Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Literature and Entertainment

Debby here, thinking about entertainment. Rick’s right—people want to be entertained. Of course, entertainment differs from person to person, so let’s look at books, since that's our interest, and big-selling writers: Dan Brown, Harry Potter, and Stephenie Meyer come to mind.

I don’t think any of these authors is “literary,” but what is literary? Which gets me thinking about the one of the panels I did for the upcoming Poisoned Pen Webcon a few days ago on Blog Talk Radio. (Yes, Vicki, when are we supposed to be writing our books? I’m having trouble with this, too.) One of my co-panelists, Mysti Berry, who had a lot of interesting things to say, made the comment, “I confess that I have an MFA, but most students in MFA programs would love to be writing mysteries and getting paid for them.” I’ve paraphrased a bit here, and Mysti, if you read this and want to correct me, please jump in. We’d love to hear what you have to say about it.

What I see happening is a big problem in publishing. I know, not new news, but what can readers and writers do about it? The above authors get gazillions, big publishing houses hold their breaths for their next books, and new or mid-list authors get no respect. As in no promo, very little money, fewer and fewer wide-reaching reviews (failing newspapers is a contributing problem).

As you remember, Rick began this literary vs. mystery topic when he heard Laura Crozier and Michael Enright on a CBC broadcast. Crozier, who admitted she read “bad books,” i.e., mysteries, is a poet. How many books is she selling? I’d put money on not many. Does anyone else think this kind of envy adds to the “mine is better than yours” sniping that’s going on? It’s like a junior high schoolyard.

I’ve been told there were once great editors at publishing houses, back when they weren’t under corporate umbrellas, who developed writers and encouraged them. I’d like to get back to that, as a reader and as a writer. I’m sure many editors would, too. A lot of great talent is staying in drawers, or computer hard drives. Smaller publishers are stepping in to fill the gaps (hooray), but the distribution isn’t always great and a reader has to be searching for stimulating reads in lists other than the home paper’s Best Seller lists, which lists the same authors again and again.

So what can we writers do? Stick together, for one thing. Encourage readers to pick up new authors when we have the chance. I don’t see myself as competing with other writers. Sure, someone might rather read Charles’s or Donis’s books over mine, but good readers are voracious and love finding new authors. I hope if someone loves one of Vicki’s books, he or she might think, “Hey, I’ll pick up this author, too.”

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Okay, so let’s try this one on.

Blechta here and I’m still a little bit ticked from what we were discussing two weeks ago here at Type M, that is: genre fiction is the poor cousin of “literature”. In case you didn’t read our postings and the very worthwhile comments, head back and take a look. It’s worth the read.

So, we write novels that aren’t “elevating”, that aren’t worthy to be discussed in the writers’ classes that Lorna Crozier teaches, that are in effect “bad books”, i.e. not really worthwhile.

There’s been a lot of discussion of this around our dinner table of late, and here’s a bit of a distilled version.

Most of what is objected to by the literary mafia about genre fiction is that it’s formulaic, that it has stultifying conventions and that makes it...wait for it...hackneyed.

Let’s talk about the culmination of the performing arts in the 17th and 18th centuries: opera. There are few who would dispute this. It’s pretty well universally viewed as a fact. Opera brings everything together: drama, music and dance.

Now let’s talk about opera’s expected conventions. If you didn’t have these, then you could not expect your work to be mounted, and if it was, the critics and public alike would have lambasted it unmercifully.

In every opera you had to have a chorus, even if it didn’t make sense to the story. Just throw them in. Somewhere in the middle of the second act, there would be a ballet, even if there was no dramatic reason to have one. The bad guys always had deeper voices. Altos couldn’t be the heroines. The opera would have to start with an overture, presumably using musical material from the coming work. But Rossini, acknowledged to be one of the opera world’s finest composers, occasionally used the same overture with different operas. What? You’re working in the “highest art form” and recycling material?

Hell, I’m going to start using the good bits from my earlier novels and throw them into everything I write! It’ll be lot easier than struggling over new stuff.

So what it comes down to is this: art (and value) is in the eyes (and ears) of the beholder. What the literary mafia can’t seem to get around is that good writing is good writing, regardless of where you find it. To them, if a novel is over in the mystery section of the bookstore or library, it’s only good for entertainment, not deep thinking. It’s just not as worthwhile.

So we’re entertainment — just like the highest art form: opera. That’s why I’ve hedged my bets. My next novel, The Fallen One is about an opera singer. I’m no fool.

Monday, September 28, 2009

A Starred Review for Winter of Secrets

Vicki here, eager to share some good news. Publishers’ Weekly gave Winter of Secrets a starred review! Winter of Secrets will be released on November 1st by Poisoned Pen Press, and is the third in the Constable Molly Smith series.

My thoughts lately tie right in with our conversation about using technology. In preparation for the forthcoming Poisoned Pen Virtual Conference, I’ve been fiddling around with Blog Talk Radio and LiveStream. For Valley of the Lost, my previous Constable Molly Smith book, Charles and his pal Shad produced a fabulous trailer. I debated how cost effective the trailer was and decided, for a few reasons, not to go with that idea again. So I made a video of myself talking about Winter of Secrets, a brief introduction to the story. It’s really amateurish, and nothing to brag about, but it was cheap (total cost: $0), and now that I know how to do it, easy to do again. I kept it as short as I could and it comes in at about one minute long. Here’s the link:

Now, I am very computer friendly (after a career as programmer/LAN administrator/systems integrator/systems analyst) and I have the time. It took me a lot of time to figure out LiveStream and how to get the video up to You Tube. I spent a solid day recording the piece. Because I can’t edit it, I had to keep trying until I got it right in one go. I forgot what I wanted to say, my tongue tied up, a fly flew around my head, I tried with my reading glasses on, and then off, and then on again. I moved to one side so the picture in the background isn’t cut in half. And on and on it went.

My question is: how much time spent on all this stuff is too much? Homemade videos, Facebook, Twitter, I’m on them. So? I have a wide group of Facebook friends; do I read everything they all write? If I did, how much time would that take? And if I don’t, why should I assume they read everything I post.

Some technology is useful, I’ll grant. The listserv DorothyL is a great group to introduce mystery-loving members to new books and new authors. I love both this blog and my own blog, called Klondike and Trafalgar, where I write about the writer’s life. I love guest blogging, and our guest bloggers. But I worry that we writers are now expected to spend even more time on promoting (not to mention the money if you want to have things like a trailer) and the actual business of writing is becoming an afterthought.

This is different than the traditional book tour, when once a year an author would head off on the road to visit bookstore and promote the new book. The other eleven months of the year, he or she would sit down and write the next book.

It’s now becoming all promotion, all the time, and I for one, don’t want to do it.

P.S. The Poisoned Pen virtual conference is a full day conference organized almost exactly like a regular conference, except all on line. There will be panels, readings, discussions. The date is Saturday October, 24. Check it out at

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Last of Her Kind

Yesterday, Charles brought up the dreaded topic of social media.  What is the most effective way for an author to utilize the myriad social sites that now exist?  Whether one likes it or not (and I don’t), one has to face reality and deal with the fact that the world now interacts electronically, or risk being left stranded by the side of the technological road, waving goodbye as society advances into the future without him.

I have a Facebook presence, though I don’t utilize it very effectively.  I’ve never posted anything on You Tube.  Not yet, anyway.  I am making an effort to learn how. My problem is not as much lack of skill as it is lack of interest.  Judging by some of the clips I’ve seen, it doesn’t take much more brainpower to upload something onto You Tube than it does to learn to tie your shoes. To create a piece that is engaging and witty, with good production values, that’s another tale.  Like those of my blogmates who have weighed in on the subject, I wouldn’t tweet if I were on fire and I needed someone to come put me out.

I hate to sound like an old curmudgeon who goes on about how she used to live in a shoebox in the middle of the road and eat mud for supper when she was a child, but that’s not going to stop me. I write a historical series, but I don’t think the past was better than the present.  Far from it.  I’m not nostalgic for the past. I don’t rue the fact that the world is changing.  That’s the way of the world.  But I very often rue the fact that I hardly recognize the planet I grew up on any more.  I don’t value the things that most of society seems to value.

For those of us who attained majority before the advent of the computer age, it seems unfair. We aren’t stupid. But we grew up in a world that required an entirely different set of skills. It’s as though my native language is English but the new universal language is Chinese.  I can learn to speak Chinese, too, if have to, but I’ll never be as fluent as someone who has spoken it from infancy.. I’ll always have an accent. 

I expect this happens to everyone, and has since the beginning of time.  I wonder sometimes about those souls who manage to live to be 100 or 110.  How must they feel about the fact that everyone else who understood their world is gone?  How must they feel when the very world they knew how to live in is gone, when they find themselves on what amounts to a different planet, and they are the only ones of their species left in existence?

Hmm, there’s a plot in there somewhere.  And now I beg to be excused so that I can practice my You Tube skills.  I find that my Chinese needs work.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Social Media

Charles here.

John’s post on technology came at an interesting time for me. Although it’s still a year away, my editor at Harper-Collins has already begun to lay the foundation for the book’s launch and has asked me to revise (scrap) my current website and to reassess (do something) my social media outreach. The website change makes sense – not very appropriate to have a YA author’s website littered with images of martinis, no matter how beautifully photographed – but what, you may be asking, is social media outreach? While you may in fact not be asking that, if you are an author (published or pre-published) its something you need to get savvy with quick since without it you’ll be as accessible to the next generation of readers as a fifty-drawer card catalog at school library.

To be clear from the start, you have to write a damn good first. No amount of social media will make a flat, cliché-ridden story a better book. It may make it more popular (did someone say teen vampires?), but it will still suck (intended).

I sat down with the social media expert here at the ad agency where I work (the mege-smart Interactive designer and strategist, Deana Varble) and I asked her to rattle off as many social media portals as she could in 15 seconds: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, My Space, Instant Messenger, Hate Book, Linkedin, Vimeo, blogs, Digg, feeds, family-tree/

I only didn’t recognize three. Not bad.

While all can be useful, Deana felt that I should focus my efforts on just a few: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Vimeo.

Facebook – As one of the last people on the planet without an account, this will be a big move for me.
YouTube – I have a few up now and want to do more. But that said, one of mine up there has to come down, the one that suggests that authors learn to drink heavily. Too bad, it was good stuff.
Twitter – I know what it is, I know how it works, I understand the benefits and the opportunities it provides. Still, I will never have a Twitter account. Ever.
Vimeo – This was one of the ones I didn’t know. But after a quick tour I can see that it will be a big outlet for me.

Okay authors (pub and pre), what forms of social media outreach do you currently use?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

One Writer’s Use of Technology

For Father’s Day, I got a shiny new iPod, something I enjoyed playing music on immediately. I felt pretty hip, finally putting my MP3 player away and catching up, technologically speaking, with my students at Pomfret School. Then I realized one could buy audio books—yes, it took four months to figure that out; I’m not the quickest technological study—and I was elated.

Each time I discover and embrace a technological advancement, I think somewhat guiltily of E.B. White’s wonderful essay, “Removal” from One Man’s Meat (Tilbury House Publishers). “We shall stand or fall by television of that I am quite sure,” White wrote in a 1938 column for Harper’s. “It must have been two years ago that I attended a television demonstration at which it was shown beyond reasonable doubt that a person sitting in one room could observe the nonsense taking place in another. I recall being more amused by what was happening in the tangible room where I sat than by what appeared in the peephole of science.”

So what would Mr. White say about my iPod? Just another peephole of science?

Maybe not. After all, in White’s later years he was a salt-water farmer in Maine, so he might have understood my own New England sensibilities, the first being that I love to save money. As a longtime audio-book (unabridged only, thank you very much) junkie, the iPod savings on some titles are huge. The CD version of Moby-Dick is $28 on; it can be downloaded for $12 through iTunes. After all, I may be an iPod neophyte, but at least I’m a cheap one.

More importantly, the iPod may actually help my own fiction. What better way to study voice, than to hear a text read aloud? You want to learn about tension and pacing in fiction? Listen to Will Patten read a James Lee Burke novel. Also, I’m pretty sure I was the only one in the free-weight section of my gym last week listening Donald Sutherland’s whiskey-voiced recitation of The Old Man and the Sea. Hamlet is next. My iPod allows me to get through more books. Is listening to a text the same as a close-reading or a detailed literary analysis of one? I know it is not. But Stephen King says he reads 80 books a year and claims he ought to read more. Given my day job, I will probably never get through 80 books in a year, but the iPod might be my best bet.

There’s another piece of technology I use sparingly but often share with novice writers. Microsoft Word’s spell check (F7) has a setting listed under “options” as “show readability statistics.” This option allows a writer to note, among other things, the percentage of passive sentences in her text and to learn the average length of each sentence. I urge my students try run this check, claiming (and it never fails) that someone will come to our next class and admit that their paper averaged 25 or more words per sentence.

Some technological advancements are, as White was quick to point out, nothing more than “peepholes into science.” Yet iPod’s audio books and Microsoft Word’s readability statistics have served me well.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Putting words together

When Mozart was very young, someone (certainly an adult) asked the precocious child-genius how he wrote music. “I just use notes that sound happy together.” Or it was something like that. I can’t find the book that might have the quote I’m remembering.

At its heart, that’s what we do with our writing — or what we try to do.

So what constitutes words that are “happy together”, as Mozart might put it? If I knew, I wouldn’t be here writing this. I’d be writing my next award-winning novel. That’s the mystery and the beauty of the creative process. There are an infinite way to put components together in any artistic endeavor, and writing is perhaps the most flexible of all.

What is the secret, then, of happy words? Does anyone have it? Has anyone ever had it?

When I finally give a manuscript over to an editor, I’m always happy with it, but I’m often not sure, and as I go along in my writing career, I do believe I’m becoming less sure. Part of it is the horrible realization that there are some terribly unhappy words that have been rammed together on occasion in every one of my novels. Or maybe it’s that they seemed happy at the time I put them together, but somehow, between the dark pages of the book, they’ve realized they aren’t happy and gotten a divorce when I wasn’t looking. I only discover the problem when I’m in the middle of the suspect passage at a public reading. I’ve even found myself editing on the fly to expunge the unhappy group before they're inflicted on my unsuspecting listeners.

The really frightening thing is that at some point, I was happy with the miscreant sentences — so were my editor and my publisher.

What happened in the interim? Should writing be allowed to age like a fine wine before it’s published? Is this just a byproduct of my incremental improvement at my craft? Maybe I just wasn’t picky enough when I was putting my words together. Maybe I was writing too fast to notice these pesky details.

Putting words together leaves me filled with so many doubts.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Book Covers

Vicki posting today. Saturday I was at the Lyndhurst Turkey Fair, a traditional small town fall fair, selling books. My friend the fantasy writer Violette Malan (The Storm Witch) was next to me, and I had been admiring her book covers. Fantasy covers tend to be all of a type – a realistic picture of the character or characters in full action mode. Violette explained to me that the artist had used actors to pose for the paintings. The same two actors have been used for all the covers so far, so there is continuity between them. The actors on the book covers are intended to be the characters.

It occurred to me that you don’t see that in crime novels. On Saturday, I couldn’t think of a single mystery book that has an actual representation of the main character on the cover. Sure there are often other people, or pieces of other people, like the generic creepy eyes, or a shot of a person walking away into the fog, but rarely, if every, anyone who is identifiable. Gold Digger, the first in my Klondike series, has a full sized drawing of a woman, facing forward, on the cover. She is not actually supposed to be Fiona, just a woman of the era, although I suppose she could easily be mistaken for Fiona.

Then yesterday Jeri’s lovely cover for The Serpent in the Thorns arrived, and it has a picture of what I presume is the main character, Crispin Guest on the cover, with Crispin in some sort of action pose.

So, I am left wondering if The Serpent in the Thorns is an aberration or is this the beginning of a trend in mystery publishing. And if it is, is it something we want to see? Do you want to know what your favourite characters look like?

I prefer to use my imagination.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Medieval Forensics—Part One

Today, we’re very pleased to welcome back Jeri Westerson as our guest blogger. I remember Jeri's excitement, blogging about her first book and now she's back with the second. The first book, Veil of Lies, was nominated for several awards including a Shamus for best P.I. novel.

My detective Crispin Guest treads the muddy streets of fourteenth century London in my newest medieval mystery SERPENT IN THE THORNS. He is a man who once had much, but now has nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. He has his wits, and he uses them wisely to get himself out of scrapes and solve his cases, earning sixpence a day, plus expenses.

But just how does he solve his cases in a time when forensic science was an idea centuries away? Television programs like CSI may not have been a gleam in anyone’s eye, but there were certainly some things that an enterprising detective could have done.

First of all, how did the majority of people die in the medieval period (and we are talking a period roughly between 500 and 1500 AD)?

Certainly women and children had it the hardest. Women died in childbirth and children died at birth or shortly thereafter, even those born into rich households. John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster and Crispin’s mentor, had three children die in their first year of life, one making it to three years old. One can see by the baptismal records that male heirs were often named after their fathers and continued to be christened with the same name until an heir finally survived. There might very well be four “Johns” born to the same family.

Childhood was a dangerous place, whether in the country or in a town. Children often died young, and with the need for children and the religious decree to “be fruitful and multiply” (and dubious birth control techniques), wives were pregnant almost every year. Hard on the mother and hard on the children.

Disease played its role as well as did lack of proper nutrition. Battles played their part. They caused farmland to be trampled and made unusable, thus causing starvation, fouling water sources, and opening up the area to diseases.
In the country and in cities like London where there were large water sources like rivers, wells, and cess pools, drownings top the list. But also in cities, many deaths were attributed to the late night wanderings of those wishing to…uh…relieve themselves. Instead of using a pot or going outside to the privies—sometimes climbing down rickety ladders in the dark from their second or third story rooms—men would often stand at their windows (no glass, remember. Just wide-open spaces closed with shutters) and fell out of them. It was suspected that a bit of inebriation was also likely involved. Talk about getting caught with your pants down!

So in the event that a body was found, what would happen?

The “First Finder”, that is, the first person to find a body, would call the “Hue and Cry”—literally, crying out. Hutesium et clamor, "a horn and shouting." Originally, they would follow the perpetrator from house to house. If the death was found to be accidental, it might be decided at once. If, however, the death was murder, more work was called for, and this involved the whole community. In a country village, this meant the whole village. In a big city like London, this would mean the immediate parish.

The Finder was obliged to go to the first four houses nearby and question the residents. Then the Coroner was called. This wasn’t a Quincy-type coroner, but someone with an entirely different and non-medical role.

The first mention of the word “Coroner” is pre-Norman between AD 871 and 910—Alfred the Great’s era. Unfortunately, we don’t know what those Coroners' functions were.
But the idea of the Coroner we know today dates from September 1194, during the reign of Richard I (Lionheart). The Eyre of September 1194 (“eyre” meaning circuit court) was held in the County of Kent, and Article 20 stated: "in every county of the king's realm shall be elected three knights and one clerk, to keep the pleas of the crown--"custos placitorum coronas." He was the guardian of the pleas of the King’s Crown (allegations against a perpetrator). "Coroner", who was also referred to for hundreds of years as "the Crowner". Each county had three Coroners and a clerk carrying the "Coroners' Rolls", later to be replaced by a fourth coroner.
The Coroner was an elected official, like the sheriffs, and traveled around the county seeing that all the rules in a community were conducted correctly, not just writing down crimes. And, of course, collecting fees and fines for when those rules were not followed.

But at the scene of a crime, the Coroner’s role was to take notes and ask questions, though mostly he appointed those nearby to do the questioning and investigating, the idea being that your neighbors knew the goings on best. Crimes were solved quickly or not at all. Either you knew your neighbor’s business and who was guilty or who wasn’t. If it had been a stranger committing the crime, there was no way to know who the culprit was.

Though there may have been unexpected deaths—those fellows who fell out of windows, for instance—there were also deaths attributed to others through no fault. These were called Homicide Through Misadventure. Henry de Bracton, a 13th century jurist, and who was the last word on interpreting law for many centuries, said about this: “ with where one intending to cast a spear at a wild beast or does something of the sort, as where playing with a companion he has struck him in thoughtless jest, or when he stood far off when he drew his bow or threw a stone he has struck a man he did not see, or where playing with a ball it has struck the hand of a barber he did not see so that he has cut another’s throat, and thus has killed a man, not however with the intention of killing him; he ought to be absolved, because a crime is not committed unless the intention to injure exists...”
It’s all about intent. So how would someone know if it were misadventure or only made to look that way?

Well, we’d have to look at the clues but that, alas, is in Part Two of Medieval Forensics. Where can Part Two be found? You’ll have to follow my blog tour, the schedule of which can be found on my website

Saturday, September 19, 2009


I did a library gig last night, a signing and panel discussion on Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and the topic of censorship.  This was quite the panel, consisting of myself and ten other authors, so you can well imagine that none of us were encouraged to wax too eloquent with our responses.  However, our moderator, Betty Webb, did an outstanding job of encouraging interaction and inviting everyone to have a say, and it turned out to be a very interesting discussion.

In these days of electronic communication, the idea of censorship is almost passe, since it’s now almost impossible to keep people from getting hold of and reading whatever they want, which of course doesn’t keep people from trying.  I’m sure every author and avid reader has more or less the same attitude toward censorship, that being that it’s a bad,bad thing, and that the antidote to unsavory ideas is not less talking, but more talking.

But here is an interesting question for an author - how much do you censor yourself, and why?  Of course, we all keep our target audiences in mind, and try to write material that will not offend them so much that they won’t buy our subsequent books. We don’t want to be killing any kitties or puppies unless we absolutely have to for the integrity of the novel. Nor do we wish to go too far beyond the language/sex/violence parameters set by our publishers or agents or editors lest they decide no longer to publish us.

But there are times when the story you are telling just calls for something shocking, or it won’t ring true.  My self-censorship problems have to do with the mores of the times and the place I’m writing about in my current series.  In  1910s Oklahoma, there were a lot of common and wide-spread attitudes that we in the 21st Century would find unsavory in the extreme - casual racism, even among people of good will who would never knowingly harm another person of any color; assumptions about women and people of other ethnicities; the treatment of children.  Can you imagine what would happen today if a parent took a belt to a whiny child in the grocery store?  In 1915, it would be expected.  Language, too.  Words that today would give the hearer a stroke were tossed about with abandon and nobody batted an eye.  And I don’t mean just epithets, either.  My grandmother, a farm wife with the straightest laces you can possibly imagine, used all kinds of what we would now call scatological words. In her society, crude words for excrement didn’t have nearly the cachet they now have, probably because people were up to their knees in it every day of their lives.

But I don’t want readers to judge my characters by modern standards and thus think less of them.  Nor do I want to present early 20th Century societal shortcomings in a way that makes light of them or seems approving. So how do I deal with the reality of the time and place?  Very, very carefully, let me tell you.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Dash this off

Charles is here. Hide the silver.

Much debate this week among the copywriters at the ad agency on a topic that requires your learned feedback – the em dash/en dash conundrum.

As you no doubt recall from your pre-K grammar classes, an en dash is so-named because it is a dash (–) that is about the width of your household letter n, and it’s used when you’re describing a range, such as 8-10 novels, which you’d read as “last night I wrote eight to ten novels.” The bigger, bolder em dash – the size of the manly letter M – is used to separate a thought, the kind of thing that would fit just as nicely in a matched set of parentheses. You’d use an em dash like I used it above – note the clever pre-planning – and, next to commas, it is my favorite punctuation mark. But all this is old news to any five-year old – the big debate is on the issue of spaces.

Fuddy-duddy rule books and old school teachers’ pets insist that the em dash should always be set tight between the words it’s separating—like this—and never surrounded by spaces – like this – and that all who follow the space-style rule should be burned at the stake as heretics. Their words, not mine.

Naturally, I run with a more enlightened crowd. This crowd unshackles the em dash, allowing it to live in open spaces, breathing the fresh air of freedom-loving modern times. Not to drop names, but that crowd includes The New York Times Manual of Style, an obscure publishing house called Penguin, the folks at Cambridge University Press and most all of the sober and upstanding publishers in Germany and France. I’m no theologian, but any style that meets the high standards of the order-loving Germans and the style-mad French must by pre-ordained by the gods.

Careful readers of this blog and my published works will be quick to point out the hypocrisy, as the noble em dash is severely and consistently constrained in each of my three Poisoned Pen press mysteries. Before the mobs take up torches and surround my residence, let me assure you that, when written, the books all followed the form that I have tirelessly advocated. The final product is what is known in the biz as “the editors’ preference”. My love for my editor at Poisoned Pen Press knows no equal, but I will say that – on this point alone – she is misguided. There is still hope – she is a brilliant woman and she may yet come to see the error of her ways – but until they are reprinted in lambskin-bound collector editions, I fear my printed words betray my true allegiance.

So what say you on this issue? Do you count yourself among the enlightened, forward-thinking, liberty-cherishing writers who oppose tyranny and oppression in all its forms, or are you with the other side?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

My Dyslexia

In 1979, as a fourth-grader, I failed mathematics. I was ten, and my parents took me to Children’s Hospital (Boston), where I was diagnosed as “learning disabled, presumed dyslexic.” Years later, one expert would call me a “poster boy” for the affliction.

“Dyslexia,” as defined on the International Dyslexia Association’s Web-site, “is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction.”

Of course, at ten, I knew none of that. Nor did I care. All I knew was that I was just about the worst student in every fourth-grade subject. As one can imagine, this level of academic confidence is hard to shed, and since dyslexia is an information-processing affliction, struggle followed me through most of my early academic years. When students were asked to read aloud, I would count the paragraphs, attempting to match each paragraph with a student so I could practice the one I would be asked to read. Of course, no matter how many times I quickly read the passage, I would stumble and hear the snickers. Later, in high school, I certainly did not see dyslexia as a positive. I attended a boarding school—trading my ability to stop a puck for an acceptance letter—where it took me two school years and one summer to muddle my way through Algebra II. I quickly fell into the jock stereotype, but I also fell into the hands of several inspiring and supportive English teachers and founded a work ethic that has served me well. I vividly recall evenings spent in the boiler room below the library, where I went in search of silence to concentrate. Those nights taught me more than the importance of hard work. I failed to realize it then, but they also taught me literary analysis. At the time, I only knew that I read virtually syllable by syllable, so a twenty-page assignment took two hours. Obviously, I am faster today. But those long nights, seated on the concrete floor, pouring, highlighter in hand, over assigned classics taught me to value literary analysis and close reading, skills I would use as a teacher and a novelist obsessed with revision.

I made two other discoveries during those high school years. I came to realize that the input of material—not the output—was my challenge. I excelled in creative writing and photography, and my best grades came on essay exams, never multiple choice. I was also given a few Robert B. Parker novels by my mother, and in one, Ceremony, I read the wonderful lines that were the epigraph to my first book, lines that, to me, sum up our genre, “It’s a way to live. The rest is just confusion.”

As a writer, dyslexia has become an asset. Dyslexics are typically driven, able to make connections associating both concrete and abstract concepts, and to relate seemingly unrelated things (think poet as CEO). Novels are interconnected webs of information, everything (obvious or not) is related in some way to everything else. The author must manage to keep his finger on all of it. Dyslexics are also typically auditory people. As I have said in previous blogs, most of what I do as a writer is instinctive; I write “by ear.”

Believe it or not, once I found fiction writing, everything changed. In the end, and unexpectedly, dyslexia, once my childhood enemy, has become my adult friend, an affliction become attribute.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Literature, including Crime Fiction

Yes, we crime fiction writers need to polish and improve our literary output. Most of us work diligently to do this. We try to improve with each word, sentence, chapter, and novel. And despite our best efforts, it’s not going to change the attitudes toward Literature and the “other” genres. We protest this inequity over and over again, because it’s narrow-minded and unfair.

We writers are going to have to change this perspective ourselves, at the publishing and marketing level. I have to confess that I didn’t listen to the entire CBC broadcast, despite Charles’s link. I didn’t get to the part where Enright, who according to Wikipedia didn’t graduate from high school (he was conferred an "Honourary Degree Doctor of Letters, honoris causa" at the 98th Spring Convocation of St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada), asked Crozier about how she read “bad books” on Sunday. According to Crozier’s on line biography, she teaches writing and has written fourteen books of poetry on subjects such as angels, aging, and Louis Armstrong’s trout sandwich. Hmm…I know nothing about that sandwich. I always loved Louis Armstrong, though.

But I digress. Why didn’t Crozier say, “Peter Robinson does write literature, in fact, his prodigious works have won many awards, including an Edgar, a Hammett, France's Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, Sweden's Martin Beck Award, and the New York Times Notable Book. Michael, you would enjoy his work.”?

Or something to this effect. Crozier’s biography says, “Her reputation as a generous and inspiring artist extends from her passion for the craft of poetry to her teaching and through to her involvement in various social causes.” So why agree with him? Maybe she was a little dazed; I get that way sometimes, especially if I’m agape at an off-putting comment.

But I’m an optimist. (I know, I know, hit me over the head again with this literary brick) We authors need to stick up for each other. When someone mentions the big difference in Literary and Mystery Fiction, do what Vicki did. Bring up the plots of Macbeth, Hamlet, Oedipus Rex, To Kill a Mockingbird, even Edgar Sawtelle . Remind people to read Mystic River, or any of James Lee Burke or William Kent Krueger. Or, heck, any of us on this blog. We’re all working to be better writers, to tell a better, more relevant story.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

It’s up to us

Everyone knows that most famous of Rodney Dangerfield lines, “I don’t get no respect.” Based on what Vicki wrote yesterday, and my responses citing the article from The National Post, crime writers fall right into Rodney’s camp, too. We certainly don’t get no respect, especially in Canada.

There was something about Lorna Crozier and Michael Enright chuckling at their own witticism that really raised my hackles. “So on Sunday, you read bad books,” host Enright says, and chuckling, Crozier agrees, “Yes, I read bad books.” The author she brought up as one who writes “bad books” was Peter Robinson. [To clarify, the meaning of “bad books” in this little exchange is books that aren’t “good for you” (i.e. serious literature), but books that are merely low-level “entertainment”.]

Excuse me? Peter’s books are brilliant, have won an incredible number of awards — and not just “industry” awards, either. He’s translated into a ridiculous number of languages and I wouldn’t be surprised if his sales numbered in the millions. How many books do you sell every year, dear Lorna? And how many awards do you have?

I know what they actually meant when they said “bad books”. It wasn't saying Peter's books are bad per se, but it was a reference to the fact that these self-appointed cognoscenti feel crime or genre novels don’t have the same literary weight as the sort of novels “literary” writers produce.

So I spent yesterday feeling incredibly indignant for us all. This attitude of what constitutes a “good book” is far more ingrained here in the far north than it is in other countries, but it’s everywhere to some degree.

Then I got up this morning and thought, “Well, the only good defense against this is to write better books.” Yes, there is a lot of bad crime writing out there, books that should never have been published. But I’ve read some real stinkers from the “literary” camp, as well.

So, to all of us, let’s dig a little deeper, be less satisfied with what we write, polish just that much more. “They” probably will still not give us our due for whatever stupid reason they can come up with, but at least we can hold our heads up high and KNOW that we have written a good novel, that our prose will stand up against any of theirs, no matter how lionized their anointed writers are.

My guess is that someday Michael Enright will want Peter Robinson on his little Sunday show. If I were Peter, I’d ask for an on-air apology or tell him to take a flying you-know-what...

By the way, if you want to listen to this interview, go to the following link. Beneath the 3rd paragraph is a flash player where you can listen to the show. The comment in question is somewhere around the 14th minute of the program:

Monday, September 14, 2009

A Classic Crime Story

I was listening to the CBC Radio show Sunday Edition yesterday, and the discussion was on the meaning of Sunday. Is Sunday still a special day, they asked, or just a day like any other? One of the guests, a well-known Canadian literary figure, said that for her Sunday was special; she liked to spend Sundays reading books that weren’t any good for her, like mysteries. Her example: Peter Robinson. I scraped my jaw up off the floor expecting the host, Michael Enright, to chide her. Instead he agreed, “Bad books.” I hope Michael was being ironic.

We’ve been discussing at great length here on Type M the bad rap that mystery novels get sometimes. As Rick pointed out, that bad rap can be deserved, if the book is forced into a mould in which it does not fit, but to think that Peter Robinson’s books of moral complexity are somehow ‘bad’ and need to be read under the covers with a flashlight, is just ridiculous.

Last week my daughter and I went to see a play that is a crime story. Not a mystery, you know who did it and why right from the beginning. Like many great crime novels, the play is a study in character.

The plot, rougly is as follows: essentially good people debate committing a great crime, they have to fortify themselves mentally to do this, one of them backs out at the last minute, but the other carries on. He is then so shocked by what he has done that the first person has to take control and frames two others. From then on the protagonists dissolve under their guilt, and turn increasingly corrupt and more and more violent in an attempt to keep restitution for their crime at bay. One of the villains can not live with the consequences of her actions, and kills herself under the force of guilt. The other commits crime after crime, in an attempt to cover up his guilt, before being brought to his end in a final physical confrontation with one of the many people he has wronged.

Name of the play? Macbeth.

A crime story, but not a mystery. That would be Hamlet.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Beverle Graves Myers - Waking the Dead

Our guest today is Beverle Graves Myers, author of the wonderful Tito Amado Mysteries set in 18th Century Venice and the world of opera. 


Why set a mystery novel in the past? For some writers, it’s a journey 

to a time and place that can’t be reached by conventional travel, a wonderful way to stretch our powers of perception. For others, historical fiction provides an opportunity for a painless history lesson or a reminder that there’s nothing new under the sun. 

For me, it’s all about the characters, so like the inhabitants of the 21st century in their basic desires and needs, but with intriguing differences. The castrati singers, for instance.

I fell in love with baroque opera when I first heard Alfred Deller’s ethereal soprano fill my college Music History classroom many years ago. Mr. Deller was a modern singer who had trained his falsetto to recreate the castrato roles of 18th-century composers like Handel, Gluck, Vivaldi and Mozart. Already an opera fan, I was as much overcome by the music as the amazed audiences in those smoky, candle-lit theaters of three centuries ago. They swooned, cried real tears, and shouted for encore after encore. Something absolutely unique must have been going on, so I decided to learn as much as I could about the singers who had caused such a furor.

My research skills were pretty good, I was a history major, after all, but there wasn’t a lot of information out there. No autobiography of a castrato singer exists, and most of the academic papers focused on the music instead of the men. I was wondering about the offstage lives of the performers who made such an irrevocable sacrifice for their art. Were they willing victims? Were they considered freaks in their communities? What happened to the boys who failed to find fame?

I did learn that the greatest castrato singer of the baroque era was Carlo Broschi, a pleasant and generous fellow who went by the stage name Farinelli. A Golden Globe winning film has since been made of his life, but at the time, almost no one had even heard of him. Farinelli particularly interested me because he gave up his stage career to give nightly, private serenades to King Phillip V of Spain. The king suffered from a depressive illness, and Farinelli’s soothing concerts encouraged him to carry out his royal duties. The first music therapist, perhaps.

Another castrato, Atto Melani, is also famous for his encounters with princes, but as a spy rather than a caretaker. Atto turned his handsome looks and beautiful voice to good advantage by reporting on the French court for his patron, Mattias de’Medici. While entertaining at receptions and intimate suppers, Atto kept his eyes and ears wide open. He was also said to be quite active in the beds of both male and female aristocrats.

I kept these stories and others in the back of my mind through medical school, a residency in psychiatry and a ten-year stint at a public mental health clinic. When I made a mid-life career switch to writing fiction, Farinelli and Atto and all the others were waiting, ready to serve as inspiration for my singer-sleuth Tito Amato. Since I write mysteries, a murder or other serious crime makes up the core of each novel, but surrounding the investigations, I was determined that my characters reflect the mindset of the 18th century, not the 21st.

Here’s where waking the dead comes in. There’s a wonderful scene in The Addams Family—the film with Raul Julia and Anjelica Houston, not its shoddy imitators. Near the end of the movie, Gomez proposes a game to celebrate Halloween. “Wake the dead. Wake the dead,” shout Wednesday and Pugsley, and they all gleefully repair to the family cemetery with shovels. I see myself playing a similar game when I bring people from the past to life on the page. Instead of shovels, I use words. 

Presenting historical characters honestly is quite a task. Everything around us, plus our genetics and our past experiences, contribute to who we are. It was no different for humans of other eras. How to convey the setting to readers without burying them in backstory and detail? I’ve developed a strategy—I start with everyday activities and comment only on those that bear directly on the plot or seem unique to Tito (my first-person narrator) in some way. 

Her Deadly Mischief opens with Tito readying himself for the opera’s opening night performance. Singing is his profession, something he does almost every evening. But this time, one thing is different. Instead of every eye being trained on the stage, one box on the theater’s fourth tier is keeping its curtains stubbornly drawn. Irritated, Tito aims the full force of his luscious voice at the box and is astounded when a woman falls over the railing like a life-sized rag doll. Tito is the only one to view her killer, an anonymous man in a carnival mask, before he runs away.

As the investigation into the murder proceeds, the characters must behave within the parameters of their time. One example: Tito is surprised that Messer Grande, the chief of Venice’s rudimentary police force, is more enlightened than his predecessors who’ve sparred with Tito in previous books. This new Messer Grande actually treats Tito with respect instead of disdaining him as a theatrical freak. The reason? Messer Grande is a Freemason, a member of a new (to 1742) brotherhood who believes in the worth and equality of all men. He’s also adopted the budding technique of disguising himself to infiltrate bands of ruffians rather than simply ordering his men to drag suspects in to beat the hell out of them.

I’ve had great fun shoveling through cultural layers, attempting to dig out the ways my fictitious castrato would approach the problems posed by a murder in his theater. If I’ve succeeded, my readers should enjoy a trip to 1742 Venice, and the castrati, those forgotten heroes of the stage, will be called back for one more encore.  

Beverle Graves Myers made a mid-life career switch from psychiatry to mystery writing. A graduate of University of Louisville School of Medicine, she worked at a public mental health clinic before her first book was published in 2004. Interrupted Aria introduced singer-sleuth Tito Amato and the Baroque Mystery series set in the dazzling, decadent world of 18th-century Venice. Her Deadly Mischief is the latest series title. From her home in Louisville, Bev also writes short fiction set in a variety of times and places. Her stories have been published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Woman's World, Futures, and numerous anthologies. She has earned nominations for the Macavity, Derringer, and Kentucky Literary awards.

Bev's website address is

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Lyn Hamilton

It is with a very heavy heart that I'm sending you all this link:

Lyn Hamilton

One of the first guest bloggers here on Type M and a great friend to many of us has passed away. Lyn will be incredibly missed.

Sweet Freedom

Donis typing today. Last week I talked about the conundrum authors face after writing several books in a series.  You love your characters, but you get tired of having them in the same situations or locations, book after book.  You want to do something different with them, and yet you are a bit worried about messing with success.  Will your readers be unhappy if you depart from the tried-and-true?  If the thing they enjoyed so much about the series changes too much?  How much change is too much?

I had lunch with my editor this week to discuss the problem, and she basically told me to go for it.  I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

And yet, why didn’t I figure this out myself?  You can have all the skill and craft in the world, but if you aren’t in love with your story, your writing is not going to have any spark. I smell a life lesson, here.

As Joseph Campbell said, follow your bliss. My problem has always been knowing what my bliss is, and I suspect that I am not alone in this. There are so many pressures on us, so many duties and responsibilities.  We forget how we got to this place, and why we made the choices we did in the first place. 

Why do you want to write, anyway?  Personally, I love to tell a story.  I love to lead the reader on, up and down, over and through, and take her some place she never expected. This may have something to do with my upbringing, among a group of the most amazing tale-tellers and bullshitters (if I may be crude) that ever were.  Perhaps I was an African griot in a former life. Mysteries are tailor-made for this sort of story telling, but I’ve been delighted by stories in all kinds of genres.  In The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence relates that he once spent an entire night with Arab tribesmen around a fire, spinning a tale that kept them on the edge of their seats, and in the end, the climax of the story was “And then the sun rose.” He led them on a fascinating journey to a place they never expected, and he was so good at it that it didn’t matter where they ended up, even if it was nowhere.

I am more interested in the journey than the destination.  I love the words and the images, the human insights and emotions, intimately getting to know the characters and their lives.

Why do you write?  Writing fiction is often difficult and painful.  What keeps you going? Is there a point you want to get across?  Something important you want to say?  An idea you want to explore?  Are you trying to make a living?  Do you crave accolades?  You just can’t help yourself?  There are probably as many reasons as there are writers, and as long as it works for you, it’s all good.

Speaking of good, our guest blogger tomorrow is one of my very favorite historical mystery authors, Beverle Graves Myers.  Her Deadly Mischief is the latest installment in her fascinating series set in Eighteenth Century Venice, featuring castrato opera singer Tito Amado, who has a “stellar nose for sleuthing.”  What an interesting, unusual idea, and what a lush and beautifully written series it is!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Day of Service

Although this is a blog about writers and writing, I’d be remiss if I didn’t use my day this week – September 11th – to say something about the new National Day of Service here in the States. Obviously it commemorates the events of 9/11/2001, but it’s a mistake to assume that this is just another day to wave the flag and make tough speeches. I’m sure people will do those things, but that’s not what this is all about. Don’t worry, I’m not going to soapbox you about our sacred obligation to do this or save that – I have neither the writing chops nor the moral high ground to pull it off. I could reprint President Obama’s letter on the subject, but for such a brilliant speaker and amazing writer, it’s rather flat and uninspiring. Instead, I want to tell you about the Day of Caring they give us here at the ad agency.

Once a year, every employee of Dixon Schwabl can take a paid day off to do volunteer work at a not-for-profit of their choice here in Rochester. The owners don’t have to do this – it cost money, creates scheduling headaches and can mess up even this smooth running machine. But they do it anyway. And – trust me – they get kindda angry (for them) when people don’t use their day. Imagine the impact that 80 hyper-creative people can have, even for one day. It’s no wonder the owners are excited to hear where we put in out time. They add 640 hours of service to our community – the equivalent of 16 weeks of full-time labor – just because they think it’s important. And people ask me why I love the place I work.

This year as in years past, I will be spending my Day of Caring volunteering at the Ontario ARC, an organization that helps adults with developmental disabilities and brain injuries in Ontario County live full, active and productive lives. I like to participate in their College Experience Program – check it out here – but am always happy to help in any way I can.

This Day of Service is and is not an American thing. It is in that it’s part of some US legislation, and it isn’t since we certainly have no monopoly on community service and passionate volunteerism. So wherever you are, I encourage you to participate in your own day(s) of caring. You don’t need an act of congress to do the right thing.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Change is Always a Good Thing

I’m going to pick up on Donis’s thread here. Last week, she wrote about the challenges of series writing, citing the writer’s need to balance the audience’s expectations with a author’s desire for artistic autonomy.

In his wonderful essay, “The Mystery of Mystery Writing” (Walden Book Report, September, 1998) Michael Connelly wrote, “The mystery has evolved in recent decades to be as much an investigation of the investigator as an inquiry of the crime at hand. Investigators now look inward for the solutions and means of restoring order. In the content of their own character they find the clues.”

What a great way to sum up the current state of the genre, and Connelly is also speaking to the joys of writing a series. I’ve written seven novels in two series and am now writing a book that might be the start to another. There is something exhilarating about “growing” a series protagonist. You create a real world and watch your character develop and change over time. When we first met Jack Austin, he was a single, struggling pro athlete. Five books later, professionally, he has a lone PGA Tour win, is now a Tour greybeard, and is worried about losing his PGA Tour card to one of the rising young guns; at home, he is married to a journalist and is a dedicated father. As a writer, it was fascinating to develop one character so thoroughly and in a way that could only be done over several books and several years. I surely couldn’t do it in one book (unless we are talking a 1,500-page monster).

Yet, in my first Type M for Murder post, as a guest blogger last spring, I wrote that after ten or so years with Jack Austin, I was seeking a change. After writing 1,500 pages of Jack Austin (published pages that is, so perhaps 8,000 or 10,000 total pages for me), I was more than ready to step away from Jack and try something else. Now, after three years spent writing a female sleuth and starting a novel featuring a character unlike any I have written before, I realize that my writing is much better because of my departure. The prose is more concise, more insightful, and more colorful.

Change is always a good thing.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Settings in mysteries

A few days ago, I got a nice email from the Bouchercon committee asking me to be a member of the “Setting as Character” panel. One of my favorite mystery authors, William Kent Krueger, is moderating Eric Stone, Jonathan King, Tom Corcoran, and me. What a great group, I’m excited!

Writing about Hawaii, I think a lot about setting. Vicki and I used this discussion in the tour we did together, as setting is very important to both of us. But getting this recent invitation got me thinking along different lines. Yes, setting is a strong influence on our characters’ actions, thoughts, and limitations. In many cases, it defines their activities.

I’ve probably mentioned that Tony Hillerman’s books were an inspiration to me when I began my Hawaii series. I wanted to weave the legends and folklore of the islands into exciting suspense stories. And judging by the reviews, I’m pulling it off. (Whew) But I’m also learning as I go, and my eyes have been opened to the differences in how I see my setting and how others see it.

Do most crime fiction writers feel this way? Probably, or at least a good number of us. What do you think?

From what I can tell, most people consider Hawaii a tropical vacation paradise. Oh yeah, there are volcanoes, tsunamis, and hurricanes, but scientists can give plenty of warning so that people can make for the airport and take off before there’s any danger. Meanwhile the lovely hotels, hula dancers, great food, and mai tais make up for any lurking peril. It’s kind of like an exotic amusement park. No one gets hurt at Disneyland, do they?

Rick’s video (see yesterday’s post) made me think of Hawaii. Like Australia, Hawaii is a great place to hide a body. Every year, dozens of hikers are rescued from our trails, and those are the ones whose cell phones worked. Even Oahu, the most populated island, has areas of inaccessible wilderness. People disappear, or “are disappeared” in flash floods, crumbly, unstable volcanic rock, lava tubes, sulfurous fumes, and undiscovered caves.

The ocean is another unpredictable, wild environment. Contrary to belief, sharks don’t cause as many fatal incidents as rogue waves, strong currents, and unexpected beach breaks. There’s a reason that children in Hawaii are taught from an early age to “never turn your back on the ocean.” I’ll leave you with one of the Hawaii Lifeguard mottos: Mai huli ‘oe I kōkua o ke kai. Respect the ocean. Respect the Land, the ‘āina.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

And now for something completely different...

For all intents and purposes, summer is now over. The often-trodden paths always seem to worn and familiar for me at this time of year. I long for something different. So today, I’m writing my first-ever review of something criminous.

I have a curious relationship with Agatha Christie. In the summer of my 18th year, I worked at a resort in Maine. I was the pool boy. This place was inhabited more by older folks, so there was a definite lack of bathing beauties frolicking in tiny bikinis at my watery workplace. Mostly, my clientele were women sitting around under umbrellas gossiping, having the occasional soft drinks (no alcohol by the pool) and reading while their hubby played golf or fished. After cleaning the pool every morning, I didn’t have much else to do but hand out ice-cold pop, towels and to stick my nose into my own book. It was here that I discovered Agatha Christie. I think the resort’s bookshelves had copies of everything she published. I especially remember reading her Hercule Poirot novels.

From that extensive background came a very definite mental idea of who and what he was, so it was with trepidation that I viewed a copy of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, The Movie Collection, Set 4, put out by Acorn Media. Not having a television hooked up to any TV stations, I’d never seen this series on PBS when originally broadcast.

The two stories are Mrs. McGinty’s Dead and Cat Among the Pigeons. The latter I remember well from my long-ago summer reading. David Suchet appears in the title role.

A lot of care went into the making of these episodes. The ‘feel’ of the stories is perfect and the attention to detail is really quite astounding. I suppose the production company, being British, cut no corners and damn the expense! The supporting cast led here by Zoë Wanamaker and Harriet Walter is superb. Everything is there for two enjoyable evenings in Christie-land. And I did enjoy it. I also think Dame Agatha herself would have been pleased.

Suchet does he damnedest to become Poirot. He really is quite superb. The fussiness is there in just the right amount. The accent is perfect. He even moves the way I would expect Poirot to move: small, fast and precise. Basically, he succeeds on all but one critical point: he’s too darned BIG. One of the things about Poirot is that he often succeeded because the bad guy underestimated him because of his size.

Picky? Sure. But when you get this close to perfection (and Suchet does get that close), it’s a shame to be done in by something over which you have no control. I suppose if they’d wanted to go whole hog, they could have digitally shrunk him. It's the only real clunker in the entire DVD set.

NOTE: No, we're not going to make a habit of posting reviews on Type M. So unseal that package containing the copy of your latest novel or the query email to ask if we'll help you promote the book that you've been assigned to promote. This review is just something I thought would be, well, completely different.

ANOTHER NOTE: Speaking of video, here's a very funny and apropos clip for Type M. I believe from the laugh track that it must be a TV skit of some sort, purporting to be part of a tourism ad campaign. This is something our Charles would probably want to try as an approach...

Monday, September 07, 2009

Deadlines and Tomatoes

Vicki here wishing everyone a happy Labour Day.

I am lucky in that deadlines are never much of a problem for me. As my editor once said, “I know you’re good for it.” When I was at school or working I was always in a panic – if I wasn’t finished a couple of weeks before the project was due, it was panic time.

I’ve always been amazed at people who let things drift up until the last minute. I worked with one guy who fiddled around for weeks, and then about 4 PM the night before the project was due got into a sweat and worked all night. I remember one of my daughters phoning from University because she was printing off her essay and the printer had failed and it had to be handed in in TEN MINUTES.

I wondered why she hadn’t printed it off three or four days ago.

There was a good article in the Globe and Mail on Saturday by Will Ferguson on writing and procrastination.

Not writing is the easiest thing in the world to do. And that's what an author means when she says she is “working” on a book. Working means “not writing.” Working means reading, working means “research.” Working means watching TV. Working means taking long diversionary walks. Working means perusing newspapers with an unnaturally intense interest. It means everything and anything except the actual act of writing.

I finished the fourth in the Smith and Winters series yesterday, tentative title Negative Image. Finished is a relative term, because my agent and editor will no doubt have suggestions.

So today I am taking the day off – fitting for Labour Day. Although ‘day off’ is also sometimes a relative term. The above picture gives you an idea of what I will be doing.

So because today is my day off, that's all for my post!

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Wandering in the Wilderness

A couple of weeks ago I attended an author event featuring Sean Doolittle, Michael Koryta, and Christopher Reich at Poisoned Pen Bookstore.  Last week, I schlepped up to Scottdale yet again in order to see Tim Hallinan and Thomas Greanias.  All of these gentlemen write thriller-type mysteries.  During both events, the topic of conversation turned to series writing and the problems thereof.  

Both groups agreed that once you have written three or four books in a series, you find yourself beginning to want to shake things up a little bit.  Series tend to move forward in time, and things happen to your protagonists, often horrible things.  It would be unrealistic if nothing changed in your hero’s little world from book to book.  If your hero’s spouse/partner/friend is killed in book 4, or your hero his tortured by the Taliban, then if he is human at all, he’s going to be changed in book 5.  

Yet, often Our Hero’s life proceeds through book 5 as though nothing untoward ever happened to him.  Why is this?  Anyone who writes a series understands the impulse not to change things too much from book to book, not to stray too much from the template. You fear offending your faithful readers.  They like Our Hero’s wry sense of humor and glib tongue, and don’t like it if he becomes dark and brooding as the series goes forward.  And yet, you nearly killed him in the previous novel, and his girlfriend disappeared when her plane went down in the Andes.

I’m finding myself faced with the same conundrum.  In my series, time marches on.  The children are growing up.  The world is changing.  Things have happened in earlier books that must be acknowledged.

Will readers be disappointed if everything doesn’t turn out so well for one of the children?  Would it be too jarring if I suddenly wrote one of the books in first person instead of third?  What if I jumped WAY ahead in time, or moved the family to Argentina? 

I’ve heard from some veteran series writers that fans can raise a ruckus if you mess with a popular series element.  And yet, what kind of writing life is it if you keep cranking out Model T novels?  Can’t tell one from another, but you surely know what you’re going to get when you buy one. (“You can get it in any color you want, as long as it’s black.”  Henry Ford) 

With a series, you walk the razor’s edge, I think, hunting for that sweet spot where each novel is full of surprises, yet satisfyingly familiar for the reader. And you have to keep yourself interested as well. I understand why so many authors intersperse their successful series with stand-alones, or even juggle two or three series at once! 

Friday, September 04, 2009

Things fall apart

Charles here, you there, and all is right in the world.

Those of you playing at home will recall that on top of mysteries, I write YA books now and I have a looming deadline, needing to deliver the next manuscript on or before July 1, 2010. A ways off, yes, yet it still looms. And for the past month, I’ve been developing a plot line in my head, working out the major details and planning what direction to take the book. Despite what you may have assumed by some of my earlier posts, I don’t outline or do the 3X5 card thing before I start, but I do spend a lot of time (too much?) thinking through the major path that the novel will take – the protagonist’s motivation, the kind of resolution he’d like to see (and what he’ll get instead), the types of problems he’ll face on his quest and the people he’ll encounter.* I don’t map out specific scenes, but I know what kinds of scenes I’ll write, and I don’t preplan my dialog, but I do jot down good lines when they come to mind. Mostly what I do is go over the premise of the story again and again and again, looking for holes and possible additions. When I start writing in earnest, I feel comfortable about where I’m going and how I’m going to get there, but (with a nod here to Donis and John) I am always ready to consider ‘surprise routes’ when they present themselves. Anyway, this is what I’ve been doing with the YA I’m working on now, and it has been moving along swimmingly.

Until last night. Because last night, in the space of 20 minutes, the entire story fell apart. I found a loose string and gave it a tug and instead of unraveling a bit that could be fixed with a stitch or two, it all came undone. I realized that at least two major assumptions were just so horribly wrong – trust me, they were – that the entire story made no sense. It wasn’t realistic or plausible or even remotely possible (again, just trust me on this) and I knew that the story I was planning to write should never be written.

Twenty minutes and two months of work falls apart. Well over a hundred hours, many miles of wandering as I thought it through...why didn’t I see it sooner? (A topic for a later blog post.)

After that initial revelation, I thought about my options. I could spend another two months trying to salvage this idea but I knew then (as well as I knew anything about my writing) that this idea was a dead end. Best to cut loose and start fresh, let it all go and good day to you, sir. For about two minutes, that realization made me a bit queasy. And then I didn’t feel queasy anymore. I felt…excited. And that’s where I start this morning – back at square one, no baggage in hand, and thrilled about what may come next.

*I say he because, so far, they have all been guys.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Writing Life: Beaten to the Publishing Industry’s Proverbial Punch

Sunday morning, about 8 A.M., I pulled Keeley’s highchair up to the computer, set her bowl of cereal along with my coffee on the computer table, typed into the URL bar, and went to the “Books” page. This is something of a weekend ritual—a bite of the porridge-like goop for 9-month-old Keeley, a sip of black coffee for me as I am slow to wake, and a scan of the reviews, best-seller lists, and feature articles. This week, though, it did not take me two cups of black regular to be fully alert. My eyes were instantly wide when I read the headline of one review.

You may recall me blogging about a new series I have begun, which my agent is currently shopping—non-golf, third-person point of view, even featuring a female sleuth. A fresh, new start and an exhilarating challenge for me. The book reviewed in the New York Times featured a protagonist whose occupation is the very same career I found so unique that I thought it would make the basis of an excellent series.

I gawked at the screen in disbelief. The same job? The same goddamned job?

Keeley pounded her tiny fist on the highchair’s clip-on table breaking my stare at the monitor. I turned back to her with a spoonful of cereal. As she ate, I read the review, my mind tumbling like a platform diver who had leapt from 200 feet hoping to hit a thimble.

I’d been beaten to the publishing industry’s proverbial punch.

I e-mailed the review to my agent with the message that I “nearly threw up my Cheerios.” Then I turned to my wife. “I’ll vacuum the whole house,” I said.
Lisa narrowed her eyes. “What’s wrong?”

As I ran the vacuum through the house, I thought about the three years I had spent on this new series, all the ride-alongs, all the interviews, all the rewrites. Then I thought about the review I had just read. It was not, in my opinion, extremely positive. And there was not much in common between my novel and this other hardworking writer’s book, save the sleuths’ profession. The characterization, according to the review, was far different starting with the protagonists’ sex. Also, the book that made my heart stutterstep is not a procedural.

It’s not the same book, not the same series. Just the same job. If anything, the review I read should have immediately confirmed my belief that what I had judged to be a highly unique profession is truly an excellent concept for a mystery series. (The book being reviewed, after all, was published by Knopf.)

By the time I finished vacuuming the house—I even did under the furniture, for God’s sake—I was able to breathe again. And my wife once again echoed her mantra, “This is the life you chose.”

Wednesday, September 02, 2009


Rick got my wheels turning on the topic of creativity. I, too, find myself coming up with the solutions to plot problems at the oddest times. Driving often brings on these ruminations, when I should be paying attention to traffic. I’ve even driven by exits, though maybe I shouldn’t admit this publicly. Riding my bike and playing piano scales or arpeggios put me into this problem-solving state, also. I prefer the musical meditations, because they’re safer, but I can’t always control it.

One author I know plays solitaire, though she maintains that it can’t be done on the computer. She has to handle real cards and let her mind dawdle with the number sequences sitting before her. There must be some kind of brain wave activity going on that lets a person do a rote activity while working on a deeper problem. I’m sure there’s a name for it, but I don’t know what it is.

My husband complains that he isn’t creative, but I think he’s wrong. He could be as creative as others, but his job requires that he talk to different people all day long, and this requires a focused, finely directed energy. Which to me is the vigor I need when I type the actual words on the page. Same with editing and reediting. It’s the down time when I come up with what I think are my best plot devices, those twists and surprises.

Say, speaking of down time, do you find that the Internet and email can often derail these gossamer thoughts? It may be that sense of obligation that brings a person to earth, or the act of communicating hard facts. Don’t get me wrong—I love doing Internet research. But one thing leads to another, and hey, I’d better check that fact on Wikipedia before I put it in the story. When exactly did Desert Storm (or fill in the blank) occur? And I didn’t know she married HIM, and wait, he was accused of THAT?

Where was I, anyway?

Perhaps I’m just an undiagnosed ADHD. Or getting old. But I just figured out how my character will evade the desperate mercenary on his tail. I can’t wait to shift gears and write it down.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Out of control

Trolling for an idea for my entry this week, I reread John’s from last week. As Vicki would say, the creative juices started flowing.

But then I stopped. What are creative juices and where the heck can we find them?

I have this theory that creativity has a connection with one’s “dream state”, meaning that dreams and creative ideas both spring from the same place.

Case in point: several times I’ve come up with solutions to plot conundrums just at that point where my mind starts to wander a bit as I’m falling asleep. Of course, this is rather disruptive to my evening rest, because I learned early on that if I don’t get up immediately to write it down, I run the very great risk of getting up the next morning, knowing that I had my problem licked, but also knowing that my night’s rest had wiped away the memory of whatever it was.

So maybe the real well-spring of creativity is found by allowing one’s mind to spin loose. How many times have we realized something startling about our novels-in-progress when we’re out walking, driving to work, daydreaming on the sofa, or drifting off to sleep? I find that the more I actively think about the solution to a plot problem, the more that solution remains elusive. The best way to find it is not to think about it!

As a composer of music, I know the same thing happens in that creative endeavor. I’ll be walking over to the grocery store, for instance, and realize that a song idea or a terrific melody has just popped into my head. I wasn’t sitting at the piano in “composition mode”, waiting for that great idea to strike. I’ve never been able to do that. I'm probably not even thinking about music when it happens.

It’s the same thing with writing. I’m always astounded by what percolates to the surface when I’m far away from the computer or my journal.

I now carry a pocket recorder. It’s also on my bedside table at night. My wife has taken to wearing earplugs to bed. She says it’s because of my snoring, but I know better...