Wednesday, August 31, 2011

TheOldtime Information HIghway

Barbara here, with a very late and abbreviated version of my Wednesday blog. That’s because I am writing it in a tiny Newfoundland seaside village called Southport, which presents extreme challenges to all things electronic while enticing one outside to explore the extraordinary beauty of nature. Visible through the window of the living room where I am sitting is the little harbour cluttered with fishing boats, the sparkling water of the cove and the soaring cliffs of the points and islands beyond. Southport is at the end of a narrow, twisty road that weaves through the rocky, spruce-covered hills along Trinity Bay. Places to hike, to pick blueberries, to experience the raw power of nature.

Sitting inside, hunched over a recalcitrant computer, just seems wrong.

As if aware of this, cellphones rarely cooperate and the free wireless signal I am picking up from the lady down in the cove fades in and out. I have no idea, in all the miles of spruce and cliffs and ocean, she gets it from anyway.

I am in Newfoundland, along with my sister and three dogs, to research a book on our father’s childhood, and as I sit in the living room here, the island where he was born is visible through the morning mists across the bay. Later today, we will take the twisty little road down the peninsula, along the coast, across the causeway and up the even twistier, narrower road around the island. It’s a distance of about 80 kilometres, which in most places should take an hour but here takes close to twice that. Even if one is tempted to speed around those blind curves, the signs of large menacing moose posted every few miles are an effective deterrent.

I am used to doing much of my research tied to a computer, doing Google searches, hunting down websites, making the occasonal phonecall. But Newfoundland is a place apart, and the information I am seeking is around a hundred years old. In our quest for knowledge, my sister and I have driven into the remote outports where he taught, combed through local archives for names and old photos, walked the old streets of the towns where he lived. But the most exciting research tool is the oldtimer sitting on his porch or fiddling with his truck. Most of them have grown up in the area and have a huge store of inforation about what it was like and where the original old buildings were.

A couple of days ago, we were driving out a barren, windswept spit of land toward a cluster of weathered, salt-stained houses at the end. We were armed with only the smallest bit of a clue – notes from our father, now dead over twenty years, that he had once taught in the one-room schoolhouse in Cat Harbour. Cat Harbour is not on any map, but a bit of investigating revealed that it was now called Lumsden. The lady at the cabin where we’d stayed the night told us she thought there’d been two schools (as there were two Lumsdens, north and south). “One down on the beach there and one up on the hill.”

With no idea which school he might have taught at, we headed down to the beach. Flat, rocky, and pummelled by the merciless North Atlantic, it looked like an unforgiving place to spend a winter. As we eyed the cluster of modest, woodframe houses and sheds, trying to figure out whether any could have been a school at one time, we saw a man on his front porch peering out at the ocean through binoculars. We stopped, rolled down our window and asked if he knew whether there had ever been a school nearby.

What followed was pure serendipity. Not only had there been a school, but it was less than a hundred feet from his house. He invited us inside to show us some old photos and two books about the village, and walked us around the point to show us where the schoolhouse and other buildings had once stood. The old photos clearly showed the village in its heyday, crammed with wharves (called stages), sheds (called stores) and fishing gear. He described daily life as it would have been, including the once-a-ayear visit from the schooner bringing supplies and food staples from St. John’s to all the outports.

Cat Harbour, he told us, was the name given because of all the seals that used to cluster there. Female seals were called cats and male seals dogs. So there was a dog cove and a cat harbour (the females getting the larger, gentler shore). We still weren’t sure whether this was the right school, however, until we happened to find a listing of all the teachers who’d taught in the local school while it existed. There was our father’s name, down in black and white. Official, concrete confirmation of our quest.

We have stopped to ask local villagers all the time, and without exception they are friendly, open and happy to share their unique knowledge. Walking in the footssteps of history, hearing the shriek of gulls and smelling the salty musk of seaweed on the rocks – this feels far more real and vivid than any Googe search could ever be.

So I’ll sign off now, and go outside to look at the fog-shrouded hills. And imagine.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Eagles I Have Known

My maternal grandfather, Frank S. Smerchek, was an Eagle, a Sokol. Although most sources say “Sokol” means “falcon” rather than Eagle. But we knew him as an eagle. His parents migrated from Moravia, now part of Czechoslovakia, in the 1800s.

 The family belonged to that segment of Czechs known as “Freethinkers” who had revolted against the Catholic Church in Europe. Although many American Czechs were, and still are, devoutly religious, the Freethinkers did not join any organized religious group. The Smercheks were a pleasantly tolerant lot who simply avoided controversy, advocated sound character, and strived for moral principles.

Sokol was a fraternal organization that embraced the Hellenistic ideals of “a sound mind in a sound body.” Some of my cousins remember grandfather’s fantastic gymnastic ability and his mastery of the difficult dance where one does alternating leg kicks while squatting. My mother’s side of the family was one disciplined bunch of people. And they frankly disapproved of people who weren’t. They lived lives of moderation and didn’t think much of slackers and goof-offs.

 I’m haunted by a remark an agent of some renown made about writers years ago. He said that as a group, we were among the most sickly he knew. Neurotics, alcoholics, depressives. Unable to sustain relationships. I didn’t know this agent personally, but he sounds as though he might have had a stomach ache.

 I’ve been in the game for quite awhile. I’ve been to a lot of conferences and know a lot of writers from about every genre. Truth is, I think writers are happier and healthier than most people. We have more control over our lives. That might sound crazy, but it’s true. We can’t control whether or not we get published. We can’t control where we get published, or coax people to buy our books in a down economy. But we can control whether we write or not. And what we write.

Most writers are eagles. Not because we soar, but because of our dedication to The Work. In fact, most writers are compulsively self-disciplined. We feel guilty if we don’t “get our writing done.” Lady Guilt is a vicious mistress. That can’t be good for us. So I’ll score one for the agent on that. As for nursing neurosis--in today’s mystery marketplace, there’s little room for too much carrying on. Agents and editors can easily replace prima donnas.

 One of the unexpected bonuses from writing is the development of first class resilience. The real kind—not the pumped up positive thinking that’s sort of desperate.  I’m always stunned to find a writer whose career have taken a nose dive still hanging in there, year after year, and then ka-boom. It’s their time again.

The agent may have been right about sickly. It’s all too easy for writers to slither into poor eating habits and neglect physical exercise. Some days I forget to eat, or break away from the computer, or go outside, or get enough sleep. I might go blind if I read any more microfilm for my academic book.

Yesterday I went on a hike with friends. A long one. It was good for me. Good for my body, and good for my writing.

Some days I remember my grandfather’s motto--“A sound mind in a sound body.”  

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Artistic Licence and Google Earth

Last Saturday I was part of a fabulous panel called "Intrigue and Deceit in a Foreign Setting." (Thank you Diana James Publicity for organizing this). Given the fact that it was a stifling hot day, we had a really great turn out at the Barnes & Noble at the Westside Pavilion in Los Angeles (thank you CRM Lisa Kingsley for having us!) Of course, the air conditioning at B & N is excellent and there is also an amazing coffee shop which probably helped.

My fellow panelists were Kwei Quartey, Lynne Sheene and Aileen Baron. Between the four of us we covered Ghana, Paris, the entire Middle East and of course, my home country—jolly old England.

One of the questions that came up during our panel discussion was how each of us did our research to create that all important "sense of place." Some of us relied on memory or just had vivid imaginations. Others wanted to depict the real world where their story was set with as much accuracy as possible.

Naturally one of the joys of writing about a foreign land is having a good excuse to visit. It's also a great tax write-off but sometimes it's not always practical or economical to fly off into the wide blue yonder to double check the architectural details of a historic monument in Dawlish Warren.

My heroine Vicky Hill's world of Gipping-on-Plym is fictional but I do use bits of places I know well. I've stolen the High Street in Tiverton, the clock tower in Totnes, a stately home in Cullompton and some beautiful woods on the outskirts of Haldon Hill. Lynne uses Google Earth to confirm Parisian street names but as Kwei discovered, Google Earth is often hopelessly out of date. His Inspector Darko Dawson series is set in the fast developing city of Accra in Ghana. On Kwei's last trip to Ghana, he was dismayed to discover that a parking lot that had featured prominently in his current book had completely vanished. I wonder if it matters? Isn't that why writers are allowed artistic license?

I use Google Earth a lot. Visiting childhood haunts that I can put into my books is a trip down memory lane that I really enjoy. I know it's not reliable but in this instance, I don't care. However I do care when a place I'm really familiar with claims to be the real deal but the author clearly has never been there.

I've also discovered that Google Earth has come in very handy in my day job. If I have to have a package delivered to an address I'm unfamiliar with, I'll google earth and see if the place looks secure, "Yes, just walk up the drive. It's safe to leave on the front step."

Technology is evolving all the time and it won't be long before we can use Google Earth in "real time." Perhaps that's when we'll have to contend with readers who want—and can—virtually visit the places described in our novels. A rather worrying thought.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

We interupt this series for a hilarious announcement...

Hi folks,

I had the second part of my series about self-promotion around the launch of a book all keyed up and ready to go, when I received what's below. It's far too funny not to share with you all immediately. I'm sure Type M readers will laugh out loud as I did.

I'd like to tell you who originated this piece, but alas, I'm not on Twitter. Perhaps one of you Twitterers (I momentarily thought of referring to you as Twits...) will let us know.

So here, without further ado are:

40 Publishing Buzzwords, Clichés and Euphemisms Decoded

Ever wonder what editors, publishers and critics mean when they describe books as “lyrical,” “provocative” or “ripped from the headlines”? Let industry veterans explain it to you. I asked experts on Twitter to decode common publishing terms and attach the hashtag #pubcode. Here are some of their answers:

“absorbing”: “makes a great coaster” @DonLinn Don Linn, publishing consultant

“accessible”: “not too many big words” @MarkKohut Mark Kohut, writer and consultant

“acclaimed”: “poorly selling” @BloomsburyPress Peter Ginna, publisher, Bloomsbury Press

“breakout book”: “Hail Mary pass” @BookFlack Larry Hughes, associate director of publicity, the Free Press at Simon & Schuster

“brilliantly defies categorization”: “even the author has no clue what he’s turned in” @james_meader James Meader, publicity director of Picador USA

“captures the times we live in”: “captures the times we were living in two years ago” @mathitak Mark Athitakis, critic

“classroom-friendly”: “kids won’t read it unless they have to” @LindaWonder, book promoter at Wonder Communications

“continues in the proud tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien”: “this book has a dwarf in it” @jasonpinter Jason Pinter, author of the Zeke Bartholomew series for young readers

“definitive”: “could have used an editor” @kalenski, “Book Babe Extraordinaire”

“an eBook original”: “still no proofreading and bad formatting” @mikecane Mike Cane, writer and digital book advocate

“edgy”: “contains no adult voices of reason” @wmpreston William Preston, English teacher

“epic”: “very long” @sheilaoflanagan Sheila O’Flanagan, novelist (Stand by Me)

“erotic”: “porn” @BloomsburyPress Peter Ginna, publisher, Bloomsbury Press

“ethnic literature”: “stuff written by nonwhite people” @elprofe316 Rich Villar, executive director of Acentos

“frothy romp”: “funny book by lady” “Funny = funny book by a man” @jenniferweiner Jennifer Weiner, novelist (Then Came You) and television producer (State of Georgia)

“gripping”: “I turned the pages fast but didn’t read them” @sarahw Sarah Weinman, news editor of Publishers Lunch

“gritty street tale”: “Black author from the hood. Run.” @DuchessCadbury, graduate student in literature

“I’ve been a fan of Author X for a long time”: “I slept with them regrettably, in MFA school.” @Weegee Kevin Smokler, vice-president of marketing for Byliner.

“lapidary prose”: “I did not know what half of these words meant” @jenniferweiner Jennifer Weiner, novelist (Then Came You) and television producer (State of Georgia)

“literary”: “plotless” @MarkKohut Mark Kohut, writer and consultant

“long-awaited”: “late” @janiceharayda Jan Harayda, novelist and editor of One-Minute Book Reviews

“luminous” or “lyrical”: “not much happens” @BloomsburyPress Peter Ginna, publisher, Bloomsbury Press

“magisterial”: “long” @BloomsburyPress Peter Ginna, publisher, Bloomsbury Press

“meticulously researched”: “overloaded with footnotes” @BookFlack Larry Hughes, associate director of publicity, the Free Press at Simon & Schuster

“memoir”: “nonfiction until proven otherwise” @BookFlack Larry Hughes, associate director of publicity, the Free Press at Simon & Schuster

“the next Elmore Leonard”: “This books has criminals or Detroit or maybe Florida in it” @bryonq Bryon Quertermous, fiction writer

“novella”: “short story with large font” @BookFlack Larry Hughes, associate director of publicity, the Free Press at Simon & Schuster

“a real tear-jerker”: “writing so bad it makes you cry” @DrewSGoodman Drew Goodman, writer and social media analyst

“ripped from the headlines”: “no original plot line” @jdeval Jacqueline Deval, author (Publicize Your Book!) and book publicist

“rollicking”: “chaotic” @BloomsburyPress Peter Ginna, publisher, Bloomsbury Press

“sensual”: “soft porn” @BloomsburyPress Peter Ginna, publisher, Bloomsbury Press

“stunning”: “major character dies” @mathitak Mark Athitakis, critic

“provocative”: “about race/religion” @mathitak Mark Athitakis, critic

“promising debut”: “many flaws, but not unforgivably bad” @mathitak Mark Athitakis, critic

“unflinching”: “has a lot of bad words” @isabelkaplan Isabel Kaplan, novelist (Hancock Park)

“visionary”: “can’t be proved wrong yet” @IsabelAnders Isabel Anders, author (Blessings and Prayers for Married Couples)

“voice of a generation”: “instantly dated” @MarkKohut Mark Kohut, writer and consultant

“weighty”: “I had to lug this dense historical monster all over town and I still can’t bring myself to finish it” @emilynussbaum Emily Nussbaum, writer for New York magazine

“wildly imaginative”: “wrote book high on mescaline” @simonm223 Simon McNeil, novelist

“a writer to watch”: “as opposed to one you are actually going to want to read” @janiceharayda Jan Harayda, novelist and editor of One-Minute Book Reviews

The tongue-in-cheek explanations of common publishing terms are still pouring in at #pubcode on Twitter, and I’ll update this list if warranted.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Edinburgh International Book Festival

It's festival time again, and Edinburgh's historic Royal Mile, with a castle at one end and a palace at the other, becomes a madhouse of impromptu bands, jugglers, open air cafes strung with fairy lights, bearded men in pink tutus, students dressed in top hats and tails pushing fliers for a twenty-minute performance of the complete Ring Cycle – you name it, you can find it. The pavements are so crowded you have to walk in unison and if you are wearing normal clothes you look more out of place than the gorilla that just walked past hand in hand with a giraffe. Sober Edinburghers going about their daily business try to pretend it isn't happening: it's too much like seeing an elegant, dignified dowager suddenly flashing her knickers and starting to do the Can-Can.

On the more refined side of the city, amid the elegance of the Georgian squares and terraces, the crowds are culture vultures, going from concerts with some of the world's most famous orchestras and soloists to art galleries to experimental theatre - like King Lear, performed by one man in Japanese, which is playing to enthusiastic if possibly somewhat bemused audiences.

Then, of course, there's the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The tented village is once again cheekily in place in Charlotte Square, the crowning glory of Robert Adam architecture. And yes, I'm afraid once again the lawns are quagmires covered by protective matting and the now-traditional yellow plastic ducks are floating in their puddle pond in one corner. But spirits are high, as authors from all over the world jet in – or in the case of our own Alexander MacCall Smith, bus in from Morningside on the No.23 - to allow readers the chance to see the creators of the books they love in the flesh. As authors, we're all delighted to be asked to come face to face with our public.

But Margaret Attwood, a regular visitor, once said that wanting to meet an author because you liked a book was like wanting to meet a duck because you liked pâté, and I suspect many authors would nod agreement with a rueful smile. Some brilliant writers are disappointingly poor performers; our trade is in the written word and the authentic voice is found there, rather than in the real life personality.

It may also be better not to discover your literary heroes' feet of clay. I've been sadly disillusioned when favourites of mine have been revealed on the EIBF stage as pompous or arrogant, and I haven't fancied the books thereafter. They're still the same, it's just – well, I thought I knew them through the book and I feel cheated. It's a high-risk business for both reader and author.

On the other hand, there are the writers like Sandy MacCall Smith who is exactly what you'd expect him to be, with a wonderfully waspish sense of humour, or my own particular idol, PD James, who when you meet her is warmer and wiser and even funnier than I could have dared to hope.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Little Something On The Side

Donis writing today. I learn a lot from the funnies page in the newspaper. I’m a puzzle aficionado, and start every day by reading the paper front to back, and then working all the puzzles. This is not quite the time consuming activity it used to be a few years ago, when the daily paper actually had news in it. But at least the puzzles get my brain revved up for the day. One of my favorite puzzles is the Jumble, which consists of an anagram of a quotation from a well-known person. Not long ago I deciphered a quotation by Truman Capote which, as a writer, I found quite insightful. It is as follows:

Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music.

Perspective is a sense of depth. It is a way to show things in their true relationship to one another, a way to make them seem real.

The characters who people a novel are what the majority of readers care about the most. Action and suspense and an intricate plot are all fantastic, but if we aren’t invested in the characters, we don’t much care if they get it all worked out, or if they escape the danger, or figure out who did the deed. And if the author can create a series with true and appealing characters, then the reader will want to read the next installment, and the next.

So, your characters are involved in the intricacies of the plot. The sleuth has to find out who committed the crime, or who is chasing him, and why. The red herrings have to prove they didn’t do it. The killer has to throw the hunters off his trail. But if the characters only exist to serve the plot, so what? If instead, the plot exists to reveal the characters ... now you’re talking.

What does this have to do with perspective, you ask? Well, have a seat, for I’m about to tell you.

A side story exists in a novel for the sole purpose of adding depth. It’s through a side story that the reader discovers why the sleuth is like she is. Why is she so obsessive about unravelling this particular crime, even though she’s been removed from the case, or fired by the client, or threatened with death if she perseveres? Could it be because the victim so reminds her of her own mother, who also was a battered woman? We find this out not because the author simply tells us, but because the sleuth goes home after a long day of detecting, and her mother is there, fixing dinner. We discover through successive scenes, actions and conversations, that her mother is physically and psychologically damaged from years of abuse. Perhaps she’s agoraphobic. Perhaps she finally shot her abuser and spent time in prison. Perhaps the sleuth was ten years old when this all happened, and to this day is riddled with guilt that she was not able to help her mother at the time.

None of this has to do with the major plot line, which concerns the discovery in an alley of a murdered woman whose body shows signs of years of trauma. Was she perhaps a professional show-jump rider, or a downhill skier? A roller derby skater? Or maybe she was a battered woman. Our sleuth cannot help her now, just as she couldn’t help her mother. But perhaps she can show the poor woman justice.*

The side story has given the sleuth a life apart from her job. Now the reader knows her as a person, and, we hope, cares about her and is rooting for her to succeed.


*The above scenario is not taken from any actual story, so don't go hunting for it. I made it up.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Devil Made Me Do It

Frankie here. I’ve been thinking about villains. I’m revising the draft of a new book based on comments from my editor. She wants me to expand the last chapter. That means dealing a bit more with my villain’s motivation. My villain in this book has a number of plausible reasons for committing the crimes. But the more I think about expanding the chapter, the more I realize that both my villain and I would benefit if I dig deeper.

Writing teachers and best-selling authors on panels tell us that the villain should be created with the same care as the hero. The villain should be three-dimensional rather than a caricature. The villain should believe that what he or she is doing is right and/or justified and be the hero of his or her own story. And the villain should love something – not necessarily another person, but there should be something that the villain cares about deeply. This thing that the villain loves makes him or her vulnerable, or at least more human.

As I thought about this last piece of advice, I realized my villain feels anger, envy, and hatred. But what does my villain love? I thought I knew the answer to that question, but that was before I knew that my villain was the villain. Now, the character bio that I did in the beginning needs revising. My villain spent much of the first draft deceiving both me and the other characters.

Obviously, my villain and I need to sit down for a good heart-to-heart. I think my first step is to eliminate the word “villain” in my mind. Then maybe my “antagonist” will be more forthcoming about what he/she loves best of all. Meanwhile, I’ve been amusing myself by thinking about a few of my favorite antagonists -- slightly twisted or delightfully wicked characters with star power:

1. Richard III (Shakespeare’s version)
2. Rhoda Penmark (pig-tailed little sociopath in The Bad Seed)
3. Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessep in A Few Good Men
4. Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca
5. Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity
6. Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter
7. Cole Turner (the half-demon, half-human on Charmed)

Well, time to sit down with my antagonist and see what else I can learn. Wish me luck.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Web Presence

There has been a lot of talk on Type M for Murder of late about public relations and author promotion. I have read with interest because—after telling myself I would do it for two years—I am finally revamping my Website, a daunting task made even more so by my desire to (learn to) do it myself.

My goal and my abilities are in conflict: I am looking for more control of my site, but I am an HTML novice, so I have been experimenting with Word Press. My hope is to create a site that I can update daily and post items that make the site more interactive, such as excerpts, blogs, links, photos, and book recs, and even writing tips. I have no idea what impact this will have on my readership, but I enjoy technology, use it often in my classroom—and as the e-book industry grows, I figure I ought to be trying to establish a larger Web presence.

So I am preparing to go it alone by designing my own site—daunting, time-consuming, and risky, I know. And after a week on Word Press, my head is spinning. But I live by an adage my father preached—“smart people don’t have all the answers; they just know where to find them”—and I’m seeking input from friends who are far more tech savvy that me.

Keep your fingers crossed for me.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Hi there Type M fans,

I'm writing this abject apology because I ran out of time this week, and I'm currently on the road which makes things even more difficult. If you're checking in to read the next installment of my little self-promotion series, I'm very sorry to disappoint you.

See you all next week.


PS I don't even have a funny cartoon to trot out! Boy, I'm doing really well this week...

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Public Relations Techniques for the Introvert

The Sisters in Crime authors internet group has had a conversation thread going lately about how to promote yourself when you are a shy person. One member wrote that the SinC Los Angeles chapter has even produced a workshop on How To Give an Author Performance . "Many of our great writer/members are terrible readers/performers. But getting out in front of an audience does mean being able to read your own work and doing it with enough pizzazz to entice the audience to buy your book."

I (Donis) am not shy in front of a group, and I'm a good speaker. But I'm also slow to warm up in a social situation, at least until I feel I have a handle on whomever I'm talking to. I told a friend once that I think I was born to be an observer in this life. This is a great quality to have if you're a writer, but not so good if you need to work the room.

The point of all this self-revelation is that when it comes to promotion, what one writer is willing and able to do may be quite different from another. I actually do force myself to make the rounds at every conference I attend and talk to as many people as I can, but I'll never be as effective at it as someone as warm and outgoing as Louise Penny. However, I'm guessing I'm a much better schmoozer than J.D. Salinger, who could have bought and sold me. So as effective as that technique is, it must not be the end-all and be-all for authorly success.

In the six years since my first novel came out, I keep trying a little of this and a little of that, and attempting to judge what promotional activity works best for me. I think attending conferences is very useful. Other writers have been extraordinarily helpful to me. but I can't afford to go to as many conferences as I'd like. I'm much less promiscuous with bookstore signings than I was when I started out. After sitting in lonely solitude behind a table a few times, I now choose my bookstores and signing times with great care, and do everything I can to publicize the event beforehand. For every other bookstore I come across, I find it much more effective to talk to the booksellers.

I find that the more speaking and teaching events I do, the more I'm asked to do. I get a lot of library business. I was a librarian for 20 years, so I know a lot of library types all over the country. Book clubs are good. If you can find a non-book group to talk to that has some sort of connection to what you write about, that can be fabulous for your sales. History groups are good for me. I know another writer who sells her books at an annual zoo event and cleans up. (Makes money. Though I think she does actually volunteer to muck out cages.)

My husband, however, who is a poet, would rather stand on his head in a mud puddle while poking himself in the eye than speak in front of a group. I understand that most people are terrified of public speaking, so my publicity plan would be torture for them. There is a book that I discovered early on in my writing life entitled The Shy Writer, by C. Hope Clark, which enumerates many ways to promote yourself if the idea of standing up in front of a group makes you feel faint.

The internet is a godsend, if you know how to work it, though less so for us Luddites. It would be hard for me to host an internet radio program, because I simply don't have the technical skills. My webmaster, who is also my brother, told me that my website should be "all Donis, all the time", and not concentrate solely on my books. This gives you leeway to change your focus, if you decide to do something other than what you have been doing. Change genres, for instance, or become a playwright, or an actor. The blog tour is popular - I do a lot of guest blogging. I've been blogging weekly on this site, the Fatal Foodies blog, and my own website for years. Blogging is time-consuming, and it is extraordinarily difficult to write one interesting and original blog after another, week after week, year after year. Does blogging increase my readership? I don't know, to tell the truth. But I'm a writer, damn it, and more writing is always better than less. On my own site, I've more or less kept a public diary of my experiences as a novelist, and whether it's instructive to others or not, I have enough material for a book.

This writing game is tough. And when it comes to publicity, you just have to put your head down and go. What works for one may not work for you, so you try everything you can manage and do the best you can. The really important thing, though, is to do the best you can without making yourself miserable. Life is too short.

It is now six years and probably a hundred personal appearances later. Here is what I’ve learned:

1. It takes a great deal of practice and repetition to be witty and spontaneous on the spot.*

2. There’s nothing wrong with using your 'A' material over and over, especially when you’re traveling.

3. If you’re going to read from your novel, keep it short.

4. Look at your audience when you speak - make eye contact. They’ll like you better as a person, and you’ll better be able to judge how you’re going over and make adjustments in your presentation as you need to.

5. Don’t worry about it if you’re nervous. Your audience is predisposed to like you.

6. Always wear comfy shoes.

*One of the contributing authors here at Type M (I won't say who, but her name rhymes with Mannah Hennison) once told me that the first time she had to speak in public about her debut novel, she was so nervous that her knees were literally shaking. I have seen this person speak several times, and she is tremendously entertaining and engaging. In fact, the last time I attended one of her events I was so impressed with her skill that I began to plot ways steal her technique. So practice really does make perfect.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Death of the Paperback

The novel submission process can move at a glacier’s pace. Right now, it can take a year to work a manuscript through all the major publishers, due to editorial layoffs and the ensuing staff ping-ponging from house to house in this publishing climate. In an up-date e-mail Monday, my agent said the crime fiction market is moving even slower than usual as editors try to figure out what impact the death of Borders and the 30% decline of paperback sales will have on the book world.

It got me thinking: a 30% decline of paperback sales?

Wait a minute. I’m a paperback junky. Spend seven bucks, throw it in my pocket, sit on it, bend it, pull it out while I’m in line at a grocery store (or sitting in a doctor’s office), and read a page or two before you check out (or go in).

I guess I should have seen this coming. The e-book is, of course, replacing the paperback. According to Christine Kearney of Reuters, citing a report released by the Association of American Publishers, “Sales of electronic books in January [2011] increased by more than 115 percent compared to the same time the year before.” What’s worse, I’m part of the problem, having priced the electronic versions of my novels to undercut the paperback edition.

But will the e-book mean the extinction of the paperback?

The paperback will go the way of the woolly mammoth; it will just limp for a while before going down.

Realistically, I can see no other alternative. I believe, at least for the foreseeable future, we will continue to have hardcovers. In antithesis to myself, a man told me recently, “I only buy hardcovers. I want something that will last.” Many people share his sentiment; after all, you don’t often see paperbacks dominating the bookcase in one’s living room.

I must admit that I own an iPad, and I read on it. It has many conveniences: I can take several books with me without filling my carry-on bag. Yet the last time I went shopping my paperback fell out of my coat pocket as I was crossing the parking lot. I wiped it off, tossed it back in my pocket, and kept right on moving.

That’s the paperback.

An ironic aside to all this is a book recommendation I must make: I’m currently reading—and highly recommend to anyone who wants to write—Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life. His facility with the language is absolutely remarkable, and his passion for literature resonates, and you see why—the man has read everything ever written. Reading has dominated his life.

Here’s the kicker: it’s not available in paperback.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions!

I’ve made no attempt to disguise the agonies I am currently enduring writing this new mystery series. The embarrassing thing is that I actually teach a workshop on mystery writing for The Writers Program at UCLA but somehow the enthusiastic suggestions I share so confidently with my students don’t seem to apply!

Having finally recovered from the 40 pages I deleted two weeks ago, I now have eight different opening scenes, each in a different tone that ranges from farcical to serious.  Yes, I know the necessary ingredients for a strong beginning – get them on page 1! Reel them in! And to that end I have everything lined up.
  • Setting
  • Murder weapon (s)
  • Villain, victim, sidekick
  • A cast of fully developed secondary characters
  • A plethora of red herrings
  • … and a solid outline with a great twist at the end (if I say so myself)

So what is the problem? My protagonist is the problem. She is eluding me.

Sure, I know a lot about Ms X – her horoscope, upbringing, hobbies, biggest fears, what she has in her trash bin etc. – but I am stuck on details that will dictate the tone and direction of the entire story.

Is my protagonist married? Single? Newly divorced? Is she going to be hilarious? Serious? Clever? Scatterbrained? Decisions, decisions, decisions! And each decision will make a substantial difference to how I present the entire story.

As an incentive, anyone who has a brilliant comment to help me over the hump will have their name entered into my Random Number generator. The prize … a fabulous CD of British Morris Dancing recorded by the Dartington Morris Men from Devon and a copy of my latest book featuring morris dancing ... THIEVES!

I await all suggestions with bated breath. 

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Hedging your promotional bets

My eldest son, Karel, has a diploma in publicity and promotion. He ultimately decided that this wasn’t what he wanted to do in life, but I’ve made good use of his educational experience over the past few years.

Frankie noted last week that she has a new book out. This is really great. We’ve all heard it said that having a new book is a lot like having a new baby: now you’ve got to bring it up. So my topic today is a timely one for Frankie, but also to all us.

Most publishers aren’t very good doing personal promotion for their authors; certainly the midlist ones often get little or no help. They don’t even get a promotional package.

A what? Exactly. How many of you out there know what a promotional package should contain? How many of you have ever heard of one?

A promotional package is something a publicist sends out to people and organizations they’re hoping will get the word out. It’s designed to pique interest and once that’s accomplished, make it easier for the target party to do their job, or in the case of an interview, to prime the pump. You don’t think that interviewer read your book, formulated those questions, took a huge interest in your work did you? Well, the people behind him/her on the show probably didn’t either. All this heavy lifting was probably done by the book’s publicist’s promotional package.

Now, if I’ve piqued your interest, here’s the first and most important item this little godsend contains.

A Backgrounder: This is the heart of the package. It’s basically a dressed-up bio. It should have a good author photo on it (be smart and get one professionally done). It will have general biographical information on it, focusing in on interesting things about the author. Then it will go to work on writing and publishing credentials. Either at the beginning or end of the backgrounder will be information on the new book itself, depending on how the backgrounder is framed by the publicist. Finally, it will include all necessary contact information. Even if the author is doing the package (likely), it should contain contact information back to the publisher’s publicity department (and they should vet what the author is doing, of course), as well as direct contact information to the author — and a promise to rush answer any and all questions that come in.

Everything should be laid out in a professional and inviting manner. A sloppy, I-have-a-computer-and-a-brain-so-therefore-I-can-design document won’t get you very far with a professional organization, unless you have a hell of a compelling story they’re interested in!

These days, most promo packages are sent electronically and that’s good news for us struggling authors. A fully realized, printed promo package is an expensive thing. Now, they’re packaged as PDFs and sent out, the expense being confined to concept and design. Why PDFs? Because you can control how the content will look. Do yourself a huge favour and don’t use Word. I receive Word documents daily and the way they look on my computer is usually WAY different from the originator’s computer, most often to the negative. Believe me, you don’t want this to happen with your promo package. The pros use PDFs because they will look exactly the same on every computer.

I’ll continue with this topic in next week’s post when we’ll discuss the “background article”.

If you’d like to see one, contact me and I’ll send you the backgrounder we created for my most recent book.

Later...enough people asked to see it, so here it is (click on it to see it larger):

Monday, August 08, 2011

The MacGuffin

Aline here. Today I'm writing in praise of the gloriously-named MacGuffin. I hadn't thought of it for years, then someone mentioned it and I couldn't resist jogging your memories too.

For those of you not familiar with the concept, Alfred Hitchcock is credited with inventing it, though I would contend that it's not an invention, it's a discovery, like electricity and nuclear power. It's another source of energy that has existed ever since the first caveman sat round the fire and began, 'Once upon a time.'

Hitchcock himself explained it by telling the story of two men on a train. One asks the other, 'What's that package on the baggage rack?' 'Ah, that's a MacGuffin.' 'What's a MacGuffin?' 'It's a tool used for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.' 'But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands.' 'Well, then, there's no MacGuffin.'

Once you start looking for them, unlike the lions in the Scottish Highlands, you see them everywhere: the plot devices which have no real relevance to the story, except to provide the motivation for a quest or a chase or a flight, which is the real point of the film or book. Once it has been stated that this is terribly, terribly important – 'We must find the Holy Grail!' (why?) – everything else follows from it. As the plot develops, the initial premise can then safely be totally ignored, only to appear at the end to show that the quest, chase, etc has been successful. It may even disappear completely, if the other elements have successfully taken over its function.

You can construct a MacGuffin out of anything you have to hand. 'I must clear the name of my dead father!' 'Unless this piece of information reaches headquarters, the world will blow up in six weeks/ two days/ ten minutes.' 'The only man who knows how to cure my dying wife has been kidnapped.' 'This may look like a small lump of stone but it has a secret which means that sinister powers will do anything to recover it.' You can probably think of dozens – do share them with us!

MacGuffins are vital to most of the box office successes we've enjoyed over the years and lots of the most successful books. We've all had a huge amount of pleasure from them. But there's something of a warning there too.

I was asked once what I thought made a good crime novel. My answer was, 'An absorbing plot which arises out of the nature of compelling characters. When you reach the end of the book, you should be able to see that the outcome was inevitable – while not, of course, being able to guess it on the way through.'

That's my ideal. But since starting this blog about MacGuffins, I've started to worry: what if some of those carefully devised plots, intricately woven into the fabric of the book were – oh horror, oh shame! – really just . . . MacGuffins?

Saturday, August 06, 2011

I Never Forget a Good Idea

Last week on this blog, our own John Corrigan wrote an entry in which he tells how he keeps a file of interesting newspaper clippings for inspiration. I (Donis) do exactly the same thing. I'll clip any story that catches my fancy and file it away. The stories that interest me always have an element of poignancy. Sometimes I'll use the idea right away, but I never discard a tale that intrigues me, and I've been known to use ideas that I gleaned from a newspaper story many years earlier.

My third book, The Drop Edge of Yonder, is a book that was thirty years in the making. There are at least two pivotal scenes in the book that owe their existance to newspaper articles that stayed with me all that time. I read the first story when I lived in Lubbock, Texas, back in the ’70′s. Two women, an elderly mother and her grown daughter, were out shopping together, walking down the street and minding their own business, when a crazy person ran up and attacked the daughter out of the blue. The old mother saved her daughter when she jumped on the crazy man’s back and pummeled him and bit on him and basically beat the heck out of him.

Somewhere around the same time, I read an interview with an old British soldier who had fought the Massoud in Palestine after WWII. He described a fighter who came at him tooth and claw and absolutely refused to be killed, even after he shot him and stabbed him and beat him with the butt of his rifle. The fighter finally sunk his teeth in the soldier’s foot and the soldier had to decapitate him to make him let go. The soldier said it was the scariest thing that had ever happened to him in his life. I took both these images and put them together to create one of the climatic scenes of the book.

The opening scene of Drop Edge isn’t quite as old an image in my head as the other two, but it is also a tale that took me a long time to tell. Seven or eight years before I began writing that particular book, I did a family geneology for my sibs for Christmas, which as you regular Dear Readers may know, is one of the things that inspired me to write my Alafair Tucker series in the first place . One of the things I learned while doing research on my family was the story of one of my a great-great grandfathers and three of his companions who were returning from the Civil War Battle of Pea Ridge when they stopped a few miles from home to rob a bee hive in a tree. While they were smoking the hive, they were ambushed by bushwhackers and killed. They were found by their families a few hours later but lay dead in the field over night, guarded from wild animals by their wives until morning, when they were buried where they fell.

On another topic, I recently received an invitation to a depressingly high-numbered high school reunion coming up in October. I graduated from Nathan Hale High in Tulsa in a class of nearly 700 people. (Nathan Hale is the guy who, while about to be hanged by the British as a spy during the American Revolution, said, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country,” which I always thought was one of history’s great instances of bravado in the face of death. If it had been me, I might have done my patriotic duty like Nathan did, but when it came time to die, my last words would have been along the lines of , “For the love of God, please don’t hang me.” Of course, nobody would have named a high school after me, either.) I’m sorry to say that I won’t be able to go to the reunion. However, one of the organizers is an old high school friend of mine, and she asked me to send her some posters and promotional material about the books. I’m overjoyed for the opportunity. It always surprises me how one’s past keeps rearing up.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Oh! The Places I'll Go

Frankie here (with a bow to Dr. Seuss). Well, after a two month delay, my fifth Lizzie Stuart mystery, Forty Acres and a Soggy Grave, was "officially" released on July 26. My publisher is featuring it as the book of the month (

On Wednesday, I did a "five question" interview with a local reporter. He asked where the books in the series were set and why. I started rattling off locations – fictional "Drucilla, Kentucky", London, and "St. Regis" in Cornwall (stand-in for the real St. Ives) for Death's Favorite Child; "Gallagher, Virginia" (fictional stand-in for my hometown of Danville, Virginia) for A Dead Man's Honor and Old Murders; and then, You Should Have Died on Monday, set in Chicago, Wilmington, North Carolina, and pre-Katrina New Orleans.

Why these places? Well, to be honest, when I started writing mysteries, I thought I'd better write about what I knew. I decided that I would use my historical research and a fictional version of the Southern city I had grown up in. That was what I did for the five years that I spent grinding out draft after draft -- often making plot changes faster than my writing group could read and provide feedback. I drove them crazy with all those re-writes. But the happy result of that prolonged and painful process was that I was ready when an old friend invited me to come to England to meet her and her son for a holiday. I knew my character Lizzie well enough that I could tell my writing group that I was going to pack her up and take her on a vacation.

And I did -- plotting the crimes before I left (my tribute to Agatha Christie with murder among the guests at a private hotel) and then writing the first draft as my friend, her son, and I enjoyed our week in Cornwall. That was the book I sold first, written on-site, revised, and submitted in less than a year. Since I needed a second book to follow, I revised the book I had spent five year tinkering away at. Then another book set in Gallagher, and it was time for me and Lizzie -- and John Quinn, the cop, she had met in Cornwall -- to take it on the road again.

Why Chicago and New Orleans? I like both cities and I thought it would be fun to spend a week in each doing research. And since the theme of the book was blues and murder, where better? As for Wilmington -- I had been there several times for the Cape Fear Crime Festival, and I knew the size of the city would work as a place where Lizzie could arrive, ask questions, and find the lead she would need to get her to New Orleans.

And this time around with Forty Acres -- I wanted to spend some time on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and in Vinalhaven, Maine, and ever so briefly in Newport, Rhode Island. But more important each place worked for what I needed it to do in the plot.

The cover of Forty Acres and a Soggy Grave is a photo that I took when I was visiting the park and wild life reserve on Assateague. I wasn't too sure about using it since I am not a great photographer. In fact, I rely on technology to correct my mistakes. But my publisher used the photo for the ARC and then decided to keep it for the book. So I have the book cover reminding me that I have not done what I should have done by this point. I was supposed to have gotten my research notes about the Eastern Shore of Virginia together and written an article for my website. And put up more photos. I also have a recipe for “Eastern Shore Crabmeat and Grits” created by my good friend, Alice, who comes up with a recipe for each of my books (a habit going back to the first book when my publisher decided to put together a giveaway of authors' recipes).

So . . . a salute to the place we all go in our writing. I think if there should be a book seven and eight in this series, Lizzie, Quinn, and I are going to Santa Fe and then to Paris -- both places completely necessary to the plots I have in mind.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Letting Readers Play a Part

We have entered the final week of the creative writing workshop I have been teaching since late June. The assignments have gotten more sophisticated with each passing week. I have one from this week that I will share here.
Emotions—love, hate, fear, loss, guilt, or grief.
Select one emotion from the list above and write a paragraph or brief scene in which a character demonstrates the emotion. You may not use the word at all in the scene, either in narration or dialogue. Remember: Readers like to play a part in the scene. Let them SEE characters come to life through what characters say and do—whether it’s body language, dialogue, or overt action.
Note the difference between…
1) Tommy would never forgive himself for what he’d done that night, years earlier. His mother’s boyfriend, Jeff, had been hitting her, and when she screamed, he woke up and committed the crime. He hadn’t done it to kill Jeff as much as he’d done it to protect his mother.
Now, he paced in his cell, following the conviction, and felt guilty. He’d killed a man, and, as a Christian, that weighed on him endlessly.
2) Tommy stared at the Bible. It lay on the narrow bunk of the place he now called home like an endless reminder. He read it dutifully, the pages thin and crisp in his fingers, the way the blade had felt cool against his palm before his life had changed years ago; before his mother’s scream had woken him from the soft dreamscape typical of any six-year-old to the harsh reality of being her protector.
He moved away from the bunk, to the window lined with iron bars and wire-meshed glass. The word protector had so many different meanings, he thought.

You will notice the plot is identical in both versions (and if you read my post last week, you know where I got my idea for this scene): a son has been incarcerated for stabbing the man who beat his mother. He is pacing, thinking.

At its most basic level, the assignment is designed to help writers "show" and not "tell." More subtly, though, the passage (hopefully) illustrates the difference between recap and backstory. (Carefully re-read the second sentence of the first version and compare it to the way the same material is conveyed in the second version.) Also, I aim to create—in the second passage—a scene in which the reader is allowed to play a part, something I believe all readers want to do.

Allowing readers to experience a scene is always a goal of mine. I don't always accomplish the goal (certainly not on many first drafts), but I work to convey the information via a cinematic presentation.

Try your hand at the exercise and, as always, let me know how it goes.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The Simple Basics

What’s wrong with the world? It’s supposed to be the lazy, hazy days of summer… a time of languid days at the lake, cold beers, sunset chats on the dock and silly board games. At least, that’s the perfect Canadian cottage country summer. Perhaps your summer involves visiting friends and relatives in far-away cities or coming home to the family farm. It doesn’t matter. Summer is about turning off life’s worries, about reconnecting with the simple basics and with the people you love.

So what do I find when I check out the internet or my local news? Anxiety and frantic work. The US desperately trying to avert a financial crisis that could bring down not just their own but the world’s economy. Canada’s largest city holding meetings long into the night to debate the merits of cutting or privatizing cherished social services, including libraries. Norway in anguished soul-searching to find out who they are and what went so horribly wrong. And here in the quiet Northland, forest fires, wind storms, and life-threatening heat.

And on a simpler scale, my fellow writers are wondering if they will ever see another royalty cheque. Okay, to be honest, I am too. Peculiar, contradictory surges of panic and excitement have gripped the book world. As my friend and fellow Type M’er Rick Blechta points out, the ebook revolution is here, bookstores are closing left and right, and even the big chains who were responsible for driving the independents out of business are struggling to find new niches in giftware and candles. It’s either candles or bankruptcy. Yes, ebooks are not cuddly. They are not beach friendly. But wow, to be able to load one thousand books on a single tiny tablet – that more than makes up for it!

Writers too are thrilled to bypass the traditional publisher/distributor/bookseller strait jacket which controlled access to the readers eagerly awaiting their works. In unprecedented numbers they are uploading their own ebooks onto Amazon, Apple and other internet publishing sites, dreaming of profits that would finance more than the occasional trip to the coffee shop. I too am guilty of this. Just last week, as part of the Ladies' Killing Circle, I uploaded a small collection of rare and out-of-print short stories for sale on the web (Little Treasures, if you want to rush out and buy it for 99 cents). Not to make millions, obviously, not even to finance a cup of coffee, but to bring those stories back into circulation, and along the way to give new readers a taste of what we have to offer.

But this weekend, at my own cottage, I looked with nostalgia at my pine bookshelves. They are stuffed to overflowing with hardcover and paperback books that I thought would make good vacation reads, not so much for me, because I’ve read them all, but for visiting family, friends and guests. My mini-library has many mysteries, often the genre of choice for those on vacation, but also works of classic and contemporary literary fiction. Guests peer at the titles, get down on all fours to see the bottom shelf, pull out several to caress the covers, read the back and flip through the first page, all in a leisurely effort to find the perfect book for the dock.

As I watch this ritual, I wonder what will replace it in the digital age. Will I have Kindles to loan out, and will I bother to keep the latest versions up to date to satisfy the more impatient and technologically addicted of my friends? Will I wince every time they take them to the water’s edge, subject to the gleeful splash of an exuberant child or dog?

It’s hard to picture us all bent over our electronic devices, thumbing through thousands of invisible books in search of the perfect cottage read. It’s hard to imagine the device laid aside on the arm of a Muskoka chair while we slide into the water for a swim. But then, ten years ago I would have thought it impossible to sit in a restaurant watching my fellow diners, every single one of them busy on their smart phones, texting, emailing and chatting. While their dinner partner across the table does the same.

Slow down, world. Chill. Reconnect with the basics, and with the people you love.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

I’m throwing in the towel

I’m sure you’ve all seen the headlines: “Ebook Sales Eclipsing Sales of Traditional Books”, “Books are Dead”, etc., etc.

I think the final nail in the coffin are tablet computers. With sales of those taking off, why carry around a tome – whether hard cover or paperback – and a small computer. Commuting to work? If you use a tablet as part of earning your daily bread, why carry a book to read on the train?

So, there’s no sense fighting the rising tide. I feel as if I’m back in the Venice of traditional publishing and the rising tide of ebooks if slowly engulfing the city. What else is there to do than man the lifeboats?

With the feeling that it’s always best to try to laugh at one’s troubles, I’d like to present today’s topic: a (somewhat lighthearted) comparison between paper books and ebooks.

  • Going to the cottage for the summer, you pack a carton full of books to read. With ebooks, you just download what you think you’ll need, fully expecting to download more at the cottage.

  • If you have a tablet that you use at work, it’s way easier to sneak in reading that next chapter when no one is paying attention.

  • If you lose a book, it’s no big deal. Don’t try this with whatever device on which you read ebooks.

  • It’s not that cool to have a signed ebook – if you can even get one.

  • Paper books never crash.

  • The binding on ebooks never cracks and pages never start falling out. (Or do they?)

  • Try carrying around your entire collection of crime fiction if you only own paper books! And think about when you move house!

  • Of course you’ll never impress anyone by taking them to that special room in your house to show them your first edition ebook collection.

  • If you loan a friend an ebook (shudder!), you don’t really care if they never give it back.

  • When there’s a days-long power failure, an ebook won’t cut it. On the other hand, you can never use a paper book as an emergency light source unless you’re willing to light it on fire.

  • When you drop a paper book, you say, “Darn! Now I’ve lost my place.” When you drop an ebook reader (or especially a tablet), “Holy crap! I’ve lost half a week’s salary!!

Okay, Type M fans, have any more items to add to my list? Don’t be shy! Jump right on in.