Friday, February 29, 2008

Check, please!

Charles here – and make sure you read Rick’s entry (below) before you read mine. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Rick, my friend, I love ya but I must respectfully disagree. Not with everything you wrote – I agree that some of Patterson’s work makes me queasy and that there are all sorts of ethical questions about signing your name to someone else’s work. No, what made me jump in my seat was this:

“Is making a gagillion dollars a year that important? This isn't sour grapes here. If someone offered me the same deal, I would not take. I might kick myself later, but I have more pride in my writing than that. Patterson's books are the equivalent of fast food. That's not what I'm interested in producing. Most writers I know are the same way.”

You can go ahead and count me in the minority.

As I have written in this blog many times, I’m not writing books for the money. If I were I’d be sadly disappointed. We have discussed – too often? – the lack of financial rewards this passion has allotted, but come on Rick, a gagillion dollars? Hell, I’ll sell out for a lot less than that. For few hundred thousand, I’ll be your prose-pumping whore. Sure I take pride in my writing, but my pride can be bought, and rather cheaply I think. To know that I could quit my job, spend more time with my wife, more time reading and trying to play the saxophone, and all I had to do was crank out (or better yet, tell someone to crank out) mindless drivel that would then be affixed with my name – and a stunning author photo shot by Annie Leibovitz – I’d be insanely, uncontrollably ecstatic. Fast food reading? For the right price (again, shoppers, shockingly cheap), I’ll pump out fat-laden, sodium-heavy, nutritionally-null junk food books that make Patterson’s look like high literature.

As the man says, we all gots to work, and if I could make much, much, much more writing trash than writing books I’d be proud of, I’d do it. That’s not saying I wouldn’t still write for me, but if I didn’t have the time and could only pump out crap, that’s what I would do.

What’s that, gentle reader? This isn’t true for you? You wouldn’t sell out for your art? You wouldn’t sign your name to something you’re not totally proud to call your own? For any amount?


Well, it’s easy to say when no one is asking you to.

But if they did?

Here’s my wish – may one day my name be invoked on countless blogs as that ‘pretty good writer who produced several decent reads and then sold his soul for the big seven-figure payday.’

I could live with that. Quite well.


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

When does a writer stop being a writer?

Blechta here, a day late and a dollar short. Read on, please...

Vicki's discussion about James Patterson's manner of working (notice that I didn't use the term "writing") -- I'm talking about his use of other unnamed writers on his staff to write at least parts of his novels -- is because he has ceased to be an "author" and has instead become a "brand". These are two completely different things.

There are other writers like this. Robert Ludlum is still cranking out books and he's been dead for several years now. Good trick.

The funny thing is that Patterson keeps churning out the books and people keep snapping them up. The action in them is really gruesome. I read two several years ago (can't remember the names -- which says something) and they made me really uncomfortable. I don't get uncomfortable very easily, either. I'd be really curious to know the demographics of his readership. I don't think it's little old ladies from Davenport, Iowa.

I think the bottom line thing is this: is it really honest to put your name on a book you didn't write? Does Patterson give his writers the basic plot and let them go at it? Is he involved in the writing as it's ongoing? Does he do the final polish on the manuscripts?

At the end of the day, what's the point? Is making a gazillion dollars a year that important? This isn't sour grapes here. If someone offered me the same deal, I would not take it. I might kick myself later, but I have more pride in my writing than that. Patterson's books are the equivalent of fast food. That's not what I'm interested in producing. Most writers I know are the same way.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Favourites and Not

Vicki here, back on Monday.

I had fun last week making those five Canadian book recommendations for Charles. It’s always quite challenging to try and pick favourites from all the hundreds of books I’ve read over my many years.

Speaking of favourites, I have breakfast every Wednesday morning with a group of friends in a café attached to a second hand bookstore. Last Wednesday on my way to the washroom at the back, my eye happened to light upon a stack of Flashmans. I scooped them up and have been happily reading my way through all week.

Speaking of non-favourites, I received a copy of James Patterson’s latest, Double Cross, for Christmas. It was the first Patterson I read and it will almost certainly be the last. Why this guy is a mega best seller, I can not imagine. The books are extremely short – nothing wrong with a book being short if that’s what’s needed to tell the story, but they’re packaged in hardcover as if they’re mighty tomes. The font is huge, the spacing vast, and every chapter is about two pages long which means that there is an enormous amount of white space. In a 389 page book there are 126 chapters plus prologue and epilogue.

A psychologist friend of mine described The Da Vinci Code as a book for adults with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) which is why the chapters are so short. I’d say the same goes for Patterson.

The plot was the same old dreary serial killer stuff. Except that in this book there are TWO serial killers. The serial killers have their own POV so we, the reader, get to enjoy all the spectacular, grisly murder they commit. And did you know that we need to kill these sort of people, because they are so clever and intelligent that they escape from maximum security prison and take revenge on everyone who put them away? Never seen that plot in a book before.

Both killers, of course, are extremely brilliant people (oh, and both serial killers have equally brilliant, well-educated helpers). Which is another thing that bothers me: I am not very good at suspending disbelief. I require that my reading resemble reality. Criminals are not all that smart – that’s why most of them get caught so easily. And serial killers really are quite rare. Thank goodness.

You might laugh and ask what’s so realistic about Flashman? Of course the plots are outlandish, but people in the Flashman books act like people do. Coincidences happen, but they’re not unbelievable either. The plots are intricate and carefully worked out. And the history is pretty much perfect.

Back to Double Cross – I know this is the latest in a long series, so the book wasn’t written for a newcomer like me, but I found the main characters' backgrounds as blank as a never used whiteboard. And as for the plot – you could drive a giant truck through the holes.

I read in the Globe and Mail recently that James Patterson doesn’t even write most of his own books. He comes up with the idea, does an outline, and someone else writes the first draft. Patterson then makes changes. At least he’s completely honest about it – and the co-writer gets equal billing. The Alex Cross series appears to have been written by Patterson alone, but Double Cross still had that formula feel to it. One spectacular, grisley, murder every x number of pages, a car chase scene around the middle, the sex scene shortly after the car chase. About every 20 pages the diabolical serial killer (one of them) thinks about how smart they are and Alex Cross isn’t smart enough to catch them. Blah, blah, blah

Perhaps I shouldn’t spend my precious blogging time grumbling about another writers’ work, but it did make me think about what makes a good book vs. what makes a blockbuster book.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Best Year Progress Report

First of all, I want to thank Vicki for adding five more books to my TBR pile, which is already a monster of crushing weight that taunts me from its shadowy corner every time I enter my bedroom. Reading about Canadian writers, though, did cause me to think of a new writer from BC by the name of Sharon Rowse, whose first book, The Silk Train Murder, just came out to wonderful reviews. The mystery is set in Canada at the turn of the 20th Century and features a failed gold prospector who takes a job as a detective on the 'silk train', which ran from Vancouver to New York, carrying silks and luxury textiles from the Orient. It's not only a ripping yarn, it's a fascinating history of a time, place, and events I was totally unfamiliar with.

And, I must comment about Debby's post concerning how a writer faces the end of her book. I totally relate to her fear of not being able to pull it off. It's really horrible to know exactly how you want it to come off and not be sure you have the chops to do it. What you must do, of course, is just do it. I never quite achieve the brilliant, knock-your-socks-off triumph that I had envisioned, but I'm usually pleased enough in the end. Thus far, I've been happy to finish, partly because I often don't know exactly how it's going to end, myself, until it does. Having said that, I'm reminded of a blog entry I did just recently on my own web site entitled I Just Can't Let It Go. Once I do finish a book, I love to go back over it and fiddle with it, changing a word here, a sentence there, like polishing a new-made piece of furniture, trying to achieve that perfect patina.

I just finished a book, in fact, and sent it off to my editor a couple of weeks ago, because the day comes that you have to send the MS off for better or worse. I resepect this woman's opinion immensely, and am always a little anxious when awaiting her verdict. I got her comments back last night. She was extraordinarily complimentary, and right at the moment, I am on cloud nine.
Novel writing is hard, don't let anybody tell you otherwise. Sometimes you have to persevere in the face of a lot of disappointment, and have faith in yourself even when it seems no one else does. But if you do, wonderful things could happen.

By the way, I promised an occasional report on the progress of the Best Year of My Life, so here is the first one : so far, so pretty damn good.

(The instant I wrote that, I was overcome with a Chinese-like fear of tempting the gods. I don't know why I distrust good fortune. I never distrust bad fortune.)

Friday, February 22, 2008

Five for Charles

Five for Charles

Vicki here, guest blogging for Charles while he and his wife are away for a, shock!, non book-related weekend.

For my guest-blog stint I have been given an assignment. Charles wants me to recommend five Canadian books for him to read. The problem in preparing a list is rarely what to include but rather what to exclude. Choosing five books is rather like walking into a meadow full of spring flowers and being asked to pick your favourite single one.

However, I accept the challenge. First I will lay down a couple of guidelines for myself. I will only pick fiction, which helps to narrow the field considerably. Secondly, I will pick what I think CHARLES will like, not necessarily everyone and their dog. Thirdly, I will have to exclude anyone who blogs on this page. Fourthly, I won’t recommend anything that has great Canadian significance, unless it is first of all a GOOD book.

The Stone Carvers. By Jane Urquhart. Canada has been said to have come of age in the Battle of Vimy during World War I. It bothers me somewhat that wars are always seen, in retrospect, to have been necessary for nation-building. I think that populating the Prairies, building cities and hacking farms out of the wilderness had a lot more to do with it – but what do I know. Anyway that is an aside. The Stone Carvers weaves the story of a turn of the last century farm family around great historical events cumulating with the building of the monument at Vimy. It’s a beautiful novel. I could count on the fingers of one hand, and have a few fingers left over, the number of books that made me cry. This one did.

The Way the Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald. McDonald also wrote Fall on your Knees, which is great as well. When the Crow Flies takes place in the ‘60s and is largely a memoir of a girl growing up in a Canadian Air Force family during the cold war years. But it is more than that, it touches on issues of vital importance as the girl’s father becomes involved in a bit of cold-war subterfuge that touches his own family and community and he begins to realize that perhaps doing his duty isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. This novel is not a mystery by any means, but a crime features prominently in the plot. The crime is very closely based on the true story of Steven Truscott. If you want to know why there isn’t capital punishment in Canada, the name “Truscott” goes a long way towards explaining it.

The Russell Quant Series by Anthony Bidulka. This stuff should be right up Charles’ alley. There are five or six books in the series, so far, featuring the adventures of Russell Quant, a gay private eye in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. And they are very funny. Somehow our hapless hero always ends up in some exotic foreign land. The bumbling, but well-meaning, Canadian traveller is a nice comparison to Charles’s own (fictional) bumbling, but well-meaning American traveller. Where the Stone Carvers made me cry, Bidulka always makes me laugh out loud. The latest book is Sundowner Ubuntu which I finished recently.

Joanne Kilborn Series by Gale Bowen. There is something amazing about the way that Bowen is able to take the family life of a widowed teacher living (again) in Saskatchewan, and create a believable well-drawn series of mystery novels. These are not cosies by any means. It seems to me that U.S. mysteries veer wildly between hard-boiled and cozy with very little in between. Gale Bowen, in what might be a mild-mannered Canadian way, manages to do just that. These books are not new. The first book came out back in the ‘80s when Canadian mystery novels were mighty thin on the ground.

My last choice is also a mystery series. The John Cardinal series by Giles Blunt. Just because I think Blunt proves, if it needs proving, that a series set in Canada, written by a Canadian, can be as good a police procedural as anything written or set in the U.S. or the U.K. By the Time You Read This is not only a good police procedural, but a moving story of dealing with love and death.

That should give Charles some reading to do on his next vacation. Any one else have any suggestions?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Thoughts on Writing THE END

Do any of you grapple with coming to the end of a manuscript? I (and this is Debby, in case you wondered) find myself doing all kinds of strange activities to avoid facing the finish. This morning I went for a bike ride, answered email ad nauseam, and then washed the dog’s bed. I still have about a hundred pages to go, and only a few weeks to do it. What am I thinking?!

And why is this? In the middle of the book, I zip right along and enjoy every pitfall my characters encounter. I have a great time building the plot, developing nefarious individuals, and leading my protagonist into danger. But in the end, I’ve got to tie it all together. Everyone’s activities have to make sense, the characters’ motivations need to be true, and most of all—it needs to satisfy the reader. I want the end to be REALLY good.

I know part of my procrastination is due to the fear I won’t pull it off, but I’m also reluctant to let go the people I’ve grown to know so well. I might even have to kill a few of them.

Not long ago, I read a “literary” bestseller (I probably should refrain from naming it, but I’d bet you know it) that made a big splash. It got major awards and sold hundreds of thousands of copies. And I hated the end. Up to the finish, the writing was excellent and the characters compelling. Then I got the feeling the author just didn’t know what to do with the people she’d created.

And that’s exactly what I don’t want to do. (Though I’d love to have this writer’s sales.) So what’s going on? Maybe I’m way too critical—of others and myself? I checked this book’s reviews, and a few people felt the same way I did, so I’m not totally alone. Definitely a minority, however.

But I’ve got to keep at it, no matter what. I can always rewrite (several times), which is a satisfying process. And then my editor looks at it. She may or may not have suggestions, but I like this aspect of novel-shaping. I trust my editor.

After that, I have to let it go. It’s out there for the world to see, to compliment if I’m lucky, and criticize if I’m not. It’s too late to change a word, or add an action that makes better sense than what I’d written the first time. But that’s a writer’s dilemma, isn’t it?

And now I need to get back to that manuscript...

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Vocabulary Check

Step right up, folks, and try your luck at! Don't be shy. Everybody gets a chance! Prove you got a great vocabulary and help folks out who have less than you.

Seriously, this is a great way to spend a few idle moments and way more useful to us writerly types than solitaire. Not only will you find out if your skills are up to snuff, but for each correct answer, this website will donate 20 grains of rice to the United Nations Food Program. Doesn't sound like much? To date players of this little game have caused over 19 billion grains of rice to be handed over!

So spend a little time today, make a valuable donation, improve your vocabulary and have fun. How can you top that kind of offer?

Saturday, February 16, 2008


Two things before I (Donis) get started.

Please toddle on over to my website at your convenience. I have a very special guest blogger - my sister - who sent me a mouthwatering report on the beef tenderloin she tested for inclusion in my next book. Literature is one thing, but eats are something else altogether.

I'm not going to the awards banquet for the Oklahoma Book Award in Oklahoma City on March 8. I had agreed to teach a workshop on mystery writing several weeks before I found out that my last book is an award finalist. I had literally found this out only minutes before I wrote my last post, and I got all excited and lost my head. I'd like to go to the banquet, but I wouldn't back out of an agreement at this late date. I was gratified to be asked to teach this mystery workshop, and actually somewhat amused, too. Because as I ponder what I'm going to say, realize that I'm rather mystified by the process myself. I won't be admitting that, however.

Earlier this week, I did a gig at the Ajo-Salazar branch library in Ajo, Arizona. It was fabulous. I love doing talks in small towns. A year or so ago, I did a talk in Boynton, Oklahoma, where my books are set. Boynton used to be a bustling little town in my youth, but now it's falling down and fading away, with a population of 200 soaking wet. It really was soaking wet, too. I was blessed during my whole tour that year with beautiful weather, except for the single day I was to speak at the Boynton Historical Society. The Historical Society is housed in an ex-Dairy Queen on the main drag, one room about 20' X 20'. Rain was coming down in buckets, so I didn't hold out much hope for a crowd. But rain or not, I think every single one of those 200 people turned out and jammed themselves in the room. I've never had such an appreciative audience. Of course, I suspect I'm the only person in the history of the world to write novels set in Boynton, Oklahoma.

But I digress.

Ajo is a town of about 3800 located in Southern Arizona, 115 miles west of Tucson and 40 miles north of the Mexican border. There is nothing out there. It's located smack in the middle of the Sonoran Desert preserve, and a forest of saguaro cactus. The scenery is spectacular. Ajo (pronounced AH-ho. You can guess what the natives call it.) is a company town that the company left many years ago. There was a gigantic copper mine there that has now closed down, leaving a huge hole in the ground (thus the nickname). Ajo has now become something of a retirement destination, because the weather is unbelievably beautiful in the winter, and housing is dirt cheap. It has also become an artist's colony. So it may be out in the middle of nowhere, but the people who live there are pretty savvy. I had a very nice crowd who kept me talking for an hour and a half. I used every bit of my A material and made up more on the spot. The Friends put me up at the Ajo Bed and Breakfast, a beautiful new adobe house on the edge of the desert. I couldn't have asked for a better gig. I love small towns. By the way, for those of you who don't speak Spanish, ajo means "garlic". Don't ask me.

And last, just today I heard another author speak at Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, and my editor was there. Out of the blue she brought up Kindle. She said that her husband loves it, but she reads so fast that the machine can't keep up with her. I think that Kindle is here to stay - the fact that books in electronic format will be in print forever is very appealing. But I don't foresee the end of books in paper.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Learner's Permit

On Wednesday night, I was the guest speaker for the February meeting of the Rochester Bibliophile Society, a group of folks who love all things books. Normally I’m asked to speak about my books or about mysteries in general, and I do teach a few writing seminars as well, the focus often (but not always) on the mystery genre. That night, however, I was asked to talk about my experiences as a cog in that massive machine known as The Publishing World. Given my perspective – insignificant, brief, naïve - I was surprised at how much I was able to share about the process, and even more surprised that I didn’t have to make any of it up. It’s just another of the things I learned that I didn’t expect to learn when I started writing.

I’ve learned a lot from writing my books. I’m not talking the obvious stuff that I picked up traveling to India and Thailand and Egypt and all points in between. It would be impossible not to have learned tons of things logging all those miles, things about local customs, exotic foods, unusual social taboos, obscure smuggling laws and frightening religious edicts. Anyone who travels a lot knows they are bound to learn more than they expected – that’s why you travel, right? What I’m talking about is the strange knowledge I acquired in the 4 years I have been involved in The Biz.

Here are some random things that I’ve picked up:

  • Arthur Ellis was the nom de travail of Canada's last official hangman
  • If you use a quality silencer on an assault rifle, the sound of the bolt going back and forth is louder than the bullet being fired
  • It is possible to keep a pet pig in a bookstore
  • There are some really excellent self-published authors out there
  • There are some really awful self-published authors out there
  • Just because a book is a best seller doesn’t mean that it’s any good (I sort of suspected this but now it’s confirmed)
  • Customs officials are not impressed when you say you are an author
  • Laura Lippman is an astute baseball fan
  • By a wide margin, authors don’t like their author photo
  • Cats play an inexplicably central role in the mystery genre
  • Mystery aficionados tend to fall left of center in their political/social views
  • Never assume someone is/is not an avid reader
  • It’s easy to shoot a walrus
  • “Fans” at mystery conventions need to be treated as the real stars
  • No author gets tired of signing his/her own name
  • Don't play basketball with S.J. Rozan unless you know how to play
  • Librarians fight over the latest issue of Publishers Weekly
  • The room where they hold the Edgars banquet is surprisingly small
  • You could fit all the employees of Poisoned Pen Press in one minivan
  • Most mystery fans are women
  • You can use a laminated Mystery Writers of America Card to jimmy open a locked briefcase
  • Although I did, very few authors have any say on their cover design
  • Some British tourists come to the US to shoot guns
  • Most authors have day jobs which they hope to quit but never will
  • The Man from Nantucket limerick does not translate easily into Japanese
  • There are people with huge collections of books they never intend to read
  • The guy who wrote Road to Perdition looks like a young Elton John
  • Most people want you to be successful
  • Even though they make little and in fact often lose money in the process, writers can’t stop writing
While I have learned a lot, I have far to go.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

What the Kindle IS good for!

Surprise, surprise! (said in a manner like Gomer Pyle) I'm going to close off my cogitations on electronic readers by saying something really positive about them.

I've thought long and hard on this, and being basically a positive person in outlook, I decided there's a good for every bad out there. Yin and yang is a universal concept.

First, here's a big one for us authors: Electronic readers mean that your books never have to go out of print again. It will be hell to figure out what the financial/contractual implications of this would be -- and maybe there's a Hollywood writers' strike looming on the horizon of their poorer print cousins -- but by and large I think this is a positive thing. Take me for an example. My sales aren't even in the tens of thousands, so if my books go out of print, that may well be it for them. Unless my publisher sees a few hundred orders for them, she's not going to throw the switch and run off another thousand. Result? A few people who really want the books have to get them from their library (not hard to do in Canada, but elsewhere?) or they buy them from some place like AbeBooks and I get doodly-squat out of the transaction.

If my books are turned into e-books at the end of their print run, people with readers will be able to get them, my publisher and I make some money and everyone is happy. Yea Kindle!

The other place where readers can excel is in book promotion. Some enterprising publisher (Hello! Hello! Is one of them out there listening?) is going to put a couple of chapters of each of their new books into electronic format where interested folks can download the whole set, sample a bit of everything and then decide which book(s) they'd like to purchase. You could even give them a special code to give them an added discount. I suppose they could then order the e-book or a print version.

Bully for Kindle!

Can anyone else come up with more reasons why electronic readers might be GOOD things?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Yea for Donis, and more on Book Awards

Vicki here.

First off, heart-felt congratulations to Donis. Well done. For what it’s worth, I’ll be rooting for you to win.

I also think it’s great that a mystery novel has been nominated for what I’ll call, for lack of a better word, a mainstream award. The idea of a mystery being nominated for an award in Canada (other than the Arthur Ellis awards for crime writing) makes me break out in paroxysms of hysterical laughter. Not gonna happen.

I was discussing the state of Canadian literature the other day with a friend, and we concluded that although Canadian mysteries are very popular with readers, they are pretty much scorned by most Canadian publishers and agents in favour of ‘literary’ works. (You put your nose in the air when you say that). And even more so by the esteemed judges of award committees. The day Peter Robinson or Giles Blunt is nominated for a Giller or a GG, (you have to be Canadian to know what they are), or even the Saskatchewan Book Awards I’ll eat my hat. Although I’d probably guess that Peter and Giles outsell by a wide margin (taking world wide sales into account) the latest graduate of the U.B.C. creative writing program who’s written a heartbreaking novel of love and loss in Newfoundland fishing villages or an insightful work of a family torn by conflict in a hardscrabble prairie farm.

Before I get too far into Canadian-bashing, I’ll also take a guess that it would be about as difficult to get a mystery set in New York into the finalists for a mainstream New York award.

Am I complaining? Not really. I like writing crime novels, I like the sense of community in the mystery world that you don’t get in the ‘literary’ world, I like people reading my books and telling me that they enjoyed them. Although the money given out by something like the Giller would be nice, too.

I wish I had the exact quote here, but recently in the Globe and Mail, the wonderful irreverent Russell Smith said something about how crime writers could teach literary writers a thing or two about plot.

That’s my two cents worth on mainstream book awards, and if anyone can prove I’m wrong, please, please, set me straight.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Rock, A Hard Place

Donis here. I found out minutes ago that my latest book, The Drop Edge of Yonder, is a finalist for the 2008 Oklahoma Book Award in the adult fiction category. I'm so happy. The awards banquet is going to be held on March 8 in Oklahoma City. Unfortunately, I've already committed to teach a workshop on mystery writing in Fountain Hills, AZ, on the same day. I'm so sad. Shall I dump said workshop, for which I am being paid real money, to attend glitzy award ceremony among rich oil barons and patrons of the arts? I'm so confused. I've e-mailed my editor for advice, and when I decide what to do I will not keep you in suspense, Dear Reader. By the way, the other fiction finalists are Rilla Askew, the lovely Carolyn Hart, my friend Will Thomas, and Deborah Williamson.

This has been quite a day. This afternoon I sent the manuscript of my fourth book, The Sky Took Him, to my editor. Now I'm tired beyond human understanding, both physically and emotionally. I always get this way when I send a book off. I suppose it's the letdown of having worked so hard for so many months and now it's finally out of my hands, at least until she sends it back to me for revisions. I always feel both exceptionally gratified and a mite testy when someone tells me she loved a book of mine so much that she couldn't put it down and read the whole thing in one day. I can't help but think, that book took me a year to write, darn it. The least you can do is read it four or five times.

In any event, my brains are fried at the moment. I'll be dull and slow-witted for several days, if things go as usual. Sadly, I can't just take a few days off. I'll be doing a talk at the public library in Ajo, Arizona, on February 12, and I need to prepare.

I'm always interested to hear what other authors have to say about the talks and programs they give. I believe many authors give substantially the same talk over and over again. I usually prepare a general talk for each book and then fiddle with it and make changes for each venue. I get bored saying the same thing over and over and so I try to mix it up. But the truth is, when you do a program somewhere you've never been before, there are certain things you want the audience to know, and you do end up repeating yourself a lot. Besides, being witty and spontaneous takes a lot of work and preparation, and if you're in new book promotion mode, and doing a talk or two a week for several weeks, it becomes almost impossible to come up with something new every time.

So for my speaking engagement in the charming desert city of Ajo, I'll try to pull up my mental socks and write an entertaining speech using the few brain cells I have left standing. When I return, I expect revisions will be waiting for me, and I'll be properly refreshed and able to rise to the task. And in the meantime, please wish me luck in the Oklahoma Book Award competition, whether I'm able to actually be there or not.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Not Forgotten not to be missed

Charles here.
A while back on this blogsite (November 30th, 2007 to be exact) I was railing on about how the mystery genre was so confining because there always had to be some clear sense that Justice Is Served. I stand by what I wrote, but I was reminded recently why it’s so important that – at least in fiction – we can experience that sensation.

Fellow author Jared Case wrote to remind me of the fantastic exhibit currently on at the George Eastman House here in Rochester. He does an excellent job explaining its significance, and at the risk of looking lazy, I’m using my allotted blog space to recommend it to you.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Readers and Technology

Everyone on this blog reads—loves to read, in fact. I would guess our guests and commenters are avid readers, too. And we’re all competent to varying degrees with technology. Even I’ve been able to get my thoughts posted here. Though I confess at first it took a few tries. (Uh oh, now I’d better confess to being Debby.)

I also enjoy listening to books in a couple of formats: in my case, CDs and iPod. Kindle may be the latest stab at allowing book-lovers to use a new (more convenient?) technology, and it will require adaptation on a number of levels. One will be authors’ rights. I have confidence that this will be worked out, though we writers might take some bumps and bruises.

What concerns me is the evidence that people are reading less, especially those under thirty. We’ve broached this topic in the blog on earlier occasions. I wonder about how this fact is connected to technology. Perhaps the pace of our lives, including the stimulation of our nervous systems by electronic devices, is replacing the desire to seek adventure via books. The world is a smaller place than it used to be, and information travels much more quickly.

But maybe it’s not just that reading and learning through books is being replaced. Years ago, when my kids were pre-school age, I read an article that suggested that the light impulses of screen technology might interfere with development of the part of the brain that processes language. This would be particularly important in children under three.

Despite educational TV, the article stressed that content of the program wasn’t the culprit. It’s the fast-paced visual images that lead to brain changes, and these changes take place in the cognitive areas where language is learned. One recent study shows toddlers who played with blocks did 15-20% better on language tests than kids who watched educational TV.

I don’t know how much we should worry, nor how much control we’ve got if we’re inclined to worry. I’ve got two kids. One’s an avid reader and one isn’t, and neither of them was allowed to watch TV during the school week. Saturday morning was a TV-fest, however. (I don’t think this hurt anyone, either.)

Human beings will always want to be entertained, but where will it originate in the future? I doubt books will go out of print (I hope not!), but maybe some creative thinking is in order. Do the trends combine visual and auditory entertainment? Should we writers be working on interactive video stories in addition to print? Maybe we should be clamoring to have our books uploaded—is that the term?—to Kindle. With royalties, of course.

Just some thoughts—I’d love to hear yours.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Time and tide waits for no one

Blechta again.

I've done a lot of thinking and a lot of reading over the past week about where publishing may be going. There have also been some terrific words said by my blog-mates on the subject too, not to mention one or two visitors.

So, facts and expert prognostications at my fingertips, I'd like to point out a few things.

It's been said (now, where the heck did I put that document so I can cite it?) that when new technology is introduced, it upsets the equilibrium for a time. Dire predictions are made, anxious folk look up at the skies and are afraid. What happens after? The new technology finds its place in the scheme of things, paradigms shift and settle again in new tracks and life goes on. Equilibrium returns.

The radio was going to end books. It changed them. Movies? Ditto? Television? Why that was going to wipe out books, radio and movies. What happened? They're all still around, somewhat diminished for sure, but people are still making money at all of them. Now television is threatened by the Internet. Things shift, times change and life goes on. Heck! The Internet seems to be threatening everything!

So I imagine it will be with electronic readers. When people are traveling, they'll probably have their reader with them. I may even do this. Who knows?

When we're at home, we might use the reader, but I suspect that books will also have their place. I've said elsewhere that there is a special warmth and comfort in holding a fine book. They can be works of art. I doubt if readers will ever attain that status. They are very, very good at holding mountains of information, but they have little soul to them.

I don't know about anyone else, but when I hold a book that has a history: it belonged to my grandfather, or my mother, or it was given to me by a dear friend, or the author signed it, the physicality of the article takes on a wholly different meaning. I enjoy going back to these old friends, not just for what they contain within their pages, but also for having a physical connection to the person or place I associate with it.

I suspect I'm not alone in this.

Maybe the future will hold a scene like this...

Kids sitting on a parent's lap as the parent holds a reader. "Show us the book Granddad bought for you from that old online place!"

The mom or dad scrolls through the index until they come to Uncle Wiggly and the Space Invaders. "Why kids, I remember the day Granddad downloaded this and put it right in this reader. I took it to my room and read it all the way through in one sitting. What fun!"

"People actually read in those days? You couldn't get a story downloaded directly into your brain? How boring!"


For the month of February, I'm the writer-in-residence on If you get a chance, drop by. We're also carrying on a similar discussion there.

And for our friends outside of Canada, there's a lot of information on books being published in the Great White North. Check it out!

Monday, February 04, 2008

The talk around Amazon’s new electronic reading device, Kindle, forces to me mention that I was, believe it or not, a pioneer in electronic publishing. To my considerable regret. Peer back into the mists of time, all the way to 2000, when electronic publishing was the hot new thing. Electronic publishers were springing up all over. All of them prepared to break through the wall of stifling minds and corporate marketing to bring YOUR book to the millions of readers desperate for fresh, new, twenty-first century novels.

And there I was on the cutting edge. My first novel was named Whiteout. To this day, I believe it had the potential to be a big book. Unfortunately, I submitted it to an electronic publishing company. It won an award, an EPPIE for Best Mainstream Novel Published on the Internet. If you have a look at my web page, or my bio, or any of my publicity info, you won’t see mention of the EPPIE. Because, if Whiteout was the best novel, I can’t imagine how bad the others must have been.

Let me explain. Back at the turn of the century, electronic publishers were producing books exclusively, or almost exclusively, to be distributed electronically. You could read it on your own computer! Print it out and put the pages in a binder! Or read on a fancy new reading instrument! No longer restricted by the narrow minds of the traditional publishing industry deciding what THEY want to publish. And much, much cheaper than buying a paper book. (Nice royalties though – 50%!!)

Most of what they produced was garbage. Unedited, probably unread. Full of typos, spelling mistakes, never edited for content or clarity. Cheap, all right, because no money was spent to publish excellence. And that includes Whiteout. The interchange between author and editor is long and tedious and frustrating and infuriating for a reason. Because you’re working to make a good manuscript a great book. That’s work.

I really loved my Whiteout, still do, I poured my heart and soul into it. But it was my first book, and it needed a tough editor’s hand to make it as good as it could have been.

I am eternally grateful for the editor at that E-publishing company for turning down Burden of Memory. She said the romance was too lightly drawn. Yeah, because the book wasn’t a romance – it was a complex psychological suspense in which two people gradually realize they’re attracted to each other. I shelved Burden for a few years and later submitted it to Poisoned Pen Press, where my editor tweaked it, and made suggestions, and pointed out errors and inconsistencies, and generally worked with me to carve it into publishable shape.

At my first Bloody Words conference I was on a panel to discuss electronic publishing. One of the editors of the company that published Whiteout, who was also the father of the publisher, and one of their authors (too many hats!) said that a book to be published electronically had to have short sentences and short words.

In other words, the medium determines the content. In his clever little play, Charles talked about the discovery of the paperback. It makes me wonder if the introduction of the paperback influenced content. Did long novels with long sentences and big words (think Charles Dickens, Jane Austin, etc) start to become out of date if they didn’t fit the smaller, more compact paperback format? I don’t know. If anyone does, please pipe into the conversation.

Does all this have anything to do with the Kindle? I’d suggest that if recognized publishers prepare an electronic version of a book they’re publishing in print – exact same words – there are lots of people who will chose to read their book on the Kindle. But if the market is flooded by work unpublishable in print, the technology is doomed.

P.S. All is not lost: Whiteout was released in January by Worldwide Library, and is available through bookclubs or online It was edited for spelling and grammar and had a bit of content editing.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Disproving the Theory of Relativity

Things, they do change, don't they? The ancient Celts disapproved of writing. They believed that it spoiled the memory. An educated person spent a lifetime memorizing lore and stories to word-for-word perfection. A modern person would consider a bard's memory nothing short of miraculous. For most of human history, the skills a person learned in youth served him most of his life, but over the last century, events have been moving at such an accelerating pace that it has finally become almost impossible to keep up. A person's knowledge becomes obsolete practically as soon as it is learned.

Lately I feel that my life is like a car whose brakes have failed and I'm hurtling downhill toward a brick wall with no way to stop. One may say that this sensation is simply the theory of relativity at work -- time just seems to move faster when one has more behind than ahead. But I beg to differ. I think time actually is speeding up. It must be. It can't be that my brain just can't keep up.

Look at this Kindle thing, for example. This is the wave of the future -- an i-pod for books. You can download a book for less that it costs to buy one. You can load up to 200 books on the thing, which means there are 200 books you don't have to lug around with you. I've been told that it's easy to read. I think I'm going to have to learn to deal with it, both as an author and as a reader, whether I like the idea or not.

Last December, I went down to Tucson to do an event, and as I walked up to the venue, I came on three other authors standing by the door discussing Kindle. They were wondering how author royalties work, if any book on Kindle is in print forever, what happens to the author's rights. Can an author contract to put her own works up if she can regain the rights once the publisher lets it go out of print? The scuttlebut answers to all these questions sounded quite comforting, but at this point, I don't know the actual facts. I don't think I'm going to be able to avoid finding out, though. We Poisoned Pen Press authors heard yesterday that our press is issuing a few of its older titles on Kindle. I'm guessing they're testing the waters before they jump all the way in. That may be a really good thing, but I don't know for sure. For us authors, Kindle is one of those brakeless cars heading for a brick wall.

If anyone is really versed in the way this technology affects the writer, I'd love to hear about it.

Friday, February 01, 2008

New Book Technology

A play in one/eighth act, by Charles

“What’s that you’re holding?”

“This? It’s a book?”

That’s a book?”

“Yeah. It’s something new. They call ‘em paperbacks.”

Paper backs? May I?”

“Sure. They’re really convenient.”

“It’s so…small. How do you read it?”

“You get used to it. The words aren’t all that much smaller than the ones in a hardcover.”

“A hardcover? Oh, I see, a real book.”

“This is a real book. It’s got all the same words, the same story. It’s just a paperback.”

“Or a soft cover, I suppose?”

“Sure, why not. I mean a book’s a book.”

“Oh please. A book is not just a book, it’s a gateway to adventure, a license to relax and experience the world through the eyes of others, it’s a time machine, a what-if machine, a steady companion, a challenging new friend—”

“So's this. It’s a book, too.”

“But where’s the richly tooled cover, the marbled end pages—”

“Those don’t make a book a book. It’s the words.”

“Yes, yes…but the experience of reading, what happens to that? Your paperback lacks the heft of a book, it’s gravitas. This? I could stuff it in my back pocket.”

“Exactly. I can take it anywhere. You can fit, what, two hardcovers in that briefcase? I can put five or six paperbacks in the same space. I never have to be without something to read.”

“That is a point in your advantage, but I hardly think that it’s a strong enough point to change the industry.”

“And it costs about half what you’d pay for the same book in hardcover.”

“Fine, but what do you have in the end? A minuscule booklet, its binding all bent and cover curled. Can you imagine someone actually displaying one of these on a bookshelf? No, I’m afraid that while there are always people like you on the fringes of society, these paperbacks will never amount to anything more than a niche market, and that will dry up once publishers see that there is no profit in it.”

“I hope not. These are great. I mean, thanks to paperbacks I can catch up on all the latest mysteries.”

“You read mysteries? Ah yes, well, that explains everything, doesn’t it.”

-Curtain -