Friday, April 30, 2010

Talk of the Devil

When it comes to the iPad, I have to say I am 100 percent with John.

Having lived with mine for nearly a month now, it has become almost indispensable - for reading, writing, accessing news, email, surfing the net...

I love it.  The iPad and I are a union made in heaven.


... where I differ from John is the notion that with regard to e-books we need publishers at all.  Why?  What do they do for us?  They spend no money on promotion, they keep back our earnings for a year, or longer, and only pay us every six months (if we’re lucky).

So what do they do?  Well... they provide “an editor’s eye” on our work, get covers made, and print and distribute the books.  In the electronic age is any of that necessary?  After all, we can out-source the editing ourselves to freelance editors.  Same with the book covers.  

And we can sell direct to our readers through the online bookstores with which they have become so familiar - the very retailers that MacMillan would like to dictate to... taking the lion’s share of the profit for doing nothing that we can’t do ourselves.

Why shouldn’t WE take the lion’s share of the profit, and make our books available to readers OURSELVES, at a price that makes them even more attractive to buy?

The publisher is the middle man we don’t need any more!

Okay, so I’m playing devil’s advocate here.  I am published by some great publishers in France, Britain, and America, as well as elsewhere (he added hastily).  But the world is changing and people are making these arguments, with some validity.  It would be interesting to hear what other writers think.

Is it time to go it alone?

(PS: I just posted this from my iPad!)

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Call me a hypocrite…

…or wishy-washy or whatever you like, but I’m singing a new tune.

For my 40th birthday, my wife bought me an iPad. Now, you must first know that I just got a “grownup” cell phone, finally trading my disposable phone for monthly contract in April. So when the iPad first arrived, I had to ask my 12-year-old daughter what an “app” was. I’m the guy you see in line at the grocery store who pulls a beaten-up paperback from his jacket pocket to kill time. But after reading two novels on the iPad and using it to take meeting notes, I’m sold. Coupled with a recent guest lecture I attended, I believe electronic publishing isn’t just here to stay, I think it’s a good thing for consumers, publishers, and writers alike.

On Friday, John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan Publishing, spoke at Pomfret School, where I teach. Sargent discussed his career and his recent standoff with Amazon regarding electronic publishing pricing. In February, the CEO considered the future of the e-book, saw the upside, and made headlines by proposing Macmillan forgo its traditional sales model as it pertained to the e-book. When selling electronic titles, Macmillan decided to drop its existing “retail” model (publishers sell to retailers who in turn sell books to readers at a price determined by the retailer) for the “agency” model (publishers set the price and retailers take a commission on each unit sold). This changed a business model that survived hundreds of years, and Sargent’s decision made waves industry wide. In short, Macmillan dictated that its e-books be sold for $12.99, not $9.99 as Amazon intended.

A quick Google search of “John Sargent, Macmillan CEO” leads to both praise and damnation of the CEO. Some commend Sargent and Macmillan—New York’s smallest of the large publishers—for playing David to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos’s Goliath. Others claim outrage; these are readers who balk at higher per-unit prices. (Actually, I was thrilled to buy—and start reading, in three seconds—the latest Robert B. Parker hardcover for $12.99 instead of $27.)

I’m a simple scribe, but it seems to me that writers must align with publishers on this one. Sargent’s price increase makes perfect sense: publishers only get one sale on an e-book; regardless of lower production costs, there is no paperback to follow a hard cover. Finances aside, it takes a hell of a lot of trees to fill my local B&N. E-books leave a smaller footprint on the environment.

Electronic publishing is greener, faster, and cheaper. As a reader (a cheap one, at that), a writer (a mid-list author always looking for new venues for his work), and one who cares about the environment, I’m singing a new tune.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Book Covers and where they come from

I’m one of those people who believe a book cover should be an honest glimpse into the story. It can be a come-on (in fact, it should be, and therein lies the art), but it needs to be relevant. Not that what I think makes much difference, and we all know how little control authors have over their book covers. Try explaining that to a non-writer, though. It’s like telling an avid Barnes & Noble patron that publishers have paid big bucks for B & N to place specific books on those nice round kiosks just inside the entrance to the store. I’ve tried, and I usually see pity in the customers’ eyes. My books are conspicuously absent.

But back to covers, because I just had an odd cover experience. I like the cover to my last book, Pleasing the Dead, and it’s relevant to my story, thank goodness. But the art, without any reference to my book, just showed up on the latest cover of Mystery Scene Magazine. In fact, the cover refers to mystery author Randy Wayne White, who is a terrific writer. I enjoy his books. I also like Mystery Scene Magazine, and I am a regular subscriber.

My first inclination was to email the magazine publisher, but I stopped myself. No, I should email my own publisher first. And I did. No one responded. I know, they’re busy with other things, but isn’t anyone as curious as I am? I’d email the artist who did my cover, but I don’t have his contact information.

Perhaps the photo used for Pleasing the Dead is available on the Internet, in the public domain. And so? Should this concern me? Should I have been told before it was used on my book? If I had been notified, I’d probably have okayed the graphic because I liked it and it ties in nicely to my story. Vicki and I discussed this a bit, as we share the same publisher and she recognized the cover of Mystery Scene Magazine, too. Her covers are all original artwork. (They’re wonderful, too)

It’s not as bad as the cover Rick’s friend has to suffer, but it is a curious situation. Any ideas?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The cover art contract

This past week, I participated in a crime writers event in Picton, Ontario. Part of it was to announce this year’s finalists for Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis literary prizes in various categories. But’s that besides the point to what this entry is about. The real “meat” of the evening was a free-ranging discussion on various facets of our art by the assembled authors: Type M’s Vicki Delany, Michael Blair, Mary Jane Maffini, J.D. Carpenter, Violette Malan, myself and the organizer Janet Kellough. Believe me when I say, we covered the waterfront that night!

I also came away with one really profound thought that dovetails perfectly into some of the recent postings and discussion on Type M. It was uttered by MJ, who’s been in the business for a long time. I don’t remember how it came up, but I sat back at my end of the stage and mentally said, “Whoa.”

What MJ said (more or less) was this: “A book’s cover is a contract between the author and the reader — and you break it at your peril”. What she meant was that the cover art cannot sell something to the reader that isn’t a reflection of what’s in the book. As a cover designer I wholeheartedly believe this, and as an author, I know sales rely on it.

This was brought into clear focus by a writer/friend who is incredibly upset by the cover of her forthcoming novel. To say the least, the image used doesn’t even begin to reflect what’s on the book’s pages. Not only that, I suspect the image will be offensive to nearly all of the people who might otherwise enjoy this story, and those who don’t find the cover objectionable will be very unhappy with the story. That's a pretty good description of a publishing lose/lose situation, in my humble opinion. Additionally, the publisher told the writer that this is the final cover. Period. To my mind, the publisher has a death wish for this novel. If the book doesn't fail because of this very bad decision, it will be a miracle.

The bottom line is that this publisher clearly doesn’t understand Mary Jane’s concept of the unspoken “cover art contract” with the reader. That’s sort of frightening, isn’t it? I mean, it seems to me that this is Book Marketing 101 stuff. And they’re not a particularly small publisher, either.

As Peter pointed out recently, he often buys books because of the author. He makes a good point. We all do that. But what if you don’t know the author? What if you’re just walking through a bookstore to kill time and see a good cover? Isn’t your first urge to pick it up and see what the book is about? Conversely, you probably tend to walk right by a cover that’s a big turn off. Now what if neither of these covers fairly represents what the book is about? Publishers run the risk of doubly disappointing readers when that happens. Why? Because they paid for something they didn’t get.

And it’s so unnecessary. If you’re paying for a cover design, why get the image wrong, still pay the same amount of money, and then just watch helplessly as readers walk right on by?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Guest Blogger R.J. Harlick

Today's guest blogger is Canadian writer R.J. Harlick. R.J. newest's novel, Arctic Blue Death is a finalist for the Arthur Ellis Award for best novel.

A Different Kind of Research Trip

When it came time to write the latest Meg Harris mystery, I felt that it was time for Meg to go beyond the boundaries of her Quebec wilderness. Because I’d always wanted to go to Canada’s far north myself, I decided that Meg would go to the Arctic. That way I get to go too. And thus Arctic Blue Death was born.

A few years ago, during the longest days of the year, I found myself flying over the barren lands of northern Quebec on my way to Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, Canada’s newest territory. During my seven day trip on Baffin Island I also visited Pangnirtung, a much smaller, mostly Inuit community, known for its world famous Uqqurmiut Art Centre.

Uqqurmiut means ‘people of the lee side’ because Pangnirtung lies on the lee side of a spectacular mountain lined fjord. Pangnirtung on the other hand means ‘meeting place of the bull caribou’, which conjures up all sorts of images, while Iqaluit means ‘place of many fish’. Before Iqaluit became a booming metropolis of close to 8,000, the inlet on which it lies was probably once filled with arctic char. I don’t think that is the case today.

I spent a fascinating week roaming the streets of Iqaluit and Pangnirtung seeing as much as I could and meeting as many people as I could, from a young Inuk RCMP constable to a former teacher, who’d spent more than 30 years in the north. I came away with more than enough material, impressions and plot ideas to keep Meg busy.

My first impression was of a harsh and brutal land. It took me awhile to appreciate its underlying beauty. As Meg keeps telling herself, I had to put aside my southern sensibilities and see beyond the dirt and barren rock to what the land had to offer. And for me, that was the people, from the shy smiles of those I passed on the street to the warm welcomes I received in their homes. Everyone bent over backwards to help me gain insight into what it is like to live in one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet.

On the longest day of the year I was in Pangnirtung where the sun doesn’t set, but runs just below the mountain ridge on the opposite shore for an hour or so before popping back up again. No one seemed to sleep, including me. In fact at any hour of the ‘white night’ people, including kids, would be seen out walking or playing. There was even a group of teenagers playing golf along the rock strewn sandy shore. It was a 2 hole golf course with carpet for the golf green, for of course golf grasses don’t grow that far north.

When I’d flown to Iqaluit, I’d had a vague idea for a plot. I knew it would be about Meg’s father, who’d died while traveling in the Arctic when she was a child, but I wasn’t sure how he had died. I just knew that something related to his death would prompt her to go to Baffin Island. While I was being shown the Iqaluit RCMP detachment, the constable happened to mention one of her cold case files. It had to do with a plane that had gone missing over 20 years ago and was never seen again. The minute she said the words “missing plane” the light bulb went on. I knew I could do a lot with a missing plane and I have in Arctic Blue Death.

Needless to say much of what I experienced in Canada’s far north, Meg experiences when she flies to Iqaluit to finally learn the truth of what happened to her father.

To see some of my photos from the trip, go to my album.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Cover Story

I’m afraid I can’t avoid it.

I feel compelled to add my two cents' worth to the debate on book covers, and confess that I am a little ambivalent about their possible future demise.

On the one hand, it was never the book cover that drew me to the book. It was always the author. I remember, as a teenager, reading all the self-revised works of Graham Greene in a library edition with dull green covers and only the author name and book title. I didn’t care about the cover. Only about the content (as an aspiring young writer I was fascinated by his notes on why he had cut or revised passages in later editions).

On the other hand, when I later bought those same books in paperback edition to read again, I was very much drawn by the covers - watercolors painted by the artist Paul Hogarth who, over 20 years, had travelled to all the major locations in Greene’s books to paint them and capture their atmosphere.

And that he most certainly did. Those covers actually added something to the books. So much so that when Hogarth published a collection of his watercolors of 'Greeneland', entitled “Graham Greene Country”, I rushed out to buy it and spent many hours savoring them. Sadly, I loaned the book to my daughter and never saw it again (a salutory lesson about lending books, even to the people you love)!

Although I was interested to read Evelyn Waugh because of his reputation, the artwork on the covers of the famous Penguin collection, by design group Bentley/Farrell/Burnett, was a real add. The pastel art deco imagery somehow caught the era perfectly, and opened the door for the reader into an age gone by. Take a look at them here.

But I can’t help thinking that the new media offers new, and possibly better, opportunities. We should look at how the next generation musicians have adapted to the post LP era. I recently downloaded “Battle Studies”, the latest album by John Mayer (a towering talent in music and lyrics), to discover an electronic package that went well beyond the music alone. There was, of course, the cover art - the signature image for the album, used on all the websites. There was a video of one of the tracks, a video on the making of the video, one with the behind-the-scenes story of the album, and an interview with Mayer himself. There was access to all the lyrics, and notes on some of the songs, along, of course, with a full list of participating musicians. There were also four demo tracks. Much more than you would ever have got from an LP cover.

Why can’t we do the same with books? You will still always need a cover - the image that will be associated with the book on all the sites where it can be downloaded, an image that will still attract readers to take a look, or not.

Along with downloading a preview chapter for free, why not include a book trailer? And when the book is purchased in full, why not talk to your readers personally in a video, discussing the ideas and thoughts behind the book, the research that went into it, future plans. You could either deliver this to camera, or in the form of an interview.

You could also include music and images that you feel provide the reader with a sense of the book. Some of the five-minute videos I assembled of my research in China, set to appropriate music, attracted a lot of people to buying books from my China series. Take a look at one here...

Any, or all of these things, can be accessed by readers either before or after they read the book - as a teaser, or as an aftertaste.

So let’s not mourn the passing of an era too much. Let us celebrate the successes of the past, but grab the opportunities of the future.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Using News Items for Story Ideas

Every writer is asked where he or she gets their ideas. I don’t know where my ideas come from, but I know I’m always looking for good ones.

Often, I’ll hear someone say something provocative that I find riveting or outraging. For example, I attended grad school in Texas in the early ‘90s and during one of my father’s visits, we went to a public golf course and were paired with a local man. The conversation swung to a well-known PGA Tour player who had allegedly been involved in an alcohol-related domestic dispute about which our partner said, “It’s not like everyone doesn’t have a couple too many and slap the old lady once in a while, huh?”

Excuse me?

How could you forget that line? What he said outraged me, but how he said it—the casual shrug, the “Huh?” hanging at the end of the remark—hit me like water to the face: people like this actually exist. Two of my five Jack Austin novels feature strong women for whom life is a struggle. Somewhere in the threads of those novels, that comment, although unspoken, resonates.

Sometimes, an idea comes from the new. Here’s a brief I came across (and clipped) in last weekend’s “Hartford Courant”:

A man who was shot Saturday morning is in critical condition. Police received an emergency call of shots fired in front of an apartment building at 28-31 Warner St. around 9 a.m. Officers found a man in his mid-30s lying on the sidewalk after sustaining multiple bullet wounds. The man, whose identity was not released, was taken to an area hospital in critical condition, police said. The shooting occurred after a brawl between the victim and residents of the Warner Street building, police said. Another man had his skull cut by a blunt object, but the injuries are not life-threatening, police said. No one was arrested.

Put yourself in fiction mode. Who is the man? Will he live? What led to the “brawl between the victim and residents of the Warner Street building”? What was the “bunt object” that cut the other man? What will the shooting victim do when he leaves the hospital? This last question shows how I work: in my fictional version, I have already determined that this man will live.

Here are two of my all-time favorite clippings. (I have changed the names.) What strikes me about the first is that even the reporter covering the event (based on my interpretation of the story’s tone) felt sympathy for the child.

Coker Creek, Tenn. – Neighbors said that for months the ramshackle mobile home littered with piles of trash and beer cans was the site of loud parties and drunken fights, most in front of two young boys who lived there with their mother and her boyfriend. When it was quiet, they said, the children often were left alone with no food, sunning water, or electricity. Then, last week, the mother’s boyfriend was stabbed to death, and the 8-year-old boy confessed to killing him, the Monro County Sherriff’s Department said. According to police reports, the boy said John Smith, 41, had been hitting his mother. District attorney General Brian Tyler said authorities are reviewing the case to decide if the boy will be tried as a juvenile or an adult. Where the child is prosecuted depends on the motive and whether he has committed other violent act, Tyler said. The second-grader is accused of stabbing Smith in the chest Jan. 30 in this isolated rural community near the North Caroline border.

I use this one with my fiction students, asking them to write a flash fiction story based on this news brief. What is the boy’s name? What happens when he meets his mother afterward? What does his brother feel and say? What is D.A. Tyler like? Does Tyler have a young son? What becomes of the boy killer? I’ve never looked this story up online to see how it ended or what became of the players involved because I don’t want to know. I want to make the rest up.

Finally, consider this brief: High Point, N.C. -- Beth Joyce Smith, lost for two years as an amnesia victim living in an Oklahoma nursing home as Jane Doe, was reunited with her family Saturday. Her parents, brother, and sister-in-law were waiting as a doctor and two paramedics, all volunteers, arrived with her following an 18-hour drive from Oklahoma City. Howard, clutching a teddy bear, hugged each relative several times at the reunion at High Point Care Center. Her brother, Jeff Smith of Burlington, said she knew who he was immediately. Howard was injured in a hit-and-run highway accident in February 1998 and underwent major brain surgery. She was in a near-vegetative state, known only as Jane Doe, until July when she said she wanted to be called Beth instead of Jane. But she spoke little and was difficult to understand, and attempts to identify her through her fingerprints failed. Her identity was unlocked during a recent hospital stay for pneumonia, when she suddenly remembered her Social Security number.

It reads like a Dean Koontz novel, and, again, I use this one in class. How does Beth feel about her family? What becomes of her relationships in the nursing home? What is the 18-hour drive home like? Where does she go from here? How does she re-enter society? Does she remember the accident or the driver’s face? More importantly, will she ever?

The questions I list here show (hopefully) how I work—I meet the story half way. That is, I take the facts and run with them, spinning them to suit my needs. In the end, ideas are what we thrive on, and we’re all constantly looking for them. Sometimes all you have to do is keep your ears to the ground and read your local paper.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Things we touch

This book cover discussion got me thinking. Today I’m subbing for 10th Grade and 12th Grade AP English classes, and high on the walls in the classroom are quotes. I

always enjoy reading these, and one in particular caught my eye. “Authors leave us more than their words—they leave us a way of looking at life.”

This statement may make me sound ancient, but along with the loss of enticing book covers in the age of escalating electronics, I wonder if we’ll someday regret the impermanence of communication. Historians like David McCollough and Doris Kearns Goodwin have been able to pour through archives of letters and written memos stored by families, libraries, and museums. My friend Ann Parker, who writes a compelling crime fiction series that takes place in Colorado’s Old West, has shared that she’s delved into some of the same letters Wallace Stegner used for Angle of Repose. Wow, that is so cool.

Historians can hold these old documents and study the authors’ handwriting, when he or she faltered, scratched something out, or revealed insecurities and emotion. Other than reading between the lines, we can’t do that with email or texting. Although the storage capacity on my gmail accoun

t is huge, I delete a ton of email, partly because I’m overwhelmed, so I often don’t keep communication with friends and loved ones.

Because of the high probability that I’m an old fart who still likes a hand-written thank you note and turning the pages of a book, I asked one of the 10th grade classes if anyone read e-books. “No,” said one young woman, her voice strong, “I read real books.”

Real books, I like that. But this school has a bookstore to rival that of many colleges and these students have no choice but to buy assigned textbooks. For another young point of view, I texted my senior-in-college son, the one who wanted a Kindle for his birthday. Naturally, this made me remember the letters my parents wrote me when I was in college, the ones I kept and reread when I was homesick. I’ve probably written him two letters in four years. I call, text, or email almost every day, though.

“I have a question about books,” I asked. “Can I call you?”

“I’m heading to a speech by Bill Gates,” he relied. “I’ll call you after.”

Hey, I’d like to go to that talk, too, but I bet it’ll be posted on line. There is such a wealth of information at our fingertips, it often seems ethereal and fleeting. I plan to ask my son if he saves favorite books, or makes a decision to buy a book because of its cover. I certainly do, but you knew that already. If he takes my question seriously, I’ll let you know.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Read this!

I received an article that Vicki sent out this morning: Book jackets: An endangered art, by CNN contributor, Bob Greene.

Read it and let’s start a discussion. I think the piece makes some very cogent points, and also delineates some of the things we lose when we change technology.

Some points to consider:
• In the e-book era, will covers become irrelevant or morph into something else?
• If they morph, what will be different?
• Are book covers really important to a book’s success?

Rather than give you my take on all of this, I think it would be more interesting to see what Type M’s contributors and readers think.

Okay, go to it!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Keeping it Short

I loved the Haikus that Donis included below. What a great way to get a message across saying no more than what needs to be said.

Of course we don’t read fiction to get just the message.

John hated Mary, John killed Mary. The police killed John in a shoot-out.

Not exactly what we call a fun read.

I believe that learning the skills of keeping it short and simple can help an author learn what’s necessary and what can be cut without ruining the story. Beginning authors in particular, and I remember this well from my own first attempts, flounder around wildly not knowing what to include and what not to. When is too much detail too much, when is too much background too much? Regarding background, the answer is almost always. Background, too much, and way too soon, is often the first-time authors downfall.

I own a great book titled The Word’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death (Running Press, 1999. Edited by Steve Moss and John M. Daniel.) Every story in the collection is less than 55 words long. I use the stores when I give workshops sometimes to show how you can get an idea across quickly.

A couple of my favourites.

Hear No Evil by Rob Austin

“You’re free to go! Judge Hardy shouts at Clements, who bolts from the courtroom leaving his twelve peers frozen with disbelief in the jury box.
His ashen-faced lawyer finds shim kissing the courtroom steps.
“Do you believe it?” says Clements. “Not freakin’ guilty!”
In chambers Judge Hardy fits a new battery into his hearing aid.

The Transplant by Steve Sainsbury
Lying on the gurney, I felt the IV medications take effect.
“You came alone, right?”
“Yeah, Doc, just like you said. I get $10,000 for a single kidney?”
“That’s right, son.”
Slipping into unconsciousness, I asked with slurred speech. “Then... why... all the ... secrecy...?”
“Because I get twice that for a heart.”

Torture Session by Steve Elliott
A dirty, late-summer wind added to the tension.
“This should loosen up those lips,” he said, plunging a needle deep into an unsuspecting eye.
The recipient writhed in pain.
“Maybe you need a little heat.”
Flames blistered the victim’s flesh until death, mercifully arrived.
“Enough with you.”
Tommy moved on to the next grasshopper.

In the second story we learn an amazing lot about the two characters in a few words. The doctor is greedy and unscrupulous, obviously, but what do we know about the victim. He is young (doctor calls him son), probably poor, naive.

In the third story we learn almost all we need to know about this character. A psycho in the making. I love the way the single line about the wind adds just enough description.

The first story is just fun.

Its often been said that short stories are a way for beginning writers to tone their skills without putting in a couple of years on a novel. If you’re wanting to write, but just don’t have the time, why not try to see what you can do with 55 words or less?

(Note: If I am breaking copyright by reproducing these stories, I apologize. When I was the editor of the Toronto Chapters Sisters in Crime newsletter years ago, I wrote twice to the publishers to ask if I could reproduce one of the stories. No reply was ever received.)

Saturday, April 17, 2010


John here. It’s my pleasure to reintroduce Steve Steinbock. Steve is the regular Friday columnist at, the Mystery Short Story Web Log. He is a contributing editor for AudioFile, the review editor at The Strand, and he currently serves as the president of the North American chapter of International Association of Crime Writers. I found the following essay fascinating, and I think you will, too. Enjoy.

Steve Steinbock

I enjoy reading with my ears. Reading is as much an aural experience as it is an intellectual one.

I mean two different things by that. First, I tend to read slowly, savoring the feel of the words, and flow of the sentences. There is music to good writing, and an unpleasant clunk to prose written with a tin ear. Every once in a while you might even see my mouth move when I read, and it’s not because I’m mentally deficient, thank you very much.

The second meaning is that I listen to a lot of audiobooks. It wasn’t that long ago that people, upon learning about my interest in the spoken word, would react with supercilious surprise. “That’s cheating,” some would say. “It’s not real reading. It’s just for lazy kids and blind people.” Audiobooks have come a long way, baby.

In the early 1980s, most commercially available audiobooks were two-tape abridgments. In order to fit the average novel onto two 90-minute cassettes, most of the book ended up on the cutting room floor. (Incidentally, I still hear people referring to audiobooks as “books on tape” even though cassettes have become museum pieces and the phrase “Books on Tape” is a trademark registered to Random House.

Today far more unabridged novels are being recorded. I don’t know the exact percentage, but of the review copies I receive, there are about two unabridged books for every abridgment. When the books are abridged, it is typically a six hour recording on five CDs.

Audiobooks are not a substitute for traditional reading (or what I sometimes refer to as “eyeball” reading). It’s a supplement. I spend an average of two hours a day with a book in my hands and my eyes on the printed page. I love books. So when I’m driving, doing laundry or yard work, or (God forbid) working out, what could be more enjoyable and edifying than listening to a book. I’m effectively doubling my book-consumption.

I’ve been writing for AudioFile Magazine ( for more than a dozen years and have been a contributing editor for that magazine since 2000. Short shameless plug: AudioFile ( is the preeminent voice (pun not intended) of the audiobook industry and the US, and is a major industry resource internationally. Each issue of the magazine contains several hundred audiobook reviews along with news, interviews, and opinions about everything ranging from narration to engineering, language instruction to audiodrama.

Having written several hundred audiobook reviews, I’m often asked what makes them different from reviews of print books. The short and obvious answer is that in addition to evaluating the content, style, and voice of the book, I look at its audio elements. These include the narrator, the format, and production quality among other things.

My reviews for AudioFile all fit somewhere in the 125 word range. By contrast, most of my print-book reviews run around 400 words. That doesn’t give me a lot of space to go into plot details. I try to limit my story recap to two or three sentences, and no more than sixty words. By contrast, longer audiobook reviews, such as those I write for The Strand, I may devote several paragraphs, as much as three hundred words, to the story.

Something that a lot of reviewers lose sight of is that people read reviews in order to learn about which books they may or may not want to read (or listen to). At one extreme of unprofessionalism are the reviewers who simply recap the entire story, listing every character, delving into every subplot, sometimes spoiling all of the surprises that the author set so carefully. At the other end of unprofessionalism are the reviewers who use their reviews to show off how much they know and how witty they can be. No one wants to read a review to see how clever the reviewer is. (That’s what guest columns on a friend’s blog are for!)

When I write a review of an audiobook, whether for AudioFile or elsewhere, here are a few of the elements I’m likely to look at and listen for:

1. How is the narrator? This is the most obvious characteristic that distinguishes an audiobook from a print book. Another human being – other than the author – is acting as an interface between the written word and the consumer. Does the person speak clearly? Does he put the right amount of emotion into the reading? Does her style correspond with the style of the writing?

2. Character. A good narrator can put on a different voice for each character. When doing so, are the characterizations relevant to the character? Are they consistant?

3. Accents. A few really good narrators can shift back and force between authentic Russian, Hispanic, Brooklyn, or Buffalo accents. Listening to these is a treat. But I’d rather hear an exotic character represented by the narrators natural accent than to have a story ruined by clichéd or caricatured accents. the mispronunciation of place names and foreign terms

4. Pronunciation. The mispronunciation of place names and foreign terms can also ruin an audiobook for me. A good narrator or director will check with an expert in order to get words right. I’ve been called on several times to go over Hebrew and Yiddish terms for audiobooks, and the resulting production came off professionally. I’ve listened to several audiobooks that weren’t executed so carefully, and it just takes one wrong word to shut a listener’s ears. Place names are especially vulnerable. Having lived in both Oregon and Maine, I’ve been to the Willamette and Piscataqua rivers. I’ve also heard both words butchered by unprepared narrators.

5. Production and Recording. In this day and age, there is no reason for an audiobook to be badly recorded. But some still are. I’ve heard electronic buzzing, shuffling pages, and hollow acoustics on audiobooks. I’ve also heard firetrucks driving past badly insulated studios.

There are other aspects, of course. These are just a few of the ones I might address in an audiobook review. What do you listen for when you play an audiobook? I’d love to hear from you.


Peter and John’s (how biblical!) most recent posts, below, are about the value of cutting extra verbiage from one’s work.

Peter said that having been a screenwriter has taught him that “using crisp, pointed dialogue ... is worth a thousand words of telling your readers that Character A has a foul temper.”  John mentioned a James Patterson’s interview in which he states that he “cuts out just about every bit of extraneous information.”  An author should never put anything into his book that doesn’t explain character or advance the plot, Peter notes.  I use the same sentence whenever I teach a writing class.  

If you want to keep your readers’ attention, cut to the chase. Especially these days, and especially in the U.S., where many readers have no patience with description or exposition.  

Like John, I enjoy a bit of scene-setting.  A beautiful or clever turn of phrase always pleases me. But that doesn’t mean I believe that what I like defines the standard for good writing. I am not making a judgment about this.  Time marches on.  Styles and tastes change, and whose to say which is intrinsically better?  It is what it is.

In fact, I heard a Famous Author say that one of the best things he ever did to improve his prose style and technique was to learn to write poetry.  I’ve pondered this statement, and I must agree that there is nothing like poetry to teach you how to use the fewest possible words to make the biggest possible impact on the reader.

The amazing thing is that once you have written a few poems, once you have learned to fit your idea into the shortest possible form, your long-form style automatically changes without your having to even think about it. Your prose gains a vigor that it didn’t have before, because its power is no longer dissipated in a miasma of unnecessary words.

This is the idea behind of haiku, that style of Japanese poetry that strives to make a point, capture a moment of time, punch you between the eyes. To give you a powerful image in seventeen syllables, three lines of five, seven, and five.

I was looking for a few gorgeous haiku to use in this entry as illustration of the principle of brevity, perhaps a couple of gems about nature and mankind by great practitioners like Basho (An old pond -- The sound of a diving frog). Instead, I came across translations of several modern haiku that struck my fancy so much that I saved them. These were written by software geeks in Japan for use as computer error messages,  I think they’ll show that an ancient form can serve modern sensibilities very well.

Windows NT crashed.

I am the Blue Screen of Death

No one hears your screams.

Yesterday it worked.

Today it is not working.

Windows is like that.

Three things are certain

Death, taxes, and lost data.

Guess which has occurred.

You step in the stream,

But the water has moved on.

This page is not here.

Serious error.

All shortcuts have disappeared.

Screen.  Mind.  Both are blank.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Never Give Up, Never Surrender!

If it’s Friday is must be Phoenix. Arizona, that is.

I have washed up here after two intense weeks of touring to promote three new books out this year. Starting in the midwest, then moving up to Seattle and working my way down the entire west coast, I have finally settled in the desert for the next four weeks for preparatory work on two major projects...

...before resuming the tour in upstate New York, and working my way down the east coast to Washington DC.

The projects?

Well, the first one involves writing a screenplay. A French movie producer has bought the film rights to one of my China Thrillers, and commissioned my wife, Janice Hally, and myself to write the screenplay.

Janice and I met while working as screenwriters for TV in the UK, so are no strangers to writing for the screen, or working together. It is quite a different discipline from writing a book, although I have imported many of the techniques I learned as a scriptwriter to the writing of my books - the preparation of a scene-by-scene breakdown before starting the writing, the use of dialogue as the primary means of developing story and character.

While working as a script editor in television, I always used to tell my writers: “If your dialogue doesn’t move plot forward or develop character, then cut it out.” To be honest, I cringe when I look back at the dialogue I wrote in my early books, before my TV learning experience. Sharp, crisp, pointed dialogue that performs both of the above functions is worth a thousand words of telling your readers that Character A has a foul temper, and that a simple, thoughtless action is about to turn your protagonist’s life upside down.

In this case, I have to move the action of the story from Shanghai to Hong Kong, and change the nationality of my heroine from American to French. Both of which will require some fundamental re-thinking.

My second project entails research and development work on a book I must start writing this summer. It will be the second of a trilogy. The first, “The Blackhouse”, will be published in the UK next January (and hopefully not long after in the US). The follow-up must be delivered before the end of the year.

“The Blackhouse” was a book universally rejected by publishers in the UK four years ago, and only resuscitated 18 months ago when my French publisher read it, fell in love with it, and bought world rights. Since then it has been snapped up by publishers all over Europe - six publishers in Germany got into a bidding war over it - and finally... guess what... it got bought by a UK publisher, too! Not one of those who rejected it. But a wonderfully successful, independent publishing house called Quercus (they are the ones who bought the English language rights of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy) who not only loved the book but wanted more - hence the trilogy. I have now signed three-book contracts with both my French and British publishers.

The book came out in France, in translation, last October, to the best reviews of my career, and was named by a leading French mystery website as one of the best 25 mysteries of the first decade of the millennium.

So for those of you suffering from the depression that accompanies rejection (and I know it well) - this is a tale of hope. Publishers can, and do, frequently get it wrong. So obsessed sometimes with replicating the success of something that has been, many publishers often miss the potential of something new.

And the book itself? Well, it takes place on the Isle of Lewis in the wind-blasted Outer Hebrides of Scotland, and I believe it is the best thing I have ever written. The follow-up will also be set in the Hebrides.

A bit bizarre, you might think, to be developing a story set in a remote archipelago in the North Atlantic, and writing a screenplay set in Hong Kong, while soaking up the Arizona sun. And I guess it is.

But therein lies the power of the imagination.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

To Cut Or Not To Cut: An example of one scribe’s revision process

Editing a novel always gets me thinking about ways to offer a cinematic presentation of material and characters, which leads me to question what to leave in and what to take out, a painstaking process that pertains to plot (which I mentioned last week), character arcs, and even line-by-line editing.

I read an interview in NEWSWEEK in which James Patterson says he cuts just about every bit of “extraneous information.” I’m not willing to go that far. I enjoy reading and writing descriptions, details, and images that develop some aspect of a story. I guess each writer must define “extraneous” for himself. I strive to follow the less-is-more adage. But what to leave in? And what to take out? Questions I typically face are: How sparse is too sparse? Do I need attribution in my dialogue? Does the dialogue clearly convey the character’s emotion? If I add a clue here, is that tipping my hand?

Every writer, at one time or another, overwrites. Below are two example paragraphs from the novel I just finished—a first draft and a final draft—to show what I started with and explain what I did and why.

First draft:
The past is a soft voice always at your side, a voice you can’t outrun and can’t leave behind. Although the sound can be harmonious, its content can equate to a bedside shout in the dark. For me, memories of two people disturb my waking and sleeping moments—one, a boy I’d known years ago; the other, my father, who’d reappeared the previous night in a recurring dream.
The dream had surfaced three times now, bubbling from the depths of my subconscious. In it, there is a newspaper obituary with my name. The text beneath the name is always blurred. No photo. But it’s the unclear column that bothers me most: What did I accomplish? Do the smeared words represent worldly failings?

Final Draft (eight months later):
The past is a voice always at your side, and although its tone can be melodious, its content, depending on how you’ve lived your life, can equate to a bedside shout in the dark.
I was at my desk on a cold Tuesday morning in December thinking of a recurring dream. It had surfaced three times, bubbling from the depths of my subconscious. I always saw a newspaper obituary, my name at the top, the text beneath blurred. Never a photo. Yet the unclear column bothered me most. Did the smeared words represent my worldly failings?

What do you notice first? Probably that there is no mention of the speaker’s father in the final draft. That storyline was cut. It added some character development to the protagonist, but in the end, I thought it bogged down the plot. Second, the opening image is simpler and, I hope, clearer. Third, the scene is progressing much more quickly. “Bubbling from the depths of my subconscious” is a dreadful phrase and stopped me dead in my tracks when I read it months after writing it. (Thank God I cut it before some unsuspecting reader pulled the book from a store shelf and was blindsided.)

Now delve a little deeper. Notice what words I cut or changed. This was painstaking. I read this chapter aloud several times and these opening paragraphs over and over again until they sounded right, clear and fluid—all of that to cut 26 words. This process speaks to confidence: when I’m drafting, I’m not sure if I’m being clear enough, accurate enough, so I add appositives and (like most writers) overwrite the initial draft. The final draft, hopefully, offers clearer prose and avoids repetitions.

This is what I’ve been up to of late. Revision is a personal process and every writer has his or her own approach. I thought I’d share part of mine with you this week.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tips for Writers

I’m working with a couple of other mystery writers on our “seminars” for Jackson Hole Writer’s conference, which is from June 24 to 28 in—tada—Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Lise McClendon and I are going to do a day-long workshop on the shape of the novel (ambitious enough?) and I’ve been reading Robert Olin Butler’s From Where You Dream to prepare for it. This book is a series of lectures that have been compiled and edited by Janet Burroway. He’s got my wheels turning and I wanted to bounce a little of this off you, as I greatly respect your opinions. So here goes:

Butler, as you probably know, received a Pulitzer Prize for A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain. He writes nothing but fiction. I believe he thinks writing anything else pollutes his creative process, which was an eye-opener for me right there. He says artists need to be “sensualists,” and artists need to be “ravenous for the sensual experience in their lives.” He also says genre writers aren’t artists—good grief, I thought, that prejudice again? Artists need to dive into that “white-hot,” scary center of their dream world, and overcome the voice in their heads that makes them want to run away from this place. Okay, I can relate to that. We write crime fiction, after all.

We also have to avoid that critical voice that rattles around in our heads. He talks about getting into “The Zone.” This made sense to me, too. In fact, I find writing and exercise take me to the same meditative state. When I’m stuck on my work, it even helps to go for a bike ride. He also says we need to write every day. Okay, check, we try. But here was a new one: we need to avoid reading anything else before sitting down to our work. Not just someone else’s novel—he means any “nonsensual” use of language: the newspaper, the magazine in the loo, CNN, even the cartoons in the New Yorker! Don’t let any conceptual language into your head.

I have to think about that snippet of advice. Can I get to my Zone if I do this? Drat, I love my morning coffee and the paper.

Yearning HAS to be part of a fictional character, and Butler acknowledges that genre writers (also called writers of “entertainment fiction”) get this right. “Artists” are still kind of missing the boat on this. James Joyce said that there is a moment of epiphany in a work of art where “something shines forth in its essence.” Butler says there are two epiphanies, and Joyce’s is the second one. The first is in the beginning of the work, when the “deepest yearning of the main character shines forth.” Yes, this is good to remember.

But then he goes into his attack on “entertainment writing,” which he says employs the ruses of “abstraction, generalization, summary, analysis, and interpretation.” He makes a reference to The Romance Writer’s Phrase Book. I guess you can look up an emotion and find phrases to describe it. Passion=wildly beating hearts, etc. I have to confess, this puts me off a bit, too.

Butler says that nonartists, and he names Stephen King and Jean-Paul Sartre, know the emotional and intellectual effect they want to have on the reader ahead of time, and these genre writers write their books to produce these effects. This is a big no-no. The Artist does not know “what she knows about the world until she creates the object. The writing of a work of art is as much an act of exploration as it is expression, an exploration of images, of moment-to-moment sensual experience.”

Can't there be a combination of learning and creating a story that has an effect? I'm learning a lot as I read Butler’s lectures, but there’s a lot I question. I still believe genre fiction can be art, or—er—excuse me, literary fiction. I’d love to hear some of your thoughts.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A funny

What I wanted to post today is just not going to come together in time. I'm just that busy.

So I'm using a cheap ploy to at least post something. From the looks of it, this comic is probably from The New Yorker. It's apropos for Type M — and pretty funny. Hope you like it. I'll be back with something of more substance next week!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Reading Gold Digger in Afghanistan

Like Peter, I'm on book tour right now. Unlike Peter I am sticking very close to home.

On Friday April 16th we will be having the launch party for Gold Fever at Sleuth of Baker Street in Toronto. 6:00 PM. Consider yourself invited.

On Monday the 19th, I am speaking at the Toronto Reference Library on the topic: Tradition and Today: Making the Detective Novel Your Own. Consider youseif invited to that one also. 7:30.

And on Thursday April 22nd Books and Company in Picton, Ontario is hosting THE literary event of the season with an Arthur Ellis Awards shortlist party. Several prominent Canadian crime writers (including Rick Blechta) will be in attendence, giving readings and discussions. You are most definately invited to that one.

Becuase I don't have a funny cartoon movie to show like Peter did, here is a picture taken at the Canadian Military base in Kandahar. A Canadian goverment worker relaxes with a good book.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Guest Blogger Mary Kennedy

Our guest blogger today is Mary Kennedy, author of the Talk Radio series, featuring charming, humorous, sassy psychologist Maggie Walsh. Dr. Maggie has left her practice in New York to become a radio psychologist in Cypress Grove, Florida. She may think that being tucked away in her studio will keep her safe from all the crazies, but as it turns out, she'll have to think again. Dead Air, the first book in this new series,  was one of the TOP TEN Best-sellers on the Independent Mystery Booksellers Best seller list.  The second installment, Reel Murder, will be out in June.

Mary Kennedy is a former radio copywriter and the award-winning author of forty novels. She is also a clinical psychologist in private
 practice and lives on the east coast with her husband and eight eccentric cats.  Her novels have appeared on the Barnes and Noble, Publisher's Weekly and BookScan best-seller lists and she has received an award and grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for "artistic excellence in literary fiction."

Why, you may ask, would a practicing psychologist move to the back of beyond to become a radio personality? Mary Kennedy's own background may have given her unique insight into Maggie's motivation.
Mary Kennedy

Like my character Maggie Walsh in The Talk Radio Mysteries, I'm a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice. Of course, there's one big difference between us (besides the fact that Maggie wears really cute outfits and great shoes!) Dr. Maggie didn't stay in private practice. She jumped ship, closed up her Manhattan practice and escaped to sunny Florida to become a radio talk show host. She did a 180. 


A few readers have asked me to tell them more about the "backstory." They want to know why Maggie would "throw away" all those years of training (and a cushy practice in The Big Apple) to move to a small town that reminds her of Mayberry. Why did I have Maggie leave New York? After all, she could have continued her Park Avenue practice and hosted a show on one of the smaller radio stations in the suburbs. Why was it so important for her to move to Florida? 


Well, the short answer is, I wanted to give Maggie a "fish out of water" experience. Cypress Grove is unlike anyplace else she's ever lived. "Fish out of water" plots are always fun to write because there's built-in conflict. Everything is new and unfamiliar. The character feels uneasy, edgy, struggling to survive in her new environment. 


I've lived in New York, Quebec, Grenoble, Nashville, and Kinston, North Carolina. Every move required a big adjustment. Have you ever felt like your whole world was turned upside down when you moved? Did you feel unsettled, off your game, or did you settle in right away and make new friends? I'd love to hear how other people deal with moves, changes and transitions. Was it fun, challenging, or a complete disaster?


Saturday, April 10, 2010

Interesting Times

I’ve been following Rick’s posts on the future of the publishing industry and e-book publication with great interest.  On April 4, the major Phoenix area newspaper, The Arizona Republic, published an article on this very topic.  The article, entitled “The Plot Thickens”, was written especially for the Republic  by one Max Jarman, and appeared on the front page of the Business Section.  

Jarman writes that many people fear that the rise of electronic readers will spell the eventual end to hardcopy books, traditional publishers, and bookstores. However, Jarman’s take on this rather scary prospect is decidedly upbeat, and he sees many advantages for readers and authors both.

He writes that “the ‘direct-to-consumer model’ for book distribution eliminates shipping, warehousing, and return of unsold books, and allows the simultaneous availability of millions of new and out-of-print titles.  That could lower prices to consumers and libraries, and allow greater royalties and profits to authors and publishers.”

Jarman thinks that the explosion of online publishers offers authors many more opportunities to get into print (as it were), and makes them less dependent on agents and traditional publishing houses.  He points out that online stores such as Amazon and Coolerbooks are already dealing directly with authors.  There is even an outfit called Scribd that “will publish any [my italics] submission, post it for sale, and give the author eighty percent of the proceeds.”  Before its tiff with Macmillan, which wanted to be able to sell its hot titles for at least $15, Amazon was offering seventy percent of e-book sales proceeds to authors and publishers, as long as they would agree to sell the product for $2.99 to $9.99. As we all remember, Macmillan won that one, at least for the time being.

My question is this: which is better, Seven to ten percent of a $25 book, or eighty percent of a $3 book? According to my trusty calculator, seven percent of $25 is $1.75, and eighty percent of $3 is $2.40.  If you or your publisher sell one thousand copies of Book A, you’ll make $1750.  One thousand copies of Book B will get you $2400. If you had a choice between buying exactly the same book at $25 or $3, which would you choose? Of course, it isn’t really that simple, as I’m sure you will hasten to point out, Dear Reader.  If the above-mentioned outfit Scribd will publish any old book at all, how is the reader going to be able to navigate through all the absolute dreck in order to find something that is well-written and worth not just $3, but several hours of your life to read? And if you're the author, who is going to get your book reviewed and publicized if you have no traditional publisher?  And yes, I do realize that just because you have a traditional publisher, that doesn't mean you're going to get reviewed and publicized, either.

As for booksellers, Jarman thinks that “the growing sales of digital books through Amazon, Coolerbooks, iBooks, and Google Editions could hasten closures of traditional book stores,” though specialty and used bookstores will survive by offering readers services and amenities, such as author events, cafes,and book exchanges, that an online store can’t.  He even quotes Barbara Peters, who is the editor for several of us on this blog and owner of Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, AZ, who says that her staff helps readers with selection, thus “offering a service that is hard to duplicate online.”

I don’t know what’s going to happen.  I can’t even offer an opinion, because no idea ever turns out to work the way its conceiver envisions. I think that there will be all kinds of unintended consequences, and savvy entrepreneurs will come up with all kinds of clever enterprises. All I know for sure is that we book people; authors, bookseller, publishers alike, have been smitten with that old Chinese curse that goes, “May you live in interesting times.”


I created a link to Max Jarman's complete article, above, but it has been archived and there is now a charge to look at it on the Republic website. There may be another way to get to it, but if there is, I'm not up to finding it. Best of luck.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Tales of Mere Existence

It’s after midnight. I have just driven 8 hours south from Sacramento to Newport Beach. I am juggling blogs - my tour blog, and my TMFM Blog. And, to be honest, my brain is gone. Lost somewhere between the orange groves and the Grapevine. Who said the life of a writer is glamorous?

You can check out my daily blog from a writer on the road at

Every day is a new experience. Last night was spent at the house of Janet Rudolph, editor of Mystery Readers International magazine. A house built on a mountainside overlooking the Bay Area, with spectacular views of San Francisco. Today was a drive through the breadbasket of California, leading to the lights of Los Angeles spread out along 40 miles of Pacific coast, as the folds of the Grapevine parted to reveal it.

I landed on US soil 9 days ago, since when I have done eight promotional events and a live radio interview. This morning I received an email with the finalized agreement for the purchase of the movie rights to one of my China Thrillers, and a commission to write the screenplay.

Next week, after another three promotional events, I will land in Arizona for a four week stay - to work on the screenplay, and the research and development of my new book. After which the tour will resume with a flight to upstate New York, and a trek down the east coast to DC.

My tour schedule was put together by my wife. I am beginning to think that she has taken out a secret insurance policy on my life, and is trying to commit Murder by Book Tour!

At any rate, as I hurtled down the freeway tonight, with the dark settling all around me, my thoughts turned to my Friday contribution to TMFM. And I thought back to a previous blog about procrastination - that curse of the writer in search of any excuse not to write. And I remembered an entirely apposite “live” cartoon from one of my favourite Youtube contributors, Lev Yilmaz, whose “Tales of Mere Existence” are not to be missed. Take a look. I am sure you will recognise this syndrome. Just substitute “writing” for “stuff”.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Mystery (and everything else that goes into one)

Debbie’s excellent post last Wednesday, “Romance in Mystery,” drew many comments and got me thinking about what I like in a mystery and about some of my own writing flaws.

“Readers love a little romance in their mysteries,” Debbie wrote, “or do they prefer mystery in their romance?” As a reader, I enjoy a complex plot and like trying to unravel the mystery before the sleuth, but I also want more from a book than a thrill ride. I like a solid back-story or a parallel plot, details aside from the central story that cast the characters in brighter or softer light. For instance, when THE DA VINCI CODE came out, my wife bought it, read it, loved it, and passed it on to me. I read it and enjoyed it but told my wife I didn’t know any more about the protagonist when I finished the book than I did when I began it; not my cup of tea. (Obviously, given Mr. Brown’s success, I may well be in the minority.)

I like a wide canvass when I write as well. Aside from the central plot, I enjoy delving into one or more parallel plots, which made Debbie’s post so intriguing. On that note, last week, my agent finished reading my current project and offered his usual excellent critique. He asked me to reel the story in a little, to eliminate one entire subplot. At first, I was hesitant. We sent e-mail volleys back and forth. In the end, though, I trust his opinion for several reasons: he edited the likes of Robert B. Parker, Sara Paretski, and Patricia Cornwell for 25 years before becoming an agent—and he’s not the first one over the years to make a similar suggestion. My editor for the Jack Austin series made analogous recommendations on a couple of those books. It’s taken three weeks, but the revised version is much better. (Thanks, Bob Mecoy!)

Like any writer, I continually strive to get better, to raise the stakes with each new project. I’m also coachable. Yet, in the heat of composition, the former unconsciously trumps the latter. As I raise the stakes and the books get more complex, so do the characters’ lives and the ensuing parallel plots. I strive only to add details or subplots that make the novels richer, but the trick is learning how much is too much. And it doesn’t get easier if you’re continually pushing yourself.


On a side note, my iPad arrived Saturday. As promised, I will keep readers updated. First impression: it is outstanding. I purchased THE PROFESSIONAL, Robert B. Parker’s last Spenser novel, and am having no problem reading the text on the LCD screen. And, if you like classics, there are many free books. I downloaded Poe and Twain, for starters.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Bottom Line

I particularly dislike the phrase “change is inevitable”, probably because it’s true. I suspect that I’m not alone in this dislike. That’s because change is inevitably disruptive, messy and quite often not a pleasant experience for those caught up in its maelstrom.

Well, even though I could probably go on for weeks on my little prognostications on what’s changed and what’s going to change in the book publishing biz, the bottom line is that in, let’s say, five years we’re not going to recognize the new paradigms that will describe our happy little world.

Can we do a thing about this change? No. But we can weather it by watching, looking and trying to understand. Another truism: “You can either ride the wave or be crushed under it”. Since we can’t change the flood of change, why even bother clinging to the old ways? Much as I hate to say it since I really love good, old fashioned, paper books, they may disappear. They may become curiosities like long-playing records: still manufactured but only for a very specialized market. I’d hate that — and I hope I’m wrong — but it's going to happen. I'm sure that, way back when, there were monks gnashing their teeth at the fact that they're beloved illuminated manuscripts were going the way of the dodo. (Come to think of it, that long ago even the dodos hadn't yet gone the way of the dodos.)

The best we lowly writers can do is embrace whatever happens. You’ll please note that I’m not suggesting you rush out and blindly support any change in technology or logistics that happens, but be aware of them, make careful note of the progress each change is making (because many things will be tried and many found wanting) and then try whole-heartedly to embrace whichever one makes it to the top and is then thrust upon you.

Sooner or later, one of us is going to have his/her publisher say, “We want to put out your next novel only as an e-book, no paper.” At that point, the hard decision is going to have to be made: do I say yes, or do I walk away?

I was faced with something like this with my third novel, Shooting Straight in the Dark. The publisher was McClelland & Stewart, a Canadian icon and the publisher of Margaret Atwood, for one. My editor told me that the decision had been made to only publish in trade paper. She then apologized profusely for that decision. I told her I thought that it was terrific. After all, it would be a lot easier to get a reader to shell out a smaller amount for a book by an author of whom they’d probably never heard. Unfortunately, M&S made the price ridiculously high for what they were selling (about $8-10 less than price for a hardcover), but I’m sure more copies were sold, regardless.

So will you say yes to an e-book only, or just walk away?

Monday, April 05, 2010

Entering the Creative Space

CBC radio runs a programme called Spark which is all about the world of computing and the Internet and how it is changing our lives. Today I heard an interview which stuck with me. The guest was talking about creative spaces. Meaning spaces as in gaps, not physical places.

She said that in the past when people were engaged in a creative activity, which of course to me means writing, if they got to a point where they were stuck, they would take a break and look out the window perhaps, go to the kitchen or water cooler for a glass of water, let their mind move. This works with something as minor as looking at the flowers on your desk or the picture you keep there of your loved ones.

Then, once your mind was in the place of the creative space, it would kickstart itself (I am now using completely my own interpretation of what she had to say), and you’d return to the creative task with fresh inspiration.

In the age of the Internet, however, as soon as we have a momentary pause, we flip over to Outlook to send off an e-mail and read three others, or we check our Facebook account, or Tweet to #writing to say we how hard we are writing.
We are not entering a place of the creative pause.

I have absolutely noticed that with myself. Sometimes, I don’t even realize that I’m doing it. The mind will hesitate over the next thing to happen in the book, and wham! my fingers have sought out the Inbox. I have tried closing down mail and all browsers. Works for about fifteen minutes and I have to check quickly to see if anyone thinks I’m important enough to send me an e-mail.

I have talked to writers who have two computers, one for writing and one for all other stuff. That sounds like a great idea, but I don’t want two computers; I don’t want to get into having to shift documents around between one and the other. I have a laptop and a wireless router because I like to carry the laptop around the house and take it outside.

You know where this is going, don’t you? I’m going to have to switch the router off when I’m writing.

I have a self-imposed no-computer zone in the second story of my house. It is my rule that I never take the laptop upstairs. Once I am ready to settle down for the night I want my quiet time to bathe and read before falling asleep. (I don’t have a TV or a radio upstairs either.) I almost never come back downstairs after going up for the night. Anything I think of that needs to be done on the computer can wait until morning.

Thinking about this today, and about the creative space, I started thinking about whether the constant access to the Internet has affected my own writing. I’ve written before about how invaluable it is for doing research, but I’m thinking now about the creative process itself.

I have always written fiction on a computer. Way back in the ‘80s I was one of the few people I knew to have a computer in the house – my company gave me one to take home. It was an IBM PS/2 as I recall. Of course we didn’t have the Internet, or not something totally all-encompassing then. When did it become such an integral part of our lives? By 2000 at least probably.

At a guess, my first three books were written without the constant presence of the Internet. Are they different, most importantly are they better, than what I have written since? I can’t say. When I worked full time I wrote in the evening, usually with a glass of wine at hand. Now I write in the morning with a pot of coffee at elbow and that has probably had a strong effect on the quality of my prose also!

I am just beginning the next Molly Smith book, and am in the throes of what I find to be the really hard work: getting the plot down and building momentum and trying to give all the characters something worthwhile to do. (See Donis below about the pleasure of rewriting.)

If I’m going to get it done, and make it good, I need to spend some time in the creative space.

Tomorrow, I’ll switch the router off.

Let’s hope my head doesn’t explode.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

How ideas fly in...

Blechta here. This week’s Sunday guest here at Type M is Irish/Canadian thriller author Roy French. With his latest novel just released, he’s priming the publicity pump, so we thought it would be a perfect time to ask him back. You can find out more about Roy and what he does at This man knows about what he’s writing. I can’t tell you how I came by that information because I’m sworn to secrecy.

People often ask, “where do your ideas come from?” and my response is always the same. Not a clue. Some incident will prompt a moment of introspection, or someone will relate a story that makes me wonder about possibilities.

Growing up near Belfast and being exposed the ongoing maelstrom of violence makes me question why I survived and others didn’t. Everyone has a story to tell; about the time they were late to the pub, late to the store, switched shifts, and managed to escape the transition of a building to a pile of burning rubble via car bomb, etc. And so to my latest story, Raven’s Shadow.

The core of the story, triggered by a newspaper article and fairly apropos these days, is about the absolute faith we place in physicians. You gets some tests done, you get the news that you have cancer and only a few months left on your dance card, and that you should put your affairs in order. For a dying man, who is in relatively good health, the branch hanging from the bank is a costly, experimental treatment in a clinic in Costa Rica. With money being no object, you set sail, never knowing that you are about to partake in the biggest scam of your life. Which one of us, if presented with such a scenario, would not fling themselves headlong into the nearest plane?

There are many layers wrapped around this, but that was the core of the new book, along with the usual sex and violence, of course. With medical tourism ever expanding these days; a trip to India for a hip replacement and a vacation, or Mexico for cosmetic surgery, or China for a kidney, the opportunities for criminals to exploit people at their most vulnerable continues to grow. The recent case in New Jersey (hardly a surprise) of the funeral home attendants who were removing bones from cadavers and replacing them with bits of piping stills creeps me out, but is another example of the high, black-market demand for organs and bone grafts. It seems that criminal enterprise is alive and well, and all-pervasive.

Alastair Cooke, the veteran BBC broadcaster, is probably spinning in his grave, knowing that his bones are spinning somewhere else…

Saturday, April 03, 2010


I’ve finally finished the first draft of my next book, Crying Blood, and have begun the rewrite.  We’ve all heard many times that writing is rewriting, and anyone who’s ever scribbled a page knows that’s true.  At least I’ve never met a literary Mozart, whose first draft is so perfect that it doesn’t need any alteration.  In fact, most authors I know, even very well known and accomplished authors, think of their first drafts as something too embarrassing to be seen by anyone.  It’s the rewriting that makes the book.  If I may repeat something I’ve said here before - and never let it be said that I missed an opportunity to repeat myself - you have to have that block of marble before you can carve out a statue of David.

Rewriting is the fun part, as well.  The first draft is eked out of you like bone marrow, but with the rewrites, you have something to play with, to refine, to remodel, to put makeup on and make beautiful.  I’ve just begun rereading and adjusting, making sure that the beginning matches the end.  After the first draft, my beginnings never do match the end, for somewhere in the middle of the writing, I changed my mind about this character, or this action, or this story line.  And I didn’t waste time by going back to the beginning and fixing it to fit my new vision. No, no, that way lies madness.  I can get (and have gotten) caught up in an endless merry-go-round of fixes and never reach the end. I just kept going until the book was done, with every confidence that I could repair all the inconsistencies when I was done.

As I reread the story, it’s interesting to see how it all turned out, to remember what I originally had in mind and see how the tale changed as I moved through it. Questions come up as I put all my ducks in a row, and here is one that I always struggle with: how much explanation is too much?

For instance, in one scene, there is what looks like a coincidence.  Coincidences do happen in life, but you’ve got to be very careful about putting one in a mystery story, lest the action seem too contrived.  And yet, when I set about to explain how this came about, I didn’t like the way it sounded.  Too much exposition and not enough action. 

Do other of you writers out there struggle to find a balance between making it real and making it exciting, or romantic, or terrifying, or however you want it to come out?

I’ve read and loved many books that elide over illogical plot points, some best-sellers, too. As long as I like the story, I don’t really demand existential reality in my reading.  Yet I don’t like holes in the plot that are big enough to drive a truck through.  Have I done that, or shall I let my coincidence stand and devil take the hindmost?  I’ll have to let my pre-readers tell me, for I can no longer tell.