually, no. I’ve got a new project underway, and this time it involves playing music. You see, I’ve decided to go back to my roots and start a classic ’60s soul band. We’re talking James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, and of course, Otis Redding (to name just a few). Since I played this music professionally starting at age 15, I know it well, and over the years, I’ve educated myself further. Incidentally, that’s where I was last week when I missed my blog post. I was right here at the computer, but I was arranging up a storm, and before I knew it, it was 10 o’clock at night and I hadn’t done anything for my spot on Type M. Big oops!

So why am I telling you about all this? Well, it’s just that my music project has also produced a bit of unexpected writing fruit. With no writing project on the go, I guess my subconscious went into stealth mode. I was completely unaware that it was working away in the background, searching for the subject of my next full-length novel.

The other night, being pretty well toasted mentally, but also being unable to sleep, I was on YouTube looking at recordings of some soul artists performing on old TV shows. I came across Otis Redding doing “Try a Little Tenderness” on Upbeat, a show that came out of Cleveland and which featured a lot of black artists. I remembered seeing that performance when it was first broadcast. Unfortunately, Otis was 24 hours from his tragic death in a plane crash into Lake Monona near Madison, Wisconsin on December 10, 1967.

Of course, I began to look up accounts of that day since I remembered how devastated I was when I learned my favorite singer/composer at the time had left this world. There is a lot of information (and disinformation) out there, and for the next 2 hours, I delved into it. As when anyone famous dies tragically, rumors abound. First of all, the crash has never been satisfactorily explained. Back in those days, when private aircraft were involved, this was often the case. There was no black box, no mayday, nothing. The plane just crashed into the water. One uncomfortable thing I did learn was that Otis had been knocked out in the crash, his head hitting the instrument panel. When the plane sank, he drowned. (Man, that made me really feel bad.)

Anyway, unbeknown to me, the wheels in the back of my brain began turning, and before I switched off the computer for the night somewhere near 2 a.m., I surprisingly (at least to me) had a plot that would do quite well for a new book.

So was it just serendipity that my music project brought forth the plot of a new thriller? Was it fate? I sometimes believe in fate, other times, not so much. But something happened on Saturday night and everything fell into place with no effort on my part. I had the beginning, the middle, and the end, all in one enlightening whamo. I was not looking for subject matter for a new plot. Actually, my plan was to leave off writing and do a bit of reading over the next little while, sort of recharge my creative
batteries. Now I’m off on another novel and eager to get to work with barely a stop for breath.

Go figure…

––––––––––––––––––––––

If you’ve never seen Otis live, here’s a classic clip from Ready, Steady, Go. You’ll quickly see why I was so entranced with his music.


Saturday, October 26, 2013

The American West retold and retooled

We fiction writers are spoon-fed rules about writing. One of them is to avoid exposition, or at least pare it to the barest minimum. The reason is that exposition can distance readers from the narrative and bleach the reading experience of emotional impact. Yet nonfiction is told almost entirely in exposition and that doesn't keep us from getting sucked into a good story.

The book I'm reading now has me completely floored with its narrative and historic scope. Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne. It's a story we Americans are familiar with: the clash of two cultures, one Stone Age, the other modern (for the time) and powered by steam and gun powder. We've memorized the tropes: the defiant hard-scrabble pioneers pushing forward; bigger-than-life gunslingers and hustlers; soldiers both brave and cowardly; and of course the American Indians, the victims of a traitorous, incompetent, and mendacious federal government. In pre-1960s Hollywood, Indians were portrayed as bloodthirsty savages...renegades on the war path. Afterwards, they became noble, enlightened indigenous people, practically New-Agey in their behavior. S.C. Gwynne spares few details showing us that the truth was in between. At times sublime and beautiful. But mostly cunning and vicious.

While this story presents no mystery--we know it won't end well for the Indians, I was struck by the brutal and noir aspects in Gwynne's telling. And it demonstrates the driving momentum of a well-paced and forceful expository narrative. Gwynne makes us taste the dust, feel the heat and the cold and the terror and the hatred and the blood spatter, smell the sage and the burning homes, and hear the cries of the anguished and the bereaved. Any fiction writer would be proud to tell a story of such epic and dramatic sweep.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Revising with “The Raven”

I have finished the first draft of the second book in my Hannah McCabe series. After sending it out to my "first readers" and letting it set for as long as I can with a December due date, I am beginning to revise. I hate writing the first draft, but I truly love revising. With the first draft in hand -- or on computer until I need to print it all out to read -- I can begin to see the contours. This is when I pull out all of the writing books on my shelves and read what the authors have to say about revision. I'll talk more about some of the tips I'm using this time around. But first I want to share something that happened this morning.

Last night, after falling asleep and waking up because the room was too cold, I crawled out of bed and went to find a blanket. I was awake for at least another hour after that. This morning I should have slept until my alarm went off. Instead I woke up as the light began to seep into my room. I have a small portable television on my dresser, and when I wake up early I like to see what's playing on TCM. This morning, i opened my eyes to Vincent Price in "The Raven" -- a wacky Roger Corman version with Peter Lorre as a magician turned into a raven and Boris Karloff as Price's evil rival. Did I mention that the dead "Lenore" is very much alive and has faked her own death to leave Vincent for Boris. A very young Jack Nicholson is along for the ride as Lorre's not too bright, but handsome, son who is there for Price's lovely daughter.


As I was watching from my warm bed and thinking I should get up and write this post or do something else useful like go into the office early, it occurred to me that this was an opportunity to look for synchronicity -- the theory that what seems to be coincidence is actually the universe sending us messages, or, at least, that if we ponder a bit our subconscious will find connections and provide answers to questions we need answered. In this case, the coincidence was that my new book has a funeral director as the victim. He has a stuffed raven in his office -- a gift from his young daughter, who found the bird at an estate sale. Of course, my police detective sees the bird and makes the Poe connection. Watching "The Raven" played for laughs, I got to thinking about what I might do with that bird in my funeral director's office. That led me to a twist -- a perfectly lovely twist in my plot. I'm going to have to do a bit of revising -- but did I mention that I love revising?

Therefore, my first recommendation to you about revising:  Wake up early and see what's playing on TCM. Look for connections to your manuscript.

Here are a few other tips from authors of books about writing:

James Scott Bell in Plot and Structure:

"Develop a System for Your Read-Through"

". . . One of the worst things you can do is start at page one and just tinker with each problem you see as it comes up. . ." (p. 174).

Bell uses a red felt-tip pen and his own system of symbols to indicate problems in the manuscript. Other pros favor using a variety of colored pens or using color-coded post-it stickers.

After marking what needs attention, most writing pros recommend focusing on one problem at a time with multiple swipes through the manuscript.

Because I love backstory and sometimes put it in where it isn't needed, I'm attending to this advice from Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook:

"Backstory is less important than most novelists think. If you must include it at all, place it so that it answers a long-standing question, illuminating some side of a character rather than just setting it up" (p. 147).

And because I do tend toward the "tried and true" in my first drafts, this advice from Evan Marshall in The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing:

"Seek and destroy cliches: hardy mums, butter-soft leather, a mighty oak, a trusted servant" (p. 184).

Before my revisions are done, I will have cycled through all the writing books on my shelves, opening them at random for inspiration and advice. I have done this often enough now that I know how to revise. But I fear that what has become habit could also have become something I do without sufficient attention.

And, now -- before I forget my brilliant idea inspired by Roger Corman -- back to the raven in my funeral director's office.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

That Pie Time of Year, or Sacrificing for One's Art

I, Donis, finally finished the original draft of the seventh Alafair book. For the past few of weeks, I’ve been testing the recipes that will go in the back of the book. It's good that the research phase is over, since I tend to overindulge in my test products. In fact I have to say that I really enjoyed the heck out of myself.



When it comes to the food of my childhood, I usually remember very well how to make the dish and can whip up the recipe in no time at all. Sometimes, though, I haven’t eaten whatever it is I’m writing about since I was a child, and recreating the dish is something of an adventure. When I was writing the first book, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, my mother was still alive, so it was easy for me to call her up and ask if I needed to have my memory refreshed about some ingredient. She was gone by the time I was writing Hornswoggled, and I was forced to begin expanding my resources. For instance, I ate plenty of my grandma’s chess pie in my youth, but I never made one myself. I found a recipe for it that was written out by my aunt Alma Bourland in about 1989, which is what I used for my second book, Hornswoggled. I did modify the language of my aunt’s recipe just a little, though I pondered long and hard before I did, because I so loved the way she wrote it. “Mix sugar and meal good,” she wrote. “Add beaten egg and butter and mix well. Add milk and vanilla. Pour into uncooked pie shell. Bake slowly until firm.”

Which brings up a problem I’ve discovered with old recipes. How slow is slowly? How hot is a moderate oven? “Use a hunk of butter about the size of an egg.” “Add about a teacup of milk.” “Two glugs of sorghum.” Huh? These recipes were written out by women who cooked by eyeball, who were so practiced, and so familiar with the chemistry of cooking that they knew exactly what kind of reaction so many teaspoons of baking soda would cause when added to so many cups of flour and milk and baked for just so long in an oven that felt exactly so hot when they stuck their hands in to test the temperature.

So, in order to make the recipe intelligible to today’s not-so-talented cooks, Yours Truly included, I am forced to test these recipes over and over until they are right. Sometimes my experiments fail miserably. For my third book, The Drop Edge of Yonder, I tried to make an apple cornmeal pudding and ended up with something rather alarming that was more suited for use as a doorstop. So, I worked and worked to to figure out what went wrong, made some modifications, and tried again until I got it right. The sacrifices one makes for one’s art!

I love hearing about anyone's family food lore, Dear Readers. It’s not just food, it’s tradition. I have enough food lore in my family to have recipes at the end of any and every book I write.



Since Thanksgiving Dinner is coming up (or just past for you Canadian Dear Readers), I'll share with you my mother's Chocolate Pudding/Pie Filling recipe. It is just the ticket for this time of year. This pudding is quite simple to make, but potent. You must be an extreme chocolate lover to eat this. I’m presenting it here exactly as my mother wrote it down.

1/4 cup powdered cocoa (use plain un-fancy cocoa, like Hershey’s)
1/4 cup white flour
2 cups sugar
2 cups whole milk
1 egg
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla

Mix dry ingredients thoroughly. Beat one egg well and mix into milk before adding to dry ingredients. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens and boils with a dull “plop”. Remove from heat, add vanilla and mix well. Pour into 8-inch prepared pie shell. Refrigerate until set. Top with whipped cream. Leave out the egg for chocolate pudding.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Police Shootings

From The Toronto Star, October 5, 2012:

After Sylvio (Syd) Gravel shot a gas-bar robbery suspect to death on Aug. 16, 1987, his life and career went into a tailspin. The robber wasn’t armed.
“The information I had was they were armed,” says Gravel, now 60. “I gave him some very direct commands to show me his hands. He wouldn’t. He started to move toward my partner. I shot him and he died. Then we found out there was no gun.”

The shooting “devastated” Gravel, who was investigated. It took six years for the court proceedings to conclude.

Syd Gravel: Shooting led him to police support group

Police shootings will almost always make the news. The old journalistic saying, If it bleeds, it leads, is especially true when the shooter is wearing a policeman's uniform. Canada. often thought to be the exemplar of the "Peaceable Kingdom" is no exception to tragedies of this kind. By definition, a shooting is a tragedy; for the person shot, and usually for the man or woman in uniform who pulls the trigger.

In what is probably the most notorious recent incident in Canada, on August 20 this year, a Toronto policeman, Constable James Forcillo, aged 30, was charged with second-degree murder in the death of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim. Yatim, apparently mentally disturbed, and "armed" with a penknife, took over a streetcar on a downtown Toronto Street. He did not comply with police orders to drop the knife and surrender. It was later revealed that the teen was struck by eight of the nine bullets fired by Forcillo; at least five of the bullets struck him after he had fallen to the floor of the streetcar. After that, in an act that almost defies belief, the teen, now almost certainly dead, was tasered by another officer as he lay on the floor of the streetcar.

The preliminary inquiry into the incident has been set for April 22 to May 9, and June 16 to 20, 2014. Forcillo has since been released on bail.

Syd Gravel has since retired from the Ottawa Police Service. But he has not "gone quietly into that good night", to paraphrase the famous line from Dylan Thomas. He has not forgotten what he went through. He has now written two books related to the subject of police shootings. Having been a shooter, he is well-qualified.

For more on Syd Gravel, go to: www.56secondsbook.com.

Gravel's first book, 56 Seconds came out in October 2012. Here is a review from the Amazon.ca site, apparently written by a police officer who had an experience similar to Gravel's:

I really didn't know what to expect when I read Syd’s book. I certainly wasn’t disappointed, as I related to many things that he wrote about, especially in the area of aloneness. I felt I had been abandoned by my peers and my police department when I was diagnosed with PTSD 20 years ago. I wish his book had been available to me then, because it may have made a difference to me in that I may not have left the job - never to return. I would have had more understanding of what I was feeling and what I was going through and known what to do to get the help that I needed.

Gravel's second book is: How to Survive PTSD and Build Peer Support.

Gravel is also one of the founding fathers of Robin's Blue Circle, a post-shooting trauma team that assists officers to work their way through the trauma of death or near-death work-related incidents. It was first established in 1988. Gavel has personally assisted over 40 officers survive near-death incidents over a period of 12 years.

Last week, the CBC National News ran a segment on police shootings; Gravel was prominently featured. You can watch the segment here:

www.cbc.ca/player/News/TV+Shows/The+National/ID/2412830917

Unfortunately, you will have to wait through two commercials before the segment starts. But it is well worth the wait.

I will close with a semi-related recommendation for a terrific police drama from the BBC. I came across this series - called Luther - more or less by accident. I had never heard of it.

We asked Idris Elba what makes a good Luther

DCI John Luther is with London's Metropolitan Police. He is played by Idris Elba, who is an imposing presence on the screen, in addition to being a terrific actor.

A tagline on the character, and the series, is that Luther is "obsessive, possessed, and sometimes dangerous in the violence of his fixations. Luther has paid a heavy price for his dedication; he has never been able to prevent himself from being consumed by the darkness of the crimes with which he deals. For Luther, the job always comes first. His dedication is a curse and a blessing, both for him and those close to him."

Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Never Leave Money on the Table

This weekend's guest blogger is the fabulous John Vorhaus. John must be one of the most flexible and versatile writers I know. He's a novelist, screenwriter, producer and international consultant in television and script development and has worked in 30 countries on four continents. 

John is a graduate of Carnegie-Mellon University and a member of the Writers Guild of America. He's lectured for such disparate groups as Mensa and the New Jersey Romance Writers Association—and that's just the tip of the iceberg.  For more snippets ... check out his website.  But, enough about me talking about you ... John ... welcome to Type M for Murder.


One of the quirks of my writing life is that I’ve pulled down a paycheck by writing about poker more or less steadily since 1988. How I came to do that is a slightly instructive tale.

Back in 1988, I was an up-and-coming member of the Writers Guild of America, but the WGA was on strike, so there I was, rattling around Los Angeles with time on my hands. I found my way into the Commerce Casino and discovered exactly how badly I could play poker. I mean, they went through me like a freight train through the wind. I thought, Well, this is great and this is fun, but I obviously can’t afford to suck at it. 

At that point, I invoked one of my favorite life strategies: When there’s something I want to learn, I find someone to pay me to teach it. In this case, I contacted a poker magazine and said, “Look, I know nothing about poker, but I’m going to learn, and while I learn I want to write about it, and that’ll be my column.” Twenty-five years and three million words later, I’m still writing about poker.

There’s a saying in poker: Never leave money lying on the table, and I made this motto the mantra of my writing life. If anyone, anywhere wanted to pay me to write anything at all, I always found a way to say yes. Sometimes this created the problem of having too much work and not enough time, but that just taught me how to write fast and manage a workload. Sometimes I accepted assignments well outside my comfort zone, but that just expanded my comfort zone. Sometimes I found the work boring, but that just taught me to be a craftsman, and to take pride in my work no matter what.

In 2003, when poker got really hot, I told my agent that I thought I could sell a how-to book in that market. He told me he couldn’t sell one – but could damn sure sell three. Well, I didn’t think there was any way I had three books’ worth of poker in me, but never leave money lying on the table, right? So I wrote three. Then another three. And another three after that. They all earned like crazy, for as long as the poker boom lasted. I never told myself I couldn’t do it, and I never let myself not do it. The opportunity was there; I took it.

At the same time, I really wanted to write a novel, but I sold my publisher on the idea of a combination murder mystery/teaching tool, or how-to/whodunit, called Under The Gun. Honestly I wasn’t sure if I could pull it off, never having written a novel before. But I bluffed myself into thinking I could, and six novels later, I’m still at it. So, bluff. Bluff others and, when necessary, bluff yourself.

And what can we learn from this rake’s progress? First, if someone will pay you to write something, don’t ever give them reason to believe you can’t do it, even when you’re not entirely sure you can. Fake it till you make it; that’s how writers have always gotten by. 

Second – dead-horse beaten by now – never leave money lying on the table. Hustle for gigs. Accept every assignment. Make the most of every opportunity. Everything you write will teach you something about writing. That’s how you grow your practice, and that’s how you build a career.

John's latest adventure in his Radar Hoverlander series is The Texas Twist and it's available right here. Click this link. 


John Vorhaus tweets for no apparent reason @TrueFactBarFact and secretly controls the world from his website, johnvorhaus.com. He invites you to investigate his whole fricking oeuvre at amazon.com/author/jv.


Friday, October 18, 2013

Notes and Acknowledgements

We had quite a flurry of discussion in the Poisoned Pen Press newsletter over The New Yorker blogger who dissed all the notes, acknowledgements and thank yous contained in books. He maintained these additions were unnecessary and no one reads them.

I heartily disagree. I read all notes. I love them. I even read footnotes in academic books. Often they add so much to my understanding of a book. When I began the Lottie Albright series, I knew I had to explain to Kansas readers that Carlton County was fictitious and so was Gateway City. But if I had not mentioned that, a lot of Kansas would have written (or called) to set me straight. If I had used a real county, all hell would break loose. Irate residents of that entity would point out every mistake regarding the placement of buildings, civic events, and the quirkiness of various residents. I was plenty nervous enough to learn on a trip back to my home town that friends knew exactly “who I was writing about.” I made everyone up. Honest, guys! That’s why it’s call fiction. Nevertheless, reality keeps cropping into my books because I’m a historian. I can’t resist little historical tidbits that relate to my plots.

One of the creepiest ones incidents of creeping reality occurred in the creation of Hidden Heritage, which will be released in November. Two days before I submitted the final, final draft to Barbara Peters, a newspaper in New Mexico reported about a lawsuit filed by an ancient Spanish family. The issue was the same one I used in my book and the family had the same name. The book began over an imaginary “what if” situation. The article gave me the creeps. I alerted Barbara at once and there was a global name change.

As to the superfluous “thank yous” he referred to, I don’t know where to start. I’ve often thought about my extremely good fortune in living in a country when I can write whatever I please. That’s a fundamental freedom writers take for granted in America. I’m thankful for the gift of parents who loved books. Children who grow up in households that appreciate the written word have a joyful introduction to the world. I’m thankful that I was raised in a small agricultural community where children safely roamed the streets and countryside and we had time to savor a childhood spent exploring pastures and ponds. Kansans write the prairie because it plays such an important role in shaping our psyche.

I doubt if any authors will cut acknowledgements and notes as a result of the blog. It would be a great pity if they did.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Running out of time

John here -- with apologies.

Work has gotten the best of me this week. I've squeezed in my 4 to 6 a.m. writing sessions, but otherwise I have been swamped with meetings and student comments to write. So alas, all I have for you this week are some photos I have taken of late. Enjoy the western-Massachusetts foliage.




Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Ask The Expert

I am currently in the wilds of the Devonshire countryside celebrating my mother’s 84 birthday. Since I have limited time on the Internet—the only signal I can find is on the top of a hill next to a field of cows. This post may seem a tad hurried.

It’s always lovely to come home to my roots—especially since both my series are set in my old stomping ground. As always, I make the most of soaking up the atmosphere (did I mention it was raining?), taking lots of photographs for reference purposes and talking to people in professions connected to my various plots. For example, last night I attended the Diptford Chapter of the Women’s Institutes. It was hilarious. Members were invited to share “memorable stories.”  One had us all in stitches with her memories of working on a London double-decker bus as a “clippie.” Another had been a prison warden in the 1960s. Today, I am talking to a retired undertaker and tomorrow I’m visiting an old stately home with a haunted grotto.

But it’s not just about getting ideas and doing research (and having tax write-offs). It’s also an opportunity to double check facts.

The first book in my new series—Murder at Honeychurch Hall—features antique toys. During a brief stay in London, I met with Rachel Gotch from Bonhams Auctioneers, who—along with her husband Leigh—have been the toys and collectible specialists for the past fifteen years. I had a fabulous tour of the warehouse. Having already turned in said first book, I was dismayed to discover that some of the information I’d found out on the Internet was wrong! Nothing substitutes a phone call or a visit with an expert … even if you discover that the location of the warehouse is not in central London but a £50 cab ride away—which was exactly what happened to me.

But it was worth the trip. My husband called from home that night and told me that my copyedited manuscript would be waiting upon my return so I can fix those errors.

Oh—and every time I’ve approached an expert, I’ve always found they are thrilled to be asked.  I always thank them in the acknowledgement page and send over a book.

Okay...the cows are getting restless and it’s started to rain. Again.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The trouble with typos

The past several work days have been spent dealing with an edited manuscript, one I sent off to my publisher thinking that it was a near perfect as anything I send out can be. It came back with not a heck of a lot of changes, but there were some rather disheartening typos among them. While it was discouraging that I just hadn’t seen them, but I’m at the same time glad that someone did spot them. Two, especially, would have been very embarrassing had they seen print.

Typographical errors are something with which every writer has to deal. They happen. We don’t see them, and have to rely on those with “fresh eyes” to ferret them out for us. Sometimes, though, it just doesn’t happen. The results can be unintentionally hilarious – for those reading them, not for the poor author.

My worst one was a novel of mine that got to the blueline stage (remember those?) and had someone wearing a “fir coat”. I only just caught it as I made a second pass on the bluelines. Let me tell you, that would have been some embarrassing had it wound up in the published book. I also have a writer friend whose egregious error did, unfortunately, see the light of day. His protagonist was kicked between the legs in a confrontation – something exceptionally cringeworthy for any male reader – and immediately fell to the ground and curled up into “the coital position”. I don’t know about you, but the mental image is unintentionally absolutely hilarious. Since the poor author is a friend, I’m not about to give out his name here, but I am certain he winces anytime this story is brought up.

Because of its very speedy production, print media is the champion at producing typos. Sometimes they can cause real harm and a fevered apology in order to avoid legal action, but often they are weird or can be downright hilarious.

I received the following images of typos or very poor word choices from headlines that were actually printed in papers and wanted to share them with you all here. Read ’em and weep – but they will be tears resulting from laughing out loud, I assure you. Special thanks to my good friend Pam for sending me these. Enjoy!























Monday, October 14, 2013

Meet the Author

It was Margaret Atwood who, with her usual acid wit, said, ‘People who want to meet an author because they liked a book are like people who want to meet a duck because they like pâté.’

Fortunately, the fate of the author and the duck after this meeting are not quite the same, since face-to-face encounters seem to be more popular than ever.

I don't think I ever met an author when I was a child; they seemed a very exotic breed and even after I was writing myself, meeting an author whose books I'd read and loved would leave me awestruck. Today, there is barely a school that doesn't organise visits from children's authors and barely a small town or even village – in Scotland at least – that doesn't have its own little weekend literary festival.  Crime, I'm happy to say, is a very popular theme.

I was recently on a panel at Bloody Scotland, Scotland's new crime festival, now in its second year. It has been a tremendous success, expanding this year and looking set to expand again next.  Readers are coming over for it from the United States and Canada and this year it featured Lee Child and Scandinavian writers Jo Nesbo and Arne Dahl, as well as Scotland's own Tartan Noir army, led by Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Denise Mina and the lovely man who started it all, William McIlvaney. 

Like Scandinavia, Scotland punches well above its population weight when it comes to crime writers.  Something to do with the long, dark northern winters, and I guess that goes for Canada too..There's a whole blog to be written, some other time, about the effect of climate on literary creation – Steig Larsson and Andrea Camilleri: compare and contrast.

 I love going to events and I love the contact I have with readers but there is one worrying thought. I was talking to someone the other day who said that if she had gone to see someone whose books she enjoyed and she didn't like them, she'd never read another of their books.

I haven't had that experience myself but I do know that after reading a biography of Evelyn Waugh and realising just what an unpleasant man he could be, I've never felt quite the same about his books. The personality seems to get between the me and the words.

So meeting the reader may sell books, but it's perhaps a high-risk strategy. The producer is very different from the product and if you take against the way the duck quacks, you just might not buy the pâté again.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Reaching Readers

Much has changed since my last mystery came out in 2011. Or maybe it only seems that way because I wasn't as aware of the possibilities a couple of years ago. At any rate, the debut of The Red Queen Dies with Minotaur has required me to step up to the plate and take my best swing (okay, it's early in the morning and that analogy is the best I can do). I'm doing all I can to show my new publisher that I will not only write a good book but work to get it into the hands of readers. Not that I haven't always done that, but my first series is with a (terrific) small independent publisher and distribution opportunities have not been as plentiful.

With The Red Queen Dies, I've taken multiple approaches to reaching readers -- readers from my first series who I hope will follow the new series, readers who know my nonfiction, and readers who I hope will "discover" me. As I think I mentioned in an earlier post, I did a virtual book tour. It was arranged and conducted by Partners in Crime. They knew what they were doing. I had to learn the pace of being "on tour" in the form of book reviews, spotlights, guest posts, and interviews. There was no guarantee that all of my "hosts" on the tour would like my book. Luckily, even the reviewers who had quibbles also had positive comments. A review by one host bounced around Twitter for several days as her tweet was picked up and re-tweeted by her followers on Twitter. This virtual book tour allowed me not only to reach mystery readers, but those readers who might be intrigued by the near-future and/or Alice in Wonderland themes in this book. Of course, I have no way of knowing if the "cross-over readers" who are attracted to these aspects of the book like it when they read it. That's one of the inherent risks of writing a book that does a bit of genre-blending/bending, even though it is a traditional police procedural novel.

Aside from the virtual book tour, I worked with my webmaster to revamp my website and create sections for book series (Lizzie Stuart and Hannah McCabe) and my non-fiction books. I have to confess that since my new website launched, I haven't been doing as much with it as I had planned. I've been updating events, but haven't been writing the essays about research for the books that I intended to do. I also haven't done discussion questions for book groups or posted my offer to "visit" groups that would like to chat about the book. I was so busy with book roll-out that I neglected that part of my plan.

Speaking of roll-out, I did it twice. Once at Killer Nashville, when the bookseller was able to get copies of the book before the scheduled released date. Then back home in Albany, I did my official book party launch at the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza. That was lots of fun. The bookstore staff were great, the members of our local Sisters in Crime chapter and friends from school came out to support me, and the Alice in Wonderland-themed cake from a local bakery (Coccadotts) was to die for (see photo).




 I've done book launches for books in my other series at conferences and at the bookstore. I'm not sure how much impact these efforts have -- perhaps more in Albany for this book because it's set in Albany.

Then there's the challenge of getting out on the road again. Next month, I'm joining two other authors -- Donna Andrews and Jane Cleland -- for a three-day book tour in North Carolina. We are going to be escorted by Molly Weston. So I'm expecting that to be all good. But this week I was reminded of how far I've come in understanding the rhythm of the author on tour process (probably a snappier phrase to describe that). Yesterday, I was in Rochester. My first stop was at Watkins Glen Public Library, where I delivered a grant check from Sisters in Crime ("We Love Libraries") and did a talk about the craft of writing. I was delighted to have actually made it there because I had made most of the almost four hour trip from Albany with my low tire pressure light on. As I was getting on 88 West, the computer went beep, beep and the light came on. I glanced at the clock and cursed. Luckily, there was a service station right there. Self-service, not full, but a really nice guy who worked there came out and checked the air in the tires. He couldn't find anything obviously wrong. We agreed it was probably the fact that the weather had been cold overnight (which affects tires like mine). But he had no way of hoisting the car to check the tire for nail, and that annoying little low pressure symbol was still on. Clock ticking and hoping for the best, I set out for Watkins Glen. And had a wonderful time giving my talk to an enthusiastic audience and a lovely lunch with Harriet Eisman, the library director, after. She even directed me to the local Ford dealership, where they found my problem -- tires set at the wrong air pressure -- and sent me on my way, no charge.

I headed off to Rochester for my book signing that evening. I stopped by when I arrived and met Matt, the very nice Barnes and Noble manager, who showed me where I would be speaking. He had lots of my books and told me he had already sold ten copies. I was a little worried about that large community room with podium, but hoping people would show up for me on a Wednesday evening. They didn't. One man asked what was going on and wished me luck. Then Matt and I stood there, waiting.

This is when I discovered something about the author muscles I've built up over the years. Instead of bursting into tears -- or even feeling really bad -- I chatted with Matt about how unpredictable book signing were and he shared some examples. Then I suggested he move me downstairs by the door where I could be a "greeter". He and an assistant moved books and table, and I spent the next two hours smiling and saying "hello" to everyone who came in. The really lovely part was that no one made a detour to avoid eye contact -- could be folks in Rochester are just really nice and kind to strangers. I had a couple of long conversations, passed out some postcards with book information to people who were interested, but not ready to buy, sold four or five books and had one person who bought (had seen the book online) tell me that he would be looking for me when I came back next year. And then Matt asked me to sign the books he had in stock. As I was leaving I said I'd love to come back for the next book and he agreed that next year I would have more name recognition and word of mouth. I left feeling that what might have been a depressing situation had gone pretty well. There were even moments -- in between being aware of sitting at my little table -- when I was having fun.

I've also been doing radio interviews. I don't know how effective such interviews -- from 10 minutes to 20 or 30) are in reaching readers. But. like the virtual book tour, they do extend my reach beyond my ability (time and money) to travel. Some listeners hear the original broadcast, others heard a podcast. And the interview link can be posted on my website and sent out via Twitter. I have done radio interviews (set up by PJ Nunn) before, with my Lizzie Stuart series. This time interviews are also being set up by my publisher. I like the fact that I can prepare and have my talking points in front of me. I don't like that sometimes the interviews are in the early morning when I'm not quite awake. But they are generally fun.

So that's what I've been doing in between working on the first draft of the second book and working on my non-fiction book about clothing and crime. I don't know if I have been reaching readers effectively. There are probably things I could do better. I love giving talks at libraries. I'm still working on the one-on-one of signing in bookstores and at conferences. But I'm taking the long range approach on this. Each person I speak to is someone else who has heard of me. My job is to keep writing and trying to do it better with each book. Sooner or later, I'll have those bookstore lines that wind out the door. Although I'm torn between that fantasy and starred reviews. The two probably go together.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

My Ideal Day

I wake at 5:30, refreshed and energetic after a restful night's sleep, full of good dreams. I go out on the back porch, where I sit among the trees and flowers and watch the sun rise, my mind empty. As soon as the sun is well up, I take a brisk nature walk among the junipers. I have a nice breakfast of coffee, croissants, and jam while reading the paper (fortunately the news is all good today) and dashing off the crossword.


After my leisurely breakfast, I sit down at the computer and write. The words cascade onto the page, each one a gem. In three hours I have ten pages of pure gold that will require very little editing. My husband and I head out for our favorite bistro where we have a light lunch, after which we stroll over to the independent bookstore and spend an hour or so browsing. We make a quick stop at Trader Joe's or Whole Foods and pick up a few fresh items for supper.

When we get home, I'm bursting with ideas again, so I head back into den and write for another couple of hours. It's hard for me to stop when suppertime rolls around, but my husband has whipped up quite a gourmet feast for us I quit writing in the middle of a sentence so I can take up right where I left off tomorrow. Don and I laugh and chat through supper, then after cleaning up, we sit together on the couch and watch a '40s noir movie. I take a shower, then read in bed for a while until I fall into a restful sleep, looking forward to tomorrow.

My Actual Day

I stayed up too late last night reading. Didn't get to sleep until nearly two, then I had anxious dreams and kept waking up off and on. Couldn't drag myself out of bed until 9:30. I get dressed and sit at the dining room table, staring into space like a zombie for fifteen minutes. Don has gone to the gym. I run out to Subway and bring home a sandwich. Eat it over the newspaper, spend way too long messing with the puzzles.

I need to write. But if I don't do a wash we'll have to run around naked tomorrow. While the wash is running, I dust and run the sweeper. I need to put away the dishes I washed last night. I hang the clothes and run another two loads. I need to throw the bathroom rugs in the washer, which means I'll have to mop the bathroom floors. I'll be danged if I'm going to put clean rugs on an unmopped floor.

I finally sit down at the computer, where I make the fatal mistake of looking at my email. I spend the next 45 minutes answering my email and looking at Facebook. Then I finally start to work on the guest blog entry I promised so-and-so last month. I have to get it in to her THIS WEEK. Oh, and this is my Type M week, too. I've put off answering the note my sister sent me, and then there's the thing I said I'd do for the women's club.

Can it already be 5:00? I have no idea what to do about supper. I ask Don if he has any ideas, but he'll eat anything I come up with. I root around in the cabinets. If I had a can of hominy I could make up a quick posole. I need to go to the store. We go to the store together and diddle around up and down the aisles until it's too late to make anything. We bring something home from the deli and eat it in the living room while watching The Big Bang Theory. Don went to the library today and came home with DVDs of Kerry Greenwoods' Phryne Fisher series from Acorn TV. After doing the dishes, we spend the rest of the evening watching that. It's great.

Can it already be 10:00? I watch ten minutes of the news, but it's so upsetting I go take a shower. When I get out, Tom Hanks is on Letterman, so I end up watching him until 11:15 blinking o'clock. I go to bed with a book, resolved I'll turn out the light at midnight without fail. It's 1:30 when I rip myself away from the story. I'm all wound up and can't go to sleep.

I'll never make it up at a reasonable hour in the morning.

At least I no longer have to get up at 6:00 and go to work from 8:00 to 5:00, then try to have a reasonable relationship with my family crammed in in the evenings AND write a book/story/poem whenever I can cram in a minute. How did I once do that? (I'll tell you how. All that mopping and cleaning would have gone by the by) I'm amazed at how tasks expand to fill the available time.

For the umpteenth time, I resolve to do better.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Words & Music Part II

Two weeks ago I blogged about the interesting new program in which I had been invited to participate as an author in St. Thomas, Ontario. It combined all the toe-tapping entertainment of a jazz concert with the enchantment of storytelling. THE WHISPER OF LEGENDS, set to music. The event was sponsored by the St. Thomas Public Library and although it was a completely new concept for me, the library and the jazz group Martin Traynor and the Rainbow Quartet had been hosting a similar evening for eight years. Band manager Ric Giorgi had read my book and I had told him the parts I would be reading so that he could select songs and instrumental pieces to complement the readings and help weave the story together.

 I am always eager to try something new. Over the years I have done dozens of readings, some alone and some with other writers, and I know that it's hard to draw a crowd. If you read a segment longer than five minutes, no matter how breath-taking your story is, you had better be a first-class performer or you risk putting the audience to sleep. On the other side, a musical band can play a solid thirty to forty-five minute set and still have the audience clapping wildly for more. It seemed to me that teaming up with musicians could bring life and entertainment to the rather quiet, private sharing of a story.

Photo courtesy of Don Durkee
So when I stepped on stage beneath the bright spotlights of the Princess Avenue Playhouse to begin the evening, I was excited and intrigued. What would Ric and the band make of my book? How would the music tie in with the story? How would we keep the packed audience enthralled for ninety minutes? I need not have worried. Ric opened the evening with a couple of lively songs that captured some of the images of the wild Nahanni River, where THE WHISPER OF LEGENDS is set. I could hear the river rapids in the trills and runs of the saxophone, the hiss of the river silt in the snare drums, and the grunting of bears in the thump of the double bass. Ric kept commentary to a minimum, allowing my words to speak for themselves, but explained his choice of songs to match each theme. 'Stand by Me' to reflect Green's devotion and commitment to finding his missing daughter, 'Fly me to the moon' to capture the scenes of float planes dancing in the wilderness skies. Songs about gold fever, love, passion... Some of the music was fast and upbeat, some melancholy, some as sexy as only jazz can be.

I found myself nodding my head and tapping my toe along with the audience, and the hall was dark and hushed with anticipation during the times when I read. The ninety minutes flew by, and at the end of it all the band members and myself were exhilarated. To my, the experiment was a huge success, and I think authors and musicians should team up more often, not just in St. Thomas but all across the land. It takes a committed and perceptive band leader with an appreciation of stories as well as a wide repertoire of music, who is willing to read the author's work and give careful selection to the proper music. It takes an author willing to work with the band leader ahead of time and become part of the performance on stage. It takes a library, bookstore, or other sponsoring organization willing to find the venue and take the risk of putting on the show. In the case of St. Thomas, the local Coles store sold my books, there was a cash bar bringing in revenue and tickets were by donation only. it seemed to me that attendees were being most generous in filling up the donation jar.

A huge thank you to Ric, the Rainbow Quartet, the library and the town of St. Thomas for an evening I won't forget. If anyone has participated in a similar fusion of music and words, I'd love to hear about it!

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Writing is writing

My past few days have been spent writing some advertising copy, both for a client, but also for myself. Having been completely immersed in working on my novel for the past month – which is, of course, a very different kind of writing – I went into the two projects figuring it would be a very big change of gears. Turns out, it wasn’t.

To be honest, I don’t normally produce advertising copy. It is a very specific branch of our arcane livelihood and requires specialized knowledge and techniques. Having looked at enough of it over the years through my graphic design business, and also being able to see the revision process first hand and finding out the reasons why things are done a certain (and occasionally counter-intuitive) way, I felt I could do the job right, and hopefully, well. It was proving a bit more difficult than I envisioned, simply because you do have to spend a lot of time just thinking, e.g.: how do I make this one point in this particular sentence, using the absolute minimum of very punchy and evocative words.

Then it dawned on me (I know, I know, I can be incredibly dense sometimes) that this is pretty much the same thing I do with my own novels and novellas. As a matter of fact, the technique of producing a Rapid Reads novella requires pretty much the exact same set of skills. For ad copy – unless your advertising copy is for a literary magazine – you don’t want to use real fancy words. The prose must be punchy and deliver the goods in short, simply constructed sentences.

With my Rapid Reads hat firmly on, the words started to flow. I sent off the copy to my client yesterday and this morning received word that everyone at the client’s office is thrilled with what I wrote. (That being said, they had 8 or 9 revisions, but such is the nature of this particular job.)

So today I’m here to say that no matter what you’re writing (a letter, an invitation, a synopsis, ad copy, or a novel), a careful wordsmith will apply the appropriate tools for the job (and you must know what these are), but in a careful, thoughtful and artful way. One can’t say, “This job is worthwhile, requiring real care to put together, while this job isn’t as ‘worthy’ so I can cut a few corners.”

It’s also very instructive to developing as a writer to try your hand at different things. Too often we get sidetracked by novel writing to consider that there are things to be learned by producing sometimes wildly differing kinds of prose.

Those writers of Literary Fiction or Serious Non-Fiction often look down on genre writers as being hacks. Truth be told, there are some published crime writers who are hacks, but for every one of those, there are others whose skills are easily as good as “serious” writers. I’ve read some exceptionally well-done books in the Dummies series that could stand up to any number of award-winning non-fiction books I’ve read over the years.

Look at it this way: only the audience is different. The bottom line should always be: within the framework in which it’s being written, is my prose as good as it possibly could be?

All the rest is just attitude.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Post-Parisian

I wonder if anyone else out there recalls the Winona Ryder flick from "way back when" - 1994, actually - Reality Bites. This post has nothing to do with that film. Which is just as well. Although I am pretty certain I saw it at the time, I can remember not very much about it. Young people, I think, Gen-Xers and such. Not in my league, really - even if I knew what league I am in.

But reality is biting this week. We got back from France a week ago, dead-tired after a long flight - seven hours - on an Airbus, and then a wild and hairy drive to get out of the parking lot at the Montreal Airport. The airport, btw, is named for one of our better-known Prime Ministers, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. The road system around the airport resembles a plate of cold spaghetti. It is a nightmare. At one point Suzanne, who was driving, and who is from Montreal originally, actually screamed in her frustration. Eventually we did make it, of course. If we hadn't, this post would be coming from Montreal. Or a rest home in the vicinity.

I don't usually bring home souvenirs or gifts from a trip, but I did bring home a souvenir from Paris. A rotten cold, and it lingers, as colds often will.

OK, I did bring back small gifts for my two daughters. Meredith had requested I get her some "Kusmi Tea" from Paris, and Suzanne found some on one of her shopping expeditions. I had never even heard of the stuff. For anyone who's interested, here's the skinny on Kusmi Tea, from Wikipedia:

Kusmi Tea (or Kusmi-Tea) is a brand of tea with headquarters in Paris, France. The company, which produces Russian-style teas and tea blends, was established by Pavel Michailovitch Kousmichoff (Павел Михайлович Кузьмичёв, 1840-1908) in 1867 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Upon the onset of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Kousmichoff company relocated to France. The company has changed hands several times since then. The company sells and markets a wide variety of blended and flavoured teas.

So, now you know. And if you want to know more, go here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kusmi_Tea

My other daughter, Kristina, didn't ask for anything. For all I know, she's never heard of Kusmi Tea, although she's pretty keen on English Breakfast Tea, especially the one produced by Twinings. Instead of tea, she will have to make do with a bottle of what I hope is a really nice Bourgogne Blanc that I picked up at the Paris airport - which as just about everyone knows is named for Charles de Gaulle; and codenamed CDG.

On the whole, the rotten cold notwithstanding, the France trip went really well. I had hoped to be inspired to write, to photograph locations, and make notes about them, but I didn't. What I did do was eat and drink far too much. It's hard to resist. Everywhere one goes, one is surrounded by good food and good wine. They almost speak to you as you walk down any street. And who was I to resist?

The odd thing about France and the plenitude of food and wine, is that almost no one there seems overweight. It's the tourists, North Americans mostly, who have the pot bellies and the chubby cheeks. A friend of mine says it's the garlic that makes the difference. Maybe he's right. I don't know. It's a mystery, really.

A high point of the trip? Dinner on the Bateau Mouche, motoring down the Seine, just like Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade. It was really good. ( We will hope to have the tab paid off sometime before Christmas.) If you've seen the film, you might remember that the boat's crew shone a spotlight on the river's banks as the boat moved past, catching lovers in warm and close embraces. In fact, the banks of the Seine are densely populated on warm nights. Couples and groups were there in large numbers, picnicking in the moonlight. It really was very nice. And very romantic.

Low point of the trip? Versailles. It was, for us, a big disappointment. The grounds are beautiful, and expansive, but the buildings themselves, and the furnishings? We were not impressed. By the time we had staggered through it all, we had to agree that The Terror was probably not such a bad idea. Three cheers for Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, we say. Good man. Well done.!

Not serious about that, of course. Tongue in cheek, and all that. The Terror really was a terror. And this gentle soul opposes capital punishment - well, mostly. (There are some exceptions to my rule, but I won't list them. It would take too long.)

Most fun part of the trip? Piloting a mid-sized Citroen Clio around the narrow roads near Avignon, whipping through a roundabout every few minutes. (Not sure if roundabouts are found in the U.S. of A., but they are making headway here in the Ottawa area.) And we didn't dent a fender or scrape a mudguard.

But there was some disappointment even in that part of the trip. One day we drove to Chateauneuf du Pape, one of the most famous wine-growing areas in a country famous for its vineyards. We had expected to see row upon row, and hectare upon hectare, of orderly vineyards, the vines lush with grapes, begging to be made into wine. What we found, though, were vineyards badly overgrown with weeds. That really surprised us. We tried to put a good face on it by concluding that they growers did not use, or did not excessively use, chemical herbicides. But that, I think was a rather desperate rationalisation.

Days later, on the TGV from Avignon to Paris, in the Burgundy region, we passed hectare after hectare of neat, orderly and mostly weed-free vines, lush and heavy with very healthy-looking grapes. With that, we were indeed impressed.

So, now it really is back to reality, however one defines it. And, yes, we are dieting. And we are not (currently) drinking alcohol in any formulation. The cells of my liver, and what's left of my neural connections, are thanking me. I may even start writing again soon.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Snap, Click, Picture Imperfect

Are you tempted to take pictures of everyone and anyone at conferences? Better think again.

There has never been a time when I haven't been delighted to be included in a picture at Bouchercon or Malice Domestic or at other writers' conference. However, unless friends or acquaintances know they will soon be on-line I usually ask if it is okay to post their picture.

I never take a candid group shot of absolute strangers, say in the bar, to capture the flavor of the conference for my Facebook page. That woman he's "getting to know" just a little better might not be his wife or girl friend.

For that matter, think about a writer who is thinking about switching agents. Well, sort of thinking. Exploring actually. Entertaining the thought? Something! So he's having a drink with another agent. He sure doesn't want to have their faces "tagged" together on Facebook where he is "friended" by his current agent. The same goes for not so private meetings with editors. A lot of business is done in the bar.

Candid is what will get you trouble. Snapping pictures of panelists is always fair game. In fact, they will always appreciate a little extra exposure. I take pictures of attendees at awards events or ceremonies, but I usually give my subject's pose some thought.

Even at high profile events when folks are dressed to kill, no one wants to be captured during awkward moments or with a strange facial expression.

Always, always, remember Facebook has facial recognition capacity. If you don't know the name of the person you're focusing on, Facebook will.

Use your camera to win friends, not make enemies.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Meeting deadlines

John here.

This week, I'm working fast and furious to meet a May 1 deadline for the sequel to BITTER CROSSING, which also comes out in May. I'm revising the opening 150 pages. The process – stopping to reread when I page 100 or 150 – is not new.

And it’s usually painful.

I wrote BITTER CROSSING on spec, and it led to a three-book contract. When the offer came in, I immediate started planning the sequel. I’m leery of using the word “outline” because that’s probably not the right word. I have six pages of character sketches, each one adding more light to the would-be plot.

Here’s one character sketch:

BACKSTORY
Maximilian Karp, 50, was born in Prague. He has several personality traits that were forged at a young age and have now become crystallized: One of six children, he lost a sibling when an incendiary device took the life of his younger brother while the family traveled to Afghanistan when he was a child. His parents told him the bomb was from the U.S. Army. He was an outcast as a child, singled out for his poverty, singled out, too, because when his father was killed, when Karp was 10, his mother took menial jobs to support the family. And when those jobs failed, she turned to prostitution, using a sheet to cover the doorway to one of the four rooms in the house. Images of the bare twin mattress that lay beyond the sheet, memories of the neighborhood kids' harassing remarks, and the recollections, like a movie reel playing over and over, of one of his mother's clients in particular, come back in crashing waves at Karp.

How much of this back-story will the reader ever see? Who knows? Will readers know Max had a traumatic experience involving his mother? Probably. (Hey, for a guy who never outlines, I’m doing my best here.) As you can see, my focus is on each of the main player’s back-story and his or her ensuing psyche and motivations. If I honor the character sketches (each one runs a half to a full page), and, as Hemingway said, write one sentence that logically follows the previous one, the plot should take care of itself.

Or, at least that’s what I’m telling myself, as I plod ahead, reading, cutting, and adding to the opening 150 pages.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

An overview… (or Germany isn't where you think it is)

Having finally finished Roses for a Diva (well, nearly, since I’m waiting for final word from my editing guru), I’m sort of at sixes and nines this week, as the saying goes.

I feel as if I’m resurfacing into the real world and there are so many things to catch up on that I’ve missed over the last month. Cruising the Internet is one thing I like to do. Being curious by nature is only part of it. I often find interesting things to write about for Type M. The subject for our all-time, most-read post (Picking over the bones of the dead) came about from me trolling the Internet and finding something interesting that I’d missed in one of our local Toronto papers.

Yesterday, I was spending a bit of face time on Facebook, and ran across this clip from The West Wing:



 Being curious as to whether what they’re saying in this clever bit of television was actually true, I dug a bit deeper (we-have-been-mislead-by-an-erroneous-map-of-the-world-for-500-years) Turns out this map-deception on the television show was absolutely true – and really quite damning when you think about it.

Which brings me to the point of my post for today: how much suspension of disbelieve will readers be willing to deal with as they turn the pages of any particular work of fiction? It’s something we novelists – no matter what kind of fiction we write – have to deal with every day. I’m sure there are writers who research every tiny detail used in their books, but I would suspect they have a lot of disposable income to devote to this endeavor (because their publishers sure won’t). In order to write Roses, my wife and I went to Italy. We visited the places about which I wrote, but because I’ve never had to walk out on the stage of the Teatro Dell’Opera in Rome to sing anything (let alone Tosca), I have to either rely on those who have (and I am fortunate enough to have those kinds of friends and acquaintances) or “wing it” to to greater or lesser extent, depending upon my need.

How well I do when I’m winging it really can have a huge bearing on my novel’s acceptance. My greatest fear is that a reviewer will come along who actually has sung in Tosca in Rome and will begin their review: “It really is too bad the lack of research by the author…”

So how does this tie into the clip from The West Wing? Obviously, very few of us have questioned the way a Mercator projection map of the Earth distorts our perception of where we live. The people who sold us this lie – because that’s what it is and it suited their needs to have us think that this map showed our planet as it really exists – obviously have done a very good selling job.

And isn’t that what any fiction writer aspires to whenever they sit down to work? A great selling job?