Friday, February 27, 2015

On Not Plunging In

Generally, when we write about attending mystery conferences, we mention opportunities to catch up with writer friends, meet and mingle with readers, see editors and agents, and appear on panels. We write about what we learn by attending workshops and interviews with bestselling authors. We write about how we soak up all that energy, and come home ready to sit down and write.

These are all excellent reasons for attending conferences. In fact, when I signed up for Sleuthfest this year, I thought of what fun it would be to hang out with friends, be on a panel, and do a pre-publication debut of my new book, What the Fly Saw. I have to admit – no offense to Floridians – that the chance to get out of snowbound, frigid Albany, New York and spend a few days in a balmy clime was not one of the reasons I wanted to attend. I'm not a warm weather person. But, I arrived this afternoon, and so far it hasn't been bad. I've gone from air-conditioned airport to shuttle to hotel room. There is no humidity. Much better than my last visit to Florida.

But I haven't gone to the conference yet. I'm in an overflow hotel across the street (busy boulevard) and – more important – I got up at five a.m. to make my 8:15 a.m flight. That wouldn't have been bad, but I got to bed at around 2 and had about three hours sleep. So I decided to pass on the last of the afternoon workshops and the Thursday evening kickoff events. Tomorrow, I'll go over fresh and wide awake.

Being in an overflow hotel does offer one advantage – the opportunity to hide out. This is also possible in the conference hotel if you dodge people you know and/or are willing to nod briskly and keep moving when you do encounter friends. It is much easier to hide out when you are in the overflow hotel because most people in your hotel will be heading to the conference hotel. In the overflow hotel, you have an excuse for not attending an evening event – you don't want to walk back to your hotel alone in the dark. This excuse only works if you purposely don't look for people you know who might be in your hotel and with whom you could walk. Of course, you also don't bother to consider the possibility that you would be safe walking across the street from one hotel to the other.

Obviously when you have gone to the effort and expense of attending the conference, hiding out in your room should not be something you do every night. Especially when you are attending a great conference like Sleuthfest. But I would argue that taking one evening for decompression before plunging in is acceptable.

The other opportunity that should not be missed when attending a conference is the chance to take an airport shuttle to your hotel. I say this without sarcasm. Yes, if you are rushing to plunge into conference activities, then waiting for your shuttle to leave and then going on a rambling journey while other passengers are delivered to their destinations can be tedious. On the other hand, if you decide to think of the shuttle ride as a tour of the area, it becomes much more interesting. Much can be learned about an area while a passenger on an airport shuttle.

The other first-evening pleasure you should consider – in-room dining. Room service or delivery. Tonight, I ordered a wonderful meal – including coconut flan – that was delivered to my hotel. And I ate it wearing old tee shirt, shorts, and flip flops.

I also got a little work done. Some reading I needed to do. Some notes I needed to make about a project. Bright and early Friday, I will plunge into Sleuthfest, and I'm sure I'll have fun. But Thursday was my transition day…and that is why I have no photos for this post.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Exciting Climax

I’m in the midst of writing the climax to All Men Fear Me, my latest Alafair Tucker novel. It’s the big reveal, when the reader finds out whodunnit, and more importantly, when Alafair finds out whodunnit. Maybe she confronts the killer. Then what does she do? When I begin writing a new mystery novel, I usually know who the murderer is, and sometimes I know how and why s/he did it. I may also have an idea how the killer went about trying to cover up the crime. I’m pretty good about doling out clues at appropriate intervals throughout the story. But here’s the hard part: Alafair, my protagonist, has to figure out who did the deed.

And that is not easy, my friend, because I have to do it in such a way that is realistic and makes sense.

Alafair is not a law enforcement professional or a private investigator. She doesn’t do this for a living, nor does she have any official authority to compel people to answer her questions. She also lives in an era when people are constrained by fairly rigid gender roles. In fact, question number one is: what is she doing trying to solve a murder, anyway? The first thing I have to do is give her a really compelling reason to get involved at all.

Then I have to give her the means and the opportunities to uncover information and make connections, and I can’t force the action to fit the outcome I want. In other words, I can’t have Alafair doing things that a woman with the resources she has couldn’t do. I can’t have her act against her own nature, either, just to advance the plot or create tension in an artificial way.
This is the reason I’ve been known to stare at the screen for an hour when I’m at a critical juncture, thinking “how can I get Alafair off the farm and into that office in town to search for the gun, before sundown, when she has a bunch of kids and a husband, all of whom want dinner?”

I could just have her up and leave and let everyone fend for himself, or I could contrive to have all the children and the husband go out to eat at whatever the 1917 equivalent of McDonald’s was. But if I did that, I have a feeling I’d hear about it from disgruntled readers. Not to mention a horrified editor. Sometimes I just can’t come up with a plausible way to do it, and I have to go at it from a totally different angle or rework the scene altogether.

This is one of the things I like about writing an amateur sleuth. She has to be sneaky, persistent, smart, and clever in order to find her answers. And sometimes, she’s smarter than I am. In fact, there have been occasions where Alafair came upon a clue that I was not aware of myself until it appeared on the page. Toward the end of my fourth book in the series, The Sky Took Him, Alafair was sitting in a hospital corridor, having a nice, normal, conversation with the family, when she noticed something at exactly the same time I did, an observation which provided both of us with a vital piece of information. It surprised the heck out of me, but it was plausible, very much in character for Alafair, and worked like a charm. Moments like this are why writing a mystery can be such fun.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The invisible foe

Barbara here. What do the West Edmonton Mall, feminist writers, and Justine Sacco have in common? They have all been in the news recently as targets of internet threats. The internet is surely the great invention of our era, connecting us across the world and providing access to knowledge, entertainment, and services at the click of a mouse. It is such an integral part of most of our lives that it's difficult to remember how we did things before. Book a flight, find a B&B, find the best Italian restaurant in town, bake oatmeal scones, compare features of lawnmowers... It's all there. And email and social media have made it possible to stay connected (and indeed to reconnect) with friends and family around the world. To share photos and anecdotes and birthdays.

But with this vast, unfettered playground have come the playground bullies, who have their own dark desires to fulfill  and who revel in the chance to unleash their cruel side without ever having to reveal their identity or look their victim in the eye. We've all encountered them. At their most harmless, they are the trolls who hijack the 'comments' sections of newspaper articles with absurd rants or who make crude personal attacks in place of reasoned argument. Most of us have learned to ignore them rather than respond and thus give them the forum they crave.

As writers, whose work is out in the public sphere, we have to learn to ignore a special kind of troll– the negative reviewer. By this I don't mean the carefully considered critique that finds our work lacking. As painful as these are for us to read, we generally recognize they are written in the spirit of appraisal rather than attack. But there are reviewers out there whose goal is not to appraise or critique but rather to trash. Because they can. Because they enjoy it. Although these are more difficult to ignore, because their negative reviews can affect the ratings of our books, we generally grit our teeth and try to ignore them too.

But many forms of internet abuse are far more destructive, because of formless and unknowable nature of the threat. Sometimes it becomes a multi-headed monster, as when a single, ill-advised tweet gets retweeted and retweeted until perfect strangers all around the world are savaging you (as happened to Justine Sacco), causing you to lose privacy, friends, and sometimes even your job. How to contain it, how to grapple with it and try to reverse it?

Sometimes the threats are graphic and criminal in nature, as in the case of the feminist writers who were threatened with rape and other violent retribution, but the persons responsible, being anonymous, cannot be called to account and dealt with. Not knowing where the danger lies, or how serious it is, can lead to serious anxiety, which is of course one of the abusers' goals. Such is also the tactic of terrorists making videos containing vague threats of destruction, the exact time and place unknown but specific enough (like the West Edmonton mall mention) to sow fear and get the reaction they want– a world held hostage to nameless and faceless bandits.

But to bring this back to writers, on a much smaller scale, I have begun to notice a small but increasing number of nasty personal attacks, some of which have made me feel vaguely unsafe. Writers are vulnerable because our work– and our soul– is out there for all to see, and we encourage interaction with the public. I have a Facebook page which anyone can view, and a website with contact information. Generally I love the messages and emails I receive, the vast majority from readers who have enjoyed my books or want to know when the next is due out, etc. Sometimes I receive pleasant, mildly chiding messages correcting a fact or a typo in one of my books, and these too I appreciate.

But I have received a few notes which seem just plain nasty, which attack the book or myself in a way that feels vindictive. As a crime writer I tackle social and moral issues, and I understand the messages in my books are not going to appeal to everyone. Sometimes I choose to respond, and the exchange of emails opens up a dialogue that ultimately enriches both of us. But in most instances I sense there is no basis for reasonable dialogue; that as with 'comment' trolls, the vitriol is the thing, not the message itself.

But it does leave me feeling vaguely unsettled. Vaguely threatened. I would be easy to find, if someone chose to go beyond the emailing of nasty notes. And as I embark on my new series, which will tackle even more global moral and human rights issues than I did previously– issues such as human trafficking, self-radicalization, and human rights– I suspect the subtle threats may increase. It gives a writer pause, not just about what they might choose to write about, but also about how publicly available they want to be. Which would be too bad.

I'd be interested in hearing people's experiences with this, both as readers and writers. Is the phenomenon growing, and if so, how do we respond?

Monday, February 23, 2015

What's It Worth?

After my pitiful moan in my last post about having to get a new PC, I felt I must give you an update.  After a few fraught days when we gazed at each other in mutual horror ('Who is this idiot, mucking bout with my inner workings?') we have settled down to a remarkably harmonious relationship.

There are different ways of doing things, certainly, but on the whole they haven't been too hard to figure out and some of the differences are definite improvements.  And I have to say it is very refreshing not to have a sulky 'Not responding' popping up every ten minutes.

The corner was turned once wonderful Brian came round and installed Solitaire and Free Cell - so essential for bad days at the office as the civilised alternative to banging one's head against the keyboard and screaming.  So I'm well set up now (even without switching to a Mac, Rick!) with hopefully a few years ahead before I descend again into depression about having to buy a new one.

That's not really what I wanted to write about today, in fact.   I've blogged before, as have others, more than once about book prices being cut to the bone.  I remember the point being made that if you spilled your coffee over the book you were reading, it would be cheaper to replace the book than the coffee.

I've also read a good number of blogs by readers saying they should be cheaper still, indeed free, even one defending using a pirate site on the grounds that he wanted to read the book and couldn't afford it, ' so I had to.' No one would be sympathetic to me if I stole a Rolls Royce for similar reasons.

But actually, this isn't a moan about our work not being properly paid for.  I read an article recently that pointed out, in very reasonable tones, that we're not exactly in a seller's market.  There were 140,000 books published in Britain last year, and that's without counting the self-published ones that no one's counted.

The recent glut of oil worldwide has meant that the gas prices have come down.  Bad weather in the significant regions has meant that the price of chocolate has risen.  Of course books aren't cans of baked beans but we're still engaged in a commercial transaction.

We can all talk about the concept of 'worth' when it comes to books, but I suppose an article is only 'worth' what anyone else will pay for it. Even if I don't like it, I accept that it's a rational argument.

On the other hand, the French have been totally adamant about the fixed book price.  Yet go into any large French supermarket and you will find a book section easily comparable in size and range to a good bookshop.  You can pop in for a trolley of groceries and chuck in a copy of  Sartre's L'Etranger at the same time - and they do.

Recently Tom Stoppard was complaining that he can't rely on a hinterland of literary knowledge in the audiences for his plays the way he could twenty years ago.  I would doubt if the same would be true in France.

You get what you pay for - which I suppose is where I came in.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Guest Post: Diane Vallere

I'm delighted to welcome Diane Vallere as this weekend's guest. Diane is the current President of the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime and my partner-in-crime for our recent "Paint and Polyester" bookstore tour.

After two decades working for a top luxury retailer, Diane Vallere traded fashion accessories for accessories to murder. SUEDE TO REST, the first book in the Material Witness Cozy Mystery Series, has been nominated for the 2015 Lefty Best Humorous Mystery Award. Diane also writes the Mad for Mod Mystery Series, featuring a midcentury modern interior decorator who has modeled her life after Doris Day movies, and the Style & Error Mystery Series, featuring a former fashion buyer. Diane started her own detective agency at age ten and has maintained a passion for shoes, clues, and clothes ever since.

Jury Duty

Last week I asked my Facebook friends if I was the only person who got excited about Jury Duty. The replies came fast and furious. Turns out there are two kinds of people in the world: those who dislike Jury Duty, and mystery writers.

Admittedly, I have two reasons for liking Jury Duty:

1) it feels like research, and
2) it gets me out of the house.

Much research can be done on the internet, but I think there’s something to be said for research that is done in person. You can read about what happens in the jury selection process from start to finish, but you won’t fully appreciate the experience unless you catch a subway at 6:30 in the morning, stand in line for half an hour before they scan your belongings, sit in an uncomfortable chair staring at a photograph of a flamingo (occasionally wondering about the significance of said flamingo photo in a Los Angeles courthouse), watch the people who ignore the sign that says “take a packet and sit down” and form an unnecessary line at the front window.

Plus, you’ll miss the blue carpeting that is stained with a previously-spilled cup of coffee and the scent of the popcorn being sold at the concession stand outside of the Juror Room. You will rarely get this kind of chance to see a snapshot of the people who are a cross-section of the town where you live, pretty much a crash course in human nature.

The thing about research is that it fuels two parts of our manuscripts: the facts and the world-building. Facts can be looked up. World building can be made up. But for both facts and world-building to come alive, you need to deliver the complete experience to your reader. It’s not just the words of dialogue that matter. Creating the setting where a dialogue takes place is important. Whether it’s a historic courthouse for a civil trial or a dingy community center for a town hall meeting or a fancy restaurant that has altered their hours to accommodate a club meeting, when a writer pays attention to what it feels like, smells like, and sounds like—in addition to what it looks like—the reader falls that much farther down the rabbit hole. Their surroundings fade away because we gave them a new place to hang. Even if it isn’t paradise, it’s sometimes the place where our characters hang, too.

And don’t underestimate that getting-out-of-the-house thing, either. Works wonders for a stuck manuscript!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Let Me Go

Let me go ye gods of manuscripts. Take this book off my mind. Shoo! Get out of my writing room.

I sent off my non-fiction book this week. It's for University of Oklahoma Press. Right now the working title is Nicodemus: Race and Culture on the Kansas Frontier. The moment I put it in the mail I wanted it back. I instantly thought of things I wish I had said, or shouldn't have said. When I worried that the paper was too cheap or not the right weight or the right degree of brightness, I knew I had passed over the line into a new kind of craziness.

Did I remember everyone I wanted to thank in the acknowledgements? Were all the names spelled correctly. Was I wrong on just about everything? Was there some crucial resource that I left out? Was the epilogue too short? It took a long time to finish this project. Academic books require extensive documentation. I've read so many microfilmed newspaper that I'm lucky I still can see.

Non-fiction books have their own protocol. For one thing, I had so send this manuscript in both print and digital formats, with each chapter in a separate digital file. Poisoned Pen Press wants everything in a single digital file. In fact that's true of most fiction publishers nowadays. Each method has it's own merits.

Single large files are a dream to edit. For that matter I can change a name instantly throughout the whole book. We had to do that in Hidden Heritage when I read two days before I sent in the final manuscript that a family in New Mexico was suing the government over the same issue that was the linchpin of my mystery.

When I got home from FedEx, I realized I had left out the checklist. See? I told myself I would leave out something that was critical. I'll scan it and email it to my editor.

I have a couple of things left to do. This kind of book has a lot of pictures and acquiring permission to print them is quite tedious. The first step is to determine who owns the copyright. The next step is  writing to the owner and getting signed permission to publish. The stipulations are very restrictive. I only have one more picture to collect. I don't want to take a chance on it getting lost in the mail and will go to LaJunta, CO to scan it. It's a priceless picture of Lulu Craig, whom I quote throughout the book.

I have to do my own indexing. The process is quite precise. However, one of the things I appreciate about OU Press is detailed instructions. There are professional indexers, but the price would come out of my own pocket and it would be really hard for someone else to pick out the sub-headings I have in mind.

This is a learning process. Right now, I'm maxed out on integrating new information. And I want the book off my mind while I finish my fourth mystery.

You can bet I'll let everyone know when the academic book is published.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Philip Levine: A (Second) Tribute

Philip Levine died this week. He was my favorite poet, a man whose work not only inspired my novels, but a man who helped me out when the mechanism of the publishing industry got in the way.

I wrote Snap Hook, a novel featuring a dyslexic protagonist, in 2001 just after discovering Mr. Levine's work. When the copy of The Simple Truth arrived, I flipped to the first page, began reading, and did something I had never done before (or since) with a collection of poetry: I read the entire book through, cover to cover.

My father owned a garage, and I had spent time working in it. Levine was writing about people I knew and had known. Of course, he was writing about the men and women "of Flint...the majors of a minor town," as he eloquently describes in "Among Children." But I fell in love with those poems and his work.

This came at a time when I was directing a visiting writer series in northern Maine. (Stephen King had donated funds to launch it.) So I invited Mr. Levine to visit. He lived in Fresno, Calif., a place where he long resided, and said he was too old to travel. But we spent a half-hour on the phone one afternoon -- me trying to convince him to come, he suggesting other feisty poets. I had just had my second daughter, and we talked about fatherhood and children, he told me stories about his grandchildren. And while we were on the phone, I told him of an idea I had, which he was very much in support of.

Not long after that conversation, I was finishing Snap Hook. And I had added a character trait to Jack Austin, my protagonist: He would read a Philip Levine collection in each book. In Snap Hook he was reading The Simple Truth, the title poem to which offers the lines:
          Some things
          you know all your life...
          it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
          you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
          it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
          made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
          in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.

These lines appear on the final page of my novel. What better denouement? (Perhaps, now, what better epilogue?) My editor liked the final page and called after reading the manuscript (I had already signed a two-book contract), and asked where the permission form was for those lines.

"Mr. Levine and I spoke over the phone. He knows I'm using them and likes the idea," I said. (Everyone starts out you, so work with me; I was in my 20s.)

"Random House owns those lines. You need to pay for them."

I was writing for a university press at the time. If you don't already know, university presses don't pay a lot. When I called Random House and got the rights people on the phone and heard their fee, I nearly dropped the phone: They wanted three times my advance for the book.

I did the only thing I could think of. I called Mr. Levine again and told him the situation. He dropped several expletives and said to send him $50 so he could take his wife to lunch. He wanted mystery readers to see his work, saying my books could open up his to a new audience.

A short while later, I got an e-mail from Random House with a contract I could afford. And Jack Austin went on reading Philip Levine poetry.

My books were – I sincerely hope – on some level tributes to Mr. Levine. And I will offer one more here. Take a moment today to read "Among Children" in which he concludes with:
          I will be gone into smoke or memory,
          so I bow to them here and whisper
          all I know, all I will never know.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Getting Out in the World

This is a really short post since I’m preparing to go out of town. Next week I’ll be attending the Creative Painting convention in Las Vegas. Every year around this time my sister and I meet up in Vegas for this tole/decorative painting convention. (She lives in Seattle, I live in Los Angeles.) We enjoy painting, seeing the Vegas sights, and doing a little sister bonding. It’s great fun.

It’s also a semi-working vacation for me since the protagonist in my book, Fatal Brushstroke, is a tole/decorative painter. Being around so many people who enjoy the craft always sparks ideas for scenes and stories.

It’ll also be a welcome change of scenery since I’ve been hunkered down over my computer these days, madly writing, rarely even going outside. It’s time for me to re-engage with the world. That’s something that’s important for every writer to do—leave their keyboard behind and go somewhere, do something that sparks your interest and creativity.

Writers who have day jobs and work outside the home do that all the time. But, for those of us who work at home or write full-time, it’s more of a challenge. One day you’re writing, a few days later you look up and realize you’ve not stepped out of the house in a week. (Particularly true near deadlines.) I suspect most writers have experienced that at one time or another.

So, on Saturday, I will put down my keyboard, leave my computer behind and get out there. I’m looking forward to coming back with oodles of new ideas.

Vegas here I come!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

More thoughts on “backstory”

If you haven’t read Frankie’s post from this past Friday (Finding the Backstory), I suggest you do so now. It very clearly lays out why this is important when you’re writing any sort of fiction.

I have to admit that I am almost obsessed with who my characters are. To my mind, the greatest compliment I can receive from someone who has read my scribblings is “the characters seem so real”. Readers may not always like all my characters (and I’m not referring only to the bad guys), but often my characters have “bad attributes” because, well, everybody has some of those, don’t they? Bad attributes and weaknesses can also inform readers much more and make characters all the more richer and “true”.

It’s my feeling that in order to really understand a character’s responses to stress and what their motivations for doing things are, you must know where they came from. These details are often not meant to be in the book. The backstory about a character might warrant merely a passing mention, or maybe no mention at all, but knowing the backstory can be of the utmost importance to the storyteller. These details are the building blocks of creating real and believable characters.

Whenever I get stalled in a book and quite often before even beginning it, I think about my main characters and often write out little scenes from their lives outside the parameters of my plot requirement. In some cases this has proven to be the salvation of a novel that’s going south on me.

This was especially true with the character of Victoria Morgan in both the novels I wrote about her, oddly more in the second one than the first. For whatever reason (probably because she’s a redhead), I couldn’t get a handle on why she would do certain things and not others. I was stalled for nearly three weeks in the writing of Cemetery of the Nameless for just this reason. I needed Tory to do something for plot reasons, and no matter how I wrote this critical scene, the results felt uncomfortable, unbelievable and awkward. The problem was, I really needed her to do what I was asking. It was as if she was refusing my requests. (Redheads do tend to have very strong opinions and vast amounts of stubbornness.)

Not being able to write is an uncomfortable feeling for an ink-stained wretch like me. So, approaching the end of the third week of writing stasis, I began working on a story of her at the age of eight, having one of her weekly violin lessons. To this day, I can’t tell you why I did that, but as this little vignette took shape, I suddenly realized something about Tory’s make-up as an adult, and that had its genesis in this rather turbulent lesson. Because of what transpired between her and her teacher, the first seeds of doubt about her ability on violin were sown and wormed their way down into Tory’s psyche. It forced her to respond certain ways even though I doubted if she would barely remember what had happened so many years earlier.

All I had to do was tap into that doubt some two decades on in her life and Tory (reluctantly) would do what my story needed her to do. It was suddenly right and believable that she would do something like this. The logjam was broken and the words flowed out.

I now go through this process quite regularly, usually with my protagonists and often my antagonists, but sometimes with minor characters. I may or may not write it down, but I at least think it through. The series I am currently (and sporadically) working on has gone through this process quite extensively. If I’m going to turn out a series of novels about these people, I have to understand them as completely as I can.

It also opens up a a huge source of possibilities for further novels. What happened between this character and his wife to cause their separation and eventual divorce? And more importantly, how does my protagonist feel about this now? It will have nothing to do with the first novel, and probably won’t even be mentioned, but I’m sure it will come up eventually and may even form the basis of a story further down the line. Who knows?

And that’s one of the wonderful things about writing fiction. The act of creation is so much more intense than any other kind of writing. We get to play god as it were. But with awesome power comes awesome responsibility, and the fact that our characters are merely figments of our imaginations doesn’t absolve us from the fact that we must nurture and take care of them, look out for their interests. Backstory is one of the best ways to help us in our quest to write natural and believable characters, and to my mind, that’s the most important thing in what we do in our writing.

There’s too much cardboard in this world as it is. We don’t need to add to it!

Monday, February 16, 2015

A Visit to North Carolina and Head Meeting Desk

By Vicki Delany

First, before my rant of the week:

Are you in the Raleigh/Durham area of North Carolina?  If so, why not come out to one of my many events there this week and next.  I’ll be with fellow-TypeM-er Donis Casey, and Canada’s Mystery Maven, Linda Wiken (Erika Chase).  It will be sort of a meeting of the mavens as North Carolina Mystery Maven Molly Weston will be our guide. 

I understand the weather in North Carolina is not looking promising, so I will probably be packing this hat.

The full schedule of events can be found at http://vickidelany.blogspot.com

How much is one of my books worth to you? How much do you think my time is worth to me?

I’m hoping you’ve answered, more than 0.

But not everyone seems to think so.

I was approached this week by a profit-making corporation that promotes it’s product by doing public events.  And they charge a healthy sum for an evening of… participating in their promotion (food and drink is involved).  They invited me to a book-club type evening and the participants would be discussing one of my books.

Naturally, I said yes. Sounds like a great opportunity.

They replied and said they couldn’t afford to pay me. (Not good, but I will do book clubs without charging a fee. Off topic, but I do not do workshops for free, other than schools).  And, then they said I would be expected to GIVE each participant the book in plenty of time for them to read it before the meeting.

Uh, no. I was being asked to not only give up an evening of my time, appear in public to entertain people who have paid to attend the event, but donate a substantial number of my own books to boot. I would in short, counting my time, be out several hundred dollars.

So I said no. I suggested they contact my publisher to perhaps come up with a deal or a discount, but I am not giving them all the books so they can charge people to come to their event.

I said that as a writer I make my living by SELLING books. 

And what do you suppose the reply was to that? Oh, we didn’t realize you were self-published.

Huh? In case anyone out there doesn’t know, a standard publishing contact gives the author a small number of books to use for promotion, send to reviewers, etc. After that the author pays a slightly discounted rate for each book. So each book they wanted me to give to their participants would have cost me 50-60% of the cover price.

Frankly, I don’t know what we can do to about this sort of thing. Musicians say the same thing: The value of their time and of their product is seen as nothing.

It’s not helped by the number of books that are given away on Amazon etc. for free or for .99c.  A whole lot of people out there now believe that the value of a book is $0.00, certainly no more than $0.99. 

If you come to meet Donis, Linda, and me in North Carolina I can guarantee you will get a lot more than $0.00 worth of entertainment.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Waldeinsamkeit and Winnetou

 Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press, including Bones of Contention, Bet Your Bones, Bonereapers, Her Boyfriend’s Bones, and Where the Bones Are Buried. Originally from Georgia, Jeanne lives with her husband in Renton, Washington. For more information, visit her website at Or, follow her on Twitter @JMMystery.

Sometimes one word can convey a mood or a sentiment that requires many words to articulate. It may hold special meaning in the language and culture that coined it, or the feelings that it connotes may have to be experienced to be understood. Vladimir Nabokov, who was fluent in both English and Russian, struggled to translate the Russian word toska. “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning.”

While in Berlin researching my new Dinah Pelerin mystery, Where the Bones Are Buried, I discovered a similarly complex German word – Waldeinsamkeit. The approximate meaning is the feeling of being alone in the woods, of being connected to Nature. During the Romantic period between 1800 and 1850, there was a great longing for a place of tranquility in which to contemplate the loneliness of existence. Poets wrote about the quest for spiritual wholeness in Nature and the aesthetic and healing pleasures of woodland beauty. But as Germany transformed from a rural country to an economic and industrial power, the cities grew and the forests shrank. Two devastating World Wars in the 20th Century reduced the realm of Nature still more.

Today, Germany is one of the most densely wooded countries in Europe, but its forests are not primeval. Most are planted and maintained for the production of timber. It’s hard to be alone in the forest and there’s no longer the danger – or the thrill – that one might fall into the clutches of witches or wolves. The enchanted forests found in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm have disappeared. The hero or heroine can no longer enter into the dark unknown and encounter magic. In his novel Rat, the writer Günter Grass expressed that sense of loss:

“Because men are killing the forests the fairy tales are running away… [they] have trotted off to the cities and end badly.”

The idea of the forest occupies a profound place in the German psyche, which may explain their fascination with the American frontier and the untamed tribes who once roamed there. This fascination began with the adventure novels of Karl May, who created a fictional Apache chief named Winnetou, a “wise and noble savage.” Without ever seeing the landscape he wrote about, May pictured the scenery and characters so vividly that he lost track of reality. He came to believe that he was the living embodiment of Old Shatterhand, the white blood brother of Winnetou. May died in 1912, but his tales of Winnetou and the “Wild West” continue to have a grip on the German imagination. Over two hundred million copies of his books have been sold and they have inspired numerous festivals and theme parks. One such park, Pullman City in southern Germany, is special. A recreated frontier town straight out of a Clint Eastwood western, it encourages visitors to regard themselves as actual cowboys and Indians rather than as spectators. Like Karl May, they mingle reality with fantasy and join in the saloon gunfights and Indian rain dances.

The inspiration for Where the Bones Are Buried occurred when I learned about der Indianer clubs, in which aficionados dress as Indians, adopt Indian names, collect Indian artifacts, and gather for drumming ceremonies and powwows. Some go so far as to live in teepees in their back gardens, sew their own deerskin clothes, and eschew all technology. At first, I thought this Indian obsession bizarre, even laughable. But when these people speak of their affinity and nostalgia for the Comanches and Apaches of long ago, they are touchingly earnest. It’s an astonishing subculture that defies both time and geography. Since Dinah is a cultural anthropologist and also part Seminole, the phenomenon seemed a perfect motif for another of her foreign exploits.

I don’t know if the German desire to play Indian reflects something as psychologically abstruse as toska – a vague yearning for wilderness and for a romanticized past that never really existed. I don’t know if the concept of Waldeinsamkeit blends into the mythology of Winnetou. Maybe wearing feathered headdresses and buffalo horns is a way to hold onto a semblance of magic, a way to keep the fairy tales from trotting off to the cities forever. Understanding the mystery requires a journey across cultures, which is the kind of journey Dinah loves best.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Finding the Backstory

As I read the posts from Rick and Barbara this week, I was breathing much easier. I had finally finished that short story I mentioned I was working on. The short story for an anthology with all of the contributors writing about the hero of three "B" westerns. According to the guidelines we were given, genre-blending was permitted. As you might expect, my story involved a murder. But it took me forever and a day to get to that murder. Halfway through, I had to change directions and rethink the plot.

I know I've written before about sagging middles and endings that won't gel, and the agony of getting through a first draft. But I'm not a pantser. I usually know more or less where I'm headed. I'm that hybrid that Barbara discussed. But with this short story, knowing where I wanted to go and getting there was not happening.

One of the problems was that I was writing about a character that I had not created. He stood there before me, an adult, fully formed. He had done things and had cowpoke buddies that I needed to take into account. In addition, the publisher had provided some guidelines about this character's behavior (i.e., good guy hero). I started writing with those guidelines in mind. I wrote and wrote and the character never came to life. It was only when I took the working title that the publisher had provided seriously that I begin to see how much room I had to write the story I wanted to write. The title was "the birth of" -- as in origins, roots, what is this character's backstory?  Why did Batman become a vigilante superhero? Why had my cowboy from Texas become a man who would do the right thing, who would be on the side of law and justice? That was my entry point into my story.

Realizing this stopped me dead in my rewrite. I needed to think about not only where this character had been born but the family he had been born into. I needed to think about why he would understand the reaction of another character to the murder of a family member. I needed to dig deeper and think about what "my" protagonist felt and cared about -- not just how he looked and rode his horse.

This was my mini version of what Reed Farrel Coleman talked about in his weekend guest post a couple of weeks ago. Coleman needed to figure out how to write about Robert B.Parker's protagonist in a way that was true to Parker's vision but drew on Coleman's own strengths as a writer. I needed to do that for my short story. But that wasn't the end of the process. Once I had a grip on my character, I need to claim my setting. I needed to stop playing western movies in my head and draw on the research I had done.

I'm not sure what the editor of the anthology is going to say about the story that I ended up writing. It's true to the spirit of the character, but I turned at least one convention on its head. Within the context of my story, it makes sense and had to happen that way. And contributors were given some leeway to write grittier than movie-version stories.

Meanwhile, I am now back to the countdown to pub date for my March mystery (What the Fly Saw). I'm on a virtual book tour and writing guest posts. The challenge is to make each one unique and targeted to the audience of the website. I have a list of book-related ideas, and I'm telling myself that if I could write that short story, guests posts should be easy. They're not. But I'm getting them done.

Will let you know what happens with the short story and how the virtual book tours goes.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Neither a pantser nor a plotter be

Barbara here. I really enjoy following Rick on this blog's rotation schedule, because he always gets me thinking, which inspires me with blog topics when I am down to the wire. He and I have walked a similar writing path and hence share many experiences and insights. I too have a stack of full-length novels on my resume as well as three novellas. Rick and I have the same publishers for both. Thankfully, I don't write advertizing copy but I do write short stories and indeed have just finished one entitled The Lighthouse for a cross-genre, Poe-inspired anthology put together by horror/ dark fantasy writer Nancy Kilpatrick and eclectic, "anything goes", mystery writer Caro Soles. Look for nEvermore! from Edge Publishers later this year.

Short stories share with ad copy the same economy of words and powerful punch. Each word has to count, and there is no space or time to waste. Like poetry, short stories have to make every word and action the most perfect choice it can be. They are rigorous training for any serious writer.

Like Rick, I have confronted the issue of outlining at various times over the past 20 years. Or its variant, synopsis writing. Generally, publishers love them and writers hate them. Publishers want evidence that you know what you're doing and will produce a credible story at the end of the day. Some writers – the sort who outline fanatically – do know what they're doing, but some of us are straitjacketed by outlines, have little idea where we are going, and prefer to just let ourselves loose on the page. It's always terrifying, but after ten published novels (and numerous "practice novels") I've learned to trust that it works. No doubt it is not the easiest or most comfortable way to write a novel, but for some of us, it's the most creative way. I've often joked to incredulous readers that if I don't know where I'm going, how can the reader possibly know?

However, as Rick mentioned, the publisher of our novellas wants a detailed chapter outline before the contract is signed, so I have learned to do those. It helps that these novellas have a single point of view and a simple, linear plot. And they are short. No back story or flashbacks, no interwoven subplots, multiple story lines or three hundred pages of unwieldy plot. I start at the beginning of the story and brainstorm to the end before I write the actual prose. Things may change in the writing and characters may surprise me, but the bones of the story are there to act as guideposts throughout the writing process.

I have just today finished the first draft of a brand new, full-length novel in a new series. In this project, everything was an unknown. The characters were all strangers to me, the setting was unfamiliar, and for the first time I was writing an amateur sleuth adventure thriller instead of a police procedural, so I had none of my usual signposts to follow. Although I normally write multiple point of view, in this novel I was writing scenes not only from three points of view but also with three simultaneous story lines coverging towards the final climax.

It was terrifying. Incredibly hard work. I found I couldn't simply let myself loose on the page, because I was weaving a story involving multiple threads, so not only did I have to ask myself what would this character be doing next, but what are the other characters doing at the same time? I've never been one for lists or charts or coloured index cards, but I found myself keeping a file of notes on my ideas as the plot progressed. Notes on what I thought might come next and on problems I had to fix in the story I'd already written.

And I found myself doing mini-outlines. Not of the novel from beginning to end, but at pivotal points in the story, I would take stock, brainstorm forward three or four scenes, and jot the scene ideas down. When I'd written those, I'd imagine the next few. In fits and starts, I made my way to the end of the novel. Part free form, part outline. Now that it's done, I feel it was creative but still controlled, and I am ready with my file of notes for the rewrites.

Perhaps this will be the new style for me, one of the truly diehard pantsers. Neither a panther nor a plotter be, but a manageable hybrid of the two. We shall see.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Writing is writing

I’ve been doing a lot of writing over the past week. Unfortunately, it’s not been for the novella I have due on June 1st nor for my new full-length novel. It’s copywriting for an important client and it’s got a much earlier due date, so write I must!

However, last night, completely fried after a work day in the salt mines that didn’t end until after nine (starting at 8 a.m., too!), I still had a spark of creative energy left, so I opened up the novella file and did some work.

And a curious thing happened.

Before continuing, I have a small confession to make. You see, for some reason, the first draft of nearly everything I’ve ever written contains what my good friend, editor Cheryl Freedman, calls “weasel words”. What she means by that term is that the way my characters speak and the way I describe things prevaricates. I don’t come right out and confidently state things. The evidence of this going on is when I use phrases like “it seemed”, “I think”, “it appeared as if” and too many others to list here. Occasionally, some of my weasel words are there for a very good reason, but more often than not, it’s an indicator that I’m not completely sure of what I’m trying to say. That may be because I haven’t completely worked something out in my story, or I’m not clear about who the character is, but the end result is that my writing comes across as if I’m waffling — which I guess I am. (See? I just weaseled in that last sentence.) Cheryl, a dear and generous thing for sure, always reads my mss as soon as I think I’m done. I phrase it that way because she always finds that I’m not as done as I believe I am. Her experienced eye picks up wherever I’m (still) “weaseling” and calls me on it. While it often frustrates me, I am certainly more than grateful for her eagle eye.

So there’s the back story.

Now the thing with advertising copy is that you always want to project confidence and knowledge in equal proportions. Readers must feel that you know what you’re talking about or you’ll lose them (and their money). You also can’t use a lot of words. Every single one has to have impact but appear artless at the same time. You can never reveal the “man behind the curtain” and make people feel as if they’re being manipulated — even though they are.

Last night, in bed with my journal on my lap, I began working on a new chapter. Because my publisher requires a written chapter summary beforehand, I knew what I needed to say. After glancing at the previous chapter written nearly a week earlier, I started in. An hour and a bit later, I was finished. (They’re short chapters in this format.) Before closing up for the night, I read through it, and I was astounded to see not one example of weaseling, even though I had only the barest of ideas about what I wanted to say. Every word of dialogue projected confidence on the part of each character which was especially surprising because one of them just “wandered” into the chapter unexpectedly — usually a place where weaseling is rampant.

Did I suddenly learn how to avoid my perennial problem? I don’t think so. I have to put it down to a week of hard work writing ad copy (and believe me that is very hard work).

Now I’m not suggesting every novelist take up writing advertising copy, but I am beginning to see the value of staring out the window or at the ceiling (or whatever you do when you’re concentrating) and working things out in greater detail before you pick up your writing implement or lay a finger on your computer keyboard. In other words, more reflection is needed. Normally, I just jump in and throw words around with abandon until I run out of gas, at which time I read through what I’ve created so haphazardly and am appalled at the sloppiness — even though the basic ideas are good.

You’re probably laughing at my coming to this conclusion at such a late date, but that’s the way these things work. The best way to learn is by working things out yourself — at least, that’s the best way for me.

The other thing that struck me was, “Dear Lord! You’re becoming one of those writers who outlines before writing!” That’s something I never thought I would espouse, but I seem to be heading down that path. I’m currently comforting myself by saying that I won’t actually write my thoughts down, but even if I only do them in my head, it amounts to the same thing, doesn’t it?

It also appears that you can teach an old dog new tricks…

Monday, February 09, 2015

Can't Live With It, Can't Live Without It

I am in the terrible position of having to get a new computer. My PC is ten years old, having far outlasted all the fancy laptops and i-Pads my technology-addicted family have bought in between.

It’s been kept going by Brian, who comes in when something goes wrong, shakes his head and says that what I need is a new hard-drive, but then fixes it so that it works all right for a while and I put off having to face the dread of losing really important stuff in the transfer – like that email in the Family folder that my daughter sent me about a visit they made seven years ago and all the similar emails lingering in all the other folders too.

My more technically-minded husband has been helping to nurse it along but it has been a severe strain. I realised the time had come for drastic action when I found him standing looking blankly at a shelf in the supermarket. ‘I think I’ve caught a virus from your computer,’ he said. ‘My brain is Not Responding.’

So even I have realised that The Time Has Come and I have to get rid of it before it has whatever PCs have when they take a fatal seizure and die and all my files die with it.

Under the direction of my long-suffering and more technically-minded husband I have been saving all my files and email folders to a USP stick while he has been putting everything into a Drop Box so we’ve done a sort of belt-and-braces job. The new hard drive is sitting on the floor, waiting for Brian to come and install Word 8.1 - and why, pray, do computers not come with the programmes installed? I don’t expect to have to pay extra and spend hours on making my new washing-machine ready to wash clothes. But I digress.

I have a bad habit of anthropomorphising the machines that serve me and feeling guilty when their natural life is at an end: my loyal Kenwood mixer - forty years of glorious service, now old and tired and consigned to landfill; Henry, our vacuum cleaner, with the cheerful face on his cylinder, superseded by a new and - shh! more effective model.

I feel no such affection and guilt for my PC. We have squabbled constantly over the years, when it performed unprompted some unhelpful and spiteful act that caused no end of trouble and angst. Loyalty had no part in our long relationship.

But having grown used over the years to its little quirks, I’ll now have to adapt to new systems and layouts. I have the dreadful feeling that it will all have become much cleverer and more sophisticated. The trouble is, I haven’t. Oh dear.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Weekend Guest Poster: K.A. Laity

I'm delighted to welcome K.A. Laity, a fellow member of the Upper Hudson (Mavens of Mayhem) chapter of Sisters in Crime as our welcome guest.

K. A. Laity is the award-winning author of White RabbitA Cut-Throat Business, Lush Situation, Owl Stretching, Unquiet Dreams, À la Mort Subite, The Claddagh Icon, Chastity Flame, Pelzmantel and Other Medieval Tales of Magic and Unikirja, as well as editor of Weird Noir, Noir Carnival and Drag Noir. Her bibliography is chock full of short stories, humor pieces, plays and essays, both scholarly and popular. She spent the 2011-2012 academic year in Galway, Ireland where she was a Fulbright Fellow in digital humanities at NUIG. Dr. Laity teaches medieval literature, film, gender studies, New Media and popular culture at the College of Saint Rose. She divides her time between upstate New York and Dundee.


I used to have Thoreau’s mantra posted on the wall of my Cambridge apartment. I had illusions that somehow my huge piles of books and papers would magically disappear or tidy or somehow look less cluttered. Living in three countries in the last three years, I have managed to unload a good deal of belongings, but I’m a writer. There’s only so many books you can manage to pry from your hands.

I’ve been more successful in trying to employ it in my writing. The reminders keep coming at me lately. The other day Bish’s Beat posted a reflection on a conversation with a best selling writer who went on about simplifying everything: “Cut exposition to an absolute minimum.” Maybe you don’t want to write a bestseller, but as my pal Saranna DeWylde posted, classic authors also tend to write more simply than you think.

“The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.” ― Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

I’m in the midst of teaching a noir fiction course and re-reading Hammett, Chandler, Sanxay-Holding and Hughes has reminded me how lean their prose is. As usual I teach to learn and I am excited by the re-discovery of why I love these books so much. There are so few wasted words. So much is left to the reader to fill in.

Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York: they assume you know the cities or will take their word for it about how they are. Specific locations we need to know practical things about get just the important details: Sam Spade’s apartment, the Sternwood family estate, the Holley’s boathouse. We know Effie Perine’s boyish face—and we know that no romance will happen between her and Sam because of that description. She’s able and attractive, but no femme fatale. Carmen Sternwood doesn’t just suck her thumb, her thumb is weirdly formed, another finger, so the image becomes an indelible part of her character and her wrongness. And after our introduction to Dix Steele imagining himself flying in the midst of the fog then following the girl even though he “didn’t intend” to do so, there are no more direct words than “She was afraid.” You learn all you need to know about him from his pleasure at that knowledge.

“Simplicity is the most difficult thing to secure in this world; it is the last limit of experience and the last effort of genius.” ― George Sand

I’m changing my own writing. In the midst of a new novel, I am taking the unusual step of backtracking. I like to burn through a first draft without looking back and then edit afterward. But I feel bloat creeping in and I want to snuff it out at the start and go on the same way. It’s the same way with teaching. You can see on their faces when you lose them. I stop and go back, try other words, find out where we parted company. You can do that in a class room. In a novel, a reader’s patience only lasts so long. As a reader, I’m rather ruthless when it comes to giving up on a book. There are so many books to read after all.

So I cut the words that are unnecessary. I cut the passages where my joy in describing a scene goes beyond what the reader needs to know into my pleasure at throwing words on the page. I cut to the best words, the specific ones, because the right word is more indelible than a whole paragraph of prose. I cut until it bleeds.

Friday, February 06, 2015

The Built-in Topic

Everyone's mystery is about some particular setting or topic that can be exploited for talks. That little something in the background is much more likely to hold a readers' attention than trying to persuade people to buy your mystery book. Why is your book different from everyone else's book?

I've always known this, but with the advent of social media, I'm just now beginning to realize how much can be done. Recently I received a request to speak at Nicodemus, Kansas on the topic of my new history book. The book is about 19th century Kansas African American politicians. There were hints that I might receive a stipend. We'll see. Considering the state's draconian budget cuts, I'm not counting on it.

To me, it was terrific to have to an unsolicited invitation to speak to people on a topic that they are interested in. I accepted happily with the usual warning, however, that I don't do weather. Eastern Colorado and Western Kansas are famous for savage last minute storms and I often have to cancel plans.

Because the book won't be out until 2016, I'll take my mysteries along and do a little mini-pitch for the Lottie Albright series. I'll talk about the differences between fiction and non-fiction writing.

Between now and time University of Oklahoma Press's catalog comes out, I need to take the time to sit down and think.

For some reason planning marketing comes hard for me. It's not that I can't think. It's just that I don't like to. Oddly enough I love to solve problems. That helps me a lot with my wretched computer wrecks. An ability to solve problems would seem to carry over to futuristic planning, but it doesn't.

To stay afloat in this noisy overcrowded word of mystery writing, we simply have to learn to plan campaigns. Oddly enough, there has been very little written on this subject.

Care to share how you do it. Do you simply respond to whatever falls in your lap? Or plan ahead.?

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Eating Dostoyevsky

Shoveling gives me time to think. And unlike my Type M colleagues who are smart enough to live in Arizona, I've had plenty of time to think lately – western Massachusetts was pounded with two feet of snow last week and got a dusting of eighteen inches Monday.

One thing I've been musing of late has been Crime and Punishment, which I've read three times since June. (Yes, I'm teaching it.) If I read it in high school, I don't remember doing so. And if I read it in college, I was too busy majoring in the college newspaper, working evenings at the local daily paper, and chasing pucks and members of the opposite sex to remember it. But now, I'm devouring the novel.

The late poet Mark Strand understood this. In his wonderful ode "Eating Poetry," he describes the sensation:
Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

Maybe we all have that book we've been waiting to devour, written by that author we've been waiting to meet, waiting fall in love with. These works speak to us for many reasons, some unknown. However, as a writer of crime novels and a fan of any work in any genre that deals with the individual struggling with internal conflict and delves into utilitarian themes, questions of religion and moral and societal corruption – Crime and Punishment doesn't just speak to me; it shouts.

The book opens with our protagonist (anti hero) Raskolnikov leaving his terrible dwelling to walk to a pawnbroker – a terrible, nasty woman – whom he plans to murder in the coming days. His rationale: she won't live long, and he (and others) can benefit from the money. He even meets a police officer along the way who, theoretically, agrees with his thinking, but reminds him of the absurdity of the world, which, in a society dominated by a czar, has left Raskolnikov penniless and his sister facing what amounts to prostitution to save the family. In my Crime Literature course, we speak often about issues like socio-economics and class in the criminal justice system. Dostoyevsky was only a couple hundred years ahead of me. The universality of this crime novel? Anyone who reads the book and followed recent events in Ferguson, MO, will make the connection.

Interestingly, I figured I was the lone crime writer on planet earth to not have read Crime and Punishment. Yet I've come to realize many of my friends have not (or, like me, might have but not for many, many years). I'd urge members of the Type M community, writers and readers alike, to put a copy on your nightstand. And, once finished, tell me what you think.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

The End of Cursive?

Every time I hear about another school system deciding to remove cursive writing from their curriculum, I get a little sadder. Learning cursive used to be a rite of passage in grade school along with learning how to tie one’s shoes. One of those skills that comes in handy throughout your life.

Apparently, this isn’t just an issue here in the U.S. Our neighbors to the north have also been removing cursive from the curriculum for a while now.

(Interesting side note: according to the above article, the form of cursive taught in the U.S. and Canada is particular to North America. Developed by a Canadian, H.B. MacLean, the MacLean Method was taught widely throughout both countries. Looking at the letters for the MacLean method, I'm not totally convinced it's what I learned. My handwriting certainly doesn't look as fancy as those letters. But, still, it's an interesting side note.)

I’m definitely in the pro-cursive camp. I still believe this “ancient skill” has a use today. I’ve always felt that I remember things better if I write them down. Something about putting pen to paper ingrains whatever I’m writing into my brain that typing (sorry, keyboarding) does not. And there’s just something comforting about writing in a flowing script. (Don’t tell me I can print. It’s just not the same thing and so much more painful.) Plus I also find I write better drafts of a chapter for a WIP if I write the initial version in longhand.

There are a number of different studies that seem to support the idea that learning cursive is good for the brain. According to this article in Psychology Today, “scientists are discovering that learning cursive is an important tool for cognitive development” and that cursive “activates areas of the brain that do not participate in keyboarding."

Then there are some articles here on the Campaign for Cursive blog that support the idea that students who take notes in longhand in class retain more than those who take notes using a keyboard.

But, what really got to me recently was this Huffington Post blog post that points out what people who can’t read cursive could be missing out on: a recipe written out in cursive by a grandparent, a letter written by an ancestor.

I know there are more pressing problems in the world, but this one still bugs me. What do you all think?

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Standing on your own two feet

Regardless of what people think the life of an author is like, the truth is that it’s a lot of work, much of it not much fun. The reality of the current marketplace is that most of the grunt work is done by the author, not by the publisher, the media or publicists — unless said author hires the publicist him/herself.

Has it always been like this? I really don’t know, but I would expect things were more dependent on other people rather than the author.

But we now live in an age of “downsizing”, “rationalization”, “outsourcing”, all nicely manufactured terms for corporations telling us we must “do more with less” (except for the people at the top). Sure, we can complain, gnash our teeth, protest, but the truth is, there’s very little that can be done about it.

Publishers have long known that writers are desperate to see their books in print – even high-profile authors when it comes down to it. There is far more truth in in the words “Publish or Perish” than most would believe. Desperate people can be talked into a lot of things simply because they’re desperate. Some (certainly not all) publishers will take advantage of this. It’s not because they’re inherently nasty people working for nasty corporations. Most often, they’re moved by simple economics: there’s less money to go around and the money that’s available must be put to work in the places where it will have maximum return.

Being at the bottom of the food change in publishing (as they always have been), writers who then become authors upon publication of their deathless prose (my designation of the difference between these two jobs), will take on a lot of the promotional work simply because they want to get ahead. They will pay for publicists, arrange their own book events, send out press releases, design publicity materials. When the publisher is also doing some of this work, too, you can get a lot of bang for your buck, but far too often, authors are out on their own.

For me, sure, I don’t like having to do it, truth be told. I have obligations beyond my writing that must be attended to – like making enough money so I and my family can survive, and there are only so many hours in the day. But I also love writing. I want to share my work with as wide an audience as I can reach. If I get really lucky, I might even make enough money so that my writing habit would actually generate enough income to support us – and allow me to write full-time. There are very few authors who don’t wish for this, though only a lucky few achieve this lofty goal. Those are usually the ones who embrace the paradigm of the author being prepared to do anything and work hard at it in order to maximize their chances for grabbing the brass ring.

Make no mistake: success in publishing has as much to do with luck as skill. You have to be in the right place at the right time. However, if you don’t maximize your chances, you’ll likely remain on the fringes. Let me put it this way: you can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket.

So the next time you ask yourself, “Why, oh why, am I having to do all this?” answer yourself this way. Look in the mirror and say, “You brought this situation on yourself. You wanted to be published, you want to be successful at it. So dig in and get to work!” For me, being in control of these sorts of things means that I don’t have to rely on other people to do it. Sure, that would be nice and all, but how much of the needed work would get done promptly, and more importantly, correctly?

Faced with that reality, I’ll do it myself, thank you!

Monday, February 02, 2015

Release day for By Book or By Crook

By Vicki Delany

Hi, from an airport somewhere.

I am on my way to Phoenix right now, and tomorrow is release day for the first book in my cozy series from Penguin/Obsidian. The book is titled By Book or By Crook, and is the first in the Lighthouse Library series.

Tomorrow afternoon, I’m appearing at the Cave Creek Library with TWO New York Times bestselling cozy writers, Kate Carlisle and Jenn McKinley.  I am really honored to have been included!

And then in the evening we're launching the book along with Kate’s newest in the Fixer-Upper Series, This Old Homicide at the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale.

Kate and I will be doing other events around Phoenix in the next couple of days, and I will be travelling to North Carolina and Florida later in February, and to Oregon, Michigan and Pennsylvania in March.

For those closer to home, the Canadian launch of By Book or By Crook will be at the Picton Library, Tuesday Feb. 10th at 7:00. Snow date is the 12th.  (I note that we weren’t given a snow date in Scottsdale.)

My detailed list of events can be found at 

By Book or By Crook got a starred review from Library Journal which said:
“This charming, entertaining, and smart series launch by Gates ... features an unusual (and real) setting and colorful cast of characters that set it apart from other bookish cozies.”

And it was a staff pick at the Sleuth of Baker Street bookstore in Toronto:
Fun to read, interesting insights on Jane Austen, great setting, it makes me want to visit Bodie Island and I was jealous that Lucy got to live in the lighthouse as part of her job.” 

If you’re near any of those locations, I’d love to say hi.