Tuesday, April 29, 2008

My "tag" list

First of all, here are the sentences from the book I grabbed off the shelf. Believe it or not (and I had my eyes closed), the book is 1001 Ways to Market Your Books by John Kremer. It's a very useful book, if somewhat optimistic as you shall see. The section where my words come from is titled "Publishers – How to help Your Authors". Here's what's on page 123 following the 5th sentence:

"Support your authors with material for doing bookstore appearances and media interviews. For major titles and other books that lend themselves to a national tour, help to organize such a tour and pay the author's expenses. National tours are one of the best ways to establish a nationwide demand for a book -- and such widespread demand can often propel a book onto the bestsellers list."

Wow! There it is. That's what we've all been doing wrong. I knew we were missing something in the way we promote our novels. Now that we know, we can all show our publishers this and get them onto the promotional bandwagon with us. Happy days are here again. See you all on the bestsellers list!

The people I'm tagging are: Lyn Hamilton who writes the Lara McClintock archeological mystery series (lynhamilton.com), Maureen Jennings who has two very successful series (maureenjennings.com), Linwood Barclay, a remarkably clever and funny man whose books are really very fine and as funny as he is, well, all except the most recent one (linwoodbarclay.com), Barbara Fradkin, who writes a series set in Ottawa (a hotbed of crime if there ever was one) and has one back-to-back Arthur Ellis Awards for Best Novel (barbarafradkin.com) and Giles Blunt, a person I hate because he writes such damned fine novels and because he also sings and plays guitar very well (gilesblunt.com).

They all have pretty good websites too. Make sure you visit, but also make sure you pick up at least one of their books!

On the word front: Just heard one of my "pet peeve" words used on the radio on the drive home today: fulsome. In this case, the announcer said that a particularly troublesome issue was "going to undergo a fulsome review and discussion by city council."

I really laughed out loud at this, because it was just so perfect. Yes, I am aware that fulsome originally meant something like "copious" or "abundant", but the word changed quite some tim ago and now means something like "aesthetically, morally, or generally offensive".

That about says it all in this context, doesn't it?

I also love it when music reviewers (usually of classical music) refer to the sound of an orchestra or ensemble as "fulsome". Do they really mean what they seem to be saying, the group's sound is "exceeding the bounds of good taste"?

Monday, April 28, 2008


Vicki here on Monday.

I was going to write a long, moaning post about the nightmare I had crossing the border yesterday, where for some reason I was pounded by the U.S. authorities with questions like “How much are they paying you to attend this thing?” “Do you have a contract with the bookstore?” “Who’s paying you to go?” and “How much do you make as a writer?” They even phoned Mystery Lovers to question why I had been invited! I guess they were afraid that I am going to flood the United States with copies of my Poisoned Pen Press books thus ruining the U.S. publishing industry for good American publishers like... uh... Poisoned Pen Press.

But now that I’ve been tagged, I don’t have to. I will just write my tag post.
Okay. I’m currently staying at my brother’s place in Ottawa while waiting to move into my new house. My brother’s late wife, Carol Lem, was very interested in her Chinese heritage and has a good collection of Chinese-themed modern history and memoir. I picked up Red China Blues by Jan Wong, a well known Canadian journalist. Canadian-born of Chinese descent, Wong was one of the first Western students admitted to Beijing University. This was around the time of the Cultural Revolution. Wong enthusiastically leapt into the revolution. Red China Blues is a memoir of those years, and of her subsequent disillusionment with the revolution. (I’m guessing at the ending from what I know about Jan Wong because I’m not very far into the book.) Here goes from page 123 (earlier sentences were better as the students were on a binge, but in keeping with the rules of the tag this begins with sentence 6.)

To boost morale we sang revolutionary songs. Chinese literature majors, in charge of “propaganda”, stood by the side of the road performing rap-like comic dialogues to the rhythmic clack of bamboo clappers. Every two hours we stopped for a break.

Sounds just like how I raise my morale – I sing revolutionary songs. Perhaps I should have done that while cooling my heels in the interrogation waiting room at the U.S. border.

I am writing this in my hotel room in Pittsburgh where I’m off this afternoon to the Festival of Mystery, so I’m going to tag four wonderful authors who are also attending the festival: Julia Pommeroy (www.Juliapommery.com), R.J. Harlick (www.rjharlick.ca), Mary Jane Maffini (www.maryjanemaffini.ca) and Rhys Bowen (www.rhysbowen.com) . Also Sharon Rowse (www.sharonrowse.com) who isn’t at the Festival but should be.

Looking over that list makes me think – isn’t it nice that we’re all writing at the start of the Internet age? We can just use our names as our web pages. Too bad about later Vicki Delanys or Rhys Bowens who will find that their URL has been taken.

Happy Reading!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Charles, You're Killing Me, Here

So the idea is to grab the nearest book, turn to page 123, count down to the 5th sentence and type the next 3 sentences (see previous entry). Shall I be honest and actually grab the nearest book and let the world know that I'm boring, or shall I sneakily try to find something hip, exciting, and/or cool, like a biography of Muddy Waters, or Lady Chatterley's Lover?

If I were a fly on the wall, as my mother used to say, I'd love to secretly watch everyone who indulges in this excercise and see who surreptitiously slips his dictionary or her copy of 100 Ways to Clean Your Bathroom under her chair and hunts out her copy of The Winged Energy of Delight, Selected Translations, by Robert Bly. In which event the entry would begin: "Meanwhile Indians are falling into the sugared chasms of the harbors, wrapped for burial in the mist of the dawn..." (Pablo Neruda).

But am I cool? Did I not several months ago admit my sadly unhip state? I feel it's my duty to stand up for the mundane everywhere and admit that I was also doing research when I saw that Charles had tagged me for this experiment. I have right here in my lap a copy of Culpepper's Color Herbal. Page 123 is the entry for meadowsweet, and sentence 5ff is as follows:

"The flowers are alexipharmic and sudorific and good in fevers and all malignant distempers. They are astringent, binding and useful in all fluxes. An infusion of the freshly gathered tops of this plant promotes sweating."

I'm tagging mystery writers J.M. Hayes (www.jmhayes-author.com), Elizabeth Gunn (www.elizabethgunn.com), Ken Kuhlken (www.kenkuhlken.com), Mara Purl (www.milfordhaven.com), and Betty Webb (www.bettywebb-mystery.com). Stand up and be counted.

A little business to end -- I'll be speaking and signing at Scottsdale Public Library this Tuesday, April 29, at 11:30 a.m. I'll be talking about my books and how I go about writing them. This is my last currently scheduled gig until August, aside from an emcee-ing job on May 1. I have a book to write, and I'm beginning to feel a little bit hysterical about it. I was fascinated by Vicki's post (below) about her writing process. All of us on this blog have spoken about how we write, and the techniques are as various as we are. Vicki said she's a "binge writer". I am, too, really. I will sometimes go for weeks without actually writing a word, then I'll spend weeks doing nothing but writing, to the detriment of everything else in my life. I write a historical series, unlike any of my blogmates, so I spend almost as much time researching as I do writing. The interesting thing about the copious research is that I actually use very little of it in the finished book. But certainly know my time period, by damn.

The actual writing is usually rather a slog for me. It easily takes me a year to finish a book. While I'm finishing the MS of one book, I usually am doing the preliminary research on the next. I've blogged before about how I tend to write the first draft quickly from beginning to end, and then do a lot of rewriting. The first draft is not that quick, to tell the truth. I actually write sections of the book, and then rewrite them to my satisfaction before moving on to the next. I've written four books, thus far, and all four of them were executed in slightly different ways. There's no perfect way to get a book done, I suppose. If it works, it works. The most important technique of all is to sit your rear in the chair and do it.

Friday, April 25, 2008


Charles here. Alert the media.

It’s a double topic time here at Type M for Murder. Two topics where you’d normally only find one, and both more interesting than what I had planned to write (a short critical analysis of the symbolic use of broken Greek urns in unpublished early 19th century French poetry).

Topic 1: Ray and Me

In 1980 I headed off to basic training at Ft. Benning, Georgia (1st squad, 2nd platoon, A-1-1 for those of you who know military unit designations). While I was vacationing there I met Ray Arsenault and Tom Coyne, and, as these stories go, all three of us ended up at the Old Guard together (3rd US Infantry in Washington, DC.) Ray was the kind of guy the army brass both dream of and fear – a tough, hard-core, freakishly smart, fiercely loyal, patriot (but not in a phony watch-me-wave-the-flag way) who knew bullshit when he saw it and was ballsy enough to point it out. In short, he was everything I wasn’t. When the army and I parted ways – the word re-enlist was never mentioned by either party – Ray stayed on. He made a career in the military and today works as a civilian pilot, currently stationed ‘somewhere in the news’. A few months back, Ray and I reconnected and met up in DC where he filled me in on the past 25 years. Let’s just say he lived the life every action/adventure craving guy would love to live. If I had done all of the things he’s done, I would be an even more insufferable jerk than I am. But not Ray. He’s humble, hilarious and man, can he tell a story. And he can write – I saw snippets of the Age-of-Sail swashbuckler he’s writing and it’s got Big Screen written all over it. Anyway, Ray must be really bored because he tells me he just received all three of my books at his undisclosed location. The books are crammed with action and murder and gunfights and danger, but based on what Ray’s been up to, I think he’s going to find them dull. So here he is, pretending to be enjoying Noble Lies.

Topic 2: I’ve been tagged.

My friend and fellow author Jared Case, has apparently tagged me in his blog. Now I have to pass it on. Here’s how Jared put it:

“I don't subscribe to chain letters too much (or memes, in the virtual world), but this one seems to be going around mostly to mystery writers, and I've been tagged by a friend, so I'd hate to let him down. I first saw this at The Rap Sheet, posted by J. Kingston Pierce, who tagged Dan Wagner over at The Hungry Detective, who tagged me. It's a simple little exercise called "Page 123." What you do is this:
1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Go to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence. (A virtually useless step as the action comes next...)
4. Post the next 3 sentences
5. Tag 5 people and acknowledge who tagged you.

I’m one of the 5 Jared “tagged”. So here we go. The closest book to me is one I’m using for reference for the new historical mystery I’m working on, a light history entitled Operation Dragoon: The Allied Invasion of the South of France by William B. Breuer.* Now here’s what you get:

“A bullet tore through the back of his head, and the Feldgrau fell over dead. As the wild shooting melee raged, Sergeant Lumsden struggled to his feet. His kness felt jellylike and his head was groggy. A stream of tracer bullets hissed past him as he staggered to a nearby woods, which swallowed him up.”

Hmmm…not bad Mr. Breuer, not bad.

Now here’s whom I’m tagging – Vicki Delany, Rick Blechta, Donis Casey, Debby Atkinson, and travel-mystery writer extraordinaire, Maria Hudgins.

And while you're here - I'll be at the Festival of Mystery in Oakmont on Monday (meeting with my pals, The No Lunch Bunch for, ironically, lunch)

*I will confess to wanting to grab an impressive book off the shelf, something that would show my acute sense of taste and style, but I figured that’s cheating. And the next closest book was a re-print of the 1945 pilot training manual for a CG-4A glider – it only has 58 pages.

Monday, April 21, 2008

First Drafts

Vicki here and first off, my congratulations to Charles for Noble Lies'nomination by Foreward Magazine as Best Novel of the Year. Well deserved, I must say.

Speaking of Charles - he tells us that he writes the almost finished version of his books in the first draft! I’m stunned. He says below that he works on one page until it’s done and then moves on and thus has minimal rewrites.

I am always amazed at the myriad of different ways each writer approaches the task at hand. I had an editing teacher once who insisted that you must leave one day’s work in the middle of a sentence and then pick up your virtual pen the next day, finish the sentence and carry on. Now that I know more, I know that everything is correct and nothing is incorrect if it works (see Wodehouse below).

I edit everything I did the previous day and begin the new day’s work from there. I find that gives me a natural flow into the new section without having to sit and think – okay, what comes next.

But I never go back and make changes to previous sections until the second draft. Unlike Charles, my second draft is a major amount of work. If I decide on page 200 that I need a clue earlier, I’ll make a note, but not rewrite the pertinent section until second draft, and continue with first draft assuming the clue has been dropped, or the character introduced or whatever. A creative writing teacher I had once suggested that you should burn your first draft. But, he added, no one ever does. I did think that was rather a good idea – for those of us for whom the first draft is sort of getting the ideas down and straight in our heads. Bit of a disastrous approach for Charles, I’d guess.

I am what my friend Lyn Hamilton (The Lara McClintock Archaeological Mysteries) calls a ‘binge writer’. For the four months over the winter I wrote almost every day, except for a brief interlude when my family was visiting for Christmas. Now that winter is over and I’m traveling again, I haven’t written a word in weeks. As a binge writer I need my physical and head space to be exactly right. I can’t write on the road, and I can’t write in someone else’s house where their time frame rules.

That is something I want to change – I’m house shopping right now and staying at my brother’s in Ottawa (this week the hottest place in Canada – take that B.C!) in the interim. If I’m going to get any work done, I have to change my writing habits. I’ll be back soon with an update on how that's progressing (or not).

Next Monday, I’ll be at the fabulous Festival of Mystery in Oakmont, PA. If you’re around (and even if you’re not) it’s worth a trip to meet almost 50 mystery writers, of reputations great and small, all there just wanting to talk to you about their books. The event is put on by Mystery Lovers Bookshop. For more info go to www.mysterylovers.com.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Sunday Afternoon Update

Re: James Patterson

Having discussed this very successful author a few weeks ago, I thought everyone would be interested in something I saw yesterday. At a signing in a Chapters store (Canada's big book/lifestyle store chain, I noticed in fiction the following headings over bookcases lining one wall:

Romance ... SciFi ... Graphic Novels ... Mysteries ... James Patterson

The bookcase was completely filled, too -- and with nearly 50 titles (by guesstimate).

Just thought you should know...

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Writing War

Donis blogging today. If you are just tuning in for the first time in a few days, Dear Reader, please do yourself a favor and read the previous half-dozen entries. My fellow bloggers have put forth some particularly cogent thoughts on the writing life and the writing process, and if you are considering taking up the pen, or have been struggling with your own writing, you will gain some insight from this group of veterans of the writing war.

I have learned a great deal from other authors. I haven't yet discovered a good writer who hasn't in some way been enlightened about the craft by a master. Last year, I was privileged to spend an entire weekend participating in a benefit event with J.A. Jance, Sue Henry, and Betty Webb. As you know, J.A. Jance and Sue Henry are Big Time. Betty and I are, let us say, Up and Coming. We all stayed at Jance's home, and after the events of the day, we'd sit around on her patio and proceed to get -- well, I don't want to say "hammered". Perhaps "relaxed" is a better term. What I learned over that weekend was worth it's weight in gold to me, especially because it gave me hope. Even the Big Time Authors go through the same agonies as the rest of us. Two especially useful things to know are that even Shakespeare's first drafts looked like the dog's dinner, and that Babe Ruth couldn't have been the home run king if he hadn't more strike-outs than any other player. The great J.A. Jance honored us with that analogy.

I very much identified with Rick's post about teaching, which I would suggest you look at if you haven't. I like speaking and teaching workshops, as I'm sure I've mentioned, even though I was a schoolteacher for a lot less time than Rick ever was,and a lot longer ago . Rick is absolutely right that trying to teach something teaches you as much as it does the students. It makes you consider your own process. There's a little bit of magic involved in writing, and sometimes it's hard to figure out how you did it, much less tell anyone else how to do it. However - many years ago, I started a little Scottish import gift shop, and at first I was quite nervous that someone would ask me about something that I didn't have any idea about. Then I had a customer tell me that his ancestors originally came from the border between Scotland and Ireland, (they were mermaids, apparently) and I was never again worried that the patrons knew more than I did.

On May 1st, I'm going to emcee Carolyn Hart and newbie Hannah Dennison at Poisoned Pen Bookstore at 7:00. I jumped at the chance to do it, since Carolyn has been so good to me. She is an amazing supporter of mystery writers. In her "Death on Demand" series, the sleuth Annie is the owner of a mystery bookstore on one of the barrier islands in South Carolina who is continually talking about and recommending actual mystery authors. It's a great way to discover new mystery writers. In Carolyn's new book, Death Walks In, a watercolor picture of a scene from one of my books is hanging on the wall of Annie Darling's bookstore! Annie also recommends several excellent authors to a patron of hers, including one Charles Benoit.

And finally, I'll close with one of my favorite quotes. This is from the introduction to Steven Pressfield's remarkable book on writing entitled The War of Art.
"Are you a born writer? ... It may help to think of it this way. If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don't do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.
"You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts...
"Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It's a gift to the world and every being in it. Don't cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you've got."

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Performing Flea and Me

Friday + Blog = Charles

So Debby heard Ray Bradbury speak (see below). Nice. I would have liked that. Now that I go to mystery conventions, I hear a lot of big names give talks, most are good, some outstanding and only a very few not worth traveling to hear. Me, for one.

The first Big Name mystery author I ever heard speak was Carl Hiaasen and he remains one of the best. The first author to ever give me (and when I say me, I mean the entire audience of 500) advice on writing was Fran Lebowitz, author of Metropolitan Life and Social Studies, but is perhaps best known for not writing. Her honest comments about her struggles as a writer were both hilarious and frightening. ‘You think writing is hard? Try not writing. Once you start, don’t ever stop. You’ll never start again and it’ll kill you.’ Okay, it’s paraphrased and it was twenty years ago, but I know what I heard, whether she said it or not.

P.G. Wodehouse – who titled one volume of his autobiography/letters The Performing Flea – wrote some of my favorite books and some of my favorite quotes/advice about writing:

“Nobody is more alive than myself to the fact that going by the book of rules, I do everything all wrong. I never have a theme, and I work from plot to characters and not from characters to plot, which as everybody knows is the done thing. The men up top, so they tell us, start with a group of characters and then sit back and let them do what they feel like doing. And the catch in that is – suppose they don’t do anything.”*

How good is that? Maybe not advice wise, but it sure takes the pressure off the rest of us. I mean if The Master went at it all wrong, there’s hope for the rest of us. I’m a character-first writer but I know where everything is going before I start. Take the new book(s) I’m working on. One reason that I’m only up to page 30 is that I’m busy crossing Ts that won’t come up for 50,000 words. That’s my way and I’m sticking to it.

Wodehouse was a major rewriter. He would plan like crazy, then write a 30,000 word ‘narrative’ that he’d build on, usually producing three full top-to-bottom revisions. I plow through one page at a time, getting it just right before I move on. My revision process is minimal – typos, a few lines here and there. Again, it’s slow, clunky and arduous but that’s how I do it.

“I find the best way to get my type of story is to think of something very bizarre and then make it plausible. I remember in Full Moon I started with a picture in my mind of a man crawling along the ledge outside a house, seeing a man through the window and gesturing to him to let him in, and the man inside giving him a cold look and walking out of the room, leaving him on the ledge. I find that, given time, I can explain the weirdest situations.”

Hey, that's me! Not the guy on the ledge or the guy in the house. The author guy. Really, that’s sort of the way I do it. I know my character, then imagine strange situations, the weirder the better. It’s just that Wodehouse thought up all the really good ones first. And he was better at explaining them in less time (his books average 65,000 words). But still!

The best, however, has to be this note Wodehouse wrote to himself while working on Jeeves in the Offing:


(1) X wants to marry Y, gets B. to say he is engd. to Y. Formidable mother.

(2) something happens to queer X with Y and Y continues to be engd. to B.

(3) Z, another man, is in love with Y. She wants to marry him but somehow mother is obstacle.

(4) Jeeves somehow works it that Bertie gets in bad with Mother at same time Mother gets matey with Z.

THIS IS SOMETHING TO WORK ON. Z. might have a girl A. Then X. wed pair off with A and Z with Y.

Of course! It’s so freakin’ obvious when he puts it like that.


(A sad note of passing. Our Jeep Wrangler – which has been our tried and true companion for 17 years – has taken us for our last ride. Details next blog.)

*All the Wodehouse quotes come from the fabulous exegesis, Wooster Proposes, Jeeves Disposes – or Le Mot Juste, by Kristin Thompson, Heineman Press, NY 1992.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Thoughts for Writers

Ray Bradbury: “You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.” (I love this guy.)

Mark Twain: “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

Justice Brandeis: “There is no great writing, only great rewriting.”

Mark Twain: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

Just some thoughts to unite us, as I figure we all are striving for pretty much the same thing. Although some of us are thinking up our first novel and some of us are wondering how to best publicize the fourth, we are still in learning mode. Which brings me to Ray Bradbury, whom I had the opportunity to meet during my first-ever writers’ conference in Palm Springs, 1995 (yikes). I got the strong impression lifelong learning was a way of life for him.

He sauntered into a small room wearing tennis shorts and a T-shirt, sweating a little (it was May in desert Palm Springs, and HOT); he’d apparently been playing right up until his scheduled talk. He leaned his rear end against a desk, stretched out his sneaker-clad feet and began to converse. He spoke about his journey as a writer, but the parts that stuck with me were his attitude, his zest for life and the acquisition of knowledge. He said, “Read every day. Each day, try to read three types of writing: poetry, fiction, and essays.”

I fall down in this endeavor. I get so caught up in my own work that I predominantly read fiction, trying to figure out how a particular author got me to laugh, cry, or gasp with delight. How the writer manipulated my emotions, got me into another reality, feeling the rain, the pain, the joy. So I need to remind myself from time to time of Ray’s advice.

I also like to recall how Bradbury spoke to this room of hopefuls; he talked to us as colleagues, as if he had no doubt that all our books would be successful and all our hopes would come to pass. Mark Twain would have liked him, too.

Rick’s and Donis’s blogs (see below) got me on this train of thought because of two things: where the publishing industry is headed and concurrently, how people within it treat each other, and (is this two or three?) to keep my eye on the big picture—to write each book as well as I can, to improve my skills, and to enjoy myself in the process.

Now I need to get to back to tweaking a manuscript. Thank you, Justice Brandeis, for reminding us that someone as brilliant as you didn’t do it on the first try.

“What is written without effort is read without pleasure.” Samuel Johnson

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Here's Blechta, late again...

Anyone who has spent time teaching, whether in the formal setting of a classroom or a casual one-on-one knows that teaching someone something you know well is as beneficial to your own expertise and knowledge as it is for the person(s) you are helping.

I found this out early when I began teaching kids not much younger than me how to play rock and roll keyboard. I was maybe 17 at the time and had been playing professionally for several years. Having to explain what I was doing as I played for my students and directed/critiqued their performances, dissecting what my thinking really was and then trying to verbalize that forced me to understand many things that I was doing all the time -- but mostly on "autopilot". In consequence, I became a better musician.

As I published my first novels, I would occasionally be asked to go someplace and talk to a creative writing class, or chat with readers in libraries on how crime fiction is written. I always declined because I felt I really didn't know much about the subject -- certainly not enough to pontificate to people who probably knew as much or more about the writing process than I did. I've always been skeptical of people without much experience and I certainly felt I fell into that category.

Lately, though, I'm more confident that I just might know enough to at least be interesting, if not informative, when speaking to other folks who want to write crime fiction.

Since I stopped teaching school music in 2001 (after 23 years in the biz), my teaching chops have been unused and rusting. With my schedule this month (4 library presentations and one day in a local collegiate speaking with creative writing classes), you can see that my confidence most be increasing (either that, or I'm out of my mind). But getting back into "teaching mode" has also once again driven home the fact that teaching is as beneficial to the teacher as it is to the taught.

Last night was a good example. My current library chat is titled "It's not whodunnit, it's howhedunnit: Rick Blechta dishes the dirt on the creation of his new novel, A Case of You". That's a tall order on the face of it, and in consequence, I've been struggling to keep the talk informative, but not to get bogged down with minutiae.

Attendees to these little lectures have seemed to find them useful, informative and enjoyable (the last probably due to my penchant for cracking jokes), but I've found them mind-blowing to my understanding of the creative process.

I wrote A Case of You in mere 11 weeks last year. (Don't ask why. There was a very good reason, even if it all came to naught as things unfolded.) So, for the first time, I just sat down every day at the computer or notebook, and wrote for my life. There really was no time to stop and think about what I was doing, what the process was. I just did it. This was akin to the way a musician plays once they've got their playing down and I'd already done plenty of that (also known as "heavy faking").

The end result was, when it came to my library and writers' talks, I really no idea about how I wrote the damn book. After 3 talks now, though, the thought process behind the creation of the novel is beginning to become clear. One example: having to explain exactly what is behind the interaction between the two primary characters, something I hadn't had time to consider before, has revealed many startling things I had no idea was doing at the time.

Want to know what some of the other revelations are? Come to one of my talks! ;)

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Book Advance Jackpot

I'm a bit late, here. My reason is not as exciting as Charles', though not without its charms. I just returned from Sierra Vista, AZ, where I presented a workshop on historical mystery writing. Sierra Vista is a town of about 40,000 which is located almost 200 miles SSE of the Phoenix area, about an hour east of Tucson and 20 miles north of the Mexican border. What, you may well ask, do 40,000 people do for a living out in the middle of the Sonoran desert mountains among the saguaros (those are the really big cactuses with the arms)? Allow me to enlighten you. Sierra Vista is the location of Fort Huachuca, a huge Army and Marine base that was originally founded after the Civil War. The 24th Infantry, (Buffalo Soldiers), was stationed there for the purpose of trying to control the Apaches. I believe that now the fort is a missile proving ground. In any event, the town is full of shaven-headed young men with good posture, retirees, and a surprising number of authors. In fact, all of southern Arizona seems to be quite an enclave for authors -- I can think of at least half a dozen off the top of my head, some of whom are extremely well known. I can only guess that the spectacular weather and even more spectacular scenery attracts them, just like it does everyone else who lives in that area. (Southern AZ is full of Brits. Paul McCartney has a place near Tucson. I assume they come here to dry out and warm up.) Since I don't live in a handy spot for attending East Coast events, this is useful for me, since there is always some book event going on down there.

Speaking of the book business, there was a fascinating article in the Arizona Republic this morning entitled "Book-Deal Bonanza." It was written by reporter Kerry Lengle, who is one of my favorite journalists, since he wrote a feature on me for the Republic back in '05, after my first book came out.

"In the competitive publishing industry," this morning's article begins, "some authors hit the jackpot, most don't. Contrary to the apocalypic prognostications of digital doomsayers, books aren't going the way of the dinosaur quite yet. But for would-be Hemingways (Aside - Hemingway would never have written a sentence like that) hoping to make their fame and fortune on the best-seller lists, the publishing business is looking more like the world's biggest casino: A few lucky souls hit the jackpot and the rest are out of luck."

The article goes on to talk about the big publishing houses, desperately looking for the next Dan Brown, offering a few select authors six- and even seven-figure advances for their first books. Barbara Peters, the founder of Poisoned Pen Press and my editor, is quoted as saying that "this is part of the blockbuster mind-set that has taken over...They would rather spend a fortune on an unknown author with marketing potential than develop a small career into a big career... the reverse of it is the midlist author is disappearing, and I find that very sad. It particularly affects me in the mystery genre."

I e-mailed Barbara this a.m. to say that I had seen the article and I thought it was describing a depressing state of affairs, but she replied, "Not depressing. You (for instance) are right where you should be." And in fact I had just been thinking how grateful I am for quality presses like Poisoned Pen. Would I have ever gotten the series I'm writing published anywhere else? I doubt it, or even if I had, it would have been a long, horrid ordeal. But Poisoned Pen treats me exponentially better than most other houses treat their authors, and because I have this venue in which to develop, I actually think I'm getting better.

Kerry's article tells of Scott Barone, who got a $200,000 two-book deal for a book titled Dawn of Empire. He says that when the book came out, the publishers threw it out there with no support and no marketing, so it never took off. Sales didn't make up the advance. He published his two novels, but is now out of a publisher. As for me, I have three in print and a fourth on the way, and I feel like I have a home for this series with Poisoned Pen. Not that I couldn't do with $200,000, but I do appreciate the fact that I'm able to keep writing and getting published.

Friday, April 11, 2008

NoirCon Recap

Charles here – did you miss me last week?

I have a good excuse. I was at the first ever NoirCon in Philadelphia, a fantastic 4-day event put together by Deen Kogan and my good pal, Lou Boxer. If you were there, you know why it was great, if not, you should have been. You can still visit the website to see what you missed, but let me just hit a few points that I think made it stand out:

  • One track, small sessions – everybody got to hear the excellent presentations and take part in the discussions. Again, see the website to see the sessions.
  • The dual screening of David Goodis’ short story The Professional Man – This was so unusual and interesting I don’t know why other mystery events haven’t done something similar. And at NoirCon, screenwriter Howard Rodman gave the inside story on how his version (the better one, starring Brandon Fraser) came to be. My new obsession? Finding both versions on DVD for my collection. (I think I ought to call my pal Jared Case…)
  • The venue – what do you know, you can host a successful mystery convention in a non-traditional setting, in this case, the Society Hill Playhouse. The conference attendees numbered about 200 overall, but as it always is with any conference, not all of them were in the same room at the same time. Still, never crowded, never empty – it was cool.
  • The Charity Auction (hosted by yours truly) to benefit the Awassa Children’s Project. My fez if duly doffed in appreciation to the fine men and women who bid high and often on the items and a second doffing for the folks who made the generous contributions. Together we raised two grand for this most worth cause (including the $100 item Rose picked up for me). If for no other reason, the charity auction made attending the event worth it.
  • The best conference program book ever. No, really. I have been to scores and this one is, by far, the best I have ever seen. Square-back bound, high-gloss, heavy-stock paper, a beautiful commissioned photograph on the cover, essays on Noir, a killer short story by Charles Willeford…folks, if you are organizing a mystery conference you need to know that when it comes to the program, NoirCon has raised the bar. Seriously, contact Lou Boxer and perhaps he can get you a spare. You will be amazed.

And what would a conference wrap-up be without a bar report? Rose and I hit a few near the hotel the night we got in but saved out serious drinking for the post-auction fete at the hotel bar where we were joined by Reed Coleman and his lovely wife, Rosanne, Ken Bruen and his just as lovely wife, Philomena, Lou Boxer, über-fan Judy Bobalik and a bunch of other folks that I should remember but man, they make a good gin martini at the Society Hill Sheraton.

NoirCon I is in the books. Ya should’da been there.

NoirCon II is in the works. Don’t miss it.


Thursday, April 10, 2008

Publicity, Writing, and Words

Publicity, writing, and words

Rick and Vicki, I am impressed with your book-store energy. I’m learning from you. Thanks! In the spirit of contribution, I’ll share a bit of what I learned on a “Webinar” yesterday. Charles was at the conference (and I use the term loosely), so chime in, Charles.

This educational seminar ((I don’t know what to call it) was arranged by our publisher and was something like a conference call, but we were also connected to the internet so that the presenter could give us her Power Point presentation along with her talk. Penny Sansevieri, of Literary Publicists, was the speaker. This was all about internet marketing.

I gleaned a few tidbits from it, but the intermittent electronic blats over the phone line and the speed with which Sansevieri spoke made me feel like a remedial student in a college physics class. I don’t think I was the only one—another author moaned, “I’m overwhelmed.” I could hear the despair in her voice. The only reason I wasn’t in the same boat of misery was because of a few things: 1.) I’ve been at it a little longer and recognized some of the “lingo” 2.) This blog has helped! AND 3.) I didn’t agree with some of the stuff she was spewing at us. Maybe that was in utter ignorance, but it kept me from moaning out loud.

One of her recommendations was to add “key words” to your blog and website, but when a few of us asked what she meant by key words in this context, the answer was more confusing than the original concept. She recommended plugging in potential key words to wordtracker.com, but I checked it out and they charge $59.00.

Here’s what I think she said: We want to use “key words” that are common, but not too common. If you get a hit for 100,000 (say, plugging in ‘writing’), the word is too general. If you get about 5,000 hits, the word is specific enough. I wonder if we can just Google—I am not confident enough in her method to cough up yet another fee for dubious publicity.

Here’s what I did get out of her spiel: a.) To draw people to your website, get yourself invited to be interviewed on other people’s blogs. b.) always include a link to your website and blog site (which should have the same host—she lost me here) c.) go to famous and well-read websites and post your opinions or blog on an article. She recommended Oprah.com, the New York Times, and Wall Street Journal. ALWAYS include the link to your website. This sounds worth trying. d.) Contribute to ezinearticles.com and articlecity.com, and you guessed it—include the link to your website.

When you make sense out of all this, please let me in on the secrets.

To close, I’ll return to Patricia O’Connor, who clarifies things for me. I love these no-no’s:

Alright—it’s not all right. It’s two words.

unprecedented—O’Connor says very few things are unprecedented. Don’t use this word if you want to say unusual, uncommon, unexpected, rare, exceptional, curious.

complected—not a word. Someone who spends a lot of time in the sun is dark-complexioned.

Dived is preferred to dove. Greg Louganis hit his head when he dived at the Olympics.

Ahold—writers, get hold of yourselves. It’s either two words—He had a hold on the dog’s tail, or one.

Til—wrong. Till is all right, and so is until, but til isn’t a word. And by the way, don’t use up or since with either till or until.

A hui hou aku! (i.e., until next time)

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Life on the Road

Blechta here.

My headspace has changed radically since Mssr. Benoit's reality check about what it is we're really doing and it has made a huge difference in what I view as success and failure out in the bookstores as I make my way through a pretty grueling promotional schedule this month.

Unlike Vicki, I view everyone as a potential reader and it's seems to be paying off. Yeah, most younger people either ignore you or say no, but I've had a fair number (probably those taking creative writing in school) who stop and say, "Cool. You wrote this?" (As an aside: the cover of A Case of You does have a young lady rather prominently on it, which I think is helping in this case.) On Saturday, I sold 3 books to young people.

Vicki is spot on about the fact that our prime audience is middle-age women. I'm also finding older men (say over 60) like to read crime fiction as opposed to middle-age men who are most prone to rushing by saying, "I don't have time to read," or "I only read non-fiction."

The change in me (due to the Benoit Influence -- sounds like a Ludlum novel, doesn't it?) is that I don't feel bad when somebody walks by -- certainly not like I used to. Yes, if tons of people walk by, I'm sure I'd feel something, maybe frustration, but being more relaxed myself, I'm finding it easier to get people to stop and chat.

Having toured with Barbara Fradkin last time out (she is actually Dr. Barbara Fradkin, the psychologist), I watched as she worked the bookstore crowds. There was a certain calm about her. She never made an approach to anyone who obviously didn't want to be bothered (head averted, eyes down or those who take a sharp left or right as soon as they spot you), but it was her body language, I decided, that led people to gravitate to her.

With that in mind, I try to look open, approachable, friendly, and certainly not hysterical to make a sale. Looking lonely and forlorn doesn't work either, but I'm sure you all know that by now.

So what have the results been? I've been moving between 20 and 30 books at each signing. My low is 12 and my high is 36, and that's up by about 35% from the past two tours. Now, to be fair, both those tours were with other people involved. This can work very well (Vicki and I proved that), but often times people seem to feel uncomfortable about buying one author's book and not the other's, and if you think it's hard to sell 1 book to each interested person, try moving 2.

Through it all, I keep mentally saying the Charles Mantra: "I'm an author signing MY book in a bookstore. How cool is that?"

Monday, April 07, 2008


Vicki reporting in from a motel room in Cle Elum, Wash. Where there is a sign at the entrance to the town telling visitors how many arrests the police have made so far this year.

I spent the weekend in Vancouver and Victoria on a mini booksigning tour. And I am happy to report that it went very well. I was well received in all the stores and sold a bunch of books. Bunch is, of course, a relative term. Ian Rankin probably has a good signing when he sells a bunch of boxes of books. But there are people in Vancouver and Victoria tonight reading a book of mine that they wouldn’t otherwise and that makes me happy.

Perhaps I shouldn’t, but I ‘profile’ people who come into the store. There are types of people I don’t bother to approach. Anyone (male) who wears the crotch of his pants around his knees, or anyone (female) who can hardly walk in her shoes. I never bother with anyone who looks to be between the ages of 9 and 29, although I sometimes do give book marks to little kids. Other than that, I don’t approach anyone in the company of a child in a stroller or toddler by the hand. And, of course, anyone yakking on a cell phone (I guess that’s a natch).

I see a prospective mark, uh customer, approaching, and quickly size them up. Do they look like a book buyer, or are they heading straight for Starbucks? Incidentally, you can no longer expect that anyone in a book store is looking to buy a book. They might be only visiting the coffee shop, or wanting to buy candles or tea cups, the sort of thing that is increasingly pushing books off the shelves in bookstores – but that can be another post. Do they look like the sort that would like my books? Middle-aged women are best, and some middle-aged men. Men with scruffy beards and T-Shirts advertising video games or Star Wars are not good prospects. Elderly people rarely buy books – although they do take my information and say they’ll look for the book in their library.

I’d like to know how other writers handle the streams of people pouring into the store and passing by their table. Do you approach everyone who comes through the door? Do you approach no one and expect them to come to you? What about the people who can’t look at you and slither by – do you stop them anyway?

I was going to make the focus of this post on how younger people can be counted on not to buy books. But then I read the following in Saturday’s Globe and Mail, part of Leah McLaren’s column:

The only thing educated upper-middle-class white people seem to enjoy more than reading books and newspapers is discussing the fact that no one else but them appears to enjoy reading books and newspapers.
So I won’t.

Saturday, April 05, 2008


Is it my turn again? Time certainly flies, especially when you have a jillion things on your mind and you barely know what day it is. I live in fear that some day I'm going to turn up at some bookstore to speak when I should be at the library giving a workshop. I often have dreams that I suddenly realize I'm supposed to be at some event in Texas, or Colorado, or I forgot that I'm supposed to be at a conference in fifteen minutes. Not that I'm in such demand, God knows. It's just that I'm not always aware of the passage of time like I ought to be, since I spend so much of it in my own head rather than in the world (as per my last entry).

Which reminds me of a story, like most things do. I've always been interested in the writings of J. Krishnamurti for their absolutely no nonsense to-the-pointness. For those of you who don't know, in the late 1910s, when he was just a small child, Krishnamurti was declared by the Theosophical Society to be the final reincarnation of the Buddha, who when he grew up was supposed to take over the Society (and the world, presumably) and usher in a new age of enlightenment. So, in 1927, after being raised and educated in England by this group, the young man Krishnamurti called the devotees to a gigantic gathering, promising to finally impart to them the great wisdom and enlightment they had been waiting for. And it was this:

"You've said for years that I was born to tell you the truth and you would do what I say, so here it is. Why are you people looking to me to enlighten you? You have to do it yourself. I can't save you, and neither can this group. Therefore, this group is dissolved. Everybody go home."

And all the thousands of people looked at each other and said, "Well, this guy can't be the Buddha." The Theosophical Society continues on to this day, and Krishnamurti went on his merry way.

The gist of his teaching was that you have to pay attention. You can't figure things out with your brain, you have to be conscious. Many years after the above event, he told a tale of being picked up at the airport in India by two young men who were supposed to take him to a friend's house in the country. As they were driving along with Krishnamurti in the back seat, the two young men were so absorbed in a discussion about consciousness that they ran over a goat and never even knew it.

So, whenever I do some idiot thing because I wasn't paying attention, I say I "ran over the goat."

And speaking of storytelling, in my last entry I told the story of my husband and his brother throwing eggs at a post. Don (husband) read it and said, "well, it's a good story, but it's totally wrong." Seems it wasn't raw eggs they threw, it was boiled eggs, and it wasn't a fence post, it was a telephone pole, and it wasn't several times they did it, it was only once. Which leads me to make this disclaimer: When I write my historical novels, I do all kinds of research to make sure my facts are straight. When I sit down to write my blogs - not so much. So don't take my blog tales to the bank.

Finally, I love Rick's tale of a nose named Barry. (previous entry) Off the top of my head I can't remember any of my own delightful bloopers, except that I tend to make the same typos over and over. One of which is that I usually type "herp" instead of "hero." So often in fact that I've started using the word "herp" in conversation, which leaves the person I'm speaking to with a baffled look on her face.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Art of Language

Blechta here. Two days late, but life has been busy recently... Sorry to step on your day a bit, Debby!

Speaking of which, I think that Debby has opened a very large can of worms, fun worms to be sure, by wigglers nonetheless. I encourage further discussion!

I'm willing to bet that every writer is just as much in love with words as we are in telling stories. It's endlessly fascinating to swap words, phrases, sentences around until they seem to lock together into something that communicates what we want it to.

That's the upside.

The downside is that accidents do happen -- and they can be very embarrassing. I may have mentioned that I actually wrote this sentence in the first draft of my latest novel: "My Teacher was a short, wiry man with a big nose named Barry."

Fortunately, I found this miscreant sentence pretty quickly and I did have a big chuckle over it, but I can also assure you that I wouldn't have been chuckling if it had somehow run the gauntlet of eagle eyes and made it into the printed version of the book, not unless I was Carl Hiaasen.

From the Why Didn't Anyone Save Me From Myself Department: There is a respected Toronto writer who had a sentence in a published crime novel, describing how his character, who'd gotten a good boot to the crotch, fell to the ground and curled up into the "coital position".

Now that's funny.

But probably not to him. It's not something he'll soon forget. Not that we're going to let that happen...