Saturday, May 30, 2009

She's Alive!

I was recently asked if I had any insights into creating and maintaining series characters .  In this blog we have discussed the advantages and disadvantages of writing a series vs stand-alone novels.  Many successful novelists will have a popular series or two interspersed with stand-alones.  This keeps the old brain juices flowing.  I wonder if the reason is my series is a success isn’t because I’ve managed to create appealing characters which readers enjoy visiting again and again. 

I have many recurring characters in the Alafair Tucker mysteries, and in each book, I bring different characters and combinations of characters to the fore.  I find that this gives me lots of material to work with, and many different ways to approach a story.  My protagonist, Alafair Tucker, has her own baggage to deal with, but generally she is the eye of the storm - the calm presence and voice of reason.  Alafair has ten children, all of whom are very different.  Each book features a different kid, who gets involved with a murder in some fashion, and needs his mother to help him out. 

I'm working on the fifth book in my series, and by this time I know each and every recurring character like I know my own family members. (Better.  My characters don't generally hide what they're thinking.)  When you create new characters, either for a series or a stand-alone, you may feel a bit like God, making people behave like this or that and causing all sorts of unpleasant things to happen to them.  But no matter how much you think you’re in control, eventually some miracle happens and the characters develop wills of their own and don't listen to you any more.  I think this is not an uncommon experience for writers.  After a while, you can't force characters to respond to the action in the way you want them to any more than you could force a real person to do what you want.  When this happens, you know you've succeeded.  If your character behaves like a living person, then your readers are going to care about her like they would a living person.

After using the same characters in several books, I now no longer shape their behavior to fit the circumstances.  I create a circumstance, drop the characters into it, and stand back to see how they handle it.  Graham Greene, author of The Quiet Man, The Comedians, and Our Man in Havana, among others, said that "there comes a time when your character does something you wouldn't have thought of.  When that happens, you know he's alive, and you leave him to it."

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Questions That I will No Longer Answer

Charles here, making preparations for Sunday’s book event.*

I have noticed that folks in government positions (US House Speaker Pelosi) and Hollywood celebs (Mel Gibson) can up and announce that they will no longer be answering questions on certain topics. This may sound arrogant but it probably saves time in press conferences and other interviews since there won’t be a lot of wasted questions where the answer is just going to be “I’m done answering that question” anyway. So to avoid any “wasted questions” in this Sunday’s event, I felt I would make a handy list for you of…

The Questions I Will No Longer Be Answering

· Are you tired of James Patterson calling you daily to discuss character development?
· Which is your favorite noun?
· Are any three-toed sloths killed in your books?
· To what extent did the Li-Lobanov Treaty of 1896 lead to the Boxer Rebellion?
· Does having opposable thumbs make it easier to develop multi-level plots structures?
· Do you ever get tired of reading all that fan mail you get?
· Why do you always use the same numbering sequence for the pages in your books?
· If two trains leave the same station traveling in opposite directions, who killed the butler?
· Why do I love your books so much that I find myself compelled to buy a dozen copies at every event, even though I already own cases of your books?
· Do these shoes match my eyes?

I know this may make me sound elitist, but it will save some time for other questions.

See you there.

*Sunday, from 2-5 at Moonshines Café in Oakville, Ontario. Join me and fellow Type M bloggers Vicki and Rick, along with authors David Waltner-Towes and Madeline Harris-Callway for a lively discussion of bookish things. BTW – they serve booze at this joint!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Fifteen minutes

A few posts ago, Vicki and Charles experimented with writing their blogs in fifteen minutes. Yikes, I thought, that would be tough. I’ve always quoted Justice Brandeis, “There is no great writing, only great rewriting.”

I believe this adage, but I have a hunch not everyone cleaves to it as I do. How do news reporters handle deadlines? They fire off their comments in less than fifteen. I know, some reports look as if they should have spent more time, but not all. Many of them are eloquent.

Do the writers of the analytical essays on the front page of the Sunday New York Times pull their pieces together in fifteen minutes? Even considering that all the research was organized before the reporter sat down at her/his keyboard? I have my doubts. I’m not talking about the pithy news items that cover the basic who, what, when, where, and why in a few inches of column space. I'm referring to fascinating pieces like the one in last Sunday’s NYT that covered maternity care in impoverished Tanzania. Riveting material, and if author Denise Grady put that together in fifteen, I am awed. It would have taken me a week at least.

What about novels? Years ago, I heard Lawrence Block say that he never outlines, and he rarely rewrites. A few other authors have echoed his methods, and their professed abilities amaze me. (If you believe them. I believed Block.)

I rewrite. Again and again. I also outline, but we’ve covered that topic. Part of my writing is discovery. I know the story I want to tell, but the unexpected recurs. (His father was murdered when he was fifteen?! Hmmm, that wasn’t in the outline, but it explains his idiosyncrasies.) And when do I reveal this life-changing fact? No, not now—just deal with his paranoia. Even he doesn’t recognize the full impact of that event. And on I go, backtracking, making notes, inserting tidbits.

So much of life, let alone writing, reflects a mental outlook. I don’t want to give up my sense of discovery, so I’m probably not going to change my process. Though I would like to be more organized!

P.S. This took me 38 minutes. I had to go dig through the recycling box for Sunday’s paper and check the article to see if it was as I remembered. It was better, actually. Does this count in my writing time? It’s research!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Should Fiction Be Fictional?

During a graduate school fiction-writing workshop, while discussing a story—a very good one, written by my fellow MFA candidate—our instructor, Rick DeMarinis, suggested she submit it and even offered the title of a journal he believed suitable, given that her protagonist was a female Hungarian immigrant.

This was a grad student’s dream. Rick had published many novels, written a textbook, had stories placed in the Paris Review. (Coincidentally, this meant there was hope for the rest of us!) Rick Almighty was telling her he believed her story was good enough for publication. Usually, he suggested how we might fix our stories, not that they were ready for publication. We looked at her with jealous glares.

Then she shocked us.

She told Rick she didn’t know if she would submit the story, explaining that it was “based on” her mother’s life. Rick’s answer: Nothing is entirely fictional.

So where does the line between fiction and non-fiction blur? This question has been given a lot of play in the wake of the A Million Little Pieces scandal, and for authors of memoirs, this question is truly problematic. Is it also problematic for fiction writers? I don’t think it should be. I tell students that no character is entirely fictional. Every one you come up with has components of real people with whom you interacted in some way. Some writers believe everything and everyone is fair game.

At Malice Domestic a few years ago, I was having a drink with some writers and I told a story (it’s what we do, after all) about my grandfather: He was widowed at age 81 and got remarried to a woman whose financial situation far exceeded his; he worked in a textile mill most of his life. When the newlyweds went to Florida, Gramps’ new son-in-law lent him a car. Gramps called us to say he was driving a “convertible Ford Escort.” My father said, “George, Ford doesn’t make convertible Escorts.” Two weeks later, when Dad went to Florida to visit, he called to report, “Your grandfather is driving an $80,000 Mercedes. Thinks it’s an Escort.” The fellow writers loved the story, I think, because it perfectly characterized my unassuming late grandfather. One woman put her drink down and asked, “May I use that in my next book?” I said sure.

So what’s off limits, and what’s fair game? I guess it depends on the writer. We all have families that are novels waiting to be written and family members who truly are “characters.” I’ve named characters after friends (and even had one of them shot; for that, I received a good-natured phone call); anyone who follows the Jack Austin series and knew my late father knows who Jack Austin’s dad is based on; and Jack’s baby, Darcy, says things I could only get from real babies—namely my own, Delaney and Audrey. “Am I have to eat that monster?” Darcy asks when she sees a boiled lobster placed before her father. Audrey was 2 when she said it.

Does my family offer stories waiting to be written? Hell, doesn’t yours? But in the end, we’re not writing biographies. Research for a new book led me to ride with border patrol agents for maybe 12 hours. I gathered a ton of information, which I added, where necessary, in my novel. In the end, though, the reality this information adds doesn’t make or break the book. The story’s success lies in something far beyond the details. Halfway through the novel, a character did something totally unexpected, made a seemingly insignificant realization upon discovering an earring. This character’s discovery moved—and I would say made—the novel. It was nothing more than a character coming alive on the page, but it couldn’t have happened if that character had been based entirely on someone I knew.

So in the end, maybe you get a concept or a character trait from someone you know or once met. But beyond those things, if the story is to come alive, fiction really is—and must be—fiction. Because although truth maybe stranger than fiction, it’s never quite as good.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The way of the world or the writer’s lot is (often) not a happy one

I’m going to talk directly to other writers here. That’s not to say that you can’t listen in if you’re not!

I guess I’m feeling cranky at the moment, or maybe just a little careworn, but I really feel I have to address an issue that’s endemic to the writing game.

I’m referring about rudeness.

Case in point: I have a friend in Scotland who really enjoys my writing (or at least professes to) and he has a longtime friend whose son works for one of the big UK publishers. “You really should sign this author up,” my friend tells the son (whom he also knows well). After all the usual stuff (“The publishing business is really hurting.” “We only look at agented manuscripts.” And so on), the son agrees to look at my latest published book (there goes the unagented bit).

I figured since I had the entree directly, I’d send the book, along with a covering letter, explaining a bit about me, about contacting my agent on the chance there was interest, commiserating about the state of publishing, and basically reassuring this gentleman that I knew quite well how things work.

Sending the book off to him cost me $36+, but I figured, what the heck, show him that I’m at least keen and have it couriered.

Four months go by without any response. I happened to be speaking to my Scottish friend last week, and he says, “Too bad my friend’s son didn’t like your novel.” I told him that’s the first I heard of it. “Oh, he told me he read about twenty pages and decided ‘not for the UK market’. Didn’t he contact you?”

I told him I hadn’t heard a peep, and added that was the way these things usually work.

My friend was outraged (he comes from the brewing industry) that a person who’s not even wet behind the ears anymore should be so incredibly rude. “I’m going to call him up and tell him what I think of his behavior! How long would it have taken to send you an email?”

I told him not to bother, that this is the way authors are generally treated in this business. Booksellers, agents, editors, publicists and the media all often behave the same.

“Well, it’s damned rude! That’s what I think!” my friend grumbled. “You wouldn’t dare do that in other businesses.”

I hung up the phone after thanking him for caring so much, and also how grateful I was that he’d gotten me the chance, despite how it all worked out.

An hour later, the conversation came back to me. You know what? He’s right. Why is it acceptable for people to be rude in the book business? Many call back when they say the will, silence after a book submission is often deafening for weeks if not months, and even bookstores who invite you in to sign have on occasion completely forgotten that you were coming — often at great distances. The excuse if you question it is, “I am so busy!” Well, I’m busy, too, probably more than they are. I currently have 3 jobs — and I know if I don’t call clients or possible clients when I say I will, they will go elsewhere.

If you did that in the music business, teaching or graphic design (fields in which I’ve worked for many years), you get your butt shown the door eventually. Certainly you’d hear about it from your boss.

Not in the book business.

Monday, May 25, 2009

I'm back

Knew I couldn't do it all in under 15 minutes. I forgot to mention that the official launch party for Gold Digger: A Klondike Mystery, is on Wednesday, May 27 at Sleuth of Baker Street bookstore, Toronto at 6:00. Wine and nibblies will be served. Sleuth is located at 1600 Bayview Avenue, Toronto. tel: 416-483-3111. You're ALL invited.

Fifteen Minutes

Starting… now.

I have never had deadlines to meet as a writer. Both of my publishers accept my MSs when they are ready. Perhaps that’s because I can be counted on to deliver, I don’t know. But when Charles asked the question about deadlines it made me wonder if I would be a better writer with a tight deadline to meet.

The answer, I suspect, is not a chance in heck. When under pressure, I, to put it mildly, fall apart. I can’t stand stress at all, not of any sort.

I was in the computer business all of my career. High pressure, oh yeah. At every interview I was ever at they asked “How do you work under pressure?” And I always said, “Just fine.” Liar. What am I going to say, “I turn into a quivering basket case.”? That’ll get you hired.

Wow, all that only took me 2 minutes. Maybe I’m better at this than I thought.

When I moved out here to the County I lost my watch. I didn’t bother to get another one until I was scheduled to travel and decided that I needed to be able to tell the time for things like catching airplanes. That watch is somewhere in Hawaii, and I haven’t replaced it.

Of course, I carry a cell phone that happens to show the time, but at least it isn’t a watch.

Okay, all that took me 4 minutes. This stuff is easy.

Add one minute to check it over, and I`m done.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sunday's Guest Blogger Tim Maleeny

Today we are pleased to host Tim Maleeny, author of the Cape Weathers novels, Beating the Babushka, Stealing the Dragon and Greasing the Pinata, the latter of which won this year's Lefty Award for best humourous mystery. Tim's newest book is Jump, a critically-acclaimed standalone. If you want to see some incredibly good covers have a look at

Thank you for having me as a guest on Type M For Murder. I share a publisher with the talented folks responsible for this blog, so as a fellow writer and also a fan of their work, it's great to be able to rant, ramble and ruminate in their midst.

Charles and Donis' entries got me thinking about writing fast, which in a way is the writers' version of turning the pages, just as we hope readers will be turning them faster and faster until they've stayed up into the wee hours finishing our books. And it occurred to me that as I write a novel, my own pace accelerates.

Readers and reviewers have said some very nice things about the opening scenes in my books, and I do try to open my novels with a bang, but cranking out those first few chapters seems to take me a lifetime. But as I tell myself the story and get more chapters laid out, I find my fingers moving faster, the words coming more easily, until I can barely keep up with the action. By the time I reach the finish, my daily word count is through the roof.

Maybe that's because I don't outline, so for me writing is like telling myself a story, and once I get myself hooked I can't wait to find out what happens next. Or perhaps once I finally "see" the ending I want to run towards the light at the end of a tunnel, because I've been in the dark for so long. (I mean that quite literally, since I often write at night, on my laptop in the dark, while my loved ones snore nearby.)

Or maybe as crime writers we feel the tension we want our readers to feel, and as the plot thickens, so does our bond with our characters. So we start a book as curious onlookers, then move through the middle of the plot with real sympathy for our characters, but we race to the end with empathy, knowing that in the end we're going to share their plight on some deeper emotional level. And it's that visceral connection that fuels our fingers as they pound the keys.

So on days when the words flow like molasses, I just tell myself I have to care a bit more, take a vested interest in the fate of my characters. After all, isn't that what we ask of our readers? And most days it works, and I'll be damned if I don't start to type faster.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Zen Typing

I’ve set my timer.  I’m going to see what I turn up with if I write this blog entry in fifteen minutes flat.  I won’t fool you, I’ve written many of my blog entries in fifteen minutes flat, which you may have already inferred, Dear Reader.  

The secret of writing a blog entry in fifteen minutes is to turn off the inner censor and type whatever comes to mind.  Sometimes really interesting things float up from the subconscious, and on rare occasions you connect with something cosmic that you would not have if you had stopped to mull over what you were going to say.  

I do not expect this to be one of those occasions, but I find it an interesting and enlightening exercise, and I challenge all you writers out there to try it.

I have the same publisher as Charles, Debby, and Vicki.  As Vicki noted, we are not pressured to submit one book a year, but are encouraged to take as much time as we need to write a good book.  Of course, after the book is put on the publishing schedule, you do have to deliver, but by that time, we hope, you are well along.  This is quite a wonderful way to work.  However, you do have to have some self-discipline. Allow me to tell you what can happen when you have no deadline at all.

Over the past year, I’ve been writing on my fifth book in fits and starts because of my husband’s health problems.  On two or three occasions, I’ll just get going well, and some emergency will arise, and I won’t write at all for ten days - two weeks - a month.  Then things calm down, I go back to the book, and have to spent days getting myself up to speed and back into the zone.  

The book is now longer than any other book in the series, but it meanders about like the mighty Mississippi. I write a scene this way, then decide to try the same scene that way, or have forgotten what the point was in the first place.   This is not useful.  

I think perhaps if one doesn’t have a deadline from the publisher, it would be most helpful to set one for oneself.  I have been cutting and rearranging like a house afire for the past weeks.  My goal is to have the first 100 pages looking like something before the next hospital stay beginning June 1.  I don’t know if I can do it.  But like my friend, author Hannah Davidson. says, sometimes you can do your best work under the influence of terror.

One other item :  I was privileged to participate in the Virtual Writers Conference that took place last week at  My entry on plotting appeared on May 20.  I really liked what I had to say, which is interesting, since plotting is not my strongest suit.  I’m happy to relate that I am not alone among writers in not being a great plotter.  Louise Ure said that she only gets one good plot idea a year.  Of course, that’s all you need if it’s a hell of an idea, like Louise’s.

And finally, last Saturday, May 16, the Cherokee Center in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, hosted its annual Gospel and Hog Fry*, and...

Oh, crap.  Out of time.


*I am not making this up.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Writing under deadlines

Charles here, writing under a tight deadline. I have fifteen minutes to write and post this entry before I need to get down to work here at the ad agency. According to conventional wisdom, it should produce a well-honed, targeted bit of writing that would be better than a piece I had spent three hours writing. I doubt it.

I don’t know why, but people often (usually? Always?) say, “I produce my best work under a tight deadline.” While I might see it as an excellent excuse for procrastinating, I assume they are being more or less honest and do believe that their best work comes out under extreme pressure and a ticking clock. (I have ten minutes to go – yes, the above really did take 5 minutes to write.) I have done plenty of deadline-based writing—in the ad world it’s an hourly occurrence, not so much for my novels—and while most of it is good and some of it borders on great (given the task), all of it could have been better with more time.

8 minutes to go.

As a writer, I have two deadlines I’m currently working under. The first is to have my corrected manuscript to my new publisher buy June 1st. It’s a young adult noir tale, about 35,000 words long, and all I need to do is read it and re-read it, spotting typos and word omissions. I declared it error-free last Sunday, Rose read it on Monday and spotted, on average, one error per page. A colleague at work read it and spotted additional four errors that Rose missed. I have two more readers looking at it now and they’ll no doubt spot more. But I’ll make the deadline…and there will still be errors in the manuscript.

The second deadline is to submit my net YA manuscript to Harper-Collins on or before June 1, 2010. I’ve got over a half-million minutes before that deadline hits and already I want more time.

I want to say more on this topic but times up.

And after a quick read through of what I wrote, I believe you will agree I proved my thesis.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tribute to an Independent Bookseller

A week after moving from Presque Isle, Maine, to our new home, the Pomfret School in Pomfret, Connecticut, I received terrible news: Florence Zettergren, 63, owner of Pieces of Eight in Presque Isle, had died following her long battle with cancer.

It’s no newsflash that midlist authors cherish the independent bookseller. Yet even among indies, Florence was a treasure, welcoming authors with open arms, supporting her local arts scene with a deep passion, and hosting author events that were the things of a lowly mid-list scribe’s dreams.

For reasons I’ll never fully understand, she was uniquely supportive of my career. When my first novel came out in 2001, my area chain store told my publisher I wasn’t a big enough draw to warrant an event. Shortly thereafter, Florence called me at home one night and invited me to sign at her book/knitting store. I jumped at the chance. Flo baked cookies for the event, served punch during it, and—I soon realized—did even more behind the scenes: A TV crew appeared halfway through the signing to interview me for the six-o’clock news. Of course, I vowed to do a launching event for every book I ever wrote at Pieces of Eight. And, true to form, each subsequent fall, Flo treated me like a New York Times bestseller.

But when I think of Florence Zettergren, I don’t only think about book signings. I think about family. And family is what the independent bookseller represents to the mid-list author, or at least to this mid-list author. Several years ago, Florence took a different approach to my signing. She greeted me at the door, pointed me to the table of books and cookies and punch, then she spent the evening teaching my oldest daughter, Delaney, then seven or eight, to knit. I watched as Flo helped Delaney select yarn, choose a starter kit, and gently taught her to make a scarf. It was as if I’d gone back in time to witness Flo teach her own daughter to knit. More recently, she taught my middle daughter, Audrey, the skill as well—this time when her health was in obvious decline.

That was Florence. She was there to help, whether you had won the Pulitzer, were a mid-list author, or were a seven-year-old with $3 to spend.

As the brain tumor begin to win its fight with Florence, and I could see her in serious decline, I attempted to cancel what would turn out to be my final signing at Pieces of Eight. Florence hadn’t made it to the store in weeks, and her family had begun to liquidate sales. Yet Flo insisted we do the event as planned and said she’d be there. Despite how she felt, the window signage was great as always, the cookies and punch were fabulous, and the same collection of family members and friends appeared. But Florence never arrived that night. I knew why.

And what was on the horizon.

Like Debby wrote last week, the writing life puts us in contact with lots of terrific “book” people, those who truly care about books and the individuals who love and write them. When Florence Zettergren passed, writers and non writers alike lost one of the best among that group.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


I had a very odd, sort of funny and rather disconcerting conversation with a reader this past weekend.

In a bookstore, I was introduced by someone to their friend, “This is the author of those books I loaned you last winter.”

Sidebar: That always makes me feel sort of uneasy. I would like to say, “I’d much prefer if you’d bought them for your friend,” but one can’t say that, can one? So you roll with the punches, considering that it was a good thing that people wanted to share your novels with someone else.

The “loanee” in this case floored me with her pronouncement on the worth she placed on my oeuvre. “Your books are okay, but I can’t take them seriously because your characters sometimes make those funny comments.”

Say what? Characters aren’t allowed to make the odd flip comment, wry observation or some sort of idle witticism lest the novel be taken as comedy?

Picking my jaw off the floor, I mumbled some sort of response that encouraged this perspicacious reader to expound on her theory — and expound she did. At length.

Any time an author writes anything remotely funny it risks turning the story into “something lightweight like that horrible stuff Carl What’s-his-name writes. Or Elmore Leonard. Oh puleeze!”

“So nothing to make you smile?” I queried.

“Not if you want to be taken seriously.”

“What if it’s accidental?”

“Then that’s poor editing if it wasn’t your intent.”

“So who is ‘serious’ in your mind?”

“That Scottish writer, Rankin.”

“But I distinctly remember a few comedy bon mots in his books!”

“No. You are mistaken. Seriousness is why his book undoubtedly sell better than yours do.”

With that, the good woman, back ramrod straight, marched for the door, as I searched madly for two books in order to make a point. A few minutes later, I found them — a day late and a dollar short.

Each had a gray cover, one dark, one light. I’d wanted to see how she’d handle the gradation...

Monday, May 18, 2009

I do it for the sake of humanity.

Vicki here, answering the question Why do I write?

I have to admit that I have no overwhelming need to write. No particular drive. I don’t do it behind closed doors, or in curtained partitions. I don’t go gaga if denied the opportunity to write. If I can’t write... I don’t.

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

As I was preparing this confessional missive, to prove, once and for all, that I am a frivolous writer, I happened upon a discussion about a book titled The Origin of Stories by Brian Boyd at

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

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

Stories, even made up stories, help us to negotiate the social world in which we, the most social of all species, live.

The book argues that “Fiction also fosters a part of cognition known as the "theory of mind," one person's understanding that another person has feelings, desires, intentions and beliefs, the latter of which may or may not be correct.”

Which happens to be a point that I have often made about the vital importance of reading versus other leisure activities such as watching TV or going to the movies or listening to our iPod. Only by reading do we actually get to step into another person’s head. We can watch a movie, and identify with the character, understand his/her motivations, root for the hero, but we are still outsiders, as we are in real life. We are observing that person, we are not that person. I’m reading Hard Rain by Barry Eisler at the moment. As I read that book, written in the first person POV of a hired assassin, I AM the assassin. I am watching over my shoulder constantly, checking every step I make, contently planning an escape route, trusting no one. I can break a man’s neck with a twist of my hand.

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

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

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

You can thank me later.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Would Louise Ure Lie to You?

I am so pleased that our guest blogger today is one of my favorite mystery authors, Louise Ure.  Her first novel, Forcing Amaryllis, won the Shamus Award for Best First Novel.  Her second, The Fault Tree, has been nominated for both a Mary Higgins Clark Award and a Macavity Award. Her latest is Liars Anonymous.



I am, and always have been, a liar. 

Of course, I prefer to think of it as a gift for fiction. 

As a child, if I was late coming home from school, it was never because I’d dawdled or stopped to play with friends. It was because I’d found a stray dog and had to travel two miles out of my way to take it home. By the second telling (and today I’d call it the second draft), I had saved the dog from a sure death ground under the wheels of an out of control pick up truck. By the eighth telling  (and this would be the publishable version) I would have safely delivered the dog of a litter of six puppies and found them all homes, including the runt which I gave to a little blond girl who was dying of tuberculosis. See what I mean? Not exactly a lie. More like an embellishment. Well, maybe an acre-sized embellishment.

Soon I was ready to move on from this oral tradition of storytelling to that of the printed word. When I was seven, I put together a story collection oxymoronically called “The True Book of Fairytales.” There was a piece of fruit as the protagonist in each episode, and at the end each one died, and I quote, “a horrible and painful death.”  Like the Proud Orange who treated all the other oranges like servants, so he was skinned alive, torn apart while he screamed, and then wrung out for juice. I was a budding fatalist.

With this kind of storytelling as background, I set my sights on the perfect career. Horror writer? Nope. Advertising. Now, I know that advertising is not really lying, it’s just retelling the facts in a more favorable light. So, for a quarter of a century I sang the praises of cruise lines and long distance phone companies. Shake ‘n Bake and Clorox and Henry Weinhard’s beer. I even worked with Michael Jackson when he wanted to be a Dancing California Raisin, although if the agency had known about that flayed and dismembered orange from my youth, I’m sure they would have put me on some other account instead. 

And that brings me, with about a mile and a half of dirt road detour, to my mystery writing.

I don’t write a series. While each of my novels is set in Arizona, each is a stand alone with an entirely new cast of characters. Marilyn Stasio in The New York Times gave me the perfect response to use when asked why I write stand alones: “Unrestrained by the housekeeping duties of a mystery series, Ure uses the freedom to push her themes to their limits.” My first book, Forcing Amaryllis, won the Shamus Award for Best First Novel. The second book, The Fault Tree, has been nominated for a Macavity and the Mary Higgins Clark Award.

 The third book, Liars Anonymous, came out just a few weeks ago, and that brings me right back to where I started: I am a liar. 

Several years ago, in a weak moment, I decided I didn’t want to be a liar anymore and I was looking for help in curbing this addiction. You know what? There was no Liars Anonymous. Sex-addicts get help. Over-eaters. Drinkers. Gamblers. But there was no twelve-step program for liars and I thought there should be. So I made one up, and I made my protagonist a member.

I liked the idea of a narrator who not only lies to others, she lies to herself. 

But what would this story be about? That’s where the second idea for the book came in. My husband and I were watching TV one night and saw an OnStar commercial. You know the one, there’s an accident and the airbag goes off and the OnStar operator is connected to the car and says “I see you’ve been in an accident. Do you need an ambulance or a tow truck?”

But all I could think about was “I wonder how many dead people they talk to? How many times they say ‘I see you’ve been in an accident’ and there’s no reply. Or better yet, what if they made that phone connection, and then heard a murder take place?” So that’s what happens in Liars Anonymous and here’s how it opens:

“I got away with murder once, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen again. Damn. This time I didn’t do it. Well, not all of it anyway.”

The book has gotten great reviews so far … in fact, a grand slam of starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. That’s a feat that’s been done before, certainly, but four-out-of-four stars is rare enough that it goes beyond even once-in-a-blue-moon status. I’m sure there will be a review someplace down the road that has one of those memorable “I read this book so that you don’t have to” lines in it, but in the meantime, I’m delighted.

I’m hard at work now on the next novel. I’d like to tell you that the words are coming trippingly through the keyboard. My characters talk to me and I don’t even have to think about where the book is going. That I’m so self-disciplined that I keep my butt in that chair until I’ve come up with 2000 words a day.

But you already know me better than that. You know I’m a liar.


Louise's web site address is


Saturday, May 16, 2009

Born to Write

Do you believe in predestination?  Are we born to write, to act, to paint, to be mommies or accountants?  Or is it Karma?  Is this our reward, our fulfillment?  Perhaps our punishment.  In his wonderful little book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield says that basically every human being is born with God-given, unique talents, and if you don’t use them, then you are a wastrel and an ingrate. (I paraphrase.)

Therefore, if you are driven to write (paint/parent/account), you must write, or fly in the very face of God.  

How’s that for motivation?

Like most authors I know, I began writing when I was a child.  In fact, I can’t remember when I didn’t write little stories.  The earliest piece I remember clearly was called “The Black Cat”.  The protagonist was a little girl who turned into a cat every night.  I don’t remember what she did.  I don’t think she used her powers to save kittens from storm drains, or any other catly heroics.  I only remember her drinking cream from a saucer on the floor.  Apparently she didn’t retain her human moral values when she transformed.

I loved to make up stories mostly because I loved to read stories.  When I was a girl, the world in fiction was as real to me as my actual life, if not more so.  Before I could read, I adored being read to - and here’s the key - I was read to, continually.  I was given picture books when I was more interested in chewing on them than looking at  them.  I therefore learned to read very early, and consequently began writing very early.  Bless you, Mama and Daddy.  You gave me a gift that influenced and enriched my entire life.

Now, being an avid reader doesn’t necessarily make one want to be a writer, but I think it is a prerequisite.  Charles suggests that it also helps to be an egomaniac, and I have to tell you, Dear Reader, that I do think a healthy self-regard is extremely helpful.  Listen, learn, be guided, and practice, and never think you can’t improve, but never let anybody write your book for you, either.  There is something each of us has to say or do that nobody else in the long history of this wide world can say or do, and if you don’t give it a try, you deprive the rest of us of your singular talent.

And speaking of singular talent, our guest blogger tomorrow is the incomparable Louise Ure, author of Forcing Amaryllis (Shamus Award for Best First Novel), The Fault Tree (currently nominated for both a Mary Higgins Clark award and a Macavity Award), and her latest, Liars Anonymous.  How does someone of that quality come up with ideas?  Tune in tomorrow.

Friday, May 15, 2009

It’ll make you go blind

Charles here, and today I’m taking a break from my series of oh-so-informative blogs about the parallels between writing fiction and writing ads (and yes, you old cynic, there is a difference.) Today I want to jump into the discussion that John started and Debby blogged about – the when, where and, most importantly, the whys of writing.

There are those among you with a particular frame of reference who saw the title of today’s blog and know already where this blog is going. Because while both John and Debby gave these really inspirational, altruistic and mysteriously esoteric motivations for writing, being me I have to lead us down another path and it is simply this – we do it because it feels good.

Most of us started in our youth and, despite lots of other outlets for our creativity—careers, community service, tax form completion—we stick to this one time-honored activity. It’s something best done alone, although I know a few daring souls who do it with a partner and a few exhibitionist who do it in coffee shops. It’s kept us up late at night, made our mind wander during the day and often when the urge to do it strikes us—on a walk, out at dinner, at a long wedding ceremony—doing so would be seen as rude. We think we can control it and that eventually we’ll stop, but we know that that’s not ever going to happen.

I don’t care how you wrap it up, writing is essentially a narcissistic, self-aggrandizing activity. “I know you know how to write and I’m sure you could tell a story, but MY words are worth reading and MY story is worth preserving for the ages.” Yup, they might go to great lengths to deny it but authors have big egos that they like to have stroked. And that’s a good thing. Imagine reading a book—or listening to a song or watching a play or viewing a painting—created by someone who didn’t have a big ego. It would be a insipid, soulless, milquetoast experience, and It would be torture.

So go ahead, come up with your muse-based rationales for writing, but when you’re alone in your office late at night, we know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Why we write

John, your thoughts hit the mark for me, and I'd guess for many of us. I, too, write because I need to. How can I say this better? (Come on, I'm a writer) When I first started, I wanted to tell stories like my father and my grandfather. Both of them had entertained us children for hours by spinning adventurous tales of daring-do.

Like most writers, I love to read, and always had a book tucked somewhere. No pacing in dentists offices while anticipating having my braces tightened--I had something to DO. As kids, my sisters and I always had books in our hands. Our parents had to make a rule that we couldn't read at the dinner table; that was family time. I composed novels, poems, and essays without inhibition.

As I got older, and glimpsed more behind the words, I beheld my favorite authors' skills with a sense of awe. What insight, what truths! Would I ever posses the wisdom to put words on a page that would move people the way these authors moved me? Maybe not, but I still wanted to tell stories.

Adult inhibition set in, and so did full-time work and other important but time-consuming activities. For a long time, I started projects that I didn't finish. In pre-computer times (remember that?!?), the stained and mussed pages of thoughts and first chapters simply got tossed. Then an interesting transition came about, partly because a wonderful, solid marriage took place (I needed a fiasco the first go-round) and our first child arrived. As you know, this is a time commitment of a lifetime. But it's also rich and inspiring material, and suddenly I realized I wasn't the only confused and seeking parent. I also retired from my full-time job, which had me flying all over the U.S. I needed to stay home and be a mom. I also got to stay home and write. Heaven! Well, sort of.

But the positive aspects keep me going. The self-discovery, the knowledge that others enjoyed an article, a story, a manuscript. The drive to improve. At long last (the first child was 14 and my second 11), publication validated my efforts. But I had a lot to learn.

So here I am, the fourth book has arrived. I'm not earning a lot of money, but I'm not doing it for free anymore, which is very nice. And I've made wonderful new friends. They're exciting, stimulating, and encouraging. What a gift! And maybe best of all, I'm still learning, and relishing every small step toward writing better stories.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

We Write: But When, How, and Why?

Thanks to my Type M for Murder colleagues for the warm welcome. You have a great blog site. I’m thrilled to be invited to join.

We Write: But When, How, and Why?

I told a colleague at work that I’d been offered this exciting opportunity—the chance to write a weekly blog (remember when we called them columns?). He asked, “Where are you going to find the time?”

He made a good point. I live and work at a private boarding school (remember when we called those prep schools?), and teaching at a boarding school isn’t a job; it’s a lifestyle. Cliché, I know. But it’s the truth—24/7, six (sometimes seven) days a week: teaching, coaching, and dorm responsibilities. And, for me, writing.

Always writing.

Writing doesn’t pay the bills, but I can’t call it a hobby either because if I don’t write, you don’t want to be around me. I woke up one night last week at 1:22 a.m. with an idea for a novel. When characters and storylines come at you from all directions and at all hours, what else is there to do but write the stuff down? Definitely not a hobby; rather, an obsession, and also a lifestyle.

Ah, there’s the rub. Two lifestyles?

Yes, and I’m not alone. The tighter the fiction market, the fewer the number of full-time writers. So how does one balance the day job with the obsession? I can only speak for myself, but I’ll offer what works for me.

First, we all seek time. Richard Russo once told me that when he was teaching, he never changed jobs unless the new post offered more writing time. Given my job, carving out writing time (even time for a weekly blog) is difficult. My optimal writing time is between 4 and 6 a.m. I can usually write three or four rough pages in those two hours. If I can get to bed before 10:30 p.m., I try to get up early the following morning. I’m finding 10:30 sandman more and more elusive, so I finished my most recent book writing from 9 to 11 p.m. Family comes first, and by 9 p.m., my oldest daughter, Delaney, 11, is in bed. And my wife doesn’t mind reading or watching TV alone before she turns in if it allows me time to write.

Next, we need to consider how we write. How does one find the cerebral stimulation and energy to write novel-length fiction when working full time? I forget which poet said it, but the quote is, “I write 23 hours a day. I type for one hour.” Isn’t that what it’s about? All we need are characters and conflicts. The two Cs. Even better when you find both—a character in conflict. Whether you realize it or not, you meet or work with human beings in conflict daily, regardless of your profession. This is the human condition, and it is the lifeblood of a writer. If that sounds like I’m desensitized, it’s really the opposite: Empathy drives writers. It explains our ability to notice the external and internal turmoil of our fellow man.

Finally, we come to why we write. My wife often reminds me that I chose this path, a path that offers rejection and criticism far more than it offers success and glory. That’s not really true. The path chose me. If I had to give an abridged version of why I write (and I don’t know if I can articulate it, don’t know if I’ve ever tried to do so before), I’d say that I would like to think I notice the world around me and have something to say about it. I’d say that I loved Robert B. Parker novels as a teen, still do, and want to create worlds as true and accurate as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (and probably haven’t come close yet). But I can honestly say I didn’t choose to do this. I started writing at age 7, when I wrote a story one weekend, made a cover for my “book” with paper and crayons, and brought it to my elementary school librarian, asking that she put it on the shelf with the other books.

Truthfully, there is little to say regarding why one writes. Most writers love books and read that one book (maybe more than one) that changed them, made them stop and say, I want to impact a reader like author XYZ impacted me; or maybe it was, I can do better. Eventually writing just becomes what you need to do, and you probably can’t explain why you do it any better than I just did. It’s not exactly ego; it’s not exactly a compulsion either. I go back to: Obsession and Lifestyle.

In the end, it comes down to a few Charles Bukowski lines from his poem “Air and Light and Time and Space”:

“…baby, if you’re going to create
you’re going to create whether you work
16 hours a day in a coal mine
you’re going to create in a small room with 3 children
while you’re on

And I’ll conclude with another Bukowski quote, “If you have to ask why I do it, you won’t understand the answer.” This sums it up for me. I hope it does the same for you.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

How easy it is to write a book...

Bet that got everyone’s ears pricked up!

Off the top, I have to admit that I was trying to light a fire for this week’s blog entry. I want to talk about technology and its effect on cranking out books.

Way back when — for reference, let's say in Shakespeare’s time — writers had to have some pretty arcane skills before they even got to their prose or poetry. Unless they had money to buy them, they had to be able to carve their own pens (usually out of feathers), often make their own ink (out of iron gall), sometimes even produce their own paper. Then you had to write the work, revise it, revise it again — and all of this had to be done by hand. It was an onerous job, to say the least. I've written large scores by hand and then copied out the individual parts. Trust me when I say that it’s damned tedious and time-consuming. It sort of takes the fun out of the job.

Life went on that hard way for writers until something called the typewriter was invented around 1870. Writers probably fell to their knees in thanks when they got a hold of one these little suckers. Writing suddenly got a lot easier and continued that way until the end of the 1970s when the third wave hit: personal computers. Now, nearly all the tedium disappeared. A writer could cut and paste to their heart’s content. Revision, still tedious with typewriters, became a matter of clicking on a bad word, substituting in the one you wanted and never again having to type out a whole page just to fix one thing (if you wanted a pristine ms).

Before PCs, lots of people would say that someday they were going to write a book, but when they realized how time-consuming and tedious that would turn out to be, they gave up the idea.

Producing a 400-page ms is now no a big deal, even if you get bogged down in the middle of your story like Vicki was talking about this yesterday. Problem is, a lot of books that should never have been written are now being passed around, sent to publishers, and occasionally being printed and sold. Ask any publisher who’s been around for awhile how many more query letters and unsolicited mss they get these days, compared to the early ’70s. For them, those were the good old days.

I’m not saying that anyone who wants to write a book should be discouraged from following their dream. It’s a good dream to have. But the ease with which books can now be written means that you’re going to have to swim up a faster and faster-moving stream if you want to get anywhere. And you have to swim around all the dreck that’s floating in the publishing stream along side you.

Gold Digger on Getting Medieval

I have the honour of being the first guest blogger ever on Jeri Westerson's blog Getting Medieval. Gold Digger is certainly not Medieval, nor is it Noir; I call it the anti-noir (I think I invented a new sub-genre). Check it out and see why.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Trapped in the soggy middle.

When I give talks or workshops on writing, I often talk about the dangers of the soggy middle. Many beginning writers abandon their books there, feeling like they’re trapped in quicksand with no hope of ever reaching the promised land that is a satisfying conclusion.

A writer is usually excited and eager when they start a new book – a great idea, great characters who just can’t wait to get themselves down on paper, a great setting ready to be explored. Whether you have tightly outlined your plot or just have a vague idea, you’re off like a day at the races.
Writing the ending is exciting. Your masterpiece is galloping towards the conclusion, the characters are in place like pieces on a chess board, the climax builds.

And then there is the soggy middle. How to get from the excitement of the beginning to the excitement of writing the end. Even with the best outlined plot, it can be a struggle to make the leap over the quicksand.

I’m working on the fourth Smith and Winters novel, as yet unnamed, and am firmly stuck in that dangerous bit of ground. I know who did ‘it’ and why; I know what life-changing crisis Molly Smith is going to have to go through; I know that John and Eliza Winters’ marriage is almost going to break under the strain of revelations, and Lucky Smith will face enormous heartbreak.

The clues are laid, the red-herrings placed like mines in an open field.

And I’m slogging my way though the quicksand trying to get all these bits and pieces to line up and point towards the end.

In my mind, writing the soggy middle is the absolute worst part of being a fiction writer.

(Nice collection of metaphors, eh?)

If you are going to be in Southern Ontario at the end of May, please consider attending a great event at the Moonshine Café in Oakville on Sunday May 31st at 2:00. A line-up of outstanding writers, including Rick Blechta and Charles Benoit, and a mediocre writer meaning me, will be reading from our works. Rick and Charles might even be persuaded to grab an instrument and give us a tune or two. The Café has a liquor licence and serves light meals. For more info:

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sunday's Guest Blogger: Simon Wood

This is a second visit from my good friend, Simon Wood, an author of many hats. He's known equally well in crime fiction and the horror genre. If you attend conferences, you've probably met him. No conference is complete without our Simon, and no book collection is complete without at least a couple Simon Woods!

Recently, he's branched out into the netherworld of writing: self help and relationship books. His first essay in this genre, Will Marry for Food, Sex and Laundry, was published recently under the name Simon Oaks, probably so fans of Simon won't buy this book expecting the visceral thrill of horror or the nail-biting tension of one of his thrillers. I am also positive that the book is witty and insightful, since its author is both of these things.

The blog entry below is laugh-out-loud funny. I swiped it from Simon's e-newsletter, Simon Sez. Thanks, Simon! See you on Oprah.

Be sure to check out everything Simon at: and don't forget Simon's alter ego at:



I was on the telly!

A few weeks ago, I did ABC's morning show in Sacramento to promote Will Marry for Food, Sex and Laundry. It was my first time on TV and I was a little nervous about it because it was live. No tied tongues. No do overs. No mistakes. Eek!

At least I had an idea of what was going to be asked because I was shown a list of questions. I just didn't know which questions they were going to ask.

The show went on the air at nine and they wanted me there at eight-thirty. I dressed appropriately in accordance with the station's guidelines. I didn't wear stripes or white and I avoided short skirts and plunging necklines.

I checked in with reception and a vaguely uninterested bubblegum-popping production assistant came out and asked if I was Simon and I said that I was. That didn't seem to wow her in any way. And that didn't help me with my nerves.

I thought I was going to be led to a green room or something, but I was showed into the studio while the weather lady was doing promos.

The studio was a funny little place. There was a different set in each corner and there was a little place for the on-air talent to sit and a couple of rows of seats where the guests sat. The production assistant sat me down and went off to pop
gum and assist with production.

It's one of those things about the magic of TV. It looks bright and shiny on a TV screen, but it's pretty hokey in real life. First off, the set was made out of unfinished chipboard. It looked really cheap and the craftsmanship could have been
better. But on the TV monitors, it looked wonderful.

The TV cameras scared me. They were operated by remote. They glided around the studio with no one at the controls. It was very disconcerting to have these cameras zero in on you and just stare with their giant unblinking eye. It was very 2001.
I kept waiting for the TV camera to ask me, "Will I dream, Simon?"

I'd arrived while there was a feed from ABC in New York. So there was a chance to chat with the newsreaders and the interviewers. They were talking about the book and some saucy talk broke out from these seemingly respectable TV presenters.
But I was more amazed by how they could drop into character at the flick of a switch. The newsreader was telling me how irregularly he changes his underwear in comparison to his wife while the floor manager is counting him down from five to one.
The second the red light went on, he went straight into the news. Then, when they went to commercial, he carried on with the story. How do people do that?

I'd arrived on a good day. Apparently, it was national chili day. Great, I thought. I'm going to capture the chili eating, single lady demographic. My sales will soar!

In honor of national chili day, they had a local chili making champion on hand and he'd brought his chili with him. So he was off in a corner warming up his food.

It was at that point I knew I'd hit the big time.

We hit zero hour and the morning show started. The floor manager came over and said, "We need to mic you up." And I said, "Good." I'd been waiting for someone to prep me for what was about to happen as no one mentioned anything, so I asked for direction. He whispered, "I'm going to put this mic on you and then you're going to sit down over there because you're on now. Oh yeah, don't look directly at the cameras."

Now? When do I get time to panic? I want, no I demand panic time. Sadly, my demands went unheard and the next thing I knew my face was on a TV monitor.

The interview began and I did my best to avoid looking at around a dozen people staring at me, the android camera jammed in my face and avoiding the gaze of the chili guy stirring his pot.

I had a five minute spot and it was all over in the blink of an eye and I was walking off the set. I think I did okay because no one was frowning at me. Well done me.

Production assistant thanked me for my time, showed me out of the studio then out the front door. I glanced at my watch. It was eleven minutes past nine. They still had forty-nine minutes to fill as I was no longer any good to them. I felt slightly used and abused as I stood in the parking lot. I thought I was going to be treated like a star. I should have been showered with booze and broads. Well, a gift basket at
the very least. Alas, I didn't even get a cup of coffee.

So that was my brush with TV. It was fun in a scary funhouse ride kind of a way. I'm not sure I want to do that again. Oh, what's that? You want me back? Of course, I'll do it. Love to, darling. See you there.

Saturday, May 09, 2009


This week, the Type M typists have been discussing novel beginnings and what makes a reader buy a book.  Is it the book title that grabs you?  The first sentence?  The first three pages?  How much time to you give a book before you decide that it’s something you want to read?

Debby talked about titles, and I commented that Tom Wolfe titles are eye catching.  Yes, Debby replied, but would you buy the books?  That pulled me up short.  In truth, Tom Wolfe titles catch my eye, but which of his books have I actually read?  Did I read Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers?   No, I did not.  I read The Right Stuff, Hooking Up, and I Am Charlotte Simmons.  (Okay, I also read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but I was young and it was the ‘60s.)  

Now I’m trying to think of books that I actually wanted to read because of the title. The only one that comes immediately to mind was Bad Luck and Trouble, by Lee Child.  

So what criteria does one use to choose a book? A good title may get you to pick it up and look at it.  A good jacket blurb may intrigue you and entice you to read the first paragraph or two. A wonderful first sentence may draw you onward.  

I read an article by an editor who said that she gives a manuscript three pages before she decides whether or not it’s worth her time.   I was asked recently to present a workshop this coming January on just that topic - crafting the first three pages.  Apparently conventional wisdom is that three pages is how long you have to capture a prospective reader.

I think that if you are as popular an author as Steven King, the reader will give you the benefit of the doubt, because he knows that eventually you’re going to deliver.  But if nobody ever heard of you, you’d better be as interesting and exciting as you can as fast as you can.

Readers used to be more patient, I think.  One of my favorite books when I was young was Beau Geste, by Percival Wren, that swashbuckling tale of the French Foreign Legion.  I must have read that book half-a-dozen times.  And yet, I defy any modern to slog through the first 70 pages of set up before the action begins.

The book I’m reading right now, which happens to be Valley of the Lost, by one Vicki Delany, is a masterful example of an effective beginning. Here’s what happens in the first three pages:  As Lucky Smith is getting into her car after a meeting, she hears what she thinks is a cat in the bushes.  As she’s about to drive away, she hears the cry again, and realizes it’s a baby.  She grabs a flashlight and searches the dense brush, and finds an infant, wrapped in a yellow blanket, lying on the ground.  When Lucky picks him up, her dropped flashlight illuminates the body of a dead woman, eyes wide open, further in the woods.

Now, that’s a grabber. Obviously a lot has happened before we, the readers, come in to the story.  A great technique for beginning a novel is to start in the middle of the action, off and running, and the reader will want to rush to catch up.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Old Advice

Charles here, starting this blog off with a welcome to Type M for Murder’s Wednesday blogger, John R. Corrigan. I would have welcomed him with some golf-related pun, but he’s probably heard them all. But did you hear the one about the priest, the rabbi and the imam who went golfing at St. Andrews…?

Those with decent memories will recall that I’ve been blogging about the connections between the ad world and the writing world. With a foot in both world, I look for these connections all day long but I’m sure that same kind of connections can be made when you compare, say, tool & die manufacturing with writing, but since I’m not a tool & die guy, I’ll stick to what I pretend I know – advertising!

Every morning at the agency I post a photocopy of an old ad on the fridge in the kitchen, not because they have so much to teach, but because most are so bad (by today’s standards) that they’re hilarious. The layout, the drawings, the huge blocks of copy, the demanding headlines, the strange calls to action—looking at old ads is fun because they are so awful.

This morning I posted an 1890 ad for Pettijohn’s California Breakfast Food. It was in response to the rapid rise in popularity of Quaker Oats “breakfast food” and it shows an attractive lass in riding gear with her horse, the horse’s snout (or whatever you call it – I’m not a horse man either) buried in a feedbag of oats. The headline reads “I eat wheat, my horse eats oats.” Even though it’s 119 years old, it’s a clever idea. Sure, she’s holding a tiny, tiny box of Pettijohn’s California Breakfast Food, and yes, it’s way too busy, but there is something clever to the concept.

Here’s your challenge – go to your local library or scary-old used bookstore or a furniture store that uses library discards as shelf-stuffers, and find yourself a mystery written in the 1930s by an author you never heard of before. Goofy writing, cardboard characters, racist/sexist/anti-Semitic overtones, laughable dialog, purple prose…there will be much to mock. You may hit on a forgotten gem, but odds are, you’ll find a book that is so awful (again, by today’s standards) that you won’t be able to finish it, but you have to keep reading that awful book until you can find one thing that strikes you as worthy of remembering. Because even a bad mystery has something to offer.

I came up with the idea for this blog entry yesterday morning at the gym – and here’s the thought that kept me up half the night. At some point in the second half of the 21st century, will an author pick up a musty copy of one of my books at secondhand store to read, sticking with it until she can find one thing that strikes her as worthy of remembering?

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Meet the New Typist

I'm sneaking this in before Debby gets online way out in Hawaii, to introduce the newest Typist, John R. Corrigan. John will post for us on Wednesdays, and we're very happy to have him. John is the author of the the Jack Austin mysteries, set amid day-to-day life on the PGA Tour. Please welcome John, and in the meantime, visit his web page at

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Grabber Book Titles

Well, it had to come up sometime. The chatter here on Type M, especially Vicki’s entry yesterday, waved too much of a red flag for me to be able to resist. We’ve discussed book covers and now opening lines. Here’s why book titles are so important.

I often buy books based first on the title. If the book has an intriguing title, I’m certainly more than likely to pick it up, after which I flip to the back cover or front flap to read what codswallop the copywriter came up with in order to further sell me the book. Then if I’m in a good, small bookstore, I ask someone if they’ve read it. If I’m in one of those huge chain stores, I’ll hold the book up high and shout, “Oy! Has anyone of you knobs read this book I’m holding?” If I don’t get punched out — or thrown out — I might buy the book.

Okay, so here are some of my favourite book titles, in no particular order:

* The Concrete Blonde by Michael Connelly
* Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Daniel Hoeg
* The Mexican Tree Duck by James Crumley
* I Sing the Body Electric by Ray Bradbury
* The Cheese Monkeys by Chip Kidd

Wonderfully evocative, aren’t they? Now, how can one not pick up a book with one of those titles? You’ve just gotta — if only to find out just what the title means. The book may stink (and none of the above do), but you can’t ignore them. They scream out for a closer look. I discovered Michael Connelly’s wonderfully graphic writing because of picking up this book because of the title. Titles are that important.

I’ve only once come up with one that everyone told me was really good: Cemetery of the Nameless, but the truth of the matter is, I didn’t make it up. It is an actual place in Vienna. I didn’t even dig up the information myself (no pun intended...on second thought...). Two Viennese cops told me about it. Sad but true.

So, folks, what are your top 5 book titles (or short story, for that matter)?

Monday, May 04, 2009

Why do you buy a book?

Vicki writing this from the Comfort Inn in Pittsburg, PA. Today is my favourite annual event, Festival of Mystery, put on by Mystery Lovers Bookstore. If you love crime novels of all type, and you haven’t been here before – mark your calendar now for next year.

I very much enjoyed Charles discussion of how Donis’s The Old Buzzard Had it Coming gave the reader exactly what they want.

So I picked up the book I am currently reading, Tower Of Silence, by Sarah Rayne. Here’s the first sentence: “if you’re as broke as all that,” Said Gillian Campbell to her godmother “why on earth don’t you sell Teind House.”

Huh! This could lead to anything. “... sell Teind House and open that bakery you always wanted where you can make fresh scones dotted with raisins or with a handful of grated lemon rind tossed into the dough made with a full cup of butter.” Or “... sell Teind House and set off for Afghanistan in pursuit of the treasure of the lost tribe of the Amazon warriors.” Or “... sell Teind House and go back to MI5 where you were a top double 0 agent, responsible for the assassination of JFK, among others,” or “... sell Teind House and take Isabel, the charming long-haired cat with a trace of Persian in her ancestry, to...”

Almost anything, except what it was. A book containing, quite possibly, the most horrific scene of violence I have ever encountered.

Which makes me wonder about the importance of the first sentence. I picked up this book – it’s the sort of English thing that isn’t widely available in North America – at Seattle Mystery Bookstore because the cover looked like the dark psychological suspense the British do so well. The cover hints at the darkness within, blood red title, blood drops, spooky old tower. Once I had the book in my hands, I read the back cover. And yes, the description of the plot matched the atmosphere implied by the cover, and so I bought it.

At book signings I have seen people pick up the book and read the first paragraph or page. But not many. Some people decide based on the cover and blurb (as I do) and some leaf randomly though the book. A blessed few just buy the book because they’ve met the author.

What makes you decide to buy, or not buy, a book?

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Guest Blogger John Corrigan: Between Contracts

Today our guest blogger is John R. Corrigan. John was born in Augusta, Maine, in 1970. Along with his wife and three young daughters, he lives at the Pomfret School in Pomfret, Connecticut, where he teaches Advanced Placement English and Mystery Literature, among other courses, and coaches hockey and golf.

The first Jack Austin novel, CUT SHOT (Sleeping Bear Press, 2001), earned excellent reviews (see "reviews"). In 2002, Corrigan signed with the University Press of New England, an honor that made him UPNE's first mystery novelist and produced SNAP HOOK (2004), CENTER CUT (2004), BAD LIE (2005), and OUT OF BOUNDS (2006). The Jack Austin series has been praised for accurately portraying the stresses associated with high-pressure athletics. John is currently at work on a new series featuring a female border patrol agent as protagonist.

Here's what John has to say about Being Between Contracts. I can relate!

Thanks to Debby Atkinson for not only reading my Jack Austin series but for asking me to contribute here.

I write this entry from an island known to authors as “between contracts.” It’s no beach resort.

I’ve found this tiny patch of land to be an unwelcoming place. It’s a place that I, like most writers, struggle to comprehend, a place where corporate consolidation leads to unemployed editors, a place where a manuscript lies unread on a desk that gets cleaned out on Friday only to be swept off that same desk by an editor who, on Monday, enters anew bringing different priorities. I’ve also found this island to be a place where I must constantly fight the currents of self-doubt while awaiting the call from my agent saying my new series has been sold.

The thing is, I rowed to this island myself. And I’m the one who chose to kick the boat adrift, when I walked away from a contract to write a sixth Jack Austin novel.

So why do that to myself? Why not write another book like the one Debby Atkinson enjoyed? After all, in this age of major publishing house layoffs and editors who are scared to take on a new series or sign a mid-list author, this is a major risk.

Let me begin with some back-story: I invented PGA Tour pro Jack Austin one morning in El Paso, Texas, back in 1995, during the second year of my MFA program. CUT SHOT came out in 2001 and was followed by four others. I was with a prestigious university press, but distribution was bad and sales weren’t where I wanted them and improving only slightly with each book, despite excellent and even starred reviews. After spending a decade with Jack Austin, I wanted something fresh. So while working on the fifth Jack Austin, OUT OF BOUNDS (2006), I decided to try something different. One morning, I wrote a scene and emailed it to my agent. He loved it. Once I met the deadline for OUT OF BOUNDS, my publisher offered a contract for a sixth Austin novel. I declined and went back to that scene.

It would be disingenuous to say I started a new series solely for artistic reasons. Before moving to Connecticut from Maine, I had an annual tradition of signing with Tess Gerritsen each fall at the Bangor, Maine, Borders. She once asked what my sales figures were. I told her.

“That’s good,” she said.

I reminded her that she was a New York Times best-seller. “How can you think that number is good?”

“Women buy fiction,” she said, “and you’re writing golf books. To make it worse, you’re writing tough-guy golf books. So you’re missing out on the majority of the fiction market. Those numbers are good—considering the small audience you’re writing for.”

To be perfectly honest, you and I both know that if my Jack Austin series was selling like Tess’s books it is highly unlikely that I’d be starting a new series. I rarely think of myself in artistic terms, and I’ve probably never called myself an “artist” publically before. However, I am a guy who loves words, who loses track of time when I’m looking for the right ones to fill blank pages with, a guy who is passionate about moving and cutting them until they sound and do exactly I’d hoped they would. And I constantly seek new challenges, new characters with different skills and different problems. A hundred and fifty pages into the new book, when a character said something I could have never foreseen, hinted at an act I’d never have predicted, I sat back, stared at the computer screen and thought, This is why I do it. This book owes me nothing more.

So what all of this talk of sales figures, my desire for better distribution, and my enjoyment of the writing process adds up to is a risk—a book written on spec. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written, so for better or worse, I’m willing to own my decision. I’m willing to step off that boat, turn, and kick it free. Now I stand firmly in a frightening place, facing restless natives and my own demons, waiting for the phone to ring.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Best Audience

I’ve always wanted to be used as an example - in a good way, not as a clinical study of psychosis or a cautionary tale of criminal behavior -  so I enjoyed the previous entry in which Charles used the first sentence of my first book, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, as an illustration of how an author writes for her audience.

In truth, I do know my audience.  When I am writing, especially a first draft, I do have an audience of one - me.  I write a story that I would like to read.  I did not always do this.  I used to try very hard to write for The General Reading Public.  But I began to have some publishing success when I forgot that notion.  I write about what interests me.

Then, when the editing and rewriting process begins, I listen to suggestions from my pre-publication readers (sometimes) and from my editor (always), and tweak the story as per instructions in order to broaden its appeal.

My audience, therefore, is probably people like me.  Sadly for the scope of my appeal, I am not a teenage boy or a romance-starved young woman.  I’m not judging hero tales or romance novels, here.  I think they are great, but my interests run in other directions these days. I tried to write a romance novel once.  I had a wonderful idea, and I really think it would have been a good story, but I couldn’t sustain my own interest, and the book petered out before it was finished.  I’m sorry to say this, because a popular romance novel will sell ten times as many copies as a popular mystery.

Having made the statement that I strictly write what I like and to hell with the audience, I now have to admit that I’m lying.  I do construct my current series to please myself, but there are many things I’d love to write about, yet am not brave enough to attempt.

Even that is not true.  I do write them, but am not brave enough to try to have them published.  I fear that if I did, someone would send men in white coats to chase me around with butterfly nets.

And so I haven’t thus far tried to sell Kafkaesque expositions on the nature of reality. Instead, I write something else that entertains me - historical mysteries with a spookily intuitive protagonist.

I wonder, how much can we tell about an author from what he writes?  I know that when I read book reviews, I can often tell more about the reviewer than the book.  Does an author reveal himself in his novels?  As an example, look at my blogmates’ books.  There are obvious surface similarities between the authors’ subjects and the authors’ lives.  Vicki’s books are very Canadian, and Debby’s are full of Hawaiian life and culture.  Rick, the musician, writes music noir, while Charles, the world traveller, has his protagonists travel the world.  Are the authors like the characters they write about?  Do they have the same fears and anxieties? Are they as intrepid, grieving, hapless, innocent, weary, or clever?

I’m an Oklahoman who writes about Oklahoma.  But am I like my protagonist, Alafair?  In some ways, I wish I were, but I don’t think so.  I live a hundred years later, I’m twenty years older, and childless, to begin with.  Neither am I brave, intuitive, or nearly so sure of myself. I create a being with the qualities I wish I had, and live vicariously through her. I also indulge some of my more evil inclinations when I write, and not always through the villains.  Do you do the same, Dear Fellow Author?

P.S. I’m building up my courage, so never fear, someday you’ll be able to read my Kafkaesque exposition on the nature of reality.  While I’m writing it, I’ll laugh, I’ll cry, I’ll break my heart. And if I’m good enough at it, maybe you will too.