Monday, January 31, 2011

The Importance of the Book Cover

Vicki here and I can say that I’ve seen the work Rick’s done on book covers and can testify that he does a great job.

There have been surveys flying about lately as to why people decide what books to buy. One of the key components, even in the age of e-books, is cover image. I don’t think you can emphasise the importance of the cover too much.
Stand in a bookstore or library even browse the web and hundreds, thousands maybe, of books are trying to attract your attention. You can’t pick every one up and read the blurb and the first few pages to see if it’s something you’d like. (I suppose you could if you had endless amounts of time.) Some indefinable something has to reach out and grab you and draw you in. And other than the title or the author’s name, that something is the cover.

You always judge a book by its cover, and so you should. The cover must deliver on what’s inside. Cats and tea pots – the book’s a cozy. Naked woman lying in a pool of blood – probably not a cozy. Me, I like atmosphere. Winter woods or foggy streets or a calm lake with clouds gathering. Indicates that the book is probably a suspense and chances are I’ll pick it up to learn more.

If the cover says nothing – the vastly overused chalk outline of a body, the equally overused blood spots, garish colours – unlikely I’ll even pick up the book to read the blurb. My eye will pass on.

Not many of us who are writers are also graphic artists (the multi-talented Rick Blechta being an exception) and so we really shouldn’t try to design our own covers. But we need to know what we like and what we’re trying to achieve in this book and should be able to provide some input to our publishers.

All of which is a nice segue into the fact that I now have the cover image for Among the Departed. The fifth in the Constable Molly Smith series from Poisoned Pen, Among the Departed will be released on May 3rd. It’s available now for pre-order at many of your usual sources.

Couple of housekeeping things: If you are a librarian or otherwise connected to libraries and live in Ontario you might be going to the OLA superconference in Toronto. Rick and I will be participating in the Crime Writers of Canada speed-dating event on Thursday. Join us if you can, it’s going to be a lot of fun. Also on Thursday I will be signing books at the Manda Group booth and audio books at the Blackstone Audio booth.

AND if you happen to be in Birmingham, Alabama on the weekend, I’ll be at Murder in the Magic City on Saturday and Murder on the Menu in Wetumpka on Sunday.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Guest Blogger Kelli Stanley

Two very different series, two books in one year. Kelli Stanley is on a roll.

Am I Crazy? Don’t Answer That …

First, I’d like to thank my fabulous blog hosts, particularly Donis Casey and Vicki Delany, for having me over at Type M for Murder!

Today I thought I’d tackle the question of, well, how insane it is to write two series. Tuesday, THE CURSE-MAKER hits shelves, the follow-up and relaunch of my debut “Roman noir” novel NOX DORMIENDA. In September, we’ll launch the sequel to CITY OF DRAGONS. Am I crazy?

Of course. I’m a writer. You have to be only marginally sane to write in the first place, and once you’re published, the madness gets worse.

So why two series at this point in my career? A couple of reasons. My debut novel came out in 2008 from a small press (Five Star) with very limited distribution. Once I sold CITY OF DRAGONS to Thomas Dunne/Minotaur in 2009, I was out of my own back stock of unpublished writing … except for the sequel to NOX, which I’d written before I was published. I thought my editor might like my first series, and I thought it would be really wonderful if my “first born” characters had a shot at wide publication and distribution. Fortunately, my editor loved THE CURSE-MAKER,

and I found myself in the rather unique position of launching two series with the same publisher. That doesn’t happen often, especially with a relatively new author, and I’m very, very grateful.

Still, publishing them both in the same year was not a given. I advocated for it. First of all, 2009 was fallow for me, publishing-wise … CITY OF DRAGONS was sold in January and scheduled for February, 2010. Bringing out two books in 2011 helps even me out. And from a pragmatic view point, publishing is becoming more and more cacophonous — there are a lot of books out there, and you don’t want to run the risk of being forgotten before you start. Once you have momentum, it’s best to keep it … which is why my goal is always to bring out at least one book every year.

The reality is that attention spans are short and competition for attention increases every day—streaming video, virtual reality games, 3-D movies, YouTube, Guitar Hero … 2011 offers an unprecedented number of custom-tailored amusements, just waiting for the consumer. I am thankful beyond belief that reading is still a devoted hobby or past time with so many people, and if I’m lucky enough to have some of them waiting for my books, I don’t want them to wait longer than necessary.

So … two books in 2011. Two different series, one set in first century Roman Britain (THE CURSE-MAKER), one in 1940 San Francisco (CITY OF SECRETS). It’s double the fun and double the fear—it’s always scary to bring a book out, because, as my good friend and superb horror writer Laura Benedict puts it, someone might say your baby is ugly. But those are the chances we take … yet another reason why writers can plead guilty to insanity!


Kelli's web address is

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Suit of Lights

Today is the day - It was long in coming, but the official launch party for Crying Blood is this afternoon at 5:00 at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona. I posted all the particulars on last week's entry and on my own web site, so I won't reiterate, except to invite any of you Dear Readers who are within driving distance of Scottsdale to come to the party.

No matter how much lead time I have before the publication of a new book, the release date always seems to sneak up on me, and I have never yet been as prepared as I intended to be. For this book, I'm as ready as I'm going to be, I suppose. I didn't manage to lose five pounds, re-blond, or get a face lift, as I originally planned.

But I do have a spiffy outfit.

I'm always concerned with the clothes when I appear before a group. I can no longer be the cutest young thing in the room, but I can be well-dressed, damn it. I usually spend at least a month thinking about the outfit, and trying on a series of ensembles, accessories, jewelry, shoes, and parading them around in front of my patient if somewhat bemused husband as though I were an eight year old girl playing dress-up.

I go to such trouble only for myself, I think. When I go to other author events, it seems that the bigger the names the less concerned they seem to be about their duds. Especially the men. Don and I attended an event for a Very Big Name not long ago, and afterwards Don said to me, "Is he married?"

"I don't know," says I. "Why do you ask?"

He replied, "I was wondering why his wife let him go out looking like that."

A nice outfit gives me an ego boost, and I'm guessing Very Big Name didn't need one. As for me, when I don my Suit of Lights and enter the arena, I can face the bull with confidence.
Which one is it this time, you ask? It's the green one.

Friday, January 28, 2011

First Scribblings

Most writers will be able to look back over their lives and remember the moment when they realised that writing was what they wanted to do.

That moment for me came, perhaps, earlier than most. I wrote my first book aged four. My parents had taught me to read and write even before I went to school, and something inside me, even at that early age, was impelling me to tell stories.

The book was called “The Little Elf”, and was nearly 120 words long, scrawled over eight pages in black crayon. I even created a cover for it, and sewed the pages together (with help, I guess, from my mother). I still have it. My very first story.

At school I always loved to create a short story when asked to write an essay in an exam. In my Higher English exam - the last before leaving secondary school - I got so engrossed in writing a short story about a man without papers travelling on a train through Franco’s Spain, that I didn’t leave nearly enough time for the rest of the exam.

By then, of course, there was no doubt at all in my mind that I would be a writer.

I suppose the clinching moment came when returning from a holiday in Spain with my family. I was fourteen years old, and had just met the first love of my teenage years. She was a Spanish girl, Maria Nurita Sanchez Pradell, on holiday with her family from Barcelona where her father was a lawyer.

I spent the whole holiday in the company of Nurita and her sister Christina, and a Scottish boy we had met called Ian Brockie. It was a holiday that changed the course of my future life.

Inspired by the strange teenage hormonal feelings aroused by the encounter, I wrote my first real book. It was around 50,000 words long - a fantasy romp about the teen band I then played with, and the two Spanish sisters. It was called “The Aristokrats in Spain” (The Aritstokrats being the name of the band). Of course, the book was never published (and didn’t deserve to be), but was an experience that drove me on to write more, eventually having my first book published ten years later.

Such was the influence of that encounter in Spain, that I was first attracted to the girl I went on to marry because she looked like Nurita. A mistake, as it turned out. Although the one good thing to come out of it was my beautiful daughter Carol who, had it not been for that serendipitous Spanish romance, would never have existed.

The rest, in a sense, is history - journalism, television, books... But all of it driven from something innate, and a chance meeting at a Spanish hotel in the early sixties. Although we corresponded for some time after that holiday, I never did meet Nurita and her sister again, and she will have no idea how she inspired me to write, and changed my life forever. Chances are she probably doesn’t even remember me.

But there is one sad coda to this tale. Ian Brockie, whom we hung out with during that holiday, came from Wigtownshire in the south-west of Scotland. He and I did meet again. I went to stay with him at Wigtown and visit his family’s holiday cottage at the Isle of Whithorn (I also overnighted at that cottage some years later with members of the band after we had played a gig nearby). He came to stay with me in Glasgow.

The last time I set eyes on him, however, was at a Free Concert in Glasgow in 1970, in the outdoor arena at Kelvingrove Park. I had just embarked on a college course in journalism, and he was studying to be a mariner.

And then we lost touch, and I never heard of him again.

Until many years later, when living in a small village in South Ayrshire, two elderly women stopped in at the local pub where I was lunching one day. With something like amazement I realised that one of them was Ian’s mother. I made myself known to her and asked after her son.

Her face clouded and she told me that he had been in a serious car accident, and was now confined to a wheelchair.

Fate leads us off in such very different directions.

And now I find myself coming full circle. On Sunday I set off on a trip to Barcelona to promote the Spanish translation of “The Blackhouse”, back to the home of the girl who sparked it all off. What an amazing twist of fate it would be if we were to meet again. But I know that will never happen, and I can’t help but wonder whatever happened to Maria Nurita Sanchez Pradell.

I guess I’ll never know.

Here, for your delectation, is a slideshow of that very first Peter May story...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

My (disjointed) reading life

I always have several books going at once, always reading three or four at the same time.

I am the opposite of my wife, who diligently finishes one book before moving on to the next. By contrast, as a reader, I seem to have the attention span of butterfly. I start a book, love it, see another, drift aimlessly into that one, forget the first, start a third, forget the second, then wander back to the first, and finally finish it. The amazing thing is that when I leave and come back, I never forget where I am in the text or what is happening. But the end result is that it takes me forever to finish a book.

Often, I think I don’t read as much as I should—or, rather, not the books that I would like to read, those that would allow me to stay on top of the crime-fiction genre (I’m half-way through "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"). I read and reread many classics for my work (I teach a demanding junior Advanced Placement course and several elective classes). But spending 30 hours each year with Daisy Buchanan only goes so far (it certainly didn’t help Gatsby all that much).

I have a friend who reviews books and who, like me, works at a boarding school. He reads and reviews novels from 6 to 8 a.m. My free time (early morning or late night) is spent writing, so reading plays second fiddle.

Yet I don’t believe any writer’s reading and writing lives are mutually exclusive. Stephen King, for instance, in his "On Writing," says he is a slow reader, finishing 80 books annually. If that pace is slow, my pace is reverse. The irony to all of this is that I am greatly influenced by what I read—stylistically (I will reread an F. Scott Fitzgerald sentence several times to examine the syntax and punctuation) and content (I marvel at Ed McBain’s ability to establish a character in 10 words).

I would love to hear what the Type M community is reading. This week, I have Lisa Gardner’s "Hide" and Tony Hillerman’s "Dance Hall of the Dead" going. Maybe I’ll even finish one.

There is NO cat in my book!

... Such was the anguished cry from a cozy mystery author (who must remain nameless) upon seeing his new book cover. Apparently, the publisher believes that featuring cats on covers sell cozies. No other animal commands such a draw. Just cats. Another selling point in the cozy world is absolutely anything related to libraries and bookstores. And it’s true. They really do sell well—take it from someone who had snail racing on her 3rd book cover.

Rick’s post yesterday really got me thinking. I am in awe of his talent. What a huge responsibility to capture the essence of a story, create a tantalizing visual teaser of what lies inside and keep everyone happy.

Fortunately I’ve loved book covers 2, 3 and 4 in the Vicky Hill Mysteries. They are vibrant and fun, (please note I have not mentioned book 1). It’s obvious that the artist did her homework and I felt that she’d understood me.

As a mid-list author with a big publishing house and no sales clout, I was pleasantly surprised when I asked for a tiny change in Scoop! and got it. Although my heroine Vicky Hill is only seen from behind on this book cover, her hair is long and blond. I had never envisioned her as having either. I asked the artist to chop off six inches because Vicky is definitely not glamorous. She’s still blond but hey, you can’t win them all.

Good cover art definitely entices me to pick up a book. If it sizzles, I’ll certainly read the blurbs. I was talking about the very same thing with a reader recently and asked her what would stop her from buying a book. She said if there wasn't a photograph of the author, she wouldn't touch it—nor if the author’s bio mentions a love of dogs.

I rest my case.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The cover conundrum

As mentioned several times before, I wear many different hats to earn my daily bread. One of them is graphic designer. I’m currently designing a crime novel for a friend and today is Cover Day.

The biggest problem in coming up with a successful cover design is its “tone”. Are you going to sell sizzle or steak? Let me explain.

Sizzle is something that will transmit the feel of the book. In crime novel covers an important ingredient is letting readers know the type of plot they will encounter. You must be honest about that because you don’t want a cozy reader to be put off buying the book because the cover looks like the story is going to be a hard-boiled police procedural. There has to be something about the cover that accurately broadcasts what the reader is going to find inside or you risk their wrath or indifference.

Steak refers to showing something that actually happens in the book. For instance, is a body found in a library — and do you want that to be your cover image? Quite often this will work well. Other times you might want to stay away from it.

The problem is that the designer only has a limited number of things to play with: title, author and background image. The real wild card is budget. Is the publisher willing to spring for a custom illustration or photo shoot? This can really add dollars to the bottom line. Given the current state of publishing, you can imagine what the answer usually is: the big guns get custom anything and the pea shooters get stock output (and the cheaper the better).

Given all these constraints, how then do the really good covers happen, those covers that just call out to be picked up and studyed more closely (which is the whole point)? I’m sorry to say that basically, it comes down to luck. There are some pretty horrible covers out there, ones that almost scream at browsers, “Don’t pick me up!” If one of these is from a large publishing house, you can be sure that someone seasoned and competent designed it. How could it have gone so wrong?

Answer: other people meddling in the design, usually the editor or marketing department, sometimes the author. Here are a few samples of comments I’ve received or designer-friends have received. Read ’em and weep...

• “Personally, I don’t like green. Why is the cover green?”
• “The author’s name is so ugly. Can’t you do something about that?”
• “This cover just doesn’t speak to me. Make it speak.” After inquiring as to what the editor felt wasn’t working, this person responded, “I don’t know. That’s your job, Ms Expert.”
• “Why is the title so big and my name isn’t?” (Maybe it’s because your book has a great title and you’re a first-time author?)

and my personal favourite (from a friend):

• “I want the cover of this book to look just like _________.” When the designer did that, the response was, “I didn’t mean just like it, only sort of like it.” After the next revision, “No, now you’ve gone too far the other way. I want you to split the difference, okay?”

It’s at that point the harried designer starts thinking of what we refer to in the biz as “Kill it and bill it”.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Writer's Take on the King's Speech

A quick posting today because I had a big setback yesterday with Gold Mountain. I spent three solid days editing it. And then realized I was using an old version. So I’ve printed it out and am now going line by line to match up the fixes. Yes, I know there is a comparison feature in Word. But bearing in mind that almost every paragraph has a change of some sort, things as minor as I am to I’m, this is the best way for me to do it.

Onto my topic which is that I saw a really great movie yesterday, and it made me think a lot about the writing.

The King’s Speech with Colin Firth and Helena Bonham-Carter. Fabulous movie. I’m sure you’ve seen it or have heard about it.

As a writer two things struck me about this movie on the drive home. First there were no flashbacks. How many movies and books do you know that have extensive flashbacks to explain why the character is behaving in such a way? In the King’s Speech the power of the acting, the dialogue between the two main characters, was so strong that a flashback into Bertie’s childhood was not only unnecessary but would have ruined the effect. How much more powerful was the trace of remembered fear in an adult’s voice rather than the cheap trick of actually seeing a little child being bullied.

Secondly there appears to be no villain in this movie. It’s the classic man vs. himself conflict arc. Edward XIII is a self-absorbed jerk, but we’re glad to be rid of him (historically too, this is a fascinating example of the right thing happening at exactly the right time). But wait – there is a villain. And we see one glimpse of him.

The royal family is watching a newsreel and we see Hitler giving a screaming speech to the gathered masses. Princess Elizabeth says to her father, “What’s he saying?” and Bertie says, “I don’t know. But he’s saying it very well.”

And on this one level the fate of the word became personal.

I’m giving the workshop at the Scene of the Crime Festival this year ( and it will be on writing the antagonist. One of the guidelines I’ll give is that the villain must match the hero.

Thanks to a speech therapist, a loving family, and a lot of bravery, a man was created who became a match to his enemy.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Amanda Knox Case: Truth Stranger Than Fiction

This Sunday's guest blogger is Candace Dempsey, author of a true crime book, which is a little different for us here on Type M where all the crime we deal with is in our heads. So without further ado, take it away Candace — and thanks for dropping by!

“Amanda Knox had a sweet face, dominated by powerful blue eyes,” I wrote in Murder in Italy (Penguin: Berkley Books), the true story of Knox, an American honor student convicted of murdering Meredith Kercher, her British roommate, in a charming hilltop town. “It was the kind of face upon which many stories could be written. That was her fate.”

In my favorite review, Femme Noir called my take on this sensational story “a real-life murder mystery as terrifying and compelling as any work of fiction.” I wanted it to unfold like a movie, to recreate the vanished world of Perugia, Italy, before, during and after Kercher’s brutal stabbing and Knox’s arrest. An Italian-American journalist based in Knox’s hometown of Seattle, I crafted my tale from leaked diaries, Facebooks, MySpace pages, emails, court transcripts, documents, wiretaps, autopsy photos, interviews, and many trips to Italy. I saw it as a dream turned into a nightmare, for who has not dreamed of the Bel Paese, who wouldn't love to study abroad?

Sure, one could pull a mystery novel out of the Knox case. It has all the ingredients. Sex, lies, drugs, violence, Italy, international headlines, a muddled investigation, enduring mysteries, a terrible death. But I wonder if anybody would believe the story recast as a fictional account.

Let’s begin with “a cast of characters that Patricia Highsmith couldn’t invent,” to quote a British journalist. First, the two beautiful college girls—one murdered, the other convicted of the crime. Then Amanda’s alleged co-conspirators. Raffaele Sollecito, her wealthy Italian ex-boyfriend—a Harry Potter lookalike with his own apartment, snappy car and maid service. Rudy Guede, a virtual stranger, a small-time burglar and drifter from the Ivory Coast. Then there’s the famous prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini, a burly man, not without charm, who accused Amanda, Raffaele and Rudy of stabbing Meredith to death during a drug-fueled “sex game gone wrong.” A crime Mignini attributed to everything from Halloween pranks, marijuana, and satanic rituals to jealousy, sloppy housework and Manga comic books.

No way, you might say, if a mystery writer bombarded you with such details. Nobody would act that way. There are no people like that. It’s all made up.

I covered the Knox case from the beginning on my blog (still being updated), but had to start completely over for the book. I needed the tools of the fiction writer, including suspense, tension, surprise, dialog. But I didn’t invent anything. Murder in Italy was ripped literally from the headlines.

Truth really is stranger than fiction. Try writing a true crime book. You’ll see.


Get Murder in Italy, the hot new book on the Amanda Knox case. Find out the secrets that weren't revealed in court. Winner of Best True Crime Book Editor's Choice 2010 and Best True Crime Book Reader's Choice 2010

Visit her website:

Saturday, January 22, 2011

It's Never Easy

Last Wednesday I (Donis) was privileged to be asked to speak to our local chapter of Sisters in Crime on “The One Thing I Wish I Had Known Before I Became a Writer.” I talked about lots of things I wish I had known, but the biggest thing no one tells you is how brave you have to be - how brave to write the book of your heart even when you know it’s not the type of thing that publishers seem to be looking for, how brave to let others read it and criticize it, to persevere in the face of rejection after rejection until you find the editor or publishing house that loves it. How brave you have to be to do whatever you can to raise awareness of your labor of love, including talking to groups even though your knees are knocking together or sitting at a signing table trying to catch the attention of all the passers-by who are trying not to make eye contact.. How brave to read the reviews and not take to heart that one iffy review out of fifty sterling ones.

I thought of that talk when I was reading both John Corrigan’s Thursday post on what it all really means and Peter May’s post yesterday on a writer’s nerves.

John said he had heard of an author whose agent listed twenty topics editors at large houses were looking for and to “choose one”, because the major houses are seeking “something that can generate 20,000 hardcover sales.” It’s good to see what sort of things are being published right now, and what different houses are taking. But if you want to write your personal best book, I think it’s infinitely more important that you love what you’re writing than it is for you to write something just because you think it has a better chance of getting published. You won’t write your best work if you try to write what’s hot just because it’s hot. I read an interview with Carolyn Hart a while ago in which she said “Care passionately about what you write. If you care, readers (and somewhere an editor) will care. “

As as for Peter’s nerves...

My fifth novel, Crying Blood, has just come out. It is hardly on the level of Peter’s The Blockhouse,. No multiple international releases for me. I’m just pleased that it’s coming out in hardback and paperback, audio book and electronic book all at the same time. But even a writer on my little old mid-list level can perfectly empathize with Peter’s case of the heebie-jeebies.

The past couple of years have been challenging for me, and I don’t mind telling you that there were moments when I wondered if this book would ever see the light of day. But I persevered, and in spite of all the fits and stops and starts, here we are. So I’m not getting any major press or prestigious awards, but just like Peter’s book, this is a book of my heart, about my home and my people, and I want it to be as well-received as possible.

I’m getting a book launch, too, exactly one week from today. It won’t be a media event, but it’s a party and it’ll be fun, I hope, and I hope you’ll come if you’re in the area. Here’s your invitation:

Please join me for the launch of my fifth Alafiair Tucker Mystery
Crying Blood
January 29, 2011, at 5:00 in the evening
at Poisoned Pen Bookstore,
1404 N. Goldwater Blvd, Suite 101, Scottsdale, AZ 85251

I’ll be joined by authors Jeffery Siger, Tina Whittle, and Dana Stabenow for a Poisoned Pen Press Party with cake and champagne! Please come.

Crying Blood is the 5th installment in my Alafair Tucker series, a bit different from the earlier novels in that each of the first four stories are built around Alafair and a different one of her children, but this one concerns her husband, Shaw. This is what it’s about:

It’s the fall of 1915, and Alafair’s husband Shaw, his brother James, and their sons are on their annual quail-hunting trip. This year they’re camping on a piece of abandoned land their stepfather owns in Southeastern Oklahoma. Shaw is feeling a little melancholy. The men’s yearly outing always reminds him of the wonderful hunting trips Shaw and his brothers took with their own late father, who died when Shaw was eight. Shaw’s a bit sad this year, too, because his own children are beginning to grow up and leave home, and he’s starting to feel the passage of time and perhaps dealing with some of the ghosts on his past. But when his dog turns up a shallow grave and evidence of a long ago dastardly deed, Shaw finds himself faced with what seems to be the very real ghost of a murdered Indian who is looking for justice, or as the Muscogee Creeks say, he’s crying blood.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Writer's Nerves

Peter here. I have to confess to a certain nervous anticipation about the forthcoming publication of my book, “The Blackhouse”.

This is the first of my books in several years to get a proper launch. While I have had seven books published in France in recent times, along with the entire China series and (almost) five Enzo books in the United States, their publications have been marked simply by the passing of a date. The official publication date, from when the books are available in the shops (although, in truth, they are usually on the shelves before then).

This time it is different. Although “The Blackhouse” has already been published in France - where it won literary prizes and was described by the French national daily, L’Humanité, as “a masterpiece” - this is its first appearance in English. And my publisher, Quercus, is planning two launches. One in my home town of Glasgow, the other in Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh.

My trip back to Scotland for these launches, will be accompanied by a host of press interviews and stock signings. I will get to meet up with old friends, and readers, whom I haven’t seen for years. Quite an emotional homecoming, made more poignant by the fact that “The Blackhouse” is the only book I have written which takes place entirely in my native Scotland.

On its actual publication date, February 3rd, I will be in Barcelona. For the book is also coming out in Spanish at the same time, as well as in German, and a little later in Italian and other languages.

To mark the Spanish publication under the title “La isla de los cazadores de pájaros”, my publisher, Random House Mondadori, has invited me to the week-long crime writing festival in Barcelona which takes place from the end of January, Barcelona Negra. There I face several days of press interviews and festival events, along with the opportunity to explore the city - my first trip there since passing through it in darkness on a holiday coach forty-five years ago.

The trip to Barcelona will, in itself, be quite an event. I am taking a night-train from Limoges in France, lodged in my own private compartment, and receiving breakfast there as the train draws into the Catalonian capital first thing the next morning. I believe the railway gauge changes between France and Spain, but I have no idea how or where they effect the changeover.

“The Blackhouse” is the first book in the Lewis Trilogy. The second is written, and its English title now determined as “The Lewis Man”. It will also appear first in French, title yet to be decided. The publishers are so excited about it, they have already decided to launch it at la rentrée, 2011, which is the moment when everyone goes back to work after the summer holidays in France. And they have asked me to go to Arles, the HQ of Actes Sud, in May to meet the reps before they go out to sell it to the bookstores.

And, of course, “The Blackhouse” has been nominated for a highly prestigious French literary award, the “Prix littéraire Inter CE”. It is one of ten novels chosen from around Europe and the winner will be decided later in the year.

So it is a time filled with excitement, and not a little apprehension, as the book I wrote five years ago, and which languished in rejection during most of that time, is finally published in its original language. Even since Quercus offered me the three-book contract for the trilogy, nearly fifteen months have passed. Fifteen months of waiting and patient build-up. Cover, promotion, review copies, blogs, interviews. The book has been taken by two major supermarket chains in the UK, Asda and Sainsbury’s, and the former is planning a special St. Valentine’s Day promotion for it. This is the biggest hardback print run of any book I have ever had published, and the anticipation is killing.

But one thing is for sure. After all this time, February 3rd will come and go, the earth won’t move beneath my feet, the world will keep turning, and I will suffer, inevitably, from a huge sense of anti-climax.

The only uncertainty is how the book will be received by the critics, and therefore the readers. I will post the good reviews as they come in, and burn the bad ones.

Let’s hope there is a preponderance of the former!

• An interesting footnote is that my Spanish publisher, commissioned and paid for a book trailer, which they have now distributed widely themselves.  Here is what they produced:

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What it all really means

From 1992-1994, between college and graduate school, I manned the city desk at a newspaper in upstate New York. I remember entering the local bookstore one day and being told by the owner that a “famous playwright” had moved nearby and now frequented the same store. When I asked whom, the owner said the writer had requested anonymity. I have grown to assume that playwright to be Romulus Linney, who died at age 80 this past week in Germantown, N.Y.

In Sunday’s New York Times, Linney was quoted as saying: “When this is all over, my writing will add up to the sum total of me. The choices I make with my writing have a lot to do with myself as an unfolding personality, so that in the end your writing is really your destiny. It’s a question of finding that central thing that’s yours to say and yours alone.”

I find the quote amazing and true and central. But the remark particularly struck me this week in light of a story a fellow writer told me over the phone Friday night. She said she knew an author whose agent listed twenty topics editors at large houses were looking for and to “choose one.”

Would the agent provide a paint-by-numbers set, too?

Later during the weekend, a colleague asked how my writing was going. I told him the writing process is always enjoyable. It’s everything that happens as soon as you finish the book that exhausts you, and it seems that next step is becoming more and more tiresome. Even on the best days, the publishing business is entirely subjective, but when editors are unwilling or frightened to take chances, authors are left reeling. I’ve been told several times in the past year that the major houses are seeking “something that can generate 20,000 hardcover sales.”

Hell, so am I, but I don’t write with that in mind. Linney’s quote is a truism for any writer. The choices we make on the page have much to do with “unfolding personalit[ies]” and (hopefully) little to do with potential sales figures. Don’t get me wrong. I want to sell books as badly as the next guy. But I don’t know of any writer who sits at his of her computer and thinks about sales figures. Writers attempt to tell a compelling story, explore an issue, and mostly intrigue and entertain themselves (and their imaginary ideal reader). Once you start looking for trends instead of stories, you’re dead. At the very least, you’re dishonest.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

More than Just the Facts

Barbara here. Today I am reprinting the blog I wrote last week on Mystery Maven Canada, because it seems timely. Last week a dear friend and author who lives half the year in Tucson, questioned whether, in the light of the real-life horror of the Tucson mass murder, he should abandon the book he was writing. Somehow it felt cheap and exploitive to be writing about murder as entertainment.

I remember having a similar thought after Sept. 11. How could I continue to invent suffering and death, how could I write about the anguish of survivors and families, when so many people were living a tragedy far worse than I could imagine? In fifteen catastrophic minutes, not only did thousands of people lose their lives and the two tallest buildings in New York collapse into dust, but the psyche of the American people was slashed to its core.

Six weeks afterwards, I attended a conference of mystery writers and readers in Washington D.C., just across the river from the still-scarred Pentagon. Normally Bouchercon, the world’s largest mystery conference, is a raucous, boozy, fun-filled three days of talking with fellow mystery lovers about such things as the elements of a perfect crime. In November 2001, the mood was sombre, the conversations cathartic and personal. People talked about their experiences, reactions and memories. Everyone was struggling to absorb what had happened and to give voice to their feelings. Some found they couldn’t write at all, that their hearts weren’t in it or their concentration was shot. Some wrote poetry, others wrote almost free-style as emotions bled out. Many of us wondered whether we ever could, or should, write about death again. Not just death, but murder. Do we need to hold a mirror up to the blackest part of our soul, shine a light into the darkest, most primal cave?

Yes, we do.

We need to understand and face the worst that humanity can offer; we need to experience the rage, the fear, the pain and loss, and to emerge at the end of it with some sense of victory. All from the safety of our armchairs. That sounds hokey, but crime fiction is often called the modern day morality play. It’s the mythical battle of good vs. evil and the quest for justice. Murder mysteries are not about murder and mayhem, they are about people struggling with death, facing fear, rage, hatred, loss, and pain. Whether they make us laugh at it, challenge our deductive powers, make us weep with shared sorrow, or scare the living daylights out of us, they all have that in common.

Few authors tackle such horrific tragedies as Sept. 11 or the Holocaust directly. Sometimes the pain is simply too raw, and sometimes the authors sense a fine line between dealing with a topic and exploiting the real suffering of victims and their families. Yet the power of fiction is that it doesn’t really matter. A mystery novel that explores trauma in wartime or disaster can touch people the world over, no matter what their trauma. The sense of shared experience, of being understood, is a powerful comfort. Fiction gets at emotional truth in a way that history texts and even biographies don’t. It is about people, not facts.

For the author as well, fiction can be a great catharsis. I usually write about issues and people that trouble me, and although I disguise the subject and the characters, I can plumb the depths of my frustrations and my concern. That’s the beauty of fiction. It’s a shared emotional experience, and along the way, I hope we all learn a little more about justice, compassion and human need. A very good reason to keep on plotting murders on the page, I think.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The expanding world of the author, part 3

I’m blessed with a son who has a diploma in public relations, not that he’s in the biz. I suppose that says more about that industry than his desire for employment since he’s never wanted to make use of it — except to help out his dear old dad. Today, in the last part of this little series, I’m going to share his expertise with you.

First and foremost: in this age of “the author as self-promoter”, one needs to have a good PR kit. This is one area where your publisher might actually help you out, but there are some tricks they may not know, or you may want to tailor your PR to a specific target market.

Here are the nuts and bolts of your PR kit:

a press release: This can be sent to any and all news outlets (these days, they’re usually emailed or possibly faxed). My son suggests also sending them out whenever anyone requests information, you’re getting a booking for a public appearance of any kind. The folks booking you should get it and be encouraged to share it with local media. They’ll often have better luck getting coverage than you will, but I’d also try directly in case your hosts “don’t get around to it”. Marketing departments of publishers large and small regularly do these. Get your hands on one — and use it! Formatting for these is pretty strict. There are numerous articles on the internet to guide you. Follow them.

a backgrounder: This is actually a newspaper article you write about yourself. You can talk about your history (as it pertains to this book), a bit about how you became a writer. Include interesting tidbits about the book, anecdotes about the writers’ life, road stories, your thoughts about the theme of the book. Keep it light (if that’s suitable for the book’s content), informative. Think about similar print articles you’ve seen about other authors and model yours after those. Hand these out as above. Quite often, newspapers will crib large portions of your backgrounder, occasionally the entire thing, but that’s what you want. You’re making their job easy and you’re controlling the information. That’s a pretty good deal in my book. You’ll have a much better chance to get coverage if you do the slug work for them. I have occasionally used an interview format and got good results.

an author bio: This will be information about you the person and author and is the place where you can talk about your previous books, awards and nominations and introduce yourself as a person as well as an author. It’s a good idea to put a box at the bottom that gives some information about the book you’re promoting. Include a good high-resolution (300 dpi) headshot of you and make your PDF high-resolution so the media can just pull the headshot off and use it for print purposes.

Always have contact information on any and all promo pieces.

Lastly, make sure your package is designed in a professional manner. It might be an advantage to hire a graphic pro to do it. If you provide all the “pieces” (copy, photos, etc), it shouldn't be too expensive. In this day of the Internet and email, it’s best to send out your promo material as PDFs. That way, you can also use colour while you’ll save a ton on printing and mailing costs. It gets there quicker, too.

Good luck and happy promoting!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Buying books. Without the independent mystery bookstore where do we go?

Donis asks a good question. How do you decide what books to buy? I answered her in the comments but found I had a lot to say so decided to write about it today. I also read the Sisters in Crime report and didn’t find any surprises.

Like most people the main reason why I would buy a book is if it is by an author I like. Doesn’t have to be a series, some authors I like write standalones. But I can’t just read authors I’ve read before. For one thing, I’d eventually have nothing to read! So l looked over my recent book buying choices and here is my reasoning.

Bad Boy by Peter Robinson. Bit of a no brainer. Robinson/Banks. Obviously extremely high author recognition. This book was a purchase I knew I was going to make before going to the bookstore.

Still Missing by Chevy Stevens. This one I didn’t buy. It was given to me by a friend who said I should read it. I would never have picked this one up – simply didn’t care for the theme. If my friend had recommended I buy it, I never would have. Instead she gave it to me and because I know she wants to talk about it, I read it. I thought it was great. Will I buy the next book by this author? Probably not. I suspect this book was a one-off.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. This one I bought because of the massive press it got, but also because several people I know recommended it. So it had very high interest level for me. I loved it. Bought All the Pretty Horses. Never finished that one. Probably the end of McCarthy for me. Again a planned purchase.

The Terror by Dan Simmonds. Strictly chosen by title and cover when I spotted it in the bookshelf. A lovely cover image of a sailing ship trapped in ice. The cover picture and the title The Terror made me reach for it because I figured it was about the Franklin Expedition. Which it is. It was only when I got the book home and was re-reading the blurb when I realized it was a HORROR novel. I never, ever read horror. However, I started reading and really enjoyed the book. The horror wasn’t at all horrible. A total spontaneous purchase. Book was just on the stacks in the local independent store.

Let the Dead Lie by Malla Nunn. Now here’s where it gets interesting. I came across Nunn’s first book, A Beautiful Place to Die, because it was recommened to me. Absolutely loved it and I’m really looking forward to this one. The book is set in 1950s South Africa and as some of you know, I lived in South Africa for 11 years.

In the spring of 2009 Debby Atkinson and I did a book tour of Arizona and California. We stopped at lots of bookstores and, of course, talked books. I bought a ton of books, strictly based on the recommendation of the bookstore workers. A Beautiful Place to Die was one of them.

One of the stores we visited was The Mystery Bookstore in Los Angeles. Which announced it’s closing at the end of the month.

I wonder where I will now go to be introduced to new authors. Not the chain store. The employees there might even be informed readers but there just isn’t the environment to chat with them and find out what they like. The small bookstore environment, particularly a speciality store such as a mystery store, was such that you could mention what books you’d read lately and they’d know it and would have probably read it. They’d certainly have heard of it. And thus they could walk up and down the shelves and pick out books they figured you’d like. They would recommend books because they were good, not because they were well advertised.

Don Longmuir at Scene of the Crime books in Oakville, Ontario introduced me to Susan Hill, one of my top favourites.

Linda Wiken at Prime Crime in Ottawa introduced me to Stuart Pawson. I’ve bought everyone one of them and my daughter also reads them. She just bought the latest, and if I don’t see her soon, to get her copy, I’ll be buying my own. Can’t wait.

Marion Misters and J.D. Singh at Sleuth of Baker Street introduced me to Zoe Sharp long before she was in any of the chain bookstores on this side of the pond.

Like The Mystery Bookstore and so many others, Scene of the Crime and Prime Crime are defunct. Sleuth is cutting its operations back and moving to smaller premises with less hours. So, where will I go now to meet new authors of the sort I’m almost guaranteed to love? If only I can find them.

Fortunately, for me, I’m going to Poisoned Pen in March (March 27th to be precise). I’ll be sure to have plenty of room in my suitcase for all the books I’m going to buy.

We’re losing a lot with the death of the independent bookstore. I think we don’t really know, yet, how much.

Before I finish, here's another recent purchase: Slow Recoil by C.B. Forrest. Again strictly author recognition and an intended purchase. Loved his first book, Weight of Stones. It was perhaps the best book I read in 2010. Almost totally unknown, the only reason I read his first book is because it was published by the publisher of my Klondike books. Slow Recoil is almost as good. But I fear that without the independent bookstore to push his books by word of mouth, he won't get the recognition he deserves.


Peter here. My apologies to all TypeM4Murder followers for failing to come up with a guest blogger on Sunday. Pressure of time and other distractions led me to take my eye off the ball - and I simply didn't realise it was my turn until it was too late.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Why We Read What We Read

My new novel is has been released. I’ve been spending the past few weeks, and will spend the next several weeks, trying to get the word out. I’ll be doing as many personal appearances as I can arrange and as I think will be useful. But my first post-publication in-the-flesh appearance won’t be until next week. Until then, I’ve been spending hours a day in front of the computer setting things up - workshops, signings, guest blogs, etc.

Just kill me now.

If there is anything more boring than shilling over the internet hour after hour after hour I don’t know what it is. After a while I’d be happier cleaning the toilets. At least I’d know for sure that I have accomplished something tangible and immediate.

The common wisdom among authors seems to be that publishing and publicizing through electronic media is fast becoming the way to go, and we’d all better jump on board the bandwagon or be left in the dust. Yet I have a strange, niggling feeling that this is not necessarily the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In her Jan. 3 entry, Vicki noted that many of her friends do not read blogs by or about writers or read online reviews of books. They get information about new books either through the printed newspaper they read or from the What’s New shelf at the library or by talking to friends.

When I read that, I said to myself, “Donis, this strikes a chord.” I consider my own habits. How do I decide what books to read? First, if I know and like the author, I’ll almost always give her books a try. Second, I am an inveterate browser. I’ve discovered innumerable titles that I’ve loved simply by browsing bookshelves both in bookstores and in libraries. I am more prone to read a book by an author I don’t know if I see it in the library. Third, I’m very much influenced by the recommendations of friends, especially friends whose taste I know is similar to mine. The only internet sites that influence my buying and reading habits tend to be a couple of review sites that I like, such as Lesa’s Book Critiques. If I read a book I like by an author who is new to me, I’ll look up his website, read about him, and see what else he’s written.

I have never bought a book online. If I’m going to buy a book, I order it from one of my local independent book stores if they don't have it in stock. This is not to say that I wouldn’t buy a book from, say, Amazon, if I was desperate to read it and absolutely couldn’t find it anywhere else. Obviously I don’t own a Kindle or other electronic reading device. I’m not at all against them, and probably will have one some day, for it seems to me that they might be very good for travel. But if given a choice, I’d rather have a physical book to read. When I’m done with a book, I can either return it to the library or resell it or give it to the local nursing home.
“You are hopelessly uncool and out of date, Donis,” you may say. “and will very soon be left far behind as all readers flock to the digital world.”

Aha! I’ve got you there.

It seems that Sisters in Crime has recently issued a major research report entitled “The Mystery Book Consumer in the Digital Age.” The publishing industry data in this survey was gathered and interpreted by the book sales analysis division of Bowker, which division provides business intelligence to publishers, retailers and authors. The purpose of the survey is to provide an up-to-date picture of the reading and purchasing habits of mystery readers in the U.S. What the data shows is that things have not yet changed as much as we may imagine.
What is the number one factor that the reader considers when she buys a mystery novel? According to the survey it is that she knows and likes the author. Second is that the book is part of a series she enjoys. Third, the reader saw the book on an in-store display. Next is that the reader got the book through a book-buying club (this surprised me), and then the recommendation of a friend or relative.

Other revelations:

The cover of the book is very influential in persuading a reader to consider it.

Most mysteries are bought by women older than 45 (though a third of them are purchased by women 18-44. That’s not to be sneezed at.), and more are bought by women in the South, closely followed by the West, than in other parts of the country. More mysteries are bought through stores than online, and personal recommendations “are the major driver of reading choices.” Even younger mystery readers, who are more familiar with e-readers and use them more than older readers, say they prefer to read physical books.

So this old mystery-reading Southern woman isn’t as out of step as one might think.
If such a marketing survey were taken for thrillers or science fiction or romance, the results might be very different. It seems to me that what we as authors should learn from this is to know our audience and create our marketing strategies to suit. Which means that somehow I’ve got to figure out more personal ways to get that word-of-mouth going, because if anybody ever wrote a series made to appeal to other mature (let us say). mystery-loving. women of the heartland, it is I.

What influences you to read a book, and in what form do you prefer to read it?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Do it NOW!

Peter here. On Type M we have talked long and often about writers going it on their own, by-passing the publishing filter to self-publish electronically and reap the majority of the profit from their labours.

No doubt about it. There is an opportunity to be exploited. Money to be made. But it seems to me that the window of opportunity will not be open for too long. Within no time this new medium, allowing writers to display their wares and sell directly to their readers, is going to get clogged up and bogged down by every wanabee writer who wants to see himself/herself in print. It's cheap and easy to do. And in the end readers will be confronted with a bewildering choice, and little or no way of determining what is worth buying - an enormous gamble, since 95 percent of available books will be execrable.

So those writers with an established track record, who want to take advantage of the electronic opportunity, had better move quickly and stake their claim now.

Read one writer's account of how she bravely exploited this opportunity and turned a gamble into a money-making success, selling thousands of books to new readers. L. J. Sellers wrote the following account in a contribution to Joe Konrath's blog this month:

The downside of it all, of course, is that the bricks and mortar booksellers who have been peddling our wares for so long are biting the dust in increasing numbers. The latest casualty is The Mystery Bookstore in Westwood, Los Angeles. They announced this week that they are having to close their doors. As a frequent visitor during book tours in recent years, I was particularly sad to hear the news. They were good people, and knew their books.


And as an even sadder post script, I have to mention the passing of my old editor at St. Martin's Press, Ruth Cavin. And when I say old, I mean OLD. Ruth was 92 and had been working right up almost until the end. She didn't discover her talents as an editor until she was in her sixties, but certainly made up for lost time and put in another lifetime's work into her new career. She was an original, the doyenne of crime editors, and she will be sorely missed.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Fiction reduced to 7

Surfing the Internet this week, I stumbled upon an article listing what it claimed were the seven original plots. All works, according to several online sites, have plots that fall somewhere on this list:

1. man vs. nature
2. man vs. man
3. man vs. the environment/society
4. man vs. machines/technology
5. man vs. the supernatural
6. man vs. self
7. man vs. God/religion

I remember being told as an undergraduate that there were 29 original plots. I didn’t think much of it then (and don’t think much about it now), but when I hit the list above I was perplexed. Do all works fit the list?

The classic Greek tragedies are said to feature man in conflict with self, the gods, and/or society. Themes in most novels deemed “crime fiction” run to man vs. man and man vs. self; even justice vs. the legal system, individual and societal greed and corruption.

The more I thought about the list over the past week, the more I have to agree with it. I ran through a bunch of personal favorites, THE BIG SLEEP, THE DANCE HALL OF THE DEAD, even HAMLET, which fits numbers 2, 6, and 7.

So what does it all mean?

If anything, being able to say all fiction is based on the same seven-point scale should only tears down the use of genre tags to separate works. I’m rereading THE GREAT GATSBY right now and must piggyback on the late Robert B. Parker, who often claimed there to be no such thing as genre fiction, just good books and bad ones. If there were such a thing as genre distinctions, he said, then GATSBY is a great crime novel. I’ve always interpreted this quote as a verbal shot at those who belittle books like the ones Parker wrote (and so many of us cherish), books that stress so well numbers 1-7.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Keeping Things Fresh!

THIEVES! the fourth in the Vicky Hill Mysteries came out last week.

I had the usual launch party with a British Trivia quiz, raffle prizes, wine and snacks. It was lovely to see familiar friendly faces eagerly waiting to hear hilarious anecdotes about my road to publication or how I research my quirky backdrops.

As I sat there, perched atop a high stool at the Mystery Bookstore in Westwood, I suffered a sudden bout of nerves. These people had heard my spiel before. Not once, but four times. Sure, I change the questions on the quiz and the kind of snacks on offer, but the prospect of trotting out the same tired jokes in the hope that at least one person hadn’t heard them before, makes me feel a bit of a fraud. Do people expect a repeat performance or hope for something different? I thoroughly enjoyed watching Chris Rock’s “Kill The Messenger” tour in 2008. I saw it a second time and even though I laughed, it wasn’t so funny.

The same is true of writing a series. Only yesterday, the subject of how to keep a series fresh was suggested as a panel topic for next month’s chapter meeting at Sisters in Crime LA.

I write a cozy mystery series. My amateur sleuth (aspiring investigative reporter—reluctant obituary writer) solves crimes in a small market town in Devon, England. Readers of “cozies” expect and want to revisit the same characters. The world they inhabit is familiar. So the challenge of making each book different is quite a big one.

I attempt to keep the Vicky Hill Mysteries fresh by having a different backdrop in each book featuring strange British hobbies—hedge jumping, snail racing, Morris dancing to name just a few. My fifth book will introduce Flaming Tar Barrel Racing. With the characters—I introduce the concept of the “season long mystery.” For Vicky Hill, her parents are wanted criminals and with each new book, Vicky gets closer to having to decide about her future i.e. join the family firm or be disowned. In her romantic life, her quest for true love is an ongoing theme. Often, a series might flounder once a sexual relationship has been consummated.

I have another event this Saturday so any thoughts on keeping ME fresh are gratefully received.

Postscript: I've just learned the Mystery Bookstore is closing! It's too depressing for words.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The expanding world of the author, part 2

So you've got a new novel coming out. It may be your very first. It may be your tenth. It doesn't matter. You're a mid-list author. Your books sell okay. You're not getting rich, but more importantly, neither is your publisher, so the promotional bucks just aren't there for you.

You've been told to hire a book publicist, go out and do signings, try to get an increasingly disinterested media to notice you. What do you do (besides getting frustrated) when you don't have the necessary expertise, let alone the will, to promote your work?

Last week we discussed social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Linked-in and their ilk. Yes, they can do some good, and best of all, they're free. All you have to invest is your time. But are they effective? Who knows? At least if they're done right, they can't hurt — and they are easy to do right. All you have to do is supply fresh copy regularly, always be in people's line of sight.

The big question is: what else can an author left to his/her own devices do if they don't have the cash to hire pros to do it for you?

My answer is to try to control the things you can control. It's impossible to compel the media to pay attention to you. You can go to a bookstore, present yourself with a tableful of book, but you can't force people to buy them. You can't force a reviewer to review your novel. So what can you control — and not break the bank doing it?

BOOKCLUBS: There are lots of them out there and most are thrilled to have a real live author show up for a Q&A. Taking a leaf from Peter's and Vicki's books, if you're expected to give up your time and the expense of traveling (even if it's a short haul), you should expect everyone present to purchase one of your books. After doing several book clubs, only to find that most of the people had taken my novel out of the library, I decided to say that my "fee" was that everyone had to purchase a book. One club balked. I moved on. The next club, after I explained my reasoning, thought it was a fair request, so off I went with several titles under my arm. It worked. How do you find book clubs? Ask around. Savvy independent bookstores set them up, some libraries host them, some are private. Search on Google.

LIBRARIES: Here in Canada, we have the Canada Council and if you can get hooked up with them through a library booking, you can get some serious remuneration for all your trouble. Even if you don't, ask for an honorarium, especially if you're coming in from out of town. Some libraries will bend over backwards to help. You will certainly want to sell books. Suggest that the cost of admission is the purchase of one book. Offer to split the profits with the library. If a bookstore is involved with selling, offer to do a signing there. Range of programming possibilities make this a real gold mine.

SCHOOLS: Students of all ages get a lot out of having a "real, live author" talk to them. You can't really ask each student to purchase a book (even if the subject matter is appropriate), but you can ask for an honorarium. Every school has a budget for programming of this kind. Offer to lead a workshop.

These are just a few ideas. The nice thing is that all three can be done at any time, not just when a new book is out. Oddly, local media will often pick up on these events and do a profile on you.

I will be finishing up next week on several things an author should never be without when they go on the road. All are inexpensive and can really help out your cause.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Crawling into the Swamp: Robert William Pickton and the sex trade

Warning: Some content might be disturbing (and I am not kidding here)

Vicki here on Monday to talk about something I think about a lot.

I’m currently reading On the Farm by Stevie Cameron.

This is the story of Robert William Pickton, Canada’s most prolific (to date) serial killer. Pickton preyed for years on the prostitutes and drug addicts of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Canada’s worst neighbourhood.

He lived on the ‘farm’ in a suburb outside of Vancouver where he’d been raised. It wasn’t a farm as you think of one. He mostly bought animals for slaughter, slaughtered them on his farm, and sold the meat. His brother, who sounds just as bad as Willie, owned a bunch of minor construction businesses and did things such as remove soil from contaminated sites, and resell it as top soil to homes and garden stores. The brother, Dave, was a friend of the Hells Angels who used the farm property to ‘party’.

Not one single intact body was found of the over twenty women Pickton is believed to have murdered. Read that sentence again. Then re- read the paragraph above.

Ever wonder happens to all the carcases and waste products of the millions upon millions of animals who are slaughtered each year? I never have. Now I know. A waste reduction facility. Pickton regularly made deliveries to such a facility in Vancouver. What do they do with the waste that is reduced? You don’t wanna know.

Despite all of this the thing that I find most disturbing is the police inaction in the beginning years of Picton’s spree. Essentially, they didn’t much care. Women were disappearing from the streets of the Downtown East Side for years. Their friends, their families, social workers pleaded with the police to do something.

And they did not.

These were throwaway women. Thrown away by society. Drug addicts, prostitutes. The lowest of the low. But they were also people. Women.

With nothing else in their life other than drugs and desperation, they stood on street corners or lived in rat infested hotels where the hotel took a fee for any ‘guests’ invited up to their room.

Which brings me to the point I really want to make. WHY THE FUCK IS THERE A MARKET FOR PROSTITUTES LIKE THIS?

There would be no supply, if there wasn’t a demand.

Police will tell you there are plenty of nice cars patrolling the strolls. Men with money, probably with good jobs, wives at home. Children perhaps. Pretty little girls even, who no one would even think of touching.

But somehow it’s still seen as, if not exactly decent behaviour, nothing worth worrying about. For men to have sex with these women. Even with women who’ve obviously been coerced or girls clearly underage. Sex slavery is rampant, not only in the third world but in our supposedly civilized cities.

It has been estimated that three quarters of all the prostituted women in the United States are slaves.

Make no mistake, attempts in Canada and the U.S. to punish what is euphemistically called “Johns” have to date been weak and timid.

Slowly, too slowly, some things are changing. In a major breakthrough some jurisdictions are no longer charging underage girls with prostitution and jailing them. Imagine, too young to legally agree to sex they are being jailed for being prostitutes while the men who rape them are let off if they say they didn’t know she was underage and/or being forced into it.

In Canada not a single man has ever been charged for buying sex from a human-trafficking victim, and in 2009 a grand total of 16 men were charged with trying to obtain sex from a minor. (Statistics quoted in Globe and Mail, January 8, 2011 following a review of the book Somebody’s Daughter by Julian Sher.)

In my own feeble way I am trying to create awareness of this. I’ve written a hard-boiled novel under another name about trafficking of girls into the sex trade. It’s with my agent now. One comment we got from a major publisher: won’t touch the story line.

An excellent book on the mentality of men who use prostituted woman is found in The Johns by Victor Malarek.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Swarmed by the light: Motivated or … obsessed?

This week we've had blogs about all stages of a writer's career, from holding that new book in your hands to flogging it on the internet. Today's guest author, C.B. Forrest, reminds us, in his trademark powerful, elegant prose, of what is at the heart of it all. In Chris' words...

Now that Obama has successfully repealed the ludicrous ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT)’ policy for gays and lesbians serving in the United States military (there is something really twisted about allowing people to die for their country as long as they don’t reveal the nature of their being), I am today suggesting a revised version of DADT specifically for Writers and Readers.

In a nutshell: Don‘t ask questions which very likely will necessitate a false response (ie. ‘how is that book of yours coming along’, or ‘did you really, truly like my book?’) and, for the responder, don’t ever tell the truth. Period. It’s that simple, really. This version of DADT will allow all of us - writers and readers alike - to continue to live in our panacea. By the way, we don’t need to worry about this ever becoming law, since the Senate is ruled by Conservatives who tend to pay little attention to the arts …

This is all really just the long way around to my point: Talk is cheap. And don’t believe everything you hear. For example, last week I heard one of my literary heroes - Philip Roth - tell an interviewer that if he had to do it all over again, he definitely wouldn’t be a writer because “it’s very difficult, insular work”. Really? Is that why Roth, at 70, still pumps out a Pulitzer or National Book Award-winning novel every year? I felt like calling in and saying, “stop writing then, dude, if it’s such a chore.”

Yes, writing is very hard work. But nobody ordered us or otherwise forced us to this work. I’ve talked with dozens of writers of all stripes, genres, and stations in life, from mega best-sellers to the self-published, and I have arrived at this very unscientific conclusion: writers are obsessed, or at the very least strongly compelled, to put into words various aspects of the human condition. We don’t know why, we won’t ever know why, it just ‘is’. A fish swims, a writer writes.

Motivation is the single strand of DNA shared among all writers, published or unpublished. Let’s face it, gang, the odds are against us from the very start. They always have been, always will be. Each time we sit at the typewriter and stare into the possibility of a blank page, we are taking up the torch of this sacred faith. We pledge to complete this line, this page, this chapter, this story, to the best of our ability -- with absolutely no guarantee that other eyes will ever read it. So it has always been with this “insular” art form, and so it always will be.

As Barbara Fradkin recently told a young student with a novel in the works, publication is your end goal, of course, but it can never be the reason why you’re doing this. This is one game that quickly separates the dreamers from the doers, the meandering hobbyists from the full charter members.

A dear friend often reminds me of my response to her question twenty years ago about why I write. I was in my early twenties, always carrying around a tattered manuscript or bundle of napkins with scrawled notes. She wanted to understand the motivation, the drive. I shrugged and said, “I breathe, I write.” And it sounds corny, but it’s true. I’ve been writing since I was a kid hammering out clichéd little stories on a vintage typewriter my Dad smuggled home from work. In Grade 3 I had a story about burnt pancakes published in a school board anthology. The fire has burned in me as long as I can remember. Telling stories is in my marrow.

There is, of course, a fine line between motivation and obsession. Any spouse or partner of a writer can tell you on which side of the fence you’ve fallen on any given day. I tend to believe my writing moves through stages. I begin with pure motivation, but as the story and characters come to life, I nudge across the line to the territory of ‘pre-obsession’. By the mid-way point, when the light on the other shore is beckoning, I will admit I am in full obsession mode. I write when and how I can get it. In strings of words, a couple of lines, or maybe, if I’m lucky, a few pages in one stretch. It is during this stage that I simply can’t get the story out of my head.

The great drunken poet and pulp master, Charles Bukowski, was the first to employ Twitter before it was even invented. This guy sat in his boxer shorts and typed a billion poems via stream of consciousness, pumping out line after line, describing what was happening in his crap-hole room in south LA at that very minute, sending these little telegraphs from hell.

Love him or leave him, at least Bukowski did what so many others talked about. He put his butt in a chair and he wrote. He was compelled. He was motivated. He was obsessed. He performed his art with absolutely no guarantee of publication or success.

This Bukowski poem hangs in my writing room and reminds me of my duty as part of this sacred tradition. It’s titled ‘until it hurts’, from Bukowski’s book ‘what happened to the loving, laughing girl in the gingham dress?’

until it hurts

you have to wait until it
hurts, until it clangs in
your ears like the bells
of hell, until nothing
else counts but it, until
it is everything,
until you can’t do any-
thing else

then sit down and write
or stand up and
but write
no matter what
the other people are
no matter what
they will do to

lay the line down,
a party of one,
what a party,
swarmed by the
the time of the
out of the tips of

C.B. Forrest’s just-released novel, Slow Recoil, is the sequel to the Arthur Ellis Award-nominated The Weight of Stones. He lives in Ottawa where he is at work on a third and final installment featuring protagonist Charlie McKelvey. He is currently in ‘mild obsession mode’ and often appears unshaved.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

"Crying Blood" is Here

The day has finally come. I got home late yesterday afternoon from speaking to a writing group in northeast Phoenix, (for which I did get paid, I hasten to assure you after enjoying Harlan Ellison's rant in yesterday's post) and found two boxes on my doorstep – one large and one smaller. Contained therein were 25 hardcover copies and four softcover copies of the fifth Alafair Tucker Mystery, Crying Blood. It’s always a satisfying day when you finally hold the finished product of a couple of year’s work in your hands for the first time. It has in fact been exactly two years since The Sky Took Him came out, and there were moments between then and now that I had my doubts that the fifth book would see the light of day.

But here it is, in the flesh, so to speak. How satisfying it is to open the book for the first time and read the dedication " all the men I love...but especially for my father. For good or ill, our fathers...teach us what it is to be a man." And then the acknowledgments, thanks to my editor, and to the librarians in the Muskogee Public Library Local History and Genealogoy Department. I'm assuming that Jewish family history is kept in its own special collection.

I promise you that in both the manuscript and galleys, the word "genealogy" was correctly spelled. Has any book in the history of the world been printed without a typo?

Here's what the novel is about:
A mysterious young Creek Indian boy who stealthily follows Shaw Tucker home from a strange hunting trip calls himself Crying Blood, which is a Creek term that means something like "seeking justice". The Creeks believed that an unnatural death throws the world out of balance, but the boy finds no justice, only his own death. Shaw Tucker vows to find out why and to restore the right order of things.

Drop over to my website to read an excerpt, and keep an eye out for an opportunity in the near future to win a signed copy of Crying Blood.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Working for Free

Peter here. I have lost count of the number of times over the years that I have been asked to write something for nothing - i.e. without payment, or at the very least for some token amount. Because, after all, it's just a few words, isn't it? Easy for me, I'm a writer. And people are always so sure I will be happy to see my name in print.

Well, what's not easy for me, and never has been, is making a living as a writer. By some miracle I have managed to do just that for the last thirty years (and as a journalist beforehand). So I have never been able to figure out why anyone would feel they had the right to ask me to work for nothing - write a treatment on spec., write a screenplay to see if some producer can sell it (and pay me if he can), write a few chapters of a book to see if an editor is interested, accept some ridiculous advance because the publisher doesn't know if it will sell or not. After all would any of these producers, editors or publishers, like to forego their salaries for three months? I don't think so. But they are quite happy to ask me to do it.

I can hear some of you saying now... What a cranky @*^%^% that Peter May is. Well, maybe I am. But not half as cranky as Harlan Ellison. Watch the following extract from "Dreams with Sharp Teeth". Now THAT is cranky. But I can't help but agree with him! (WARNING: If you are offended by bad language, don't watch!)