Friday, July 31, 2009

Don't Mess With Me (Please?)

hpdI have a recommendation for all crime writers: Attend a Citizen's Police Academy.

I did, and it was a fantastic way to see what police departments really do (the only better way might be to enroll in the real police academy and become an honest-to-goodness cop).

Many local law enforcement jurisdictions hold their own Citizen Academies (or some version of one--make a few calls, you'll be surprised). Mine was put on by the Herndon (VA) Police Department , where everyone involved was absolutely great--friendly, informative, generous. We met every Wednesday night for 12 weeks, and the sessions encompassed a wide range of police activities.

Undercover narc cops spoke to us about the seamy underbelly of the drug world, regaling us with some amazing stories and showing us what different drugs looked like, up close and personal. Gang specialists told us about dealing with different gangs and how to determine gang affiliation by inspecting tattoos. We watched a K9 unit demonstrate "take-down" techniques, and we hit the streets to work the RADAR and LIDAR guns (sorry Mrs. Peterson, but I clocked you going 48 mph in a 35 mph zone).

We went to the evidence lab and learned how to expose fingerprints targetwith superglue fumes, we observed the lie detector in use (excuse me, the polygraph), and we got to fire live weapons on the firing range. A word of warning: Don't mess with me--I put all five rounds in the inner circle, and it was the first time I'd ever even touched a real gun. Okay, I think it was from five yards away, but still...

Another highlight was our visit to the County Detention Center (aka, the jail). Talk about an eye-popping experience! We toured the whole thing--intake, processing, fingerprinting, breathalyzers, the holding cells, regular cells (pods, I think they were called), as well as the "special" cells. Fascinating, and mighty depressing.

While all those experiences were terrific, the topper was my ride-along with a police officer.


Come with me back to that Saturday night on the mean streets of Herndon...

We'd been cruising for about two hours or so, checking out the normal trouble spots, and we'd gotten the usual calls. Excessive noise at a sketchy apartment complex, some possible gang activity near the 7-Eleven, a D-and-D (that's drunk and disorderly, for all you, uh, rookies) at a local bar. Just your typical shift. Then the radio crackled to life again (notice how police radios always "crackle to life.").

There was a report of people--several people--running through the Community Center's parking lot with rifles. "Hold on," the officer beside me said. "This could get hairy." She flipped on the siren and we went roaring through town, cars parting to let us through. Screeching into the Community Center parking lot, we pulled up alongside a couple other cruisers, both empty, one with a door still flung open. Someone had left in a hurry.

The officer barked at me, "Stay here. Don't get out of the car."

I forced a nod, mouth too dry to talk. Of course, she didn't have to worry. I had no intention of following her into the night with a bunch of armed goons on the loose. shotgun

She grabbed her shotgun from the lockdown and raced off, leaving me all alone. 

My heart raced. What if the guys with guns doubled back and found me, by myself, a sitting duck in a patrol car? Would I become the unfortunate reason future ride-alongs had to be eliminated? I sank in my seat and peered out over the dashboard, hoping for reinforcements. Nope, just me and the empty police cars. I'd realized it before, but it hit home a lot harder in that moment. We don't pay law enforcement personnel nearly enough.

Luckily, the situation had a non-violent resolution. It turned out that the people running through the parking lot were teenagers wielding air rifles. No one got hurt. But, man, how easily could something have gone terribly, irrevocably wrong? In the dark, those air rifles were indistinguishable from real rifles. Some poor teenager's head easily could have been blown off.

I'll say it again; I heartily recommend attending a Citizen's Police Academy. Just make sure to wear two pairs of underwear on ride-along night.



Thursday, July 30, 2009

Planned Obsolescence and The Idea of Product Quality

by Julia Buckley
The older I get, the more I’m willing to stand up for myself and demand what is owed me. This often requires the writing of an indignant letter or e-mail, some of which get results. I’m trying to pass this idea on to my children: that quality is something they should demand, because when people stop demanding the best, America will stop producing the best. (You can insert your own comment about the auto industry here).

For example, my sons saved their money a couple of years ago and bought a $380 X Box 360 Game System. I was horrified by the amount of money this cost, but I was more horrified by the fact that it stopped working a year and a half later. Worse yet, my sons were resigned to their fates. The oldest one shrugged. “My friend told me this happens all the time,” he said of the three flashing lights that, in Game World, kids call “the ring of death.” “Once you get the ring of death, the system is broken and you have to get a new X Box.”

I was indignant. “What? You spent almost 400 dollars and you’re not going to demand that they fix your product? Don’t you realize that for that money, they should be providing something that works forever?”

They shrugged again. “These games break down, Mom.”

So Mom went online, to the X Box site. Like all giant companies, X Box would prefer not to talk to you on the phone or via e-mail. They have lists of FAQs that you can consult to try to help you along the road to repair. If you MUST call them, they warn in their fine print, the repair will cost more. That’s right: they will charge you more if you call them on the phone.

I understand the notion of planned obsolescence, but what about customer service? Is that obsolete? Should someone sell a product in mass quantities if they can’t back up the quality of that product?

My sons and I did not call X Box, but we printed off a UPS label and went to our UPS Store. There, the woman who helped us nodded at our package. “Looks like an X Box return, huh?”

“Yeah. Do you get a lot of these?”

She shrugged. “Only two or three a day, now. But back when the new model came out and people were waiting in the parking lots of Best Buy and Target to get their hands on them, we were getting about thirty returns a day. They had to produce them so fast they couldn’t control the quality.”

Huh. Even the UPS lady knew that X Box did not, for all its expensiveness, provide a product that lasted.

I spent fourteen dollars on packing materials so that my sons could send back their faulty unit with its ring of death. I hope that this is the last we will have to spend on this product, but X Box warns on their website (do not call them) that it could be free, or it could be 99 dollars, depending on your warranty. Nothing in between.

I have no respect for a company that charges exorbitant prices for faulty products. I hope my sons learn a little lesson every time I refuse to accept defeat and demand my money’s worth. They live in a society that tells them they can dispose of everything, or buy a new one of everything, but they also have a mother who will not (and cannot) live that way.

My husband and I, with our ancient wisdom, tell them that we can recall a time when you bought a product–-a telephone, a washing machine, a television–-and it lasted a lifetime (that is, our parents still have working products that they bought forty years ago). We assure our children that this is how every product should be. They nod at us with their knowing expressions. With the eternal optimism of youth, they believe that money will never be a problem for them, so it won’t really matter how many times they have to buy something. They intend to have plenty of expendable cash.

I think I felt the same way as a young person, but it’s a dangerous attitude for children to adopt, especially in the current financial climate. Even the greatest salary won’t help them much if money suddenly loses its value.

X Box allows people to check the status of their repairs (of course) online. I’ll encourage my sons to keep on top of this in order to make them feel their ownership and to develop a corresponding demand for product quality. I hope it will make them look at their purchases differently in the future.

(Image link here)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Great Writing

by Tom Schreck, author of the Duffy Dombrowski Mysteries

As a semi-professional writer I often get asked about what constitutes great writing.
Hard to say but it's kind of like that Supreme Court judge said about porn, that is; "I know it when I see it." (I'm still trying to get him to send me the links to those specific sites.)

I recently came across a piece of what I think epitomizes super great writing. (not sure if "super great" fits into the great writing category or not.)

It wasn't Shakespeare, Faulkner, Hemingway or Maleeny. It was Lloyd Price.

Here it is, his version of the iconic rock and roll song, "Stagger Lee."

The night was clear, and the moon was yellow
And the leaves came tumblin' down. . .

I was standin' on the corner
When I heard my bull dog bark.
He was barkin' at the two men
Who were gamblin' in the dark.

It was Stagger Lee and Billy,
Two men who gambled late.
Stagger lee threw a seven,
Billy swore that he threw eight.

"Stagger Lee," said Billy,
"I can't let you go with that.
"You have won all my money,
"And my brand-new Stetson hat."

Stagger Lee went home
And he got his .44.
He said, "I'm goin' to the ballroom
"Just to pay that debt I owe."

Go, Stagger Lee

Stagger Lee went to the ballroom
And he strolled across the ballroom floor.
He said "You did me wrong, Billy."
And he pulled his .44.

"Stagger Lee," said Billy,
"Oh, please don't take my life!
"I've got three hungry children,
"And a very sickly wife."

Stagger Lee shot Billy
Oh, he shot that poor boy so hard
That a bullet went through Billy
And broke the bartender's bar.

Go, Stagger Lee, go, Stagger Lee!
Go, Stagger Lee, go, Stagger Lee!
(to fade) here's why I think it is great.

The night was clear, and the moon was yellow
And the leaves came tumblin' down. . .

(Perfect description of a setting in very few words. "The moon was yellow." -Can't you just see that? The moon isn't usually described as yellow--but it is, isn't it?)

I was standin' on the corner
When I heard my bull dog bark.

(He's got a bull dog--not a dog, not a hound dog, which would be the appropriate cliche considering it was the fifties. A bull dog is different and therefore it catches the reader's eye.)

He was barkin' at the two men
Who were gamblin' in the dark.

("Gamblin' in the dark." Isn't that all you really need to know? It sounds seedy and you know what's going on in three words.)

It was Stagger Lee and Billy,
Two men who gambled late.

("gambled late'--again tells you everything you need to know in two words.)

Stagger lee threw a seven,
Billy swore that he threw eight.

(Great craps reference. As a crap player myself I think what happened was Stagger Lee crapped out by throwing a seven but tried to screw Billy by claiming it was an eight. We're left to assume that Stagger had bet on eight.)

"Stagger Lee," said Billy,
"I can't let you go with that.
"You have won all my money,
"And my brand-new Stetson hat."

(Stagger Lee cheats and wins not only all the money but the poor brother's STETSON hat. A damned STETSON! You know that means trouble.)

Stagger Lee went home
And he got his .44.

(Not a gun, not a shotgun, not a pistol...a 44. Much more descriptive word.)

He said, "I'm goin' to the ballroom
"Just to pay that debt I owe."

(Short, tight dialogue. fantastic!)
Go, Stagger Lee

(Here's the verse that the sociologists examine. The background singers are CHEERING Stagger Lee who not only is a cheater but now wants to murder over being accused of cheating. From a writing standpoint it's great because it goes against cliche.)

Stagger Lee went to the ballroom
And he strolled across the ballroom floor.
He said "You did me wrong, Billy."
And he pulled his .44.

"Stagger Lee," said Billy,
"Oh, please don't take my life!
"I've got three hungry children,
"And a very sickly wife."

(More great dialogue tightly written.)

Stagger Lee shot Billy
Oh, he shot that poor boy so hard
That a bullet went through Billy
And broke the bartender's bar.

(Stagger Lee shoots the guy even though he gets begged not to. Man, this is a bad MFer! And how about the bullet going through Billy and smashing the bartender's glass. Hold it--the BARTENDER'S glass? He's not supposed to be drinking--now we know more about how seedy the place really is!)

Go, Stagger Lee, go, Stagger Lee!
Go, Stagger Lee, go, Stagger Lee!

(And the back up singers cheer Stagger on! Great Stuff!)

Rolling Stone writer Greil Marcus wrote that this song inspired the Black Panthers, influenced Sly Stone's swagger and was responsible for every image of a tough, street-smart Black man in every motion picture and literary depiction.

I don't know about all that. I do know that different versions of the song have been recorded by 400 different artists and that it is based on a Christmas Eve murder in St Louis in the 1800's.

i don't really care--I just now that it tells a story in very, very few but descriptive terms and that it ignores cliches and how stories are "supposed to be."

Which to me is the essence of great, great writing.

Go Stagger Lee!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


G.M. Malliet

I joined Twitter some months ago, propelled by curiosity. Well, beaten down by the media hype, more like.

I enjoy technology, but to a point, and being the cautious type, I kept my Twitter updates locked as "private." This meant anyone who cared to read what I was up to, which was precious little, had to ask my permission. Then I spent three quarters of an hour choosing my color scheme, changing it from black to pink and back to black again, and uploading the image of my first book, then my second, then switching back to my first, which only seemed in retrospect like a total waste of time. Then I sort of sat back and waited for something momentous to happen, like my books immediately going into seventeen reprints. Of course, as so often happens, nothing did happen. The occasional request to follow me occasionally came in, but hardly was there what you'd call a groundswell of interest.

So I recently asked the experts at a Yahoo group called Murder Must Advertise (which is a must-join for writers, BTW) whether my privacy setting was negating the whole point of being on Twitter. (If there is a point to being on Twitter, that is, which is a whole other topic. If Bill Gates can decide FaceBook is a waste of his time, as he recently did, is there hope for any of these social networking groups?)

I was told that, yes, indeed, I had rendered the whole Twitter thing pointless. By this time only about 70 people could see the lovely color scheme I'd chosen, and they most likely did not care. And since I twitted or tweeted only rarely, my online participation was even more nonsensical than usual.

As an author, of course I want to take advantage of every opportunity to spread the word when I have a new novel coming out, when I'm doing a signing, etc. Twitter has the advantage of being 1) wildly popular, 2) easy to use, and 3) thus far, free. But I have to confess to some trepidation before following the advice from Murder Must Advertise to go public. How crazy would my life get if I took off the Privacy sign and let every scammer, every lost soul, every knife-wielding maniac, in?

That was a few days ago. I just took a look over at and now that I'm paying closer attention, I can see there was nothing to worry about. I was already following Eddie Izzard, who is almost guaranteed to be good for a laugh. Ditto The Onion. And Martha Stewart. (Not for a laugh, for homely domestic inspiration. Not too surprisingly, Martha tweets recipes in much the same way the rest of us breathe.)

But what mostly seems to have happened is that I'm hearing an awful lot about what Ashton Kutcher gets up to, practically on a minute-by-minute basis, which nicely answers the question of what Twitter is really all about. It's about Ashton, who you must know almost single-handedly started the Susan Boyle phenomenon by tweeting about her. Ashton, who has nearly 3 million followers.

Three million followers.

Mrs. Kutcher, AKA Demi Moore, has quite a following, too, but not as big as her husband's. You would think this would be a source of friction over there at Casa Kutcher, but no. The updates of these two are so downright homey, so cozy and mundane, even, it all reminds me of the feature in Us magazine (or something like that) that I read at the hairdressers: "Stars! They're just like us!" This editorial gem is illustrated by photos, no doubt taken by out-of-work art school students or passersby with a cell phone, of someone like Cameron Diaz, in full makeup, picking up her laundry; Tom Cruise changing a tire (just kidding); or some starlet shopping (what else?) on Rodeo Drive. Need I mention, if she were shopping at Target, well, then she'd be just like me?

Still, no doubt about it, Ashton knows how to work Twitter better than anyone alive, and I think we should be able to harness this to some better use than propelling a Scottish singer, however talented, to instant stardom (so she can be photographed picking up her laundry, just like us). Seriously, think about it. If the whole world starts following Ashton Kutcher, we will all, in some crazy way, be communicating. We may all find a common humanity, not to mention get the chance to swap recipes and share other important knowledge, like how to de-skunk a smelly dog, which was the latest crisis in the Kutcher household (answer might be tomato juice, but as Martha Stewart didn't tweet, she missed her chance to really make a contribution).

This could be the start of world peace, the end of war in our time, and all in less than 140 characters - plus the time it takes to decide on that all-important color scheme.

Gotta go now and pick up the laundry.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Day was Bovine, Dahling

By Deborah Sharp

The audience at my reading was rapt. Only the occasional snort broke the spell. Maybe a moo or two. Welcome to the National Day of the American Cowboy, Okeechobee, Fla-style.

''MAMA'' Goes to the Rodeo.

The photo above, taken by my friend and fellow author Jan Day, proves the two of us were getting a bit punchy by day's end. It was so steamy hot, even in our shady location, sitting by a fan, that the giveaway Hershey's kisses I had left over from a signing the night before melted in their little bowl into a brown liquid goo. In fact, they looked a bit like the punctuation the cattle in the pen behind us squirted out at regular intervals. Still, what author wouldn't love a cowptive audience for a reading?

My funny Mace Bauer Mystery series is set in the cattle-ranching slice of Florida (bet you didn't know we had one, right? There's no ride at Disney.) And the latest, Mama Rides Shotgun, takes place on the Cracker Trail, an annual cross-state horseback ride that commemorates Florida's cattle traditions. Insanely, I rode the six-day, 120 mile ride in 2007 for research. My hindquarters haven't been the same since. So, the Agri-Civic Center and rodeo grounds in Okeechobee seemed like a pretty good spot for a signing. Besides, when you've set your book in a section of the state with more cows than people, any opportunity for a crowd is a good thing.

Okeechobee, center of the state, right on top of the namesake lake, shares nothing in common with the better-known, densely populated coastal regions. It's an hour-and-a-half's drive from the nearest ocean breeze. The accents are Southern. Churches out-number bars. Iced sweet tea is the beverage of choice, and there's not a Starbucks in sight. I love it. But there is a certain culture shock to being out there, especially when the signing I did the night before took place at Murder on the Beach bookstore, in swanky Delray Beach.

Country music sounded from the speakers. Spurs jingle-jangled. The Rodeo Queen wore a glittering tiara attached to her cowboy hat. The scent of swamp cabbage and smoky brisket filled the air. Right before the start of the Okeechobee Cattlemens Ranch Rodeo, heads bowed in prayer. ''Please keep us safe, and keep our horses safe,'' the announcer intoned. Amen.

Toto, we're not in Delray anymore.

I met some great folks, sold some books, experienced an incredible part of my native state that not too many people take the trouble to find. And I had an epiphany sitting there in the sweltering heat: A big part part of the writer's life is being able to roll with the contrasts (not to mention the odor of manure) while taking your show on the road. Reading to wine-sipping, oceanfront condo-dwellers one day, to rodeo livestock the next. It was a mooving moment, I can tell you that. Or maybe it was just a sugar high from all that sweet tea.

How about you, authors? What's the craziest contrast you've encountered? Reading at a rave one day; an old folks' home the next? Or, readers, from four-star hotel to pup tent during the space of one vacation? Do you roll with the contrasts?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

InkSpot News - July 26, 2009

Tim Maleeny's Jump has shot up to #8 on this week's San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller List. (Click here.)

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Inkspot News - July 25, 2009

Terri Thayer will be selling and signing books today at the Fabric Patch booth at the IQA quilt show in Long Beach, CA.

Also today join G.M. Malliet and women-of-mystery Donna Andrews, Susan Froetschel, and Marcia Talley as they discuss the writing life at the Frederick County Public Library. Time: 1-3 p.m. Address: 110 E. Patrick Street, Frederick, MD.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Puking is Okay

In about thirty days another child of mine will be brought into this world. Or rather, launched upon the reading community. But this time it’s not an Odelia Grey novel, but Ghost à la Mode, the first book in my new Ghost of Granny Apples mystery series.

It was just over two years ago when this little idea I had for a short story took root as a novel and blossomed into a full-fledged series. I remember Barbara Moore, my then editor, saying to me: “How soon can you get us a manuscript?”

“Huh?” Quickly, I calculated how much time I needed to write the Odelia Grey novels under contract, how many hours had to be spent at the law firm, evenings and weekends promoting the novels already out, and how much time I would need to eat, sleep, clean the house, and play with the cats. (Forget having any sort of normal relationship or social outings.) In the end, my time looked a lot like my check book – precariously teetering in the red.

“How about September 1st [2008],” I replied with a confidence that shook in its socks.

I'm pleased to say the early reviews for Ghost à la Mode have been very good and my publisher tells me the orders are strong. But we authors know that the real proof in the pudding is in the final sales. Orders mean nothing if the books don’t ultimately get sold to readers. My 2nd series still has to prove itself, just as the Odelia Grey series did.

Years ago when I set out to be an author, it never occurred to me to write two series. And no where on my radar was there a book or books about ghosts! I had envisioned writing the Odelia Grey series and the occasional stand alone novel. I knew other authors juggled two series, but with my full-time career as a paralegal, writing, and promotion, one book a year was enough. Or so I thought.

I won’t lie. Some days I regret saying yes to writing the second series. Those are the days when I’m mentally and physically cremated. When the brain screams for a little downtime and my fingers beg for some Bengay. Those are the days when being a hamster in a wheel looks like a nice vacation. But if I had to drop one series and keep the other, it would feel a little like Sophie's Choice. They are both my children, with individual personalities, up sides and down sides. Each series brings me unique joy and provides me with specific challenges.

To keep the two series separate in my brain, I write the Odelia Grey books in first person and the Ghost of Granny Apples books in 3rd person. The protagonists are also very different. Odelia is a lot like me - a short, fat, middle-aged, mouthy paralegal. Emma Whitecastle, the protagonist of the Granny Apples books, is tall, blonde, willowy, divorced, and rich, which is definitely NOT like me. It was fun to write outside my comfort zone. More importantly, it was a challenge to see if I could.

In about thirty days, not only will Ghost à la Mode be launched, but I will be turning in the manuscript for the 2nd book in The Ghost of Granny Apples series. Its working title is Hot ‘n Haunting. I will take two weeks off, then it’s on to Body Bingo, book six in the Odelia Grey mystery series, which is due just after the New Year. It's a lot like running back-to-back marathons.

When training recently for the Camp Pendleton Mud Run, my dear friend Ashley Ream drummed into my head the following code of athletes:

“You can puke, but you can’t quit.”

Wadda ya know – it applies to writing, too.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Jess Lourey

September Fair, the fifth book in my Murder-by-September FairMonth series, comes out this September, though it may be available as early as August. This one is far and away the best in the series, and my plan was to quit on this high note. I’ve got a historical novel in the queue, and I’m hammering out a magical realism story that has completely captivated my imagination and it thrills me to write it.

Plus, I’ve recently fallen in love (first time in eight years!), I have two kids who each just got a new little animal (one puppy and one kitten), and I’ve got a full-time job. All these other draws on my time pretty much guaranteed that the Murder-by-Month series would need to take a break after September Fair.

So why can’t I let the series drop? Why do these Battle Lake plot ideas, character lines, and setting details pop unwanted into that area between my brain and eyes, where they spread like creeping octoberfest Charlie? Sigh. It’s gotten so bad that I asked my agent to ask my publisher if they want another, tentatively titled Octoberfest, even though I’d already told them I didn’t want to write it. I’m waiting to hear back. Part of me hopes they don’t offer me a decent contract so I can get on with the rest of my life. The rest of me wants an excuse to write that damn novel.

And I’ve heard from my readers. They both want me to write Octoberfest, too. Do you have one of those? A story or novel idea that won’t let you go, even though you know your attention is needed elsewhere, the literary motorcycleequivalent of the dark-haired, black-eyed man on a motorcycle, sitting outside your house come hithering you when you know you should be inside cleaning and baking? (p.s. I may have let you too far into my head with that analogy.)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Road Trip

Cricket McRaeI love to write while I'm driving. Well, not literally write, but plot and make notes and yakety yak into my mini-cassette recorder. My guy offers sympathy when I have to drive two hours to a signing and then turn around and make the trip back home. I don't know how to tell him how much I enjoy the time alone, trying out bits of dialog out loud, pulling over on occasion to make notes if the recorder isn't handy.

There is something soothing about the sound of the road under the wheels, the ever changing view, the blur of the center lines whipping, whipping, whipping by. Growing up, the long car trips I took with my mother and father were heaven. I'd lay in the back seat, staring at the ceiling of our Volkswagon bug and dream. Or, I'd stare out the window at the passing scenery ... and dream. Elaborate stories unrolled across my mental windshield for hours upon hours. I think back on that now and realize it was practice for my chosen profession of storyteller.

Right now I'm on one of the same road trips I used to take as a child: Colorado up to Montana via Wyoming to see my ninety-year-old grandmother. I've already visited with family, eaten Chester-fried chicken, stopped at the Purple Cow restaurant, and taken Grandma out to the Red Lobster for her annual dose of steamed live lobster and a baked potato as big as your head. I'm traveling with my guy, and we share the driving. The I-Pod is plugged into the FM receiver and we're headed back home. And I'm dreaming.

Does driving -- or riding -- stir your creative juices?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Breaking News on Ghost à la Mode and Mama Rides Shotgun

Pubishers Weekly has reviewed Inskter Sue Ann Jaffarian's Ghost à la Mode: A Ghost of Granny Apples Mystery, calling it "delectable" and "appealing." (Click here to see the review.)

Oline Cogdill, the Sun-Sentinel's mystery critic, gives a thumbs up to Deborah Sharp's Mama Rides Shotgun. In Sunday's paper, she said, "Sharp delivers a wide swath of humor and a keen sense of Florida's history and present. Sharp's characters are so realistic that they seem like relatives you actually enjoy spending time with." (Click here to see the whole thing.)

Congrats Deborah and Sue Ann!

Famous Fictional Pets

All art forms have paid tribute to pets with personality. From books to movies, to the paintings hung throughout the world's museums, dogs and cats have been a part of our creative expression as long as they've been by our side as companions. And why not? These creatures color our lives. There's nothing quite like a cat on the lap or a dog gazing up at his owner with a pair laughing, liquid eyes. And owning a pet lowers blood pressure and increases life expectancy, so it's no surprise they appear in so many novels.

I have three cats, but grew up in a house filled with both cats and dogs. As a result, I adore them both. Whenever I dream up a new character, I ponder what kind of pet they'd own. After all, without a furry friend, my characters would never know the same joyful companionship I've known.

So what fictional animals have influenced the importance I place on the pets in my novels? Here's a short list. I'd adopt any one of these darlings!

1. Asta (the wire-hair Fox Terrier of the Thin Man)
2. Sandy, the faithful dog by Annie's side
3. Charley of John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley
4. The lovable mixed breed in Because of Winn-Dixie
5. Toto of Wizard of Oz
6. The beagle pup of Shiloh
7. All of the Aristocats
8. Amber - The Cat From Outer Space
9. All of the cats petted by the bad guy sin James Bond movies
10. The cats in Tailchaser's Song by Tad Williams

Who's your favorite famous pet?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Inkspot News - July 18, 2009

G.M. Malliet will be appearing with women-of-mystery Donna Andrews, Susan Froetschel, and Marcia Talley at the Frederick County Public Library on July 25 at 1 p.m. Address: 110 E. Patrick Street, Frederick, MD.
G.M.'s Death of a Cozy Writer was an Independent Mystery Booksellers Association bestseller in June:

Terri Thayer will be selling and signing books at the Fabric Patch booth at the IQA quilt show in Long Beach, CA on Friday and Saturday, July 24th and 25th.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Rescued by the Kinfolk

By Deborah Sharp

I'm offering a shout-out to my Chicago cousins today. It's not just
that I'm feeling guilty about all those winters they visited us in
Florida, when I laughed at their pale, Northern legs and begrudged
them the fresh squeezed orange juice and my mama's Key lime pie that,
rightfully, I believed, should have been reserved for my little
brother and me.

Nope, I owe them props for tossing me a cousinly life-preserver in the
stormy book-signing sea.

A whole slew of cousins -- firsts, seconds, thirds, even
cousins-in-law -- showed up to support me at the Borders bookstore in
LaGrange, Illinois, this week. I managed to draw a nice crowd in a
spot where I know no one, where I didn't even know LaGrange was one
word with a capital L and a capital G until I saw it on the ''Welcome
To . . .'' sign on the way into town.

And yet, there we were, taking over the place. The Sharps and Markles
and Cochranes and assorted offspring and significant others and
nearly-cousins that make up this patchwork North-South clan I call my
family. All is forgiven -- the times I gave up my bed, the emergency
room visits with third-degree burns in the middle of the night because
SOMEONE thought they knew more than the natives about the intensity
of Florida's sun, the incessant Yankee carping about Florida's creepy crawlies.

Forgiven, forgiven, and forgiven. There is no one more lonely than an author standing alone in a big bookstore. Without the cousins, their neighbors, and my friend and fellow writer, Chicagoan Julia Buckley, that solitary figure would have been me. I promised the good folks at the LaGrange Borders that I could draw a crowd. Book-sellers don't like to schedule signings unless they think they can sell some books. They're funny that way.

And because of the cousins, I made good on my promise. So bring on the third generation of Chicago kinfolk fleeing the cold this winter. I'll even squeeze the orange juice and make the Key lime pie. It's the least I can do.

So, how about you? Do you tap your family to buy your books? Or do you think that's tacky? Hey, they can always say No, right? Lucky for me, and for the sales figures on my second book, MAMA RIDES SHOTGUN, all my fantastic Chicago cousins said Yes.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Goals and Dreams

Last year I watched with amusement as Ellen DeGeneres set out to entice the elusive George Clooney onto her television show. She eventually succeeded. This year Ellen set her goal to be on the cover of Oprah’s magazine. It was almost too easy. Then Ellen needed a new goal.

Goals are a very hot topic in life. We all know about New Year’s resolutions, which are just a different term for goals. Weight loss is always associated with targets or goals. And who hasn’t been asked in a job interview about their short term and long term career goals?

Writers talk a lot about goals. Some make themselves sit for a certain amount of time each day, writing words—whether they’re publishable words or not. Others force themselves to write a certain number of words per day, no matter what. Ever wonder if some days they write #*!!**# over and over?

Often writers give themselves one year (or two or more) to finish a book. They talk less about what the term “finish” means. Is it 80,000 words, perfected, proofread and ready to publish? Or is it an unedited stream of narrative, description and dialog that will need another year (or more) of revisions before it can be marketed?

When I decided to write a book, my goal was to write a mystery that a publisher recognized by Mystery Writers of America would deem worthy of publication. (Note that my goal was not to be published—that’s a goal fraught with peril, IMHO). For Better, For Murder will be released in September. For Richer, For Danger will follow in 2010. The third book in the series is ready for market, too.

Now I need a new goal. It can’t be too easy, like the Ellen/Oprah magazine cover. And it has to be measurable, reasonable, and attainable. Otherwise, it’s not motivating, and a goal should be motivating. And fun, because life should be fun.

I could write more books in this series. That would be fun, because I love these characters. They talk to me in the shower and the car and sometimes even when someone else is talking to me. But I don’t see any point to it yet, so it’s not motivating. Maybe if the sales on my first book go wild by year end, I’ll get busy on book four. Still, I need a goal now.

I could set a goal to write a different standalone book or series. Now here’s the rub. I don’t feel like it. Plus the characters from my Broken Vows mystery series might get jealous and stop talking to me.

I’m thinking about a goal to write a saleable screenplay. I have no experience or training in writing one of those either. But I love movies almost as much as books and I bought a book on how to write screenplays. That’s a start. And I understand and appreciate formulas, which seems to be what Hollywood is sticking to at the moment. Who can blame them? Formulas work.

And if my screenplay should by some miracle get the green light, maybe I could get Ellen to set a goal to entice George Clooney to star in the movie.

Dream big, right?!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Characters welcome

I’ve started watching TMZ, a celebrity gossip show. Not watching in a cozy chair with a big bowl of popcorn, reveling in the nonsense that our celebrities get up to. Watching in the sense that I’m doing kitchen clean up and turn it on for background noise.

And then stand in front of the TV, dish cloth in hand, mesmerized.

It’s not the sight of Lindsay Lohan getting into her SUV or Mickey Rourke’s ravaged face that keeps me interested. It’s the cast of reporters.

I don’t know much about this show but my take is that it’s a bunch of reporters talking about footage captured that day in various spots. New York, Hollywood, Cote D’Azur. Places where movie stars and heiresses hang out. The conceit is that they pitch their favorite clips the paparazzi took that day. Mostly, they’re trying to impress Harvey Levin, the ersatz host.

Harvey’s like the dad. He stands in front of a whiteboard, with a drink (not a cool Martini but something in a reusable cup with a straw). The kids (there’s only one or two that look older than college age) introduce their clips. They vie for Harvey’s attention like siblings at the dinner table. They try to shock him, or make him laugh. Getting him to spit out his drink is a bonus. Like any good TV dad, he’s slightly befuddled by the kids’ references or appalled at their lack of knowledge of anything before 2003.

It’s the mix of characters that I find fascinating. There are a lot of archetypes in that room. There’s the brainy girl, smarter than the boys by far. There’s the iron-jawed guy with long hair with the body of a linebacker. He’s not as dumb as he looks but sometimes plays to that stereotype. There’s the edgier guy, who you know is too good for this job but he’s been caught by the bright lights and the spectacle. There’s the hot girl who often says things she shouldn’t.

Then there’s the voice of reason. Sort of the mom. In this case, it’s a 40-something guy with wonderful braids that sometimes reminds them that libel is a sueable act and that even McCauley Culkin was a cute little guy once upon a time. Tells the siblings to simmer down. “Oh, Ricky,” you can almost hear him say.

The interplay of these characters is mesmerizing. Not always predictable, yet recognizable. That’s the trick, isn’t it? Finding a way to imbue our characters with enough familiar characteristics so that the reader knows them but with enough edge, a secret agenda, or a dilemma that makes them interesting.

How do you people your novel with memorable characters?

Monday, July 13, 2009

ThrillerFest Report

Keith here, in one piece but exhausted.

With Sophie Littlefield, Alex Sokoloff, and Jim Rollins at ThrillerFest.
(I'm drinking regular iced tea. Honest.)

I left home on Sunday July 5 and got home last night. The first four days of the trip I visited my daughter in Boston. I'd arranged for researcher passes, and we searched through the archives at the JFK Presidential Library to explore an idea for a thriller. Did everyone but me know he got a D+ in European History?

My daughter is a college student and knows how to cut corners. She recommended the Bolt Bus which left the train station in Boston at 10.30 AM Thursday and delivered us to Penn Station in NYC four hours later. I really lucked out by sitting next to Hallie Ephron, who is as good a conversationalist as she is writer and reviewer. I also managed a few pages of the terrific Prime Time by Hank Phillippi Ryan. The time whizzed by. (Did I mention the ticket cost $10?)

Thursday night the opening reception at ThrillerFest was sponsored by Writers House, my literary agency. While everyone else was imbibing, the other Writers House authors and I (I was next to fave M.J. Rose) were signing books. That night my agent Josh took me and James Phelan, who is plotting world literary domination from his base in Melbourne, Australia, out for sushi.

The next morning I met with Carol Fitzgerald and Erin Quinn of The Book Report to discuss revisions to Good things are coming. From there I toddled over to see old pal Rick Wolff of Grand Central Books. Friday afternoon I managed to hit a couple panels, one with Simon Lipskar of Writers House acting as a family counselor between authors and editors and the next with Hallie, Doug Preston, and more on creating great villains. After, I bought Joe Moore, co-president designate of International Thriller Writers, a drink, but one without the umbrella that I thought he favored. Two beers with tip ran $23. That's the downside of NYC. Joe and I finished our brewskis at 5.45 at the bar in the Grand Hyatt at Grand Central. I was supposed to meet friends Ian, Lexa, and Sam, my much put-upon hosts when I visit to NYC, at Telepan at 6. God bless the subway. I was seated at 6.04, although there was the incident when the subway doors shut on my glasses along the way. Great to spend some time with them and enjoy that sublime smoked trout appetizer.

Saturday morning I had the best of intentions. I got to the Grand Hyatt with the panels I planned on attending all picked out. But I sat down for a minute in the lobby with homegirl Sophie Littlefield, whose Bad Day for Sorry is out next month, and with old bud Alex Sokoloff, who would win a Thriller Award later that night. Then came Sophie's Shamus-winning brother Michael Wiecek and then Maggie and Sheila.... Well, you get the idea. Never quite made it to any morning panels. I did sneak in to hear most of Doug Preston's interview of Sandra Brown, who is charming, beautiful, and articulate. She sold me. I'm going to give one of her 57 New York Times bestsellers a try.

Any hope of making it to the afternoon sessions started to evaporate when I ran into Becky Cantrell, whose A Trace of Smoke has been garnering praise everywhere. We gathered up Andy Peterson, Bobby Rotenberg, Pam Callow, C.J. Lyons, Shane Gericke, and more and found a place that would serve us sandwiches. Shane's theory about thong underwear and female police officers was pooh-poohed by the women at the table. Just as we were going to split up, Jim Rollins strolled by. Jim's The Doomsday Key is #2 this week on the NY Times bestseller list (not shabby). (#4 loved the autographed copy of Jim's Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow that I brought home for him.) We retired to the hotel bar with Jim, his partner David, and Sophie. We managed to stumble across Alex again and ITW co-founder Gayle Lynds whose terrific The Last Spymaster I read just last week. Gayle and I compared notes. She's busy writing about the tunnels underneath Moscow while I'm writing about what's under the streets of Jerusalem. We got so caught up in the conversation, I almost missed my own panel.

The panel was scheduled at 4, in the last slot before the pre-awards banquet reception. Other panels we were up against boasted writers like Eric Van Lustbader, Karin Slaughter, Joe Finder, David Hewson, David Liss, Brad Meltzer, and M.J. Rose. I was amazed to find 30 people ready to listen to us prattle on about "Do We Need Another Hero?" Under Tony Tata's expert guidance, Andy Harp, Ward Larson, Paul Wilson, and I talked about what writers needed to do to make their protagonists shine with appeal and originality. My first suggestion was to make them bald. Anyway, I did voice my opinion that we don't need another protagonist who is consumed by work, is divorced but with strong feelings toward an ex, and has problems with alcohol and a precocious child.

At the banquet I was at the Writers House table with, among others, agents Simon Lipskar and Dan Conaway, James Phelan, Charlie Newton (whom I'd interviewed about his Calumet City, nominated for both an Edgar and Thriller Award, but never met face to face), Josh Gaylord whose Hummingbirds will be out this fall and whom I'd met on the phone without knowing who his wife was, and that very wife, the brilliant Megan Abbott. I was so tickled with Alex's win for best short story.
Last year, after the banquet I found myself in a midtown Irish bar with Dusty Rhoades, Tom O'Callaghan, Tasha Alexander, and Sean Chercover, among others. When I suggested to Sean we do it again, he was up for it, but I was bluffing. Home by 1.30 this year.

Liz Berry, Kathy Antrim, Shane Gericke. Shirley Kennett, Steve Berry, and the whole ITW team did an amazing job. In the face of this economy, attendance was up.

Display at airport bookstore

At the airport on Sunday went to the book stall to pick up a paper and saw the display of Jim Rollins' The Doomsday Key. There it is above. Terrific. Not a nicer guy in the biz. On the flight itself, I was on American to SFO, seat 37G. Guess who were in 37 H and J? The effervescent, Bruce Alexander Award-winning Kelli Stanley and partner Tana. I read the Sunday Times, did the crossword, discussed the previous three days with my seatmates, and listened to some of the compelling things Kelli had turned up in her research. Also promised Tana that Dot Dead wasn't too dark for her tastes and that no dogs were hurt in the book.

Home now. Beat but with a pile of to-dos as high as an elephant's eye.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Guest Blogger Neil Plakcy

Please welcome our guest blogger, my friend Neil Plakcy.

1. Tell us about yourself. I know you teach, Neil. What do you teach and where? How does that work with your career as an author? What sort of impact has this had on your writing schedule? What have you learned through teaching that you apply to your work?

Though back in 1988 I signed up for the new Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at Florida International University just to learn to write better, I can see that my classes also taught me how to teach writing. Taking workshops with great writers like Les Standiford, James W. Hall and Lynne Barrett forced me to write and rewrite. I also learned how to take a more analytical approach to writing as I came to understand the basics of character, dialogue, scene, plotting and so on.

Today I teach writing at Broward College, #3 in the country in the number of associate’s degrees granted. (My campus is halfway between Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, with a very multi-cultural student body that ranges in age from teenagers to mid-life career changers.) Over 60% of our students enter lacking basic writing skills, so I teach two levels of developmental writing—sentence to paragraph and paragraph to essay. I created my own approach to freshman composition, using writing about food to build skills in narration, description, and research. I’ve also taught writing about literature and creative writing.

My favorite is a literature course on mystery fiction, where we read academic essays about the mystery as well as short stories and novels in three genres: amateur sleuth, private eye, and police procedural. The students love the chance to read great contemporary stories, and I enjoy exposing them to the mystery and hearing what they have to say about it.
Teaching is a great gig for a writer. Three of my courses are fully online, so my schedule is very flexible, and I can carve out writing time every day. And guiding students to write better has impacted my own writing—I hear that “teacher voice” in my head saying things like “Wait—you’re changing point of view!” or “This paragraph is awful long.”

2. Tell us about your new book--the characters, the setting and a bit about the plot. How does it fit in with your other works?

The elevator pitch for my first mystery, Mahu, was “gay cop gets dragged out of the closet while investigating a dangerous case.” Once I’d finished that book, though, my hero, Honolulu homicide detective Kimo Kanapa’aka, told me that his journey had just begun. I came to see “coming out” as a process, rather than a single event, and looked for cases Kimo could investigate that would challenge him and move him forward.

In subsequent books, Kimo has traveled paths common to many gay men, particularly those who come out in their 30s, as he does. In Mahu Surfer, when he went undercover to discover who had been killing surfers, he began by making gay friends and getting more comfortable with himself. In Mahu Fire, he met fire inspector Mike Riccardi while investigating a bombing, and fell in love.

In Mahu Vice, the newest in the series, he’s discovering that the path to true love has more than a few twists and turns. Called to an arson homicide at a shopping center built by his father, he is forced to work with Mike again, nearly a year after they broke up. Tension rises as the case gets more complex and he and Mike rekindle their attraction.

But will the same things that drove them apart a year before doom this renewed relationship? What was going on at the acupuncture clinic where the victim, a teenaged Chinese illegal immigrant, was working?

Prostitution, gambling and immigration are all hot-button issues in Hawaii, as in many places, but the isolation, multicultural community, and tropical heat in Hawaii conspire to raise the tension level for Kimo and Mike as they figure out not only whodunit, but where their relationship can go.

3. Your books feature gay characters. In the beginning, did this make it harder to get a publisher? Or was it easier because you had a niche market? Has this influenced your marketing attempts, and if so, how? Does this ever pose any challenges at signings?

I didn’t realize I was writing for a niche when I started. I didn’t even know that the niche existed! Like many beginning writers, I was woefully undereducated about the business side of publishing. But I learned. When I approached agents at first, many thought that the idea of a gay detective was too radical. So I had to do my research, and discovered a thriving niche. (There were 18 nominations last year for the Lambda Literary Award for best gay men’s mystery, for example. Mahu Fire was a top-five finalist for that award.)

My first agent targeted all the publishers she thought would be interested, and every one of them turned me down. When I’d just about given up, I met an editor at the Miami Book Fair who told me his press was expanding their gay genre fiction line (mystery, romance, horror, etc.) and encouraged me to send the manuscript to him directly. That’s why I say my career has benefited from both hard work and luck. And of course, the harder I work, the luckier I get!

Booksellers tend to have an idea, even if it’s narrow, of the audience they can bring in for signings. For example, I’ve tried without success to convince a chain bookstore that I know a lot of older gay men who read who live in a neighborhood south of Miami. But they say gay books don’t sell at that store, so they won’t offer me a reading.

Maybe the books aren’t selling because they aren’t bringing in authors and marketing to that community. Or maybe they’re right, and I’m wrong.

It was much harder to set readings up with my first publisher, a small press; one independent bookstore owner told me “You’re one step above self-published,” even though that press published 200 books a year, had a big marketing department, and offered co-op advertising. Now that I am lucky enough to be published by the biggest GLBT press in the country, Alyson Books, I get great distribution and booksellers know my titles.

Interestingly enough, I got much more negative reaction when I was in graduate school writing about Jewish characters than I’ve ever gotten writing about gay ones. When I wrote humorous stories about dumb Jews (I have a lot in my own family, so I’ve got lots of material) people were really offended.

4. You have a robust online presence. Tell us about that. How do you compare the online community with other writing communities?

I started coming out myself just as the Internet began to boom, so the ability to seek out GLBT people, news, and online communities has been important to me for years. While I love volunteering with the Florida chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and attending mystery conferences like Bouchercon, Sleuthfest, and Left Coast Crime, the ability to stay in contact with other writers more than once or twice a year, or even once a month, is very important. I belong to a local critique group, but I also email stories and chapters to more far-flung colleagues, and I enjoy being part of their lives through Twitter and Facebook, too.

I think there’s also a degree of intimacy you can develop with an online friend that harder to duplicate face to face. Even with my closest writing friends in Florida, we might meet only at events or exchange the occasional email or phone call, because we all have busy lives. I can spill my heart out over a rejection to an online friend, though, and get commiseration back right away, as well as suggestions on where to market next.

5. You recently won a "Lefty." Tell us what that's meant to you and your career.

I was absolutely thrilled to win the Hawaii Five-O award for best police procedural at the 2009 Left Coast Crime festival. I grew up watching that show, and it still influences my writing. It was fun to receive the award in Hawaii, because my books are set there, but the best part was that the voters were fans rather than critics. My publisher donated copies for the book bags, and throughout the conference I had people come up to me and say, “I just started reading your book and I love it!”

As far as my career goes, I don’t think it means much. If it had been an Edgar…. though now I can be introduced as “Award-Winning Author Neil Plakcy!”

6. You've been very involved with SleuthFest. How has that benefited you? What would you say to someone considering coming to the conference?

Any writer’s conference is a great chance to network, learn, and be energized, and I think Sleuthfest does a great job on all those fronts. Inspiration is a funny thing; it often comes when you’re not expecting it. I’ve gone to seminars and workshops just out of a sense of duty or obligation, and walked out with fresh ideas and a desire to get back to my computer as fast as possible. I’ve also loved meeting the writers, published and unpublished, who attend, and swapping stories about writing. So personally and professionally, Sleuthfest has been a great event for me.

Sleuthfest has a terrific core of volunteers, so just walking in the door you know you’re going to be welcomed into a wonderful group of writers. And how can you beat South Florida in February?

About Neil Plakcy

Neil Plakcy is the author of Mahu, Mahu Surfer, Mahu Fire and Mahu Vice, mystery novels set in Hawaii, as well as the romance novel He edited Paws & Reflect: A Special Bond Between Man and Dog and the gay erotic anthologies Hard Hats and Surfer Boys.

Plakcy is a journalist and book reviewer as well as an assistant professor of English at Broward College’s south campus in Pembroke Pines. He is vice president of the Florida chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and a frequent contributor to gay anthologies.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Simple Comfort of Books


The dolly and the thing that resembles a faceless Medusa are my seven year old daughter’s favorite things in this world. Yes, they’re the famous Dirty Baby and Blankie. I put them on a bookshelf to give them a more attractive backdrop for their…interesting…appearance. I don’t know if you can tell from the photo, but most of Dirty Baby’s stuffing is currently down in her legs. It makes her look as if she suffers from an unusual medical condition. And Blankie? I collected all the strands of Blankie together for the photo shoot. Now Blankie is disconnected again on my daughter’s bed.

I know age seven is a little old for loveys, but I figured we can all use some comfort in this world. Mine is reading a good mystery.

It’s funny how comforting a murder mystery can be. Why is murder relaxing? None of the characters in the books are finding the murders relaxing. They’re desperately trying to learn the killer’s identity before he murders again.

I think it’s the same reason I find scary movies relaxing. They’re cathartic. You have all this tension bunched up in this one book or movie. When it’s done it’s an ‘ahhhhh’ moment. Tension is immediately relieved! Unlike real life, where worries can roam wildly out of control and encompass the troubled economy, out-of-control boxwoods that must be hacked into submission, and an annoyingly drippy faucet.

My favorites to read and write are cozies. Here you’re introduced to a tranquil setting—that’s suddenly ravaged by terror! The bad guys are caught, justice prevails, and the town regains its idyllic status once again.

What’s your comforting escape from reality?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Adios, Partner

frownLast Thursday, I lost a dear friend, one I've shared a special relationship with for the past four years.

My laptop died.


Writers know what a blow this is. What other object do you touch as much on an intimate basis? Every day, for hours and hours, my fingers danced (and rested and pounded and quivered) on that keyboard. It was the conduit for my writing, the instrument that let me express myself.

I already miss the way it beeped at me when it booted up.

My laptop was always there for me. Whether I was wrestling with a tough stretch of description (my bane), struggling through a poorly written synopsis, or slogging through pages and pages of info on some obscure website, my cherished laptop stood beside me, supporting me, cheering me on. Let's go, Alan, you can do it. I know you can. Keep plugging away!

At least I'm comforted by the thought it got to experience the sheer joy of typing THE END on several occasions.

I used it to write DIAMONDS FOR THE DEAD (although it was called HIDDEN FACETS then--for some odd reason, my laptop wasn't very good at titles). I wrote first drafts, second drafts, third drafts, and tenth drafts of other projects. Query letters, synopses, bios, outlines, blog posts, to-do lists, limericks--you name it, I wrote it on my beloved laptop.

And now it's gone.

It was a four-year-old Toshiba, but I suppose that's like pushing eighty in human-years. It had an aged processor working at a slow speed, a small hard drive, and its limited memory just wasn't what it used to be. I guess it's in a better place now.

Thankfully, the end was quick and it didn't suffer. One minute I was surfing the Internet, and the next minute the display pixilated, then froze. I shut down and tried to restart it. Nothing. I thought maybe things had overheated, so I waited a while for everything to cool, then tried again. Still nothing. Holding back tears (and holding my tongue--children were present), I kept trying to revive it, but my hopes faded with every passing moment.

Finally, miracle of miracles, it sputtered back to life! My not-so-silent prayers had been answered. Relief surged through me (at the same time I was frantically backing up everything I could onto a portable hard drive). Maybe it had only been a fleeting ailment, like indigestion or some bizarre 24-minute computer virus.

A short while later, just as I had managed to get everything backed up, the display froze again. More attempts at resuscitation followed, but to no avail. Flatline. Had the perfect timing been simply a coincidence, or had it been a last, loving gesture from my dying laptop to me? I'd like to think it was the latter.

No matter how difficult it may be, I know I have to move on. My new laptop, an HP, has a much faster processor, a hard drive four times  as large, and twice as much memory. It has tons of new features (at least new to me): text-to-speech (I'd always imagined my old laptop would speak with a calm, measured voice, like HAL in 2001), voice recognition (I hope it doesn't recognize all the words I use--that could be embarrassing!), and a web cam (maybe I'll broadcast myself writing in my jammies and charge people a few bucks a month to watch*). It also comes with a few cool games to spark my creativity when I get stuck (hello, Chess Titans!). HP Laptop

I'll have some things to get used to. The location of the various ports and buttons, the new operating system,** and, most importantly, the way the keys feel under my fingers. I hope I'll be able to adapt--only time will tell.

Of course, all I really want to know is if my new laptop can write best-selling manuscripts.

Here's to the beginning of a wonderful relationship.



*Does my agent get 15% of that?

**Does anyone know how to disable all those event confirmation requests in Vista?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Self-Loathing and The Writing Process

by Julia Buckley
At the beginning of every new writing project I experience a sort of euphoria. I have a great idea, and it's coming together. I'm immersed in the story, meeting the characters, convinced that I'm creating something real and powerful.

Then I read it and revise bits. And read it again, and again, and again, as I try to polish it, and eventually I cross that barrier where I can no longer be objective about my own work. And just a few paces down that road is the town of I Can't Stand It.

This happens every time. I don't know if it's a psychological phenomenon or a trick of biology, but with each new creation I go through the predictable stages that begin with love and fascination and end up with that lack of objectivity and something close to hatred.

Then I have to put the manuscript away, sometimes for a long time, before I can bear to look at it again.

Is this a universal thing? If so, what is it that makes us ultimately reject our own creation and want to move on to something different? Is it a fear of revision, or a necessary breach which allows us to begin again? Is there a way to reclaim love for one's written words?

Writers and readers, I'd love your opinions.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Feeling Small

Tom Schreck
Author of The Duffy Series

Yesterday I got a thank you note from Kabul, Afghanistan.

Air Force Lt. Colonel Martin Balaskas had come across one of the copies of “On the Ropes” that I sent over to the troops. He’s a big Duffy fan and when I offered to send “TKO” and “Out Cold” he said he was already a couple of chapters into “TKO” and had “Out Cold”.

He wrote and said that he liked the characters and the plot development.

Lt. Colonel Martin Balaskas

Tanya and Derek Erickson are basset hound folks. They bid $1,000 to get their hound Arthur in “Out Cold”. The money goes to the hound rescue organization in Michigan.

Tanya is stationed in Bagdhad in one of Hussein’s old palaces. The place is called “The Perfume Palace.” Derek isn’t with her because he’s in the Navy.

Do you remember that pirate incident awhile back? Derek was one of the guys that secured the pirated ship and took care of the crew. He's on the USS Bainbridge.

I sent them copies of all the books and one to Tanya’s mom, Anita who is taking care of the hounds back in the states.

There are days I feel all self-important and I take writing my crappy little murder mysteries quite seriously. I think about the pressure, the hard work and the sacrifice I put in making shit up on this laptop.

Then, I get an email from one of these people.

Talk about feeling small.

I saw a bumper sticker yesterday that said, “I’m Already Against the Next War.” That’s how I feel. I’m not patriotic and I think the government isn’t honest with us.

That has nothing to do with how I feel for these folks in the military. They are away from home, separated from the people (and hounds) they love and in harm’s way where everyday someone on the other side would consider it a good day if they got killed.

My dad had four Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars and two Bronze stars. General Patton pinned the Silver Star on my dad. And I believe my father carried the war every day of his life for the fifty years he lived after it was over. He wouldn’t let me or my two brothers consider the service.

Probably has something to do with how I feel about war and the soldiers involved.

I’ve met a new friend through the internet. Ginny Tata-Phillips is a nut and she’s another hound person. She writes Haiku books about bassets.She sent my books over to Kabul for her husband Rick to enjoy. When I found out I was honored and with her help sent more over. Colonel Richard Phillips sent me this photo of him and his buddy, Colonel Hickenbottom reading Duffy in Afghanistan.

In the meantime Ginny has been home in Florida taking care of her hounds and supporting basset rescue. She sends packages to soldiers every month.

She loves my books and promotes them all the time.

I’m not sure why. I’ve only met Ginny through the internet but I’ll tell you this—I wouldn’t mess with her. I can tell she is a strong and powerful person.

But then when your husband spends his time in harm’s way she’d have to be.

I think Ginny’s hounds will be noisy today. I’m guessing they’ll bark and bay and howl and jump up and down and do even less than they are told than usual.

I’m happy to let everyone know that Colonel Phillips arrives home today in Florida.

God Bless him, Tanya and Derek Erickson, Lt. Colonel Balaskas, Colonel Hickenbottom and everyone in harm’s way. Pray for them and their families.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Guest Blogger Elaine Viets

G.M. Malliet

Elaine Viets, author of two national bestselling mystery series, is our guest blogger today at Inkspot.

Publishers Weekly
called Elaine's Dead-End Job series “wry social commentary.”

“Killer Cuts,” her new Dead-End Job mystery, is about the intimate relationship many women have with their stylists. Her Josie Marcus mystery shopper series is set in Elaine’s hometown, St. Louis.

Elaine has won the Agatha, Anthony and Lefty Awards.

Today she asks, "Is the book signing dead?"

Premature Burial?

I’ve finally unpacked from a book tour that started April 30 in Arlington, Virginia, and ended two weeks ago at Ponte Vedra, in northeast Florida.

I’m not the only author asking that question. Some say it’s already been answered. Here’s why:
Publishers are cutting back on book tours, even for successful authors.

Fewer bookstores are holding signings. They’re expensive. The stores have to spend money for publicity, signs and staff. When the books don’t sell, stores have the extra cost of returning and/or stripping stock.

Failed book signings cost us writers, too. If we only sell five or six books, it doesn’t pay for our gas and takes us away from the computer.

We know, unless we’re literary rock stars, like Charlaine Harris or Stephen King, we probably won’t draw a huge crowd. Readers can watch TV, see a movie, even sit by the pool. Why pay $25 for a hardcover or buy a paperback for $7, the price of a six-pack – when books and movies are free at the library?

As e-books grow in popularity, book signings may disappear. It’s hard to autograph an e-book.
Right. And computers created the paperless office. That’s why I can barely find my wheezing word processor under the manuscripts, first drafts and letters on my landfill of a desk.
Let’s not hold a funeral for book signings yet.

Yes, I gripe about signings. I’m discouraged if I get a poor turnout. But I’d miss them. I’m a part-time hermit. I need to get away from people while I write. For four to six months, I stare at the computer and live on canned tuna. It’s a sorry life when the cat is howling for my lunch.

But when the book is done, I emerge from my cave for five or six weeks. That’s when I meet readers and talk to the booksellers who hand-sell my novels.

For me, signings are a celebration. My fifth Dead-End Job mystery, “Murder Unleashed,” was my first hardcover. It was launched with a party at Bone Appetit, the Fort Lauderdale dog boutique where I’d researched this job. In St. Louis, at a benefit signing at Three Dog Bakery, we had a “Best Dressed Dog” contest. A Lab in a hula skirt won. Personally, all Labs do the hula when they wag their tails.

Murder by the Book, the independent Houston store, invited Caring Critters, a volunteer group who bring their dogs to hospitals and other institutions. This was the only book tour where half my makeup was licked off by the end of the signings.

You miss those experiences when you download an ebook.

Now signings are evolving into events with presold books.

Joanne Sinchuk, founder of Murder on the Beach in Delray Beach, Florida, has author luncheons. Joanne partners with two nearby restaurants for fixed-price lunches. A group of 20 or more – often a charity, literary or social club – makes reservations with Joanne. For $25 or $32, each person gets lunch and a paperback.

The group goes to lunch first. Then I join them for the author talk.

Another local indie, Well-Read Books, has a similar program. For $35, the readers get lunch and a signed copy of “Killer Cuts,” my latest hardback.

A traditional author luncheon eats half my day. The new ones take less of my time. I live half an hour from the stores. I show up after the lunch, give my talk, sign the books, then go home.

Some writers say it’s not worthwhile to sell 20 or 30 paperbacks. But I have eleven novels in my backlist, and these talks keep them moving. The mystery Joanne Sinchuk features most often, “Shop Till You Drop,” is now in its twelfth printing.

Photo is of Elaine and Lulu, the "Murder Unleashed" dog.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

News: Review of Battered Body by Mystery News

Inkspotter J.B. Stanley's The Battered Body garners a very positive review in the current issue of Mystery News. Mary Helen Becker writes, "Stanley does a great job creating the small town atmosphere and many likable characters whose everyday lives are interrupted by crime and cruelty."

Congrats, J.B.

Safe Movie Watching

Cricket McRae
Step by careful step, the figure on the screen trudges up the icy mountain. The howling wind blows snow around him. A heavy parka, gloves and balaclava protect him from the frigid cold.

Morgan Freeman's mellifluous voice begins narrating the story.

I point to the television. "That's not who we think it is."

The picture freezes. The room falls silent. On the sofa next to me my guy holds up one finger and gives me a stern look. Smiles.

We are watching The Bucket List starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, and I have already broken a cardinal rule in our household: Safe Movie Watching.

This rule, of course, applies mostly to me. I'm the one who predicts plot, wonders how that little unsung but odd detail will come up later in a meaningful way, rants when characters act inconsistently or the emotion is wrung from cheap pathos rather than effective story. I'm the one who raves at wonderful characters, twisty reversals and well executed gaps between audience expectation and what actually happens.

I am, in short, not that much fun to watch a movie with unless I shut my yap about all this stuff that's second nature to me as a writer. Hence, the Safe Movie Watching Rule.

To be fair, we also have a Safe Live Show Rule that applies to my guy, who's a musician and sound engineer. It requires that he limit his verbal explanation of every aspect of a venue's sound, how well the sound mixer knows his job, the quality of the equipment, etc.

Now, there are some of writers who read entirely for pleasure, getting lost in the story and not examining the writing. Many of us can't, though. Writing has altered our ability to just sit down and read a book. I'm better at losing myself in nonfiction, but there are a few authors who suck me into a story far enough that the how and what of they're doing goes out the window as I read.

When I stumble on one of these gems, being able to lose myself in another world is wonderful. However, when the writing is noticeable, then it's still wonderful (unless it's terrible writing, which I will usually just stop reading). There's an added layer of appreciation, even if that objective part of me is droning on in the background.

What about you? Can you compartmentalize reading and writing, editing and reading, writing and editing? Do you even find time to read, or is it a guilty pleasure because you're supposed to be writing, writing, writing all the time?

Oh, and that figure trudging up the mountain? Well ... I wouldn't want to spoil the movie for you.