Monday, February 29, 2016

For the Sake of Humanity

By Vicki Delany

It can be hard, sometimes, to come up with something new and interesting to say every two weeks here at Type M. My colleagues often have insightful comments and thought-provoking essays about the state of the world or the creative drive. Me, not so much.

SO, when I was trying to find inspiration for this weeks' attempt, I went back to the archives. I found something I wrote seven years ago. I'd say it still holds true.

**

Why Do I write?

I do it for the sake of humanity.

I have to admit that I have no overwhelming need to write. No particular drive. I don’t go gaga if denied the opportunity to write. If I can’t write... I don’t.

I guess I do it because it’s fun and I like it. Sorry. Not even the overwhelming desire for fame and fortune forces me to put fingers to keyboard (and if that had been my motivation I would have given up a long time ago).

As I was preparing this confessional missive, to prove, once and for all, that I am a frivolous writer, I happened upon a discussion about a book titled The Origin of Stories by Brian Boyd. (http://www.salon.com/books/review/2009/05/18/evocriticism/index.html)

Boyd argues that we write because it is an evolutionary imperative.

“when we create and share stories with each other, we build and reinforce the cooperative bonds within groups of people (families, tribes, towns, nations), making those groups more cohesive and in time allowing human beings to lord it over the rest of creation.”

Stories, even made up stories, help us to negotiate the social world in which we, the most social of all species, live. The book argues that “Fiction also fosters a part of cognition known as the theory of mind,’ one person's understanding that another person has feelings, desires, intentions and beliefs, the latter of which may or may not be correct.”

Which happens to be a point that I have often made about the vital importance of reading versus other leisure activities such as watching TV or going to the movies or listening to music on your iPad. Only by reading do we actually get to step into another person’s head. We can watch a movie, and identify with the character, understand his/her motivations, root for the hero, but we are still outsiders, as we are in real life. We are observing that person, we are not that person.

I’m reading Hard Rain by Barry Eisler at the moment. As I read that book, written in the first person POV of a hired assassin, I AM the assassin. I am watching over my shoulder constantly, checking every step I make, contently planning an escape route, trusting no one. I can break a man’s neck with a twist of my hand.

Will I ever have to know those skills here in Prince Edward County, Ontario?

Probably not. And if I had to, I’d forget them all in an instant. But my point is, and I think the point of Boyd’s book, is that I have an insight into a portion of humanity that I would not otherwise ever be able to have.And that insight helps to forge the social bonds that are essential for the survival of humanity.

I now know why I write: I do it for the good of the human race.

You can thank me later.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Con Game

When I first I got published, I couldn't wait to attend the various mystery cons like Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, and Men of Mystery. What I soon discovered was that the audience seemed to be mostly other mystery writers and those fans in attendance were there for the big name headliners. Typical of any fan response was when I hosted a Men of Mystery table and I could tell the people were disappointed in being assigned to a writer of vampire novels. At mystery cons, fans are interested in the authors of traditional hardback mysteries and fantasy stories are usually ignored. Of course, if my name was Charlaine Harris or Joe Hill, then it would've been a different ball game. As it was, I'd be lucky to sign five copies of my books. I tried a couple of ThrillerFests. Each long weekend would set me back close to two grand for airfare, hotel, conference fee, meals, and the bar tab. For my money and trouble I'd get one panel, usually at 9 AM, and maybe ten people in the audience.

On the other hand, science-fiction/fantasy cons proved worth attending. A literary event like MileHiCon will attract over 1,200 attendees, while the various Comic Cons will bring in tens of thousands, numbers that rival the L.A. Times Festival of Books. (For the record, I've sold plenty of books there.) Last weekend I was at PensaCon--one of the smaller Comic Cons--and it tallied over 38,000 visitors. So you can see how the numbers at science-fiction/fantasy cons stack in my favor. Typically, I might sit on five-six panels and I can expect anywhere from thirty to fifty in the audience, sometimes over a hundred. Fans seek me out to sign my books or to meet me in the dealer's booth.


Lately, I've gotten connected with WordFire Press. What impressed me about their operation is that they hustle and sell books. Take a look at that booth--the Tower of Nerd--and compare that to what Barnes & Noble might offer. WordFire also cranks up the publicity machine to get the word out. But setting up and staffing that booth is work.

Don't get me wrong, Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime are a blast. Mystery writers are a great bunch to hang out with and toss back drinks. But publishing is a business and I have to follow the money.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Crime and Consequences

February is a "sweeps month" (a period during which data are collected from television viewers). Ratings are important, and on soap operas ("day-time dramas"), the writers lure their audience with hints of new plot twists and long-awaited "reveals" (when life-changing secrets known by the audience are revealed to the characters who have been going along in ignorance). These reveals are of personal and/or business betrayals – adultery and affairs, baby stealing (of an infant thought to have died and/or switched paternity tests), corporate conspiracies and dirty tricks, crime cover-ups (hit-and-run, is a favorite), drug and alcohol addiction/relapses…you get the idea. I could run through the alphabet. And the thing is, those of us who have watched a soap opera for years can predict weeks or even months in advance what is likely to happen when a reveal comes. In fact, soap operas writers often foreshadow the change-partners-and-hope-to-live-happily-ever-after romantic consequences that will follow the reveals.

This week on The Young and the Restless, a powerful thunderstorm roared through Genoa City, Wisconsin (home of three major corporations). As viewers knew they would, the lights went out and after some shuffling about and going out in this fierce storm for various reasons, two former couples (who are now married to other people) were sharing memories and concerns. Another pair, a younger brother and his somewhat older sister-in-law, were discussing their efforts to bring down the evil businessman, Victor Newman, and the consequences for their respective marriages if their spouses should find out. Did I mention that younger brother, Billy Abbott, is about to marry Victor Newman's daughter for the third (fourth?) time. A perpetually star-crossed union because Billy can't get his act together and the Abbotts own a family corporation that Victor Newman is forever trying to destroy, and Victoria is devoted to her father and works for him. Billy has promised – after almost dying, but making a miraculous recovery after life-support was turned off (and providing an opportunity for a new actor to step into the role – "now played by" ) – what was I saying? Oh, yes, we had foreshadowing…

And, if you are wondering why I'm recapping this week on The Young and the Restless, it's because Victor Newman has a gun in his office.


Just this week, he threatened the son of the Mafia family that he borrowed money from with that gun. Victor wants to pay back the money, but the son won't let him out of the deal and has forced his way into Victor's company. Victor has tried dirty tricks, now he is trying threats of bodily harm. The son is in hiding with Victor's granddaughter (who saw the threat with the gun on a hidden feed from Victor's office that Natalie, the computer nerd with the cyber-security invention that Victor wants, had put there). Natalie is afraid of Victor, too, because she is working with his competitors. Summer, the granddaughter, was so freaked out that she went down to tell Paul, the police chief, and his son, Dylan, a detective, that she thought her grandfather was going to have his son (who Victor is blackmailing about the paternity of a "dead" baby) kill the Mafia mobster (who is young and charming). And Nikki, Victor's long-suffering wife, a former stripper and alcoholic who is occasionally driven to drink, who has left and returned to him too many times to count, has learned that Victor brought about the rape of his rival's wife by kidnapping the real Jack Abbott on his honeymoon and substituting a double (a drug lord he found in a South American prison) for Jack. Jack's wife, Phyllis, a red-headed firebrand, spent months with fake Jack, gradually realizing something was wrong, but not able to figure out what (remember "willing suspension of disbelief"). When Jack returned, Victor threatened to reveal Jack had killed people (including his psychotic ex-lover) to escape. But Jack kept quiet for Phyllis's sake. She couldn't bear to have anyone know. But she wants revenge. She has been plotting with Jack's younger brother, Billy (who is about to find out what Victor did and has his own reasons for hating him). Nikki, the long-suffering wife overheard a conversation and she knows, too. She has decided she has to save Victor from himself, save his soul, by bringing him down. She is plotting with the son he is blackmailing.

And Victor has a gun.

I like to think that the writers might have cut their teeth on Dallas and are about to treat us to the Genoa City version of "Who Shot J.R.?" For months, viewers have been complaining on one of the discussion boards about how Victor gets away with all of his dastardly deeds. Many are convinced the writers read the discussion boards and respond eventually. Victor and his gun – who shot Victor? Who will undoubtedly not die and live to be dastardly again. But for a moment, his crimes will have consequences.

I've been thinking about The Young and The Restless because I'm writing an academic article about crime fiction for a digital encyclopedia. I have 8,000-10,000 words for my topic. I've been thinking about how pervasive stories about crime are in other popular culture genres. Even on soap operas – especially on soap operas – there must be a police department and attorneys and judges. These characters are a part of the cast and have their own secrets and woes. Arrests are made. But, on soap operas, justice is rarely done. Innocent people are put on trial; guilty people are saved from punishment because their crimes are covered-up or officials are blackmailed. But, even knowing, that in the fictional world of Genoa City, Victor, the villain, will find a way to protect his family and his company, viewers long for justice. They want to see Victor punished (not necessarily dead, but brought low). In fact, Victor has on occasion been temporarily defeated, but the people who love him always hope he can be brought to realize that what he does harms both them and himself. They hope they can save his soul.

So Victor has a gun. And on this soap opera, if the writers know their Chekhov, someone will use it. Will Victor be the victim? Will one of the people he has hurt pick up his own gun and shoot him? Tune in tomorrow, same time, same place. I'll be there trying to figure out why decades after I watched this soap opera as a child, with my mother (who was on maternity leave) that I am still tuning in. I'm pretty sure it is because of this weaving of mystery and romance and the characters (played by terrific actors) about whom the audience care and feel they know well. Yes, the writers sometimes seem to forget who the characters are (literally re-writing the back story longtime viewers remember) and yes, characters sometimes act "out of character" for the sake of plot. But then there are those moments, when the actors make the characters ring true and the plot takes a "didn't see that coming" twist.

As you might have gathered, this post is my thinking through crime in this genre. I won't treat my academic audience to this detailed account of what's been happening on The Young and the Restless. But I will discuss how crime and consequences turns up in other genres – soap operas, situation comedies, musicals. And audiences watch because they hope that justice will triumph. In soaps, it won't last, but there is that brief moment…an incredibly melodramatic moment that is morally questionable. We have those moments in our books. Except readers of traditional mysteries would expect a Victor Newman to die and set the investigation in motion. Then the secrets would be revealed.

Got to go, time to tune in.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Writer's Conferences I Have Known And Loved

I (Donis) am not actually here today, Dear Reader. I am attending the Left Coast Crime conference in Phoenix. I thought it would be interesting to post photos from the conference, but I am new to my phone/camera and don't yet know how to post pictures without being in physical contact with my computer. Perhaps if someone will lend me their ten-year-old to teach me, I'll learn how before my next picture-taking event.

So, in the interim, I am posting for your enjoyment photos from some of the many writer's/fan conferences I have attended over the past ten years. There are too many to cover every one, so I just picked out some highlights, especially if they are photos in which I look pretty good. Join me on my virtual trip down conference memory lane.

With Larry Karp, Bouchercon, Anchorage, AK


Women Writing the West, Colorado Springs, CO





Hmm. I'm wearing the same wrap, though these photos were taken some years apart. I like that durn wrap. I still wear it a lot.








Tucson, AZ
I like the red sunglasses. I do the Tucson Festival of Books every year. It is huge. Hundreds of authors and tens of thousands of readers attend.


Tucson, AZ




Of course the one thing an author almost always does at a conference is sign books. This signing is at Tucson with Elizabeth Gunn and Hilary Davidson



Malice Domestic, Bethesda, MD
My first Malice Domestic, With Charlotte Hinger and Clea Simon

OWFI Annual Conference, Oklahoma City, OK

Oklahoma Writer's Federation International. I'm standing on a mezzanine landing in the conference hotel. I taught three workshops here that year.






Murder Mysteries and the West, Tempe, AZ
That's me in the blue talking to a reader after the panel discussion. Barbara Peters, my editor and owner of Poisoned Pen Bookstore, is in the white, and the cowboy-hatted Reavis Wortham is next to her. Susan Slater is trying to hide behind the pillar.

Cozy Con, Phoenix, AZ



This event had so many well-known writers that I don't have room to list them all. (Besides the fact that this was a few years ago and I don't remember who a couple of these people are) How many can you name?






Cozy Con, Phoenix, AZ

Though I do have to mention these three, sitting on the left side, next to me on the end, because they are three of my favorite people: left to right, Carolyn Hart, Hannah Dennison, and Earlene Fowler.










(All photos taken by Donis Casey, Donald Koozer, or an obliging waiter.)

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Juggling schedules and other silly things

Barbara here. Well, here it is, Tuesday evening just hours before my Type M post is due. Yikes! I am flying out to Left Coast Crime tomorrow morning at 7 a.m., I have ironing and packing to do, and because 5 a.m. is too early to even think of blow-drying my hair, I have to shower and do my hair tonight. Left Coast Crime is my favourite mystery conference, being held in Phoenix this year, a city about which I know almost nothing, except that it's in the desert and it's hot. Right now in Ottawa, the temperatures range from -25C on a bad day to 0 if you're lucky. My typical winter wardrobe consists of fleeces, wool long johns, fleeces, parkas, toques... Well, you get the idea.

In Phoenix, the temperature is apparently in the 25-30 C range. Tank tops, capri pants, and flip flops weather. So yesterday, I had to dig out my summer wardrobe, see whether any of it fit (winter, as we all know, is the time to add extra fat cells for insulation), wash and iron those articles of clothing that passed not only the "does it still fit" test but also the "can I wear this anywhere fancier than cleaning the oven" test. It's amazing the number of stains and holes that have appeared since I last wore those clothes.


But I now have a suitable wardrobe selected, washed, and piled on the ironing board. The suitcase lies open on the bed, half packed, waiting for those freshly ironed clothes. And I remember. Toenails! That's part of the summer fashion statement. All winter long the toenails are rarely seen, buried beneath socks and fur-lined moccasins, or stuffed into giant, clunky boots. Now they will be on full display! I love the freedom of sandals and flip flops. I love the sexy, flirty feeling of red-tipped toes. But I have a lot of work before these sorry-looking specimens are going to flirt with anyone!

Ta-dah!

I was just figuring out my timeline for the evening. Ironing, packing, showering, blow-drying, painting toenails... And then I remembered this blog. My schedule is shot to hell. So I apologize for this frivolous, fashionista-style rant. It will have to do for tonight. I promise that the serious writer will return next time, and report on all the important and profound things I learned at the mystery conference. But for now, red toenails await!

And if you're in Phoenix for Left Coast Crime, look me up to say hi, and I will show you the shallower, sillier side of being a writer! But what's a ying without a yang?

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Keeping your “writing brain” in shape

by Rick Blechta

I haven’t been able to work on my novel for the past three+ weeks. It’s not that I don’t want to or can’t be bothered. It’s just that I have a huge graphic design job (that also includes writing the copy) on the go, something that would probably be more wisely accomplished by two people. But since my studio only has one lazy stupid employee (namely, me), the job has to fall onto that one person. So, for the moment, writing crime fiction had completely gone out the window.

But hey! I’m still writing, aren’t I? Only it’s advertising copy, but that’s still writing writing. Right? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

I found out that cold hard fact when I got home from a rehearsal last night feeling low and miserable (mostly due to the horrendous cold I currently have) and wanted to do something I wanted to do (other than practising, which wouldn’t fly after a two-hour rehearsal). I sat down to work on my current in-progress novel, read the chapter where I’d stopped back in January and stared at a blank page for the next chapter for at least five minutes. I knew what I wanted to write, but I just could not make it come out. Probing deeper, it was as if there was a screen between me and what I had planned to write.

Huh? Perhaps it was just that I was tired (I was, exhausted, actually). Because of the stimulus of rehearsal, my brain was nowhere near ready for sleep. What to do? I didn’t want to read; I really wanted to write!

My fail-safe dodge in these cases is to write something for the ms — maybe just not what I was planning on writing. I started down that pathway, but the blockage remained. Next tactic was going back and doing a bit of editing on previously written stuff. Problem was, I’d already done most of what I could — at least at this point in the process.

Now I was getting frustrated. What the heck was going on? I tried outlining what was supposed to happen in the new chapter: character X would realize this, while character Y, in a different location, would stumble onto new information, then there would be a phone call between the two characters. That’s not much to ask for, is it? How hard can that be?

I spread out each of the points on my page to allow space to actually write these three little scenes. I probed into my imagination for scene one. I couldn’t figure out how to begin. Scene two...not much. Scene three, however, did at least yield an opening sentence about character Y taking out her mobile to call character X. How would character X answer? (He’s a bit of an irascible bastard at times) Would he be in a good mood or a bad one? (Flipped a mental coin) Good mood. He tends to give out more personal information when he’s in a good mood, so I could work in a passing reference to something I’ve been looking to add about him for a couple of chapters.

Eureka, I was finally plugged in and going. I only got down about a page-worth of usable stuff before my tired brain pooped out, but at least I could go to bed feeling as if I’d accomplished something.

It wasn’t until this morning that I realized a good part of the issue last night was the fact that I hadn’t done anything with my novel over the past several weeks. Sure, I’ve been thinking about it. I’d even made a few notes. But I haven’t been exercising that creative part of my brain where the story is residing and it had atrophied to the point where I couldn’t easily connect with it.

The course ahead is clear: I have to make time to at least write something for the novel every day. Thinking about it won’t cut it, and making notes, while helpful, doesn’t do enough, either. I’ve got to be getting down actual prose every day or risk hitting that blank wall again.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Now you’ll have to excuse me, I’ve got until noon to help out my poor stalled ms.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Questions, questions

Like Vicki last week, I too have been enjoying my hibernation. We've even had a whole week with nothing at all in the diary and time to catch up on all sorts of stuff. But now the gales and rain we've had over the winter have given way to wonderful clear cold days with very blue skies, the snowdrops and crocuses are coming out and there is even a shy clump of primroses under a bush.

So the events are starting up again too. There are two in the next month, one a festival a hundred miles north, not far from Aberdeen and one closer to home here where I'll be speaking to a book club. Very considerately, they've primed me: they've told me they want me to think what are the three most common things I'm asked as a writer, and how I reply – much easier than having to um and er while I think about it.

The first one's easy – where do you get your ideas from? It's usually asked with a sort of 'Bet you never thought of this one!' expression. I always have to fight the temptation to say, 'Oh, didn't you know? There's this little shop in London. If you want an original idea, it's very expensive but second-hand ones are remarkably cheap,' but of course I don't.

The image I sometimes use is of the representation of the primordial soup that you can see in a museum in Edinburgh, Dynamic Earth; a sort of sludge swilling round and round and every so often a bubble rises to the top and bursts – that's my brain, coming up with an idea..

But of course the truth is that you get your ideas from everything, all the time – a snatch of conversation, a story in a newspaper, something you notice in passing – and then the idea works in your mind and the story emerges, if you're lucky. It's not a very neat answer, though – if anyone can suggest a better one, I will use it shamelessly.

Second question: what do you write with? It seems a bit irrelevant, particularly since nowadays I guess there are very few people who write on anything other than a computer, but  for me it is quite an interesting one, having cut my writing teeth in the days when you wrote longhand, then typed it up, in duplicate using a carbon, with a pot of Typex beside you that within days of opening would deposit sticky white blobs everywhere. And of course if you made ms changes, it meant not only retyping the page with those changes, but the subsequent pages as well if you wanted the finished document to look professional.

So moving on to a computer transformed my life, but the switchover took some time. I would write longhand, then get it up on the screen for revision. After that, I got to the stage where I could whizz along until I got to a point where something wasn't working and I'd go back to longhand – I always felt I could then 'hear'  my characters better. The day I realised I really  had transferred to computer completely was when I realised I was making 'hearing' spelling mistakes – 'your' for 'you're', 'there' for 'their'. (And thanks to Beelzebub – see previous posts – I had to return to longhand for a bit and I didn't like it at all.)

The third one, 'Do you put real people in your books?' is often followed by, 'You won't go putting me in one, will you?' with an arch look. The honest response would be, 'Not if I want anyone to read it, no,' but I usually say that I don't, in general, since characters in books can't be as inconsistent and unpredictable as real people are. But if pushed, I sometimes confess that there was one murder that gave me a therapeutic outlet and stopped me saying things to the person in question that I would have deeply regretted later – and of course I made sure she would never have recognised herself!

I'm looking forward to this book club meeting – they sound an interesting bunch. The only problem is I shall have to take time to re-read the book they've been reading since they will almost certainly remember more about it than I do!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Getting Dressed to Kill

 by Cathy Ace
  
Thanks to the TYPE M team for inviting me along today – this is a super blog with some great insights for those who enjoy taking, or reading about, the creative voyage. Looking at the list of regular bloggers I’m keenly aware I’m a relative neophyte, so it’s not surprising if my name is new to you. My first novel was published in March 2012, and I’m still discovering something new about the creative process and the crime-writing business every day. Discovering new authors and readers is a part of that joy, so if we’re new to each other – hello, nice to meet you!

A lot has changed in my life over the past four years, as one would imagine when a person embarks upon a third career in their fifties. But I have realized that something has come full circle – and it involves a dressing gown. Let me explain…

When I wrote the first Cait Morgan Mystery, The Corpse with the Silver Tongue, in the winter of 2010, I was still teaching at university and squishing my creative writing into “stolen time”. For that first novel I would plant myself at my desk as soon as I got out of bed (and had thrown the ball around for the dogs, and made coffee…you know) and wouldn’t move until I’d done what I needed to do that day in terms of word count. It meant I, essentially, wrote that book in my dressing gown and slippers.

Since then I have written ten more books across two series and each has brought different challenges, but there’s been one constant, and ever more keenly-felt reality; I’ve discovered that with each extra title published, the promotional effort required of me seems to increase exponentially. This means that, although I no longer teach at university, I am still squishing my creative writing into “stolen time”. It’s weird. I wouldn’t have believed it if someone had told me this was how it would be. It seems that being a “full-time author” means I’m still a “part-time writer”.

When I mention this to those who have much more experience than me, their response tends to involve the rolling of eyes and a world-weary smile conveying “now you know how it feels”. So, this is the norm, it seems. The new norm. I admit I struggle with it. It seems it’s more difficult for me to compartmentalize “work” and “creativity” when the work is promoting the output of my creative effort. And there’s the problem you see – without the creative output, there’s nothing to promote; without the promotional effort, there aren’t the sort of sales figures a publisher wants to support. It’s both, or nothing, so I’m trying to reach the right type of balance for me. As any author does, for them.

Thus, over the past few months, I’ve gone back to the basics; I wrote my first novel wearing a green silk dressing gown, and I am currently writing my eleventh wearing another green silk dressing gown. I don’t write first thing in the morning anymore; being on the west coast I find my email inbox is already quite busy when I get up, and my brain tells me I have to deal with “work” before I can feel fully “creative”, so now I work all day, then write at night. I pull on my dressing gown and slippers, and sit at my desk from about 9.30pm until maybe 1am or 2am to write. The house is dark and quiet, my husband and the dogs are asleep, any emails I receive can reasonably wait until the next day to be answered…so it’s just me and my characters. And my dressing gown.

And about that dressing gown…I love old movies, the black and white ones you see on TCM where so many of the glamorous 1930’s stars sported a fluid, embroidered, kimono-style dressing gown. I admit I coveted those flowing garments, so determined to find one for myself. And I did. In a tiny store specializing in Asian artefacts in British Columbia’s New Westminster, just half a block away from the Raymond Burr Theatre, I found an entire rail of silk kimonos. Black on one side, a variety of solid colors on the other, the fact they were embroidered with dragons (being Welsh means I have a soft spot for our national emblematic creature) and reversible meant I went a bit mad and bought three! I’ve worn the two green ones so far – I’m saving up the blue one for future use. One dressing gown per series of books; one dressing gown for each set of characters. It might sound a bit odd, but I find that getting dressed to kill really helps my creative process – the slippers don’t seem to matter so much, but the dressing gown plays a big part.

Maybe you could help me out here – is it just me who does this? Do you have other “rituals” that help you get into the creative frame of mind? I know some authors have a favorite writing spot, some have a preferred time of day – but clothes?

Cathy Ace is the author of two series: the Bony Blithe Award-winning Cait Morgan Mysteries (book #7 The Corpse with the Garnet Face is published in April 2016) feature a Welsh Canadian professor of criminal psychology who sleuths her way around the world tackling traditional, closed-circle mysteries; the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries (book #2 The Case of the Missing Morris Dancer was published in February 2016) feature four softly-boiled female PIs who operate their business out of a converted barn on a ducal estate in Wales. Cathy is National Vice President of Crime Writers of Canada, and also belongs to Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime and the UK’s Crime Writers’ Association. Her website is here: http://cathyace.com.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Virtual Book Club Talk

I've begun setting up my June book tour for Destiny's Pawn, and like any frugal author, I'm trying to get the most bang for my buck.

My pilgrimage north usually takes a week, starting in western Massachusetts and concluding in northern Maine – some 600 miles later – where the Peyton Cote novels are set. I sign at various stores, street events, read, and this year will even host an "author luncheon" to benefit a local library. As you can imagine, it's a costly friend-raising journey. Last summer, I had $500 into the trip before hotel costs.

Something happened last week that has me (almost) rethinking this whole thing: Laura Cummings, at White Birch Bookstore, reached out to host a signing on said tour and mentioned her store's book club was discussing Bitter Crossing. Coincidentally, after my students recently read Naomi Hirahara's terrific Murder of Bamboo Lane, I shot Naomi an e-mail to see if she'd be interested in hosting a Google Hangout session Q@A with my students. She said sure, and we successfully used Google.

So when Laura mentioned her book club, I offered to do the same. We used Google Hangouts for this event, too, and it worked reasonably well.

A new business model? A more cost-effective one for sure.

Can a virtual author visit replace a face-to-face interaction? No way. But North Conway, NH, is three hours from my house. I spoke to maybe ten readers and answered questions for 30 minutes. And I was still home to read my 7-year-old daughter a story and kiss her goodnight. And the trip didn't cost so much as one cup of coffee, let alone gas expenses.

Will the virtual author visit replace the real deal? Not anytime soon. But there's a definite upside to this structure. And it makes me wonder how authors will be interacting with readers in the future.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Author Branding, What's That?

The idea of branding confuses me some. I suspect it always will. I’ve never worked in retail or dealt with marketing, although family members have so I’m not completely ignorant of what goes on. Still, I don’t have that kind of mind.


From what I can tell, branding is a way of differentiating a product from others so you get noticed. I hear about author branding often enough I figure I should learn more about it so I was looking forward to a presentation on the subject at last Sunday’s Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles meeting.

The speaker was multi-series author Diane Vallere. I’m amazed by how much she gets done and how fearless she is. I’ve seen her go from self-published author of two series to author of four series: 1 self-published, 2 published by a large publisher and 1 published by a smaller publisher. SinC/LA member Ellen Byron even wrote a blog post on WWDVD—What Would Diane Vallere Do.

On her website, Diane notes she writes “Fiction for women who like shoes, clues and clothes.” That’s her brand. It’s catchy and you know when you read something she wrote fashion will be some part of the book.

I came away from the meeting still somewhat confused but a little wiser about branding. Here’s a brief summary of Diane’s talk on Creating Your Brand.

Why the need for branding? There are a lot of books out there. It’ll help you distinguish yourself from the pack. And readers will know what to expect from one of your books. It’ll help you effectively promote everything you write and decide whether a publicity opportunity is worth the effort.

What your brand is and is not. Your brand is not your book or you. It’s not someone else’s brand, e.g. don’t say your books are just like Stephen King’s. Your brand is recurring elements in your books. As mentioned above, for Diane that’s fashion. Your brand is bigger than your genre, it’s everything you write.

Where to use your brand. Facebook author page, twitter, in graphic images used for promotion, newsletters... E.g., if fashion is a common theme throughout your books, you would post items related to fashion on social media. Diane is known for posting photos of clothes she packs for conferences.

Exercises to help you discover your brand by identifying common elements in the things you’ve written or want to write.

1) If you had a guarantee your next five books would sell a lot of copies what would you write? Write down five different ideas, writing as much as comes to mind. What do they have in common?

2) Think of at least three movies you wish you’d written because they fit you. What themes run through them?

3) What are your personal interests that are also in your books?

That’s what I got out of the talk. I probably missed a few things here and there. I’ve invited Diane to correct me. We’ll see what she says. I haven’t done the exercises yet. I think they’ll help me figure out my brand. And, if I get stuck, I’ll just ask myself WWDVD.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Your favourite place to read or write

It’s snowy and finally feels like winter here in Toronto (better late than never!), and on this type of day it’s perfect to curl up with a good book. (Which is, sadly, something I can’t do today.)

Today I have two questions for everyone. The first everyone can answer (and I encourage you to so do!), and the second is for the writers out there, and the answers might well be very different.

First question: Where do you like to read? If you could pick the perfect spot(s), where would they be? I have a few choices. I love to set up in front of a fire on a cold day. On a hot day, nothing is better than a spot near some water, especially if there’s a wide vista to look at from time to time. When it’s cold, I like a hot beverage and the opposite is true when it’s hot. Nothing alcoholic, please, because I’ll fall asleep in short order. So where are these two ideal places for me? One is in a 150-year-old log home near Perth, Ontario, which I used in a scene in The Fallen One. The warm weather has two locations. One is the town over from where I grew up. It has a lovely spot, Manor Park overlooking the Long Island Sound. It has numerous benches under the trees where you can look right across the sound at Glen Cove on the opposite shore. I haven’t been there in years, but maybe it’s time to spend a few hours there this summer. The second spot is on Flowerpot Island off the tip of the Bruce Peninsula. It is a gorgeous spot with numerous good vantage points overlooking Georgian Bay.

So there are my choices. Where are yours?

Second question: If you’re a writer, where do you like to write? My answer is more complex. The first I haven’t been able to indulge in very much, and that’s to rent a place in a foreign country (Italy or France would be nice) and spend a few months there working on a novel. That would really be a slice of heaven. My second choice and something I can do much more easily is to write at the Osgoode Hall law library. It is a magnificent room, quiet and dignified and it’s generally open to the public. In this room I find it really easy to concentrate for long periods.

What are your choices for favourite places to write?

Please take a few moments to share your favourites. I thank you!

Monday, February 15, 2016

Emerging from Hibernation


By Vicki Delany

Everyone seems to be talking about time pressures lately.

Which is why I love winter in Canada so much.  To me January and February are hibernating time. I can go days on end without talking to anyone. I’ll venture out to go to the grocery store, and I might be persuaded to meet friends for dinner, but otherwise, I’m holed up in my den.

Me, at home. I walk a lot in the winter, particularly when the ground is snow covered and I can access the snowmobile paths through the woods and across the farmer’s fields.

All ready to venture outside
In Canada everyone asks everyone, particularly if they don’t have a “regular” job, if they’re going away (meaning South) for the winter. I always reply that I never travel in the winter.  It’s my ME time.

I like to stay home in summer too, but summer is a time of chores, isn’t it? The lawn to be cut, the garden to look after. The swimming pool to use, and company to entertain.

In the winter, I write, I do writing chores as Donis alluded to in her recent post, I do jigsaw puzzles, I read a good deal, I take snowy walks, and I watch an hour or so on Netflix most evenings.

Perfect!

I’m off to Phoenix at the end of February, and although I’m looking forward to it very much, I’d rather it was a couple of weeks later. I’m not going to be ready to emerge from hibernation quite yet.

Speaking of Left Coast Crime, and adding to what Donis and Barbara had to say, as well as at the conference I’ll be at the Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale on Wednesday, January 24th as part of their international authors night. And doesn’t that sound like a lot of fun!  As well as full roster of LCC events (two panels, speed-dating for authors, and the Poisoned Pen Press breakfast) I’ll be at the Crime Writers of Canada reception Friday at 5:30 in my role as president of the CWC. We have a fun event planned full of authors. Enter out quiz and you might win a great prize.

I hope to see many of you there.  And if not, I hope you’re enjoying your winter too.

The view from my kitchen window

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Guest post the weekend: Simon Wood

Our guest author this weekend is none other than Simon Wood, an old friend of Type M for Murder (I believe it’s his sixth guest post) and someone whom I’m sure a lot of you know. He writes damn good books, and if you haven’t read one yet, well hop to it! Welcome back, Simon, and thanks so much for leaping into the breech once again.

I met Simon many years ago when we shared a cell at a prison that shall remain nameless. He was sent up for using a British accent without a permit and I was convicted of writing without a license. We both managed to obtain early release on account of our good looks and broad appeal.*

*Some of the above statements may not be true.

Chaos Theory

by Simon Wood

I saw my author-friend, Tony Broadbent, not too long ago. We hail from the same hometown back in the old country. We got to chatting and he gave me a pat on the head and told me I was an anarchist.

“You’re like the Gary Oldman of the mystery world,” he said.

I love Gary, but I asked, “Is that a good thing?”

“Yes,” he exclaimed. “There’s a lot of anarchy in your writing.”

How subversive, I thought. I’m a rebel without an agenda. Mum will be delighted.

Well, the little exchange got me thinking about my writing. I don’t think people hit the keyboards with an agenda or a theme tucked under their arm—or if they do, it sort of sticks out. Agendas and themes develop on a subconscious level. Well, they do for me. I don’t go out of my way to put a slant on my stories. I just try to entertain, but inadvertently, I show a little leg now and again. So, I looked for the anarchy. And I think I saw it in the shape of conflict.

Conflict. Stories require conflict. It’s a driving force. Characters and stories thrive on it. More so in mysteries and thrillers than other genres. The nature of the genre means there are going to be casualties and collateral damage. So I like to inject my stories with a lot of conflict. The problem is that I’m quite a literal person and I think about things in very pure terms. Blame my engineering background. When I think conflict, I think about total annihilation.

Everything my lead character holds dear is under attack. I create this person so that I can destroy them. I place them and their world in an ivory tower, then go about stacking as much C4 explosive around the foundation as possible to blast it all apart. It only seems fair, doesn’t it? Conflict by its nature is salt to a wound. Character assassination is key. Only by putting everything in a protagonist’s world at extreme risk can the character grow and thrive. There can’t be a comfort zone for this person. Wouldn’t you want to read about a character in a situation like that?

I flicked through some of my stories to see what I did to my characters and the annihilation is there. Characters have their reputations destroyed, home life obliterated, are framed for things for crimes they didn’t commit, have personal property confiscated or stolen or destroyed. These characters’ lives will never be the same. There will have to be a lot of rebuilding by the end.

So I guess I do have anarchistic bent. Sorry. It wasn’t intentional. It’s just the way I tell ’em.

Yours destructively,
Simon
___________________________

Simon Wood is a California transplant from England. He's a former competitive racecar driver, a licensed pilot, an endurance cyclist, an animal rescuer and an occasional PI. He shares his world with his American wife, Julie. Their lives are dominated by a longhaired dachshund and four cats. He's the Anthony Award-winning author of Working Stiffs, Accidents Waiting to Happen, Paying the Piper, Terminated, Asking For Trouble, We All Fall Down and the Aidy Westlake series. His current thriller is THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY which has been optioned for a movie. He also writes horror under the pen name of Simon Janus. Curious people can learn more at http://www.simonwood.net.

Friday, February 12, 2016

How Much of an Escape

Last year in Albany, New York, we had days when there was nothing to do – nothing one could have been expected to do – but stay inside and look out. Last year, we stocked up on cocoa, made huge pots of soup, and anticipated our TV or movie-watching binges, and the books we would read when even adults had "snow days". This year, we have so little snow that I'm embarrassed to mention it when I talk to my relatives in Virginia.

Snow seen through screened window
this morning.

Harry's bored reaction to weather
in Albany this February.

Believe me, I complained along with almost everyone else in the Northeast when we had major snowstorms in mind-boggling succession last year. When I was reduced to tunneling a narrow path from front door to steps out onto the street, I would have been happy to see all the snow disappear. But this year, this lack of snow is spooking me. I know it has gone some place else, but that doesn't make me feel better. This is February in upstate New York. We should have snow – measurable, boots required, weather alert, go-home-before-it-starts snow. I should be complaining about the hard, icy chunks shoved across my driveway by the snowplow clearing my street.

I shouldn't be thinking about my Hannah McCabe books because it hasn't snowed. McCabe, a homicide detective, inhabits an Albany in the near future. I set The Red Queen Dies in 2019 with temperatures in the 90s in late October. A few months later, in What the Fly Saw, a massive January blizzard is headed up the East Coast toward Albany. The murderer strikes during this storm. The weather in McCabe's world is erratic and troubling. Now, the weather in my world is, too.

The thing about writing is that sometimes what one writes as fiction becomes reality. Or, at least close enough to reality to be reason for concern. My two McCabe police procedurals take place as a presidential election is looming. McCabe's father is a retired journalist/newspaper editor. They have several occasion to discuss the candidacy of a third party candidate named Howard Miller who is appealing to people's fears because his campaign begins to intrude into their lives.

Yes, freakish weather has happened in the past. Yes, politicians have often used fear- and anger-laden messages to ride into office. But having spent some time thinking about the future, it feels as if it is coming faster than I expected. My fiction may soon reflect reality.

Not that my fictional world is a dystopia nightmare. I'm not writing science fiction. But I thought by moving a few years ahead and creating an alternate universe Albany, I would be setting my stories in a world that was different from our own.

The lack of February snow in Albany and the 2016 presidential race have gotten me thinking about what I do as a writer. Or, I should say, thinking more deeply about what I do. I am at that point when I need to update my bio, take new author photos, and do some work on my website. I also should have a look at my neglected Facebook page. I know I should send out a newsletter, do the blogs I was going to do on my website about my research, and send out related tweets. I've been thinking about how to present a consistent image as a writer – not just because I read a book about how this is a useful marketing strategy. I have reached a point in my career when having a clear perception of who I am as writer will make my choices easier. I have a list of writing projects that I would love to do – ideas for books and short stories with my current protagonists, a proposal out there for a new series, a historical thriller in progress. And, of course, there is my nonfiction book about dress, appearance, and criminal justice. And a couple of other nonfiction books ideas that I've thought of while writing that one. I have enough potential projects to keep me busy for years. So the question of what to do next – decided in part by discussions with my agent and my editor.

Actually, the larger question is how to write. What do I want to put out there in the world? Do I want my books and short stories to be an escape for readers? Of course, I do. That is why I began reading as a child and one of the reasons I love curling up with a book as an adult. I went through a period as a teenager when I gobbled up romance novels. I still enjoy a good romance. I belong to Romance Writers of America. In my Lizzie Stuart series, there is an overarching love story. But the few times I've thought of writing a romance, the plot morphed into a hybrid romance/mystery. I'm a criminal justice professor. That is reflected in what I write.

I provide escape and entertainment. But I also need – want – to deal with social issues. I provide historical context. My books offer fictional springboards for discussions. That's what I do best.

But if I could write books with happy endings, I might be less concerned when there is so little snow this Albany winter and a presidential campaign season that would make Howard Miller smile.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Write the Damn Book

It's been a busy winter, and it's going to be busy spring. It feels to me (Donis) that I've been going from one event to another since my last book came out last November. If it isn't a workshop I've agreed to teach, it's a review that I promised to do, or a blog entry, or a book club, or a charity event, or an author event. Left Coast Crime, one of the major crime fiction fan and author conferences, is coming up in a couple of weeks (see Barbara's entry below for an excellent overview). I'm attending LCC, naturally. I can't miss it this year for sure since it's right here in Phoenix, a mere 30 miles from my home. Of course 30 miles is quite a commute, so I'm staying at the conference hotel in downtown Phoenix--rooming, in fact, with Type M's own Charlotte Hinger.

On Friday, Feb. 26, at 1:30 p.m., I'll get to be on a panel called Historical Mysteries: Turn of the 20th Century with, Tessa Arlen, Annamaria Alfieri, and Charles Todd. Quite a company! On Saturday, Feb. 27, from 7:30 a.m.-9:00 a.m. I'm one of the host authors (along with Charlotte and Vicki Delany and 20 others) at the Discover Mystery Breakfast hosted by Poisoned Pen Press, where guests can enjoy a continental breakfast and hear about the wide variety of crime fiction published by Poisoned Pen Press. Giveaways and authors at every table.

After LCC,  I'll have another couple of book club/library events to do before the Tucson Festival of Books on March 12 and 13, where I've agreed to teach a historical novel writing workshop and appear on a panel.

LCC and TFoB and the rest are wonderfully fun (and we hope, useful) events, but they will take up days where, if my previous experience holds true, I'll get to catch up with friends I haven't seen in awhile and meet some new friends and learn a lot, but I won't get much actual writing done.

And therein lies the rub. Last Friday I had an author event in another town that took the entire day, and then I rushed home and spent the evening and all of the next day finishing a review and writing an article, both due immediately, and corresponding with people whom I had PROMISED to get back to right away, and I ended up not writing a word on my WIP for the whole time. This is not good. It's nice to be popular and in demand, but sometimes I have to pause and wonder if I'm missing the point of all this activity.

A few months ago there was a cartoon going around Facebook that showed a stick figure sitting at a desk, and another stick figure behind him holding a gun to his head and saying, "Just write the damn book!"

I want to write my stories. That's the thing I want to do and the thing I really enjoy doing. My mother taught us that in order to reach our financial goals, we should always pay ourselves first. In other words, put money aside for yourself before you even pay your bills. My mistake lately has been not doing the same thing with my writing. Do the writing first. It doesn't even have to be good, just get some words down on the page before you do anything else. That's my job, to do the writing. All the rest is gravy.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

On the wing

Barbara here. In exactly two weeks I will be in the air, winging my way to Phoenix to participate in Left Coast Crime, a conference for all lovers of the crime and mystery genre, whether they be readers, writers, reviewers, librarians or other book business professionals. Left Coast Crime is a mid-sized, four-day get-together held every spring somewhere on the western side of the country. The city differs every year, as does the organizing committee, but the informal spirit of inclusion and welcome does not. Most of the time the location is in the United States, but I once attended one in Bristol, UK, and there is talk of Vancouver hosting one. New hosting cities are always welcome!


I have been to quite a few conferences over the years, but Left Coast Crime is among my favourite. It is small enough to allow everyone the chance to meet and chat with new people– for readers to find new authors and authors to find new readers. Its informal, egalitarian style respects both newbie authors and well-known authors alike, rather than creating a tiered system of privilege. And it provides plenty of different programs through which authors, many of whom have travelled a long way and spent quite a hefty portion of their modest royalties, can connect with readers and other book people.

I also love the cities it chooses. In addition to Bristol, have been to Monterey, California, El Paso, Texas, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Portland, Oregon. All cities of charm and novelty to this Canuck writer. When I can travel to an intriguing new city, get a glimpse of the countryside, connect with other writers and readers, and still manage a business tax deduction, that's a bonus!

This year, I am participating in quite a few events at Left Coast Crime. First of all, on February 24, before the conference even begins, I will be part of the International Fiction Night at the famed Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scotsdale, AZ. I will be there with some of my Canadian writer friends as well as some overseas writers. It should be a wonderful evening, hosted by mystery woman extraordinaire, Barbara Peters, who not only owns the highly successful independent bookstore but also Poisoned Pen Press.

The conference begins Thursday, February 25, and I start off with a bang at 9:00 a.m. by participating in the author speed dating event, where forty authors get two minutes each to pitch our books to successive tables of interested attendees. By the end of an hour, authors will have lost their voice and won't remember their own name, but hopefully some one else will!

Friday night at 5:30, Crime Writers of Canada will be hosting a Meet the Canucks reception in conjunction with Left Coast Crime, during which there will be refreshments, games and prizes, wonderful authors to talk to, and a cash bar.


Sunday morning at 9:30, I will be participating in a panel discussion entitled Heroes with a Badge about sleuths in law enforcement. I am with three other panelists, Peg Brantley, Tyler Dilts, and my friend and fellow Canuck Brenda Chapman. We will be put through the wringer by moderator and real life cop Neal Griffin. Expect the secrets to writing a good cop and a good series, perils and pitfalls, and more. Immediately after the panel, there will be a book signing.

In addition to these appearances, I am also entering a basket in the silent auction, which raises money for children's literacy in Arizona. I am auctioning a signed Advanced Reading Copy of my upcoming book Fire in the Stars, along with some nifty, as yet undetermined, Canadian trinkets (maybe a Mountie, a moose, or maple syrup, the latter genuine, former two replicas only), and as a special bonus, the chance to name a character in my current work in progress, the second in the Amanda Doucette series, entitled The Trickster's Lullaby. The winner of the bid may opt to have their own name used in the book, or select another name (as long as it's not outrageous). I hope the attendees visit the auction and bid often. KidsReadUSA will thank you!

If you're attending, please come up and introduce yourselves. I know quite a few of us Type M bloggers will be there!

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

A public service announcement!

by Rick Blechta

Aline’s computer debacle last week put me in mind of something anyone with a computer should know about and guard against, and it is this: you must always protect your data! It’s not if any hard drive you use will fail, but when. Do not ever think this won’t happen to you. It will — and usually at the worst time.

Computers are very complex machines, and like any machine, they will eventually fail. As expensive as having the motherboard on your computer going down can be, they can be fixed or replaced, and you’ll soon be up and running again. This is not the case with a hard drive failure. They usually can’t be fixed if the problem involves the discs on which your data is stored. To extract this data using heroic methods professionals have can be horrendously expensive — if it can be done at all.

But since hard drives can last for a long time, we’re often lulled into a false sense of security so we either don’t back up our data as often as we should — or we stop altogether. Trust me. Eventually it will come back to haunt you.

I speak from experience. I use three back-up systems, but a few days ago, I got bitten. The main storage disc (Time Machine on my Mac) got corrupted and could not be fixed. It had to be erased and re-initialized. While I didn’t actually lose any files, I did lose the history of those files, meaning I could no longer access past iterations of a job I was working and find something I’d discarded a couple of weeks ago. It wasn’t catastrophic but it was a pain in the butt and involved several hours of needless toil.

For those of us who write, you must always protect your work with back-ups. I’m sure most of us do, but even so things can go wrong. You must always plan for the worst. Maybe you religiously back up on your computer with files kept on two different hard drives. The chances of both of them going down at the same time is minuscule, right? Well, what are you going to do if your house burns down? Both hard drives could likely be lost.

So here’s my suggestion to be as fail-safe as possible. By all means keep two copies of your precious work-in-progress, but also utilize a back-up assuring your work is stored away from your house. The easiest way to do that is to pay for some sort of cloud storage. This option is not necessarily expensive. Some small storage options are even free. (They give you a small amount of free storage space in hopes that you’ll buy a more generous option, usually at a good price.) Many can even be programmed to back-up automatically. Set it and forget it — and it will be there if you ever really need it.

It’s heart-breaking to hear of someone who has lost months of work because they neglected to take adequate precautions. Do yourself a favour and think about how you’re currently doing things. If the worst happened, would you still be able to carry on, or would you have to start all over again?

If that’s the case, then heed my warning. I’d hate to be the one to say, “I told you so.”

Monday, February 08, 2016

Je suis Circonflexe

An apology first. I'm sorry to have missed my post last week, but my PC, the dreaded Beelzebub I posted about a couple of weeks back, had to be sent back to the maker to have its guts ripped out and reinstalled. I'm still trying to come to terms with all the little 'imporvements' that make my life more difficult, but I daresay it will work out in the end.

There has been an outcry in France. A government decision that the circumflex which adorns certain vowels is to be omitted in school textbooks has provoked demos and a storm on Internet sites under the hashtag, 'Je suis Circonflexe'. Further fury was aroused when it transpired that Monet's famous Waterlilies painting Les Nenuphars (sorry, can't find a way of doing the acute accent over the 'e') is now to be rendered Nenufars.

I love the French. A year when I don't visit France is to me a year wasted and it is a proud boast that if you go far enough back in my family tree you find Huguenots, who fled France under religious persecution in the eighteenth century. (The wealthy ones were silversmiths, the poor ones were weavers. Guess which my ancestors were.)

One of the things I most love about the French is their passion for what they care about:; 'To the barricades!' is a slogan never very far from their lips. And I particularly love it that one of the things they care passionately about is their language.

The Academie francaise guards it jealously and mounts quixotic campaigns to stop English – or possibly I should say American – infiltrating it. To be strictly correct, if you wanted to say 'email' in French, you would call it 'courrier electronique.' They don't, of course, any more than they can be persuaded to use 'travail en reseau' instead of 'networking'. It's clumsy.

One of the big problems for accented languages like French appears when it comes to using keyboards; the letter 'e' for instance would have to appear as e acute, e grave and e circumflex, and by the time you did that for all accented letters the keyboard would be enormous, so any accented letter is subject to another process.

So it makes sense to banish the circumflex when it doesn't affect the vowel sound. And you won't hear any difference in pronunciation when the ph in nenuphars is replaced by and f – and it's easier to spell. It's certainly more practical but it's a shame when the history of a language disappears from the printed word.

America, of course, took those decisions years ago, and because of the influence of films English-English has now wholeheartedly embraced Americanisms – they're colourful and fun. But I start getting all French when I see 'program' creeping in instead of 'programme' – and I still think 'honour' looks, well, more honourable than 'honor'. So far, though, 'gotten' hasn't come back into English; it's a pure Shakespearean past participle that left with the Mayflower and is never used on this side of the Atlantic.

As writers words are our stock-in-trade; we need to be passionate about them, treat them with respect and defend them against misuse.  To the barricades, anyone?

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Guest Author Betty Webb

Type M 4 Murder is happy to host our wonderful weekend guest Betty Webb, author of two popular series of mysteries, one dark and one light and funny. Have you ever wondered how on earth authors manage two series at once, especially two that are polar opposites? Sit down and let Betty tell you all about it.

It Ain’t Easy
    By Betty Webb

Now that my poor grammar has captured your attention…

Any writer who keeps two or more different series going knows how difficult it can be, but it is doubly so when those series are dissimilar in tone. Two of Anne Perry’s series have differing police detectives as protagonists – William Monk and Thomas Pitt. Both series are dark, and both are set in Victorian-era London.

J.A. Jance went a little farther afield with her Seattle-based detective J.P. Beaumont, as well as her Arizona-based sheriff Joanna Brady, but again, both are professional crime-solvers, and the tone of both series fall well into the traditional mystery category.

Then along comes Rhys Bowen, with her early 1900s New York-set mystery series featuring Molly Murphy, who fights against social injustice. But Bowen also writes a much more light-hearted series set in 1930s England, featuring the misadventures of Lady Georgie, a scrappy heir to the British throne who is down on her financial luck. Lady Georgie considers it a life achievement that she has finally learned how to dress herself without a maid.

Of the three writers, my writing challenges most closely echo Bowen’s, but without the travails of historical research.

Like Bowen’s Lady Georgie series, my Gunn Zoo books are often laugh-out-loud funny, such as the rescue scene in the Iceland-set “The Puffin of Death,” where my California zookeeper/amateur sleuth confronts a killer after stumbling through movies sets featuring astronauts, samurais, and Viking berserkers. Also written for laughs was “The Llama of Death,” where poor Teddy has to wear a lion costume while pretending to “escape” from the zoo where she works.

In contrast, my “Desert” series more resembles Bowen’s Molly Murphy books, which see my Scottsdale-based P.I. protagonist Lena Jones struggling against social injustice. These range from the death penalty in “Desert Rage,” polygamy in “Desert Wives,” female genital mutilation in “Desert Cut,” government-caused cancer clusters in “Desert Wind,” and the misuse of eminent domain in “Desert Noir.” As such, this series can be quite dark.

The writing difficulty in each of my series is about the same. Once I’m well into a book – say, around ten chapters in – it’s pretty much smooth sailing. The plot is coming along nicely, the characters are not fussing at me too much, and sometimes I may have even figured out whodunit and why. But those first six chapters…

Here’s the true difficulty with writing two vastly different series: settling into the right tone when you switch protagonists.

Let’s say I’ve just finished writing “The Puffin of Death,” with one hilarious scene after another. Teddy, my uncomplicated zookeeper sleuth, remained optimistic as she rode through Iceland on a shaggy horse, evading erupting volcanoes and murderers. She cracked jokes all the while. The months spent writing “Puffin” were a blast for me, too, and I’d been giggling over my computer keys for months. But now that the book had been sent to my editor, it’s time to start on “Desert Vengeance,” the next “Desert” mystery.

“Vengeance” (which I’m currently working on) is about the problems in Arizona’s foster care system, as illustrated by PI Lena Jones’ own history as a child being shifted from foster home to foster home. Starved. Beaten. Raped. A truly miserable life. But wait. As I read the first few chapters in the rough draft, the now-grown Lena is cracking jokes and having a high old time as she remembers her early travails. What?! What in the world is so funny about starvation, beatings, and rapes?
Nothing, of course.

What has happened is that I’ve let the tone of the Gunn Zoo series – which I’d just spent months writing – leak into the opening chapters of a much darker book. It happened unconsciously because I was still on a giggly high after finishing “Puffin,” and I was still writing in Teddy’s optimistic voice. But Teddy trusts the world; Lena Jones doesn’t.

So what I, as a writer, have to do now is bring my own mind and emotions back into Lena’s dangerous world and edge away from the cheery glow of my California zookeeper. It isn’t easy. In fact, it usually takes me six or eight chapters – sometimes as many as ten – before I hit the right note and begin seeing the world through Lena’s suspicious eyes. I have to keep slogging away until the miracle finally happens. Once it does, and I’m finished with the first draft, I have go back and rewrite those funny – and very wrong – first chapters.

The opposite problem happens when I finish a Lena Jones book and start the next Gunn Zoo mystery. Lena’s fierceness leaks into the beginning chapters of a zoo book, making my bubbly Teddy resemble a stern Valkyrie much more than she does the happy-go-lucky zookeeper I want to create. But that, too, always works itself out. Somewhere between chapters eight and ten, my happy girl comes skipping back, with her beloved anteaters, koalas, llamas, and puffins trotting (or flying) behind her.

Let me reiterate. Writing two vastly different series with two vastly different protagonists ain’t easy. But this is where trust – and patience -- come in. The writer must trust that her characters, although absent for a while, will eventually return in full voice. And then have the patience to give it time to happen.
Because it will.

Betty Webb is the author of 9 Lena Jones mysteries (DESERT RAGE, DESERT WIVES, etc.) and 3 Gunn Zoo mysteries (THE PUFFIN OF DEATH, THE LLAMA OF DEATH, etc.). Betty worked as a journalist, interviewing everyone from U.S. presidents, astronauts who walked on the moon, and polygamy runaways. A nationally-syndicated literary critic for more than 30 years, she currently reviews for Mystery Scene Magazine. She is a member of the National Federation of Press Women, Mystery Writers of America, and the National Association of Zoo Keepers. Her websites are bettywebb-mystery.com and bettywebb-zoomystery.com

Friday, February 05, 2016

Chasing Reviews

There is nothing wrong with asking friends and writers to review your book. Of course you want a decent quote on the back of the cover. These terse complimentary words of praise are called blurbs and it helps when a well known author says something nice about one's work.

However, lately I've received requests for full blown requests from people I don't know who want me to decide on the basis of a line or two. Moreover, when I politely refuse, I don't receive a word of thanks for "taking the time to consider," etc.

These books have not been offered in print, are usually unpublished, and don't contain a whole manuscript. Even if they are an ebook, I don't want to read the whole thing on-line. I expect books to be printed and sent to me.

I hate to ask a friend to do a book or a review. Done well, they are time consuming and most of the writers I know are very, very busy. But it's important to screw up one's courage and simply ask.

When I do review a book, it's usually for a publication I'm familiar with. I take reviews very seriously. Academic reviews are especially important. 

Here are some of my guidelines:

(1) I read every single book I review. I don't merely skim.

(2) I never give scathing negative reviews. Books are hard to write--even bad ones.

(3) I never lie about a book, but I usually look for the things an author does well.

(4) If I don't like the genre and think the book is mediocre, I'll summarize the action and suggest that it might appeal to __________ audience.

(5) If the book is total crap I will not review it. Period. I hand it back to the editor and ask he or she to find someone else. Without much explanation.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Syntax: can't live with it; can't live without it

I'm several chapters into a book that will feature multiple points of view. Within those points of view there exists a commonality – a voice. My voice.

It's a voice I want readers to at once trust and hear and even find authoritative. Yet it's also a voice I never want the reader to be aware of. In fact, my goal is total anonymity. There is no writer. You're not reading. Just turning pages, lost in a story you (hopefully) don't want to put down.

I'm sure I don't bat a thousand. But I spend a lot of time revising, reading aloud, listening to the text, and revising again. I'm listening for flow, pace, characterization, and tension. What I'm not listening for is grammar and syntactical correctness, if such a clunky phrase exists.

I do, though, teach grammar. (My students, God bless them, are taking a test on chapter two of The Elements of Style this week.)

And I'm something of a stickler about it, insisting that you need to know the rules well in order to break them effectively. But I also reward the papers and narratives that can use punctuation and syntax in a sophisticated way.

Here's the start of a chapter from my work-in-progress:

Majd Awaad reached out to touch his sleeping brother's arm. Wanted to wake him. Then pulled back. Halil, even at twenty-four, was still his little brother. Probably needed his sleep. In any case, Majd would see that Halil got rest.

Majd leaned his head against the headrest but didn't close his eyes. He wanted sleep. Probably needed it. But he was restless – torn emotionally about the life he was leaving and the one a Boeing 767 was hurtling him 550 miles an hour toward.

Years ago, when I was writing first-person novels, I might utilize three sentence fragments in an entire book. Here, I have four in two short paragraphs. In fact, as I revised, I pulled the subjects out of the sentences here. Pace and narrative tension over grammatical correctness.

E.B. White is one of my favorite authors (hence The Elements of Style in my classes), and I don't know another writer who wrote clearer, more precise sentences. Mr. White's Rule #6 is Do Not Break Sentences in Two.

Yet, if I may disagree, I think Rule #11 trumps all: Use Active Voice. It's a mantra to live by. Right up there with Stephen King's "The road the Hell is paved with adverbs." If you live by Rule 11, the reader won't notice you.

Probably won't even realize she's holding a book.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Author Newsletters, Yea or Nay?

Confession time. I have an author newsletter, but it’s pretty much at the bottom of my priority list behind writing my next book, writing blog posts for this and other blogs, and other writerly activies like updating my website. Not that I ignore it completely. I do try to send one out now and then, especially at book launch time or when I have a lot of events planned.

For me, I prefer short newsletters. I don’t have any problem reading long books that are printed, but when I read online I prefer everything to be short: short emails that get to the point, short newsletters, short blog posts. If something’s too long, I’ll either not read it or set it aside to read later (which often means I’ll never get to it). So, whatever I do with my newsletter, I don’t want it to be too long.

I subscribe to a number of my fellow authors’ newsletters, partly as a fan to see what they’re up to and partly as a writer to get ideas of what to put in my own. Recipes seem to abound in most of the newsletters I subscribe to, but the authors who produce them also have series that involve food and include recipes at the back of their books. That doesn’t seem like it goes with my series, which is set in the world of decorative/tole painting. I did recently add a Painting Tip section to my newsletter as well as an Ask Sybil section where I answer questions about myself and my writing. But, beyond that, I’m not really sure what else to do with it.

My publisher believes that newsletters are important, also, and encourages us to send them out. But what to put in one? This article on authormedia.com talks about the eight elements in an effective newsletter. I’m not sure how much applies to me, but I found it an interesting read. Jane Friedman also has a Get Started Guide for authors. I’ve only skimmed this one, but it’s on my list to read when I start thinking about my newsletter again. Hah, you noticed, didn't you? The article was a little long so I set it aside. Told you that's what I do. I will get back to this one, though, after I've made more progress on my book.

And there’s the recent post by author Tonya Kappes on romanceuniversity.org titled “Newsletter = Marketing Gold”. She puts out a weekly newsletter and has found it a rewarding and effective way to connect with her readers. She’s a big believer in content that’s only available to newsletter subscribers. When someone subscribes to her newsletter, she gives them a free download of a short story that introduces the reader to her Divorced Diva mystery series. That’s an interesting idea I may put in practice someday.

Type M Readers, what do you want to see in an author newsletter? What don’t you want to see? Do you think they’re worthwhile?