Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Too much Caffeine, and Inspiration

I’m jetlagged, jittery with joe (Peet’s Italian roast, yum), and overflowing with ideas. I’ll probably crash in about four hours, zzzzz…

John’s post last Thursday was indeed inspiring, and I had a similar experience at the Jackson Hole Writers’ Conference. The director, Tim Sandlin (Jimi Hendrix Turns Eighty), limits the conference to about 120 attendees. The conference is not limited to any particular genre; Tim invites guest faculty from an assortment of writing backgrounds. This year included assorted fiction writers for adults and younger audiences, including Janet Fitch (White Oleander), Susan Juby (Alice, I Think), and Louis Bayard (The Pale Blue Eye), magazine editors and contributors, poets, agents, and editors from four publishing houses.

Aside from this wellspring of enthusiastic inspiration, what grabbed my attention was that at least six attendees were under 18. These young people were fully participating members of the group. They attended panels, talks, workshops, and –best of all—spoke up with questions and comments. I hope they know how happy this made the adult attendees. Tim is all over this, too. He has a special conference fee for a Parent/Teen combo.

Along with the motivation of youth, Lise McClendon (Blackbird Fly) and I did a day-long fiction writing seminar we called “Truly, Richly, Deeply.” Our goal was to help attendees to learn to trust their unconscious and find their true voice. We also planned to work on solving plot problems and creating characters who matter. One of Lise’s ideas was to involve our class in a guided meditation. I hoped I could pull it off. Crisis of confidence, definitely.

The whole meditation concept scared the crap out of me. When I confessed to her that I wasn’t a meditation type, or at least I didn’t think so, she pointed me toward Robert Olin Butler’s book, edited by Janet Burroway, From Where You Dream. Butler stresses that to write well, writers must get in touch with their unconscious and write from this place, using the senses.

This resonated, but I let Lise lead the exercise. After the fifteen-minute meditation, which was similar to the last part of a good yoga class, we left our students to write for about 45 minutes. When we came back, we asked who wanted to read. Everyone did—and it blew my socks off. The writing was astounding. It was much, much better than most of the manuscripts the same students had submitted. It was from the heart: uncontrived, sensual, unusual.

Students came up to us over the next four days, thanking us for the breakthroughs they achieved with their characters. Lise and I sighed with relief, naturally. And we’re going to build on the idea for next year. But most of all, it was a win-win situation. We were inspired, too. I’m going to leave you now—and meditate a bit.

Monday, June 28, 2010

A Look Back at Scare the Light Away

Last weeks’ blog post about my second novel, Burden of Memory, was such fun, I thought I’d recall the first book, Scare the Light Away.

The books were actually written in the opposite order. When I finished Burden of Memory, Poisoned Pen Press was not accepting submissions. I sent it into a few other publishers, got enthusiastic but negative responses. As every writer should do, I dove straight into the next book and when it was ready, PPP’s doors were again open. I learned a lot from reviews and reactions to Scare the Light Away, so I made some major changes to Burden of Memory and off it went, and was accepted.

Scare the Light Away is also a standalone, similar in tone to Burden of Memory in that it is a contemporary psychological suspense with a back story of something that happened in World War II that is affecting events of today. No ghost story though.

In this case Rebecca McKenzie, a Vancouver investment banker, returns to her home and the family from whom she has been long estranged for her mother’s funeral. Down in the basement, buried in old wooden tea chests, she finds her mother’s diaries of her experiences in England during the War and then of coming to Canada as a war bride. She discovers a HUGE skeleton in the family closet.

Meanwhile, a young woman has disappeared and the small Northern Ontario town in an uproar. Rebecca’s brother, whom she has hated her whole life, is suspected of the crime. She must decide if she can put ancient animosities aside, with help from her mother’s dairies, and believe in her brother’s innocence.

(Incidentally, the town in the book is Huntsville, Ontario, much in the news this week as the site of Friday’s G8 meeting.)

Perhaps the character I most enjoyed looking back at is Samson, the dog, who plays an important part in the book. One reviewer said that Samson was the best and most realistic dog character to appear in a mystery novel in years. (In interests of being fair – another said the book suffered by the Timmy’s-fallen-into-a-well dog).

I did a lot of research into war brides, and got some lovely letters from readers telling me about their experiences. What I found most interesting was the unpleasant lives a lot of women came to in Canada. In many cases their young man had either lied to them about what his life was like in Canada or had simply made up a story and then didn’t know how to retract it. Vast ranch spreads turned out to be hardscrabble farms, and wealthy families to be labouring working-class. Women from close-knit English villages or the pleasant countryside found themselves stuck in the Canadian wilderness, sometimes hundreds of miles from the neighbours. Remember that even sixty years ago, when someone left England for a life in Canada or the U.S., unless they were fairly wealthy there was an expectation that they would never be able to return for a visit. Never see their families again.

The world is changing so fast that even the lives of our own parents can seem so very different than our own.

But of course when it comes to love and hate and redemption and revenge, nothing every changes.

NOTE: Both Scare the Light Away and Burden of Memory are now available for Kindle and most other e-book formats.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

When Technology Fails

Apologies to Type M readers. I am in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland right now researching the second of my Lewis-based novels. Wifi access is sporadic and unreliable at best - so much so that I missed my Friday posting to Type M For Murder. But as I sit gazing across the Sound of Eriskay towards the distant islands, nothing much else seems to matter. It is a place of rare beauty. I will write to tell you all about this extraordinary research trip next week (Internet access allowing).

At home between the poetry and the pulp…

I'd like to welcome our guest blogger this Sunday, C.B. Forrest. Chris' first novel The Weight of Stones which was a finalist for the Best First Novel Arthur Ellis Award last month. It's a terrific book, well worth its accolades. This fall, his second novel, Slow Recoil, will be released. You can read all about it at


I recently had the privilege of being selected to do a reading as part of the Mystery Café series during Bloody Words 2010. Not only did I earn some bucks for the reading — (which made me feel like a reckless and bona fide author when I turned around and blew it on gin tonics) — but I was also provided a rare opportunity to share thoughts on pretty much any theme or topic related to crime writing. It’s quite unusual for someone to say to me, ‘Hey Chris, why don’t you go on out there and talk about whatever you want’. At least people who know me tend not to say this. I suppose it’s an issue of trust and past behaviour.

I chose ‘The Accidental Mystery Writer’ as the title for my reading and presentation because, well, it pretty much sums up my experience as a fledgling and innately frustrated writer. I used the life and works of James M. Cain as the starting point for the discussion. I feel a kinship of sorts with Cain, and maybe even David Goodis for that matter (but Goodis is another story for another blog, one which focuses on having your ideas stolen and how to make the perfect Rusty Nail and what not...)

James M. Cain - the former serious journalist who penned the utterly perfect The Postman Always Rings Twice, and the nearly as brilliant Double Indemnity back in the late ’30s and early ’40s — had a penchant for opera and fine scotch. He also apparently despised the employment of labels which he considered painted a writer into a corner, and probably more importantly closed off entire audiences to his work. He is, of course, now long associated with the so-called ‘hard-boiled’ and ‘pulp’ movements of the ’40s and ’50s.

Railing against a system that stamps out labels, he famously wrote:

"I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices, and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort."

This is where I foolishly, or perhaps pure-heartedly, sympathize with Cain. I spent fifteen years toiling on various incarnations of the next great literary novel. You know, books with The Big Themes that are covered in all the good country and western songs: love, loss, good sex, bad dogs, and too much drinkin’ — although not necessarily all in the same book. I spent about two years writing each masterpiece (they are called, in the order they are stuffed in boxes under my bed: Coming To, Inside The Distance, Beneath This Stillness, Chasing Pace, and Strange Arrangement).

Oh I came agonizingly close a few times — once just as the accepting publisher was preparing to transition from indie literature to shelling out cook books and tourists maps. But mostly I just wrote and I sent things out and I waited by the mailbox. I collected a few dozen rejection slips (a handful of them surprisingly hand-written), stopped writing altogether for three years in there and started a rock band, gave up hard liquor and then switched exclusively back to hard liquor, turned vegetarian for about four days, read a brochure on yoga and really thought about it for a while, renovated a hundred-year-old house from top to bottom, moved cities a few times, and then presto, woke up one day in the mid-2000s to find I had been a victim of Labelling.

That’s right, I had been labelling myself all along, telling myself I had to be a ‘literary writer’, as though exclusivity in that domain could mean anything but a life of frustration and liver damage. Like Cain, I thought I wanted to be taken seriously by miserable, ashen-faced men dressed perpetually in tweed coats reeking of pipe tobacco and moth balls. I mean, who wouldn’t?

Ironically, like Cain, when I looked back over my body of work, every single novel had a crime at its centre. Murder or bank robbery, or something bad that happened to someone was always my impetus for exploring the grey area that exists in all of us. I like that world, I think I understand it, and so in hindsight it seemed so glaringly obvious that I might just be a crime writer after all. A ‘literary crime writer’, perhaps? Hey, why stop self-labelling now? (Cain just rolled over in his grave and winked at me.)

My first ‘literary crime novel‘, The Weight of Stones, was released in the spring of 2009. The embrace from the community of crime writers — and especially readers — has been like coming home after a long time away. Or perhaps I was never really home to begin with, I was just out there stumbling in the long grass with my dog-eared copy of The Sun Also Rises stuffed in my hip pocket. Now I’m like an adopted child just thankful for a roof over his head.

I guess I finally see that you can have it both ways after all. You can write what you want and need to write, and with some luck and alignment of the stars it will find a home with some thoughtful readers. I hope Cain eventually felt this way, too. And I hope he was grateful.

Cain’s writing, for me, contains as much poetry, as much clarity of intent as it does the cruder elements of so-called ‘pulp’. There is not a moment where you doubt this is a writer firmly in control of the story and where he is taking you, what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. In this regard, Cain is an artist in every sense of the word. He has accepted the ancient and sacred trust between writer and reader — transmitter and receiver — and he has kept the promise to pull no cheap tricks.

‘I kissed her’ - says the male character in Postman, the unwitting Frank who will ultimately be destroyed by his insatiable lust for the bodacious Cora. ‘Her eyes were shining up at me like two blue stars. It was like being in church.’

Three sentences. Twenty words. And the world will never be the same again. We can appreciate the distilled power of those lines, the imagery of a man on his knees worshipping this deity we call female beauty, all in the context of the certainly guaranteed devastation to come. Cain was a powerful and effective writer, regardless of any label.

So these days you’ll find me pecking out lines and aiming for a little place I know somewhere between the poetry and the pulp.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Proofreading Blues

Oh, woe is I!* I’ve been proofing my manuscript and correcting the grammar and punctuation that my editor, Barbara, pointed out to me, plus trying to catch all the tupos I missed the first hundred times I went over the thing.

It’s humiliating. I was an English major in college and an English teacher, to boot. I even taught remedial English to freshmen when I was in graduate school. So I like to think of myself as well-versed in the rules of English grammar and punctuation.
But by damn, either I’ve forgotten what I knew or the rules have changed, because I seem to have made a lot of mistakes in this MS.

First, I am getting worse instead of better at differentiating between “lay” and “lie” and all their permutations. In fact, Barbara noted that I got it wrong nearly every time! She even wrote “Yay!” above the one time I got it right. I told her that at least I’m consistent. Now, how did this happen? I know that people lie down to sleep and that they lay their watches on the beside table. It is tenses other than the present that throw me. I got lost in a miasma of “laids” and “lains”. The odd thing is that I never had that much trouble with it before. All I can suggest is that I’ve suddenly developed a metal block. In any event, no one in this novel now lays or lies either one. Everyone places, puts, reclines, or reposes. Except for that “Yay!” I left that one.

Next, Barbara suggested that I refresh myself on the difference between “may” and “might”. Here’s the deal. When it comes to “may’ and “might”, I become ensnared in the net of my own ethnic dialect. Where I come from, “may” is for asking permission and “might” is synonymous with “perhaps”. However, this is not necessarily correct Standard English. I must remember that.

C. “You use too many commas”, Barbara said. Okay, I admit it. But I have an excuse. I swear to God that punctuation rules have changed since I learned them. (No cracks about runes, hieroglyphs, or cuneiform.) I was taught that in a list of three or more descriptors, there is no comma between the last two if there is an “and” between them. He was tall, dark and handsome. It seems this rule has changed. Knowing this, I apparently went on a rampage and put commas all over the place, whether the sentence needed them or not. Barbara’s comment immediately reminded me of my late aunt, who literally put a comma after every other word she wrote. Perhaps I have inherited some genetic punctuation flaw. Whatever the reason, I’ve become hyper-aware of my commas. I must have removed 500 commas during the re-read. It has occurred to me that I may now have a book full of run-on sentences.

4. Typos. After a while you just don’t see them. You know how the sentence is supposed to read, and that’s what you see whether it is actually there or not. For example, during this last re-read I found a place where I had left the “g” out of the word “dog”. The do began to bark. I wrote that sentence three months ago and have read over it dozens of times. But I didn’t see that missing “g”. Neither did my husband Don. Neither did Barbara. We all knew what it was supposed to be and that’s what we saw.
I think there may be a life lesson, here.
*You’ll recognize this as the title of Patricia T. O’Conner’s book, Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English. The kicker here is that “woe is I” is the grammatically correct construction, not “woe is me.”

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Broken Bridge Arts Workshop

Every year, during this 10-day stretch in the hot and humid hills of Connecticut, I live with, work with, and hopefully teach a handful of teenage fiction writers who have gathered with poets and actors to study their craft and discuss the ins and outs of life in the arts.

It's an exhausting week of 18-hour days, but it's also an exhilarating one. And, every year, I come away more and more impressed by our youth.

So much of what we hear about teens, especially in the education world, revolves around complaints—statistics tell us the average 12-year-old in 2010 knows 50% fewer words than in 1950; we are told kids would rather e-mail or Skype than have face-to-face conversations; and, of course, we hear that given the amount of time spent in Cyberland, kids no longer read. (Every high school English teacher—I am no different—has at least one story about receiving a paper written in text language. LOL, baby!)

However, what I find during this week annually is a group of teens who love the arts, are passionate about their respective crafts, and want desperately to create meaningful works. I will never forget one girl from Louisiana. Shy, nearly silent, in fact, she arrived with a handful of poems she had written but with little formal training. Her instructor for the week had seen potential in her application materials and encouraged her to enroll. She embraced the opportunity, spending the week drafting, clarifying images, working tirelessly, and staying up until 1 a.m. to discuss books with her peers. On the final night, she stood behind the poem, and, in her slow, southern drawl, simply sang like a bird, wowing us with her powerful poetry. It was great to see. Likewise, this year, a different poet returned to share news of her recent first publication—in a well respected journal and at age 17, no less. These are students who want to go on to study English or drama or writing. Moreover, they want to use the arts to make a difference.

I know this is a select population—perhaps, the cynic might even argue, not a true indicator of the literary efforts of our youth. Yet I believe the opposite—that, when given the opportunity, when free from typical teenage pressures, when given the chance to truly express themselves, the youth of our society still appreciates the literary arts, and that the literary world is in good hands.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Here we go...

I was planning on writing about a completely different topic today, but then I browsed through CBC’s (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)website this morning and spotted this: CBC News - Arts - Price war hits e-readers

It’s become pretty obvious that e-book readers, like iPods, are going to change the face of publishing the same way that the music industry was changed by MP3s. Yeah? So?

Here’s where the water becomes muddy for people thinking of buying into the technology: which reader should you buy? Maybe I’m the only one thinking this way, but I’m tired of being a pawn in the way technology manufacturers ply their trade. I’m will not shell out money on one product only to see it discontinued and new books no longer available for it. I know at least 3 people in the past few years who shelled out big bucks for hi-def DVD players only to see it disappear from one day to the next because Blu-Ray beat it out. Toss one more piece of technology in the landfill. We’re so sorry; you gambled and lost.

The same thing is happening with just about every e-reader manufacturer: most have their own proprietary software. Why? Because they want their product to be the last reader standing, and they can also grab the publishers and consumers by the balls. That way, if they establish their supremacy, any other manufacturer has to pay licensing fees, publishers have to march to their tune and consumers have to like it or lump it. Yes, you could argue that it’s only smart business, but look at the other side of the coin: the consumer's and publisher’s side.

We’re all getting the short end of the stick. Publishers, if they want to catch and ride the new wave (and that’s pretty well mandatory), now have to publish their books in a variety of formats, something that’s plain stupid and drives up costs needlessly. Readers have to roll the dice (if they’re so inclined) and pick who’s going to win this war. Otherwise, they might have a number of books on their hands that they will eventually have to buy again if they want to read them, not to mention having to buy another reader.

I, for one, am getting really tired of this market-share BS. I have no problem shelling out the bucks for something worthwhile, but I refuse to be held for ransom because the technology providers want to play their little games.

It’s all so unneccessary. Come up with a universal format for e-books and then battle it out in the same way: who has the better reader. That way, you’re respecting your customers and your content providers. Can you imagine the chaos if we had several different internet formats?

For the moment, my hands and wallet are firmly in my pockets.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Revisiting old friends: A look back at Burden of Memory

I recently wrote an article for Mystery Lover’s Journal (put out by the incomparable mystery fan Janet Rudolph) on paranormal in mysteries. My second book for Poisoned Pen Press, Burden of Memory, contains traces of a ghost story. The question throughout the book is, is there a ghost? Or does someone have an over-active imagination?

It was fun to scan through Burden of Memory looking for some parts to include with the article.

Writing standalones is funny in that way – you spend a year, maybe more, intimately involved with the characters. You know everything about them. Their loves, their hates, their fears. That they set their bed on fire when they were four and closed the door hoping no one would notice. You take them through one of the most intense experiences of their lives, maybe even play matchmaker or midwife for them. Once the book is published, you hit the road to spend another several months out promoting them, telling everyone you meet about them and their adventures.

Then they’re gone. You’re onto another book and these characters are never thought of again.

Burden of Memory concerns an elderly, wealthy lady named Moira Madison who hires a biographer, one Elaine Benson, to come to her cottage on Lake Muskoka, Ontario, to live there and spend several months writing Miss Madison’s memoirs of when she was a Canadian Army Nursing Sister in World War II.

It is only when Elaine arrives at the cottage that she realizes she was the second choice for biographer. The first drowned in the lake her second day on the job. Elaine begins to suspect that someone in the powerful close-knit family does not want the memoirs to be written.

Flashbacks to the idyllic Muskoka summer of 1939, London during the Blitz, the Canadian Army’s push through Italy. Family loyalty and betrayal.

And today – new loves, new friendships, old enemies. Same family, but different generations. Still struggling with loyalty and betrayal.

Something is moving in the woods.

Or is there?

Nice to have a trip down memory lane with these characters once again.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Fiction, in fact

Peter May here...  Graham Hurley is an English crime writer whose long-running series featuring Portsmouth detective Joe Faraday has been hugely successful in Britain and France. He has also written eleven stand-alone novels. I first met Graham four years ago at a book festival on the Mediterranean. It was World Cup year then, too, and we got into trouble with the festival organisers for sneaking off to a nearby cafe to watch the England game while we were supposed to be signing books. By some strange twist of fate we met again this year at another book festival in France. Le Havre this time. And we were once more guilty of a clandestine appointment with a TV set to watch a disappointing match between England and the USA. The French, of course, simply raised their eyes to the heavens. “These anglo-saxons!”

Graham has opted to treat us to a short story based on his weekend at Le Havre. I don’t know if this is a first for the blog, but it makes for an interesting read...

This comes to you from a Brit crime writer recovering from yet another dose of French hospitality.  Last weekend Lin (my wife) and I settled into our second Polar a la Plage.  This Le Havre-based crime fest is organised by a group called Les Ancres Noires,  the usual mix of street drama, heavy rock, meet-and-greet sessions,  tables rondes, and back-to-back meals.  I'm not sure we added much to the sum of human knowledge but it was excellent fun,  especially given the opening tussles in the (soccer) World Cup.  England were bidding for death or glory against the United States on the Saturday night, and it was good to share a hotel room and several large bottles of Leffe Blond with Peter and his wife Janice for the game.  Loved the headline in the NYT:  Yanks Win 1-1.  Sadly true.  Bad mathmatics but worse football.  On this showing, us lot are going to struggle against more or less anyone. 
Good, too, to chew the fat with P&J.  My career as a crime writer followed an extremely happy stretch of stand-alone thrillers.  But my publisher wrecked all that with an invitation to write crime fiction at a time when I was in no position to turn them down.  It was an awkward start to what turned into a twelve-book series, and to be honest I've enjoyed the trip.  But en route I've become even more aware of the Curse of the Genre Box, and lengthy chats with Peter have sparked a search for light relief...or at least something different.  I'm days away from agreeing a contract for a new (crime) series set in the English West Country, where I live,  but in the meantime I guess I owe myself a holiday.  I started this afternoon with this (fictional) postcard from a sunny Le Havre...

Le Havre, June, 2010. Le Polar a la Plage.
Homage. No other word for it.

I did a bit of Googling last night on my lap top, looked at a combat photo or two. One of them showed a Lancaster bomber flying over the city centre. You’re looking down on this bomber and bits of the city are visible through gaps in the cloud. At the bottom of the photo are the notes that someone must have added afterwards, maybe the pilot, maybe some intelligence officer back at base. This is the shorthand for mass destruction, busy men winding reality backwards, needing to account for the rubble and the carnage to come.

The notes read: 13,000. 150 degrees. B 11x1000. 4x500. 30secs. F/S McCartin. 75. In plain English, Flight Sergeant McCartin of 75 squadron, Bomber Command, flying at 13,000 feet on a bearing of 150 degrees, is seconds away from unloading six tons of high explosive onto a French city called Le Havre.

It seems that some of these guys, often the younger pilots, used to talk about “dropping flowers”. The big black thousand pounders would fall away towards the blurry clutter of streets below, you’d count to maybe half a minute depending on altitude, and then would come the quick yellow blooms as they seeded and burst. That’s the thing about wartime conscription. You get poets as well as psychopaths. And by 1944, a metaphor like that – sick as f*** – might offer a crumb or two of comfort. From 13,000 feet, one city must look pretty much like another. Everyone knows war is for lunatics. Who cares whether these people we just blew apart are supposed to be our friends?

I share the thought with a woman who steps into the festival tent just after lunch. It’s a decent day after last night’s rain and I think she must have spent the morning staked out on the lumpy grey pebbles that pass for the beach. I can smell suntan lotion and she’s carrying a carefully-folded towel and one of those thin roll-up mattresses.

A couple of beers from the festival cool box have done wonders for my French. I ask her whether she lives here, whether she was born here. She says yes to both. She’s flicking through a book of mine. She doesn’t lift her head. Nice.
I ask her about the war, what it meant, what it did.

“La guerre?” She lifts her head. She speaks perfect English. “You think I remember the war?”
“Of course not. But your father? Your mother? They remember?”
“Of course.”
“Sais pas.” She shrugs, returning the book to the pile on the table. “No one talks about the war.”

Really? I was chatting to another writer this morning. He occupies the table next to mine. He’s a nice guy. He’s spent most of his life as a journalist and now he writes crime fiction with the occasional detour into historical stuff. The D-Day beaches are just round the corner and Americans, he says, will buy anything. Recently he’d done a clever cut-and-paste job on the activities of local Resistence networks during the months before the invasion, or Jour-J.. The festival is the book’s first commercial outing but the pile of volumes on his table, flanked by his fast-selling noir, remains untouched. So maybe my sunbather’s right.

Either way, I’m not giving up.

“The place got bombed, right?”
“Of course.”
“By us? Oui?”
“And loads of people died.”
“Of course.”
“Like thousands?”
“Five thousand?”
“Sais pas. Lots. Beaucoup. Trop.” She picks up another book, reads the back cover, smiles. “But you kill people, too, n‘est-ce pas?”

I’m through with the signings by half past six. I phone Sabine from the hotel. I know her husband’s gone to their place in the country with a stack of work for the weekend because she told me yesterday. Around eight would be perfect, she said. Don’t forget.

Straight off, she wants to know how many I’ve sold.

“Seventy seven.” I’m lying.
“Which titles?”
I name three, the most violent, the most bizarre, the most noir.
“Good boy.” She’s pleased. “And which was the hottest?”
“F***!” She’s laughing now. “Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I give you my word of honour?”
“You did, Sab. And you were right.”

Half a dozen women robbed of their eyes with a sharpened spoon. Umpteen suspects. Plus a nice twist at the end for anyone with a sense of humour.

“And the award? Le Grand Prix?” She’s still laughing.
“You’re sure? I put today on the press release.”
“Change it. It’s definitely tomorrow.”
“But you’re still gonna win?”
“F*** knows. The guy at the next table thinks so but I’m not sure this place is ready for mass disembowelling.”
“That’s not what I’m hearing.”

I grunt something non-committal. It’s the opening stages of the World Cup. I’ve got the remote working at last and on the tiny wall-mounted TV England have just kicked off against the US. I’m anticipating an hour and a half of the usual disappointments. Why do we big ourselves up like this? Why do we think we can kick the rest of the world into oblivion?

Sabine’s still stressing about tomorrow’s jury decision. That girl can smell an award at a thousand miles. We have a lazy conversation about whether any of this stuff matters. Sabine says I’m crazy if I think otherwise. Le Prix des Ancres Noires will slip down very nicely, the perfect companion to all my English gongs. Plus I’m deep into contract negotiations and the company are suckers for all this Euro-shit. The stairway to heaven, says Sabine, is lined with foreign rights and serial killers.

Sabine wants to know about the hotel room, about the décor, about the bed, about the colour of the sheets, and I know exactly what’s coming next. An imagination like hers, she should be doing my job.

“You miss me, babe?”
“So how would it be if I was there?”

She knows I’m taking the piss and more to the point she knows I want to talk about something else. On screen, the English mid-field have put three passes together. This is beginning to look serieux.

“What is it, babe?” Sabine needs reassurance.
“Nothing. Rien.”
“You lie. Something’s got to you. You think I don’t know that? Pleeese….”

In spite of my better judgement I start to tell her about Le Havre, about the Lancaster bombers, about the calling card all those guys left on the fifth of September, and about the wasteland that awaited the survivors when dawn broke the following day. I ducked into a huge post-war church yesterday evening. This is a building made entirely of concrete, a stern grey post-war monument that dominates the city skyline. The last of the day’s sunshine was bleeding down from tiny stained glass windows in the three hundred feet central tower, splashing the flagstones with a thin wash of reds and greens. Beside the door, a tiny exhibition recorded the rebuilding of the city. I couldn’t take my eyes off the grainy black and white photos on the introductory panel. By the sixth of September, Le Havre looked like Hiroshima.

Sabine hates this stuff, hates me tunnelling out of my comfy little genre box. Serial killers make her very happy. Real life is a different proposition.

“So what are we saying here, babe?”

I don’t answer, not immediately. I’m up on one elbow, staring at the screen. England are mounting what looks like an attack. It isn’t pretty but at least they’re heading for the right goal.

“Think of it as a crime scene, Sab.” I mutter at last. “5000 victims and not a single arrest. We’re serial killers, Sab. All of us.”
“You want to write about this stuff?”
“Why not?”

There’s another silence, longer this time. Half the English team have piled into the Yanks’ penalty area. Five minutes in, Gerrard has scrambled the ball over the line. We’ve scored a goal. We’re winning.

“Shit.” Sabine is still thinking about my little Havrais excursion into real life. “I knew this would happen.”

Graham Hurley's latest hardback is Beyond Reach (Orion, January 2010). Borrowed Light will be published in January 2011.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

What Donis Saw - Thoughts on Intellectual Property

When I’m in the midst of writing, I tend to read more non-fiction than fiction. I don’t want to be unduly influenced by the style or voice of another author. This is an almost impossible goal, for we are all influenced by those we admire whether we know it or not. I’ve written before that the structure of the stories in in my Alafair Tucker series is heavily influenced by Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael books. This is true even though the characters, plots, and settings of the two series couldn’t be more different. Yet both have a warm-hearted, tolerant, amateur sleuth, a strong voice (though mine twangs quite a bit more than Peters’), a very strong sense of place, some moral ambiguity, and a little romance on the side. I have never copied a word of Ellis Peters’ books, but I stole her structure.

I blatantly stole my technique from my own mother. My mother was the world’s best letter writer, back when people actually wrote letters to each other. My sibs and I often remarked on her technique, for somehow she managed to write incredibly interesting letters about absolutely nothing. Or so it seemed at first glance. In fact, her descriptions of the details of her life were so vivid that you felt as if you were living it with her. You were there. You were delighted as she that she got her first tomato, or as exasperated at wasting an hour on the telephone with my hypochondriac aunt. This is a life, a real life, that everyone can identify with. Of course, the fact that she was quite wry about the whole thing helped a lot.

At the moment I am reading a fascinating book called What the Dog Saw. by Malcolm Gladwell, the author of The Tipping Point. What the Dog Saw is a collection of his essays from the New Yorker. Every one of the essays is riveting. I just finished one last night called “Blowup”, which is about the Challenger disaster and the accident at Three Mile Island. He contends that both disasters were pretty much inevitable, for “we have constructed a world in which the potential for high-tech catastrophe is embedded into the fabric of day-to-day life...if the possibility is too much to bear, then our only option is to start thinking about betting rid of things like space shuttles altogether.” This was written in 1996. Shades of BP.

But as usual, I digress. The article I want to mention is entitled “Something Borrowed”, and concerns intellectual property, piracy, and plagiarism. In it, he quotes an example from the book Free Culture, by law professor Lawrence Lessig, which goes like this: If you steal the picnic table from my back yard, that’s theft. But did you steal the good idea I had to buy a picnic table and put it in my back yard?

A couple of weeks ago, I made a trip up to Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale to see Nancy Pickard. I bought a copy of The Virgin of Small Plains because, as I told her, I wanted to study the way she had created such a wonderful opening scene. I want to take her technique and apply it to my own work. Yet there is no way on God’s green earth I would actually use the scene itself. That’s hers.

This raises the question of copyright and the Brave New World of the internet and internet piracy. What if someone, or some organization which shall remain nameless, posts your book online for free download? There are those who believe that all information should be free. Gladwell quotes Lessig who quotes Thomas Jefferson*, who said, “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”

If you create something - a book, a piece of music, a work of art - should it not be available to all? Or even more problematic, if you discover the cure for a disease, should it not be available to anyone who suffers regardless of ability to pay? Yet what incentive does anyone have to create if there is no reward other than praise or satisfaction? Everyone has to make a living, to make her way in this world.

Interestingly enough, this very morning there was an article in my local newspaper, The Arizona Republic, that speaks perfectly about this topic. The title is “Pirated Film Raises Moral Questions on Torture - and Viewing the Copy for Free”, by Patrick Goldstein of the L.A. Times. Seems a new movie called “Unthinkable”, starting Samuel L. Jackson, has been pirated and is being downloaded for free on the internet at a tremendous rate. It’s one of the most popular movie downloads going. Is this going to ruin the theatrical release of the movie? Or is it fantastic advertising? Producer Cotty Chubb is quoted as saying “We’ve got to come up with a new model because the old one just isn’t working...You just can’t fight against a model where the movie is available for free. People clearly want to download movies online, so it’s time we figured out how to get some money out of it.”

Sound familiar?
*Kindly notice how careful I am about citing my sources.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Of Good Character

Much of the talk this week has been about characters, and I agree with John - they are fundamentally important to the process of storytelling. Because no matter how good your plot is, if your readers are not emotionally invested in your characters you will never do it justice.

I watched a movie the other night, a thriller. It was a clever, well-constructed plot, but in the end it didn’t work for me because I didn’t care what happened to the characters. I was not involved with them in any way.

A good writer engages his or her readers by making them care about the characters - whether they love them, hate them, fear them, or fear for them, it is that involvement that brings the story to life.

I worked as a TV story-editor in serial drama in the UK during the 1980s. The show I worked on was producing 104x30-minute episodes per year. It was a marathon. Gruelling. Where on earth did I find the story material to fill all that airtime? Simple. All the stories came out of character. I was fortunate, because we had a cast of twenty-five, so there was a good range of age, sex, and sexual preference to choose from. Characters came from various backgrounds, and were involved in diverse, sometimes complex, relationships.

I learned early on that you couldn’t impose stories on characters. Some writers at story conference believed that you could dream up any story, exploit any theme, and superimpose it on your existing characters. That doesn’t work. All you do is distort characters to fit stories. But it doesn’t mean you can’t do the story, or exploit the theme. You just have to create the right characters to make it work.

In television that is not always easy, because you are restricted by cost. But novelists have the freedom to create as many characters as they like, and take them anywhere they choose. So in theory the novelist is better off. Sometimes, though, working within budgetary restrictions exercises the imagination to greater effect, and sometimes the novelist can be spoiled by choice.

It seems to me that by bringing your characters into tight focus, and limiting their number, you will draw your readers into involvement with your story, and make it an experience they will want to repeat.

For me, storytelling begins and ends with characters.

A footnote: I wrote my contribution to this blog last week from the crime writing festival at Le Havre in France, having driven fifteen hours over two days to get there. If it had been in my mind to wonder what on earth I was doing it for, the thought was quickly banished. Because my book, “L’îles des chasseurs d’oiseaux”, won the 2010 Prix des Lecteurs (the Ancres Noires book festival’s “Readers’ Prize”) in competition with twenty other writers. The book’s English title is “The Blackhouse”, and it will be published all over Europe and in the UK early next year.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Live from Louisville

I’m in Daisy Buchanan’s hometown this week, Louisville, KY., a great town—food, culture, weather, small-town feel. What might not seem so enticing is what I’m doing—reading essays for the College Board, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., for eight days, about a thousand handwritten high school essays.

I’ve tried to get some writing done and to keep up on the Type M front. Here, I will attempt to add to Vicki’s thread begun in her wonderful Monday post “What’s in a Name? A Heck of a Lot” and talk character.

Vicki wrote that she’s reading a Steig Larsson novel and, although she loves the character, is not finding the plot riveting. I’ve written on this topic before: for me, character always comes before plot. In fact, character leads to plot. A story’s plot is only possible because of the character you have developed.

Below is a writing activity I’ve used often to assist students who “don’t know where” their story should go. If you try it, please send the results to

Create your own hero or heroine. This is your chance to play God. You’ve been given complete control, total omniscience, and unlimited power to control a living, breathing human being's existence. Create a character from birth to serve as a protagonist (and/or narrator) for your own story. In order to create an authentic character--a living, breathing person--for your readers, you must truly know your character. Consider these questions:

Sexual orientation?
Where does he/she live?
Does he/she have an accent?
Favorite food?
What does s/he wear?
What is his/her dream?
What is his/her goal?
What does he/her most fear?

Next, read Sue Grafton's bio of Kinsey Millhone at .

Now, write your own character bio. Start at the beginning and be sure all of the questions above are answered. You can fill in additional information when you start your story.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Conversation with Jessica Tribble of Poisoned Pen Press,

by Randall Munroe of (via Kate Eltham’s and Thad McIlroy's blogs)

I’m speaking to our local Sisters in Crime chapter tonight, and members have requested that I regale them with tales about being a published author. Since that would last about five minutes, I figured I’d better talk to someone who really knows the publishing field, and Jessica Tribble of Poisoned Pen Press kindly shared her time and thoughts. Thanks, Jessica!

Naturally, electronic publishing is on everyone’s minds and Poisoned Pen Press is moving to make more books available for eBooks. Though many fiction readers like the tactility of a handheld book, more and more people are using eReaders. Jessica told me that Borders plans to carry fourteen different kinds of eReaders in the near future. Kindle is going to be carried by Target and Best Buy is planning to stock Nooks. Though DRM, Digital Rights Management, a proprietary format, is used by certain eReaders (Kindle and iPad come to mind), ePub files are a free and open digital format used by Sony, Nook, and everyday computers. Jessica herself looks at DRM as a merely a nerd-challenge to break the code.

Though readers don’t look upon eBooks as being worth as much as print books, all publishers are moving that direction. Jessica looks at eBooks as more of a replacement for mass-market paperbacks than for collectable hard backs. Think airplane books. In addition, more and more professional journals, texts, and news sources are using electronic formats.

I was curious about print runs, too. Jessica told me that 95% of all books published sell less than 1000 copies. This average includes obscure books like theses, coffee table books, and so on. Craig Johnson, a well-known mystery writer, once made a comment to me about 25,000 being the “magic” number. Jessica hadn’t heard that number exactly, but she thinks that the New York publishers may use it to separate their mid-list authors from their “front list.” It’s probably where a book starts making enough profit that a publisher can invest some marketing and publicity in the author. It may also be the point where the author can live on her earnings. 25, 000. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?

Which got us to discussing New York publishers. More and more are dropping their mid-list authors. Even if the mid-list author is still published by a big house, there’s probably no publicity budget for him. Unless you’re Stephen King or Diana Gabaldon, forget the paid book tour. And the publishing budget is kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, though Jessica and I both question whether all the publicity budgets pay out.

Jessica compared setting a print run to horse racing. A publisher can look at previous writing and sales, what marketing tours the author does on her own, what his on-line promotion consists of, and it’s still hard to predict how many books to print, especially for a new author. It’s part hunch, part science.

When asked about what publishing channels a new writer should pursue, Jessica leaned toward the small press for a first experience. Many small presses have excellent reputations among the big publishing houses, and the support a new writer gets at a small press will be more likely to lead to a bigger publishing contract down the road. She recommends avoiding the self-pub route because it still bears a second-class stigma. New York publishers almost (never say never) never pick up a self-published author, and many smaller presses also avoid them, Poisoned Pen Press among them.

The problems of self-publicizing and promoting are amplified for a self-pub author. Bookstores, particularly the chains, won’t carry self-published books unless it’s the writer’s neighborhood store. Traditional reviews and author blurbs are critical to sales, and much more difficult when the book is self-published.

This vein of thought makes me wonder about bypassing print publishers and going straight to ePub, as J.A. Konrath recently did when his latest book was turned down by his regular publisher. Personally, I’m looking for more and improved editing, not less. I find critical readers a necessity.

I’m going to see Craig Johnson at the Jackson Hole Writers’ Conference next week. I’m going to ask him about the 25,000 number. I’ll let you know what happens.

Yesterday was Tuesday, wasn't it?

Sorry about that folks. Work just got me distracted, then there were the pigs flying by my window all day and that didn't help.

Anyway, here's a very interesting bit of advertising put out by Penguin, by way of our Vicki who sent it to me.


Monday, June 14, 2010

What’s in a name? A heck of a lot.

We have discussed on this blog before the Millennium trilogy by Steig Larsson. These books have truly been an international publishing sensation. I am about half way through the third book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest. I am enjoying it and reading quickly.

Somethings have come to mind while reading it. First of all, I’m glad it didn’t come to me for critiquing. In a lot of ways the book is really not that well written.

For example, there is a lot of unnecessary repetition.

“This is what I want you to do.”
Blomkvist leaned forward and explained his plan.

The second sentence has no purpose. It’s totally redundant and even weakens the impact of the first sentence.

No one simply has a computer, they have an ibook or a Palm Tungsten T3 hand held computer. Okay, I guess it’s okay mention that once or twice, the book is about computer hackers. But every single time the computer is used, we need the full name?

Backstory. Everything you ever wanted to know about the post-war history of the Swedish Secret Police is provided for you. As is a four page explanation of the workings of the Swedish construction industry particularly as it relates to toilets. No those aren’t footnotes, that’s all part of the narrative.

The setting is almost totally unimportant. There is nothing here that gives you a feeling of being in Sweden. You could be almost anywhere in Europe, even in North America. Note to beginning writers: A listing of street names does not provide a sense of place.

Yet the books work. And therein lies the question. Why do they work?

I’d suggest it has everything to do with the characters. The central character Lisbeth Salander is intricate, fascinating, troubled. An anti-social genius. But she is also highly vulnerable. She does not want to be vulnerable, yet she is as human as the rest of us.

Blomkvist is intensely loyal. To his friend, Lisbeth, his colleagues. His political beliefs. By the beginning of Hornets’ Nest everyone who believes in Salander is coming together. Ready to fight for her. Even against the forces of the state and the secret police.

Don’t we all want to believe if we were in trouble we’d have people on our side?

There is one thing I suspect that has an effect on the popularity of the books which doesn’t get much mention. They are extremely feminist.

Not just in the way that Salander is presented. The theme of violence against women and men’s acceptance of it runs through all the books. The way that Salander’s father got away with beating her mother for years because he was of value to the police.

The opening page of Hornets’ Nest begins with a discussion of the role of women as warriors historically.

Don’t see that every day.

But particularly in the smallest of things, the books are feminist and the author obviously so. Women are ‘people’ in the books. How many movies can you think of where every role is played by a man except for one sexy woman? Thousands. In most popular culture men play men and people, yet women only play women. i.e. they are given roles that can only be played by a woman such as the love interest, yet men get roles that can be anyone.

The editor of Millennium is a woman, Salander’s lawyer is a woman, one of the police officers who most believes in Salander’s innocence is a woman, minor characters such as senior reporters on the paper are women.

They, like all the male characters, are referred to by their last names. I simply can not stand books in which the male lead is Jones and the female lead is Mary. Happens all the time. One of the most obvious, and I hate to say it because I love his books, is Peter Robinson. Inspector Alan Banks is constantly referred to as Banks, Sergeant Annie Cabot is always Annie.

Happens all the time, and in more books than I can mention.

When I began the Constable Molly Smith series I made a conscious point of the main characters being Smith and Winters. Not Molly and Winters. They call each other by their first names but the narrator (i.e. me) refers to them by their last names.

Think I’m quibbling? I think it signals the author’s attitude towards women that he or she might not even be aware they are expressing.

You might also think it doesn’t matter.

I think that with 20 million books sold, and counting, Steig Larsson might disagree.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Business of Writing and a Side Story

Some excellent points have been raised on this blog about professionalism that speak to me particularly at present. I’ve just been sent the contract for the book that is coming out in February. I’m rushing to meet a deadline and end up with a quality product at the same time. It’s important to me to not only finish my new book, but to do as good a job on it as I can. I’ve been out of circulation for awhile, and in some ways I feel like I’m having to start all over again. I want not only to show that I still have it in me, but I want to know that I still have it in me.

Every book you write is different, even if it’s the nth in a series and is populated with characters you know like the back of your hand. Each book requires something different from you. Some flow out, some are dragged out screaming. Some take more research than others. You always have to respect your reader’s intelligence. Avid mystery readers are often more savvy about how mystery plots are routinely constructed than the writer is, so you’ve really got to be imaginative and on your toes to fool them. And fool them in a logical way.

Same thing with readers who love historical novels. The writer has to be really careful not to make egregious mistakes about the time period - events, language, clothing, tools, conveyances. No Reeboks for Caesar. That’s easy. But what about Reeboks for your character who is on his way to Woodstock in 1969?

It’s a tightrope. An author wants to create as authentic a world as she can, but the whole point is to engage and involve your reader in your story, not to write a history book (or handbook on police procedural, or treatise on forensic psychology.) A novelist should strive to be accurate enough not to alert the anachronism police.

As for how your manuscript looks --Rick’s statement that even it you don’t yet write well enough to be a professional author, you can behave like one, sums it up perfectly. If you are trying to get the powers-that-be to seriously consider your work, you’d better give them a manuscript that convinces them at first glance that you know what you’re doing.

If you can’t even be bothered to follow submission directions or check your facts, you’re not a professional, you’re a dilettante.

And now for a bit about a side story: Adding a new character to a nearly-finished book isn’t that easy, let me tell you. I’ve ended up writing what is basically a side story that I am now integrating into the standing novel. This entails weaving in the new material and then going back to the beginning and reading the entire book with an eye to changing anything that would now be an anomaly. Have you ever crocheted a lace panel into a blouse, Dear Reader? It’s kind of like that.

However, I have to admit that this new material had really added some depth to the story and has especially fleshed out a couple of the characters. That is the whole point of side stories, and side characters, too. To add depth. To create a real world where lots of things go on at once and most of them have to do with the everyday business of living. Janet Evanovich said she thinks of the side story as a braid that weaves in and out with the mystery. It gives the main character a human life and makes her someone you can relate to.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Only in France!

Apologies for my late posting. I just arrived in the English Channel port of Le Havre in Northern France after fifteen hours on the road from the Mediterranean over the last two days.

More French promotion. This time a weekend festival called Les Ancres Noir, described as "polar a la plage"... or mysteries on the beach. The biggest mystery for me at the moment is where the beach is. I have seen oil refineries, docks, ferry terminals, but no beach as yet. No doubt that will come.

Yesterday, after a scare with my car, I called in to visit my French publisher, Actes Sud. It is probably the most prestigious publishing house in France, and the only one who refuses to be Paris-based. The publisher's HQ is in the ancient Romanesque city of Arles, situated where the River Rhone divides itself into many mouths and debouches into the Mediterranean.

A very "individual" publisher, the buildings which house it, right down on the river front, can only be described as eccentric. There are several of them, one on top of the other, including an ancient church in which they hold concerts and book launches. The complex includes a cinema, a restaurant with a terrace overlooking the river, a bar, a huge bookstore and... hammam baths for the employees.

A tour of the building is like exploring a rabbit warren, and several offices have huge sliding glass doors which open directly on to roof terraces. Narrow stone stairs lead up to what used to be the private apartment of the publisher's original founders. They have since moved out to allow for the creation of more office space.

Of course, Actes Sud has a "branch" office in Paris, but who would want to work there when you could be based at Arles?

Had I had the time, I was invited to lunch with my publisher, my editor, and the lady who handles foreign rights - right there in their own restaurant. Sadly I had to get back on the road. But there is no doubt I will be making my way south again in the near future to take full advantage of the offer... and who knows, maybe even venture into the hammam baths on the one day of the week that men are allowed in!

With a publisher like Actes Sud who would ever want to electronically self publish?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Good Week or Sometimes a Bad Contract Can Be a Good Thing

If the e-book world was a poker game, I’d unexpectedly be all in.

I changed agents a couple years back and recently asked my new agent to look into who holds the e-rights to my five Jack Austin novels. If you have read my recent posts, this probably comes as no surprise, as I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can about e-publishing with an eye on how it will impact the industry and subsequently me.

My Jack Austin series spans five books, the last four published by the University Press of New England, which has been a great home—small, supportive, and they even footed the bill for me to attend several conferences. These four titles were written under two separate two-book contracts negotiated by my former agent. The wording under the “subsidiary rights” section of the contracts stated, I believed, had me receiving 50% of anything earned on electronic sales. Last fall, I e-mailed UPNE asking about making the books available in various e-book formats. The Press balked, saying in order to put the series in electronic format, I had to renegotiate to a more publisher-friendly royalty rate. This is a business, after all, so I understood where they were coming from. But when you’re dealing with a university press, you’re not dealing with much money. So I declined.

Then, last week, being the softy that I am, I cracked. Seeing the rise and validity of e-publishing, and reading of success stories like that of J.A. Konrath and others, I sent my current agent, Bob Mecoy, to UPNE to renegotiate.

But a funny thing happened along the way.

Mecoy, genius that he is, saw something in the contract I had missed. He contacted me Friday to say the contracts were worded in a way that left me holding all electronic rights. I hope to have all five Jack Austin books available in Kindle and iBook formats by summer’s end.

Sometimes a bad contract can indeed be a good thing.

On a side note, I decided to try my hand at short-story writing back in February. I wrote one story, sent it off to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and forgot about it. Until yesterday, when I got word yesterday they would buy it.

It’s been a good week.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010


This is a big topic. Professionalism entails meeting deadlines, submitting an eloquent-as-possible manuscript, behaving with respect to colleagues. I could go on here, and we could all contribute. And then there's the actual story-telling. Is there a truth in fiction that we writers should seek? Is there an element of veracity or honesty to a story to which one must adhere? Slippery concepts, I know. And everyone makes mistakes. We’re human. But what happens when it’s not a mistake, and fudging the facts is just convenient?

It’s easy to make a mistake. I’ve made my share of bloopers. It’s hard to get everything right—and the easiest time to make a mistake is when the author is so convinced she’s right that she doesn’t check. Oops! I’m guilty.

Did anyone read the New York Times review of Ted Mooney’s The Same River Twice? Sounds like a compelling novel, and Danielle Trussoni had some nice things to say about it. I think I’ll see if the library has it, though, and here’s why. It’s a novel about a Parisian clothing designer and her partner, who are approached to smuggle Soviet-era May Day banners out of 1998 Russia. A major part of the tension is apparently built on the premise that the duo could be executed for smuggling the flags. Trussoni points out that this is pretty far-fetched for 1990’s Russia. There is also a point about a character spending his rubles on Caspian caviar and Georgian champagne because rubles couldn’t be taken out of the country on departure. This isn’t accurate; travelers had no problem leaving Russia with their rubles in 1998. I’m going to read the book to see if these details bug me, but it is the kind of thing that often makes me lay the book down because the author loses his credibility.

It would be really easy to get worked up about the recent memoirs that turn out to be fiction (memoirs, apparently, sell better than fiction). And a few notable biographers have been dinged for embellishment in ways that weren’t historically accurate. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, and a few others have had plagiarism problems. And then there was Janet Cooke, a Washington Post reporter, who won a Pulitzer in 1981 for an article about an 8-year-old heroin addict—who turned out to be fictional. Big oops.

Then there’s sheer gag-me. As an employee of the New Republic, Stephen Glass not only plagiarized, he made up stories that he passed off as non-fiction. He even substantiated them with fraudulent websites and non-existent phone numbers. Fired in a noisy scandal, Glass turned his infamy to fame in order to publicize his book, The Fabulist, a “true” account of his disgrace. Hollywood made a movie about it, called Shattered Glass, starring Hayden Christian as Stephen Glass.

I’ve got heartburn. I think I’ll tackle Helen Thomas on another blog. She screwed up and she’s possibly losing her marbles, but I’d rather sit next to her at dinner than Stephen Glass.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

On being a pro

Vicki’s excellent blog entry yesterday got me thinking about what it takes to be good at anything. It’s often said that genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, and I firmly believe that’s true. (Although a generous dollop of luck is often needed somewhere along the line.)

Having been a professional of one sort or another since I was 14 — and I won’t tell you how long ago that was — I’ve had plenty of opportunity to see talented people fall by the wayside, mainly because they didn’t or couldn’t handle themselves professionally. It’s equally true whether they were musicians or writers.

Acting professionally has nothing to do with one’s talent quotient; it has everything to do with attitude. You will never get beyond a certain level with anything if you just play at it. On the other hand, you don’t have to be of professional caliber to act like a professional. It’s all about attitude. One can’t successfully be “sort of professional”. You either are or aren’t.

In Vicki’s piece yesterday, she outlined how too many entrants could not be bothered to follow simple and clear directions. Obviously, if you’ve written something that you’re submitting to a contest, you have hopes of possibly winning. You’re hoping to be taken seriously, hoping to be taken as a professional. A writer who wants to be taken as a serious professional would make certain that directions were followed — in order to give themselves the best chance possible.

I’ve seen my share of wannabees both in music and writing. They’re the people who play at being something. They have no real commitment. A professional musician wouldn’t show up to a gig late, without everything they need and well-prepared to play. Why? Because not doing any of these things would seriously jeopardize their chances of getting hired again. Believe me, word gets around fast about who’s reliable and who isn’t.

Agents and publishers are pretty good at judging who is going to make the cut, and part of that goes beyond what’s on the written page. As Vicki correctly pointed out, not following directions is a pretty clear signal that a writer isn’t ready for the big leagues yet.

We can’t control how talented we are. We can’t control whether luck falls our way. But we can control how we handle the details that demonstrate we are committed to what we are doing, that we are, in fact, professionals.

I used to tell my students at the Royal Conservatory of Music here in Toronto, kids that were really serious about their playing and wanted to make music their lives, “You may not play like a professional yet, but you can certainly act like one.”

Professional attitude is in our own hands.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Number One Rule when sending a submission

I have had the fortune this past spring to be the co-ordinator of not one but two short story competitions. Basically that means that I am not a judge, but the stories all come to me and I remove the cover page, keep a record of who wrote what, and send the stories off to the judges. I will then be responsible for accepting the judges' verdict and announcing the happy news to the talented winners.

One thing occurred to me during the process, which also reminded me of when people ask for my advice on submitting their novels or stories to editors or publishers.

Number one rule? DO WHAT THEY SAY.


For Contest 1, which was paper submissions, several entries went to the address of the convention registration, whereas my address was the one on the bottom of the form, in big letters, as the place to send the stories. We asked for three copies. I got one copy from some writers. Some people sent registered letters. That meant a drive to the post office.

For Contest 2, which is electronic submissions, a couple of entries could not be read by my computer – although we had specified the format they were to be in.
I was surprised at the number of electronic entries that didn’t have a page heading. Here’s an idea: even if you are not to put your name on the page (for blind judging) at least put the name of the work and the page numbers on it. Imagine the judge carrying out a stack of twenty or more stories to read on his deck. Imagine a big wind comes up. Imagine gathering up a hundred pages of paper from all across the lawn and in the branches of trees. Then imagine trying to put them all back in order. And finding some without any sort of header.

Some stories had different names than the computer file. Eg. Long Night vs night.doc. What that means is that if I am searching for your story in my computer files and they are in alphabetical order I will be looking under L, not N. And if I have another story called Night Dreams, I might get them mixed up. (Note that names are hypothetical.)

Some had the name of the competition as the file name. Huh? How many copies of XXStoryContest.doc do you think my computer will hold?


In all of these cases I took the time and trouble to make the stories match our guidelines. I photocopied paper, I wrote back and asked for the correct format, I added page numbers and titles, and stored the files under better names.
You may think that’s not a big deal. And it wasn’t. I am not complaining, but I am asking you to think.

If I was a publishing house or an agent who gets a couple of hundred submissions a month – how much trouble do you think I would go to to make your submission readable?
None – straight into the garbage.

Next time you’re submitting anything, to anyone, read the instructions carefully. Follow them. And use common sense.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Realism in Mystery Books Vs Television Series

This week the Sunday guest blogger is Brooklyn White. Brooklyn writes on the subject for forensic sciences at

If you’ve never watched a crime series on television, you’re probably one of a rare breed of people who hate the idiot box. Today, almost every network has one or more crime shows based on forensics – CSI, Bones, Criminal Minds, NCIS – they’re all proof that audiences like crime and the basic idea that forensics can be used to solve even the most complex of murders or other violent crimes. The genre proved to be such a big hit that there are three versions of CSI – the original, and its spin-offs CSI:Miami and CSI:NY. But if there is one bone I have to pick with television series that portray crime, it is that they are far removed from reality and do not portray the real world of criminal investigation as it is or even close to what it is.

You could argue that fiction is certainly not fact; if it was, it would not be called fiction. But there’s another form of fiction that stays more true to reality than television series do – books. If you’re ever read murder mysteries, you’ll know what I’m talking about. For one, books are more detailed - from the nature of the crime to how it is committed, from the character of the lead detective to the way he/she goes about solving the crime, it’s all there in much more detail than you would find on television. But that’s probably because books have the luxury of a platform that is larger in terms of time – TV episodes have to be condensed into 40 minutes of dialogue that must tell the whole story.

Because they are detailed, books are able to stay closer to realism. If you’ve watched Bones, you may know that the series is based on the work of real-life forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs – Dr. Temperance Brennan is a character created by her and the series is loosely based on the books. But if you’re a fan of the series and think that the books are just as interesting or fast-paced, you’re in for a not-so-nice surprise.

Yes, Kathy Reichs does write good stories, but they’re more like real life, and this means that the pace and intense action is missing. All the elements that keep us glued to the screen during an episode of Bones are missing.

So this begs the question – if fiction is as close to reality as possible, does it mean that it is not interesting or intriguing? The answer lies in the nature of both platforms of fiction – the reality is that television cannot afford to take its own time to solve murders – the story can only be as realistic as the timeline that is available. So yes, while there are a few liberties taken on screen, the fact is that television series make for compelling viewing. As long as people are aware that they are watching fiction and that they cannot expect the real world to be similar, I guess it’s ok to depict murder mysteries with a touch of creativity that moves away from realism.

Brooklyn White writes on the topic of Forensic Science Technician Programs. She can be reached at

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Link Arms and Dance

I mentioned last week that I am putting a new character into a book that is basically finished. I know what it is I want to do, so I’m not having to sweat the action too much. But I am up against the deadline now and trying to power my way through, so the rest of my life is currently on hold.

Which is my excuse for having not spent a lot of time thinking about what I’m going to write for this blog today. Instead I’m going to share a couple of important realizations that have struck me recently.

My husband Don is an old* movie aficionado, and we have two-person film festivals at our house with some regularity. This week we re-watched all the Godfather movies over three nights. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen these movies. They are like any great art in that they can be indulged in over and over again and you can find something new and profound in them every time. This time I noticed that in Godfather II, Michael’s bodyguard is also his valet. The man serves Michael tea while they are traveling on a train, and then goes off to commit a murder for his boss. I think that it would be very handy to have your own personal valet/assassin. That’s when you’d know you’ve really made it.

My second and more important revelation came yesterday. I was relating to Don the latest email I’d received from my sister who is traveling in Europe. She and her husband had just gone through Sarajevo, and she made it sound like a beautiful and haunted place.

“I went through there on the train in ’69,” Don told me. “In fact, I think that’s where I saw the people dancing on the platform.”
A family was at the station to see their young man off. He went around and kissed them all, and then the family linked arms in a circle and danced him on his way.

This is a tradition that should be revived. It would be a much better world if it were. So I’m serving notice right now to anyone I pick up or drop off at the airport in the future. Prepare to be danced on your way.
*old movies, not old Don.