Tuesday, January 29, 2013

What makes someone a novelist?

I also toyed with calling this post: “Novelist: nature or nurture”? Regardless, my post today is about why some people seem to be natural-born storytellers and others members of the audience.

Speaking personally, I always told stories as far back as I can remember. My parents often called it “lying”, and it wouldn’t be honest not to admit that my storytelling abilities were certainly called into use on numerous occasions in an attempt to get out of various childhood scrapes – regardless of whether the previous one worked or not. But I also did enjoy telling others – or sometimes just myself –grandiose tales of daring-do, chases and escapes, or simple fables. Most of them stayed in my head, but some of them actually were told aloud.

My mother used to tell us stories when we were little. There was Édouard and Richard, the little boys who lived in a small hamlet somewhere in Switzerland (wherever the heck that was, I didn’t know), or Eduardo and Ricardo, the Mexican children who had all kinds of adventures living in the capitol of that country as they did. Of course the stories were completely ruined (in my eyes) when needs dictated the inclusion of “and little Lynette” around the time I was nearing age three, but that was probably due to the fact that a new addition to our family was vying for mom’s attention. I do remember loving those stories told over our lunch or when we were ill, and I’m sure it has something to do with my current profession.

I also constantly had my nose in a book, even though to many of my (male) friends, it wasn’t the height of coolness.

For those of you in the Type M audience who are also ink-stained wretches like I, I’m sure you’re nodding your heads at this point about what I’ve related above. Been there, done that. Right?

Everyone enjoys being told stories whether they’re experienced orally, in print, or on a screen, large or small. However, there are only some or us called to make their living (or trying to!) in this nether world where one creates lives and happenings in your head. And for some of us, it’s almost unstoppable.

An example: I had a discussion with someone the other day that could easily have become rather heated if I hadn’t resisted some strong urges and just cut it off. As I walked away from this possible unpleasantness, a film started in my head about how things might well have gone. Dialogue was created, things happened and it was very real and vivid to me.

Now, my question to everyone is this: am I wrong to assume that only writers have this tendency to constantly make things up in their heads, or is this something that everyone does, but only we’re foolish enough to actually try to write these things down? When people come up to us, saying things like, “I’m in awe of your ability to do what you do,” are they actually meaning that they’re unable to make up novel-length stories, or is it more a matter of them not being able to imagine doing that much work?

Whether it was in my nature from birth, something in the way my brain was put together, or the fact my mother told me stories and encouraged me to read, I became a novelist. (Which was as much a surprise to me as to anyone else.) I realize now I simply have to make up stories. I seem to be wired that way and I can’t stop it. My brother heard the same stories as a child, but I can’t imagine him writing a novel. In fact I can’t imagine him reading a novel, but that’s something else all together.

Am I just different – or is it a matter of me simply thinking I’m different?

Share your stories, please, everyone! Straighten me out here. What are your experiences?


We have received a number of complaints that the sign-in process to post comments has been keeping readers from posting comments. Therefore, I have turned off the control for this. The reason it was originally turned on was because we were being swamped by spammers, often several times a day. If the spammers don’t return in droves, we will keep the commenting controls off.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Random Thoughts of Homicide

Not all that uncommon these days, in Ottawa, a part of the Great White North. In fact, the weather has been so awful of late that random thoughts of homicide may be all that's holding me on the delicate edge of sanity. Last week we Ottawa inhabitants suffered through a spell of severe Arctic chill. Minus forty with the wind chill, which means the same in Celsius and Fahrenheit. Really! It was just bloody awful out there. My partner, Suzanne, clearly made of sterner (and younger) stuff than I, ventured out onto the Rideau Canal late last week for an hour's skating. And assured me that she enjoyed it. The fact is, I believed her. For those unfamiliar with Ottawa, one of our boasts is that we own the "world's longest skating rink", with a measured length of 7.8 km. For the non-metric folk down south, that's almost 5 miles. Until last week, though, with the ups and downs in the ambient temperature, the ice was not thick enough for skating safety. But now it is. For the moment. Today  we have snow falling, but by Wednesday, two days hence, it will have been raining - yet again - and the temperature will have climbed to +14 Celsius. So much for the skating rink, and for our collective peace of mind and soul.

Anyway, back to the thoughts of homicide.

Some months back, I wrote some words on the subject of psychopathy. And now I will write a few more. I am currently reading a book on the subject, intriguingly titled The Wisdom of Psychopaths. The book is by the social psychologist, Dr. Kevin Dutton, who toils for his crust at the University of Cambridge, and who is Research Fellow at the Faraday Institute of Science and Religion at St. Edmund's College. Dutton writes with a light hand and a keen mind, a combination not often enough encountered.

The Wisdom Of Psychopaths

The book covers far too much ground for an easy synopsis, and I am not going to attempt one. I will say, though, that a major part of Dutton's thesis is that we "normal" folk live among a large population of psychopathic characters, and they are active in any number of professions, some highly valued and regarded. This is not necessarily a news flash, but it is worth repeating. The Hollywood image of the psychopath as a drooling maniac compulsively slaughtering innocents for fun (and even profit) is wildly inaccurate. Although some of the more infamous psychopaths do almost fit that description: Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and John Wayne Gacy do pretty much fit the picture. They would be comfortably at home with the fictional characters Hannibal Lecter and Jame Gumb, aka "Buffalo Bill" - he "skins his humps" - from the Thomas Harris novel, The Silence of the Lambs.

Dutton helpfully provides a list of professions where individuals with strong psychopathic characteristics do very well, and are also well-represented:

Business CEO; Lawyer; Media (TV/Radio); Salesperson; Surgeon; Journalist; Police Officer; Clergyperson; Chef; Civil Servant.

And you can add to that list certain military personnel, especially those in the high risk-taking branches; the British Special Air Service (SAS), the U.S. Navy Seals, and so on. And also, IMHO, politicians, notably some of those who rise to the highest offices.

It is important to note - again! - that psychopathy is not necessarily directly associated with criminality. But equally important to note that where it is so-associated, you will have some very scary individuals.

Early in his book, Dutton cites a story that has been making the rounds on the Internet; as many stories, most of them fictional, will do. This one purports to be a quick test for psychopathic characteristics.  (Perhaps some of you have seen it; I had a vague memory of having seen it myself.) It goes like this.

While attending her mother's funeral, a woman meets a man she's never seen before. She thinks he's incredible. She believes him to be her soul mate and falls for him instantly. But she never asks for his number, and when the funeral is over, she cannot track him down. A few days later, she murders her sister. Why?

Think about it. I did, but I was unable to think of an answer. As I said at the start, this is put forward as a quick test to determine if one thinks like a psychopath. The non-psychopathic answer could be that she is jealous of her sister, having discovered that the sister is involved with the man. Or that she finds her sister in bed with him. But that's the wrong answer, at least in the context of the test.

The correct - i.e, psychopathic - answer? The lady killed her sister in the hope that the man, who had to have had some unknown (to her) connection with her family, would turn up again at her sister's funeral.

If that is the answer any of you came up with, there is no cause for panic. The "test" is no test at all. As support for that, Dutton gave the "test" to a significant number of "real" psychopaths, many of whom were in prison for heinous crimes - rape, murder, paedophilia, armed robbery - and none of them came up with that answer. Almost all of them came up with the jealousy-revenge - i.e., the "romantic rivalry" - rationale.

Which is a real comfort, for me and two of my friends. When I put the test-question to my partner, Suzanne, her reply was instant: "That's a no-brainer; she was hoping for another funeral so she could meet the guy again." And similarly for the wives of two friends who I will call John and Tony. The wives had the same quick response, while John and Tony reacted the same way I did. They did not come up with the "correct, psychopathic" response.

Does this small "survey" mean anything at all? Probably not, but it is at least interesting. And, as noted, I take comfort from the fact that Dutton declares that it's not a valid test for psychopathy. I am certain that "John" and "Tony" probably feel the same way.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Let make-believe open your eyes

The written word has always been an instrument to excite the imagination.  Last Saturday morning, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor--in an interview with NPR reporter Nina Totenburg--declared that it was reading books that opened her mind to a world outside her gritty New York tenement and made her strive for a life bigger and more full than what she knew. And more specifically, the books that cultivated her awareness were genre stories: science fiction and mystery. Like many girls, the young Sotomayor was pulled to Nancy Drew and while the fictional sleuth lived in social circles far beyond her ken at the time, those stories opened the future justice's eyes to the truth that a woman could be the captain of her destiny. Years later, when Sotomayor became a D.A., she bought a sports car to tool around in as did her hero, Nancy Drew.

Sotomayor's story parallels that of Hollywood director Jesús Salvador Treviño, who grew up the L.A. barrio of Boyle Heights. During elementary school, a prolonged stay in the hospital for pneumonia put an unexpected twist in his life. A nurse offered him books from the library cart, and she was shocked that he could barely read. She tutored him and by the time he was released, Treviño had mastered his reading skills and devoured almost every book he could find. His favorites: science fiction, and he credits those stories as opening his eyes to the possibilities of a world beyond the ghetto (why couldn't a Chicano invent stories about outer space?) and saving him from the clutches of gangster life. Like Sotomayor, Treviño fought and sacrificed to reach his dreams and has directed shows such as Star Trek, A New Generation, and Babylon 5.

The interview with Sotomayor was enlightening and inspiring, that is, until Totenburg screwed the pooch when she cavalierly dismissed the judge's preference for genre fiction, as when Totenburg said: "not that all her literature loves are so highfalutin," as a segue to when Sotomayor explains her love of mysteries. Totenburg implies of course (to the doltish and high-hatted opinion we mystery writers are all too aware of), that popular fiction is made of a cheaper cloth than "literary" reads. And moreover, Totenburg went so far as labeling Strunk and White's "Elements of Style," as a "dry manual on writing!" (Ack, I almost spilled my Mimosa when I heard that one.) Maybe I'm too close to the subject but every book on writing should be as dessicated of wit and personality. 

Headache Remedy

My post is late today and will be very short due to a sinus infection and the accompanying headache. I was going to discuss prairie medicine at some length.

Instead, I checked my treasured volume of Dr. Chases Recipes to see what I should be taking:

"If you are a female in a weak or debilitated condition, try these homemade headache drops. 1/4 oz castor, 1/4 oz. gentian and 1/4 oz. valerian roots, 1 oz laudanum, 1-1/2 oz sulphuric ether, 1/2 pt of alcohol, 1/2 pt. water. Bottle and let stand for ten days. Dose 2 0r 3 times daily or as often as needed.".

A combination of laudanum, ether, and alcohol sounds like a lot more fun than ibuprofen. And getting to sip as needed sounds like a plan for a long and happy life.

More next time.

Thursday, January 24, 2013


This week, I listened to Brendan DuBois speak and read and answer questions and came away from the experience inspired to write more short stories.

Each winter, I try to bring a crime writer to my school to offer students a different voice (my daughters tell me mine gets old). Usually, my mystery literature students read the author's novel, and the writer makes an appearance, meets with the class to discuss his or her book, then offers a public reading and Q@A. But this year, I'm not teaching American authors. We're reading Children of the Street, by Kwei Quartey, and Let It Bleed, by Ian Rankin. (I wanted to use Aline's Cradle to Grave but my school's bookstore couldn't get it in time.) So Brendan's visit was unique. He sent me a 25-page story for me to disperse to the students instead.

He arrived Monday night around 7:30 to beat an impending storm. Around 10 p.m., I mentioned that a colleague had asked if he had a short, short story, something in the 750-word range. She wanted to use it with her ninth graders the next morning. Brendan said the shortest story he had remained in the 10-page range.

"No problem," I said.

"Can I use your laptop?" he said.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I don't want to disappoint her."

I handed him my MacBook and sat across from him in the living room and watched as he wrote a 1,200-word story in 35 minutes. We emailed it to my colleague, and he attended her class the next morning and discussed the story, the process, and what he will do with the story when he gets home (revise and submit).

What? A story in 35 minutes? Seriously?

It answered the Q&A session's What-do-you-do-on-the-days-when-you-have-nothing-to-write-about question pretty quickly. And it made me really think. He spoke of working on a novel as a 12- or 18-month marriage. But the short story, he said, that's a day, a week, maybe two. Try a new character, a new point of view, experiment. Brendan writes a story a month, no matter what else he has going on.

Can't I write a story a month? Even when I'm working on a novel?  I, too, was a newspaperman. I know what it means to meet a deadline.

Inspiration shows up in many forms. It's pretty neat, though, when it comes as an example and right before your eyes.

(Photo, from left: Dr. Brian Ford, Deb Davis, Brendan DuBois, Brad Davis, and John Corrigan)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


Aline’s post yesterday was depressing and interesting in equal measures.

I’ve watched with amused resignation as Hollywood has for years used all TV shows as jumping off points for movies. Most make for just hideous cinema. Remember The Brady Bunch Movie, The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, The Beverly Hillbillies, Car 54, Where are You, The Honeymooners? I saw – or should I say – endured parts of all of these celluloid abortions. In fairness I should say that a few TV show/movies conjunctions have been reasonable and some even excellent. Take the Star Trek franchise as an example of that. The movies have been far more successful than the original TV series, which attracted only a cult audience. But great film adaptations of TV shows are rare.

Then there are the myriad remakes of earlier movies, movies based on comic book characters, even movies based on children’s games. Where will it end and why are they doing this?

The answer lies in what Aline’s post hinted at: the almighty dollar. The purveyors of all these entertainment wonders are looking for a secure place to park their investment money. They want to hedge their bets as much as possible in order to get the desired financial return. What better place to do it then in something that already has a built-in audience?

Even if the movie stinks, they should make their investment back. If it’s only marginally successful, they can turn it into a franchise and make even more money. Take the most successful of all film franchises: James Bond. The first 22 Broccoli-produced movies have earned over $5 billion, but in inflation-adjusted dollars, they’ve brought many times more than that (1965’s Thunderball alone made $1.1 billion in “adjusted” dollars, according to an article in Time magazine). Who wouldn’t want to sign on to something that successful?

Which brings me back to books. It was inevitable that corporate interests in publishing would want to use this model for their products. As mentioned in my comment to Aline’s post, Harlequin, for example, right here in Toronto, has been using this model for years. They perfected a formula for books that housewives consume like candy and they’ve codified it, massaged it, and now have a complex “bible” that their authors must strictly adhere to if they want to see publication. And the successful romance writers under Harlequin’s banner can get embarrassingly large (compared to what we earn) paycheques for their work. To me, it’s a very sad state of affairs.

On the crime writing front, it’s not just people like James Patterson who have succumbed to the lure of a big payout to “franchise” their novels. People are still champing at the bit for new Sherlock Holmes stories, the latest Ludlum thrillers, you name it. The only reason it’s not being done even more is because a lot of successful authors who are eminently franchisable are resisting the siren call of easy money. To them our hats should be off.

Can you imagine a world where our entertainment, whether it be on paper, electronics or celluloid is nothing more than recycled ideas and characters? Many of us would be, rightly, appalled, but in corporate boardrooms they would be thrilled beyond measure.

The problem is that the public wants things that are comfortable and familiar, that give them a sense of security, knowing that their favourite characters are going to appear in yet another adventure. Why is it that publishers are much happier to sign authors who are writing a series? Every time I approach my main publisher with yet another standalone, I know I’m going to get asked about writing a series. I don’t want to do it for reasons amply laid out in previous posts here on Type M, but I’m already bending my rule more and more with characters from one book appearing in another. Writing a series can be fun and rewarding, but I’ll bet at a certain point (Kinsey Millhone?), nearly every author asks him/herself, “Boy, I wish I hadn’t started this!”

I can easily imagine the day where publishers won’t take crime fiction submissions from a new author unless they’re writing series-based novels.

And that will be a sad day indeed.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The ghosts of the future

Wilbur Smith is eighty this year but even so he's just signed a £15 million contract for six more books.  That's quite an undertaking at his age – only of course he won't be writing any of them.  He'd just going to think of a few ideas, outline them to other people who will actually do the blood and sweat writing bit, take on a bit of supervision and, of course, agree to it going out under his name.  What you might call 'authorising' perhaps?  (Sorry!)

It's not a new idea.  Tom Clancy and James Patterson got there ahead of him and more and more popular authors are following suit.  Well, you would, wouldn't you?  Free to go off and spend all these millions at a Caribbean beach instead of sweating over a hot laptop – no brainer.  And with a few principled exceptions like Pan Macmillan, publishers love it.  They can package the series and sell it the way you sell an established brand of soap powder.

Mills and Boon have already achieved the Holy Grail of publishing: total editorial control.  Every book conforms to the rules they have laid down.  The hero and the heroine, for instance, must meet by the end of chapter one.  No, not chapter two, chapter one.  The author becomes a sort of ghost writer for the publisher.

What distresses me most is that readers, apparently, are delighted to buy the story with the brand name, even if – as in the case of Smith, Clancy and Patterson and the rest – it doesn't have the quality of writing that got them hooked in the first place.  If you write genre fiction, which includes crime, you can accept that readers buy it because it's the kind of book they like, but you want to believe that it's your own unique style that makes them choose your book and not someone else’s.

And  genre writing is one thing; formula writing is another.  Anne Perry said that she has to submit her ideas for vetting to a publishing committee in the form of a 40,000 word synopsis; they then go through it making sure it conforms to the style of her previous books and once its final shape is agreed she can't deviate from it as she writes the book.  Anne's own personal writing character is still what carries it but it’s not exactly creative freedom.  Is this the shape of things to come?

I'd like to think that if I were successful enough to warrant a ghost writer I would have the integrity to turn it down.  And since I'm never going to be put to the test, I shall have to settle for basking in my moral superiority instead of the sun on a Caribbean beach.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Going Deeper

I'm disgracefully late posting today. In fact, I forgot it was Friday. That's because I'm at the moment in a new book that I confess I love -- that moment when all things are possible. That moment when I have an idea and then another and suddenly it all seems to fall into place. I have a plot. I have characters. I see connections.

It started last night when I was reading an article in a magazine that happened to be about the modern approach to funerals. The victim in my new book is going to be a funeral director. And suddenly I had a brilliant idea about the first chapter -- the chapter that is always torture because I can't do anything else until I have the first sentence and the first paragraph. The chapter that I write over and over again. But last night, I read the article and I could see it all.

The fact that I suddenly remembered that today is Friday, and my day to post, should tell you that reality intruded. As I was thinking about the new book and seeing all those connections, I remembered all the marketing I must do for the book that is coming out this fall if I am to get to a second book and have readers waiting to read it. I remembered that I have to get started with Twitter and Facebook. Yes, started. I have never done either and now am about to begin. I'm also about to pick up a camera and begin a photo essay of the places in the first book. This from someone who uses disposable cameras when I need to take photos during research. But the photo essay, over several months, seems much easier to do if I think of it as a "writer's photo essay".

So the reality of having "stuff" to do to promote the first book is distracting me from the second. But, for the moment, even being distracted is a minor problem. For I can see the pieces, and I have a plot. And until I'm stuck in the middle, I can imagine that this next book will be easy. That it will almost write itself.

I love this period of self-delusion, and I have come to expect it. It reminds me that I need to dig deeper. I need to keep looking for connections, to let my imagination run wild. I need to allow myself to have crazy ideas and imagine stories that are beyond my ability to tell. Eventually I will be brought low by my inadequacies as a writer. But for now, I can brainstorm. I can give myself a mental "high five" for my own brilliance.

It's going to get hard soon. But right now, I'm having a wonderful time.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Dilemma You Don't Want to Face

I'm teaching a short fiction writing class this term. Many students are finding the class much more challenging than they thought they would – a statement that has very little to do with the guy at the front of the classroom, I assure you.

For one thing, kids these days have very little free time. Life is scheduled. SAT class. Sports practices. Clubs. Activities. All of which leave very little time to sit back and read for enjoyment. (Will they have time to find that one author who changes everything for them like most writers do?) And, of course, they face many distractions. iPads. iPods. Youtube.

When students come to me looking for story ideas, I have a go-to suggestion I will share with you this week.

Write a story about any topic you want, featuring characters you create. Carefully consider the point of view, setting details, dialogue, narration, etc. There is only one requirement: think of a story or novel you read recently, one that moved you. One character from that work must appear in your story. He or she can have as large or small a role as you wish.

Need ideas? Read newspaper briefs, follow Huffington Post Crime Section on Twitter, think of people you have met, recall complex life experiences you have lived through/seen, and/or begin with a question or dilemma you would NOT want to face.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Author Questionnaire

Yesterday I received an “author questionnaire” from my publisher.

At last it feels as if the first book in my new series that I turned in last year (2012) for publication next year (2014), was not a figment of my imagination. Unless a series is on a regular schedule i.e. one of my friends has a book out every nine months, many of us are at the whim of the publisher to pin down the actual publishing date.

There are also great debates on the actual time of year to publish a book. Is your book going to be positioned as a summer read or a holiday special? Is January a good month? May? October? What else is out there? What is your competition?

A long time ago I stopped worrying about how well my book would sell and decided to focus on my writing and stay out of the result. It took a great weight off my mind and I stopped comparing myself to other writers in my genre. Of course my stomach still turns over when I receive my pathetic statements. Denise Swanson was quite right when she said it takes about ten years to become an established author.

Well before I was published, Sisters in Crime authors Denise, Carolyn Hart and JoAnna Carl visited Dutton's Bookstore (now long gone) in Los Angeles and spoke of their journeys to publication. It was pretty sobering but forewarned is forearmed. I am thankful to my Dad for urging me not to give up the day job...yet.

But back to the author questionnaire! Even though I’m excited to receive it at last, the questions are detailed and extremely time-consuming – which is why it is always wise to have certain elements in place ahead of time.

Here are a few samples of what to expect:

  • A half-page biographical sketch (about 250 words).
  • Education and hobbies.
  • A list of other things you’ve done that could provide interesting hooks for various media interviews.
  • Cities or countries you have lived in.
  • Other books you’ve written.
  • Two summaries of your book – one in 250 words; the other in 50 words.
  • List of books similar in genre and tone.
  • List of books that could be in competition. What makes your book different?
  • List of hometown media outlets – TV, radio, bookstores, magazines, newspapers.
  • List of relevant organizations, professional affiliations that could help promote your book.

And the list goes on! Yes, in the old days the author would rarely get involved in helping the publicity department gather all this information but times have changed.

So – I am going to make myself another cup of coffee, roll up my sleeves and get cracking.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A recipe to produce great authors – and readers

This is the title of a piece that appeared over the holidays in Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper. You can read it here: a-recipe-to-produce-great-authors-and-readers.

And now for a little background.

My third novel, Shooting Straight in the Dark, was published by McClelland & Stewart when Doug Gibson was running it. I can’t say I know the man well, but I have spoken one-on-one with him several times and found him to be a soft-spoken, decent, thought-filled (as distinct from “thoughtful”) man, and as one who always goes on first impressions, I liked him. He no longer is at the helm of M&S, having been moved aside, but I found what he wrote in his Globe piece to be interesting considering that he did at one time run one of the majors here in Canada.

He’s dead on about there being little in place to help young and talented authors get a solid start on their careers. His observations about reading programs, school librarian funding, successful publishers and excellent bookstores are all very true, as well.

Long gone are the days of wealthy patrons supporting struggling artists (Beethoven and Tschaikovsky had them). They’ve been somewhat replaced by foundations. Canada has a lovely one in place, The Canada Council, but an applicant has to jump through some very significant hoops to get reasonable funding that will allow them the time and space to create their art (and I definitely include writing as “art”). But as Gibson points out in his quote from a CC spokesman that they have their eye on “discoverability” when they’re doling out the cash.

Sidebar: That’s sort of sad, and reminds me of the vast number of very talented singers I know who struggle in anonymity because they aren’t particularly good-looking. (It’s also one reason I adore the sensational Sharon Jones.) Ever notice how many “hot, writing talents” happen to be young(ish) and photogenic? In our culture it’s rather difficult to promote grandma as the new author everyone simply  has to read.

What I find really interesting in this article, though, is what Doug Gibson does not bring up: the rapid erosion of publishers’ advances against royalties. This financial device (incentive?) was developed specifically to allow authors the financial wherewithal to complete their manuscripts, focusing exclusively on doing that because they have enough money to support themselves during the process. That support lifeline is shredding to the point where it has become nearly superfluous.

The buzz around the publishing industry is that advances of $10,000 “are the new $50,000”. One publishing rep told me this almost proudly, as if her employer was being more financially responsible by cutting back on egregious funding of authors. When I pointed out that the idea was that publishers were backing up their decision to publish an author’s work by ponying up some money in advance to allow the author to work undisturbed by mundane things like having to house, feed and clothe themselves and their families, I got a blank look. I then pointed out that the money was a loan. It wasn’t a gift. The publisher was gambling that the author’s work would make the advance back – so was the author.

The question is: how can an author – most of whom, especially at the beginning, have little money – write a novel on $10,000. That takes most of us about six months to accomplish, meaning you would have to support yourself for half a year on that amount, let alone a family? The real tragedy for us crime writers is that even a $10,000 advance from a large publisher is pretty much the stuff of dreams now.

The real problem here is the reasoning behind advances has become lost in the shuffle. But then again, modern culture is all about NOW. History almost seems an afterthought.

So getting back to the Gibson piece, the promotion and health of “written culture” is wholly in the hands of every stakeholder (governments, the public, business interests and artists) that all need to work together to find solutions. To do this, though, the primary focus should be on the creators of the art, because without them, there is none.

In the rush to the bottom, it seems to be something that’s gotten completely lost in the shuffle, and even Gibson hasn’t recognized this.

Monday, January 14, 2013

This Writing Business

Some 12 years ago, I was in Peoria, Illinois, visiting my daughter, Meredith, who, at the time, was working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture as an analytical chemist. I was thinking about that visit as I mulled over what to write for today's post. I had decided that I would offer a few thoughts (not to be confused with actual advice) on the "writing business". That is, the "business" of putting words on paper - or more likely on screen - with the fervent hope that a novel will emerge at the distal end of the process.

It was a September day in Peoria and it was bright and sunny and warm. To keep me from being bored or restless while she was toiling away in the USDA lab, Meredith had set me up for 18 holes of golf with one of her colleagues, who was also a chemist. For the record, he was a much better golfer than I - he had even played the Old Course at St. Andrew's in Scotland, one of the most famous in the world - but we had a good time just the same. Those of you who play golf will know that there is plenty of time for conversation on the course. My playing partner was intrigued to learn that I was "working on" a novel. So he asked me to talk about that. Like him, my background was in science, although I had recently retired from that game, and was spending most of my mental energies on my novel. I told him that I believed there were basically two kinds of writers who were, as I was, just starting out in the scribbling game. There were, I said, the writers who wanted to write; and there were the writers who wanted to have written.

"Which category do you belong to?" he asked me.

"I think I fall somewhere between the two," I said. "There are times when I really want to write, and I am able to keep at it for hours. Then there are the times when I just want to have it over and done with. And at those times, actual writing is more difficult, sometimes almost impossible."

"That's very interesting," he said.

And having said that, he teed up his ball and laced it 200-plus yards down the centre of the fairway; a good 70-80 yards past my own modest tee shot. At this stage of the game, now well into the back nine, I had given up on my woods, which had turned against me as woods are wont to do, and I was sputtering along with my 7-iron.

That conversation came back to me just last week when I read a piece in the New York Times by one Silas House, a wordsmith much younger than I, who has written five novels:


The opening line of his piece goes as follows: "Many of the writers I know talk about writing more than they actually write ... they fret about writer's block or about never having the time to write."

Well, that struck a chord. Especially just now when the dreaded writer's block sits leadenly upon me. House wrote something else that also struck a chord with me; his belief that too many writers today are "afraid to be still." They spend a lot of time on Facebook or other social media, they attend writers' conferences, they read books about writing. But they don't actually write very much.

"The people who see me out in the world," House writes, "might scoff at me since I am nearly always in motion, but those who know me best realize that I am being still even in my most active moments. This is because I'm not talking about the kind of stillness that involves locking yourself in a room with a laptop, while you wait for the words to come. We writers must learn how to become still in our heads, to achieve the sort of stillness that allows our senses to become heightened."

Like most of us who have fielded questions at readings, House lists the #1 question as: "How many hours a day do you write?" He often was not sure how to answer. Then, on one occasion when that question was asked, he says the true answer just popped out: "I write every waking minute," he said. "I meant, of course, that I am always writing in my head." Even if he is not actually putting words and paragraphs on the page.

At the end of his Times piece, House recounts a meeting with an older, established writer when he himslf was just getting started. "I asked him if he had any advice on how to be a better writer. He didn't answer for a long minute ... But then he spoke, and I realized that he had taken that moment for quiet thought. 'Discover something new every day,' he said. That advice changed me as a writer and as a person."

The importance of "stillness" that House writes about reverberates with me every day as I walk about, or sit in coffee shops or restaurants. I look around me and I see that so many of the other people, especially the younger ones, are constantly communing with their cellphones or smartphones, texting, tweeting, reading texts or tweets. They appear to see nothing that is happening around them. Even sitting two to a table, so many of them are individually reading or thumb-typing, paying little or no attention to each other. I find it so very strange, even irritating, that so many people appear to live this way, immersed in a fog of constant electronic chat. Where is the stillness, I wonder? How will they "discover something new"?

It seems to me to be a conscious avoidance of solitude. As a writer - even one who is blocked at the moment - I could not function without solitude, the absence of chat, the opportunity to just sit and think. Alone with my thoughts, as it were.

A bit heavy, all of that, I think you might agree. So, I will end on a much lighter note. Looking for a New Yorker cellphone cartoon on line, I came across the following: 


Just the thing for a fairly grim January day. I do hope you agree.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Pitch Imperfect

I pulled up to Goodwill. The young man took my modest offering and eyed the box of books in my Forester.

"Do those books go?"

"No I'm keeping them."

"You're going to read all those books?"

"No, they are all the same book. I'm the author. I keep a supply in back of my car."

"Omigod. You are a real published author? Really?" He picked up Deadly Descent. "What is this book about?"

Darned if I knew. All the details left me in a flash, then returned in the form of a really long narrative. Really, really long.

After I drove off, I gloomed up over all the things I had done wrong. This young man obviously wanted to know about the book and the Lottie Albright series. I should have been able to supply intelligent information right then and there. I couldn't and didn't.

Here's where I went wrong:

I didn't have a short pitch ready under those circumstances. Basic marketing instructions emphasize the importance of the pitch. I was caught off guard by the unexpected chance to engage someone's interest. I'm prepared to give it my all when I am talking to an agent or an editor or at a conference.

Golden opportunities to attract a fan come out of nowhere. I don't think he would have bought the book--he mentioned finances. But he was quite interested in the fact that it was in the library. However, the opportunity was blown because I couldn't tell him what the book was about quickly and succinctly .

I should have given him a book, right then and there on the spot. It was a remaindered supply that I bought on the cheap. He might have passed it on to his mother or an aunt, he might have recommended it to friends.

Now, I'm thinking through these little opportunities to pitch my mysteries. People always want to know what we write and how we work.

With practice I can turn the imperfect fumbling pitch into a polished 90 second presentation that doesn't sound too contrived. I will tailor it to what I think might engage that particular reader's interest.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

50 Crime Writers & Addendum

John here, keeping it short and sweet.

I found this list, titled “50 Crime Writers to Read Before You Die,” in the January 8 edition of The Daily Telegraph and read it not only with great interest but also a feeling the falls somewhere between shame and relief – I feel a little ethnocentric but elated to have many new books I can add to my nightstand.

I’d like to urge the Type M community to not only offer an appraisal of the list, but to add authors to it. I will offer Tony Hillerman as a solid #51 and would like to put Kwei Quartey, author of the Darko Dawson series set in Ghana, on reader’s radars.

Other additions?

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

A look back and a look ahead

Boy, with a new year starting up, I’m again staring at a blank Type M for Murder file – this time for 2013. A blank (virtual) page is always an intimidating thing, but like many things in January, it is something that has to be faced down. It’s either that, or go back to bed and pull the covers over one’s head, something that can often be quite enticing.

Thinking back as one often does in these situations, I’d like to share some interesting facts about Type M. The “mother” our little blog was Vicki Delany. Being skilled with a computer, she also set up the design we now have, and basically did all of the heavy lifting that got us off the ground. That’s something deserving of a big thank you.

Our first post was hers back on the 26th of June in 2006. That’s pretty startling in itself. This post is number 1650 and I’m responsible for roughly one sixth of those (since we have never really had bloggers to cover all seven days of the week. That’s 275 postings. No wonder I sometimes experience trouble coming up with a subject. (I just checked out my first post and I was already “pointing out” something that I felt needed fixing.)

I’d have to go through the entire list of posts to be able to tell you how many bloggers we’ve had, both as members and as guests, but I suspect the number would be well north of 75. By the way, originally, the lineup of five were all members of Crime Writers of Canada with four Canucks (Vicki Delany, Alex Brett, Michael Blair and me) and “token American” Charles Benoit. Obviously, we’ve expanded our world vision along the way.

Some more interesting factoids:
  • All time page views: 164,952
  • Most-read post: Amanda Knox Case: Truth Stranger Than Fiction, a guest blog
  • My post from June on cruise ships being great places to commit murder is the third place winner for page views, leading me to wonder if there’s been an uptick in homicides on the high seas.
  • The bulk of our readers are in the US (78905) with Canada second (18436) and surprisingly Russia in fourth place (6834), but we’ve had visits from virtually the entire planet.
  • Most visitors use Internet Explorer (62837) or Firefox (53539) and are on Windows (111722).
  • Our biggest source of visitors is Diffbot (2931), but second is Donis Casey (1212). Thanks, Donis! (Who will be rejoining Type M in less than a month.)
Please spread the word about Type M. We are still a vibrant, growing community here and welcome comments and lively discussions. Get involved in the discussion.

Friday, January 04, 2013

The bookshop of the future

Foyles of Charing Cross Road, one of Britain's most famous bookshops, is moving premises this year, though only up the road.  It has weathered the recession and Amazon's chill winds by promoting its own on-line ebook sales, but the management has decided moving will give it a chance to get ahead by designing 'the bookshop of the future.'

There will be a series of workshops in February with customers and industry experts invited to discuss and design what the new shop should feature; topics include the decline of the physical book and the rise of ebooks, the cultural importance of the bookstore and the role of the specialist shop.

There will be a lot of lesser bookshops, poised on the edge of a cliff that seems to be crumbling daily, waiting in hope that something may come of this that could help reverse the trend that saw 400 British bookshops close in 2012.

In the cities there will always be niche areas where a wealthy clientele is prepared to pay for personal service and the pleasure of well-stocked shelves of interesting, and not merely popular books, but the vulnerable bookshops are the ones in small towns.  If a major supermarket opens nearby  - or even a large charity secondhand shop - : they are doomed: they lose not only their paperback sales but the hardback Christmas sales which were always an important boost.  If a hardback is available half-price along the road, the public isn't going to fork out an extra tenner to make sure the friendly neighbourhood bookshop is still there next year.

Remoter areas, oddly enough, seem to fare better.  One of the most successful bookshops I know is in a Highland village where it is quite simply the hub of the community.  It has a gallery for art exhibitions that can be used for events and local meetings.  It has a cafe doing light lunches, story-telling afternoons for children, book groups for adults.  They promote books with local interest that might otherwise go unnoticed and when they have an author event we are all more than happy to brave the journey across the moors.  They work flat out, and they sell our books for us.

The bookshops of my childhood were a place of enchantment for me- hushed, ordered, with all these beautiful pristine volumes that had the delicious smell new books have and you didn't talk loudly there any more than you did in the library.  I wouldn't have wanted a coffee shop with cups clinking and constant chatter or other noisy children being read to, but then I was a bookish child.  One of my most vivid memories of our local bookshop was the day I discovered that The Secret Garden, which I had seen as a TV serial and mourned inconsolably after it finished, was actually a BOOK that I could read again and again.  (Still do, in fact.) Unbelievable joy.

But that wouldn't do for today's children, used to commanding repeats with the click of a button - or for modern adults..  Perhaps the shops should have enticing new technology to draw them in,: a place to screen trailers for books as they do for films?   Perhaps, given that everyone nowadays wants to write a book, there should be a writer-in-residence doing workshops - or even, given the number of times an author is asked 'How do you write?'  just sitting at a computer getting on with it, the way potters demonstrate throwing pots on a wheel?

And perhaps, for people like me, they might develop a synthetic 'essence of new books' which they could spray into some quiet corner where there would be nothing going on to interrupt the silent lure of the shelves.

What is your vision?  I'd love to hear it.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Tech Toys and the Power of the Internet

I spent some time over the holidays (maybe too much time) trying to figure out Twitter, seeing how it works, who's out there, and how to best use it. I ended up following a lot of writers, people in the book industry, and educational experts. More than anything, as, it seems, with all technology, I'm simply intrigued.

Twitter, I have learned, can offer a news junky a never-ending, up-to-the-second source of breaking news, if that's what you want. I do. Better yet, I can filter the news I get. I'm following everyone from Daniel Pink, to CNN, to the Huffington Post's true crime section, to, of course, Publisher's Weekly.

One article that swam across my iPhone's sea of tweets on Dec. 27 was titled "E-book Reading Rises, Print Reading Dips" and came courtesy of PW. Based on the number of retweets (see the lingo I picked up?), it seems to have gained little traction. However, I think it warrants discussion because it offered some interesting--and maybe disturbing--facts for anyone in the book industry, even those on its periphery.

The number of adult readers in the U.S. fell 3% in 2012, leaving only 75% claiming to have read a book in the past 12 months, according to the Pew Research Center. Yet the number of people reading E-books jumped from 16% in 2011 to 23% in 2012. The survey considered 2,252 Americans age 16 and up.

So what does it all mean? Fewer people are reading, but those who are turn to e-books. Am I a prime example? Spending time on Twitter and getting only partially through one book in two weeks?

All of this leads me to a more frightening question: With the E-book revolution producing publishing's version of the Wild West (anyone with a gun can join the fight), and with the data above indicating that fewer people are reading, won't there be fewer slices of the E-book-sale pie to go around?

If so, and you are a brand-name author, this might be the solution: Margaret Atwood, who has over 350,000 Twitter followers, at age 73, is taking E-matters into her own hands. Listen to this fascinating three-minute NPR interview. She's writing a serial novel and selling each 50-page segment for $2.99 as an E-book. Dickens, of course, wrote his works in serial form. From an artistic viewpoint, she equates it to a literary form of "improv." From a business standpoint, I think this is worth following. She's taking her slice of the E-book-sale pie and multiplying it exponentially. Of course, she has the following to pull this off. But it represents a shift in the publishing paradigm: What is stopping a best-selling author from going it alone, hiring her own team (editor, Web/marketing/design, etc), and selling her book in E-format only?

If nothing else, the upside of all this is that major houses might be forced (at least for those at the top of the publishing food-chain) to reconsider E-royalty structures.

I'd love to hear what others think of all this.