Wednesday, May 30, 2007
I wrote this essay a year ago, but because I find that it's still equally true today, I thought I'd share it for those of you who might have similar life conflicts.
Writing mysteries and raising boys: these two things don’t always go together—at least not as smoothly as I’d wish. For one thing, boys will ask for all the attention you have, and then lots of attention beyond that. They want to wrestle dangerously near the coffee table, pick up the cat under his stomach right after he drinks milk, and see what happens when you blow in the dog’s face. (The answer to the last one is—he goes insane and bites your baby lip, whereupon you cry and leave gouts of blood all over the house like you’re auditioning for Macbeth). They want to tattle on each other and jump on the neighbor’s trampoline (blast the neighbor) and argue over one Lego even while they sit in a veritable sea of them, wave upon wave of unwanted Legos that are good only for adults to step on in the dark.
Naturally this does not allow one to sit at the computer for a long, leisurely time, at least not without yelling “Cut it OUT!” at regular intervals, and this rather breaks the concentration. So one must write when one can. And when one is me, that means I write in fits and starts. Not only am I sometimes called away by my boys; there is my mother guilt to contend with. It’s always been there, of course, ever since that first day when I allowed the doctor to circumcise my baby at the hospital and then felt miserable for weeks afterward at what I’d let those evil doctors do. By the time my first infant rolled off the bed while I was hunting for a pair of socks, my guilt was firmly and permanently in place. I called the hospital, weeping harder than the baby, and the doctor asked me in a bored tone if the baby was, perchance, vomiting. No, said I, and he said, “Babies have hard heads.”
Due to guilt, one cannot write all day long, especially not when cute children ask, “Can you read this to me?” You can’t ignore that, not unless you want Harry Chapin singing in the back of your mind all day about cats and cradles and silver spoons. Sometimes you can’t write at all. I’m about to embark on a lovely leisurely summer, but soon enough I’ll go back to work and night school, which I call Panic Attack Season.
Ironically, though, when one is inundated with non-writer responsibilities, one can develop writer guilt. Similar to mother guilt, it niggles at the back of one’s mind (also, ironically, to the tune of a Harry Chapin song) and asks why there is no new project in the offing and why the old project hasn’t been polished smooth.
So when I lie next to the boys at night and sing them a few lullabies—yes, I do it, but not in as Julie Andrews a way as I’d like—I find that my writer guilt is there, saying ‘Get downstairs and type something.’ But there’s always a boy with insomnia, always, and he’s not that thrilled with the idea of my departure. So I become half sweet lullaby mother, half grumpy military mother who wants to leave. It sounds like this:
ME: (soft and lilting) Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling—
BOY: How can pipes call?
ME: (not lilting) No talking. From glen to glen, and down the
mountainside . . . PUT YOUR ARMS DOWN! The summer’s gone . . . and all the roses falling . . . ‘tis you, ‘tis you—GET YOUR FEET OFF THE WALL!
BOY: Who farted?
ME: (Not even distantly related to lilting) That’s IT. I’m getting your
And the challenge continues. Not surprisingly, there are children in every book I’ve written so far. I’ve been told I write children very realistically. I guess it’s from being in the mother trenches. Does this help at all with writing mysteries? Well, writers who are parents deal with a daily mystery—how are they ever going to get anythi--
(Image: my eldest son at age 5 (he's 12 now) in a Sherlock Holmes outfit made by my mom.)
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
Kurt Vonnegut once revealed his 8 rules of writing fiction. They’re worth reviewing and taking to heart. But his rule number 5 is the one that made the biggest impression on me. Rule number 5 is: Start as close to the end as possible. This is relevant for both the entire book or a single chapter. We often hear that the most common mistake of a new writer is starting the story in the wrong place.
Well, it happens to published writers, too. Lynn Sholes and I are writing our fourth book together and we still make that mistake once in a while. We’ve written whole chapters that either occurred in the wrong place, or worse, weren’t even needed. Usually they turn out to be backstory information for us, not the reader. We go to the trouble of writing it only to find it’s to confirm what we know, not what the reader needs to know.
So if we apply Vonnegut’s rule number 5, how do we know if we’ve started close enough to the end? Easy: we must know the ending first. To me, this is critical. How can we get there if we don't know where we're going? And once we know how our story will end, we can then apply my top of the mountain technique. In my former career in the television industry, its called backtiming—starting at the place where something ends and working your way to the place where you want it to begin.
But before I explain top of the mountain, let’s look at the bottom of the mountain approach. You stand at the foot of an imposing mountain (the task of writing your next 100K-word novel), look up at the huge mass of what you are going to be faced with over the next 12 months or so, and wonder what it will take to get to the top (or end). You start climbing, get tired, fall back, take a side trip, climb some more, hope inspiration strikes, get distracted, curse, fight fatigue, take the wrong route, fall again—and if you’re lucky, finally make it to the top. This method will work, but it’s a tough, painful way to go.
Now, let’s discuss the top of the mountain technique. Imagine that you’re standing on the mountain peak looking out over a grand, breathtaking view feeling invigorated, strong, and fulfilled. Imagine that the journey is over, your book is done. Look down the side of the mountain at the massive task you have just accomplished and ask yourself what series of events took place to get you to the top? Start with the last event, then the second to the last, then . . . you get the idea. This takes it a step further than Vonnegut’s rule number 5 by starting at the end and working your way to the beginning. Guess what happens? By the time you are actually at the beginning, you will have started as close to the end as possible. Rule #5 rules!
See you at top of the mountain!
Monday, May 28, 2007
Tom Ashbrook, host of On Point, probed gently, asking if there was anyone specific the woman had in mind.
“My husband. He came back from Iraq, and…he’s different. Because of what he saw…and went through,” she struggled with the words.
On Memorial Day, we pause and remember the dead. But that’s not enough. A count of headstones does not include all those who sacrifice for our nation. Some die on the battlefield or in hospitals far from home. But others return marred, scarred, and changed: never the men (or women) they once were. They, too, give their all.
Take Arthur Middleton, for example. In 1776, he was a delegate to the Continental Congress. A Cambridge graduate, he was more radical than his father, Henry, who served as the second President of the Continental Congress, and thus the leader of what was to become the United States from Oct. 22, 1774 to May 10, 1775.
Arthur’s attitude toward Loyalists was said to be ruthless. When he pledged his life, his liberty and his sacred honor, he meant exactly that. In 1781, Charleston, South Carolina, was overrun by General Clinton and the British army. Arthur Middleton was asked to swear a new loyalty oath. In John Jakes’ bestseller Charleston, he writes, “Many important names—Middleton, Pinckney, Manigault, Hayne—obliged.”
Jakes has it wrong. Very, very, badly wrong.
Arthur Middleton refused. So did Pinckney.
Middleton taken prisoner, thrown onto a British warship and taken to a jail in St. Augustine, Florida. There in a small coquina cell, with vaulted ceiling and wet walls, he carved his name—a twin to the bold signature on the Declaration of Independence. He was held more than a year before he was exchanged in a prisoner swap. By then, most of his fortune was gone.
He died at age 44, about four years later. The legend beneath his portrait in the Charleston Museum, suggests he died of an illness contracted while in prison, which possibly would have been malaria.
Arthur Middleton is buried at his family home Middleton Place. To see it go to http://www.middletonplace.org/ Or rent The Patriot (Mel Gibson), and you’ll see footage of the gardens and the house’s interior.
So Middleton did not die on a battlefield, but he gave his life in service to our country. As the caller to On Point suggested, on Memorial Day we need to remember all those who have served, both living and dead.
Today as we put up our flag, I said a prayer thanking all the soldiers and patriots in my family, including my ancestor Arthur Middleton.
Saturday, May 26, 2007
DEB BAKER will be signing Murder Grins and Bears It in Door County, Wisconsin this weekend!
- Friday, May 25, 12-2pm, Book World, Sturgeon Bay, WI
- Saturday, May 26, 10-1 Pages, Egg Harbor, WI
- Saturday, May 26, 2pm, Novel Ideas, Baileys Harbor, WI
- Sunday, May 27, 1-3pm, Book World, Sister Bay, WI
MARK COMBES Running Wrecked is out!
It's not the spectacular diving that brings Phil Riley to Isla Tortuga. This sleepy corner of the Caribbean is the perfect refuge for ex-patriots who need a fresh start. With good friends, an ample supply of beer, and a dive shop to run, theres plenty to distract Riley from his troubled past . . . until he discovers the Miss Princessa beautiful sailboat, mysteriously left adrift off the coast of his new island home.
What compels Riley to investigate the Miss Princess? The bewildering lack of concern shown by the police? The disappearance of his friend? Or maybe Riley hopes to ease the haunting memories of a terrible accident that drove him to this island hideaway.
Fueled by sheer will and unreliable instincts, Rileys clumsy attempt at playing detective could possibly foil a kidnapping scheme and save a familyor cost him his life.
Learn more about Mark and the Phil Riley novels at www.markcombes.com!
Friday, May 25, 2007
"Dead men are heavier than broken hearts "---The Big Sleep
"The minutes went by on tiptoe, with their fingers to their lips." ---The Lady in the Lake
"I'm an occational drinker, the kind of guy who goes out for a beer and wakes up in Singapore with a full beard." --"The King in Yellow"
Beautiful, no? It makes the language walk right out and smile at you. Then there are, of course, the "worst similes ever," written by high school students. They circulate the Internet every few years, so I'm not sure if they're actually by high school students. I love 'em, though. Here's a few of my favorites:
"The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. Unlike Phil, however, it just might work."
"Her date was pleasant, but she knew if her life was a movie, this guy would be buried in the credits as something like 'Second Tall Man.'"
Wonderful. Here's my challenge to you. Write a fantastic simile, one that makes me laugh, think, or retch. Post it as a reply to this post. The winner gets a free copy of May Day, the first in my Murder-by-Month mysteries. (If you've already ready May Day, I'll send you a copy of June Bug. If you've already read them both, bless you.)
Thursday, May 24, 2007
My son’s 4th birthday is coming up in three weeks and my husband suggested buying him a preschool-level game system from Best Buy. At first, this idea sounded great. Why, my son could practice his counting and could identify colors, letters, and shapes while chasing after Dora the Explorer or racing around with Lightning McQueen. Yeah! Let’s get it for him!
But then I stopped to think…
Game systems are solitary. Do I really want my son facing a television screen instead of his family? The answer is no. I’ve waited years to be able to play games with this kid and we’re going to start this summer, danggone it! And by games I mean the type that you set up, play, and put away in a box that’s held together by masking tape because it’s been lovingly used and abused for a long time.
When I was growing up, we had two family games. The first was backgammon. My dad loved the game and taught us all how to play at an early age. We also favored a card game called 7-Up, which we played using pennies for the kitty. Other nights my brothers and I unpacked Sorry, Life, Battleship, Monopoly, or Risk and kept ourselves content for at least an entire hour (other than typical sibling squabbles centering on peeking at the location of the opponent’s PT boat or helping oneself to several twenties whilst being the banker during a Monopoly game).
So I was wondering…Do you have a Family Game Night every now and then? What game(s) do you keep returning to and what food do you eat along with your game?
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
I’ll admit, it’s a charming idea to have this thing around to create a Zen-like tinkling background noise all day long. The gurgling turtle serves as a daily reminder to us of mankind’s mysterious and eternal connection with nature, and so on. Birds and even raccoons often stop by for a quick bath. Cute.
But. The maintenance is nonstop. It’s painful to spend every weekend cleaning out the leaves and assorted gunk that collects in our little pond, and unclogging the turtle’s stopped-up tube for the hundredth time.
The other day the pond’s electric pump gave out, the turtle spat no more, and we stood looking at our bacteria-infested, mosquito-breeding pond water debating if it wouldn’t be better to just fill the thing up with dirt and be done with it. Plant rosebushes or an evergreen there, instead.
The latter option held the most promise. But as we weighed our choices, not to mention our chances of finding a bricklayer who would show up as promised, I said, thinking aloud, really: “Damn. It’s too bad we don’t have a dead body we’re trying to hide.”
It is at moments like these my husband gets a startled, wary look in his eyes, like Joan Fontaine when she realizes Cary Grant has probably just done away with his best friend Binky. You’d think Bob would be used to it by now. Any man who at least once a week finds a cryptic, scrawled note in the kitchen that says something like “Nightshade -- fatal dose? Cowbane better?” should really have learned by now to shrug off these mystery writer moments.
So I hastily added, “Just kidding, dear. You’re too large to fit in there. But what if…”
I wandered away, a glazed look in my eyes that he now recognizes as a sign I’m off to kill someone on paper.
This kind of thing probably does keep spouses on their toes.
But Bob has nothing to worry about.
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
By Deb Baker
I grew up in the Michigan U.P. where my Yooper mystery series takes place. When I was looking for material for my first book, I thought my childhood was just like everyone else’s. But I gave it some thought and decided it had been a little unusual.
We had bugs the size of Volkswagen Beetles. One year my grandmother’s house was pre-ner plastered with bay flies. Once when we were picking blueberries in our secret place, I spotted a spider the size of a half-dollar (remember those coins) and beat it out of there. We really do vacuum up those black flies that swarm in the windows in early spring. Wood ticks don’t fly but they do leap at you from trees.
Saunas and bars are our social hubs in the same way you’se guys enjoy fitness centers and coffee shops.
We can tell the difference between a squirrel, a chipmunk, and a skunk.
Men don’t remove their baseball hats except for church.
Women hunt and fish and make a point of out-doing the men.
During deer hunting season we have to dress our dogs in orange and even then some Troll (that’s what we call Lower Michigan residents because they live below the Mackinac Bridge) will shoot at them.
Upper Michigan should have been its own state or at the very least should have tagged onto Wisconsin. We root for the Packers and make pilgrimages to Green Bay to honor St. Vincent Lombardi, who coached da Packers.
We drive on Lake Michigan and Lake Superior in the winter and we all know what black ice is. Its ice camouflaged as black top. If you hit it, you can kiss your hinder goodbye.
We eat anything and everything – Trenary toast, Cudighi (a sausage invented in Ishpeming), Pasties (not the things exotic dancers wear). We love sugar doughnuts and coffee, lots and lots of it. Mackinac Island fudge. Roadkill (but only if it’s fresh). Kalja (beer).
Yes, I considered all of this perfectly normal. So the next time you’re looking for something unique to write about, check out your own back yard.
Hot off the press – Murder Grins and Bears It, Next up – Murder Talks Turkey
Monday, May 21, 2007
"It must be wonderful to have the time to sit around all day writing mysteries."
When I hear this comment, I always offer up a soft internal sigh. Yes, I think, it must indeed be wonderful to have that much time. I'll let you know when I find out.
Like so many other writers of fiction, I make my living doing something else. Not that there aren’t fiction writers whose primary income derives from their novels, it's just that there are a very large number of us who need to do something else to meet the rent. This holds true for writers in all genres. Some of us teach, some of us practice law or medicine. There are any number of writer/whatever combinations.
Me? I'm a word processor. Oh, come on now, no baffled looks. You've heard of word processors. Tucked away in the corner of law firms all across the country, we toil through the day making edits and reformatting documents. We teach newly minted lawyers how to mark up documents so others can understand what the lawyer is trying to communicate. We listen silently while octogenarians who have never turned on a computer, tell us that reformatting the 50 page document and adding 60 pages of inserts won't take us long at all. We are the ones who, eyes squinting and brains spinning, try to decipher handwriting that could be either ancient Sumerian or English. No one –not even the lawyer who wrote it – can tell us.
Now maybe you're thinking: oh how terrible that must be for you. Possibly you're thinking: oh stop whining. (In either case, you're sweet to be interested.) Let me assure you – things could be a lot worse. The fact is, the folks in at my office love that I write. They display a genuine pride in having me in their firm. They support me 100%. I'm given extra time off to promote the book. When I do events in the City, they turn out in force. They read the books and they like them. (Well they tell me they do. And, when you think about it, not liking the book but tell me, as I slave at my word processing duties, that they do is very good hearted of them, so I place that in the supportive category.) If I have to have a "a day job" (which I do because the trust fund I am certain fate meant for me was misplaced at birth) then I'm happy to be at a job where I'm loved.
That support is important. Like all of us who work at one thing to pay the bills and write, my days can get pretty long: eight hours of the job, three hours of writing, two hours of commuting, plus that fact that for the first hour of the day I'm pretty useless. AND, I'm one of the ones who isn't raising a family. I have one writer friend who is a single mom, works, and still finds time to turn out books. I am in awe of this woman.
When I first thought of this topic, I wondered if the post might seem a little self-pitying: oh poor me if only I had more time. Then I thought it might be too self-congratulatory: look at us we do so much with so little time. (I also thought: what if no one reads this, but I always think that so it doesn't count.) Then, two days ago, once I decided that I could get the tone just right, an interviewer asked me: "So, what do you do for a living?"
Suddenly, there was a voice in my head that was completely offended at the presumption that I did not "sit around all day writing mysteries" (even as I am truly grateful for my job). I'd tell you all about that, but the fact is - I've run out of time.
Friday, May 18, 2007
The man in the photo is 6-foot-two and wide-shouldered; a former football player, baseball pitcher and boxer; he has a degree in finance and is a native Texan. Yes, Texas. Where big belt buckle testosterone is served alongside chicken fried steak. And yet this man (my fiancé at the time) was willing to wear a ridiculous red yarn wig, painted lashes and a cutesy sailor hat to become “Andy” to my “Raggedy Ann.” It left no doubt in my mind that he loved me.
But Tex had no clue that greasepaint and high-water sailor pants were only the beginning.
I began to seriously pursue publication in 2002, a few years after our marriage. It soon became obvious to my new husband that “I do” must evolve into “I will” when he found himself strapped into a double-seat on my incredible roller coaster ride of writing classes, contests, agent queries, agent rejections, agent contract, editor submissions and editor rejections. He watched me type 16 hours straight (with swollen ankles and wrist tendonitis) for a manuscript revision deadline that ended in yet another rejection. And when faced with a last minute “emergency” title change (which also meant reprinting nine full manuscripts to be mailed the next day), hubby brainstormed, collated and packed boxes into the night. He was there with a box of Kleenex when that Herculean effort also met with rejection. And he hoisted the champagne bottle when “The Call” finally came to announce the sale of my first book to Midnight Ink.
But--as we all know--a first sale (while awesome in magnitude of validation) is only the BEGINNING of a whole new stretch of track on this crazy roller coaster ride. Deadlines, revisions, new book proposals, marketing and promotion, book tours, hours spent networking, writers’ conferences, speaking engagements, perpetual angst over sales numbers and market changes, and . . . is it fair to expect our spouses, partners, or even potential mates to come along for the ride? Maybe even take a backseat at times? When writing--and the business of writing--can consume an author’s time 24/7, how much should we expect from our loved ones? Where should the line be drawn?
I’ll admit that there have been more than a couple of “discussions” about time commitment at my house. With the occasional mention of telltale words like “obsession” and “priorities.” Ouch. But it’s true--this writing life can completely take over. Mark reminded us (here on the blog) that we are running a marathon with our careers, not a sprint. We need to pace ourselves--and offer that same respite to our loved ones.
I try to do this by keeping regular “business” hours, and by combining signing and speaking events with touristy “getaways” that allow for more fun than simply toting posters, lugging books, over-dosing on Starbuck’s and then piling into the car to drive home. I remind myself that there are things to talk about besides writing, that it’s okay to sit through a movie without commenting on the plot structure, and that the computer can be turned OFF.
Okay, that last one’s sort of a lie--because I’ve only turned the computer off during hellacious Texas lightning storms. But that proves that I do know where the button is.
So how do you maintain a balance between your commitments to writing (and the day job?) (kids?) and your personal relationships?
Thursday, May 17, 2007
by Bill Cameron
I don't believe in evil. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say I don't believe in capital-E Evil. Eeee-ville. I don't subscribe to the notion that evil is some kind of malevolent force in the universe. On the flipside, I don't believe in Good either. I don't see the world in Manichean terms, as a struggle between the forces of Good and Evil. This doesn’t mean I don’t have a sense of right and wrong. It doesn’t mean I don’t judge actions. I like to believe I have strong ethical and moral sensibilities. But my own worldview doesn’t feature Good and Evil. And when it comes to human activity, I’m even a little hesitant to use lowercase good and evil to describe it.
The way I see the actions of people in the world is through the lenses of circumstance and response. We experience events in life and respond in our many and varied ways. Circumstances can shape our responses, though I don’t want to imply that I see us as deterministic beings incapable of making choices. But I do think some choices are harder than others, and that difficulty may be influenced by any number of factors, from social conditions, personal interest, and even our brain chemistries.
This is on my mind right now because I'm in the throes of character creation. Novel number three is in the development phase, and for me, that mostly means character development. Plot doesn’t happen until after I know who it’s happening to.
How I personally see the world obviously shapes the way I develop characters. I don’t see myself as creating villains and heros. Good guys and bad guys. I don’t even like to use those terms. Forced to differentiate, I may describe one or another as the protagonist or the antagonist, but even those terms include an implied judgment with which I’m not all that comfortable.
When I write, I see myself as channeling people. My hope is that I am creating them with honesty and integrity. I want them to be comprehensible and plausible. In Lost Dog, Peter is not the good guy and Jake is not the bad guy. Each is an expression of choices made in the context of his own circumstances. Each is a person, a human being, with his own social history, personal history -- his own brain chemistry. One does awful things, makes truly awful choices. The other, ultimately, makes choices that in a big picture Good v. Evil sense might fall -- loosely at least -- on the side of Good. But in many ways they’re not so different from each other. They differentiate through their choices. That’s what interests me about character. For me, that’s what character is.
Choices made in the context of life circumstances.
How about you? What do you look for in character, either when creating characters as a writer, or experiencing them as a reader?
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Here, let’s get this list right up at the top, we’ll get back to it in a moment:
“D is for Deadbeat” by Sue Grafton--#4
“Pale Kings and Princes” by Robert B. Parker--#14
“Sunset Express” by Robert Crais--#6
“Glitz” by Elmore Leonard--#19
“Silent Partner” by Jonathan Kellerman--#4
Okay. Now, a gentleman writer friend of mine who shall remain nameless has suggested that if you promote like crazy and get good distribution from your publisher, by your fifth book you will make it onto the New York Times Best Seller List.
On the one hand, I think that statement is complete and total bullshit. On the other hand, well… I think it’s complete and total bullshit. If he makes it on the NYTBSL by summer 2008, which is when I think his 5th book comes out, I will gladly buy him a drink and congratulate him, and maybe he will. I think that kind of thinking is pie-in-the-sky at best and at worse can be debilitating folly, but hey, whatever gets you up and out of bed in the morning.
It’s not the first time I’ve heard this either, but I think there are thousands of novelists and nonfiction book writers who would not agree with the statement and whose careers have proved it.
So, Mark, what’s that list about up there?
Ah. There are five bestselling authors up there. I’ve sort of given up on Elmore Leonard, but I’m still an avid reader and buyer in hardcover of the other four. The books listed there are the first books I read by those authors. I didn’t care for “D is for Deadbeat”—still don’t—but I adore Sue Grafton. I didn’t much care for “Pale Kings and Princes” but I tried Parker later and I’ve read pretty much all his books. “Sunset Express” was a great book and made me an instant Robert Crais fan, but it’s not like I’d ever heard of the guy before that. And “Glitz” by Elmore Leonard was his 19th book for god sakes, we live in the same state and I’d never heard of the guy. Of course, “Glitz” was Leonard’s “breakout” novel and I can’t help but wonder if he’d started his writing career in today’s publishing environment any publisher would have waited around for him to take off.
I’m probably not a typical reader any more—I’m a published novelist, for years a book reviewer, and publishers and publicists still send me books to read, so I’m more likely to read a book by someone I’ve never heard of before than I used to. But 15 or 20 years ago? Not likely. My finances were different, for one, and I wasn’t coughing up $20 bucks for an unknown, and sometimes had to think twice about $4.95 (those book prices seem a bit quaint now, don’t they?).
My point, if you haven’t figured this out yet, is that writers and novelists have to keep it in their head that they’re running a marathon, not a sprint. We built readerships a book at a time, hopefully building up momentum, reaching a certain kind of critical mass over the course of 4 or 5 or 10 books—if our publishers will be patient. It’s not an industry currently known for that, and when we talk about MI they haven’t even been in business that long, so who knows? Only time will tell, I suppose.
So, we build our readers book by book, taking up more space on the bookstore shelves, creating a backlist, building a readership. Marketing 101 says most people need to hear a product’s name at least 6 times before they act on it. In bookselling, as my list suggests, that may not mean a specific book, but hearing the author’s name in connection with the book. Maybe we all need to write THAT above our desks, boys and girls: THE BOOK ISN’T THE PRODUCT, THE AUTHOR IS. After all, anybody ever hear of or read a thriller by Dan Brown before he published “The Da Vinci Code”? Me neither. So if we hang in there and keep doing what we’re doing, there’s hope for us yet.
I really wouldn’t mind seeing:
THE SERPENT’S KISS by Mark Terry #1 New York Times Bestseller
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Confession: I wore wigs to school.
At age fifteen, I discovered that the easy way to be somebody different every single day was to build a wig collection that included all available colors and styles…and then be brazen enough to wear 'em. On some level I must have been hoping that my fellow students wouldn’t recognize me. Or would want to meet the Real Me, whoever that was. Although I wouldn’t have admitted it, most days I wished I was the cheerleader rather than the artistic loner. True, I knew how to be funny, and that helped. But I was dramatically intense. I had to be; my life was hugely misunderstood. To underscore that, I dressed as if I couldn’t possibly belong to my conservative middle-class family. Despite my strict mother and the school dress code, I managed to look outlandish. I wore the most make-up and the most eccentric accessories I could find. And wigs. A different one every day.
Little did I know that my Wig Phase—which lasted about six months—was my preparation for careers on both the stage and page. Wearing an ash-blonde shoulder-length flip one day, an auburn shag the next, and a frosted pixie-cut the day after that no doubt served as dress rehearsals for characters I would later play or write.
In time I discovered that theatre and literature express a basic human desire: “Get me out of my own life!” We all want to know what it’s like to be somebody else. I’m not saying we’re ready to trade lives, but we would like a taste of somebody else's. We wonder what it's like to be that green-eyed redhead driving the Maserati. Or that sleek brunette with the black belt in karate. Or even (if I'm lucky) that bumbling, love-sick Michigan Realtor with the runaway Afghan hound. We want to safely, vicariously live pieces of those lives...on the pages of a mystery novel, on the stage or screen, or--in my adolescence--from under a wig.
My burning desire to be someone other than who I really was at age fifteen fueled my drive to become an actor and writer. Put another way, I wanted to keep wearing wigs. Sometimes, as a professional actor, I was required to wear one. Happy day! Now, as a writer, I own a vast metaphorical wig collection, and I don a different one while imagining each point-of-view character. For Easter Hutton, my teen protagonist in Homefree and Sensitive (Flux/Llewellyn), I wear a spiky flat-black number. For Whiskey Mattimoe, amateur sleuth, I wear a perpetually disheveled curly brown one. I never owned either of those wigs in high school, but now in my adult years, I spend many hours imagining life with such hair. And the myriad troubles that come with it.
Although my books feature lots of male characters, some of whom I'd no doubt fall in love (or lust) with if they were real, I have yet to write an entire book from a man's point of view. My unpublished starter novel was a thriller alternately told by a stockbroker and his wife caught in a high-stakes foreign adoption scam. Lacking a metaphorical wig for the husband narrator, I channeled the voices of a couple flesh-and-blood guys. The character that emerged was compelling and fun to write. I'd discovered non-wig ways to get inside a person's soul.
Still, when I think about what launched my creative careers, there’s no question: The wigs did it. Thanks, Mom, for letting me win that battle. You were right, of course; I looked ridiculous, especially as a platinum blonde. But, hey, I was just doing my homework.
Monday, May 14, 2007
So I got to thinking about the growing trend in book discussion groups both online and in real life.
I did some digging and found an article by Josh Gettlin in yesterday's L.A. Times Calendar Live.
So are various media outlets for authors.
Here's a snippet from his article:
"We keep hearing there was a golden age of books 30 years ago, when Gore Vidal would appear on Johnny Carson and they'd talk about books for half an hour," said Ron Hogan, who runs Beatrice, a literary blog, and Galleycat.com, a website for book industry news. "But look at what we have available to us today. We're going to have Cormac McCarthy appearing on Oprah Winfrey. We have an entire cable channel [C-SPAN II] that provides 48 hours of weekend coverage of nonfiction books. We have authors appearing on Comedy Central shows like 'The Daily Show' and 'The Colbert Report.' You have thousands of people attending book festivals across the nation. There's a huge amount of book-related information out there."
According to the article, book club membership numbers are estimated at 5 million.
So what do we do about this good news?
Any more clubs out there? I'm available.
Sunday, May 13, 2007
By Tom Schreck, author of On the Ropes, A Duffy Dombrowski Mystery
I remember taking my bar stool outside the edge of the Madison Square Garden ring and looking over to see George Foreman five seats away. The same jolly character who sells electric grills and mufflers was sitting with a scowl on his face away from the other TV people. I can still see the fabric of his suit jacket stretching to get around his biceps and something told me he wasn’t quite the grandfatherly guy that Madison Avenue said he was.
Don King was standing above me in the ring waving two flags while Michael Buffer, the Let’s-Get-Ready-to-Rumble announcer was waiting for his cue from Tammy the HBO producer. Sitting behind me to the right was Bob Costas and Dan Marino and on the other side of the ring The Donald and Mike Tyson were both in the front row. The Garden, billed as the most famous arena in the world, was 90% filled. It was a heavyweight title fight and I was assigned to judge it, one of three officials who decides who wins. The fighters were making more than $3 million for the next 36 minutes of work.
Ringside was filled with sharp dressed men and their leggy, super-model dates. The upper decks were filled with beer drinking blue collars dressed in the national colors of their fighter. A big fight is great theater and you could write a psychological doctoral thesis on everything that’s going on in, around and outside the ring. The tension is electric and nearly explosive and the fighters try to harness the energy and channel it a disciplined way. It’s elegant, poetic and barbaric all at the same time.
Lost on many fans and casual observers of the fight game is the undercard, the fights that are opening acts for the main event. While the title fight gets broadcast around the world at 11:00 pm from a nearly full Garden, people have already forgotten that at 6:00 pm the undercard began in front a few hundred people in a cavernous arena.
Those two fighters weren’t getting pain a million and half each. They were making about $400.
You’ll often hear people say “Hey, I’d let Mike Tyson knock me out for ten million!” It’s doubtful that they would though, because that one punch might ruin or end their life. Regardless, I’m pretty confident that those same loudmouths wouldn’t climb in to the ring for $400. Yet, every week in this country that’s what the vast majority of professional fighters are getting paid.
Why do they do it?
Because they love to fight.
I’ve boxed for years and, at the age of 45, I still do. I’m not good but I’ve been a gym rat long enough to know the ins and outs of what happens in the ring. It’s a skill and an art form and it taxes you physically, psychologically and emotionally. It’s scares the hell out of you, infuriates you and leaves you exhausted and exhilarated. It places you right in front of your fears and leaves you alone to face them. For me, it’s nice to win but that’s an aside. It’s important to do something crazy that scares the hell out you just for the good of doing it.
But doesn’t it hurt? Of course it does and it has to. Recently, there’s been a boxing-as-exercise fitness craze and people will often tell me how they “box.” There’s no question that a boxing workout is a challenging cardiovascular exercise but without the fighting element boxing without getting his is as close to boxing as masturbation is to sex with a partner. It might be fun but it really isn’t the same.
People ask me how I’d do in a street fight and the honest answer is I don’t know. The thing that makes me feel most confident (or at least less fearful) about being faced with a street fight is that I know what it’s like to get punched hard in the face by someone who knows how to do it. I know I’ve taken shots and as unpleasant as that can be, I know I took them. As strange as it sounds, that’s important.
It also spills over into your real life. Guys who have spent their lives fighting have less to prove. They may be competitive but you don’t see them getting macho in board meetings trying to prove themselves—because they don’t have to. Some big shot Wall Street rainmaker feels like a tough guy until he’s around a guy who can really fight. Then all the Wall Street metaphors about doing battle really seem silly around someone who knows what battling is. I think there would be a lot less macho bullshit if more people learned to fight and got it out of their systems instead of sublimating it and barfing all over everyone they come in contact with.
My protoganist is a low level fighter who makes his living in the world of social work. He has spent his life fighting in the ring and the book is about how he fights outside the ring. He looks at life as a boxer and a man who understands what it means to take a shot that hurts and that mindset helps him be an effective counselor. He’s also a man who keeps getting up when he gets knocked down and he applies that mentality to his human service career.
The other thing that you should know is that he taps into that crazy side that gets him into the ring in the first place. That sometimes gets him into trouble but it also makes him who he is.
It’s also what makes boxing important.
Saturday, May 12, 2007
Thursday, May 10, 2007
I think most writers agree that broad genre labels such as "mystery" serve a distinct purpose to help booksellers organize their shelves and, even more importantly, help readers narrow their search for your book. If I want to trip over a dead body, I'll begin my search in the mystery section, but if I want to find an alien or the secret of our existence somewhere out in space, I just might start in the science fiction aisle. From a writer's and a reader's point of view, that seems to make sense.
But the one label that I find utterly useless is the term "literary". The phrase "this is a literary novel" doesn't really tell me anything about a book or whether or not I'd enjoy reading it – in fact, it just might be unreadable. But the label does suggest a certain amount of pretense, the feeling that this is a book I should read instead of a book I want to read. There is a snide implication that reading it will protect me from some politically correct form of social disdain towards anyone who ever enjoyed an action movie. Well, for the record, I never do anything that someone tells me I "should" be doing. Like most crime writers, I am a contrarian at heart.
And like most writers I try to read everything I can get my hands on, from other mystery writers to biographies, science fiction, historical novels, you name it. But I never forget that the "classics" we all read in school were the popular fiction of their time. I'm not sure if they were called literary novels or just damn good books back then, but if you look at the NY Times bestseller list today, I have no doubt Michael Connelly, Lee Child and Laura Lippman will be added to the curriculum by the next generation of English teachers.
I don't know about you, but I'm writing to be read, and I have no apologies for entertaining my readers along the way. Last time I checked, that's the only incentive they have for coming back and listening to what I have to say.
There's another level to genre taxonomy that involves pigeon-holing books into sub-genres such as "cozy", "hard-boiled", or "thriller", but I'll save that debate for another post. As someone who, according to reviewers, wrote an entertaining "hard-boiled noir pulp thriller travelogue adventure novel", I'm not sure I'm qualified to discuss the value of being in a sub-genre. I'm just glad they didn't say that I wrote a literary novel.
Wednesday, May 9, 2007
It’s 7:45 California time. I have a fresh cup of coffee and am sitting in my office at the law firm crazy enough to employ me as a paralegal. Yesterday afternoon I flew back from the East Coast where I attended the Malice Domestic conference, a signing in Annapolis, MD, with five other authors, and the Festival of Mystery in Oakmont, PA where fifty authors dashed about, signing books and speaking with the five hundred attendees.
I’m sure you expect me to say I’m pooped. But honestly, I’m not. Of course, getting ten hours of sleep last night certainly helped, but rather than feeling exhausted this morning, I feel invigorated. I just spent six days networking with other mystery authors and speaking with hundreds of mystery readers – some already loyal to my Odelia Grey series, others just discovering it. It was exciting. I also had the wonderful opportunity of meeting many of my fellow Midnight Ink authors, some for the first time, which is always a treat.
I love being a writer. I love the writing process. I love the editing and re-writes. I love the launching of a new book and getting out and meeting readers across the country at conferences and book signings. And I adore networking with other authors. Most of what I learn about the business of writing I learn at the bar at these conferences, clustered around small tables with authors from other publishers and other parts of the country. I have learned to keep my ears open and to ask questions. This trip I also learned a lot waiting for planes and tables at restaurants. Like most knowledge, there is bad mixed with the good, but all is valuable. This trip I learned of a publisher cutting its entire mystery line and of several other authors being dropped by their publishers. Some of these cut authors were celebrating new contracts with other publishers, some were planning proposals to pitch to new publishers. On the flipside, there were those authors celebrating the expansion of their series and the launching of new books and stand alone novels. It was definitely a seesaw of emotions.
Just before traveling to Malice, I learned that Midnight Ink was buying books 4, 5 & 6 in my Odelia Grey series. I also learned that they had already slated a new series that I am in the process of pitching to them. And Friday at dinner, I learned that my novel Too Big To Miss was a semi-finalist for an Ippy. I was one of the authors riding high at Malice. But I’m no dummy (contrary to a few opinions). I know that I could just as easily have been one of the authors being knocked down by the brutal business side of writing.
It would be easy to obsess and worry about the future of my writing while trying to produce quality work. But even as I sympathize with the authors having to start anew, I will push forward, continuing to write, create, market and publicize my work, until I, too, find myself being dumped by the seesaw that is the world of publishing.
Monday, May 7, 2007
We crossed the line
Who pushed who over?
It doesn't matter to you
It matters to me
The song is about a personal relationship gone bad - but it means more to me. It speaks to the cruelty we can inflict on each other without realizing the consequences of our actions. We cross the line everyday - and do we realize it? Who pushed who? Does it matter? It matters to me.
You know I've met a lot of writers over the years, and almost always they are down to earth, generous, and friendly. But then . . . Well, I'm sure we have all met some folks (writers or not) who just get too big for their britches. So here's a little story that still makes me laugh. Joe Moore (my co-writer) and I were at a writers conference and there were some pretty big names there. We were tiny little fish (maybe even plankton) in a huge sea. One of the days at the conference we were manning a table and giving out information on a writers' organization. The room we were in had a beautiful view of the river, and we could see the tour boats glide past. As we sat there, often with our jaws agape at some of the rich and famous authors among us, one big kahuna stopped at our table. He/she (don't want to reveal the gender) picked up one of the brochures and made the following statement. "Oh, I could take some of these with me while I'm on toooooooour." I guess it was the pretentious way he spoke the word "tour" that set Joe off. Toooooooour. As soon as Big Kahuna turned his back, Joe nodded toward the river and said to me (as if he were speaking to the big kahuna), "Well, we're taking the two o'clock river tooooour, which one are you taking?" I thought I would roll off my chair. To this day, all we have to say to each other is the word "toooooour" and we break out in hysterical laughter. (Maybe you had to be there)
Then of course there is also the very humbling experience of asking someone to blurb your book. I'd say 99% of those we have asked have responded courteously. Some have agreed, and others because of schedules or demands have declined, which they did quite graciously. Even if they just didn't want to be bothered, they knew how to be polite about it. Only on one occasion when we asked an author, face-to-face, for a blurb did we get a very clear too-big-for-his-britches response. People like that shouldn't have such success.
I've also gone to hear writers speak and sign books. I've seen Stephen King sit and sign books until every one waiting got a copy. And he personally looked up at every fan and acknowledged him. Yet once I met a flash-in-the-pan author who got way too big for his britches. He had an announcement made that he would only sign 100 books and would not personalize any of them. And sure enough, as soon as the 100th book was signed, he got up and left. And I might say, he never even made eye contact with a single person buying his book. Yikes. That kind of thing gives writers a bad name. We can't forget that it's readers who give us success. Be thankful for heaven's sake. What's up with being rude to the very ones who got you where you are?
Lord, I do hope to one day have the OPPORTUNITY to get too big for my britches, and hopefully I will decline to do so.
Saturday, May 5, 2007
May 5, 2:00 pm
KEITH RAFFEL will be signing at:
Borders, downtown Palo Alto
456 University Avenue
Palo Alto, CA 94301
LYNN SHOLES & JOE MOORE will conduct the writer’s workshop:
"Tension Headaches: How to avoid them while you make your readers squirm."
FLORIDA WRITERS ASSOCIATION
One-Day Writers Conference
May 19, 2007
Ponte Vedra Branch Library
100 Library Boulevard
Ponte Vedra Beach, FL.
Friday, May 4, 2007
I hate to say it, but the best and most cost-effective way to let people know about a good book is – drumroll – a newspaper review. When a review ran in the San Jose Mercury, Dot Dead leapt up the Amazon bestseller list. When Lora Robert’s Palo Alto Weekly review ran, local stores ran out of copies. There’s only one problem – reviews are harder to get than Norah Jones’s new album on eight-track.
Before publication, the PR people and I sent out around three dozen ARC’s (advance reader copies) to newspapers across the country. Except for the local papers mentioned, scarcely anything. (Exception: The Royse City Herald Banner, but then, they requested a copy.) Part of the problem certainly was that Midnight Ink has not been around for long and that it publishes in trade paper format, not hardback. Also, there’s the problem with me: Dot Dead was a first book and I wasn't known as an author. A reporter friend at the Wall Street Journal explained the dilemma to me: We will only give you coverage if you don’t need it.
But there’s a bigger macro issue at play here. Print newspapers are dying. Employment at U.S. papers is down by a third since 1990. As the papers cut back, the book review section is often first hit. Authors are fighting this trend but I fear they are, like Canute, ordering the tide not to come in. The National Books Critics Circle has started a campaign to save book reviews. The Circle reports book coverage has been cut back or eliminated recently at, among others, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Newsday, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Dallas Morning News, the Sun Sentinel, the New Mexican, the Village Voice, Boston Phoenix, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution. As for the last-named, the New York Times reports that 120 authors have signed a petition to save the job of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s book editor.
Michael Connelly wrote a piece for his alma mater, the LA Times, that ran during the Book Festival last weekend. He attributes the success of his Harry Bosch series to reviews of his first book, The Black Echo. Michael then goes on to say, “I can't help but wonder, though, how long Harry would have lasted had he been born in today's newspaper environment.” Michael goes on to ask whether publishers and editors are being short-sighted as they practice a scorched earth policy on book review sections.
“In the past, newspaper executives understood the symbiotic relationship between their product and books. People who read books also read newspapers. From that basic tenet came a philosophy: If you foster books, you foster reading. If you foster reading, you foster newspapers. That loss-leader ends up helping you build and keep your base. What I fear is that this philosophy is disappearing from the boardrooms of our newspapers; that efforts to cut costs now will damage both books and newspapers in the future. Short-term gains will become long-term losses.”
Now Ed Champion offers a somewhat contrarian point of view, arguing that reviews will come increasingly from bloggers, podcasters, and other online participants. Who can argue with that? I’m a blogger myself and read 10 or 20 more every week. Pat Holt, the former editor of the Chronicle book reviewer who did some editing work on Dot Dead, wants to do something different, to take action: “Let's get out there and pound some tables about books; let's put our hearts and souls on the line, not to pander to base tastes but to start a true critical discourse with audiences and make book reviews in all their forms as riveting to read as they are essential.”
Still as a mystery writer who publishes in a format not much changed since Gutenberg, I can’t help but lament being caught in the sea change that’s going on. The blogosphere and online worlds do not have the wide reach of traditional newspapers, at least not yet. And the book review sections of those same papers, if not the papers themselves, are – like the Wicked Witch – melting away.
Wednesday, May 2, 2007
Well, it’s official. My husband and I, in our—ho ho—spare time, have decided to write a book together. Still in the planning stages, mind you, but Jeff has some very definite ideas about what he wants it to be.
We don’t intend to sit side by side at the computer (although that would be adorable); rather, Jeff will outline all his ideas, I will flesh out a chapter, and then he will mark it up with all of his changes. Sounds okay, right?
But I’m reminded of our first married adventure: hanging wallpaper together. We had, at the time, a giant bedroom in our condominium, and I had chosen a lovely forest green wallpaper with a pattern on it. Later we learned that patterns are deadly: you have to match them, and they have to be straight.
Imagine these scenarios: a couple going to war together, stuck in the same trench while bullets scream past their heads; or maybe a couple trapped in a jungle, being hunted by a wild animal, forced to face inevitable grisly death. Stressful, right? No. Child’s play, compared with hanging wallpaper with your spouse. Between the awful gook we had to dip the long sheets in, the ladder we had to climb, and the little shovels we had to use to smooth out the bubbles—all of which had to be done pronto, before anything dried—there were lots of swear words. Truckers would have blushed and lowered their eyes in the face of the things we were yelling at each other. One of us would decide that the other’s work wasn’t straight, and then the whole sticky, messy thing had to be peeled off the wall and re-gooped. I was practically in tears on several occasions, and halfway through we were pretty sure our marriage was over. Visions of divorce lawyers were dancing in our heads.
Somehow we got the wallpaper up. Somehow it dried and looked okay, and we ended up really liking it. But getting to that point? We almost didn’t make it.
Now I think about writing a book. Is it more difficult than hanging wallpaper? Is it advisable for a couple to attempt this sort of thing? For one thing, I work harder than my husband (which we both admit), and this could immediately become a bone of contention. If we were both animals, I’d be some ambitious creature—a bird, maybe—and my husband would be more like a sloth, or a cat. Something that sleeps all day, or at least reads the paper for long periods of time. In my husband’s mind, tomorrow is always the best time to get something done. In mine, it should have been done yesterday.
Granted, I’ll probably die first because of the stress involved with this mindset, but I’m going to try to have a nice library of books to my name before that happens. My husband joked last night that his tombstone will read, “What’s on TV?”
So the great book experiment should be interesting. Hopefully we won’t have to drag the children in as referees—they can be bought off, I fear, and that won’t help us to accomplish anything.