Wednesday, July 31, 2013

When Words Collide

Next week I'm on the road again, this time to a fabulous book event in Calgary. Ah, the life of a writer. Picture limousines, luxury hotel suites, invitations to dinner, fans lined up around the block....


Not remotely. As a mid-list touring author, usually you struggle with your own bags to flag down a taxi to the cheap hotel you found on, which offers free continental breakfasts and wi-fi. More money from your dwindling supply to pay for another taxi to the library/ bookstore/ lecture hall where you are not the only one praying someone shows up. The organizer is also praying. Twenty-five people is a good crowd, and if half of them are impressed enough to buy your book, you will make a grand total of $20, which you might see the next year when your royalty cheque arrives.

This is not why you tour, of course. You tour for the adventure of seeing new places, meeting new book lovers, and sharing your work and your ideas with others. I have made many great friends on my tours and bit by bit I have expanded my circle of readers and book biz people. Every one of my trips has been fun. But they have also been exhausting, humbling and at times lonely.

But this Calgary trip will be different! No more taxis, hotel disasters, and stale continental breakfasts. No more flogging my books to unsuspecting passersby in the local mall, where the weekend sales staff don't know you're coming and have five copies of your book.

The organizers of the wonderful, cross-genre literacy festival, When Words Collide, really know how to make an author feel special. And at the same time put on a varied, fascinating event which has something for every kind of reader and writer! Congratulations, Calgary! It's been a tough month with all the flooding and the struggle to clean the downtown. But I am really looking forward to meeting the vibrant writing community in the city and having a chance to play tourist there for the first time ever.

The fusion of genres is brilliant; each reflects the epic myths that underlie human experience. I am the Mystery Guest of Honour and I am looking forward to the interplay between myself and the guests of honour of fantasy, historical and science fiction. We are all storytellers, with our own interpretation of the heroes, villains and battles upon which all the great myths have been based through the ages. I am amazed at the energy and creativity of the organizers! Throughout the weekend, in addition to conducting a writing workshop, I will be talking about the enduring appeal of mysteries and about why a psychologist would choose a life of crime. I will be participating in panels and informal coffee chats. There are lots of other panels and talks on offer. Check out all the  conference details at When Words Collide. If you live within reasonable access to Calgary, give it a try! I bet you won't be sorry.

On a purely selfish note, as Guest of Honour, I get to be a true diva for one of the rare instances in my life. I will be picked up at the airport and taken to my hotel, then honoured with dinner at one of the organizer's houses. My expenses will be paid. Throughout the nearly week-long conference, which includes pre-festival writing workshops, we guest authors will be treated like visiting royalty. This is not mere self-absorption. It is a recognition that as writers, despite the brutal and at times hope-destroying business we work in, we have achieved something worth honouring. In return, of course, we are expected to entertain, inform and elucidate, but I for one am happy to do my part. I hope I can give back to the festival, and to its participants, as much as I know I will take away.

Stay tuned for my report in the next blog post!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

There be monsters here…

The title of today’s post comes from the edge of an old sea map I once saw. When you got past known places and boats didn’t come back, it would sometimes be blamed on monsters folks believed inhabited those waters.

Monsters still exist, of course, and always have, but they be us: people who are willing to do anything to make a buck or get ahead. There are plenty of these types inhabiting the waters of the book publishing world, too. The problem is it’s sometimes difficult to recognize them before they swallow…your hard-earned money.

Vicki Delany sent me something a week or so back and it’s just jaw-droppingly such a scam that I had to read it more than once to believe that they were actually selling what they were. Xlibris appears to be headquartered in the UK and is in the business of helping writers self-publish. In the past, that would have gotten more antennae twitching than it does today. Back then, the words “self-publish” and “vanity press” received a lot more scorn than they do these days. Here’s the link:

I hope you noticed the price for this wonderful service they’re offering. Since most of Type M’s readers are in the US, the cost would be around $4500 – for a book signing! That sound you heard was probably your jaw hitting the floor.

The cost is just so completely out of line when one realizes exactly what they’re offering. Since I live in Toronto, I know Word on the Street pretty darn well, having signed there nearly every year for the past twenty.

So, let’s break down what is actually being offered:

A one-hour signing: The Author Solutions booth is where the self-publishers operate. You’ll be there signing, but there will be lots of other wares on display because the name of the game is selling – and it ain’t your book. You’re window dressing to get people to stop in the first place. It will be one of well over 200 booths at the event.

75 softcover copies of your book: Big deal! I’ll bet that might put them out $150-200, and my guess is, you won’t even hand out all those books during your hour.

Promotional materials: 75 bookmarks and 75 flyers? Huh??? I pay about $45 to get 1000 bookmarks printed. This is such a rip-off. What if 150 people stop by? You will have given away all your books and have nothing left to help you promote yourself if you’ve already handed out a flyer and a bookmark with each book.

Display space: So they’ll display your book – with the cover out! Wow. There will probably also be at least 100 other books displayed the same way since they’re trying to sell other wannabe writers on their services. Your book will really get noticed in that crowd. And it’s for the entirety of the event (it’s not a conference). That means your book will be displayed for maybe 8 hours. Boy, there’s an offer that’s worth $4500 by itself!

Featured spot in the Gallery Catalog: All I have to say here is, “Big Deal.” Every other booth will be doing the same thing.

Publicity before the event: So they’ll write and distribute a press release. And so will every other person and publisher presenting at Word on the Street. Trust me, the Toronto media will not pick up yours and run with it. Even the well-established major publishers in this town have a lot of difficulty getting the press to pay attention – and that’s with big-name authors being promoted. And that’s just on a normal week. During WotS, it’s far worse.

Bottom line is that this is a scam of horrific proportions. I certainly hope some poor soul doesn’t plunk their money down with visions of becoming a hot property in Canada because of it. This sharks only want your money. They will deliver what they promise, I’m sure, but that’s only to cover their own butts so you can’t sue. What they’re actually offering is to line their own pockets.

Word on the Street does attract a lot of people (if the weather is good), but they’re all there to enjoy a nice day, maybe meet a famous author, buy the odd book and see if they can score some freebies. I doubt if they’ll go looking for your book in stores or online afterwards. So for your money, I can 100% guarantee you will be horribly disappointed.

And did I mention that travel and accommodation costs are to be born by the author? At least they could offer a nice breakfast or something on them.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Kill Your Darlings?

Years ago - in about 2005, I think it was - I attended a workshop at Bloody Words in Toronto where Rick Blechta was dispensing advice to wannabe authors. I am pretty sure he had a lot of good things to say; Rick usually does. One of the tips he passed along to the assembled throng (not sure how big the throng was, but I was not the only one in attendance, for sure) was to stay with the story, and exclude anything, no matter how good it was, or how good you thought it was, if it did not move the story forward. I remember he gave an example of a piece of writing in a book he was working on that he really, really liked. His editor agreed that it comprised some of the best writing in the draft. And then told him to delete it. Which he did.

Sometimes you just have to do that, however much it hurts.

Which, in the complex vernacular of writers is "killing your darlings".

I was only vaguely aware of the phrase until today when I finally got around to reading an opinion piece in the New York Times from last week, that I printed off on July 22, but only got around to this morning. And herewith a confession. I print off a lot of stuff from the Times, and from other papers too, but don't always get around to reading them right away. (It's the same with books; books are my "Linus Blankets"; I need to have them near me, and around me, but probably read only about half the ones I buy.)

The Times piece in question is by Ben Yagoda, who is a Professor of English at the University of Delaware. Yagoda reckons that "Kill your darlings" is one of the three most famous writing mottoes. It's usually ascribed to the American writer (and Nobel Prize laureate from 1949) William Faulkner (1897-1962),

William Faulkner 1949.jpg

but was more likely penned by an Englishman, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944):

Arthur Quiller-Couch.jpg

In addition to being a prolific writer of fiction, verse and critical pieces, Quiller-Couch is remembered as one of the few authors of note whose name begins with the letter "Q".

You can read Yagoda's piece here:

The second important motto noted is "Show, don't tell". In describing a scene, one should try and make the reader feel that he/she is right there in the moment, and not getting the story second-hand. Another confession. I was taken to task by a writer friend when my third book, Death Of A Lesser Man, came out; too much having characters tell what happened, he said, instead of having the characters "live the moment". Good advice, which I will keep in mind if I ever manage to finish the book I am working on.

Another piece of good advice; eschew adjectives and adverbs - especially adverbs - wherever possible, and go with strong nouns and verbs. Which is something I heartily agree with. In one of my books, I have my protagonist Stride opine, while reading a vaporous inquest report, that "the road to literary hell is paved with adverbs". Which I believe it is.

(Does anyone else out there remember the spate of "Tom Swifties" that came out in the 1960's? They were punningly awful word play on the use of adverbs, which I gather were rife in the Tom Swift books for growing boys. Here's a couple: "I need a pencil sharpener," said Tom bluntly. "I can no longer hear anything," said Tom deftly. And just one more: "I only have diamonds, clubs and spades," said Tom heartlessly.)

And now we move on.

Then there is "Write what you know". It's hard to argue with that directive. I adhered to that when I started writing my Inspector Stride mysteries. I had tried writing for years, on and off, and it was only when I decided to go back - metaphorically speaking - to the city where I grew up, St. John's, that the words and ideas started to flow. And not only to the place, but also to the time when I was very young and my strongest impressions of the place were formed. I don't have the same feeling for the city now that I had back then, in the late 1940's, and that was key to the successful writing.

I will leave to the reader to take in Yagoda's Times piece; it really is worth reading. I will note, though, that he plays anagramattical word games with motto #3. Writing "what you know" can become, perhaps, a bit oppressive, and one could end up "Writing what you wonk". Until I read this clever bit, it had not occurred to me that "wonk" was an anagram for "know"; and in fact is "know" spelled backwards. Live and learn, I guess.

Yagoda goes one further. Take the motto one more step, work the anagramattical magic, and you have - wait for it! - "Write what you own, K?"

I will finish this post with a direct quote from Yagoda's piece:

Robert Graves and Alan Hodge called their guide to writing “The Reader Over Your Shoulder,” and it’s an apt metaphor, bringing to mind a little guy perched up there, looking over your stuff and reacting the way a hypothetical reader might. I actually prefer to think in terms of an imagined face-to-face encounter, with eye contact the operative metaphor. Bad conversationalists and bad writers look out into the distance or at the floor, and don’t notice when their listeners’ faces are puzzled, annoyed or bored. Good writers perceive that and respond. And the best writers anticipate these reactions, and consequently are able to avoid them.

A really good thought.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Mystery Geekdom

Years ago, being branded as a geek was a mark of shame. But no more. Face it, geeks rule.

What do I mean by "geek?" Let's get past the original definition as someone who worked the carnival circuit and entertained the masses by biting the heads off chickens. Or to the other vintage meaning of a socially inept person.

My geeks are those with a refined intellectual bent focused on a specific subject. Comic book geeks come to mind. Sci-fi geeks are another. I place geeks between nerds and wonks.

NERDS<->GEEKS<->WONKS<-> Nerds get obsessed to the point of being social spazzes (proto-geeks). Wonks get preoccupied with the arcane (boring) details of a specialized field, i.e., policy wonks. But the big difference is the sense of glee you get from geeking out. Knitters geek out. Foodies geek out. Geologists geek out. (But for some reason, sports nuts are not considered geeks for geeking out on sports. Fantasy football? Bass fishing? How geeky can you get?) And we mystery writers geek out. A lot. On blood spatter analysis, guns, gunshot entry and exit wounds, poisons, ligature marks, accelerants, basically anything involving mayhem and high crimes. Admit it, how many of you have eaten a sandwich while perusing autopsy photos?

We don't like listening to nerds for the most part, since their lack of social skills makes it a challenge to connect. Wonks are okay if they have a sufficient geek factor, especially if they bust a nut sharing the dirty details.

Like many of you, my foray into geekdom began as a bookworm. I used to spend so much time at the public library my mom would call the front desk and ask them to send me home. One of my regrets as a busy adult is that I don't make the time to roam the stacks of the local library like I used to. Early bookwormism is the gateway to other forms of geekdom. Model airplanes. Reptiles. History. Lapidary arts. Tropical fish. Cinema.

And what is Bouchercon other than a big geek fest? Just because we don't parade in costume like Comic Con, we mystery writers are second to none in geeky behavior. Only we disguise it with wine, scotch, and bourbon.

Indie-publishing! I dive in. I co-wrote a financial thriller with an insider of the biggest offshore Ponzi scheme in U.S. history. Good Money Gone, when the road to riches becomes the road to ruin. Greed. Treachery. Squandered love. Redemption. Get your free Kindle download, August 1-5.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Five years, two agents, and twelve hundred pages

My good friend, instructor, and mentor Rick DeMarinis (THE MORTICIAN'S APPRENTICE, THE ART AND CRAFT OF THE SHORT STORY, and others) once told me "to be a writer you need to be crazy enough to think what you're writing is good enough to stick with it." I haven't been in touch with Rick in over a year, but I know two things: 1) I've proven myself to be the crazy writer he describes, and 2) wherever he is, he's smiling.

In 2007, as I finished OUT OF BOUNDS, the fifth Jack Austin PGA Tour mystery, I had an idea for a new series. Actually, it was just a kernel -- I saw a woman in a green border patrol uniform having a difficult conversation with a white-haired woman. Mother and daughter. In a kitchen. A strained conversation.

That was it. But I wrote the scene, liked it, and started a novel that would feature a single mother and U.S. border patrol agent, whose personal and home lives constantly conflict with her professional duties and aspirations. Her name is Peyton Cote and she works along the northern Maine border.

At the time, I was playing hockey Sunday nights with several U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents. These men arranged for me to ride with them, hang out in the station, and ask literally thousands of questions.

The result was a novel I felt pretty good about in 2008. I knew -- at least conceptually -- I was onto something because the literary agents who rejected early drafts of the manuscript called to do so, offering encouragement. Eventually, an agent took it and sent it to several houses, all of whom turned it down. What followed is a story of three years of frustration for both the agent, who eventually threw in the towel, and the writer, who was crazy enough to keep writing the series.

In July 2012, representing myself, I sold a stand-alone, THIS ONE DAY, to Five Star/Gale, which I wrote between border patrol efforts. I had revamped one of the two finished border patrol novels and queried several new agents. I was teaching summer school in Exeter, NH., when agent Julia Lord called to say she wanted the series. Over the next 12 months, she proved to be tough, smart, kind, loyal, genuine, and absolutely dogged in her pursuit of a publisher. I never stopped writing the series because I believe in the concept, and Julia (and eventually her partner Ginger Curwen) never stopped pitching because they too believed in it.

On June 24, while Julia was abroad on vacation, Ginger called to say we had a three-book offer on the table (plus an option for a fourth) from Midnight Ink. Days later, two more publishers made bids. Last week -- and five years, two agents, and twelve hundred pages later -- we reached an agreement with Midnight Ink for three novels (plus an option for a fourth) featuring U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agent Peyton Cote. The first novel will be published in spring 2014. (Not sure which name the books will be written under or the title of the first book, which is finished.)

During the past five years, I've thought often of Rick's comment, wondering if I was just plain stubborn or would prove to be "crazy" in the way he intended.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

An Author's Biggest Asset?

So ... I received an email from my editor yesterday asking me for ideas to market my new book—Murder at Honeychurch Hall—that is not due out until May 2014. My husband's reaction was comical. "They're asking you? Don't they have a marketing department for that?"

Well, yes they do but unfortunately the bulk of all the marketing and publicity now falls heavily on the author's shoulders—unless you are a super successful author of course.

It's rather nice to be asked but at the same time, I know for a fact that the financial aspect will fall on my shoulders as well—unless you are a super successful author of course.  (I know I already said that.)

I've been wracking my brains for marketing ideas ranging from "vlogging" (that's video-blogging if you are not camera shy) to contests with fabulous prizes.

The advantage of the Internet is that it is easy to get one's name out there and promote your book. The snag is that a gazillion other people are doing the same thing—and not just Facebook and Twitter.

There are an overwhelming number of resources available. Here are just a few: GoodReads, Shelfari, LibraryThing,, Scribd, HARO, Wattpad, Open Salon, Blog Carnival ... are you exhausted yet? And all these things take time to set up and keep up when I would much rather be writing.

Does anyone read them? How can we tell? Does it sell more books? Who knows!

However there is one outlet that you can have some control over. Your mailing list.

It truly is your biggest asset. Blog readers, Twitter followers, Facebook fans and so on are all great but they will never replace your mailing list. Social media will come and go. Facebook really does have a shelf-life—remember MySpace? Additionally, Twitter and Facebook feeds can zip by so fast that often they're not even seen. Plus ... you are  competing with pictures of pet rabbits, newborn babies, holiday snaps and funny jokes.

If you write and embed a newsletter in an email and make it entertaining, hopefully, it will be greeted as a welcome distraction. Maybe it might include the first chapter of your new book. You get the idea. The golden rule is to keep your content 80% entertaining and 20% promotional. No one likes a show off and it's not supposed to be a weekly or monthly brag!

Of course emailing lists are abused all the time and it's best to use a known software program like Mail Chimp (which I talked about last time—and no, I don't own shares in Mail Chimp). Mail Chimp offers an easy way to opt-in from your website and on Facebook. It also has a painless unsubscribe feature (which is a mandatory condition for mass emailing).

So having said all that ... would anyone like to be put on my mailing list? And of course any brilliant marketing ideas are gratefully received. I promise to make it worth your while.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A call to arms indeed!

Many thanks to Clea Simon, our guest blogger this past weekend, for her very insightful and thought-provoking post. I had heard rumblings about this issue from one or two female members I know in the SF/F community, but Clea’s post laid it all on the line, clearly, succinctly, and with really devastating impact.

I have always thought of the writing community as inclusive, thoughtful, tending towards the liberal view of life – and I ain’t referring to political leanings by the use of that word, folks – and well beyond the type of Neanderthal view of women that some of these male SF/F writers seem to espouse. Actually, I’m probably insulting Neanderthals by using them as a comparison.

Being definitely not cut from that cloth, I have a lot of trouble understanding how thinking people can have that sort of view of the other 50% of the population. Would they like other men to speak of their wives, daughters and mothers this way? How would they feel if one of their loved ones was exposed to danger and verbal or physical attack? Threats of murder? That one is really sickening!

Having never attended any “official” gathering of Science Fiction and/or Fantasy writers, I have never seen any of this sort of behaviour first hand, but I do know from my friends that it does exist. I have attended a goodly number of conferences dedicated to mystery, thrillers and true crime, and while I’ve never heard of anything like this happening to female participants, I wouldn’t be surprised if it does.

But behind my shock at the SF/F community’s issues and the responses quoted by Clea (and they really are dreadful), I am feeling great sadness. I would have thought the writing community in general was above this sort of horrible behaviour. Clearly, it is up to all of us to make sure that males (or females or whatever) who behave this way are dealt with definitively and speedily because their actions stain us all.

It’s heartening to see some forward motion in this regard by the board of SFWA as well as pressure on cons to “codify” what is not acceptable behaviour by attendees. I will now look very differently at any writing events I attend and will step in if I see anything untoward happening. It should never be tolerated. I’m sure the apologists for this sort of thing will readily go to the “boys will be boys” argument, but sorry, no, not this time.

Still, it is so disheartening that we haven’t gotten beyond this sort of thing. Clearly, we writers are not as good a community as we like to think we are.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Things an Author Should Know

By the time you are reading this, I shall be, I hope, lolling on a lounger in the south of France with a pile of books and a glass of chilled white wine, so I hope you will forgive me if this post is only a few random observations on the subject of Things an Author Should Know.

Don't get out the champagne after reading the first paragraph of the e-mail from your editor, the one that says how she adores the book and you're wonderful. Read the second paragraph, the one beginning 'But', before you pop the cork.

If you know you haven't a hope of standing up to your publisher's unreasonable demands (ie unless there was an auction for your book among three of the six big houses) give in with a smile. Demands get worse if you get marked down as 'difficult'.

However good your last book was, the next one has to be better.

Getting your first book published doesn't make you happy. You just transfer your neurosis to the next book.

A good agent is your best friend. Even if you hate him/her.

Writing a book because you think you're going to make a huge amount of money is like buying a lottery ticket believing you're going to win, only much more effortful.

Writing as a profession is lonely, exhausting, stressful and miserably underpaid. It's also the best job in the world.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Call to (Proper) Arms

Clea Simon

Today's guest is Clea Simon, the author of 13 mysteries in the Theda Krakow, Dulcie Schwartz, and Pru Marlowe pet noir series. The latter two are ongoing, and include her most recent books, Grey Dawn (Severn House) and Parrots Prove Deadly (Poisoned Pen Press). A former journalist and nonfiction author, she lives in Somerville, Mass., with her husband, the writer Jon Garelick. She may be reached on Facebook, Twitter (@Clea_Simon), or at

Jumping genres to support our SF/F sisters

Call it dueling futures. Because the battle for the soul of the science fiction and fantasy community is about nothing less, and even if we in the mystery community never considered the impact of a chainmail bikini, you may want to sharpen your broadsword.
The fight began at a trade publication, but its implications reach far beyond. Specifically, the brouhaha came to a head last month with the publication of issue #202 of the quarterly bulletin of the SFWA, a professional organization for science fiction and fantasy writers that claims 1,800 members. But the ill will in the SF/F community, as it usually abbreviates itself, had been brewing far longer. Last winter, for example, numerous bloggers complained about issue #200, which featured on the cover a male fantasy figure (female warrior with large breasts, barely concealed in the dated – and clearly ineffective – chainmail two-piece mentioned above). More to the point, the issue contained a history by longtime contributors Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg of women in the genre, which referred to “lady editors” and “lady publishers,” occasionally citing their “knockout” looks.  The next issue, #201, had a piece by a different male writer, CJ Henderson, praising Barbie – yes, the doll – for maintaining her “quiet dignity the way a woman should” (not to mention that she has “quite the pair of sweater-fillers”). Then, in June, issue #202 came out with another adolescent fantasy cover, a well-intentioned discussion of objectification – and Resnick and Malzberg’s rebuttal to the “liberal fascists,” “thought police,” etc., who didn’t like their previous column. All hell broke loose. Did I mention that this is a professional bulletin? Could you imagine this in The Third Degree?

This squabble follows hard on the heels of closely related explosion of bad boy behavior. SF/F conventions, or “Cons,” are where authors and readers meet and literary prizes are awarded. Because of the highly interactive nature of SF/F, there’s also a huge overlap with gamers, online forums, films, etc., and big deals – real money – are made. It’s become an open secret that many cons are unsafe for women, with groping, stalkers, and inappropriate behavior as rife as, well, those damned bikinis.
Increasingly, women in the genre – dues-paying, book-writing, comics-illustrating humans – are speaking out. But when they do, they have been viciously attacked with language that would appall the Texas legislature. “If the bitches don’t like it they can leave,” reads one comment on the blog Gorgonmilk, referring to the SFWA fight. “We Y-chromosome boys were in this hobby before it became cool and the vaginas started joining.” And that’s some of the more printable language. Rape and death threats are not uncommon.

Nor is the hatred aimed simply at women. There’s the open homophobia of SF author Orson Scott Card, for example, which has resulted in a call for a boycott of the upcoming film of his book Ender’s Game. For women of color – hell, for SF/F professionals of any gender of color – the issues multiply.
But the tide may be turning: Author Genevieve Valentine blogged about being harassed last summer at ReaderCon, a Massachusetts-based con, which she attended as a nominee for the prestigious Shirley Jackson award. After much back and forth, the offender was banned for life and the entire board resigned. In May, author Elise Matthesen formally reported an editor – an editor – for sexual harassment at WisCon, in Madison, and as of July 7, he is no longer with his publishing house.

Meanwhile, the (female) editor of the SFWA bulletin, Jean Rabe, has resigned, and the publication is on hiatus while the board reviews its policies. And though recent SFWA president John Scalzi, whose three-year term ended July 1, has declared a policy of not speaking about the controversy for at least one year, he did apologize to the membership. He has also, and more importantly, spearheaded a campaign to boycott any conventions that do not have a stated anti-harassment policy.

But it is exhausting to have to continually re-fight this battle. In a professional arena, we want to be treated professionally. That means nobody has the the right to comment on our looks, our sexuality, or our apparent level or lack of sexual activity. (And, believe me, if the tables were turned, so many of these trolls would understand: fat, balding, and effectively impotent as so many may be.)

And this isn’t simply a tempest in a teapot, not even a futuristic one. Because while in the public imagination, SF/F may summon images of socially inept males, the field has always been more than nerd boys tugging one off to rocket-fueled fantasies. Despite the bikinis, SF/F has also always been the home of progressive thought. Back in 1969, Ursula K. LeGuin wrote of gender-fluid characters in a bisexual world in her brilliant The Left Hand of Darkness, which won virtually all the genre’s top awards. Since then, writers like Octavia Butler, N.K. Jemisen, Ellen Kushner, and others have explored class and race as well as gender. In general, says the marvelously outspoken author/blogger Foz Meadows, this is a community “actively concerned with questions of representation and diversity.”

That’s because, at heart, SF/F is populated by dreamers. That is the nature of fantasy. And while some fantasy is “forward-looking technologically and backward-looking socially,” in the words of Kushner (whose 1987 breakthrough, Swordspoint, featured a gay male couple), not all of it is.  “When you’re dealing with SF, you’re dealing with possibilities and possible futures,” she says. “Until you can envision it, you can’t start trying to create it.”

Which is why the women of SF/F are taking up the sword, and why we in the crime fiction community should support them. If only to win better armor.

Clea Simon, author of 13 mysteries, knows that good books defy genre. She may be reached at

Friday, July 19, 2013

Weather in Crime Fiction

In his oft-quoted "Ten Rules of Writing," Elmore Leonard says, "Never open a book with weather." Readers will skip over paragraphs about the weather "looking for people." This warning about opening with weather is in keeping with Mr. Leonard's 10th Rule -- "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip." But on a day when temperatures in the Northeast are expected to climb into the high 90s, I have weather on my mind.

Weather -- good, bad, or indifferent -- seems to be on a lot of our minds most of the time. Lloyds TBS Insurance found that 58% of Brits open a conversation with colleagues or strangers with a complaint about the weather. The average Brit "spends six months of his life talking about weather" (Maclean's, 2010). Want to bet Americans aren't far behind? Weather is our default greeting -- "Hot enough for you?" "Beautiful day, isn't it?" Weather is what we talk about to fill those awkward silences when you find yourself sharing elevator space for five floors with a stranger. 

But if the characters in our books and short stories are talking about the weather, something else had better be happening. Raymond Chandler's opening paragraph in his short story "Red Wind" ( 1938) is an example of weather in the hands of a master. The first line: "There was a desert wind blowing that night." In the next few lines, he sets the mood of the story with a description of "hot dry Santa Anas" that "curl your hair and make your nerves jump" -- and make meek wives consider the effect of sharp knives on their husband's necks.

In this paragraph, Chandler is drawing on what we suspect and researchers study -- that the weather affects our moods and perhaps our behavior. Researchers have looked at matters such as the impact of long hot summers on civil unrest and the impact of the climate on Southern violence. The rest of us suspect -- and often offer as excuse -- that the heat not only wears us down and saps our energy, but makes us more prone to be irritable and short tempered. As researchers note, summers also mean that people are more likely to be out in public places for more hours of the day. More opportunities to come in contact and for conflicts to occur.  

For writers, weather offers the opportunity to make our characters' lives miserable. Starting with physical woes, we can make a character thirsty and light-headed. We can give him aches and pains and allergies. We can put him in a suit and tie on a 90 degree day. We can make her sweat in a hot car in rush-hour traffic. Or, her beautiful sunny day in the park can take a terrifying turn that none of the sun-bathing, Frisbee-playing people around her notice. 

I've been focusing on summer, but any season of the year can make characters miserable and impede their efforts. Blizzard in winter. Freezing temperatures and isolation. Or, weather -- climate -- as a part of a merciless landscape. 

But I'm going to wait until this evening when the sun goes down and the temperature drops a bit before getting back to the book I should be working on. No point in trying to write. I'm suffering from "brain melt". . .maybe an ice cream cone will help. 
Stay cool, everyone!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Flash! Humanity Getting Stupider

A recent study published in the journal Trends in Genetics postulates that once humans started living in dense agricultural settlements several thousand years ago, we lost the evolutionary pressure to be smart. In other words, people are getting stupider*. The study author Gerald Crabtree of Stanford University, writes in the article that, "A hunter-gatherer who did not correctly conceive a solution to providing food or shelter probably died, along with his/her progeny, whereas a modern Wall Street executive that made a similar conceptual mistake would receive a substantial bonus and be a more attractive mate. Clearly, extreme selection is a thing of the past."

There may be something to this. The ancient Celts disapproved of writing. They believed that it spoiled the memory. An educated person spent a lifetime memorizing lore and stories to word-for-word perfection. A modern person would consider a bard's memory nothing short of miraculous. Nowdays...well. I am reminded of something Earlene Fowler said to me a couple of years ago: "First there was e-mail, then Facebook, then Twitter. Now there's Pinterest for those who can't be bothered to use words at all."

The fact that I am about to finish the first draft of my next novel has caused me to ponder this stupidity hypothesis. I have this almost-finished manuscript and it's an enormous tangle of words that is full of jewels stuck in a big pile of you know what. I've worked so long and hard on it. Why isn't it as fantastic as it ought to be? I know where I want to end up, but I'm not entirely sure how I'm going to get there. Sometimes I feel frightened, and wonder if I still have it in me. Will I find my way out of this maze, and do it in such a way that I bring the reader along with me? Am I getting stupider?

I try to comfort myself with the thought that I get this feeling with every book I write. And I'm not the only one. We’ve all heard many times that writing is rewriting, and anyone who’s ever scribbled a page knows that’s true. At least I’ve never met a literary Mozart, whose first draft is so perfect that it doesn’t need any alteration. In fact, most authors I know, even very well known and accomplished authors, think of their first drafts as something too embarrassing to be seen by anyone. It’s the rewriting that makes the book. If I may repeat something I’ve said here before - and never let it be said that I missed an opportunity to repeat myself - you have to have that block of marble before you can carve out a statue of David. Well, right now I'm sitting on a huge block of marble. I just hope I'm still smart enough to chisel a David out of it.
*All right, since we're talking about intellect, I know it's 'more stupid'.  But 'stupider' is funnier.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Covers that book buyers will notice

My post of two weeks ago dealt with the hare-brained decision by the Chicago Sun-Times to lay off all its staff photographers in a money-saving effort. Arming their reporters with camera, they now wanted the story and pictures out of their staff. The example I gave of a Sun-Times cover against one by its main competitor that had been shot by a professional photographer provided an instantly understandable reason why it’s worthwhile to pay the bucks for a pro.

This brought me to a link a designer-friend sent to me. If “one picture is worth a thousand words”, then a book’s cover can and should add a lot of information to the potential purchase of said book. Are you adding a thousand words to the content of the book by having a cover? Realistically, no, but you can add massive amounts of salability to the book. The flip side is that saddled with a bad cover, you can remove any salability of a book. I have actually seen with my own eyes someone pick up a book, and drop it almost immediately with an “Ewww!” expression on their face. I went over to look at this offense and the immediate response I had to this tough-to-decipher cover was pretty much the same when I unfortunately did decipher the image on the cover.

So here is a gallery of some really excellent book covers for you to look at:

You may not like them all, but all are brilliant on a technical level, exceptionally distinctive and enticing, and depending on how they were displayed in a store (in other words there was clarity in the category of book it was), I, myself, would certainly pick them all up for a closer look. That’s the best any publisher could hope for, other than someone seeing a book with a cover so enticing that they immediately pick it up and run to the cash register to buy the tome simply because of its cover.

A lot of publishers, in an attempt to keep their costs low, hire designers who are very wet behind the ears, simply because these people are inexpensive. This is not to say that they don’t possess talent, but they certainly don’t possess experience. Because of their nature, book covers are exceptionally difficult to design. You don’t have a lot to work with and you must communicate through design that the book underneath that cover is worthy of a buyer’s consideration – in a very brief amount of time. Good book covers need the skills of exceptional designers with a lot of experience. The editorial and sales teams must trust their designer’s concept and not try to micromanage every detail on the cover. If that was the case, why not have the sales team just design covers themselves? Bet you can easily guess the sad place that sort of experiment would end.

Having an exceptional designer (and paying them properly) is spending money wisely. If a book cover is responsible for even one hundred sales on just the basis of a splendid design, doesn’t it pay for itself anyway? Seems to me the alternative is exceptionally “penny wise and pound foolish”.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Winterset In Summer

Which is where I will be in early August; August 9th to 11th, to be precise.

"Winterset In Summer" is an annual Literary Festival held in Eastport Newfoundland, a small coastal community - in Newfoundland parlance, an "outport" - on the island's east coast. It is north and somewhat west of St. John's, the province's capital city. More specifically, Eastport - and six other small communities - is on a peninsula that extends out into Bonavista Bay. The place is rural, of course, and ruggedly beautiful:


And, yes, those are sandy beaches on the Atlantic Ocean. The water temperature, though, is not compatible with comfortable swimming, even in summer. But people do swim in the ocean, anyway. I did when I was growing up in Newfoundland. But I was younger then, and more robust than I am now.

I have been invited to participate in this this year's Winterset as the author of three Inspector Stride Novels, all of which are, of course, set in Newfoundland.

I will be participating on a panel with two other Canadian mystery writers, Gail Bowen and Giles Blunt. I expect most of Type M's readers are familiar with my two co-panelists. For those who are not, here are brief intros.

Gail Bowen was born in Toronto, and now lives in Regina, Saskatchewan. She has written twelve books in her Joanne Kilbourn series. The first six books in the series have appeared as made-for-TV movies, with a world-wide distribution.


The fourth book in the series, A Colder Kind of Death (1994), won the Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel.  In June 2008, Reader’s Digest named Gail Bowen ‘Canada’s Best Mystery Novelist’.

Giles Blunt has written six novels in his acclaimed John Cardinal series. The first John Cardinal novel, Forty Words For Sorrow, won the British Crime Writers Silver Dagger award. The second, The Delicate Storm, won the Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel, as did his latest Cardinal novel, Until The Night.

      Photo of GB by Peter Peitsch      Until the Night

While we are at the festival, Suzanne and I plan to do some hiking and some sightseeing; assuming there will be time that we can steal from the various scheduled events. And weather permitting also, of course. This is Atlantic Canada, after all, where unpredictable weather is the norm.

One place we do want to visit is the community of Salvage - pronounced Sal-Vage - a short drive from Eastport.


It is a place not to be missed, if at all possible. And beautiful even when the sun is not shining, and the sky is not blue.

One is reminded of Mark Twain's famous observation on the Atlantic weather. Twain was speaking of New England, but his sentiment applies nicely to Newfoundland: "If you don't like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes."

Saturday, July 13, 2013


We are delighted to welcome the wonderful writer D.J. McIntosh to Type M for Murder as our weekend guest. She tells us about the inspiration for her second book featuring New York art dealer, John Madison.

D.J. (Dorothy) McIntosh left her professional job to carve out a career as an author. It took almost ten years to research and write her novel, The Witch of Babylon but it’s now been released in North America and has sold in twenty countries around the world. The novel was chosen by as one of the best books of the year and by CNN International as one of six enduring historical thrillers along with notable writers like Agatha Christie, Umberto Eco and Dan Brown. In her new novel, The Book of Stolen Tales, the dark origins of famous fairy tales come to life. It is now out in stores or online from Penguin Canada.

Where does your inspiration come from? An oft asked question at readings and one I’m never sure of the answer to. From the subject matter? Yes. From an event in your life that you’ve not been able to let go of? Yes to that too. From a dazzling character. Also yes. As near as I can tell, I am inspired by age-old stories. Stories that resonate over the ages, that possess such core emotional truths they are able to renew themselves over time and centuries of telling. Tales and legends that can adapt to new cultures and circumstances. Like the wild wolf that draws near a campfire and over eons transforms to the dog while retaining a glimmer her wolf-like instincts. A kind of literary evolution I guess.

I would call that a large “inspiration.” Smaller ones lurk too within book pages. With my second novel, The Book of Stolen Tales, a poet inspired me at first and then, the city that he loved so much. The poet, Giambattista Basile, was a much admired courtier who re-interpreted age old stories to assemble the first complete European anthology of fairy tales, almost two hundred years before the much better known Grimm brothers. When I travelled to his home territory, Naples, the city he loved so much, I too, fell under its spell. It’s magical two-humped mountain, Vesuvius, placid and beautiful at any time of day but capable, still, of great destructive power. The built form of the city – cobblestones, flags, ancient walls, magnificent Spanish style buildings, churches tucked away in corners, grand cathedrals, all built from the molten stone that volcanoes once brought from deep from the earth. Glorious food, history at your doorstep, people fighting with vespas and fiats to climb narrow alleyways. Not as grand as Rome or Venice perhaps, but just as rich in experience.

So inspiration can be found in many places and if you keep your eyes open, it will seek you out.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Stalking Independent Booksellers

You're the last of a vanishing breed--an independent bookseller. You're going broke despite doing everything possible to survive. You have your own website that offers a newsletter, staff recommendations, and clever little freebees. You host signings for authors and do your best for the publishing industry.

So in walks an author hell bent on promoting their latest book. The first thing he hands you are bookmarks and flyers to distribute to customers announcing the book is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble and downloadable on Kindle and Nook.

Ever think of that? I didn't until I received an email from the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Association giving tips to authors looking for ways to get their books into stores. I immediately ran to my bookmarks to see if I had done that. I hadn't! Mine referred back to my website and the website of my publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.  The association suggested the wording of "available wherever books are sold." On my website, of course, I have links to Amazon and Nook.

Here's some of my tips for getting your books into local stores.

Case the joint. Does the store sell a mixture of new and used books? Where does the store make the most money? Support the store and learn a little about their customers. Buy books from the store and attend events. Are signings successful? Who shows up and why? I've noticed a very successful store a couple of blocks from me does extremely well with signings when the speaker talks about Colorado. The talks can be related to the outdoors, or historical Colorado, or Colorado entertainment. Whatever. Colorado rocks! But the Lottie Albright series is set in Kansas. S.o.o.o, I plan to see if they would be interested in a talk entitled "When Colorado was Kansas." Historically true. The state once belonged to us.

What do you want? A signing or just for the store to carry your books? Who buys the books for the store? Contact that person and make an effective pitch. Yes, that pesky pitch again. Know immediately what to tell him when he asks who distributes the books. That can be a huge stumbling block. Books must be easy to order and sometimes small stores have shaky finances. They cannot order with anyone and everyone. Be alert to signs of this and offer other solutions at once. Perhaps he would rather you bring in your own books, in which case decide on the split immediately.

Decide in advance if you are willing to make a signing successful. I've done a radical about face on this. It's the author's obligation to do some advance work and promotion. Now before I book a signing, I stop and do a little soul-searching. Am I willing to contact clubs and organizations in a town and urge the members to come? Am I willing to send distribution material to libraries? How can I make this a successful signing for the store's sake so it will welcome other authors in the future? 

Be nice and try not to lie. It's amazing how many writers act like prima donnas or tell the owner a major studio has already optioned the movie rights. Sullen writers who show up for failed signings are legendary in the business. As to why the movie bit? It's what we do. We make things up.

These hints are only a fraction of what could be said. I'll pass along others from time to time. I'm sure other Type M'ers come offer many more.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Facebook: The Jury Is In.

The jury is in. After much soul-searching, I think I “like” Facebook.

An author friend of mine recently shared with me a conversation she had with the marketing department of a well-known publishing house. The latest craze is for authors to have plenty of “likes” on their Facebook Author Page and apparently, she didn’t have enough. Louise Penny has 13,081 “likes” – I just looked.

I didn’t even know the difference between an author or business page and a personal page (am I the last person on the planet?) But I do now.  And here is a link to explain the difference in case you don’t either.

I had initially started a Facebook Author Page but abandoned it as a waste of time—I only had 12 “likes” and it seemed it was just one more social media chore I did not feel like doing. I had a personal Facebook page with several hundred “friends” but frankly I only stopped by to check on my nephews who were having a wild time at university. (My sister was too nervous to do so).

And then Kate Carlisle and Daryl Wood Gerber (with a gazillion “likes” between them) invited me to be part of a contest with free book giveaways they were holding on Facebook.

So I decided to try an experiment. I’d give Facebook a proper go.

The first thing I had to do was transition from a personal page to an Author Page. Having no clue as to how to keep my files, photos and “friends” I hired a virtual assistant for the first time in my life to help me (and she was worth every cent … thank you Sheridan).
It was completely painless. 

Once the contest was launched last week, things got really interesting. My “likes” shot up to 1134 and are still climbing. From that, my mailing list (accessible via my Facebook page) began to grow which was encouraging because very few requests came via my website.

Using Mail Chimp I then sent out a newsletter. People responded. My website began to see traffic as opposed to the robots, spiders and weasels or whatever cyber creatures happen to stop by.

For the first time ever I felt I was not writing into a black hole. I could communicate with readers and banter with those who knew my characters. I also have a Vicky Hill Facebook page written in her voice that chronicle her daily adventures working on the Gipping Gazette. I have fun doing that one—even though it’s a little silly.

Of course whether or not all this effort actually sells more books is anyone’s guess! On that … the jury is still out. But I’ll keep you posted. On Facebook.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The writing of this novel has been temporarily interrupted…by life

Yesterday, I was spending a very productive day working on the new novel, and I wasn’t even throwing out much! Huzzah!

Late in the afternoon, I’d promised my wife that I would get into our water garden to pull up the waterlilies since they needed a good dose of fertilizer. Late afternoon came and I was completely zoned out on the book when Vicki stuck her head into my studio to ask about the pond. “You’d better do it soon because it looks like some heavy weather is coming in from the north.” (There was a “40% chance of showers”, according to the weather dolts.)

As I got into my bathing suit, I checked out the window. Sure enough, a huge, dark-gray mass of clouds was indeed drifting towards us. This looked like a serious storm. My big hope was that we wouldn’t lose power, because I wanted to snarfle down a quick dinner and get back to work. Writing longhand by candle light is a much slower and laborious process, especially when one is left-handed.

But the weather gods had other ideas...

Looks as if someone needs to rescue the rescuers!

I was still in the water garden when the rain hit, sheets of it, Wrath of God-type amounts of water. I shrugged and went on with my job since I was dressed for wet. After I went into the house and got into dry clothes, it was still coming down in buckets. Cats and dogs were now raining down from above.

I went outside to investigate the loud sound of falling water hitting our driveway. I thought it was from the neighbouring (and ill-kept) triplex next to us with which we share the driveway. Wrongo. It was our gutter overflowing. Obviously, something was blocking the downspout. Get changed again, pull out a ladder and climb up to find…a baby elm tree growing in the wire protector at the top of the downspout. Barely able to see through the rain, I yanked the wire thing out, killing the poor defenseless tree that had decided to make its stand on this good earth in a very inconvenient place. Service restored, the downspout delivered its payload to our beleaguered rain barrel which promptly overflowed. What I failed to notice was that the overflow pipe had been moved (by heaven knows who, but when I catch ’em they’re going to be in a world of pain) and was right up against the foundation.

You guessed it, the basement was flooding. (We have a foundation that was made of leftover Swiss cheese, apparently.) Time to get out the shop vac and save the day!

I plugged it in…and the power went off. All we could do then was helplessly watch the damp area grow into puddles, then a continuous rising sheet of water as the heavens remained open and fully operational for another two hours before tapering to a steady downpour.

Power was restored around 9:00 p.m. and I’ll let you guess where we spent the next several hours. We now have a merely soggy basement. The water garden also overflowed, even the rubber liner got lifted by a huge amount of water underneath it with nowhere to go everything in our backyard is so sodden.

Now I’m left with having to somehow figure out where I was yesterday in the book, get everything loaded again into mental RAM and try to pick up where I left off.

And things were going so well…

Next week, I’ll do up the second part of my previous post and show you those terrific covers and provide some appropriate comments and insight. Stay tuned!

Monday, July 08, 2013

Crime Month

Every year the Crime Writers Association here organises a Crime Month, encouraging the libraries to invite authors in to talk about their work.  As a result, I've spent most of the month shuttling up, down and sideways along the length and breadth of Scotland, recalling as I travel Margaret Attwood's characteristically sharp remark that wanting to meet authors because you liked their work was like wanting to meet a duck because you liked pate.(Haven't worked out how to put in an acute accent!)

Public speaking is, when you think about it, a curious requirement of authors, that necessarily solitary breed.  Because you're good on paper it most certainly doesn't follow that you'll be good at talking about what you do, or even will be able to express it.

It can certainly be an ordeal and when I first started doing it that wasn't only for me.  There is nothing more excruciating for an audience than a speaker whose voice quivers with nerves and who ploughs doggedly on reading from the text in front of them, included the carefully thought-out jokes that fall flat because the audience has caught the contagion and is too nervous to laugh.

After one horrible occasion, when I found myself expected to speak after a lunch  in the middle of a square of tables, introduced by a chairman who hadn't bothered to learn my name properly and with such inadequate lighting that I couldn't even read my notes, I completely lost my nerve. (Moral: never do a favour for a friend.  As the bandit in The Magnificent Seven warns, 'Sooner of later one must pay for every good deed.'  So true!)

Fortunately, I found an excellent two-day course in public speaking, which basically involved doing things like singing 'Pa has a head like a ping-pong ball' to the William Tell overture so that humiliation no longer had any meaning and I haven't had a problem since.  Joking apart, it gave me the invaluable tip that to steady the voice before you go on stage, you breathe in as if you were smelling a rose and breath out as if you were blowing out a candle half a dozen times.

Once I had the confidence, I could junk my notes if I was doing an event on my own and just chat to the audience. We were all much more comfortable that way and I also learned that if you are ever going to want them to laugh at a joke, you've got to give them permission to laugh right at the beginning.  Introducing humour after a long serious talk doesn't work.  Believe me: I tried it.

What I have found is that when I'm on stage I develop a persona, as if I actor impersonating me.  Now I'm so used to it that i can step into it the way I put on a posh frock for a formal dinner, but the result it that I don't like having friends or family in the audience because they know me as someone different.  My least favourite speech of the year is the one at my book launch where i actually have the most supportive audience possible.

Is this a defence, mechanism to protect my own privacy, when I'm subjecting myself to inspection?  I'd love to know whether other people feel the same way.. 

Friday, July 05, 2013

Food in Crime Fiction and Films

Hi, everyone. I need some help with a project that I'm working on. As a criminal justice professor, I'm involved in what is going to be a year-long project on "Food and Crime". We will be looking at food and justice issues – big issues such as famine, hunger in America, "food deserts" in urban communities, impact of environmental pollution on the food supply, exposure of agricultural laborers to contaminants. But we also intend to engage the community in the sharing of diverse "food stories" as a way of increasing understanding and reaching across barriers.

We are building the resources on our website for this project, and I want to be sure we're including fictional depictions of food issues. That includes crime fiction. I'm about to ask you to help by putting on your readers' caps. I know there are many culinary mysteries. I have several lists and many of the books on my shelves. What I'm interested in now is non-culinary mysteries in which food plays an important role – e.g., the murder weapon is a food item (as in my own first mystery, Death's Favorite Child, or much more famously in Roald Dahl's short story, "Lamb to the Slaughter"). I'm especially interested in works in which the presence of food/dining is related to a social issue (as in Rex Stout's Too Many Cooks, in which Nero Wolfe travels to West Virginia and during the course of the investigation has occasion to make a statement about racial equality while interacting with the African American men who work in the kitchen).

Since we are doing a film series as a part of this project, we also want to be sure we include films (crime and other) in our list of resources. It's truly amazing how many scenes in crime films involve food/dining. For example, in Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Uncle Charles, who is visiting his sister and her family in small town Santa Rosa, rants about "fat, greedy" women at the dinner table when he compares busy wives and mothers like his sister to the wealthy widows in the city who spend their dead husbands' money on self-indulgence. And, then there's the scene in Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), when Norman Bates keeps his next victim company while she eats the meal (sandwiches and milk) he has brought down to the motel office  so that she won't have to go back out in the rain to find a meal. Or, the scene in Falling Down (1993) when Michael Douglas, making his way across town to his ex-wife, stops in a fast food restaurant and gets a little stressed out when he is told breakfast is no longer being served. We have many other films such as Pulp Fiction, Natural Born Killers, and Goodfellas on the list.

But it is quite possible that we have missed a classic work that should be included. If you have a favorite food-related book, short story, play, or film, please let me know. We're also including a list of non-genre works with a crime elements (e.g., Ernest Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying). This is a preliminary request for information, so you may see this pop up later on DorothyL or elsewhere, when I ask readers to participate in an online survey.

Bon appetit!

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Happy 4th of July!

John here. Happy 4th of July to everyone.

It's a crazy summer in the Corrigan household. Our possessions are in three PODs in Connecticut awaiting pickup and delivery to Gill, Mass., where we will move Aug. 1. I'm writing a lot, teaching English for non-native speakers at the Exeter Summer School in New Hampshire, and trying to get to Maine as often as possible.

On the writing front, I've been considering as issue with which many writers struggle: whether or not to outline. Almost 15 years ago, I outlined my first novel. Then, after two years as a newspaper reporter, I went off to my MFA program in the early ’90s and discovered it was considered less artistic somehow if you outlined your books. I hadn't stuck to that original outline very much, anyhow, so for the next decade I wandered my way through the dark forests of five plots.

I teach writing to high school students; previously, I taught writing to college students. In my teaching, I often stress discovering one's own prewriting routine, including – if it works for you – beginning with a scratch outline.

Two years ago, at Sleuth Fest, Jeffrey Deaver gave a keynote address and spoke of having a business  model, urging writers to get one – to have a plan. "Shakespeare had a business model," Deaver said. And, of course, he was right. Shakespeare knew what he had to do to make a go of the Globe Theatre. Part of that was writing prolifically.

I just hit page 125 of my current novel, and I'm trying something new: I stopped and spent three days creating an outline (well, "outline" might be too strong a word; I wrote a five-page plot synopsis). I feel more relaxed immediately. I know the ending of the novel. Usually, I enjoy the thrill of reading the book as I write it and learning the end maybe 30 pages ahead of the reader. This is different, but I'm hoping the result is a tighter manuscript.

We'll see. If nothing else, it's why I love writing – you never master the craft, and you never stop trying to find ways to get better.

Happy 4th of July!

Happy Independence Day

Following close upon the heels of Canada Day, I, Donis, shall wish a Happy Independence Day to all. Time to eat hot dogs.

For as long as I can remember, my traditional Fourth of July fare has been hot dogs and all the fixin’s and a big old ice cream float. I grew up in the Southwest, so for me, an adult hot dog (as opposed to a kid’s purist hot dog consisting of a frank and a bun) is served Texas style - piled with chili, onions, and melted cheese - and to this day, that is my ideal hot dog. However, in my dotage I have become infinitely more careful about clogging my arteries, and I am sad to say that I haven’t had a chili-cheese dog in years.

The first New York style dog I ever ate was actually in New York City in the 1970s. I bought it from a street vendor, slathered with mustard and kraut. It was delicious. Speaking of the ‘70s, I lived in Lubbock Texas in 1976, which, as some of you may be old enough to remember, was the
Bicentennial. The city of Lubbock held quite a celebration, with parades and fireworks and free food - including hot dogs! Fortunately I was young and spry at the time, and managed to elbow my way through the crowds thronging the poor hot dog distributor. I came away with one dog in one hand and half a dog in the other, with nothing on either but the wiener. They were delicious, dang it.

These days, I still pull out the stops for the ice cream float, but my hot dogs are tofu pups and frugally dressed. I like a little mustard, some chopped onion and sweet pickle, and ketchup.  But to each his own. As long as you don’t forget the potato salad on the side. That would be just wrong.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Do-it-yourself brain surgery, anyone?

It's 12:01 a.m. and it's suddenly Wednesday, my day to post on Type M. I was going to dash off a quick lament on the busy and distracted life of a writer who is juggling promotional events and book tours on one book while trying to finish the first draft of the next while trying to have a life. The weeds in my erstwhile yard are not helping. Nor is the dog at my feet, waiting with her ball.

That would have been a nice short post. Such is the life of a writer, chaotic and fragmented at times, quiet and even lonely at other times, with an up-and-down pace that sometimes delights, sometimes terrifies, but always keeps you on your toes.

But to get myself in the mood for this short post, I read Rick's post on the vanishing, expendable expertise of photographers, who are being replaced by amateurs with cameras, and "freelancers" no doubt equipped with iPhones. And then I felt a rant coming on. I got to thinking about all the other experts whose knowledge base is being discounted and for whom respect is slowly eroding. Teachers, writers, financial advisers, even medical professionals, to name a few. People wouldn't try to fly a 747 jet without experience and training, nor would they operate on their own brain and drill their own teeth.

But it's astonishing how often people think they can learn the required knowledge with a few clicks of a mouse. People second-guess their doctors and seek alternative diagnosis and treatment from peer forums on the internet, from new-age pedlars of pseudoscientific rubbish, and from every kind of self-styled expert for whom there is no oversight and no accountability. They arrive in the psychologist's office clutching a fistful of printouts from online mental health checklists or snap IQ tests or other pop psychology quizzes not worth the paper they've printed it on. They think because they went to school or their children go to school, they know how to teach. Because they watch hockey, they know how to coach.

And what about writing? Professional journalists are being elbowed out by bloggers and "freelancers", respected professional reviewers by peer reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads. Eager but often inexperienced writers can publish their works online and sell them for 99 cents, thus avoiding the painful, humiliating but necessary process of seeking critiques, rewriting, being rejected and rewriting. With all this written material available for free, why should we pay for newspapers or magazines, or even books? Who needs that stuff anyway?

As Rick pointed out, organizations are no better. Genuine expertise is expensive. Often organizations think they can shave costs by hiring a teaching assistant rather than a teacher, a behavioural consultant or counsellor rather than a psychologist, a technician rather than an engineer. That's not to say there is no place for those jobs, nor that every task requires an engineer or psychologist, but by making those professions equivalent and by saying the higher level of expertise is unnecessary, we are devaluing knowledge and expertise, and undermining respect for excellence. Settle for mediocrity and sooner or later, we will have no experts left to light the way.

And precious few good books to read either.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

The obvious benefit of expertise

It seems to be only common sense that if you want the best job, you hire an expert, someone who really knows the terrain, is skilled and innovative – and then give them the freedom to follow their creative muse.

Unfortunately, in these corporate penny-pinching times, common sense is quite often the first casualty in the rush to the bottom line.

So today I offer a cautionary tale. Recently, the Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire full-time photographer staff. In response, they sent their reporters out with cameras to do the best they could to shoot the stories they were covering journalistically. Here’s a quote from AP: “The newspaper fired all 28 full-time photographers last week, saying it was shifting toward more online video. It says it now will rely on freelancers and reporters for pictures and video.”

So, how is this working out? I humbly submit the following link (which is self-explanatory). I don’t think you need to have much of an eye for photography to realize that this was an incredibly ill-thought-out exercise in corporate mismanagement.

Professional photographers are a misunderstood group, I find. Nearly everyone owns a camera. Many people own good cameras, and sometimes some very expensive and sophisticated ancillary equipment. That doesn’t mean that they know how to use it, though – but often, they think they do.

If you’ve ever watched a skilled photographer at work, you’ve probably been struck by how easy it seems. “Hey, I can do that!” you foolishly think. Not so fast. For these people it is easy. That’s because they really know what they’re doing. They just snap away and you’re not seeing all the knowledge, skill and experience that’s leading to the camera being adjusted properly, the focus clean and sharp, the lighting perfect (and that can be really tricky to achieve), but most of all, their critical skill in framing the photo. That’s what sets these people apart. This is especially where photography becomes art.

Obviously, there are amateurs who have this ability – but it’s not usual. The reporters who were handed cameras by the Sun-Times brass were hired for their journalistic skills. I’m sure at no time during their job interviews were they asked a single question about their skill with a camera. And yet their banana-brained employers have decided in their wisdom to fire skilled workers to replace them with unskilled workers. The results of this move are bluntly apparent in the results of what was a critical front cover for newspapers in Chicago recently. Which one of the two newspaper covers would make you feel inclined to plop down some money, hmmm?

I could go on to draw parallels in almost any industry. When will the corporate world realize that their customers want quality, especially perceived quality when their customers are in browsing mode?

Next week, I’ll share some book covers and we’ll take this observation on quality back into the book publishing world.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Various Mysteries

Before I go any further - assuming that I do think of something to write that will be worth reading - let me say, in print, to all and sundry:

           HAPPY CANADA DAY!!

(In French, btw, Canada Day is Fête du Canada.)

Originally, Canada Day was called "Dominion Day" - in French, Le Jour de la Confédération - Canada at the time being a dominion within the British Commonwealth.  The day, and the national holiday, was renamed in 1982, the year the Canada Act was passed.

National Holidays, and the reasons therefor, can be complicated.  The date July 1st is Canada Day because it was on that date in 1867 that the British North American Colonies of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick joined with the "Province of Canada", in effect Ontario and Quebec, to create the federation. And so Canada was born, or created, or cobbled together. No "rocket's red glare", or prolonged violence, or the gore of revolution. Negotiation was, and is, the Canadian way.

A lot has happened since 1867, though. The four Western provinces, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, and one Eastern  province, Prince Edward Island, joined later on. And last of all, in 1949, Newfoundland (now named Newfoundland and Labrador), where I was born, came on board, so to speak, to round out the number at an even ten. In addition to the ten provinces, there are three large northern territories in the Canadian Federation: Yukon, Nunavut and Northwest Territories. We are a large country, the second-largest by area in the world. Russia, in case you were wondering, is the largest. China and the United States are third and fourth in area, with Brazil and Australia trailing behind. Well, that's what Wikipedia tells me, so it must be true.

It's a complicated business, this nation-building process. And the process may not be over yet. In 1995, in the second referendum of its kind, the Province of Quebec came very close to declaring independence from the rest of Canada; a quasi-entity often referred to up here as the "ROC". But we are still together as a country, nonetheless. Just how that continues to be is one of the "mysteries" alluded to in the title of this post. With an independence-minded government now in power in Quebec, it's perhaps a little early to declare "that's all she wrote". Stay tuned. We continue to live in somewhat volatile times up here in The Great White - although currently mostly Green - North.

And now for another "mystery".

This morning, to sort of celebrate our National Day, I was out early playing golf. Well, the fact is I am not really much of a golfer, although I do try. My ambitions are modest; the course I play on is a par-3 affair, where even par is 54, as opposed to the standard 70-72. The shortest hole is about 70 yards, the longest 203. It should be easy. It isn't. Not for me. The mystery of it all - and it is something of a mystery - is why I continue to try, why this compulsion to set my alarm, twice each week, to yank me from my bed at 5:45, to infuse my aging self with strong coffee, and head off to the course to do battle with mosquitoes and wet turf - it has been raining every other day here in Ottawa this so-called spring - and try and whack little white balls onto small greens where lie tiny holes, within the regulation 3 strokes. But every now and then it works; this morning, 4 times out of 18. (On other days it has been much better than that, I hasten to add.)

Every so often, when hope seems to have got lost in the underbrush among the massed mosquitoes and tangled, ankle-slicing brambles, the little white ball soars through the air and magically - dare I say "mysteriously"? - lands on the tiny green. Then, two putts and it's down. That blessed par, the comforting rattle of white ball in the plastic cup. It doesn't happen often, but when it does - well, that's the magic of it, the mystery, if you will, that keeps me coming back for more. I think it's called hope. Hope is important. It's part of the human condition.

And, that's all he wrote on this Canada Day.

Cheers, all!!