Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How much do you need to know when you start?

How much should you know about your character(s) before you start writing? This is a question many of us face. Should you create a sketch of the protagonist and/or major players prior to writing your story? Or should you see how they develop as you go? And what difference might it make?

Every time I visit Sue Grafton’s website and the “Kinsey Millhone Biography” page, I am astonished at the details contained within. Far from a sketch, this is a full-blown biography, beginning at protagonist Kinsey’s birth (“Kinsey Millhone was born May 5, 1950, in Santa Teresa, California, to Rita and Randall Millhone”) weaving through Kinsey’s rebellious childhood, past her marriages, and concluding at present (“She still lives there and is very friendly with her landlord, Henry, and Rosie the tavern owner nearby”).

Did Grafton know all of the information offered on the biography page before she began writing her series with A for Alibi (1982)? I’m not sure. But I bet she knew much of it, considering the bio begins well before readers ever meet the adult Kinsey.

There are many benefits to knowing your character before you start writing. The more familiar you are with them, the better you will know how s/he will react in a given situation, what strengths, fears, or weaknesses they have—all of which are key to plot development. Also, the more you know about your characters, the less likely you are to discover s/he has green eyes on page 10 and pale blue eyes on page 310, saving you time and energy during the revision stage.

I often encourage students to sketch out character before they begin penning a story. Admittedly, I do less of that myself and in the rewrite spend time correcting inconsistencies. Elmore Leonard says he writes the first hundred pages before he knows where he is headed. However, each of his characters has such a distinct voice—in both narration and dialogue—that it is hard to believe.

As with all things in fiction writing, to sketch or not to sketch depends on one’s personal preference. Try sketching out your characters if you haven’t; if creating a character sketch is part of your routine, try winging it. After all, as W. Somerset Maugham famously said, “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What is happening to book cover design?

My wife is a big fan of Ian Rankin and she bought his latest book from Amazon. I saw it on her night table the other morning and immediately was curious – for all the wrong reasons. Basically, it is butt ugly.

Now here’s a big-time author and he’s gotten saddled with a dog of a cover. The news got worse with a little further investigation. It looks as if his entire oeuvre is being reissued with the brothers, sisters and close cousins of the book my wife purchased, all in trade paper format.

These are the Orion editions of which I am speaking, but his American publisher for his backlist, Back Bay Books (a division of Little Brown), seems to be following suit with a similar if only slightly less homely design. Both companies are ultimately owned by Hachette Livre, so there is definitely something going on as far as design goes between the two divisions of this very large company.

As you can see from this one example, they’re going with a design that is meant to appeal to the younger crowd. (As a designer, I know these things so you’ll have to trust me. Heavy black bands with type in them are a hallmark of current “trendiness”.) The result here, though, is exceptionally clumsy and overbearing. There’s nothing wrong with trying to give a particular author’s books some sort of branding identity, but someone really dropped the ball on this design.

Upon closer examination I also found that the materials used to make the book are very, for lack of a better word, cheap. The paper is a rough hi-bulk type just a step or two above newsprint. The result is that the ink has spread on the paper, giving the text a very clumsy and uninviting heaviness. The cardinal rule in typography is “good typography is invisible”. This is an epic fail in that regard. Even my wife commented about how crummy the type looked on the page and she’s usually immune to that stuff. And, by the way, the cover stock is pretty cheap, too.

Now the kicker as far as value goes: this book is supposed to retail in Canada for $24.99! That is a heck of a steep price for what I consider shoddily manufactured goods. Initially my supposition was that they’d cut down on quality to keep the price low, but such is not the case.

Back to the cover design. Regardless of the design ethic of it, the cookie cutter approach allows Orion to basically slam together Rankin covers on the cheap. Change up the colour and background photo (a simple purchase from a stock photo supplier, not one specifically commissioned for the cover – another money-saving dodge in current publishing practice) and you can bang out a dozen Rankin covers in a day, very little design ability required.

Sad thing is, I’ve noticed this trend with other authors and publishers. They could certainly justify it from an efficiency, save the bottom-line aspect, but as demonstrated by the entire package they’re selling with Ian's book (cheap paper and cheap cookie-cutter design), this is just a money grab on their part.

Ian Rankin deserves better. We all do.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Thanksgiving Greetings, from the side of the Atlantic that doesn't celebrate it! I hope you've all been able to lounge around, enjoying the leftovers that are often nicer than the celebratory feast itself. Food on the big occasions often seems to take on an anxious air, which tends to inhibit enjoyment.

I do envy you having a family holiday that is just about food. I love to cook, but when the cooking is combined with writing cards, buying presents, decorating the house and going to and giving parties, it all too often seems like the sort of nightmare you get when you're totally stressed out, only in real life.

In general, recipe books are favourite reading for me and some of my favourite passages in books are all about food, like Ratty's picnic in The Wind in the Willows, or Debbie's jumbles in What Katie Did at School, or even Inspector Montalbano's lunches in Camilleri's wonderful crime novels.

So sometimes it seems a little odd to me that the detective in my series, DI Marjory Fleming, is a hopeless cook. Her family beg pitifully to have ready-meals, if the alternative is to be Marjory's mince and tatties - for those of you unfamiliar with this Scottish staple, it's like bolognaise with potatoes but without the flavouring.

I don't know how closely other people relate to their central character. I remember one author talking about her (male) hero, and saying that she was always pleased when a reader said how nice he was because, she said, 'He's me.'

Marjory most definitely isn't me. My interests - books, music and yes, food - certainly aren't hers: I like the countryside, sure, but see one sheep and you've seen them all and after a few days I get to longing for concrete and gasoline fumes and shops and theatres, while she loves being a farmer's wife. And I certainly don't share her enthusiasm for hens – squawky, smelly, silly creatures.

I do believe, though, that the characters we create come from within ourselves. Even the darkest of our villains has something of us somewhere in their make-up, however warped and twisted that something may have become. The characters we live with for years – can we really keep them separate from our own personalities, or do they become more like us as time goes on? And does it work both ways? It would certainly be good if Marjory's enjoyment of physical exercise rubbed off on me – though I draw the line at hens!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Poisoned Pen Blog

Donis here. You may notice that we've done some schedule rearranging here at Type M 4 Murder, Dear Reader. For the past several months, Charlotte Hinger has been posting in this spot, on the final Saturday of the month. But that simply wasn't enough Charlotte, so now she is alternating Fridays with Frankie.

Rather than pick up the final Saturday myself, we will leave this day unposted for awhile. As for myself, I have begun posting a regular entry on the 27th of every month over at the Poisoned Pen Press blog site. This November of 2011, the 27th is tomorrow, and I invite you drop by for a visit. You and I can compare our families' old-fashioned Thanksgiving traditions.

The PPP blog is worth getting to know in any event. You'll get up close and personal with a different mystery author every day of the month. And if you still can't get enough of Charlotte, she'll be over there on the 5th.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Characters and Holidays

Frankie here. I've been thinking about holidays. Several times a year, on holidays, we come face-to-face with our lives. Like it or not, it is hard to avoid thinking about our relationships with other people. We can try to ignore a minor holiday like Valentine's Day -- stores are open, people are working, no one will really notice if you don't receive a Valentine's Day card or gift and go home to eat dinner at a table for one. Only the insensitive will inquire about your plans -- or lack of them -- for the day. But Thanksgiving is a different matter entirely. People will express concern that you might be spending this "family holiday" alone and invite you to join their family. Managing to avoid such invitations may require creative excuses -- lies -- about ones plans.

Yesterday, as I was stuffing myself with turkey, it occurred to me that the next time I sit down to create a character, I am going to start with a holiday -- Thanksgiving. Although Christmas would also work. But let's say Thanksgiving.

The exercise would go something like this: I have a character, let's call him "Paul." Paul is going home for Thanksgiving.

1. Is he packing with one eye on the clock, worried that he might miss his plane or get caught in traffic when he can't wait to walk through the door and see his family?

2. Is he wishing that the slight cold he has would turning into raging stomach flu so he can call and explain with no sense of guilt that he can't come home this year?

3. Is Paul taking along a new lover, knowing that this person will be welcomed by his family? Or, is he already rehearsing his answers to questions about his personal life because he doesn't want his family to know that he is dating someone of whom they would disapprove? Has he had an argument with this person who wants to meet his family?

4. Paul finally makes it home. Who is there? Father, mother, sibling? How does Paul feel about these people? Does he go out into the yard to toss a football with his kid brother? Does he sit in the kitchen talking to his mother while she makes a pie for tomorrow's dinner?

5. Does Paul still have friends in his hometown? Does he go to catch up with them that evening? Where do they go? Does he tell them about the person he's dating or lie to them too?

6. How does Paul feel about his hometown? What does he notice about the place when he compares his small town to life in the city?

7. Then comes dinner the next day. Do other people join Paul and his nuclear family? A boisterous group of relatives? How does Paul react to the jokes and family stories?

8. Does Paul spend the weekend or make an excuse to leave the next morning?

9. How does Paul feel walking back into his apartment after having been at home with his family?

10. Or, Paul might never have left the city. Maybe he has no family or never goes to see them. Maybe he spends the holiday with his lover or alone watching football and eating pizza.

11. What does he tell his colleagues at work about how he spent his Thanksgiving holiday?

I haven't tried this method of learning about a character yet. But already I think this could be much more fun then writing a bio stripped of context. A character who spends Thanksgiving eating pizza alone in his apartment may or may not be lonely. A character who goes home to his happy, loving family may be miserable. Either scenario could be the starting point for a character who immediately springs to life with thoughts and opinions.

I think I'll see what's going on with the guy who spent the holiday alone eating pizza. I think he's a bit older than Paul. In fact, he's beginning to look like a character in a book I'm working on. He has friends, so why did he prefer to spend Thanksgiving alone?

I'll let you know if this works.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

John here. Up early to steal an hour of writing, then not much else on the agenda today except good times with family, food, and football on TV.

Pictured here: me with my mother, Connie Corrigan, an avid reader, who introduced me to our wonderful genre many years ago.

Here’s wishing my Type M colleagues and readers a safe and happy holiday!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What's on your list?

It’s that time of year again. Everywhere I turn, whether listening to the radio, reading the paper, surfing online, there are lists. Top ten toys, Heather’s Picks, Must-have gadgets for Him. The malls are awash in twinkling lights and lively music, every store emblazoned with sale signs to exhort the shopper to buy. And every year, the offerings seem even more garish, more generic and more fake.

I have a sense that if I dropped by a mall in Vancouver, or Florida, or maybe even Paris, I’d see the same stuff on offer, be it plastic angels or iPads. We are a global village, apparently. But does condemn us to uniformity? Blandness? Whatever happened to the unique, the special niche, the local gems that reflect the culture and traditions of each region? I don’t want to buy plastic Santas, or even haute couture, made in Bangladesh when I shop in Paris. Not that I do that often but you know what I mean.

The global villagers will argue that it doesn’t matter where the Santa or the dress is made, as long as it’s designed in Paris. They could be right, although legions of skilled, out-of-work Parisian dressmakers would beg to differ. And even I know that in our race to the cheapest, mass-market bottom line, we are losing the quality that a true artisan brings.

But this is not a blog about dresses or Santas, or even mass out-sourcing. It’s about books. More specifically, not the generic, blockbuster best sellers that command the front shelves in chain stores, Walmarts and Costcos, but the books on the back shelves. Those unique, finely crafted local gems that reflect the culture and traditions of the region in which they are written. They bring a diversity of colour and style to the book world, and are typically written by what the publishing industry calls ‘the midlist author’. These are authors who write intricate, interesting, and highly varied books worthy of being published, at least for now, but who don’t make the publishers (and therefore the booksellers) a ton of money so they don’t get the promotional backing that earns them a spot on those front shelves of Costco. It doesn’t take an advanced degree in economics or marketing to see where that leads.

But without the midlist author, much of the richness and diversity of culture, and of our reading pleasure, will be lost. If they cannot make a living, or if the increasing strapped publishing world no longer makes enough profit from them, we will lose our unique voices. Plastic angels, scented candles and copycat blockbusters will rule the world. So if you love books, if you love the unique experience of reading the unexpected, I urge you to go to the back of the store and check out the lesser knowns. Read the back blurbs, the first pages, the author bios. Check out the stories they have to tell you. I promise you will find a book that you will love. A book that tells you about people you want to meet, takes you to a place you’ve never visited, and teaches you about a topic you’ve never understood before.

And stay tuned. Two weeks from now I will blog about a special kind of midlist author with a unique voice and stories to tell. The Canadian. Meanwhile, if you have discovered a midlist author who deserves to be on a list, please comment!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A little bit of humor for a Tuesday

Type M fans and followers: I am really pressed for time today with some design work that has to get out the door, so my planned blog topic will have to wait until next Tuesday to get finished and posted.

In its place I present this rather funny cartoon that may take you a moment or two to “get”, but if you’re like me, it will have you chuckling.

It was sent to me by a friend with the title “My Hero!”

Happy Thanksgiving to anyone who’s celebrating it this Thursday. Up here in Canada, this Thursday is, well, Thursday...

Monday, November 21, 2011

Thomas Rendell Curran – An Introduction

I am very pleased to post my first contribution to Type M For Murder. I write from Ottawa, in Ontario, but my writing, and the inspiration for same, comes from Newfoundland, where I was born, so many long years ago, in 1939. Newfoundland, for those who do not know the history, or who have not visited my website – – to read about the island, was an independent country back then. Well, sort of independent. The place has an odd history. Newfoundland was one of Britain’s oldest colonies, in what was euphemistically called the New World. Of course, it was not the New World to the people who already lived there, and had lived there for millennia.

The country’s history is long and complicated, with various imperial powers fighting over it, notably the English and the French. After much turmoil, an independent legislature was created in 1907. Newfoundland then had dominion status within the British Empire, similar to that of Canada, Australia and South Africa. Far smaller than those dominions, of course, but a dominion nonetheless. But it didn’t last very long. The toll that the First World War took on Newfoundland, in manpower and treasure, compounded by the Great Depression, eventually led to the island’s bankruptcy, and the independent status of the country disappeared in 1933 when the legislature voted itself out of existence. After that, until Confederation with Canada came about in 1949, Newfoundland was governed by a six-member Commission of Government; three senior Commissioners from Whitehall in London and three junior Commissioners from the island.

While the First World War had profound effects on Newfoundland, and is still almost a century later an important part of the province’s collective memory, it was the Second World War that had the more significant material and social effects. During the war, Newfoundland became a kind of “Gibraltar of the North Atlantic” as thousands of foreign troops flooded into the island, notably Canadians and Americans. Newfoundland was physically and geographically so close to the war with Nazi Germany that a military posting there counted as overseas service.

It’s in this context that my Inspector Stride Mysteries are rooted. The first three novels are set in 1947, two years after the end of the war, and two years before Confederation with Canada. While it is not accurate to state that the island was in turmoil at the time, there was indeed “a lot going on”. The Confederation debate was underway, and the island still had a large number of American and Canadian troops in residence. All the ingredients were there for “interesting” things to take place; “interesting” in the context of the ancient curse, reputed to be of Chinese origin: May you live in interesting times.

The first Inspector Stride novel was Undertow (2002).

In a sense, the book is a memoir of growing up in St. John’s in the 1940s, and I drew on the very clear memories I had of that period, a time when the husband and father was the sole breadwinner in the family, separation and divorce were almost unheard of, the Catholic and Protestant churches were a powerful influence in society, and the various amenities of the postwar modernizing world were just starting to make an appearance. Most people did not own cars, a large part of commerce depended on transport by horse-drawn vehicles, men walked to and from work – and the police did the same. Squad cars were unheard of, but everyone knew about the Black Maria, the constabulary’s paddy wagon.

Undertow is more than a memoir, of course. It’s also a murder mystery, but is it based on life as it was at the time; the murders and the mystery are not superimposed. They are of the time and the place. Happily, Undertow was well-received and was short-listed for an Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel.

A word or two about Inspector Eric Stride. Stride is a native Newfoundlander, but he is not from the capital, St. John’s. He was born in an outport community on the south coast. His place of birth, not too far from the French islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, were to have a profound influence on his life as a young man, an influence that carries through to his career as an policeman. In his youth and young adulthood, during Prohibition, Stride was a rumrunner, working in partnership with a French national, Jean-Louis Marchand. The large amount of money he made in that period – which he kept and invested wisely – underwrites an affluent lifestyle in St. John’s. He owns a large house in an upscale part of the city. He drives a 1938 MGTA. Also, in contravention of Constabulary regulations – the police in Newfoundland at the time, like their cousins in England, were not armed – Stride often carries with him a snub-nosed Colt Detective Special.

          There are now three books in the Stride series. The Rossiter File was released in 2005.

The latest book, Death Of A Lesser Man, finally appeared in May of this year. The long delay between books two and three was occasioned in large part by a change in publishers.

Death of a Lesser Man Cover picture

I am currently at work on the fourth novel in the series, Birthright, which – hopefully – will appear next year, just in time to catch the Christmas market.  

And that is my first posting. I will be back in two weeks, assuming nothing untoward takes place in my small corner of the universe.

Cheers, all!!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Little Lava Prison

Aline here. I’m delighted to welcome Michael Ridpath as my guest blogger this Sunday. He wrote best-selling novels with a financial background and has now moved on to the intriguing Fire and Ice series, set in Iceland. The first book, Where the Shadows Lie, was short-listed for the Crimefest eDunnit award. It’s a great read and the next one, 66 North, is just as good.


Iceland is a small country with only 300,000 people, and they say everyone knows everyone else. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when the Icelandic criminal mastermind I met in jail on Friday afternoon should be well known to the policeman I saw for tea the following day.

I should explain. I write a series featuring an Icelandic policeman named Magnus, who started off his career as a homicide detective in Boston. I am just about to start the fourth book in the series, and, as has become my habit, I spent a few days in Iceland in September to research it. In this book Magnus is going to do some jail time, so I thought I had better visit Litla Hraun, Iceland’s only significant prison. Litla Hraun, means “Little Lava” and the prison is set on the outskirts of an old trading village on the south coast where several thousand years ago a stream of lava froze on its way to the sea.

There is no bail in Iceland. If you are suspected of a serious crime, such as murder, you are placed in solitary confinement in Litla Hraun, where you are only allowed outside for one hour in twenty-four, and that in a small, white-walled courtyard. If, however, you are fortunate enough to confess and be convicted, then you go through to the main part of the prison.

This reminds me a little of my daughter’s student hall of residence, except it is nicer. Each cell has a TV, laptop (Internet disabled), and shower. Although the cell doors are big and metal and blue, they seem to be left open all the time. There is a recreation area with a big flat-screen TV in each wing and the inmates can cook for themselves. Very nice. No wonder there is a waiting list of 300 to get in.

My guide was a big, gentle man with a soft voice. His aim is to keep the prison calm at all times. In this he usually succeeds, but every now and then a prisoner will “go bananas”, and that is when the guards have to take measures. Anyway, we were walking across the yard when a cheerful man in his thirties wearing shorts and a sweatshirt bounced up. He spoke rapid fluent English and seemed on the best of terms with my guide. He had even read one of my books in English. We went through to a classroom, where he and two others were taking university degrees. He was studying business and law, his pony-tailed friend was studying physics and the third student was learning polar law. Iceland has the highest number of prisoners studying for a degree per capita in the world. That’s 3 divided by 300,000 – Iceland leads the world in many things on a per capita basis.

The following afternoon, I met my usual police contact in Mokka, the cosiest café in Reykjavík. He told me a little more about the bouncy man in shorts, whom he had spent a year trying to put in prison. Bouncy Man operated an amphetamine factory on an industrial estate and was exporting to Holland – which is the equivalent of exporting coals to Newcastle, or to West Virginia, I suppose. Not only that, but Bouncy Man had managed to secure an EU grant to pay for the ingredients. Needless to say, my policeman was unhappy to hear that his adversary was brushing up on his business skills.

All this demonstrates the problem with writing about Iceland. The country is a little odd. Icelanders have strong and varied views about the justice system I have just described. I probably have views too, but I try very hard to keep them to myself. My characters can have opinions, certainly, as can my readers. But I think I do a better job if I observe rather than judge.

Michael lives in London and his books have been published in over 30 languages worldwide. Where the Shadows Lie

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Bad Day for Writing

I am so close to finishing this book. But then sometimes I feel like I am so far from finishing this book.

It’s very early Saturday morning, and I’m getting ready to go to bed. I had a rather unsuccessful writing day today, Friday. Not that I didn’t try. I sat in front of my computer and did my duty with gritted teeth. I typed a lot of words, most of which I’ll either have to take out later or move to a different scene. But I did it, by damn, and I’m hoping I dug out a lot of slag that has a piece or two of gold in it that I can use later.

When I’m on a roll, I can produce several usable pages in a day, but today, there were only one or two paragraphs that I feel confident about.

I never know why one day is better than another when it comes to writing. Why was today so unsatisfactory? Was it because of the inauspicious numerology of the date? More likely it's the stars. Perhaps Mercury is retrograde, which is very bad for communications.

Which may be why my website was gone for most of the past week. Not just down. Gone. Lock, stock, and barrel. My webmaster, who also happens to be my brother, told me that the ISP was down, followed by a few choice words on his part since not only my site was lost but several sites that he manages and there was precious little he could do about it.

My poor little website has taken its knocks in the six years it’s been up. I think it is about time for a major overhaul. However, this is a fairly extensive undertaking and I think it will take some time to plan and execute. Perhaps after the holidays, or after the new Alafair book is finally submitted and in the publication queue. We shall see.

Not only did my website disappear but my WiFi went down and no amount of rebooting would help. I blame Cox. Fortunately the WiFi and the website both reappeared at the same time as mysteriously as they disappeared. It’s hard to tend to business when cyberspace is trying to thwart you at every turn. I had 488 email messages when I came back up.

Perhaps the bad writing day can be blamed on my sensitive nature. I spent fifteen minutes deleting spam off of my reappeared web site, and I cannot believe the number of solicitations to view porn. I wanted to lie upon the couch and press the back of my hand to my forehead until I regained my equilibrium. Just the titles of the sites gave me the vapors.

Maybe it’s because of Louise Penny. I just finished re-reading her novel Still Life, and my head is full of her beautiful thoughts and turns of phrase, like the one below, and at the moment I can’t come up with any of my own.

"When does a cucumber become a pickle?" ... At what point does change happen?

Yes, it must be Louise Penny’s fault, or the weather, or the stars. It certainly can't be my fault, because I did everything required of me, and yet I couldn't produce anything brilliant, or excellent, or particularly adequate.

Coincidentally, a friend and I were just discussing bad writing days recently. Write, write, write, I said, whether you’re doing well or not, because the gods love the effort and will eventually intervene, and it’ll make a believer out of you. Oh, how often my faith is tested.

But what else can one to do? Tomorrow morning I’ll get up, invoke the gods and pray for intervention, sit myself down at the computer, and write.

Friday, November 18, 2011

One is a Lonely Number

THEY are only going to read one of your books. THEY being your relatives, siblings, associates, fellow workers, acquaintances, folks you meet at the coffee shop, the paper delivery boy.

With earnest promotion THEY will expand to include fellow panelists, reviewers, other writers you meet at conferences, blogmates, librarians, and persons tasked with providing programs for local clubs.

The cold hard truth is that we can promote by every method known to man and beast, and if a reader doesn’t just love our book, he or she will move on to some other author.

That’s what I do. Sometimes it has very little to do with the quality of the writing. I’m enough of a writer/critic/editor to sometimes recognize excellence in books I don’t really like. I can admire the craftsmanship and skill involved, but for some mysterious reason, am not engaged enough to shell out real money for another book in that series.

Part of the rationale for going to conferences, participating in blogs, and pursuing social media contacts is the possibility of connecting with a real live fan. There’s no feeling like someone who rushes up and thrusts one of our books at us. The blessed soul wants us to sign it. They tell us they actually like or even love our books and can’t wait for the next one. They respectfully ask for an autograph.

It’s elusive, this reason why people just “love” an author. Frankly, it takes an unusual voice to entice me to buy fiction, because so much of my book-buying budget goes toward research books.
It’s disappointing when I recommend a book I’m nuts over and another person simply yawns.
Years ago, my agent told me publishers can’t hype a book onto the best-seller list. It takes buzz. And luck. Don’t forget about luck. Publishers try really hard. But all the publicity in the world can’t make a reader buy a book.

The industry can’t account for flukes either. As writers and readers we chuckle when editors are knocked flat by books no one wanted to publish. Harry Potter comes to mind. Who knew kids would want to read 800 page books? Who knew a really, really obscure tome, The Name of the Rose, would become a best-seller? Or that the nearly 900 page book written my a 90 year old woman, Ladies of the Club would stay on the New York Times list month after month.

All is not lost forever, if a series has tough sledding. Twice lately, I’ve read books in a series that were really, really good, but I didn’t just love them. Then the author wrote a knock-em-dead standalone, and I became a fan and spent real money for their next title. I tell friends and family until they feel hounded some times.

So we slog on hoping to entice a reader and delight in the possibility of connecting with a fan who will buy one, two, three books in our series. It happens. Publishing is not an arena for the faint-hearted.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Character Before Plot, Once Again

John here. This week, I stumbled upon an interview with one of my favorite authors. I urge you to listen to it.

And as you do, consider: 1) the premise of the novel being discussed, 2) when the author began the project and why it took so long to complete, and 3) how important characterization must be in this novel.

I enjoyed listening, and once again, came back to a long-held belief: if you can create compelling characters that readers care about (even if the character takes 30+ years to percolate inside you), you can write any damn storyline you want.

Listen, and see what you think.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Prog Rock and successful authors’ later novels

Huh? What is this man on about? Allow me to explain.

I have been doing some research on music of the early ’70s, specifically what is now call Progressive Rock, or Prog for short. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, think about bands with names like King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, Gentle Giant and Emerson, Lake & Palmer and very complex and well, weird looooong pieces of music with obscure lyrics.

I must confess that this was my music of choice when I started a band after graduating from university. That band was called Devotion. If the stars had all aligned properly for us, I wouldn’t be writing to you today. I would be an “aging pop icon” and would be living well from my ill-gotten gains. Sadly, the mix of personalities was too volatile, we weren’t in England and our management didn’t know how to market the band. We broke up before we could get that big record deal.

Devotion was a very good band, I can report proudly. We could play anything we wanted no matter how difficult it was. In fact, we often made things more difficult for ourselves to keep up the challenge of playing. I was the keyboard player and also played some brass, and I sang, too. (I also had a lot of hair on my head at that time. Click HERE to see un-retouched photographic proof.)

Getting back on topic, in researching about Prog on the Internet, I was obviously already familiar with the topic more intimately than the average person.

The behind the death of this creatively musical outburst was laid at the doorstep its increasing overindulgence. Quite frankly, the musicians were composing and playing with complete disregard for their audience. Devotion fell squarely into this camp. Nearly all these bands did just what they wanted, and if their output successfully created a following for them, great. If it didn’t, obviously the great unwashed didn’t get it.

Partway through my research, I realized that the same sort of thing goes on in the publishing world. Some authors become so successful that they begin to do just what they want. Their books get longer and longer as a result. Remember how short and to the point the first Harry Potter book was? I’ll bet many of you own them all. Line them up in chronological order. See a trend? Were those longer later books in the series better? Not necessarily. But they were certainly longer.

Can you imagine if J.K. Rowling had walked into an agent or publisher with an 800-page tome for her first ms? Harry Potter would have never seen the light of day. (Harry nearly didn’t make it as it was. The Rowling rejection list is apparently an impressive length.) I can certainly come up with any number of other authors whose verbal output has increased with each new publication.

The crime writing world is not exempt from this overindulgence. A successful series’ books generally get longer as it goes along. There are exceptions, but the authors can get away with longer, more convoluted stories – if they’re sales levels are good.

Now I wonder why that is? Could they be less open to editing? Are these longer books so perfect that they don’t need any whittling down? Are editors afraid of displeasing their star author and don’t want to risk them decamping with their successful series at the first opportunity? But is there a risk, like the Prog Rock bands of the ’70s, could longer novels harm an author’s career?

What’s your opinion?


If you're interested in hearing a Devotion song (but one of our tamer, less-demanding, more accessible efforts, click HERE. “Is It Too Late to Change?” will start automatically when the page is loaded. You can also read about that major Prog Rock musical instrument, the mellotron while you listen.

PS Hope the image at the top of this post didn’t frighten you. It’s the cover of the first King Crimson album. Notice no name, no title, nothing but that rather striking image.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Last week, I raised the subject of the Amazon Prime Lending Library, from which subscribers will be able to borrow one book a month free. This week, Publishers Weekly is talking about the possibility that a legal action will be raised against them.

With the publication of the first list of available books under the new scheme, it transpired that for the huge majority of them, Amazon has not reached any agreement with the retailer and as the detail is becoming clearer there is considerable anger.

The big six publishers, who have an 'agency' style contract, have been unaffected, but other smaller houses have only been able to establish which of their books feature on it by trawling through the list. There is great unease, but as one publisher commented, to antagonise Amazon would be financial suicide.

At the moment, Amazon is paying publishers as if the book has been bought when it is being borrowed, and some publishers are quite happy with this. This may be a permanent arrangement.

Or it may not. At the moment, Amazon's main interest is in selling Kindles; it seems a new form is launched every other week. Once they achieve saturation sales, it's possible that they may see things differently.

The issue of royalties will of course lie between the publisher and the author, but it looks as if the situation is very confused – always bad news for authors. There are enough problems over underpaid royalties at the moment and however scrupulous a publisher may be, this can only make them worse.

Holding Amazon to account is apparently impossible. Recently an author who is published on Kindle claimed that Amazon, wrongly believing he had broken his contract with them by allowing his book to be published cheaper elsewhere, offered his book for free download. When he protested, they accepted that they had made a mistake but refused any compensation for the 5000+ books that had been downloaded.

I use Amazon myself. It's brilliant for sending books as presents, and with my new iPad I'm discovering the joys of immediate download. I'm sure far more books are sold because it exists. It's only that I wonder what's going to happen once it's priced everyone else out of the market.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Where Inspiration Comes From

Our Sunday guest blogger today is the wonderfully talented Elizabeth Duncan. Elizabeth's first work of fiction, The Cold Light of Mourning, won the St. Martin's Press/Malice Domestic Award and was nominated for both an Agatha Award (USA) and Arthur Ellis Award (Canada). The third novel in the series, A Killer's Christmas in Wales, was published in October 2011.  If you have yet to discover her books, I can confirm that you are in for a real treat. They are an absolute delight. 

Elizabeth, a very warm welcome to Type M! 

Just about any author will tell you that the question she gets asked the most is, “Where do you get your ideas?” But a better question is, “Where do you get your inspiration?” Where does inspiration come from? And what is it, anyway? 

I’ve seen it described as “being in a state of flow” -- and that’s certainly a great state for a writer to be in. Inspiration may have something to do with passion or purpose but I think it’s to do with prompting or pushing. What prompted us to write? What prompts us to write the kinds of books we do? And once the writing is underway, what pushes us to keep going despite all the obstacles and challenges that the writing process throws at us? What inspires us to take our work to the next level?

In my writing life, inspiration comes in unexpected ways, from different directions, sometimes when I least expect it and sometimes, if I’m very lucky, at the very moment when I really need it.

I learned early on in my writing career that walking my dog Dolly is inspirational. We ramble for about fifty minutes most days at Colonel Samuel Smith Park, a beautiful nature conservancy located on the shore of Lake Ontario in Toronto’s west end. Winding trails lead along the water’s edge, past swans and sailboats, rocky outcrops, tall grasses, banks of wild flowers and nesting birds. As Dolly explores, I have time to focus on my writing and think about what has to happen next to move the story forward. Sometimes I solve plot problems; other times a neat twist just pops into my head. Something about being outside, away from all the distractions of home, combined with the gentle rhythm of walking is so conducive to thinking that by the time I return home, with a tired, happy dog, I’m re-charged and eager to get to my laptop so the next thousand words can spill out.

Another source of inspiration for me is good writing. I try to spend most of my reading time with writers who write better than I because they have something to teach me. Canadian crime writer Giles Blunt is one of my favourite authors. His imaginative use of plain language to tell gripping, suspenseful stories is masterful. His prose is clean and uncomplicated, yet detailed and subtle. While I’m reading his work I’m learning more about the writing craft. How to set the main plot to one side so a sub plot can take centre stage. How to create a sympathetic character so the reader will care what happens to him. Reading great writing inspires me to be more imaginative, to be more descriptive and to try to take my writing to the next level It’s inspiring to think we can always do better.

And finally, since my books are set in North Wales I draw inspiration from my visits there. Just listening to the way people talk – the words they use and how they say them, seeing what’s available in the shops, reading the newspapers, having a friendly chat over a nice cup of tea with the local police constable, enjoying a cup of morning coffee with a friend … inspiration is all around me. If I could live and write there full time, surrounded by those magnificent, ancient hills, I know my books would be improved in ways that I can’t even begin to imagine. And the very idea that this might one day be possible, inspires me to keep writing.

Elizabeth lives in Toronto with her dog, Dolly, and spends several weeks each year in North Wales where her books are set. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Remember What?

Even if we didn't see it, many of us by now have heard about the U.S. politician who during a debate this week found he simply couldn't remember the name of the third governmental agency he would abolish as president. If you watch the video, it's an "Oops!" moment with which many of us can identify. When it happens to someone over the age of fifty, it's often referred to as a "senior moment". And age does sometimes have something to do with it, but (according to the article I read), this "brain freeze" is more accurately described as a "retrieval failure". This common problem is aggravated by stressful situations.

Memory is a fascinating phenomenon, isn't it? I have a really hard time remembering people's names. Faces, yes. Names, no. I've tried all of those tricks. For example, when introduced to "Steven Fury", repeat his name and then create a memory jogger – an image of a furious Steven with flames coming out of his ears. Easy when you're remembering a guy with a last name like "Fury", but what about a name that isn't so helpfully evocative of a cartoon in your head?

As mystery writers we often call on our characters to remember. I was reminded of this recently by a query from my editor. In a scene, my police detectives were interviewing the sister of a murder victim. The woman told them about an incident that had happened nine years earlier. This was an incident that she only remembered after prompting by my detectives and she had considered it unimportant at the time. But in recounting the incident, she recalled the name of a person that she only heard someone else mention. My editor asked, "Why does she remember that name all those years later?" Of course, she wouldn't have. But I did need my detectives to have that first name so that they would have another lead to follow.

Oddly enough, about fifty or so pages later, another character is asked about something from that same time period. But she explains – without being asked – that she still remembers because that memory is linked to something that mattered to her. Obviously, that character had realized – as I had subconsciously – that some feats of information retrieval require an explanation. My editor's comment: "Maybe something like this would work for the name."

As writers – note to self – we should keep in mind how fallible the human memory really is. We should remember all our own "tip of the tongue" moments when we know what we're trying to remember but can't get to it. Those times in a conversation with other people, when we all know the title of that movie and are nodding our heads but no one can retrieve the information without a communal effort. Or what about waking up in the middle of the night because what you "blanked on" during a conversation suddenly "pops into" your head?

Or what about the numbers that you remember by touch? The ATM access code or the code for retrieving your voice mail at the office? Fine if you let your fingers do their job, but for goodness sake don't think about what you're doing because you're sure to find your fingers pausing as you wonder if that's right. Or, on the other hand, what about those numbers that come easily? I have no trouble at all remembering my social security number. It could be because I had to memorize it when I was (briefly) an Army food inspector. But I think I remember that number because it's a "snappy" sequence that my brain enjoys retrieving and my mouth enjoys saying.

That could explain why I can still recite portions of Shakespearean monologues that I learned in college, but can't remember the details of an office memo that I read yesterday. Memory is selective. And we are sometimes like the precocious little girl in an Alfred Hitchcock movie who informs her father that she doesn't remember a telephone message because she didn't have a pencil to write it down and she have entirely too many other more important things to remember to clutter up her brain with something so unimportant.

If it's boring and/or annoying and I can look it up later, I see no reason to even try to remember. Which can be a problem if I don't "remember to remember" to look it up later and it really was something that I needed to do.

Then there's the matter of witness testimony. Many of us know how unreliable real-life "eyewitness" testimony tends to be. We know that experiment beloved of college professors in which someone runs into a classroom, does something, and runs out again. The varied descriptions of the intruder and the incident by the startled students is intended to demonstrate what happens in the real world when people observe an incident that they are later asked to recall. This type of recall is particularly problematic if the witnesses were frightened. And then there are the variations among witnesses with regard to alertness, eye sight, and the other factors that affect accuracy of recall.

Having been reminded of what I knew about memory, I intend to make more use of this with my characters. Unless I should forget again.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Making the Reader Ask Questions

I’m trying to read more non-work-related books this fall. Last week, I mentioned my admiration for Elmore Leonard and offered an exercise inspired by his work; this week, I will discuss Ernest Hemingway and what I take from him.

One item I always find myself noticing when I read Hemingway is his spectacular opening lines, particularly in his short fiction.

What does one try to establish in a story opening? The true but vague response is the “hook”. Yet let’s examine what the the ”hook” actually means. Consider this opening to Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”: It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.

What does the “hook” here amount to? Tension, caused by several questions that require further reading and contemplation if the reader wishes to locate answers. Who are “they”? And, of course, what “had happened”?

I would argue that you could do worse than to make this the goal of every introduction you write: force the reader to ask one or more questions.

Consider these additional opening lines from The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway:
- “The marvelous thing is that it’s painless,” he said. “That’s how you know when it starts.”
- “The strange thing was,” he said, “how they screamed every night at midnight.”
- At the lake shore there was another rowboat drawn up. The two Indians stood waiting.
- One hot evening in Padua they carried him onto the roof and he could look out over the top of the town.
- In 1919 he was traveling on the railroads in Italy, carrying a square of oilcloth from the headquarters of the party written in indelible pencil and saying here was a comrade who had suffered very much…
- There were only two Americans stopping at the hotel.
- I guess looking at it, now, my old man was cut out for a fat guy, one of those…

If you are looking for an exercise, this one is pretty simple. Write 10 opening lines that pose one or more questions. Then select the one that offers the question that most intrigues you, and run with it. See where it leads, who emerges, and what you learn. Remember: no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Taking back the Soul

Barbara here. Like my fellow bloggers before me, I’m putting in a plug for physical reality. The kind you touch, hold in your hand and experience through all your senses, not through your fingertips and an electronic screen. A few ideas have been floating around in my head recently, some old, some new, and tonight I decided I’d make some reflections on them. See whether I can put them together to say something profound.

For years we have become increasingly enamoured with virtual reality. We walk down streets caught up with our iPods, our cell phones, or our playlists, no longer noticing the people around us, the colours of fall, the light and shadow of the downtown streetscape. We play online video games with virtual friends we have never met, embrace the contestants of reality shows with a fervour we rarely show our own family. We have five hundred Facebook friends but no one to go out to dinner with. Our three-year olds know how to punch all the buttons on an iPad to watch their favourite YouTube videos, but they no longer run free outside, building snow forts in their front yards or making mud pies for the family cat.

As a child psychologist, I have watched this latter trend for years with increasing alarm. First it was children spending hours in front of the TV, learning Sesame Street alphabet chants but losing the chance to make imaginative messes on the floor. Then it was Nintendo, Play Stations, and computers, and now it’s e-books, e-games, e-friends. Even a very rudimentary knowledge of developmental psychology tells us that the children are missing out on crucial spatial neurological development by dealing with an on-screen, two-dimensional world, where objects move not because they pick them up and turn them this way and that, but because they push a button. But children are missing out on other crucial cognitive skills as well, such as attention span, impulse control, planning, problem-solving and innovative thinking. Not to mention all the social development they miss by their lack of free playtime.

This “unreality” reached its ludicrous extreme the other day when I heard about a group of city children taken on a biology field trip to the country, where they dredged the muck out of swamps to examine it under a microscope, played orienteering games and identified plants in the forest. A few of the children asked the teachers whether they had made the swamp and the forest, or whether it was here before. Oh Disney, what have you done to us?

But now, it seems the rebellion has begun. Just when we thought the ebook would mean the demise of print, people are beginning to toss out their ereaders. There are pragmatic reasons, such as lack of transferability and technical glitches. But for many, it’s the reading experience itself that’s different. Not real enough. Doesn’t give the same sense of immersion, the same sense of connection as a book you hold in your hand. It has no more permanence in your mind than on your bookshelf.

This Christmas season, apparently, the hottest children’s toys are not the latest technical gadgets or most outlandish virtual worlds. They are, astonishingly, the little action figures that are marketed along with the latest TV and video shows. Dolls and cuddly stuffed creatures and other three dimensional, real toys. Children play with these on the floor, and make up their own games with them. Imagine!

It’s early in the battle, but maybe we can still turn the tide. Take back our natural world and embrace what’s real around us. Get together with real friends, make a snow fort in the drive, take our child for a walk in the country. Tell him it’s thousands of years old, and pretty cool. For myself, I’ll celebrate when I see people walking down the street smiling, not at the latest tweet or rap song, but at the things they see all around them.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

10 reasons this man is giving up his Amazon Kindle

Sorry I’m so late today. We had the launch of my latest book, Orchestrated Murder, last night and it took me several hours to unwind afterwards, so I got off to a very late start this morning.

The following is something I found, and serendipitously it fits in beautifully with some recent posts on Type M, especially Aline’s from yesterday.

While I don’t think that e-books are going to disappear, the following article that first appeared last week is quite interesting. I hope our readers find it so, too!

November 01, 2011

I’m a fan of electronic readers. So, I was surprised to hear that Jim Edmonds has had enough of his Amazon Kindle after using it for two years.

He gave me 10 reasons why he’s going back to physical books.(Some reasons have more to do with the Kindle than with other models.)

1) You don’t actually own the e-books you buy. They’re only licensed for you to use on a Kindle and/or Kindle software.

2) Amazon tracks what you read on your Kindle (as outlined in its terms of service agreement).

3) Most e-books have DRM (digital rights management) and can only be used on a specific device, such as the Kindle or the Nook (from Barnes and Noble in the U.S.)

4) You can’t donate, resell or give away e-books that you’ve bought.

5) You can lend some e-books once, but only if the author or publisher allows it. Most don’t.

6) You have no way of knowing that the e-books you’re buying will work on any other device in the future. You might have to repurchase them to use on another device.

7) Prices for e-books are going up. They sometimes cost more than a regular book

8) E-books usually have more errors in them than physical books do.

9) Your local libraries may have a limited selection of e-books. And the waiting list for e-books may be longer than for physical books.

10) Your local library may not have e-books in its catalogue before they’re released, so you can't get onto a waiting list in advance (but only after release).

Edmonds often sends me his comments. He’s president of Fellowes Canada, which specializes  in records storage, shredding machines and computer accessories.
I’d argue with him about his seventh point. E-book prices are going up, but only because publishers are flexing their muscles and dictating what Amazon, Kobo, Sony and Apple can charge. They felt Amazon’s early pricing was predatory.

The $9.99 price isn’t as widespread as it once was, but it’s still around. And I’ve never seen an e-book that costs more than a physical book, unless it’s an esoteric title.

Meanwhile, I’d agree with him that e-books often have errors. And I’ve had some bad experiences when my reader stopped working.

Recently, my Sony Reader was replaced with a later model. I kept all the e-books I’d purchased (a few dozen), but lost all my bookmarks during the transition.

As a result, I couldn’t pick up where I’d left off and had to search for the spots where I’d stopped reading. I doubt that would happen with cardboard bookmarks inside traditional books.

Amazon launched its first Kindle in late 2007. We’re still discovering how this new business works and how it may evolve. And thanks to Edmonds, we have a list of reasons why e-books may not be everyone’s choice.

Monday, November 07, 2011


The desperate attempts of the Eurozone leaders to induce China to bankroll their future borrowing seem to be modelled on the guy who having maxed-out his credit cards goes out looking for a loan shark. On the plus side, though, this has prompted mention of that useful Chinese word, weiji, with its double meaning of risk and opportunity.

It pretty much sums up the situation with e-publishing too. On the one hand, it returns power to the author. No one aged twenty-five can say, 'This book will never reach a reader,' because it doesn't appeal to the twenty-somethings. There isn't an editor to insist on ungrammatical alterations because she has never quite grasped the use of the subjunctive. There isn't a marketing department to impose an eye-catching but wholly inappropriate cover, like the legendary, 'Six girls in the desperate hunt for a man' attached to Pride and Prejudice. Earnings from your book don't go towards paying for long editorial lunches in restaurants where you couldn't afford the starter.

On the other hand, as your book is launched into the vast internet ocean, how will any reader know it's there? Without beady-eyed professional help, how effective will your proof-reading be? Readers hate misprints. And if you refuse to allow commercial considerations to influence your choice of cover, are you ever going to make any money at all?

That's weiji.

Now, though, it's getting more and more loaded on the 'risk' side. An article in the Wall Street Journal last week featured Amazon's latest incarnation, as a book lender. Only through Kindle, of course – no tablet apps allowed – and through their Prime service with a $79 dollar subscription. The six largest publishers have turned them down, though others are accepting a flat fee for their titles.

Public libraries are already offering e-book loans. I can't speak for the US, but the UK government has refused to extend Public Lending Right payments to borrowed e-books.

I'm sure this is popular with the reading public, and I'm sure that Amazon will make lots of money out of it. It always does.

The article didn't mention the situation for authors who are trustingly putting their books out on Kindle, as I am in the process of doing at the moment with a couple of books from my back list. But for sure, it's not only in the waters of high finance that the sharks are circling.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

The -ies have it! A tale of book titles – by Ann Parker

It is our very great pleasure to welcome guest blogger Ann Parker today. Ann’s wonderful historical mystery series is set in the boom town of Leadville, Colorado, in the 1880s. Her new Inez Stannert mystery, Mercury’s Rise, is just out. Check out the end of this entry to discover how to be eligible to win a Silver Rush mystery prize.

First, I’d like to thank the Type M for Murder gang (especially Donis Casey) for hosting me on my virtual tour for Mercury’s Rise, the latest of my Silver Rush historical mysteries.

Second, I want to thank Frankie Bailey for a great post about series titles last week... The stars must have been in alignment, because that is exactly the topic I had in mind for my guest post here. You could use me as a cautionary tale along with Frankie’s well-considered advice. If I had had Frankie’s post when I started my series, I might not have become bound by two-word titles composed of a metal (silver, iron, lead, mercury) followed by a word ending with -ies (lies, ties, skies, rise).

When I started writing the series, I was pretty much handed Silver Lies as a title. My first title attempt for the book was Dead in Leadville. (Made sense to me: The book was a mystery. People died. It was set in Leadville, Colorado, in 1880, during the silver rush.) My then-agent nixed that and asked for alternates. I threw out a dozen or so, among them: Silver Lies in Leadville. He said, “Shorten it to Silver Lies, and you’ve got it.” The agent, as it turned out, wasn’t a keeper, but the title was.

Came time for the second book, which focuses on the coming of the railroad to Leadville as well as the long-term repercussions of the U.S. Civil War on those who fought in it. The title Iron Ties came to me in a flash of inspiration. It was perfect: not only did it “tie” into the railroad subject, it also complemented another theme I had in mind for the book: How the ties of the past can bind as tight as iron over time. However... Iron Ties. Silver Lies. Uh-oh. Trouble ahead. I was setting up a dangerous metals/rhyming precedent. What would I do about the third book? I promised myself that I’d break the pattern then.

At least, I tried.

My working title for the third book was Lead into Temptation. (I still like it. I love wordplay, and, in addition, it works for the subject matter and the mystery.) My publisher at first went along with it, but then decided the first word could cause confusion: was it supposed to be pronounced “led” or “leed?” I was told to generate other possible titles. And quickly.


This request pretty much arrived at the eleventh hour (cover images for book three with the now-verboten title were even rumbling around the internet). I was fixated on Lead into Temptation, and the synapses were having trouble firing. But, ever obedient, I threw out a bunch of other “Lead-ish” titles for consideration. My suggestions (some pretty pathetic) included:
Lead AstrayLeaden Dreams
Leaden HopesLead Desires
Leaden Skies (well, it does rain a lot in this one)
Mis-Lead (okay, I was pretty desperate)
Fire and Lead
Leaden Despairs (from the John Keats quote:
“Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
and leaden eyed despairs”)
Lead Ambitions

As you can see, I was trying to break the rhyming schema, but Leaden Skies won the editor’s vote, and I am not one to naysay the editor!

So, I’d learned my lesson. I bought a rhyming dictionary and tried (at last) to think ahead. Even so, it wasn’t easy. For book four, the editor and I wrestled with Deadly Prize, Deadly Guise, Consuming Prize, Wasting Lies (oops, there’s that “lies” again), etc., etc. I created lists of words ending with -ies and consulted a periodic table of the elements. We finally agreed (maybe out of exhaustion and a sense of impending deadlines) on Mercury’s Rise. I’m happy. It works. The heart of the story involves the scourge of tuberculosis in the 1880s and the rise of the medical field during that time. Mercury (the Greco-Roman god, aka Hermes) is a symbol in the medical field, and the element mercury was a favorite compound of tonics, medicines, and palliatives of legitimate physicians as well as quacks in the mid-1800s.

The editor and I breathed a collective sigh of relief. She then added, “You probably can't do minerals and rhyming words forever.”

She’s probably right. But I only have to deal with this one book at a time. I have a couple more promising metals up my sleeve (gold and tin, for instance). Plus, I’ve got my rhyming book and readers who come up with interesting suggestions!

Ann Parker is a California-based science/corporate writer by day and an historical mystery writer by night. Her award-winning Silver Rush series, featuring saloon-owner Inez Stannert, is set in 1880s Colorado, primarily in the silver-mining boomtown of Leadville. The latest in her series, MERCURY’S RISE, was released November 1. Publisher’s Weekly says, “Parker smoothly mixes the personal dramas and the detection in an installment that’s an easy jumping-on point for newcomers.” Library Journal adds, “Parker’s depth of knowledge coupled with an all-too-human cast leaves us eager to see what Inez will do next. Encore!” Learn more about Ann and her series at

MERCURY’S RISE and the other Silver Rush mysteries are available from independent booksellers,, and Barnes and Noble.

Leave a comment on this post to be eligible to win a Silver Rush mystery prize! To see the rest of Ann’s blog tour schedule, check out her News page.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

What's in a Title?

Donis here today. I am very happy to announce that tomorrow I will be hosting guest blogger Ann Parker right here on Type M 4 Murder. That's Ann and me at the Poisoned Pen a couple of years ago when she was through Arizona on tour. Ann's wonderful historical mystery series is set in the boom town of Leadville, Colorado, in the 1880s. Her new book, Mercury's Rise, is just out. She has great titles to go with her great books: Silver Lies, Iron Ties, Mercury's Rise. Hmm. Notice anything about those titles? Ann will tell you all about it tomorrow.

Titles have been one of the banes of my authorly existence since my first mystery was published. As my blogging compatriots have demonstrated so well, choosing the perfect title for your book is incredibly difficult and incredibly important. Mystery author Elizabeth Gunn writes a popular police procedural set in Minnesota, featuring detective Jake Hines. All the Jake Hines titles incorporate a number : Triple Play, Five Card Stud, Crazy Eights. You get the idea. A few years ago, Elizabeth began a new procedural series set in Tucson, the title of the first being Cool in Tucson. She told me that it outsold her previous books by a large margin, and take it from me, all of her books are top quality. She said she will never underestimate the value of a good title again.

My first book is called The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, and well may you ask why. When I first decided to shop the book around to agents and publishers, my first priority for a title was that it be eye-catching. All I cared about was that the title stand out from the zillions of others that were on the publisher’s desk. I wanted something descriptive, different, and ethnic, and this seemed to fit the bill. I did not for a minute expect that whoever decided to publish the book would keep the title.

Imagine my surprise when they did. I had mixed feelings about it at the time. I wondered if it wasn’t far to "cutesy”. But in the end, my publisher made a good business decision. I can’t tell you how many times readers told me that they picked up the book based on the title alone. Of course, I’ve had a number of people tell me that the title put them off. You can’t please everybody.

One problem with choosing a title like Buzzard, is that you feel compelled to keep finding titles in the same vein for the rest of the books in the series. Now every time I write another Alafair Tucker mystery, I spend many weeks trying out prospective titles on friends and relatives, judging titleworthiness by the look in their eyes.

My second book is called Hornswoggled. It’s an old word, but I was amazed that so few people know what the heck it means. This was my first inkling that perhaps I grew up speaking an obscure dialect of the English language. The third in my series is The Drop Edge of Yonder. No, it doesn’t mean far, far away. It means ‘the brink of death’. Not one single person I tested this title on knew what it meant, except for blood relatives and Texans. Therefore, I was stunned to discover that a book with exactly the same title was published six months after mine came out. (The Drop Edge of Yonder by Rudy Wurlitzer, who has written many books and screenplays, including Little Buddha.)

I don’t care, really, if the potential reader knows what the title means, only that she wonder about it enough to find out. I often test prospective titles on innocent and unsuspecting friends. Once I thought had come up with a good title, until I mentioned it at a social gathering. “Widdershins” I said, feeling proud of myself, until I saw the light go out of every eye in the room. There’s a difference between choosing a title that is baffling but intriguing and one that’s just baffling.

My fourth book is called The Sky Took Him. This is something one of the characters says, but I'll let you in on a little secret about that title that I've never told anyone. There is a town in Oklahoma called "Skiatook". Skiatook is a beautiful place near Tulsa named after a prominent Osage Indian called Skiatooka. But the story I heard as kid (which has no basis in reality) was that he disappeared so thoroughly that "the sky took him." Apocryphal the tale may be, but I loved the way it sounded.

For most of my past endeavors, I have chosen a title early on in the writing process, and then changed it when the book was finished. For the Alafair series, all the titles are taken from something that one of the book's characters says in the course of the story, so lately I have taken to waiting for someone in the novel to tell me what to call it.

As for my most recent book, Crying Blood : A friend of mine said that it sounds harsher than my other titles. The book does contain an element of creepiness, but Crying Blood doesn’t mean what you think it does. However, more than one person has told me that the title creeps them out, so I wish now that I had called it something else.

I am currently working on my sixth book, if ‘working’ is the right word. (More like ‘agonizing’. But I digress.) However, I’ve got a good title in mind now. Just you wait.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

What to Leave Out

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master,” Ernest Hemingway once said. Reading Elmore Leonard’s “Road Dogs” has got me thinking of this quote often of late because the book highlights something (actually many things) I need to do better.

I received a compliment this week when a reader said she enjoyed the visual description of my characters. Fact is, I’m working to cut that out—or, at least, trying to eliminate as much of it as I can. I’m so thoroughly impressed by Leonard’s ability to, as he says, “Skip the parts nobody reads,” meaning, in part, extraneous physical descriptions, that it makes my own use of detail seem unnecessary.

I tell myself to simply “put the people on the stage, give them a conflict, and watch them work it out.” This has become my mantra. I don’t know anyone who does it as well as Leonard. And coming back to his books, like a lover who has strayed, is reiterating that.

So this week, I will offer a writing exercise to help you follow Leonard’s famous rule—to leave out the parts no one reads. But I offer this warning: The assignment will sound much easier than it is, an oversimplification as means of illustration. Yet it is not easy. Try it. You’ll find it to be more challenging than you think.

Two-Scene Activity: Choose a point of view and write a one-paragraph scene of narration in which you establish a conflict between two characters. Then write the same scene using only dialogue. See what you notice: How does dialogue convey not only action but personality as well? How do the two characters sound different? Is the setting established? Overall, what do you know about the characters based on what each has said?

Tom sat across from Beth wondering what she would say about the baby. Did she still want it? The weekend apart had been her idea and had given him time to think. And he had done so—and had some fun, too. What was one month? Having it would be a mistake. He was sure of that now. And what was the big deal? Neither of them was religious.

He looked across the table at Beth. Had she come to the same conclusion?


He twirled the ice in his rum and Coke and waited for her to speak.
“It’s not even noon, Tom,” she said.
“I need a drink.”
“I missed you this weekend,” Beth said. “Thought about you, about us, a lot.”
“Was that what you wanted when you told me you needed time alone?” He watched a blond waitress move across the room.
“Look at me when we talk,” she said. “Please. Just this once, can you focus on me when we talk.”
“I am. Always do.”
She chuckled. Then she looked at the tabletop. “Did you miss me, Tom?”
“Of course.”
“Did you think of the baby?”
“It’s not a baby yet.”
“So that’s it? That’s how you think of her?”
“ ‘Her?’ You’re only one month.”
“That doesn’t matter, not to me.”
“It’s reality, Beth. You’re only one month pregnant. We have a choice to make.”
“I think you’ve already made it,” she said and stood.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The McGuffin

I was going to write about something completely different today but Rick's post yesterday re: getting the creative juices flowing again seemed much more apt - for me, anyway. The problem is - I am stuck. I haven't got writers block, I just don't know which way to jump and which choices to make. I'm even hung up on my heroine's eye color. Blue? Green? Brown?

So last night I delved into my giant box file called "Favorite Author Tips." I closed my eyes and picked  this from Carolyn Hart.

A couple of years ago I'd emailed her in desperation because I was stuck one hundred pages into the middle of EXPOSE! my third Vicky Hill adventure. "Have Vicky receive a package," said Carolyn calmly. I protested that I hadn't a clue about what would be in it and besides, there was no room in my plot for a package. Carolyn insisted, "Vicky doesn't need to know what's in it - and nor do you. The answer will present itself as the story unfolds, just you see."

As many of us know a classic McGuffin is a plot enabling device. It should be valuable, portable and usable/salable by anyone who has possession. Remember the movie Ronin? The McGuffin was a metal briefcase at the center of some very hair-raising car chases in Europe. No one ever knew what was "in the case." Take a look.  I don't know about anyone else, but I found this really vexing.

But I trusted Carolyn. I did what she suggested. After all, what else is the delete button for?

So in due course, an anonymous package - a shoebox - was delivered to investigative reporter, Vicky Hill. For fifty pages neither she nor I knew what was in it. But Carolyn was right. The device worked. My shoebox turned the story around and added layers and a plot line that I would never have thought of.
Of course I can't tell you what was inside the shoebox here - you'd have to read the book.

John Burroughs said "Leap and the Net Will Appear." Sometimes we've just got to have faith.

By the way, for all you Carolyn Hart fans, the original uncut version of her WWII novel ESCAPE FROM PARIS (Vintage Hart!) is now available at your favorite bookstore.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Getting rid of the cobwebs

I’m currently working on a sequel to my novel, The Fallen One, which is debuting next fall. Since I’ve been busy with a whole raft of graphic design work and other author-type promotional things for my current novel, Orchestrated Murder, the past several weeks, it’s been very hard to steal a few hours to work on this new project. Like many other writers, I find it far too easy easy to “fall out” of my stories, even over night. But when it’s a matter of several days between working on something, I often find myself completely out of touch with what I was trying to say.

Since my new publisher (Dundurn) asks for submissions that include a chapter-by-chapter outline, I do have some sort of reference, but even 5 chapters into the manuscript, my plot is already “evolving” away from what I sent Dundurn during the approval process. I keep sketchy notes, but they’re not often much help when a week elapses between my fits and starts.

This morning, in order to wrap my brain around things, I read over what I have written so far – restraining myself from correcting anything – and then sat there gawping at my deathless prose. I’d left no notes about exactly where I wanted to go next, nor even why that last scene was there. I’m certain there was a very good reason, but I could absolutely not remember it.

My usual way of getting the creative juices flowing again is to take a long walk and just let the story roll through my head. Even though it’s a beautiful fall day here in Toronto, it was all for naught. My brain just wouldn’t cough up the answer.

So I threw on some recordings (Italian intermezzi, a little Verdi, a dash of Puccini) and looked through our photos from our visit to Italy (particularly Rome and Venice) this past summer. At last, I had an inkling. More photos (this time from travel books), mug of cappuccino (I hasten to assure everyone that it was before noon, so I wasn't being déclassé) and more music (some Rossini and more Verdi)... And viola! (as we musicians say), I had the solution of just why it was so appropriate to have that scene where I had put it, rather than later in the story. I also knew exactly what I had planned to do next – and, more importantly, why.

The really oddball thing here is that I was last working on a scene set in Toronto and the next one is going to be in Paris. Neither had anything overtly to do with Italy, although a healthy part of the book will. Listening to opera, of course got me thinking about singing and my main character, but there is something Italian that inextricably entangles my novel with this land of opera. Maybe that was it.

Or maybe I’d just so completely distracted myself, it allowed my subconscious to go to work and repair my faulty muse.

Regardless, I was back in business. Hot puppies!

Then the phone rang...a client...a problem with a design job...must be dealt with immediately because of a deadline. Sigh...

Just a note to Type M readers around Toronto, the launch of Orchestrated Murder is next Monday, November 7th. Below is the Official Invite. Consider yourselves most heartily invited. You also get to here me play trumpet. The band has made me promise not to sing. (By the way, click on the invitation to see it at full size.)