Tuesday, October 31, 2017

What is a novel’s most essential ingredient?

by Rick Blechta

Lately I’ve been starting crime fiction novels, reading around 50 pages and then putting them down. This is not usual for me, but having just attended Bouchercon, the books I’ve been putting down were handed out, and not necessarily ones I would have purchased. As well, I’ve never read any of the authors.

So what caused me to put these books down (4 out of 5)?

Quite frankly, one of the characters in each really got up my nose. In three cases, it was the protagonist or co-protagonist. Usually I’ll let something like that slide, figuring that maybe I need to grow into the story and the characters’ development, but these people really got up my nose. In the case of the fourth novel, it was the fact that the character who appeared to be the antagonist was wholly unbelievable. It was like one of those Bond villains but the story had no Bond to counterbalance the bad guy. (I did look to the book’s end and I had spotted the antagonist correctly.)

There is no sub-genre of crime fiction books I won’t consider reading. I don’t tend to like cozies, but if someone I trust tells me that one is really good, I’ll happily read it. I find macho male thrillers to be generally tedious, but here again, if it comes with a recommendation, I’ll at least give it a good chance. As a matter of fact, I generally finish at least 90% of all books I start. It has to be a real stinker for me to put a book down before I even get halfway.

So why did these particular four books from Bouchercon have this effect on me? I had to think about that a bit since there were multiple reasons for all of them. But the standout reason for all of them is that I did not like a major character in the story. Let me clarify even further, I really disliked these characters.

Now we get to the question of why. In the case of the three protagonists, they were either fatally two-dimensional and cliché (and I’ve been guilty of that on at least one occasion) but the overall thought going through my head as I got to the 50th or so page of each book was “This book would be vastly improved if the character was the next one murdered.”

Maybe the problem is me. In one case, the book got several lovely reviews and none from major reviewers mentioned the thing that was bothering me. Another was well into a series, so I’m assuming sales had been good enough for the publisher not to cut it off after the third book, which is generally the case.

I make it a policy not to call authors or books out when I haven’t enjoyed them. I could never be a book reviewer. I also don’t like lying. If I have something I didn’t like, I just won’t say anything. So I’m not going to identify the books here.

The point of my post is this: I can’t get past a major character not resonating with me in some fashion. The crux is that the person doesn’t have to wonderful or have flaw with which I can identify, but there has to be something that causes me to form an emotional bond with them. They have to make me feel something. They have to make me want to find out what happens to them — for good or ill.

I can get past somewhat weak writing (the nuts and bolts stuff), outlandish/unbelievable plot points, and even some huge clichés. What will stop me in my tracks it seems are main characters with whom I cannot believe/understand/sympathize.

Is there anyone out there who feels the same? Or is there some other deal-breaker for you?

Monday, October 30, 2017

CWA Daggers Dinner

I'm just back from the Daggers Dinner, the big event of the Crime Writers Association year when the celebrated Daggers are awarded for the best crime in a range of categories – historical, thriller, non-fiction, international, debut, short story – and then the Gold Dagger for the best crime book overall.
This year the winner was  Jane Harper for The Dry, published by Little Brown.

But the highest honour of all is the famous Diamond Dagger, presented for a career of ‘sustained excellence’ in writing crime and it is, of course, the most coveted. The first winner, in 1986, was Elmore Leonard and he has been followed by writers such as PD James, Eric Ambler, Ruth Rendell, Ed MacBain and more recently Lee Child and Peter James. It's a beautiful trophy, designed originally by Cartier.

This year's worthy winner was Ann Cleeves. Her two series, one set in Shetland and featuring Jimmy Perez, and the other set in the north of England and featuring Vera Stanhope, are hugely popular on TV as well as on the printed page.

The occasion itself was very stylish. Two hundred and fifty guests gathered in one of London's hotels – authors, publishers, agents, journalists, publicists – for fizz, a dinner and an excellent, entertaining and very self-deprecating speech by the man who wrote Death in Paradise. I don't know if you get it in America and Canada but it's a delightful, tongue-in-cheek TV series where an old-fashioned British detective, who still believes in gathering all the suspects together at the end for the denouement, finds himself in a tropical island where the police service isn't run in quite the same way as it is here in Britain. I'm addicted to it for Sunday evening viewing.

I've never been in the happy position of being on a Dagger shortlist – or is it unhappy? Getting the award is obviously wonderful, but oh dear, the nerves before the envelope is opened and the horrible necessity of appearing a good sport afterwards when it's not your name that comes out must make it a miserable evening.

So much for fame and glory! The rest of us could just raise our glasses to the winners and enjoy the evening.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Generation NaNoWriMo

Lately I was invited to speak, along with two other local authors--Cheryl Carpinello and Jerry Fabyanic--about our experiences as professional writers to students at the Rocky Heights Middle School. My sons are in their thirties, and so I have little recent experience with young teenagers. I was curious about our audience and before the talk I shared my thoughts with Judi Hoist, their teacher and faculty advisor. Obviously, things have changed since I was an adolescent. Demographers and sociologists like to group populations by age and tag them with attributes to differentiate them from their predecessors--BabyBoomers, Generation X, Y, Millennials, etc., Though the students at Rocky Heights fall outside the scope of Millennials (born between 1983 and 2000) but since they share many of the same cultural traits--access to the Internet, cell phones, social media--they are for the moment classified as Millennials.

My perceptions were framed by the whining I've heard from older generations about Millennials--that they're helpless without a connection to the Internet, that they're spoiled and feel eminently entitled, and they're clueless about the world. However grownups have been complaining about the younger generation since ancient times.

The children now love luxury.
They have bad manners, contempt for authority; 
they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.

Plus I've seen how my sons and their peers have stepped up to their responsibilities and challenges as have all generations before them.

This particular group of students was from the school's NaNoWriMo club. What impressed me was that they not only knew about National Novel Writing Month, but they actively participated in the event and in writing year round. Before the talk, Hoist proudly showed me a dozen books written and published by her students. The examples were indie-published by Amazon and showed a level of craft and application that eludes many adult wannabe writers that I've met.

The session began with Hoist counting noses and briefing the group about our visit. They then filed into the library and took seats. Hoist handed out snacks the students munched on and this seemed to have calmed them down. I counted 40 students with only five boys among them, and while it might be easy to draw the conclusion that boys are not as academically oriented as girls, in fact, the robotics club was going on at the same time, and there the boy/girl ratio was reversed.

Carpinello, Fabyanic and I were allotted an hour and a half, and beforehand we worried that the session would drag along. But once the Q&A began, the students proved eager to ask detailed questions and quiz us about our takes on various aspects of writing and publishing. What we didn't do was talk down to the students since they had a surprisingly keen grasp of the subject. The Q&A further deepened my impression of what these young scribes were capable of. Their questions focused mostly on the technical aspects of writing: asking about when and why would you use 3rd POV versus 1st person POV, what should go into a prologue, when is too much exposition?

The time quickly passed and at the end we sold a few books. The girls were especially drawn to Carpinello's high fantasy stories. On the way out we passed a rehearsal for the school play, and those students were every bit as serious about their craft as were ours in the NaNoWriMo club.

My takeaway from all this? Anecdotes about slackers and losers among the next generation make for interesting but misleading news stories. The next wave of leaders and movers are diligently at work and getting ready to take control when their time comes.

Friday, October 27, 2017


Actually this meet the author poster from Poisoned Pen Press is the way I looked and felt by the time I finished my Kansas Tour this week. I gave five presentations and although the people are wonderful and easily some of the most attentive audiences anywhere--I always forget about the wind. The drive back to Colorado was just beastly.
It's been a whirlwind of a month. I went to Bouchercon in Canada and had lunch with all the Type M'ers who could make it to the conference. This trip was way too short. We were in Toronto and I didn't have time to do any sight-seeing.

And I'm still running around! I'll be on a plane tonight headed for Tucson for the Women Writing the West conference. My short story, "The Bucket" is a finalist for the Laura award. They will announce our places tomorrow at a special luncheon. I'm honored to be included with these amazing authors.

Monday night I learned that my book, Nicodemus: Post-Reconstruction Politics and Racial Justice in Western Kansas placed second in the Westerners International contest. I'm thrilled and frankly, quite amazed.

Now to get my head out of the clouds and settle down. I need to work on plot problems with Silent Sacrifices.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

What’s My Back-Story?

John, here. On the heels of Donis’s insightful Oct. 19 post, I’m going to follow with a discussion of a technical aspect of fiction writing, one that took me years to grasp.

I was teaching a creative writing class, maybe a decade ago now, in Presque Isle, Maine, at the local community college. I had designed the course schedule to discuss characterization and dialogue early in the semester and then move on to structure and narrative tension. I used the exercise below, therefore, late in the semester and will never forget one student staying after class one night (we met on Wednesdays from 6 to 9 p.m.) to tell me the activity below was the exercise that brought everything together for him. And he insisted, “You need to begin the course with this. This is what beginners need to know.”

It’s been a long time since that conversation, but I never forgot it. And I’ve worked with enough novice writers over the years to know they’ll eventually grasp dialogue and characterization, but pacing and narrative tension may be the most nuanced skills of fiction writing. So if I can teach this early, I can save beginning writers a lot of time.

The exercise is below. If you try it, I’d love to see what you write. Feel free to email me at jcorrigan1970@gmail.com.

What’s My Back-Story? A Plotline Activity
Must every story be told in a linear narrative style? No way. Readers want a scene that allows them to figure out the story on their own. So how do we tell stories cinematically? By using scenes to convey the storyline. This allows the writer to use flashback sequences while starting in the middle of the action and continuously pushing the story forward.
Read the following plotline and determine which numbers (there are several, after all) at which you can begin. How will you include the information that came before your starting point? Must you include all of it?
Write a first- or third-person opening scene (narration and dialogue) beginning at one point on the line and dropping in the necessary previous material as the scene moves forward.

  1. Mary Howard grew up in Readfield, Maine, the daughter of a doctor.
  2. She went to UMaine at Orono, where she studied history, graduating with a 3.5 GPA, and met Steven Smith, a political science major, whom she married following graduation.
  3. After graduation and one year of marriage, Mary dutifully helps Steven launch his political career.
  4. Mary, now in her mid-30s, helps Steven becomes a Maine State Legislator and raises their three kids.
  5. Unbeknownst to Mary, Steven begins an affair with a fellow Maine State Legislator.
  6. Mary gets a phone call from an intern in Steven’s office, who tells her of the affair.
  7. Mary confronts Steven. This takes every ounce of courage she has. In 15 years of marriage, she has morphed from the confident, bubbly Mary Howard, to the housewife of powerful Maine State Legislator Steven Smith. As his career has taken off, her identity somehow got lost.
  8. Mary listens as Steven tells her the affair is just “a sideline” that “this is how some political marriages are.”
  9. Mary packs her bags, grabs her kids (now ages 11, 9, and 7), and walks outside, determined to start a new life.
  10. She drives to Santa Fe, New Mexico, a place she’s only seen on TV.
  11. In Santa Fe, she enrolls the kids in school, gets a job in a bookstore, and hires attorney Phil Rogers, who is 35 and single.
  12. Mary doesn’t know what to do when Rogers asks her to dinner six months after she’s been in Santa Fe and following what was a surprisingly easy out-of-court settlement with Steven. She wonders what message a date would send to her kids. Would her acceptance tell them that they are all starting over? That it’s okay to move on? Or would they think she’s callus?     
# # #

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Halloween in My Neighborhood

I'm in the middle of writing a story set around Halloween in my fictional town of Vista Beach. (Aurora Anderson #4) Whenever I walk around my own beach city, I look for little things I can put in that add verisimilitude to my story. Recently, the husband and I took a tour of the neighborhood and looked at the Halloween decorations. Here are some of the ones we found.

The first thing I noticed: giant spiders have invaded the city! They are super popular as decorations. I’m not terribly fond of spiders and, sure as heck, wouldn’t want to encounter one of these.

Skeletons are prevalent as well, but this is the first time I’ve seen a dog skeleton.

This guy is just hanging around. He has a friend who usually sits on the back of a golf cart that’s parked on the street. Alas, the friend was off on a drive so I couldn’t get a pic of him.

And the usual ghosts and ghoulies.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Will the real writer stand up?

I used to think that ghost writers only wrote for people who were not writers, such as footballers, reality TV stars, celebrity chefs and the like. But I recently realised this was the understanding of the uninitiated. James Patterson, for example, no longer writes his own novels. He hands a plot outline and a bunch of character biographies to a team of writers who do the line-by-line stuff. Presumably, this is how he's able to produce a book a month. Other big names, such as Stephen King and Peter Straub, are apparently at it too. Oh yes, and Wilbur Smith. Just the other month Mr Smith signed a contract for eight books with Harper Collins. He will contribute the plots for said books but a team of ghost writers will “flesh” the stories out.

I am disappointed. This smacks of cheating and, as my sister always says, no one likes a cheater. Being untruthful about who is the real writer of the words demeans both the author and the ghost writer and treats the reader with contempt. But when I told a writer friend this she said I was being harsh. After all, the big named writers still produce the golden acorns from which the story tree grows. Without their diamonds in the dust heaps there would be no stories. She has a point. As we writers know, having an original, fresh idea is worth its weight in gold. Or at least, it's worth as much as someone is prepared to pay for it, because guess what? Some famous writers can't even be bothered with plot ideas. Ideas take time, so why wait for one when you can buy a bunch instead? It seems the latest development in the book world is for big named writers to buy up the plots of existing novels by not-so-famous writers and pass them on to their writing teams to rewrite. Voila, a novel is born – again and again and again.

Now I am doubly disappointed. Surely, putting your name to a novel that you haven't contributed to creatively in any way, contradicts the very thing we writers are supposed to be about ie: the revealing of a truth? This is breaking the unspoken rule between the writer and the reader and at what cost? As more and more plot ideas are bought up and recycled by anonymous writing teams, isn't there a danger that the novels will become the same? What of us lesser-famous writers? How can we compete? It's hard enough to earn a living from our writing with our royalties being slashed to a small percentage of the book “sale” price, who out of us can afford to buy a plot line and writing team, even if we wanted to? 

What do you think? Is this the beginning of the end of choice for readers? Will we not-so-famous writers be out of a job sooner than we think? Or am I being a tad melodramatic? Would you sell the plot line to one of your successful novels (after withdrawing it from the market, of course) to a big name? Would you care if a famous writer took credit for a novel you painstakingly wrote with love? What if you found out that your favourite writer is in fact a bunch of other writers, would you carry on reading? 

Friday, October 20, 2017

Why We Write

On Tuesday evening, I was honored to be the guest author at the Literacy Volunteers of Rensselaer County Authors Night. This is an annual event when learners and tutors share the stories that they have written. I was asked to speak for 10-15 minutes before they came up one by one to read their true stories or poetry that had been collected in a small volume. My challenge was to come up with a short talk that would be relevant.

I decided to talk about why writers write. I did a Google search for comments from writers and surveys, looked at a few journal articles, and thought about why I write. Those of us who write often have a variety of reasons for picking up a pen or sitting down in front of a computer -- or these days -- dictating into a device connected to our computer. The reasons we give vary in how they are ranked by each of us.

In general, those who write speak of:
a. the need to share thoughts, ideas, or feelings
b. being compelled to write because it is a part of their identity
c. wanting to inform and/or educate
d. wanting to influence opinion and/or debate
e. wanting to share the world of their imaginations
f. giving voice to those who have no voice
g. writing because they are required to do so by work or school
h. writing because of ego, feeling they have something important to share
i. using writing to establish themselves as experts in their field
j. using writing to memorialize people and events
k. using writing to discover who they are
l. writing to win recognition, and/or fame and fortune

I didn't mention all of these reasons in my talk. Many of them overlap, and I was more interested in the roles of writing in self-discovery, sharing ideas and feelings, educating and informing, giving  voice, and sharing the worlds of our imagination. I saw some nods in the audience, so I hope I was speaking to what the learners and their tutors had experienced.

The real stars of the evening shared where they had come from (as adult learners, some of them immigrants). After they had read, the moderator asked each a question about their experiences or their goals for the future. Their stories reminded me again of the power of words to transform lives and connect people. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Then She Said...

Since mid-September, I, Donis, have been facilitating a creative writing workshop for emeritus professors at Arizona State University. This is the second time I’ve done this workshop, and it’s been an eye-opener for me. Professors know all about the rules of grammar and spelling and the like, but people who have spent their lives writing scientific treatises and keeping a professional, unbiased distance from the reader have a hard time letting go and putting action and emotion into their writing. Not to say that they don’t have some clever story ideas! Wrangling students for thirty years will give you plenty of material.

For the past couple of weeks we’ve been discussing effective ways to write dialog. Hemingway said that dialog is not real speech, it’s the illusion of real speech. I’m sure, Dear Reader, that you’ve read Elmore Leonard’s admonitions that one should try to never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue, or that one should never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”.

On his website, Tim Hallinan suggests that instead, the writer “use body language: Dialogue broken up by description of what characters are doing provides context and also projects an image. When someone other than our protagonist is speaking in a scene, what is our protagonist doing? Are her hands at rest? Does she listen intently? Does she squirm in the chair. Drum her fingers? Twist her hair? We convey a lot without saying a word.”

I like that idea.

For instance:
"Nonsense," Martha interjected, is a perfectly acceptable sentence, but if I were a fly on the wall, I might see what Martha is doing when she says this. One might try something like, Martha straightened, indignant. “Nonsense."

Rather than "Question?" Beth offered, try, Beth held up a finger (or leaned forward, or tapped the table). “Question?"

And rather than "Okay, Beth. Ask it," Joel replied, consider having Joe sigh, roll his eyes, flop back in his chair, then, "Okay, Beth. Ask it."

You can come up with better examples, but you get the picture.

Of course the "rules" are really only suggestions.

As far as the current popular idea in publishing of only using "said"...I use "noted" and "agreed" and "asked" and the like plenty of times myself. But I do think that the take-away points are: 1) don't use descriptors that draw attention to themselves, like, "he asservated", because that puts the author in the picture, and 2) if you can describe the situation, body language, etc., in lieu of a dialog tag, that's the best way to let the reader see what's going on and draw her own conclusions rather than having the author tell her.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Bouchercon reflections

Bouchercon, the world's largest mystery conference, held its latest annual crimefest this past week from Wednesday to Sunday. The 2017 version took place in a spectacular, sprawling hotel in downtown Toronto that had two towers, multiple levels of meeting rooms, open foyers, and ballrooms all connected by escalators running up and down through the open centre. Almost two thousand people attended the conferences, all united by their love of crime. There were hundreds of authors and aspiring authors, readers, librarians, booksellers, editors and agents, all trying to navigate the huge selection of panels, readings, signings, interviews, parties, and other crime related activities. I didn't count the number of panels, each of which featured a topic and an array of authors chosen to talk about it for an hour, but I estimate there might have been close to a hundred. Even running from one to the next all day long, an attendee could only get to a fraction of them.

When I was a relative rookie, I tried to do just that. There were so many topics that fascinated me, about setting and character and style, and so many authors I wanted to hear, that I ran myself ragged. It's exhilarating but exhausting to be in the midst of all this excitement and information, and by the end, I always dragged myself back home wanting nothing more than a month of solitude. Most writers are introverts and need alone time to recharge. Socializing, meeting new people, being "out there" to promote a new book and make new connections, is draining for us.

This year I made a conscious decision that I would not try to do too much. I've been to dozens of conferences over the years and have met a lot of people I was eager to see again. That, and having fun, were my primary objectives. In the latter, I mostly succeeded, but I only actually saw a fraction of the old friends I wanted to see. Two thousand people, all spread out in different events, makes this very difficult. Sometimes we seemed to be like ships passing in the night, spotting each other on adjacent escalators travelling in opposite directions. To all those I missed, there was a hug ready for you and I am so sorry for the lost opportunity.

As for the more formal aspects of the conference, I attended the events I was supposed to, most importantly my own panel about social issues (and crimes against humanity, which we panelists quickly agreed was a misnomer). It was very interesting and ended far too soon. I also attended the International Authors reception hosted by Crime Writers of Canada, where as a past president I got to stick a welcome ribbon on authors from far away as they were introduced. That was fun! I shook hands with authors from all over including Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the UK, Ireland, and Scotland, Africa, South America, and Europe. Later that evening, I participated as a table leader in the CWC pub quiz, where I learned I know precious little about crime fiction despite being immersed in it for twenty years. Once our table realized we were going to bomb, we sat back and enjoyed inventing outrageous answers.

Dundurn authors after the publisher's reception
Beyond that I attended only two panels and seemed to spend my whole time eating. I had a planning breakfast with my fellow panelists, lunch with my fellow Type M-ers, coffee at my publisher's, and numerous delicious dinners with my friends. And in-between, drinks. My greatest take-away from Bouchercon 2017 was probably five pounds and a vow never to drink again.

Until the next conference. At the moment I don't even want to think about that. I have a novel to finish and several promotional events coming up with THE TRICKSTER'S LULLABY. Eventually the batteries will recharge, but in the meantime, a huge thank you to the organizers of Bouchercon 2017 and to the many volunteers who made it a success. All of us who love crime fiction thank you.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Another (and logical) benefit of a library

by Rick Blechta

I think I may have posted about this, but not within the past several years. (When you’ve been here pretty well weekly since 2006, things tend to run together a bit.) But considering the discussion here of late, I think it’s entirely suitable to bring this up again.

I like libraries…as a place to write. As in many things in life, discovering this was the result of necessity.

I was still teaching instrumental music when I began seriously writing. That meant very long days. Since my wife taught music privately (meaning she had students one at a time), she would schedule her lessons after I would be home, so for many years we passed like ships in the night as she went down to the Royal Conservatory to do her thing. When our sons were little, this meant Dad’s Babysitting Service required all hands always on deck. By the time I got the little bast…our darling children to bed, I was pretty well no good for anything — except bed. Some nights I might get a bit of writing done, but not much.

What to do?

Lunchtime at school was the best opportunity for (nearly) daily writing and the school library (except on rainy days) was perfect. No one was in it and I had some lovely solitude and silence (and if you teach band, silence is especially golden) to type away on the library computer. (I got very familiar with floppy discs and the peril of leaving them behind in computers.)

On weekends, holidays, and especially during the summer break when I had more time, I began using public libraries when being around home, and kids, and, well, fatherly responsibility became too much for any good writing to be done, I’d hike off to the library for a couple of hours with my Apple IIc which was remarkably portable for the time.

Move on a number of years and now I had a proper laptop and continued to use libraries as a place to write when needed. I’d even disappear to any library nearby when on holiday. My wife was remarkably understanding whenever I did this and I tried not to abuse her good nature and forebearance too much.

To this day, I enjoy and embrace the library writing experience. No one bothers you or asks questions and they’re quiet, allowing full concentration.

My current favourite place to use is Toronto’s Osgoode Hall Great Library which is actually open to the public (it’s a law library) except when bar exams and the like are going on. One glance at the accompanying photo will show you why I enjoy it so much.

Anyone else like to write in libraries?

Monday, October 16, 2017

Proper Libraries

Marianne has really sparked something off with her post about a digital library. Personally I feel quite sad at the thought. Speaking as someone who went to Mallorca recently for week, taking only seven T-shirts, two pairs of shorts and undies so that I could use the weight allowance for paper books, I'm not prepared to compromise on the quality of my enjoyment.

There is something about a library, whether it's the little local one on the doorstep, the glamorous one in a stately home that comprises yards of beautiful bindings in bookcases with ormolu trellises across the glass, or the huge university ones with undiscovered treasures hidden in the stack rooms below, that holds a promise of true romance.

When I was at Cambridge University I was studying Macbeth and went to do a bit of direct research on Holinshed's Chronicles, which was Shakespeare's source for the story. (He badly distorted it in the play – Macbeth was actually a rather good King of Scotland for fourteen years, imposing law and order and supporting Christianity.)

There in the university library, amazingly enough, I was allowed to consult a copy of Holinshed which was actually the same edition that Shakespeare used. I bet they don't do that now! I was able to take it to a table and turn to the section on Macbeth, just as he would have done. It gave details of the conflict where Duncan was killed but there was no mention of murder, or of a Lady Macbeth.

It didn't take long to read and I browsed on, turning the stiff, heavy pages to see what would catch my eye, just as Shakespeare obviously did. And there was an account of the murder of one King Duff by Donewald, who was spurred on by his wife. Who could resist a scenario like that? Not Shakespeare, certainly – never mind historical accuracy here, we're talking drama.

And because I could physically turn those pages I had the extraordinary privilege of seeing how Shakespeare's mind had worked. The chill of shocked delight I felt stays with me still.

The digital library may offer infinitely more resources than any normal library could. But what about that physical stuff – the feel, the smell, the look of the stacks of books? What about the intimacy of feeling that you are seeing directly what the author saw when he proudly picked up the first copy of his new book?

If you want information, digital is just fine. If you want to read a book – really read a book – I would contend that it isn't, and the research is on my side.

Long live proper libraries!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Rapid Reads Novellas

by Vicki Delany

Rapid Reads Novellas

At the end of this month, Orca Press will be releasing my fifth novella for them, White Sand Blues.

This is a cozy mystery, the first in a new series about a young Canadian paramedic working in a small Caribbean Island country.  Any resemblance to Turks and Caicos and one of my daughters, is purely coincidental.

It’s a novella, meaning short (about 100 pages). But these books are far more than just a long short story, or short novel. The Rapid Reads books are written for a very specific audience. Adults with low literacy skills, (the reading level is about grade 2 – 4)  ESL students, the elderly who might not have the attention span for an entire novel, and those who are looking for a quick, fast-passed, exciting read. Even teenagers who aren’t big on reading might enjoy them as a way to ease them back into the reading habit.   Before the airplane restriction on ereaders during take off and landing was lived, I loved to carry one or two of these books for the short time frame when I couldn’t read my current novel.

I love writing these books. To me, it’s an exercise in stripping a novel down to it’s basics. Because of the space limitations as well as the literacy requirements, there are no alternative POVs, no flashbacks or alternating time frames, no subplot, no extraneous characters. Just a good story, well written.  The pace is fast, the story quickly developing, to get it all in those 120 pages (about 15,000 – 20,000 words).

In the earlier Sgt Ray Robertson series, (Blood and Belonging, Haitian Graves, Juba Good.) I used the short form to go darker than I usually do. Themes I didn’t want to develop into a full novel, involving struggles in fragile states,  worked perfectly in the shorter form.  With the new, much cozier series, I’m back on familiar ground, but working in a more restricted environment.

If you have someone in your life who needs a less-complex reading experience, I hope you’ll consider looking into Rapid Reads. http://orcabook.com/rapid-reads.com/whitesandblues.html

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Finishing the book: Just what the doctor ordered

It’s good to return to Type M after several missed posts. The past six weeks have offered a wild ride.

Until Aug. 24, the summer of 2017 was the best of my life. Academic work led me to spend weeks in Tampa (gorgeous city), Bozeman, Montana (breathtaking), and had five weeks in Maine with all three girls at home (with one daughter in college, those summers are dwindling, I know). Then I caught “a stomach bug” the week before school began. After a few days in bed –– and two trips to doctors’ offices –– I went to the E.R. Aug. 24, expecting to leave with a prescription.

I walked out 17 days later –– and 40 pounds lighter (not a diet plan I recommend). What was “prescribed” that night in the E.R. was emergency surgery to correct a stomach ailment, one I never knew I had. When they wheeled me into the O.R., one of my last thoughts was, I’m only fifty pages from finishing my damned book. When I woke up and was given painkillers, I knew the book wasn’t getting finished for a while.

When I came home, school at Northfield Mount Hermon was in full swing. (I told my wife I feel like Rip Van Winkle –– I left the day before school started, now I return and a quarter has passed.) I live at the school. So “recovery” amounted to sitting with my dog all day “resting.” I napped and looked out the window. Then I felt strong enough to write. I couldn’t teach yet, but I could sit with my laptop and re-read the novel I’d begun 14 months earlier. I liked what I read, made numerous changes, and kept on going, banging out the final 45 pages in a week. Then I asked my four advanced readers to start from the beginning, received their excellent feedback (as always), made final changes, and sent the manuscript to my agent.

We are a beach family, and my 8-year-old offers the best perspective: “Next summer will be awesome! When people ask what happened [the scar on my stomach] we can tell them Shark Bite!” But there’s another perspective anyone who reads Type M will understand. It has more to do with what my visiting nurse keeps saying, “Your body won’t heal if you’re in pain or under stress.” My recovery is going swimmingly (knock on wood), and I think that has a lot to do with finishing the book and liking it. No longer is it hanging over me. No longer is my agent waiting for it. No longer am I, a writer who has an outline but rarely follows it, waiting to learn how or if the book will end.

I feel great. I’m walking an hour a day and resume my day job Oct. 10, and I credit finishing the book with offering me healing power.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Ladies of Intrigue

On a recent Sunday morning, I got up at 6:30 a.m. and headed down to Santa Ana, CA to participate in the 4th Annual Ladies of Intrigue event. I’m not usually up that early, especially on a Sunday, but this was a special occasion.

Co-sponsored by the Mystery Ink bookstore in Huntington Beach, CA and Orange County’s Sisters in Crime chapter, it was similar to the Murder on the Menu event I mentioned in a post several months ago. The main difference: author participants were all women mystery authors. We spanned the crime fiction realm from cozy to suspense to historical to...whatever you can think of.

One of the headliners was best-selling author and criminal attorney Marcia Clark who was interviewed by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, author and KUCI-FM show host. The other was suspense writer and New York Times best-selling author Wendy Corsi Staub aka Wendy Markham, author of more than seventy! novels. The interview with Marcia was interesting and Wendy’s talk was inspiring.

I was one of the panelists which also included Jill Amadio, Greta Boris, Carola Dunn, Naomi Hirahara, Elizabeth Little, Nadine Nettmann, Kaira Rouda, Alexandra Sokoloff, Jeri Westerson, Patricia Wynn and Pamela Samuels Young.

The event lasted from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. That seems like a long time, but it sure went by fast. I’m always interested in hearing other authors speak about writing and their books so I had a good time listening to the other panelists talk about their experiences.
Books for sale!

The women at my table were great fun to talk with and I enjoyed myself immensely, though I admit to being a bit tired at the end of the day, but it was well worth getting up so early.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

More on old books

by Rick Blechta

I’d like to stay on the topic of old books again this week. Besides the 11 comments left on Type M (a record for one of my posts), I’ve had e-conversations with a number of other people. Several things were pointed out and I’ve cogitated on most of them.

Then yesterday, Marianne posted on the topic of bookless libraries and that led to even more thought pour moi. I believe I’ve at least sorted out why I prefer real books to e-books, but because of last week’s post, it extends even further.

Let me start off by saying that I have a Kobo reader, and while I don’t use it all that much, I do find it very convenient for certain things. For travelling, e-readers cannot be beat. The last time I took a plane and tried to read a paper book I quickly gave up. Why? It wasn’t the weight of the book. It was because the rows of seats are so damned close together. Even if the person in front of you has their chair back straight up, you can’t put a book on your lap without looking nearly straight down. After a few minutes, that starts your neck aching. The solution is to hold the book up in front of your face. With a hardcover, that gets difficult because of the weight factor. If the person puts their seat back, the book winds up too close to your face.

And ebook reader solves some of those problems. First, it’s lighter than a hardcover and if you have to read close to your face, you can just change the size of your type. They also can easily be held in one hand, a big plus over nearly any paper book.

But outside of travelling, give me a paper book anytime. I just enjoy the experience of reading better with one in my hands. I don’t think it’s a matter of “it’s what I grew up with so of course I prefer it”, either.

With an ebook, there’s little “soul”. You buy the book, load it onto your reader and that’s it. Unless you pass around your reader, no one else is likely to read it. With a paper book, you can pull it off a shelf at home or in the library (assuming it’s not a newly-purchased book) and there’s some “history” that comes along with it. Perhaps you’ve read it before (that little food stain on page 141) or it may be inscribed by the author or you or someone else (like the volume I wrote about last week). Perhaps it belonged to someone you remember fondly. Maybe it’s from your childhood. You get the idea.

And what about library books? You can see when the book was last taken out, at the very least. If you go back to an old-school library, you might even see the name of the people who’ve read it. That can be a very cool thing to browse. I remember withdrawing a book from the McGill library when I was at school there back in the ’70s and found the last time it had been taken out was nearly 40 years before! That was very cool.

If the internet had been around in those days, I would have looked up that student and found out what became of him.

Try that with an ebook!

Monday, October 09, 2017

Would you use a bookless library?

The world's first ever bookless library, the BiblioTech, was opened in 2013 in Bexar County, Texas, in the United States. It has 100 e-readers on loan and dozens of screens where the public can browse, study, and learn digital skills. The BiblioTech people don't like the term bookless, calling it instead a "digital library" — after all, it's filled with books, but in digital form. On its first day it had 1500 visitors.

As I understand it, it's a low-cost way of bringing books to a relatively poor district in the city and I applaud the library authorities for their efforts. But even for someone like me, who likes ebooks as much as paper books, I find it difficult to get my head around the idea of a library that houses no physical paper books whatsoever. Rightly or wrongly, the BiblioTech sounds a soulless place and reminds me of the bookless bookshop in Stanislaw Lem's book Return from the Stars (published in 1961!).

"...No longer was it possible to browse among shelves, to weigh volumes in hand, to feel their heft, the promise of ponderous reading. The bookstore resembled, instead, an electronic laboratory. The books were crystals with recorded contents. They can be read by the aid of an opton, which was similar to a book but had only one page between the covers. At a touch, successive pages of the text appeared on it. But optons were little used, the sales-robot told me. The public preferred lectons – like lectons read out loud, they could be set to any voice, tempo, and modulation... . Thus all my purchases fitted into one pocket, though there must have been almost three hundred titles. My handful of crystal corn – my books."

I can't imagine holding an author event at a BiblioTech, or taking my granddaughter to story telling sessions there, or doing any of the other fun stuff our local libraries here in Edinburgh offer, from pole dancing lessons (!) to guerrilla operas. Okay, I've yet to go try the pole dancing classes but I was once lucky enough to catch a couple of opera singers perform a love song between the bookshelves. Fantastic!

But maybe such things could also occur in a Bibliotech? What do you think? Have you ever been to a digital library? Did you like it? Can you see yourself doing an author event at one? And by the way, do you think the Stanislaw Lem's "opton" is the first mention ever of a Kindle?

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Julia Thomas, Guest Blogger

What do you suppose it is like to live in a two author household? Type M is most happy to welcome Julia Thomas, author of two well received stand-alone contemporary mysteries, who just happens to be married to Will Thomas, whose Barker and Llewelyn novels, set in Victorian England, is a multiple award-winning mystery series. How do you manage, Julia?

Julia Thomas

Two Authors in the Family

We live in a household with two mystery writers, on a quiet suburban street in a small town. No one knows what evil lurks just inside the door – in our books, of course.

Will Thomas
I’m writing this on a cool fall day as I sit in our den, my husband sitting on the chair nearest me. We don’t often write in the same room because we both like to talk, but now and then, he has his pad and pen in hand and is scrawling a chapter of the newest Barker and Llewelyn next to me while I have my laptop perched on my knees and I’m tapping a few pages of my third book.

We came to writing a little late, both in our forties, and spent five years working on each of our first books. His first attempt was Some Danger Involved, which became a Shamus and Barry award nominee and won the Oklahoma Book Award. Mine was never published. A year later, his second book came out, and I also finished another, which was also never published. We persevered. After another year, he published his third novel, The Limehouse Text, and I suffered my third failure.

I was getting used to rejection slips. There are many different kinds, of course: the form letter; the form letter with a line or two of encouragement scrawled across the top (“Don’t give up!” or “Send me your next one.”) Eventually, there were longer letters from agents telling me what they liked about it but why it wasn’t right for the market today.

It’s not an easy thing to do to learn from your failures, particularly when your husband hit a home on his first try. It would have been easy to give up or to decide that my role in editing his books – a skill I developed over the years – was enough of a contribution to the literary world.

Julia's latest

But I just couldn’t stop. After three failed attempts, I decided to write a book just for myself, something I could love and nurture and which would feed my creative instincts. I wouldn’t send it out to agents. I’d been crushed plenty of times already. And just for fun, I would break a couple of our agreed upon rules. I’d promised not to write a mystery (since he writes mysteries), and I’d promised not to set a book in England, either, since his books are set in Victorian London. But, because this was a personal exercise in creative writing, something to pass the time, I broke both of those rules.
It’s hard not to have his writing rub off on me, anyway. I’d gone along on research trips to Europe; I’d typed and edited each of his books; and through the years, I’d participated in some of the research he did to make certain his books were period appropriate. And then I realized one day that I had seen almost every important British mystery series on TV, and never once watched an episode of CSI. In other words, I had no idea how to write a police procedural set in the U.S., while I knew a great number of the ins and outs of the British justice system.

The book I sat down to write was a story based on a love triangle, two young actors who fall in love with the same woman. When she is killed, the race is on to find the murderer. Although I’d wanted to write since I was a very young girl, and had created numerous characters over the years, I became more deeply bonded with this book than with any of my previous attempts. The characters were alive to me in a way I’d never experienced before. One day, my oldest daughter read a couple of chapters and informed me that I had unintentionally written “the one.” I’m proud to say that The English Boys was published in 2016, and was followed in July 2017 by another standalone British mystery, Penhale Wood.

We never tell each other much about what we’re working on while we’re writing. Occasionally, he’ll read something funny that’s happened in his chapter, or I’ll show him a paragraph or two. But we usually find out what the other’s book is about after the first draft is done.

Will's latest

I’ve learned a lot about myself as a writer and a woman through this experience. First and foremost, I am not a quitter. I am willing to learn what it takes to succeed at writing. Criticism is important, and you have to listen to it in order to improve. It’s also true that no one else can give you that magic ingredient it takes to make it in a highly competitive world. It’s a skill that you have to learn and develop on your own, no matter how closely you work with another writer.

I’m incredibly proud of the fact that I finished The English Boys before I handed it to him to read. He made a couple of suggestions, (especially about the fight scenes!) but it was my novel, my hard work, and my persistence in going after my dream that made it happen. And a pretty full file folder of rejection slips notwithstanding, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Julia's facebook author page is  Julia Thomas Author,  and her active Twitter Author page is @AuthorJuliaT  : Will's website is http://www.willthomasauthor.com

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Pray for Rain

A few images from Oklahoma
Donis here...more or less. I never really believed in writer's block. Anybody can write something if she'll just sit down in the chair and start typing, and the resulting product can turn out pretty well.

I do very much believe in writer's drought, however, because I've had personal and painful experience of it, more than once. I'm undergoing a severe drought right now, in fact. I returned from my week-long flash tour of Eastern Oklahoma libraries on Sept. 17, then my husband went into the hospital for yet another operation on Sept. 20. I spent the night at the hospital, then left the next morning about 8:30 a.m. to go home and shower and get ready for a creative writing class I'm teaching at Arizona State U. Before I even left the house Don called me from the hospital and said the doctor had come in and told him that everything looked good and he could go home that day! So I went right back up to the hospital after my class and helped him pack up and fill out discharge papers and brought him home late that afternoon. His post-op doctor's appointment was Friday the 29th, and he had all the the tubes and staples taken out. The lymph node biopsies came back clear. Yay! He's still pretty sore, not tip top yet. He's not cleared to drive for another two weeks, and back to the doctor in six weeks. In the meantime, I'm trying to get my lesson plans for the class in some order.

Am I writing? I am not. I don't know why, except that my brains are not working that way right now. I've been known to produce amazing amounts of work while in the midst of some crisis, so why I can do it sometimes and not others I do not know. Of course, I maintain that intellect isn't the defining element in writing, anyway. Often I find myself creating wonderful scenes or characters, and I have no idea where they came from. I certainly didn't think them up - they sprang from my forehead fully formed. I have an intimation that our brains don't create thought, but are more like radios, and only receive and transmit thought that is out there somewhere.(Who thought it? I don't know. God? My higher self?  The collective consciousness?  How can you know?)

So, I suppose it only makes sense that sometimes we can tap into something mysterious and brilliant, and sometimes the equipment is on the fritz and we just can't.  You can't make it come.  You can only be patient and keep trying.  I read somewhere that "more than success, the gods love the effort."

During times of drought, I cling to that thought as I pray for rain.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017


Next week, the world's largest mystery conference descends on Toronto, bringing together readers, authors, and others in the book business for five days of celebration of the crime genre. I'm in awe of the organizers of these events; some years ago I was part of the steering committee organizing the smaller Canadian version, Bloody Words, which after about a dozen years died from the exhaustion and burn-out of the small cadre of people running it. Other small conferences and festivals have also come, flamed beautifully for a few years, and burned out for the same reason. These conferences are conceived and run by volunteers, and consume a tremendous amount of time and energy.

Mystery lovers thank you all. We know that several years of behind-the-scenes hair pulling and scrambling has led to these spectacular five days of non-stop, everywhere-you-turn mystery. There are panels, quizzes, author speed dating, author presentations, awards, and just plain schmoozing. Something for everyone, whether you like cozy or noir, fiery debates or intimate conversations, hanging out at the bar with your favourite authors. The dizzying array of choices can be overwhelming, especially when you have to choose between several panels running concurrently, but it's rare that a mystery lover doesn't come away from the buffet stuffed and satisfied, usually with a stack of books from new-to-them authors whose work intrigued them.

Since the inaugural Bloody Words conference that I attended in 1999 just before my first Inspector Green novel was published, I have attended numerous conferences in the United States, Canada, and even Britain, including all the Bloody Words, several Bouchercons and Left Coast Crimes, and Malice Domestic. The conferences have taken me to new, interesting places like Santa Fe, Bristol, UK, and Monterey, CA. However, I've never been to a conference as a reader only. Authors are readers too, of course, but we have to split our focus between soaking up the conference offerings and promoting our own work.

Sometimes the pressure of promoting our own work can get overwhelming. Even after almost twenty years and fifteen books, I am still a very small fish in the huge ocean of authors at Bouchercons. There are still many readers who have never heard of me, and it's difficult to escape the nagging feeling that I need to get out there and tell new readers about myself. After all, conferences are not festivals; apart from the guests of honour, all the authors pay their own way, including registration fees, hotel and travel expenses. This makes it a very expensive enterprise for most authors, whose earnings are often below the poverty line. The hope is to spread the word. Sometimes this results in laughable results. I remember wandering around the cavernous lobby of the conference hotel in Austin, TX, as a newbie, looking for "readers" to chat with. I discovered all the others wandering around the lobby were also authors looking for readers. After a minute's conversation, they would switch to themselves ("Interesting. Well, I write..." and out comes the bookmark). We ended up having a good laugh and commiserating about the challenges of being an unknown writer in the sea of big names.

Along the way, authors also make many new friends and discover authors whose works we love. As I look back, that's the greatest reward from these conferences. I'm looking forward to reconnecting with the readers and writers who've become my friends, and am also looking forward to that serendipitous discovery of new friends and authors, often at the bar!. That is how I am approaching Bouchercon this year. I know I will be a small fish. I know there will be readers and authors chasing after the big fish, who will swan through the crowds with a phalanx of admirers. I am on a Saturday morning panel (10 a.m. Social Issues) as well as being a team leader in the Crime Writers of Canada Friday night pub quiz. Beyond those official duties, I will go to the panels and talks that interest me, go to my publisher's event, go to lunch with my fellow Type Mers, and hang out at the bar! I don't expect to be running around brandishing my bookmarks. Okay, maybe a few, but only if asked.

This is a conference I want to enjoy. I want to enjoy the company of fellow mystery lovers and soak up as many of the offerings as I feel like.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

A new / old friend

by Rick Blechta

I clearly remember the first time I read John Buchan’s classic, The Thirty-Nine Steps back when I was 14. It was the first time I withdrew a book from the adult section of our village library where previously I’d used the children’s section in the basement.

I immediately fell in love with the romantic scenery of rural Scotland so ably described and the outrageous adventures of Richard Hannay as he attempts to avoid capture by a desperate trio of German spies (and the police) on the eve of the First World War.

Over the years, I’ve reread the book once or twice and introduced it to my sons when I bought it as an audio book for long car rides. Eventually I purchased a lovely illustrated version. However I loaned it to an author-friend who never returned it and claimed I never loaned it to him in the first place. (You know who you are!)

I ran across John Buchan again this summer while designing the Bouchercon 2017 program book. You see, he was also the 15th Governor General of Canada and because of that and his classic thrillers was nominated as this Bouchercon’s Ghost of Honour. In passing I mentioned to my wife that I really needed to get another copy of my favourite Buchan book. She immediately went off on Amazon to surprise me with a copy.

She purchased a used book published in 1935 (the original publication date of the novel is 1915) as the first novel in a four-novel compendium of Buchan stories from a re-seller on the Isle of Jersey. It finally showed up last week after a two-month journey to heaven-knows-where. It’s a small, thick tome covered in faded red cloth and I altogether love it.

But here the story gets really interesting. You see the original owner of the book had put his name and address at the front. He dated the book as 1/4/1947 and this reprint was from a 1946 press run, so I imagine the book was purchased new, perhaps as a gift.

In this age of Internet everything, I just had to find out where this man (boy?) lived. So I called up Google Maps and my wife and I spent a half hour deciphering the scrawl until we nailed down the address. Then it was on to Google street view to actually look at the house.

It is located in Birkenhead, Cheshire, just across the Mersey from Liverpool. The house we viewed on Google obviously dates from the time the book was inscribed. It’s a side-by-side duplex, one of many on the dead end road. Somewhere along the way it received a stucco and stone coating to make it look newer, but that was obviously years ago too.

Now in my imagination (in the left-hand bow window) a boy or young man sits reading the same story of daring-do I first read at 14 and perhaps looks out the window while imagining rural Scotland.

I did the same thing just this weekend looking out my window, thinking about visiting Scotland again.

But that’s another story.