Monday, February 28, 2011

High risk takedowns - my day.

I'm heading out the door to participate in high risk takedowns! Yes, I've been lucky enough to have been invited to two days of police in service training. Today it's vehicle stops and high risk takedowns. I'm very grateful to all the police services and officers who've been so supportive of my books and my writing. I hope that's allowed me to have a certain amount of veracity in the Constable Molly Smith books. With the limitations of fiction, of course. Sometimes, you can't let the facts get in the way of a good story. But I think you should always try to make the facts fit if you can. It adds a level of realism that readers do enjoy. Last week I was invited to give a workshop in writing character to a seniors group. Turned out the seniors were no older than I. One of them raises his hand and says "I used to be a homicide detective in Toronto. I can give you some contacts." Sweet. Anyway, short post. Time to run.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Monkey Mind

I (Donis) would take up my blogmates' thread on the search for perfection, but at the moment, perfection is the last thing I'm trying to pursue. I'm just trying to hang on.

The author Elbert Hubbard said, "Life is just one damned thing after another." This is true for everyone, which is a comforting thought. I realize it's not just me. Which doesn't make it any more fun.

There is too much going on. Too many things that have to be taken care of with the car, with the house. Too many doctor appointments and friends and relatives in need. Too many meetings and trips out of town and visitors coming in to town. Too many guest blogs and appearances. Taken one at a time, none of it is that hard to deal with. But when so many things come so hard upon one another, it's difficult to know whether you're coming or going.

Lately I've developed what they call in Zen "the monkey mind". It continually jumps around from branch to branch and pillar to post, chattering away, out of control. I long for peace and quiet, especially in my own head.

What task do I need to take up next? Where am I supposed to be now? Did I forget that appointment, that interview? Why didn't this happen like it was supposed to? Why did this break? Who mashed my bumper? What does she's want from me? What do I want? Who am I?
Am I happy?

Ah, there's the question. I don't want to leave the impression that I'm miserable or that my life is out of control. Far from it. I've gone through far worse periods. One of the advantages of having lived a while is that you do come to realize that even the worst misery or the greatest happiness eventually passes. Sometimes the tide is out, and sometimes the tide is in, and you just have to ride it out.

Another advantage of having lived a while is that you know what people mean when they say, "Life is short," and you'd better consider how much longer you want to torture yourself.

So think of those things, Donis, if you can stop the chattering long enough. And remember what your mother told you : No matter how many things you have to do, you can really only do one thing at a time.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Perfection, Research, and Serendipity

I’ve been following the discussion Rick, Hannah, and John have been having and thinking about the perfection question. Do I strive for perfection when I write? Well, not really. I would be paralyzed by self-doubt if I did. I have no equivalent experience (such as playing an instrument) that has prepared me to aim for that level of performance. My substitute for striving for perfection is striving not to get it wrong.

I have an obsession with research. I should admit up front that I'm one of those weird people who is as happy as can be when I'm sitting in a library hunched over a microfilm machine. That’s fortunate because I would need to do research even if I didn’t love research. My powers of description are impaired by the fact that I often can’t remember -- or never knew -- common things. I have to look them up. That leads to what I call “freestyle research.” Look up the name of an object and find the story of how it came to be called that. Look up a person’s name and find an interesting tidbit in his bio. Look up the name of a song and find out the film it was used in. One thing leads to another and I go with the flow, often finding myself deep into all kinds of subjects about which I hadn’t realized I had even a passing interest.

Mystery writer Lawrence Block is credited with this observation about serendipity: “Look for something, find something else, and realize that what you’ve found is more suited to your needs than what you thought you were looking for.” While looking for the source of that quote I stumbled on an article that Block wrote for the New York Times back in 1990, a travel essay titled “Follow The Serendipity Road.” In this essay, Block described the pleasures of discovering tourist attractions such as a corn palace or a clay factory as he and his wife traveled about the country by car. Here he wrote, “you are never on the wrong road, because every road leads where you're going." The discovery of Block's travel essay brought me back to my original reason for thinking of serendipity. I wanted to explain how research leads to unexpected and sometimes delightful surprises. Block’s description of the pleasures of meandering travel captures the feeling I get when I do research. Somehow it all comes full circle. I find what I didn’t know I was looking for and often it is more interesting than my starting point.

That’s why my favorite stage of the writing process is when I’ve gotten the idea for a book and can plunge into the research. I stretch that stage out as long as I can because I hate what comes next. I hate sitting down to write the first draft. In fact, I could cheerfully go for months, even years, without writing the first draft. But doing the research eventually gets me to the computer because I’m so excited about some aspect of the story that I need to get it down.

And once I have a first draft -- which takes longer than it should because I have to warm up by writing and rewriting the first 50 pages -- then I can move on. I can move on to the third stage: revising. Yes, I’m going to join the chorus on this one. I like revising. I love revising. It’s fun. A delight after the profound misery of the first draft. Revising has something in common with research. The more I revise, the more likely I am to discover aspects of the story that I didn’t know was there.

So I have a process. I know what I need to do to get a book written. And, although I may never achieve perfection, if I keep on being obsessed with research and work hard enough on my revisions, maybe I’ll keep growing as a writer. That's about all I can hope for without giving myself anxiety attacks.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Perfection in a Subjective Writing World?

The great thing about writing Thursdays is that I follow brilliant people. This week, Rick’s and Hannah’s excellent posts hit home, so I’m going to continue the thread.

The pursuit of perfection in the arts is not new, yet I do believe it can be dangerous. Writing is the equivalent to the dog that chases its own tail: you can’t master it. In fact, that’s why most of us get hooked.

Short fiction writer and winner of the 1990 Literature Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Rick DeMarinis once said, “The thing about writing is you have to be crazy enough to believe your stuff is good to even try.” I have worked in academia for close to twenty years. I know many brilliant people who have started novels, consciously or subconsciously compared their work to classics, and tossed the unfinished pages in a desk drawer never to be revisited. These people weren’t “crazy enough” to finish their novels. I have always believed Rick was right. His comment came on the heels of a discussion we were having about writing, editing, and the publishing industry. Aside from all the intangibles, you need two things to succeed in this business: a sense of defiance and an ego.

I can’t say I enjoy the editing process as much as Rick or Hannah. I love writing that first draft, being the first reader of my story. But there is no question that my work, like everyone’s, gets better during the revision stage. However, I also know that I, like most writers, could continually revise one novel for the rest of my life, never being satisfied with it, always tweaking. Is that a good thing? I had my chance to revise a “finished” work this past summer, editing “Cut Shot” when it became available in the e-book format. I’m glad I did it; there were changes I had always wanted to make. Yet, in the end, it’s the same story, the same plot. Is it a better book? Sure. But is it the same book? Essentially. I find solace knowing that it was the best I could do when I wrote it, some twelve years ago.

I believe “perfection” is a scary word and for a writer—particularly a crime writer—a potentially dangerous one. Best-selling mystery author and professor of creative writing at Florida International University James Hall said this about the challenges facing crime-fiction writers: "Writing a novel of suspense, I've discovered, is a far greater challenge than writing a mainstream, 'respectable' novel, in which nothing much needs to happen for a lot of pages. I think this genre has attracted some of the best novelists of our era, mainly because it's a form that demands great discipline and forces good writers to stretch themselves in all sorts of ways."

“Stretching” one’s self is a lot like Hannah’s “pursuit.” It’s what we all try to do when we strive for perfection, but the mystery novel will never be the haiku, which, of course, depends on fourteen perfect syllables. Any police officer will be the first to say that solving a crime—this side of Agatha Christie—is far from a perfect science and that most investigations, even those that are eventually closed, have loose ends. I love the story about Raymond Chandler being asked who killed a character in one of his novels. “I forgot about that guy,” Chandler said. Or his writing philosophy: when the book gets slow, has someone walk in with a gun. I will be the first to say that the crime-fiction reader expects more from a novel than he or she did when “The Big Sleep” was published in 1939—much more, in fact—but I also think there is something in the subtext to what Chandler is saying: a writer shouldn’t take himself too seriously; writing like reading, after all, is fun.

Last week, an unpublished writer told me he has started several novels and “always gets stuck at page fifty.” I told him to go back, reread his pages, and look for a potential storyline that he missed. Maybe I should have said what the great poet William Stafford always told his students, “Lower your standards.”

Progress Not Perfection!

Rick’s post about the quest for perfection compelled me to change my original planned topic for today.

Why? Because I share his pain. I also share his bewilderment that as a fellow musician who hasn’t touched a piano keyboard for years, my fingers won’t work despite the endless typing I do.

In the world of the performing arts, I believe I speak for the majority by saying we do expect perfection. Practice makes perfect. I’m reminded of the Olympic games. Four years of endless training for just those few moments of glory. Watching the ice-skating or gymnastics, I'm filled with a mix of awe and fear that someone will fall. On stage, a flubbed line or a wrong note does seem to matter (or perhaps it just matters to me).

Is the quest for a perfect novel subjective? All I know is that I am miserable when writing that first draft. Even re-reading Anne Lamott’s famous “shitty first drafts” in her book Bird By Bird provide little consolation. I can’t let my thoughts roam where they may over the blank page or just write stream-of-consciousness. Perhaps it’s a British thing—fear of losing control! But the moment I have a solid first draft, I’m happy again.

Like Rick, I really enjoy revising and editing. I love seeing a book slowly come to life as I add texture and layers and discover surprising twists that I hadn’t seen the first time around. As if by magic, my story comes alive.

My Pilates instructor, a former dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet says that in art we should be thankful for progress, not perfection. I’ve adopted his affirmation as my own in most areas of my life—except in writing that first draft. For that, I am just going to have to suffer.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The pursuit of perfection

For the past two weeks, I’ve been completely caught up in trying to reach the goal of perfection. The process has been revealing as well incredibly frustrating. I’ve also been trying to use the experience as a springboard to improving my writing. Let me explain...

For the past five years, I’ve been concentrating my musical time playing trumpet. I should tell you that I wasn’t trained as a trumpeter. I went through university as a French hornist. The reason I switched was that I wanted to play jazz in a big band with some friends. I’ve enjoyed it immensely, and over time, I’ve learned how to navigate my way through a gig rather well. I even take the occasional solo. I also have an R&B band down in the NY area that gigs whenever I can make it down. The trumpet playing has all been rather fun.

My beloved horn, however, has been languishing in a corner of my studio the whole time, looking at me rather reproachfully on occasion — especially when I’m on my way out the door with the trumpetary interloper.

Then a house concert was arranged for a dear friend’s visit and I offered to play a couple of movements of one of the Mozart Horn Concerti. Easy, I thought to myself. I can work that up in a week or so. Wrongo. I’ve been plowing away on the horn for at least an hour and a half every day for the past two weeks and I’ve yet to play either movement perfectly. In classical music, you can’t get away with even one cacked note. The only thing that cuts it is perfection. To say the least, it’s been a humbling experience.

At the same time, I’ve been trying to move ahead (when I can find the time) on a new novel, a sequel to one of the novels I have coming out next fall.

I’m one of those oddballs in the writing game who actually prefers editing to writing that first draft. Maybe it’s my musical background, but I love that aspect of polishing something over and over until it’s perfect. However, my recent horn experiences have shown me that I’m selling my writing really short, too.

Like everyone, I try to send a manuscript out in the best possible shape I can. I really do want it to be perfect. Like everyone else, if I look at that same “perfect” manuscript a few months later, I find it’s not so perfect after all. I’m not talking about missed typos. I’m talking about missed boats, facets of the story that I completely hadn’t noticed, things that could have been done far better if I’d taken more time, been less easily satisfied.

So I’ve put myself on notice. Only the best will be good enough from here on in. I know that I can do it if I just dig deeper, try harder.

As for the horn gig, wish me luck on Friday night. My goal is to play twelve minutes of music perfectly. I figure another 100 run-throughs of each movement might get me there. Trouble is I only have four days.

Excuse me, my horn is calling...

Monday, February 21, 2011

Single Point of Failure. When the lights go out.

Vicki here on a cold Monday.

When I was in the computer biz we talked a lot about a single point of failure. And how to ensure we didn’t have one.

A single point of failure is where one entire system can be shut down by one fault or mistake. Say a tree falls over and knocks down the wire bringing power to your house. Your stove and TV and computer won’t work. Doesn’t matter that the stove and TV and computer are perfectly fine. They’ve failed at the single point of failure. It would be better, of course, if you had multiple wires bearing electricity into your house, perhaps a generator also. The failure of one cable wouldn’t bring everything grinding to a halt.

I am thinking of this today because my furnace isn’t working. It’s two (TWO) years old and I came home late Saturday after being away for two days to find a very, very chilly house. Now, I’m saved because the heating system in my house doesn’t have a single point of failure. I have a propane fireplace AND a wood burning stove. I mainly rely on the furnace when I’m away or if the night is very cold.

I then began thinking about what single points of failure I have in the house. Electricity is of course the big one.

If the electricity failed, I’d have no water, because I have a well, and the water comes up from the well by means of a pump. An electrically operated pump. In the winter I have snow that I could melt on the wood stove. In the summer I have a swimming pool – wouldn’t want to drink that water though. I can walk to a lake if need be and carry home a bucket or two. I have several big bottles of drinking water stored in the garage. That should last me a week or so. I don’t think I’d be too concerned about bathing.

Food: I have a hand operated can opener. Telephone: I have an old-fashioned one that doesn’t run on electricity just for that purpose.

The contents of the freezer would begin to thaw after a few days, but I’d have plenty to eat until then! Unless it’s mid-summer in which case the freezer is pretty empty. But I live in farm country and could always crawl thought a farmer’s field in search of a tomato or something. Don’t know about chasing after a chicken with a hatchet though.

I have a laptop and a netbook, which combined have about 8 hours of power. So I’d have eight hours of writing I could do. (Of course the internet access would go out with the electricity.) Then I’d be hunting for pens and pads of paper. Lots of paper here, so I’d be okay.

Reading? Incredibly important – remember you have no TV or radio or DVD player working. I have a house stacked with books. Many of which I’ve never read, but always intend to one day. So the loss of power to my e-reader would be irrelevant.

E-readers can store about two weeks of power. Should be enough for any emergency. But, that’s if your reader is fully charged when the power fails. Suppose it has, say ten minutes of power left? And you don’t have a house stacked with paperbacks? Horror!

This exercise in evaluating my home is not a moot point. We’re incredibly vulnerable these days, so dependent on outside forces, such as the power company, to keep our lives going.

My daughter lives on the 26th floor of a high-rise and they lost power for two days. Now she’s young and fit and can manage 26 floors. (She walked up after work) But what about the elderly? Or if you’ve got a broken foot? And after about 12 hours the backup power in her building went out. No lights in the stairways or hallways. She was then trapped because she wasn’t going to try to manipulate 26 floors in the pitch dark. She didn’t even own a flashlight. And her cell phone power was faaddddiinnng…… (For her birthday I bought her a camping lantern).

Are you prepared, even for a temporary emergency? I’d like to know any tips or hints you have.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


Hannah here ... Please welcome the fabulously talented Eric Stone as our guest blogger today. Eric is a second generation Los Angeleno but is equally at home in Asia where he spent eleven years living in Hong Kong and Jakarta. It's also where Eric sets his best selling Ray Sharp thrillers.

I first met Eric when he was teaching an excellent workshop on Book Touring. With so many independents bookstores going out of business and the sales of ebooks on the rise, I was eager to hear his thoughts.

Eric ... over to you.

I’m one of the strange authors who actually enjoys book touring. Over the past six years, whenever I’ve had a new book I’ve got into my car and made a road trip out of it, stopping at book stores across the country. I’ve got good friends in bookstores all across America.

I don’t have a new book out this year, but all of my books have recently come out as ebooks. So I’ve been giving a lot of thought as to the affect that has on bookstores. I love bookstores. I want to support them. I still buy plenty of “traditional” books. But ebooks are one of the things that are killing bookstores. My ebooks are a win-win for my readers and me. My ebooks are cheaper than my books in bookstores – chalk one up for my readers. And despite that, I make a bigger royalty from each sale than I did from a paperback (and nearly the same as from a hardcover sale – chalk one up for me. eBooks already outsell hardcovers, and they’re catching up fast to paperbacks, especially trade paperbacks. Unless I want to be left behind I have no choice but to climb aboard the ebook wagon. But I’d love to find some way to bring my bookstore buddies along with me.

The sad truth is that bookstores need to change or they’ll disappear. They’ll go the way of record and CD shops. (One of the few still successful record/CD shops anywhere is Amoeba Records in Hollywood. They survive by doing some of the things I suggest below.) I don’t have the solution to this problem, but I do have some musings on what bookstores might be able to do to survive; how they can turn ebooks and modern technology to their advantage. I have no idea whether or not any of these ideas will work, but I hope they’re worth thinking about and discussing. (My guess is that it will require some combination of all these ideas, and probably more.)

Become book “galleries.” Instead of carrying multiple copies of as many different books as they can, bookstores should carry only one copy each of a wide variety of books for browsing purposes. (That will save them rent on large spaces that currently serve as warehousing for their stock. And it will save them shipping costs and the other headaches of returns.)

If the store can afford one of the new Espresso machines – that prints books on demand in minutes from electronic files – when a customer wants a book they can make one for them on the spot. (The machines are expensive now, but if enough stores order them the price will come down.) If the customer wants an ebook, they can use the store’s wireless to download it and the store can get a commission from the publisher. (That might not be as hard to negotiate as it seems.

Bookstores are an incredibly cheap and efficient way for publishers to sell and promote their books. If bookstores disappear, they are hardly going to start advertising all their mid-list authors on TV, radio or the pages of the also in decline newspapers.)

  • Diversify what they offer. If a store doesn’t have to warehouse a bunch of books, unless they move to a smaller space they’ll have some extra room. Do something else to get customers into the store. Partner with a bakery or coffee house. Sell tacos. Put in some stoves and refrigerators and host cooking classes using the cookbooks that are for sale. If you can get a beer or wine or liquor license, open a bar. Host open mic nights for local musicians, poets and comedians. Jello wrestling at author events. (Maybe not.) Get creative. Get more people into the store for any reason at all, and some of them will buy books.
  • Concentrate on specialty items: collectors editions, art books, fine bindings, antiquarian books, picture books. All of those are things that ebooks will have a tough time replacing.
  • Sell more used books. Acquiring stock is cheaper than new books. Profit margins can be higher. And there are always going to be people who want good old-fashioned paper and ink books around. (I get nervous in a house without a lot of books in it.)

Those are just a few ideas off the top of my head while I’m sitting here on flight BR015 on my way to Bangkok. In Bangkok I’ll be signing paper and ink copies of a new anthology calledBangkok Noir. I’ve got a short story called “The Lunch That Got Away” in it. Unless you live in Asia, you’ll probably have to download the ebook to read it. And when I get back home, that’s exactly what I’m going to encourage you to do. (It won’t be available until sometime in March. I’ll remind you.) Meanwhile you can find my ebooks on Amazon, Barnes & Noble online, and soon in the iBookstore and the SONY Reader Store. Cheap, too - $2.99.

So, anyone got any other bright ideas about how bookstores can survive in this new ebook world? I’d love to hear them.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

What It All Means, Boys

Donis today. On Wednesday John shared with us the insightful questions he was asked when he spoke to a classroom full of boys at Salisbury School in Connecticut. Incredibly insightful questions. Too insightful. These are scary-smart boys.

"What do you try to achieve with metaphors and similies? Do you consciously use symbols?"

The questions cause me to consider my own work. Do I try to achieve anything with metaphors and similes? The use of simile is quite common in the dialect of the region I write about. I believe that is my only calculated use of any of the above.

I actually attempt to be existential when I write, and report the plain facts of the situation, the setting, the story, and the characters' reactions to them. However, after I finish writing a book, it's full of metaphor and symbology, whether I meant to put it in there or not. No matter what he thinks he's doing, the author doesn't put symbols in his book. The reader puts them there.

I'm frequently amazed by what readers see in my books. Sometimes it's quite gratifying, as in, "I didn't realize the depth of my own genius!" Often I'm just baffled, as in, "Where the &*$@ did she come up with that idea?" Same with reviews and critics. I feel I can tell more about the critic's perception and prejudices from the review than I can tell about the book. More than once I've read a novel and had a totally different reaction to the story than most of the reviewers had.

It's good for a writer to keep in mind that once your work is out of your hands, the story isn't yours any more. it's the reader's.

Another great question the boys asked John was, "does the worldview of your protagonist represent your own views?"

Shoot, no! Readers may make assumptions about a novelist based on what she writes, but that's a mistake. In my case, the worldview of my protagonist is almost diametrically opposed to my own. But I like to respectfully put on someone else's skin and walk around in it for awhile. That's one of the great things about writing fiction. You can live many lives, explore many options, don as many worldviews as you wish and try them on for size.* That's what imagination is for.


*figurative image alert.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

School Days

Hemingway once said that having survived his childhood, he had enough material to write for the rest of his life—a less-than-ringing endorsement of the teenage years. Yet unless you were the prom king or the class president, you probably agree with him.

High school was not easy for me, and this week I had the chance to revisit my teenage years. I was the guest speaker at my old high school, visiting a 10th-grade English class at the Salisbury School, a boys school in Connecticut. The students had read my story “Shooter” in the latest issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and several had read Jack Austin books as independent reading projects. I know one classroom of eager students does not a case study make, but I came away impressed.

The kids’ questions were informed, insightful, and intelligent—and, some of them, damned tough. I’m paraphrasing, but these offerings were particularly memorable:

What do you try to achieve with metaphors and similes?

I try to use them only to add clarity for the reader.

English teachers always seem to find symbols everywhere. As an English teacher, do you consciously put them in your fiction?


Does worldview of your protagonist represent your own views?


The morning was terrific. These are the kinds of questions every author likes to be asked when doing a Q@A. They illustrate how well the students understand the work (very flattering), and they demonstrate how closely the students read (an encouraging sign).

We are at a time when the publishing industry has little security to offer or, it seems, even a scratch outline for the future (Borders, after all, has just filed for bankruptcy). We are also at a time when it has never been more difficult to be a teen and when it seems that most teenagers possess the ability (and desire) to text while seemingly doing four things simultaneously (with the exception of reading). Therefore, it was encouraging to see firsthand how well some teens do read and to know how much some of them still love stories.

Consequently, as writers, we depend on this demographic much more than they know. As a young reader, I got the mystery bug in high school. About four sentences of Faulkner gave me a headache, and I fled like a refugee to the island of Travis McGee and Spenser. Ironically, the older I got, the more critical value I saw in those texts and in others like it.

As writers, we can only hope there are more kids like the ones I visited this week because the truth is they hold the future of the book world in their hands.

Gone to the Dogs

Barbara here. In this week of bankrupt publishers and demoralized authors, I thought a little levity would not go amiss. So I decided to confess that these days, my writing has seriously gone to the dogs. Most weeks I only manage an hour or two of research at the library, or one witness interview, and most of my “writing” is being done in my head, in the form of bandying around ideas for plots, themes and characters. This is an important first step in developing a new story, but usually I have a few writing projects on the go at the same time. I am usually toying with new plot ideas at the same time as I am doing rewrites and final polishing of a book due out in the near future, and perhaps writing promotional materials like blogs and web pages on a recently published book. I may even be writing a short story at the same time.

But lately, since January 7 to be precise, I’ve found it almost impossible to write. No, I haven’t run out of ideas or lost my passion to make up stories. I haven’t crashed my computer or been felled by the flu that is hitting the city.

January 7, I brought home a new puppy.

Suddenly I was thrust a quarter century back in time, to those days at home with toddlers who commanded every moment of my time. Puppies are like two year olds, except they move five times as fast. They can get from the toilet roll to the fireplace at the other end of the house before you can think “I wonder where the puppy is.” They can wiggle behind the sofa or even under it, to get at those soft, chewy wires connecting your lamp to the wall. Open the computer to try to check email, and they’re right there, bouncing with delight at the discovery of more chewy cords.

Puppies spend 15 hours a day chewing everything from the mahogany table legs to the cat’s tail. They spend a further 15 hours a day snatching anything that’s not four feet off the ground. Slippers, boots, mittens, toilet paper, dish towels… They eat everything. Dust balls, plant leaves, paperback novels, TV remotes. They have bladders the size of grapes and no sense of when they need to go. Catching them in time means watching them every moment they are awake. They need to be played with, socialized, trained and managed almost every waking hour. And they don’t sleep much. I have an aging retriever who seems content to sleep about twenty hours of his day. He wakes up to eat, go for walks, check the house perimeter and chase off undesirables, mostly of the bushy-tailed rodent variety. The puppy scampers around, chases the cat and bounces after her toys for hours before crashing on the floor at my feet. She follows me up the stairs, down the stairs, into the bathroom. As with toddlers, privacy is a lost luxury when you have a puppy.

When my children were small, I used to squeeze writing into the free moments of my day. During their naptime, after they had gone to bed, and while they watched Polka Dot Door or Sesame Street. It was not conducive to prolonged visits from the creative muse. No sooner would I remember where I was in a story and fire up the imagination when the baby would awake or the TV program would be over. The stuff I wrote during that period was dreadful. Disjointed, amateurish and full of cliches. I am eternally grateful that none of it was ever published. But I was younger then. I could pick up the threads more quickly and I could stay awake and alert longer at night. Having a toddler at thirty-five is very different that keeping up with one at sixty.

Not that I’m complaining. The new puppy is a joy. She is a constant source of laughs and levity in the midst of a Canadian winter. She will grow up soon enough. There will be time enough for serious writing again in a few months, when the frenetic wonder of puppyhood is over. I hope I will still have a brain when that time arrives, and who knows, she may even find her way into a story somehow. There is lots of material in the mischief a puppy gets up to in the course of its day. Who knows what skeletons she might drag out the back of that basement closet.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Beauty contests for books

Vicki’s post yesterday was a timely one since we’re now in the middle of “Awards Season”. For the next 2-3 months, every time you turn around, they’ll be announcing yet another award. Last night it was the Grammys. Does anyone think that had anything to do with who actually was the best? (I think Lady Gaga should have gotten a Grammy for Best Entrance to an Awards Ceremony.)

First let me say that I agree that the contest Vicki was involved in had anything to do with whether any of these books was good or bad. (My first question is how the heck did they come up with the list of nominated books? Did anyone actually read them? Were the nominees pulled out of a hat?)

Most of the awards ceremonies are popularity contests. The Oscars certainly are. Lobbying has already begun on those, believe me. This contest was just a poor cousin to that.

The reasoning behind giving awards is very cloudy as well. Most groups give out awards to get profile in the media. It creates buzz. It gets the public interested in the award winner and the nominees. How many movies have enjoyed a successful second release when they’ve won an Oscar?

Bottom line: it’s all about promotion.

Now I’m with Vicki when she says that she felt uneasy asking people to spread the word and vote for her book, even though a lot of the voters probably hadn’t read it or anything else by her. Playing this sort of popularity game is enough to make any person with scruples feel uneasy. But Vicki is also correct in saying that this is how the game is played. It shouldn’t be this way, but it is. Vicki was handed an opportunity and she took it. Whoever won this Bookie Award can now add “Award-winning” to any promotion they do. Will this make their book any better? No — but it will sell more copies.

I’m sure any author would be happier if their book won an award based on its merits, not because of how many friends the author has. This particular award means no more than that, period.

What’s sort of sad is that this award seems squarely aimed at genre fiction. What the underlying story is here is that the nominated books weren’t thought to be worth anything more than having them in a popularity contest. Is it just me or does that actually smack of contempt?

I don’t know if I’d want to win an award like that.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Has Social Media Destroyed the Value of Honest Competion?

Vicki here to let you know that I am writing this post on Saturday because I want to get it down without knowing if I’ve won a Bookie award or not.

As I posted last week Negative Image was a finalist for a CBC Bookie award for best thriller/mystery/horror. I am writing this Saturday night after a really pleasant afternoon at Aunt Agatha’s bookstore in Ann Arbor MI. I was there with Sharon Fiffer and we had a great time (sadly Barbara D’Amato had to cancel)

It’s been an interesting experience, to say the least, but I am forced to conclude that I can’t see any value in any competition that depends on number of friends you have or how high-tech those friends happen to be. Unless it’s a number of friends contest.

As competition began building my main competition and I started facebooking, tweeting and whatever-ing. No doubt she, like me, was writing everyone in our address books. My friends, I am very happy to report, mustered behind me and really pulled out all the stops to let their friends know.

Which is kinda my point. Vote for me because you liked the books, you can even vote for Negative Image because you liked my other books. But cast a vote because the person who sits in the cubical next to you is the wife of someone who once came to a creative writing class I gave? What does that mean?

A writer I know and respect told me I was demeaning myself and my books by partaking in this sort of a contest. He said the book should be judged on its merit and nothing else. To which I replied – you’re right. But this is how the game is played and if you don’t play you’re left behind in the dust.

Some might say this is democracy. And it is how democracy has always been played – the person who gets to the most meetings, who knocks on the most doors, who hands out the most flyers, has a good chance of winning over the person with the best ideas. But at least in truly democratic countries – so far – the number of votes an individual can place is limited to ONE.

With social media we’re entering a whole new world. I have more than one vote. I have one vote for every computer I own. I have extra votes if my friends have multiple computing devices. And I have waaaay more votes if I have friends who can manipulate their computer to allow multiple voting.

Same with many traditional book awards that are given on the basis of write-in votes. Are they judging the best book? Or the most popular person? Should you be allowed to vote for a book if you haven’t read it and all the completion, at least in the final round?

I am not comparing the competition for a bookie award (what a hideous name) to voting for a county’s leader. But – who’s to say it won’t come to that some day?

Anyway, it’s been a very interesting experience. I generated a lot of buzz for Negative Image and I know some people read the book because I brought it up or they read about it on FB or Twitter.

If anyone was offended by getting several messages from me, I do apologize. At times I wondered if I was going overboard. Between e-mail and FB and Twitter and DorothyL and my friend’s mailing lists I am sure some people felt they were under a barrage.

I will, however, never, never do this again. If my books are good enough to garner recognition so be it.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

“A” is for The Case of the Burglar Prey

This week our Sunday guest blogger is my friend Jill Edmondston, author of the Sasha Jackson mysteries set in Toronto.

I admit this blog posting has a rather unwieldy title, but most mystery fans will likely zero in on where I’m headed. Anyone who has read a fair share of whodunits over the years should recognize that:

• “A is for Alibi” is a reference to Sue Grafton, and her alphabet sleuth series featuring Kinsey Milhone
• “The Case of the… (Velvet Claws, Curious Bride, etc.)” harkens back to Erle Stanley Gardner and the Perry Mason mysteries
• “The Burglar Who… (Painted like Mondrian, Quoted Spinoza, etc.)” should bring to mind Lawrence Block and his Bernie Rhodenbarr series
• “Prey” refers, of course, to John Sandford and any of the twenty-one murder mysteries with that word in the title, such as Night Prey or Rules of Prey.

Moving away from sequences, and repeated or key terms in a title, we also have thematic titles, such as Diane Mott Davidson and her novels featuring Goldy the Caterer. Given Goldy’s occupation, it’s not surprising that her books feature food in the titles, in addition to being clever puns, such as The Cereal Murders and Sticks and Scones.

Then there are the knitting mysteries by Maggie Sefton, which include such titles as Knit One, Kill Two and Skein of the Crime.

I would be remiss here if I didn’t throw out a few titles by James Patterson, whose Alex Cross mysteries take their names from lines in nursery rhymes and children’s ditties: Jack and Jill, Along Came a Spider, or Pop Goes the Weasel.

So, where am I going with all of this? Titles and series, of course.

Coming up with a title for even one book can be a challenge. In just a few words, or a short phrase, you need to come up with something that indicates what’s between the covers, that piques a reader’s interest, that encourages people to buy the book, and that they’ll remember. Packing all of those responsibilities into three or four words (or even one or two) is asking a lot.

Coming up with a title is, perhaps, even more of a challenge when you write a series. Suppose Sue Grafton had given up on the alphabet after the letter D? Would “Solid Evidence” or “Trail of Evidence” have worked as well?

What if Erle Stanley Gardner had steered away from “The Case of the…” after a half dozen Perry Mason novels?

As writers (aspiring or published), we’d all love to know from the outset that our first book was the launching pad for a dozen more (or 26 in the case of Grafton’s alphabet books). But such assurances are rare, or nonexistent. However, if the author’s intention from the start is to write a series, I would argue that thematic titles are good to have and might even be necessary.

I think the reason this is so has more to do with marketing and branding than with anything literary. You could walk into almost any bookstore and forget the actual title of a Kinsey book, and even blank out on the name of the author, but the sales clerk would know exactly who and what you mean if you asked for the latest mystery by “that author whose titles are M is for something and R is for…”

Although I have no empirical evidence, I think that the likelihood of readers drawing a complete blank on a thematic title is slim. I guess that’s the whole point of thematic titles in the first place.

I wonder, then, if authors of (hoped for) series are doing themselves a wee bit of a disservice should they choose titles that don’t have the ring to them that One for the Money or Two for the Dough have.

But... there’s always a but. As an author, could this or would this start to feel constrained? Might it start to feel tired or corny?

My first Sasha Jackson mystery, is centered around weddings, is called Blood and Groom. The second Sasha Jackson whodunit, which will be out in March 2011, is called Dead Light District. You should be able to guess from the title what the back-story is.

The manuscript for Sasha Jackson book #3 is done, but I’m not convinced I like the title. I feel as though I ought to continue with the plays on words, but it ain’t easy to come up with something clever and witty, and, well, ‘punny’ but still related to the plot. For now, it’s called The Lies Have It, which is supposed to be a play on “they ‘ayes’ have it” … as in voting. The other possibility was (and still is) Tied and True. Another title I’ve considered was (is?) X Marks the Plot. The background for this story has to do with politics/elections, and the fetish (S &M) world.

So here’s a challenge to readers and bloggers out there:
Do you have any suggestions for a title for the third Sasha Jackson mystery?

Synopsis for the 3rd Sasha Jackson Mystery

It’s election time in Toronto, and this year’s mayoral race is hotly contested. However, private investigator Sasha Jackson is more focused on bondage than ballots. After a wild night at a fetish party, a man Sasha had briefly met is found murdered near Cherry Beach, the whip marks on his back punctuated by two bullet holes. It initially seems like naughty sex that went a bit too far, but Sasha soon discovers that politicos like to play rough too, and might be hiding more than just their handcuffs.

I’d love to hear back from you!

Jill Edmondson’s first Sasha Jackson novel was Blood and Groom. Aside from writing, she has worked in a number of different fields, including pharmaceutical R&D, advertising and bartending. Jill has also studied a range of disciplines, including History, Microbiology, Tourism and Cultural Studies. She currently teaches postsecondary English and Communications in Toronto.

For more information about Jill and her writing, visit: or follow on Twitter @JillEdmondson

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Author Event "Survey" Results

Last Friday here at type M, I (Donis) asked what you Dear Readers like or dislike about the performance when an author talks to an audience - what annoys you, or what makes you eager to read the author's book? I repeated the question on Facebook and on the DorothyL reader's forum, and over the past week I've received dozens of interesting answers to my informal survey.

Today I'm summarizing the top tips and complaints. My thanks to all the readers and authors who commented. Your suggestions will doubtless be taken to heart by all of us who want to connect with those who take the trouble to come and see us in person.

The top Dislike, mentioned by 25% of responders, is arrogance/pomposity in the speaker, or as K.B. put it, "if the writer comes across as one who is doing us all a favor by being there, but isn't really 'into' it."

Coming in at at a close second is panel-hogging. It annoys some folks no end when one panel member seems to become enamored of his own voice and won't let the others speak. (speaking on behalf of authors, here, I think most of us would second that.)

Other pet peeves mentioned, in no order, were:

Being unable to hear the speaker, or unable to hear questions directed to the speaker.

Reading from the work and not interacting with the crowd.

Salesmanship (I take this to mean hawking like a carnival barker.) P.B. says, "I don't want to be sold; I want to be befriended."

An author not making eye-contact/being distant with someone who brings her copy of the author's book to be signed.

The number one Like, mentioned by almost half the respondents, is warmth and humor (though M. did say humor is fine but she doesn't come to hear a comedy routine)

Also mentioned several times:

Attendees like to hear about the writing process,

the writer's life,

where the ideas for the story/characters came from,

the author's research experiences.

There were a couple of contradictory comments. D.G.S. said she likes it when the talk includes a short audience participation writing exercise. L.H., however, said, "I can honestly say there is nothing I hate more, in any type of program or meeting, than audience participation."

I also got some one-off comments that were worth attention. J.B. wrote that as an audience member or as a panelist, she hates "those weirdly dim and terribly unpleasant fluorescent lights in hotels. They give me headache every time."

L.J.R. suggests that authors try not to tell the same stories over and over again from book tour to book tour. Try to keep it fresh. (She admits it must be hard to do event after event after event. Speaking for myself, it depends on whether I think the audience is mostly made up of people who have seen me recently or several times before. Otherwise, I think a good story deserves at least a dozen tellings.)

You can read the comments on my original Type M post on this topic here. Just click on the word "Comments" at the bottom of the post. And be sure to leave a comment on this entry, if you have an insight to add. We who are about to appear before an audience appreciate it.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Hair, She Wrote

Frankie, here. I'm delighted to join this terrific community of writers. First time out, I had intended to write about research. But then my hair got in the way. I know you're wondering what my hair has to do with writing, but I'm a Southerner, so you're going to have to bear with me while I tell you a tale.

It started a couple of months ago. I was invited to give the Martin Luther King, Jr., lecture as a part of the spring speakers series at a local community college. I do research on crime and popular culture, so I proposed doing a lecture titled: "What to Wear to a Revolution" about clothing, dress codes, and hair censorship during the 1960s civil rights era.

Soon after agreeing to do the lecture, I was going through a closet, trying yet again to "discard and organize." I opened a box, and there inside was my high school senior photo. My hair was in an Afro. Great! I had my "show-and-tell" for the lecture.

I took the photo to my office at school and set it on a cabinet, thinking it would inspire me. It also reminded me of happier hair days.

In mid-January, I went down to New York City for a writers' meeting. I fluffed my hair out. A friend noticed I was "letting it grow." But that was only for that weekend in Manhattan. Back in Albany – back in my professor role -- I tamed my hair again. Until the morning I looked in the mirror at my droopy curls, groaned and dug around in a drawer for an old "pick" (a steel-toothed comb). I used it to demolish the curls, then stood there grinning at my reflection in the mirror.

About a second later, I realized I didn't have time to go through the process of washing my hair again to get it to curl. I would have to wear my Afro.

As I rode up in the elevator at school, I anticipated the surprised looks.

And that was when I had my flashback. I was thirteen or fourteen, and I was walking down the hall in another school. My hair, to my delight, was rising up from my head in waves and spirals and spikes. A teacher coming toward me, stopped in her tracks. And then she rushed up and hustled me to the side, out of the flow of traffic. "What on earth happened to your hair?" she said. Taking a comb from her pocket, she dragged it through my hair and twisted my wild mane into a knot. Satisfied, I was now acceptable, she told me to go on to class.

This was before the days when combing a student's hair might have been grounds for a lawsuit. But I had been injured by that well-intentioned teacher. That part of me who -- if she hadn't been afraid of snakes -- would have thought Medusa's hair was cool, who loved Tina Turner's wild wigs and Patti La Belle's sculptured dos, had been injured.

The late 60s and early 70s liberated my hair. But before my mind could catch up, the Afro was gone. Now, it was several decades later. Marc Jacobs might be featuring Afros on his runway models. A few musicians and actors might be wearing ‘fros. But here I was again, walking down a hall, waiting for someone to tame my hair. Not with a comb, but with a grin and a joke. . .No grins, no jokes. In fact, no one said a word about my hair. Not that day or the next. Hadn't they noticed?

After a while it occurred to me that they might be wondering if I was making a “political statement”. Maybe they thought it was safer not to comment.

Whatever my friends' and colleagues were thinking, I was more surprised by what was going on in my own head. I might not be 14 again, but I feel more "me." I have reclaimed a piece of myself. And that's the point of this story. Sometimes we need to let our inner "rebel" out to play.

When we free ourselves to be more of who we are as individuals, we also free ourselves to bring that same quirkiness and creativity to our writing.

Letting my hair do its thing won't transform me into a best-selling author. But it does seem to have made me more productive. Writer's block? Sitting in front of my computer, hands buried in my hair, I remember that I have a voice.

And now, my challenge to you: "Go for it!" Do one wonderful, crazy, liberating thing that speaks to who you are inside. And let us know how it affects your life and your writing.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

900 pages

"I think I'm writing 900 pages to get 400," I told my wife recently when she asked what I was working on.

I started researching a novel two years ago, wrote a version of it, and liked it. Then, several months after I finished, when I was well into the next project, that little voice, that whisper in the dark all writers know too well: What if you had done this?

Maybe it’s the vaulted Muse. Or maybe it’s a drunken Irish leprechaun. Probably it’s my writer’s subconscious (which, by the way, is always smarter than this writer’s conscious state).

If it was the leprechaun, he must have been sober because he made perfect sense. Thus, I heeded his advice. I did more research, added new character, flushed out the concept, and added points of view. And I wrote more. A lot more. During the revision, I started at the beginning and updated everything. Now I'm nearing page 250, and the book is promising to be 400 pages.

There is another change to this rewrite. I'm going to insist the book be submitted under a pseudonym. New York, according to my agent, is looking books that “guarantee sales of 20,000 hardcovers.” To a mid-list author, 20,000 hardcover sales truly equates to a breakout book. To a mid-list author who has published a series with a university press, 20,000 hardcover sales might as well be a million. And thanks to Neilson Bookdata, it is hard for a mid-list author to outrun previous sales figures.

But the submission process is far in the future and essentially out of my hands, so I’ll worry about only what I can control.

Which, right now, is my revision.

I've digressed long enough. Back to page 244.

The Right Kind of Celebrity

I was standing in line at 9 am yesterday morning outside Barnes and Noble at The Grove in Los Angeles. A work colleague had asked me to pop in on my way to the office to pick up a copy of Ree Drummond’s book The Pioneer Woman. Ree was making a personal appearance that night and B & N expected a turnout so huge they were handing out wristbands. Even at that early hour, the line snaked a full block.

Once I’d recovered from Ree Drummond’s obvious successes (I hadn’t heard of her until the night before—but she’s a real inspiration), my thoughts turned to my own promotional efforts. Only recently my fellow author and friend NYT bestseller Kate Carlisle and I had begged the CRM to give us a book signing at The Grove but were told that their signing policies for the Disney-esque location were for “celebrities only.” We slunk away feeling complete losers and were told that whatever they needed, we didn’t have.

Non-fiction is far easier to promote especially if it has an unusual or fresh take on a subject but what about the rest of us?

Here are a few thoughts—mining your novel for historical dates or traditional celebrations and exploiting them mercilessly; praying that the underlying theme, topic or plot of your book miraculously coincides with an incident (preferably huge) on national television. If your book is set locally, enlisting local media to write wonderful things about you; combing your memory for colorful anecdotes that catapult you to stardom or—in my case—capitalizing on unusual British hobbies.

England is known for it’s eccentricity but even I had no idea just how quirky some of our British hobbies truly are. Hedge jumping, hedge cutting, naked farming competitions, snail racing and now, in Thieves!, I tackle the volatile world of Morris dancing. I even snagged an interview with the 29th Squire of the National Morris Ring but sadly B & N at The Grove were not impressed. Clearly, he too, was not the right kind of celebrity.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011


Well, the future is arriving right on time — maybe even faster than we book people planned on.

Amazon is now selling more e-books than they are paper books. So whether you like it or not, you have to realize that e-books are here to stay (until the next innovation takes place).

As usual, there has been the gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands buts that’s from those people, whether in the publishing industry or just book-lovers, who love paper books for what they are. The thing to realize is that, if you happen to be one of those people, you’ve now been relegated to the dodo end of the evolutionary spectrum.

Will paper books die out now? Of course not. Neither has the fountain pen, radio, LP records or CDs. I’ll bet there are even people out there with 8-track cassette machines and a wall covered with VHS or Beta cartridges.

Our beloved paper books are slowly slipping out of the mainstream as publishers embrace the new technology, technology I might add that allows them to save a ton of money. No more enormous printing bills, shipping bills, return bills, storage bills. Why wouldn’t they want to embrace e-books? They’d be nuts not to jump in with both feet now. The technology is proven and its growth rate is completely outstripping paper books. And that change in paradigm is only going to move faster.

So where does that leave us as authors? That’s the real rub, as has been pointed out by many, many pundits and people much wiser about these things than I.

I wish I had an answer. We’re the bottom of the publishing food chain. I know that seems ridiculous since we’re the creators of what is being sold, but it’s always been true. Nothing has changed because of e-books.

The thing that bugs a lot of us and leads us to excessive hand-wringing is that we have little control over what’s happening. Amazon seems set on what they’re going to pay and charge for books. Other sellers have other ideas. The publishers have what they think is fair. And the public? They want to pay the lowest price possible for their reading material — preferably free.

The real rub is that authors are a very fluid and loose group. There is no way that we would all gang together and start dictating what would be fair to us. That’s a shame. Without us, there are no new books. Without us, no publisher could survive for long.

So we’re all left to swing in the winds of change and make our own deals to survive as writers. There will be some winners, but there will be a lot more losers.

And that’s the real shame.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Vote for Me! (if you want to)

I'm writing this in the Birmingham, Alabama airport hopeing to get on a plane. After a wonderful, wonderful weekend at Murder in the Magic City in Birmingham and Murder on the Menu at the Wetempka library we got stuck in an incredible traffic jam (1 hour to go about 1 mile) and I missed my plane. Wish me luck for getting out of here in a timely manner.

And I now I need something else as well as luck. This blog, Type M, has been going for almost five years now. The purpose of the blog is not for self-promotion but to start a discussion among those of us who love to read and write boooks of all kinds, crime novels in particular.

So I'm going to beg your indulgence and ask for your help.

I was thrilled to discover that Negative Image is one of the five finalists for a CBC bookies award for excellence in genre fiction. You might have heard of some of the other finalists, The Girl WHo Kicked the Hornets's Nest anyone? Well the final voting is open to the public, and if you liked Negative Image I'd just love it if you could give me a vote. You don't have to be Canadian. You don't even have to watch or listen to the CBC. Here's the link where you can see the other finalists and vote. Click Here
Much appreciated.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Book Events I Have Known and Loved

Donis writing today. My book launch party last Saturday went very well. That's Jeffrey Siger to my left and Tina Whittle to my left. Dana Stabenow was off getting a glass of Proseco. The crowd was large and enthusiastic, the authors all brought their "A" game, and a good time was had by all. The only small difficulty with the proceedings was that there were four of us launching books at the same time, which meant that in an hour, none of us had as much time to expound about our work as much as we wanted.

It does keep the speakers short and to the point. I know that when I was preparing myself for the event I was quite aware of the fact that I wasn't going to have much time to make an impression. No meandering or philosophizing. Perhaps that's a good thing for the audience, I don't know. In fact, there are a lot of things about author appearances that I'd like to know.

After last week's entry, which had to do with my preparation for the launch, Marilynne wrote a very interesting comment in which she gave me some advice.. "Wear your friendliest smile," she said. She likes it when the author is "relaxed and talky." And", "humor is good, but I don't come to hear a comedienne." Then, immediately after my event, a friend of mine commented that she appreciates it when the author dresses nicely rather than showing up looking like the dog's dinner. "It shows some respect for the audience," she said.

Both these comments, one following hard upon the other, got me thinking. I'm sure that some people love hearing an author do a regular comedy routine, whereas others, including Marilynne and my husband, are put off by excessive cleverness. As I mentioned last week, I admire a nice outfit, and I'll notice if a speaker looks like he just rolled out of bed, but I'm not offended by it. When I think back over the many, many author presentations and talks that I have attended over the years, what was it about the ones I remember with particular fondness that made them , in my opinion, better than average?

I like wit, if it seems natural and not forced, but I certainly don't require it. I like it when the author seems to be enjoying herself. She will keep my interest if she has depth and passion about her work. I don't care much for big ego. I don't care if he has a big ego. In fact, I think he probably ought to. Just don't push it in my face.

I've come away from many an author talk with warm feelings and a desire to read everything he ever wrote.

One of the best author events I ever attended was a year or so ago when Louise Penny appeared at our local library. She won us over from the first moment she walked in by shaking the hand of and personally introducing herself to everyone who had come out to see her. Her talk was intimate, personal, and joyful. I came away with the impression that this is a woman who is filled with love for her work and her life. Even if her books weren't as good as they are - and they are amazingly good - after seeing her in person I wanted to read everything she ever wrote at least twice.

I learned from that experience, you bet I did. I go into the audience before every event, and when I talk I make as much of a human connection with the crowd as I can. It's the least I can do for those people who made the effort to come and see me.

I'm thinking of taking a survey of people who attend book events.. What do you like or dislike about the performance when an author talks to an audience? Don't be shy. Your opinion may really help some poor writer who's wondering how to behave.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011


Last spring, I had the idea of teaching a novel by a contemporary mystery writer (preferably one whom I knew) and asking them to visit my class to discuss their book with my students. My first call went out to S.J. Rozan, who suggested her novel "Winter and Night" about teen bullying. The kids spent a month discussing the novel and writing two major papers on it, so they were amped to meet her.

S.J. came up from New York this week (snowstorm be damned), led a wonderful classroom discussion, and gave a spirited public reading and Q@A. All in all, it was a wonderful day. Then we stayed up talking books, writers, and publishing into the wee hours.

S.J. got a taste of boarding school life at the Corrigan home, as our apartment is attached to a dorm housing 11, 15-year-old boys. Likewise, my 12- and 9-year-old daughters were out of school (two consecutive snow days; numbers six and seven overall), and 2-year-old Keeley continued to run the house with an iron fist. So not only can the woman write like an angel, S.J. proved to be a gracious and laid-back house guest.

For me, the 24 hours proved to be a reminder of why I love being in the company of other crime writers so much. It was great to have someone to talk writing with. Given my locale and the nature of my six-day-a-week day job, I rarely get a chance to talk shop with other writers (which is another reason why I cherish being a member of the Type M community). Moreover, writing is a solitary activity that spawns self-doubt, and right now I’m working on something that even my wife (supportive always but 100% honest, nevertheless) says New York will probably never buy. The book has taken months of research and several revisions. I can be stubborn to the point of belligerent, and I like the storyline a lot and don’t believe in writing for New York, so I’m going to finish the goddamned thing, send it to my agent, and hold my breath. All of which made it great to have S.J. in the house--I was able to run the plot by her.

This fellowship is why writers love attending conferences (I once had a clause added to a book contract stating the publisher had to fly me the conference of my choice each year). In these friendships with fellow scribes, we find friendship, hilarious stories, and support.

As exciting as it was for my students this week--having S.J. present to answer their questions about her book--it was better for me. Amid a solitary profession (or, rather, a lifestyle choice), our writing friends keep us going.

Romancing the Librarians

Today I am all on edge. Tomorrow, I am scheduled to go speed dating, and the mother of all blizzards is pummeling Southern and Eastern Ontario, threatening to derail my travel plans and spoil the fun. Who on earth would drive 450 km. down the 401 in the middle of a Canadian winter with a garment bag of elegant clothes and two dogs stashed in the backseat? All for the chance at a two-minute pitch.

Me, that’s who. And about twenty other Crazy Canuck mystery authors, although not all of them will be driving 450 km., certainly not with two dogs in tow.

In this modern world of online dating, speed dating is like a breath of fresh air. It’s hard to woo readers in cyberspace. Hunched over my laptop in my solitary garret, I can write blogs, post on Facebook, websites and listserves - even tweet on occasion! - but who knows if any readers are won over in the process? It’s increasingly rare to actually meet or talk to book lovers, except in equally disembodied cyber replies. And I miss the human touch. Call me old-fashioned. I like the eye contact, the exchange of smiles, the little shrugs and hand gestures, the inner glow that comes from sharing an idea or a moment.

Hence my excitement over speed dating, which puts the human connection and the chemistry back into book promotion. I first tried it last June at the Bloody Words Mystery Conference in Toronto. The conference organizers, looking for a novel way to connect authors and readers, experimented with a variation on the match-making technique. They put two authors at a table with eight readers, and gave each author two minutes to make their pitch. Once both authors had finished, they rotated to the next table, and so on through ten tables. Two minutes may not seem like a long time, but it’s long enough to get a feel for an author and the type of books they write. Long enough to decide if you want a second date.

Everyone, readers and writers alike, emerged from the hour exhausted but exhilarated, chattering excitedly about the experience. For shy authors, the ice was broken and connections were forged. Readers felt they could now put a face and a personality to a book cover. The event was a huge success.

Such a success that Crime Writers of Canada proposed the idea to the organizers of this year’s annual conference of the Ontario Library Association, being held in Toronto this week. I signed up in a flash. There will be up to 160 librarians participating. That’s 160 devoted book lovers and industry professionals who will meet me, listen to me, and learn about my books. In my two minutes, I plan to talk not only about my Inspector Green series, which, after eight books, may not be big news, but also about my brand new Rapid Reads book starring handyman Cedric O’Toole, which is due out in April.

Librarians, and booksellers, are an author’s best friend. They peruse the catalogues and choose the books, they know their clientele’s interests and skills, and they make countless informed recommendations every day. Furthermore, they are themselves avid readers who share commentaries and reviews, both formal and informal. Each librarian listening to an author’s pitch on Thursday will make a difference in that author’s life, for better or for worse. First impressions will be crucial. So all of us authors will be dusting off our charm and polishing our silver tongue in hopes of that all important second date.

Luckily for us, there need be no winners and losers. There is room on the shelves of libraries for us all. That’s the kind of speed dating I like!

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Hey, let’s not forget about the back cover!

While we’re hitting on book covers and their importance, let’s not forget the flip side.

As laid out previously, I believe the importance of the front cover is to get someone to pick up a book. There’s got to be something that makes them want to do that — and that’s where the designer’s expertise comes in. It’s like receiving a Direct Mail envelope at your front door. The whole trick with those is to get someone to open the envelope so that the letter, brochure, order form, etc, gets read. If the unopened envelope is chucked into the garbage, you lose. Same thing with the cover of a book.

So, let’s imagine a customer has picked up the book, what’s next? They will almost invariably turn it over. What they see there had better be good, or they’ll just put it down again. On my research trips to book stores, I’ve seen this happen over and over. How come?

Well, when I look at one of these rejected books myself, I find that there’s either nothing compelling on the back cover, or the person obviously didn’t like what they saw. Not liking what they saw could be due to the subject matter of the book. They read cozies and this turned out to be hard-boiled, for instance. (That’s fine — but you do have to wonder about the front cover design if they were confused as to what the book was about.)

I do find, though, on a lot of these rejected books that the back cover just doesn’t have anything much to recommend it. My thesis is that in the design stage of a book’s cover, the front is the focus and the back is often just an afterthought. The back is easily as important as the front.

First off, who was the idiot who thought a full-cover head shot of the author on a book’s back cover was a good idea? Boy, now there’s a great way to get someone to march over to the cash register and plunk down their money...

To my mind, the front cover sets the hook and a successful back cover uses sell copy to reel that reader in. For housekeeping purposes, you need to have a bar code, so that space is gone. What do you do with the rest of the real estate?

Some strong blurbs are a must and preferably from good publications like Publisher’s Weekly or one of the major newspapers or review websites. Famous authors can be a good alternative, but they’re not as strong as something from a legit review source. It’s not a good idea to have anything from a non-professional source like someone’s blog — unless they’re a recognized expert.

Next is a good, strong, compelling bit of sell copy building on the plot, the characters and the writing. Think of movie trailers here. How do they get you fired up to see that movie? This is the chance to close the deal, or at the very least, get the customer to look further. I’ve asked. People have told me they’ve just had to buy a book because of the sales copy on the back cover (or front flap if it’s a hardcover).

If there’s room left, a bit of bio information on the author can also help — but only if it relates to the plot or establishes the authors credentials as an expert on what they’re writing about, either because of their work record (non-book/author jobs) or because of their track record (“The author of 5 best-selling novels!”)

And then there is the book’s spine...