Using depth of field, Welles and his cinematographer were able to capture an immense amount of detail, and highlight important props, actions, and characters which were in the background of a particular shot. It was amazing, and it changed cinema forever.
There's depth of field in writing, too. An author needs to pick a focus for each scene, a goal. And then the author can play with the lens, bringing certain items in the background into sharper focus, to help underline and achieve the main goal happening in the foreground.
But an author must also take care to be sure that the detail, the little items in the background, don't overwhelm the scene. Orson Welles didn't film in just any cluttered room he could find -- he constructed a set, an it was someone's job to choose each item of furniture, every prop, every painting on the wall. The set dresser worked to underscore the scene, not take it over.
When you're writing a scene about two people out on a blind date, don't let the waiter take over. And if he does, maybe his is the story you ought to be writing ...
(Clip from one of my personal favorite tv shows, Home Movies. I HIGHLY recommend it.)
I was browsing some professional journals the other day and came across something that bears repeating in Forbes (for the life of me, I’m not sure why I find some of these things in Forbes but it keeps happening so go figure). It was an article about how to maintain a professional appearance in the office, but combined with some other information about book signing events and speaking engagements that I’d been going over, it seemed to translate fairly well.
Here are a few hints for those of us (and yes, I am one) who would like to think casual appearances are adequate for speaking to writers groups and book signing events. I’m paying attention. Experts say most first impressions are formed within 4 minutes. Once established, those first impressions can take years to overcome.
DO wear lipstick. While it might seem overkill for appearing in situations in which many of the attendees look like they’ve just been to the Laundromat, or at the very least have spent the day shopping, but you’re supposed to be their ideal, not their equal. Even a bold red can be suitable in the daytime if eye and cheek colors are neutral. "With a neutral eye, matte skin and a touch of blush, red lipstick can look phenomenal for day," says makeup artist Napoleon Perdis.
If red isn’t your shade, pick something that complements your skin tone and wardrobe. Use a liner and lipstick to give almost any outfit a more finished and professional look.
DON’T let your roots show. Your hair doesn’t have to be professionally styled for a Friday night booksigning event, but it should look like you care what it looks like. If you find your budget won’t accommodate a full touchup at the moment, there are plenty of retouching kits sold at salons and beauty supply stores. Even Avon has a mascara-like wand for quick touchups.
DO dress for the occasion. Don’t go black tie if your guests will be wearing jeans and t-shirts but try to know your audience and make sure you’re dressed in a similar manner to the best dressed person in attendance. I realize that can be hard to anticipate, but usually a nice knit outfit with appropriate jewelry will do the job. Unless you’re going to a BBQ hosted outside, overdressed is almost always better than underdressed.
DON’T make disparaging remarks about yourself or your outfit, makeup, etc. if you feel there’s a discrepancy. Always strive to behave as if you’re completely comfortable with your appearance and others will follow suit.
DO follow the above guidelines for selecting your mode of dress. Keep in mind that in many book selling venues, a majority of those who are listening to you will be women. Was it ZZ Top who said “Every girl’s crazy bout a sharp dressed man”? They were right. By the same token, few will be impressed by you, author or not, dressed in sandals, socks and bermudas. Nuff said?
DON’T wear makeup unless it’s very minimally applied, but do make sure your hair is trimmed neatly (including any hair that might be creeping out of ears and nostrils).
DO practice manners. It seems like something that goes without saying, but judging from the feedback I get from those who sponsor events like these, it apparently should be broadcast far and wide. Nobody wants a flirt, but a man who can be charming and exercises good manners without crossing the line into chauvinistic behaviors is likely to sell a bunch of books.
It seems like this is all very simple information that we all know, but like I said. I’ve had too many reports of authors showing up in all kinds of attire, with all kinds of attitudes and they made first impressions all right, but I doubt it was the kind of first impression they wanted to make. And unfortunately that impression lingers long after they’re gone.
What kinds of ideas do you have for making the right kind of first impression?
Memo to self: must stop organising book launches on a Wednesday. For one thing, it means I struggle even harder than usual to fit my Dead Guy post into the day; for another, it’s probably the most blogworthy thing that happens that week, but by the time my turn comes around again it’s old news.
Tonight we launch The Fall Girl, Kaye C Hill’s delicious follow-up to Dead Woman’s Shoes. For benefit of US readers, Lexy the accidental P I and Kinky the chihuahua who thinks he’s a rotweiler are currently swimming valiantly across the Atlantic, scheduled to make landfall early in 2010. So when you’re looking for something to lighten the post-Christmas doldrums, they will be at your service. This time with magic. Or possibly not. You have to read it…
Actually this time I plead innocent. About the launch, I mean. Not my fault, m’lud. I didn’t choose the date, the venue or anything much else except what to wear. The bash is being hosted by one of nature’s gentlemen who just happens to be something pretty important in a far bigger publishing house than Crème de la Crime would ever want to be. The whys and hows aren’t really important; all I really need to say on that score is, thanks, Mike, you’re a diamond among men.
But all that is in the future – launch, US publication, everything. So what the blue blazes am I supposed to blog about today? The trouble with August is not that nothing happens – more that everything that does happen, give or take the odd badly-timed book launch, is routine and not at all interesting.
Ah, a light-bulb moment! A quandary solved, in fact. Here’s a plea for advice. In ten days I’m off to a little bit of rural France I’ve never explored before, to do absolutely nothing in the sun for a couple of weeks in the company of three of my favourite people. I plan to spend a lot of those two weeks catching up on my reading. Not that I don’t read the rest of the year – how could I not? – but holiday/vacation (delete as appropriate to the language you speak) time means I don’t have to intersperse Phil Rickman, Stephen Booth and J D Robb with manuscripts of international thrillers or gory police dramas of the kind I know some people read for pleasure – well, an adrenalin rush, anyway – but which I can only appreciate, not enjoy. And often, if I’m honest, not even that. One thing you learn, or possibly relearn, when you go into publishing to promote the brilliant new writing that’s out there is how much not very good writing is out there too.
But this year I can’t load my luggage with all the fourths-in-series I haven’t got around to yet. Usually we drive, so space and suitcase weight aren’t a major issue, but this year we’re throwing ourselves on the mercy of Easyjet, who demand three times the airfare all over again if the case is three grams over the limit.
The four of us have made a pact – sort of – to take books we can pass around. And this is the advice I need: what can I contribute? The only reading taste we all have in common is crime fiction. None of us is keen on three-inch-thick international thrillers featuring cardboard women and fantasy men, and we don’t like gratuitous violence though the odd smidgen of inventive gore is OK. We like complex, engaging characters, plots that are intricate but might actually happen, beautifully realised settings (though possibly not Scandinavia – an acquired taste we haven’t acquired)… oh, you know, just the usual best crime fiction around. And not from halfway through a series.
Just so you know, we’ve done Val McDermid. And Mark Billingham. And Julia Spencer-Fleming.
Come on, guys. Call it Lynne’s August challenge.
by Barbara Poelle
I am so very happy to currently be on vacation right now, as there have been several 90+ degree days in NYC and coupled with that, a few horrendous days for me in my career. Like, the kind where I stagger onto the train at 9pm and PRAY that someone pulls a knife on another passenger so I can beat them both to death with their own arms. Anyway, after a particularity brutal day in the salt mines last week, I walked in to an empty apartment at 9:30pm and when I flicked the light switch nothing happened. Now, most sane, intelligent people would automatically assume that due to the 90+ degree weather there have been several air conditioners running at high speed so perhaps a few fuses have been blown. But your friendly neighborhood shark snout petter? Oh no. She goes very quickly to a white hot flash of fear, like a cat leaping from a dumpster in the corner of your eye, and then goes directly to How DARE a Homicidal Rapist Murderer Robber pick MY Apartment?!?!
In the darkness, I announce, “Really? I mean REALLY? Buddy, I PRAY that you have some serious artillery, because I am 125 pounds of white hot fury.” (OMG- you KNOW it’s 135 but COME ON! If you can’t lie about your weight to your homicidal rapist murderer robber who CAN you lie to? And to be fair, right after furiously screaming that into the black void I had enough self awareness to grin wildly and shrink my neck into my shoulders for a second in a façade of shame) So I began to stalk my own phantoms, kicking open doors to rooms and keeping up a constant stream of antagonistic dialogue such as, “Please, PLEASE think you have a shot at the title here, Pal, I am about to END you.” And “I really really hope you are still here, because I am bored and hungry.” And, “I am going to do this left handed or it will be over too quickly.” I was more than nervous, not quite afraid, but still 76% sure that something in the next 10-15 seconds was going to happen, like I was slowly turning the crank on the side of a giant box that eerily plinked out the tune, “All..around..the mullberry bush…the…mon-key..chased the weasel…”
And guess what popped out?
Not even Stewie.
Oh, and BTW- all of you who have flooded my in-box with pleas to remove the glue trap option from the mouse hunt? I get it. I am on the same level as puppy kickers and Fatchelor watchers. (Oh, come on, you know More To Love should just be called The Fatchelor. What an abusive concept, just from end to end, that one is.) But this is WAR Peacock! And besides, ever since his version of the horse head in my bed, we have seen ZERO signs of Stewie. No droppings, no trap snaps, no squeals of torment coupled with hammer strikes. Nothing. I think it has much to do with my seemingly continuous roars of creatively ambiguous threats and little to do with Husband’s jamming of steel wool into a hole we discovered along the kitchen running board, but regardless, all is quiet on the homefront. Which means Stewie is either gone or accumulating reinforcements that will one day outweigh the structural integrity of our ceiling and burst forth in a gigantic undulating twine-ball to rain upon us like a message from God.
(Just thinking of that made me reach for the mai tai at my side. Alright, just thinking of linoleum makes me reach for the mai tai at my side, but still.)
What was I talking about? Honestly at this point it has really just devolved into the 90 proof ramblings of a mad man.
Ah, yes, got it. Okay. The fact of the matter is, despite being alone in my dark home and presented with the near certainty that in a millisecond I would be asked to choose my own adventure and one of them involved punching and biting, I did a few things I am proud of, a few things that baffled (and angered) Husband and a few things we laughed maniacally about later. But I did NOT do any of the following:
1.) Suggest to my co-protagonist that now would be a good time for sex
2.) Huddle in the corner while my vampire boyfriend threw my punches for me
3.) Use my paranormal gifts as a demon slayer to back flip around the room while wearing leather pants and Monolos
Please ladies; let us take the rest of August to celebrate the heroines we can idolize and emulate that prevent us from assuming helplessness and/or lying about our weight to imaginary homicidal maniacs. Don’t get me wrong, I LOOOVES me the daffy bumblers, the wise-cracking vampire slayers, the size zero shape-shifters, but let’s all try and take one final summer week to roll out the brainiacs, the mis-fits, the “articulettes”. (Oo! Great name for a debate team.) Women who use words as their weapons and mirth as their shield. The chicks who can shatter a stereotype as well as a kneecap. I am on vacay and all ears for your suggestions for the beach read.
Well, one ear, the other is tuned for trouble on the lake in case I need to leap up and defend peace and justice clad in this delightful strappy sundress with matching peep toes and with my crime fighting accoutrements in my Kate Spade beach bag…
What would you do if you unintentionally killed a whole band?
That was the question running through my head all afternoon last Saturday, which happened to be Day Two of the Most Difficult Move in My Life So Far. I, of course, hadn't planned for the move to be difficult at all. I'd spent the previous weeks organizing books, donating old clothes and kitchen stuff, and generally being really excited about moving to my new apartment. Little did I know.
A vast majority of leases turn over on August 14th in Madison -- due to the fact that we're such a large University town -- and though my neighborhood isn't really student-heavy, the rentals all still follow the "lease ends at noon August 14th, lease begins at noon August 15th" rule. Which you would think would leave my adorable cats and me homeless for a night, except that the leasing companies totally understand this paradox and, if you request it, will let you begin moving into your new place at noon on the 14th. So there's this bizarre crossover time where the old tenant may still be there, cleaning and tidying and grabbing last-minute silverware from the kitchen drawers, and you're there, hauling in boxes number one and two and generally feeling pretty optimistic about life.
Until, dearest blog readers, until ... The previous tenant, while mopping the bathroom floor (the bathroom with the clawfooted tub you so eagerly anticipated being your own!), mentions, "Oh, hey, just so you know, you can't fit a Queen sized bed up the stairs. We had to use the porch." And you stop, carrying boxes six and seven (well, ok, grocery bags six and seven -- which, incidentally, make excellent book-moving vessels, as you can't overfill them to the point where they are un-liftable), and think, "But this apartment is on the third floor. How in the world will I hoist a bed up onto a third-story porch? I am an amazing, woman, but I have my limits!"
And further, you think, "Oh my god! That new, amazing couch which is being stored at the office with the intention of being my brand new amazing couch ... that couch is pretty big. I wonder if it will fit up these steps, if a bed won't ..."
And it's then that you start to notice that the stairs, which previously just looked like normal stairs, are remarkably narrow. And winding. And enclosed. And sortof very similar to a servant's staircase in an old Victorian house -- which is, naturally, the kindof house into which you are moving.
[I've just realized I'm blogging in second person, I'm so sorry. POV shift in 3 ... 2 ... 1:]
So I started to panic. Not all-out, full-scale panic, no. It was more of a slow burn. I continued to unpack the first vanload. (Due to moving turnover, I find it to be more of a hassle than it's worth to rent a U-Haul, so I just borrowed my mom's minivan. Oh, here's where I should mention: I moved approximately one and a half blocks. Lesson? The shortest moves are the roughest, what with the general idea of, "Oh, I'm hardly moving at all, this'll be easy!")
I'd known from the outset, since I was moving mainly on a Friday, that I'd be on my own for a big part of the day. My moving help was at work -- and I really only had one helper, since my youngest sister was working all day and my middle sister was moving the same day as me, only to her incredibly rad grad school program all the way in freaking Vermont. (I miss you, Bethy!) I was prepared to load and then unload a couple of vanloads of the smaller stuff, the books, the yarn stash (take up knitting! It makes for such a light and airy box when moving!), the kitchen plates and pots and pans, the bathroom necessities. I was saving the dresser, the small couch, and the tables for later, when my moving help arrived and we could buddy-lift.
However, with every trip up the staircase, the slow burn smoked out more and more of my resolve. My optimism caught spark and disappeared like flash paper. I was convinced I'd need to jettison pretty much everything larger than a breadbox, because I was too tired, hot, and cranky to wrestle it up the stairs.
Oh, and it was about 90 degrees outside, with nauseating humidity.
As I made my way to Target to purchase an emergency air conditioner, I called my best friend and cried. "Nothing will fit up the steps, I just know it! I am so sweaty! I am so uncharacteristically pessimistic! IT IS SO HOT! I am so frustrated!" To her credit, my best friend is amazing. She calmly said, "But, honey, if you jettison the dresser, and the couch and the bed won't fit up the stairs ... why don't you wait until your help arrives and see about it then."
Cue the cavalry!
My help arrived. He took one look at me, one look at the staircase, and knew that we'd need more muscle. We'd also need some rope and some engineering skill.
And that's when Youngblood Brass Band came to town.
They were here to work together on some new material, I think, but they were also sensitive to my plight. Zach Lucas and Charley Wagner immediately stepped in to help unload some furniture -- and also set to installing the emergency air conditioner. As the air in the new apartment cooled to a brisk 88, I dared to hope. Maybe we could make this happen after all ...
Saturday morning, bright and early, I went out and bought some rope. Two lengths of 60 feet, to be exact. Saturday afternoon, the hoisting spectacle began.
It was then that I thought, "I'm going to kill an entire band."
Conor Elmes, Mike Boman, and my stalwart moving buddy Zeke tied ropes to the box spring. Zach Lucas, Dave Skogan, Tony Barba, Matt Hanzelka, and Mike Boman again, who'd run up from the ground, began to lift. The box spring went pretty well, actually. They had it up and over the railing in about five minutes. Sense of hope, rising ...
But the couch. Oh, the couch. The brand new (to me), microsuede, long-enough-to-lie-down-on-and-so-therefore-pretty-big couch ...
They planned. They discussed. The engineered. They tied the rope to either end. They began to hoist. It looked good, they got it most all the way up and then ... the couch caught on the lip of the roof.
Perhaps some pictures would be good here, so you know just the feat these brave, brave men were attempting.
Right, so the couch was up, but was caught beneath this ledge. The natural first reaction was, "Well, let's several of us climb out over the railing, stand on the ledge, and just, you know, pull harder. The couch will come unstuck!"
As several members of this very talented group put themselves in harm's way, I started to compose in my head the statement I'd need to make to the press. "I'm so very sorry for the accident which has happened here today. This couch was not worth the lives and musical talents of these caring young men ..."
Pulling harder didn't work. The couch came partially untied, and they had to lower it to try again. This time, they added a third rope, scavenged from the curb. Tied around the center of the couch, this rope would serve as a pivot point to flip the couch up and over the tricky overhang.
This rope turned out to be the third kind of heat: It worked!
Then came the matter of removing several doors from their hinges so the couch could be (semi-)effortlessly moved to its new home. Right here:
And I'm sitting on it right now. :)
Thanks, Youngblood Brass Band.
So I'm very sorry that I forgot to blog last week. But I hope you've enjoyed the saga of the Most Difficult Move of My Life So Far.
Also, two Tyrus announcements:
Number one: We started a subscription service! Check it out here.
That's all I've got today, dearest readers. Have a great Sunday!
Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.
Where does it end? Don’t you wonder that sometimes? I’m a person of lists. I don’t really like making them, but I love crossing things off of them when the deed is done. It’s like proof – to myself at least – that I accomplished something even in the midst of chaos. I don’t make little lists, either. I don’t write things like “clean the den.” I write:
Clear off the coffee and end tables
Dust the lamp shades and ceiling fan
Look under the cushions on the couches
Sweep the hearth
Dust the shelves and tv/vcr
Vacuum the floor
I used to say I did that because my kids’ definition of “clean the den” is nowhere near the same as mine. But my kids are mostly grown and I still do it. I think sometimes it feels like I accomplished more if there are more things to cross off.
Remember counting the days until school was out? That’s kind of like a list to me, too. No matter how I despised Earth Science, no matter how bad I was at the hands-on homework, it was finite. There was an end. Once I’d crossed off the last assignment or the last day, whichever came first, it was over. Never to be done again. Finito.
Probably that’s why, as an adult and a teacher, I preferred teaching math to English, even though I love writing and reading. English can’t be finished. There’s always another rule, always another exception. All things are relative, nothing is carved in stone. Math is math. Once you learn that formula, it will work the same way every time.
So how the heck did I wind up in book promotion? True, there are tons of lists. But for every item I cross off, I might add five more. For every task I finish, there’s another (or ten) waiting for me to start. For every phone call I make, there'll always be one more call. For every package I complete, there are 85 more to finish. When does it end? When can I go home and say, “I’m done”?
Even if I narrow it down to one author and one book, when can one really close the door on promotion? There are a lot of answers to that, all of them with some credibility. Some think that any promotion done after the release date of the book is too little too late. Others swear the window of opportunity closes with a bang about a month after the book comes out. Still others say maybe six months, or a year. Die-hards say you don’t stop promoting until the book goes out of print. That’s a fairly logical assumption, in my opinion.
But you know what I think? I think in one form or another, an author will keep promoting as long as there’s one more book and one more person who hasn’t read it. Where’s your line drawn?
I was going to quietly ignore this opinion piece from the Independent on the grounds that I'm probably starting to sound like a broken record on the topic and that the handful of people who read the poor old sinking Indy had probably skimmed over it. But the more I thought about it, the more irritated I got by the smugness and inaccuracy of the piece.
My first action was to check the date on the piece – it read like something from the 1980s and early 1990s when publishers such as Women's Press were publishing lesbian crime fiction regularly. That was when I found Val McDermid's wonderful Lindsay Gordon series and was instantly re-energised by the genre. Manda Scott, the author of the article, and Stella Duffy, who's also mentioned, were among some of those early pioneers.
Since those heady days 20 years ago, though, lesbian crime writing is in the doldrums. Those three names mentioned above are happily still writing, but they're sure as hell not turning out lesbian crime fic. Good grief, heavens to Betsy, I'm all for writers writing what they want, and trying different challenges. And I'd be a bit damn worried if McDermid was still fixated on Greenham Common. But I find it intriguing that McDermid and Scott only become big names when they moved to large publishers and started writing 'straight.'
I'm a huge fan of McDermid, who has never made any secret of her sexuality, is a trenchant supporter of the genre and almost always has GLBT characters in her supporting cast (as does Nastasha Cooper in her Trish Maguire series). But then it's not unusual to pick up a crime novel now from straight writers and find the same thing. And that's how it should be. I'm sure now most publishers – certainly in the UK – don't give a damn about the sexual preferences of their writers (look at how successful Sarah Waters is). But I bet they do twitch if confronted with a book with a gay or lesbian central character (unless they're one of the ever-shrinking GLBT publishers or a self-publishing set-up which depends on the writer getting their chequebook out – and a fair few gay writers have gone down that road, sadly).
I went and browsed the reviews on RTE to see which lesbian crime fic we've reviewed lately – and it's all American and from small publishers such as Alyson (who, I believe, have been bought out). The two most recent I could find in the UK were from a bloke – Ed O'Connor's Primal Cut (2007) – and Tracey Shellito's Personal Protection from my blog mate Lynne Patrick's Crème de la Crime in 2005. O'Connor's book was published by Allison & Busby, another smallish indie publisher.
Duffy's last adventure for London PI Saz Martin was in Mouths of Babes in 2005. Hostage to Murder the last outing for Lindsay Gordon way back in 2003 – and published under the name VL McDermid. Scott's Stronger Than Death, featuring lesbian vet Kellen Stewart, dates even further back to 1999.
There's a world of difference between lesbian writers and lesbian writing. Scott is talking about the former. And it doesn't alter the fact that lesbian crime writing is in a parlous state. Kudos to Scott and Co for coming out publicly, but don't pretend you're at the cutting edge of lesbian crime writing, because you're not.
Someone said to me the other day, there’s a huge appetite for crime. (You’ll be relieved to learn she was talking about crime fiction.)
And someone else once said that statistics are like the Bible and Shakespeare: you can find something in them which will prove anything you want them to.
So here’s an interesting statistic or seven about crime fiction and people who buy books. OK, not all statistics – some are just fascinating bits of information.
1. 85% of people who go into a bookshop know they’re going to buy something, but have no idea what that something will be. (Bet Amazon can’t make the same claim.)
2. 85% of books are bought by women aged between 40 and 70.
3. Fewer than 5% of books that get optioned for TV or film ever make it on to the screen.
4. Fewer than 0.1% of first-time-author submissions received by publishers ever make it into print. And 90% of published novelists earn less than £5000 a year from writing.
5. Crime recently overtook romance as the most borrowed genre in British libraries.
6. It’s an unusual bookshop that doesn’t have a dedicated crime section.
7. And despite all the hype and news coverage, e-books still account for a tiny, tiny percentage of turnover in publishing.
I’m not sure what any of that proves, exactly, or whether it’s useful in terms of persuading people to part with hard cash in return for our books in particular. Let’s think about it.
Point 1 has been known to come in handy when an author spends time in a bookshop. Please note I don’t say when an author does a signing. Bitter experience has shown that unless the author is a celebrity, or at least a household face, signings don’t sell many books. I once went into a bookshop on the day a flavour-of-the-month author was signing, and left feeling rather sorry for him. He sat at a table, almost hidden by two stacks of his famous-for-the-moment book, and in the half-hour or so I was in the shop two people approached him – and one of those asked the way to the children’s section. I hasten to add he wasn’t a Crème de la Crime author. They don’t sit behind a table; they talk to people. And the books sell, presumably to the 85% of people who didn’t know what they came in for.
Useful conclusion: Authors who get out there and engage people in conversation are more likely to sell books than the ones who wait for people to come to them.
Point 2 could just be the subject of a marketing campaign, and better funded companies have been known to home in on our marketing ideas, so suffice to say I’m batting a few ideas around. This I will say: whenever Criminal Tendencies, our anthology which supports breast cancer charities in both the UK and the US, comes to the notice of a gathering of women aged between 40 and 70 (or even 20 and 90), multiple copies leave via the cash register. We find pretty well everyone in such a group has been affected in some way by breast cancer, and they’re keen to help.
Points 3 and 4 just go to show you shouldn’t get your hopes up. Just write the books; if the big time happens, treat it as a bonus. Looks like novelists (aside from a lucky handful) are in pretty much the same situation as poets: they have to find other ways to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. (Sorry; black cloud moment over.)
Point 5 – I wonder if any of that can be attributed to our murder mystery evenings? They do go down well…
Point 6 – well, yes, of course; I should jolly well think so!
And point 7: all that could be about to change, but it doesn’t stop me cowering in a corner and hoping someone will make it all go away. Or, if not go away, turn into a simple matter of selling rights, as we do with audio and translation. Well, audio, anyway.
I’m still not sure what any of that proves, if indeed it proves anything at all. Just thought I’d toss it into the pool and see how it ripples.
by Barbara Poelle
Husband and I bought rollerblades and on Saturday we bladed the length of the island. ( I know, I know, we came back to a message on our answering machine that went [BEEP] uh, hey guys, it’s me, 1994, I am just calling to see if I can get my rollerblades back. And oh, yeah, this answering machine too….)Anyway, it’s only about 12 miles but we had the brilliant idea to leave at high noon, so by about mile 5 I looked like I had fallen into the Hudson and by mile 7 I smelled like I was using horse intestines as a life preserver.
So we come home sweaty and exhausted and I nag husband to check the mousetraps, because we still haven’t caught Stewie. I have been telling myself that he will not be back, as he was so psychologically damaged by our initial encounter that he rightly views our domicile as one inhabited by a predator akin to a puma. So I am in the other room and I hear Husband say, “Oh my God.” I, of course, bend my arms at the elbows and start rapidly flapping my hands in the air and saying, “What-is-it-no-don’t-tell-me-what-is-it-no-don’t-tell-me…” in that super helpful way I have. So Husband calls me over and pulls the trap out to show me that not only has the peanut butter been pretty much licked clean off of the unsprung trap, but in its place, as if left by the Cosa Nostra, is a single turd.
“Catch this.” It clearly stated.
I roared, while the camera crane pulled back to frame Husband on his knees and my angry fists shaking above my head, “Stewiiiiiiiiiiie!” then I stomped into the office and pulled out some glue traps the super gave us, and yelled, “ How dare you be both irreverent and hilarious at the same time! Nobody does that in my house but ME!” So now we have these glue traps everywhere and I keep picturing something really odd getting stuck to them, like a milk dud or Rod Blagojevich. Someone told me that I am not going to be happy when Stewie hits that thing at mach 8 and tears his legs off, but I am like, “Hey, who poked the puma?” Which, incidentally, would also make a wonderful new game by Milton Bradley.
But I get it. I mean, I would infest our apartment too. It is a really fun place to be. Like the other day when I was on the phone and Husband was strolling by and stubbed his toe on the coffee table and tumbled onto the couch where he drove his knee into my hip bone and when I reflexively howled and grabbed it I cracked him in the skull with my elbow. GOOD TIMES! Or after we rollerbladed only 12 miles we had to take a 2 hour nap. GOT LIFE BY THE TAIL! Or when I broiled dinner but neglected to actually turn the oven to broil and almost killed us with bacteria. LIVIN’ THE DREAM!
But that’s the thing: most of life is such a mundane repetition of burnt dinners and stubbed toes that it takes a lot of sifting to find the excitement. But yet, without that mundanity (I’m trying it) the exciting moments maybe wouldn’t stand out enough to make their mark as beacons in the mist of memory. This is what a good novel must be able to do for us, find the excitement without losing the reality.
See, although I am fairly certain that most major literary figures are not wearing adult diapers, nobody is stopping to evacuate their bladder while contemplating leaving their paraplegic fiancée, or reflecting on the summer they defeated an evil clown (although Pennywise makes me want to evacuate my bladder). But it’s inferred that, yes, as human beings, there is consumption and evacuation happening. While no one wants to read a direct reflection of their daily lives, everyone wants to read characters functioning within the constraints of what the plot has denoted in a realistic way. This doesn’t mean that everyone should be rushing back to their WIP and typing in “Do you think the cartel will find us?” he called from the bathroom as he evacuated his bowels (why is this entire blog a lesson in scatology?)but it means you must take real time into effect when plotting. People eat. People sleep. People set mousetraps and buy lotto tickets and shrink their wife’s favorite summer hippie shirt. These are the personal touches that make a good novel an empathetic one and therefore a great one.
Now go check your manuscript for the simple anecdotal pleasures of life that make it that much more accessible. I am off to audition for the fabulous new game show…say it with me: “ Who! Poked! The Pumaaaaaaaa????”
Welcome guest blogger 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 GayLife.com. 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.
When I blogged recently at Meanderings and Muses, Michael Haskins asked if I had a list of my ten favorite books. These are all books that have been memorable to me, either because of the time and place I read them, or because they contributed to my development as a writer. These aren’t necessarily all the best books I’ve ever read, but they’re the ones that stuck with me. In alphabetical order:
A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion. I fell in love with this book because of the language. Didion’s stylistic tics—short sentences, repeated phrases, descriptions that nearly blind with their accuracy—remind me of Nabokov. I fooled around with this sort of mannered writing when I was trying to find my own voice. I can’t write like either of them, but I can appreciate what they do.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles. A great example of the right book at the right time. In 10th grade my English teacher, Mr. Haider, had us read the book and took us on a field trip to see the movie, with Parker Stevenson and John Heyl. Our assignment was to rewrite the book from Finny’s point of view. I was baffled until he showed us an example, a single page that revisited the book’s plot, looking at those events as Finny might have. It was an eye-opener. Not only had the book and movie made a tremendous impression on me, writing offered me an outlet for my emotional response.
An Armful of Warm Girl by W. M. Spackman. Nobody else has ever heard of this guy, a Princeton grad who wrote a few novels about upper-crust Ivy Leaguers in a delightful, witty voice. Once again, language carries the day. This was the first of his I read, though it’s the first line of A Presence with Secrets that I always think of: ‘…and, well, shy, then!’ she said in her haughtiest clear young voice.” I love the way that line begins, not just in the middle of a scene, but in the middle of a sentence, drawing you right into the story.
Griffin and Sabine, by Nick Bantock. The way he mixed the art with the text with the letters and postcards was a real revelation. His talent just spilled off the page, and he demonstrated that storytelling can be so much more than just narration.
Happy All The Time, by Laurie Colwin. I’ve already written about how much I love this book, and how I go back to it frequently. What I love best about Colwin’s writing is her gorgeous sense of domestic detail. She reminds me to populate my books with the things and the foods that illuminate my characters.
Microserfs, Douglas Coupland. Here’s another right book/right time. I was a computer geek, traveling occasionally to Seattle on business, when I read this, and was awed by the way Coupland got so many details correct. It was like he was writing my life.
Now Playing at Canterbury, by Vance Bourjaily, was big influence on me in college. It’s a rewriting of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, set around a theater production at a state university in the Midwest. Bourjaily used a different voice, and sometimes a different technique entirely, for each chapter. (One was written in cartoon balloons, for example.) Wildly improvisational, it was utterly fascinating.
P.S. Your Cat is Dead, by James Kirkwood. My high school friend Vicki found this one, and introduced me to Kirkwood’s books. (I think she was attracted to the title because she had a love/hate relationship with Rajah, her mother’s cat.) Kirkwood, who went on to co-write A Chorus Line, had a witty voice, and the undercurrent of gay sexuality was just enough to tantalize me as a teenager.
Ulysses, by James Joyce. I took a college course in the epic tradition in literature, in which we read The Odyssey, among other classic works. The final book of the term was Ulysses, and I was fascinated by Joyce’s language as well as the way he had used Homer as source material. It allowed me to see everything I had read as an English major as work that would form the basis for my own writing in the future. I took the book with me on a summer trip to Europe, re-reading it again, along with The Bloomsday Book, which further elaborated all those connections to Homer.
When I was a finalist for the job I now hold, as a professor of English at Broward College, I had to write an essay about the book I’d take to a desert island with me for the hiring committee. I chose Ulysses, because I still think it’s one of the richest books, and one that rewards hard work.
The World According to Garp, by John Irving. This big, wonderful mishmash of a book influenced my undergraduate honors thesis in English. I threw in short stories, a few poems, a play and a novella—ostensibly to show that I was proficient enough in the various forms of writing to merit graduating with honors in English. Mostly I was enthralled by the exuberance of Irving’s writing.
Looking back on this list, I see that I’ve been attracted to voice and style, above all else. If you look at your own “top 10” list what jumps out at you?
Which books have made you cry? I only ask, as I'm having trouble remembering any that have made me blub . . .
Poetry and music, though – they have the potential to start me off, and I'm not a particularly tearful sort of person. I can't believe, though, that I've been reading novels for the best part of 40 years and haven't snivelled at some in that time. Damned if I can think of any, though!
But I cried my eyes out when I read Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Last Post about the deaths of World War I veterans Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, both of whom died within weeks of each other.
Allingham was the last founder member of the RAF and the final survivor of the Battle of Jutland. Patch was the last 'Tommy' – one of those men who fought in the trenches in France.
Both were remarkable men, but Patch, in particular, struck a chord with many people. He didn't talk about the horrors he'd seen until the later years of his long life, but when he did, he visited schools and gave interviews to try to get across to a new generation the utter futility of war. His funeral at Wells Cathedral was attended by more than 1000 people – and the coffin was escorted by soldiers from Britain, France, Germany and Belgium. Apparently it was his wish that none should carry any sort of weapon for the occasion. And yes, I cried when I watched it on the news.
My friend John L Murphy views the matter from an Irish-American perspective in his blog. And he talks about related WW1 literature and songs – and that promptly reminded me of music which reduces me to tears.
Top of the list would be two folk songs – The Green Fields of France, written by Scottish/Australian songwriter Eric Bogle, and Mick Moloney's Kilkelly. I've linked you to YouTube versions, but with the former in particular you'll find better versions on albums. I'd go for The Men They Couldn't Hang's cover.
I remember lending the Bringing It All Back Home double album, on which I first heard Moloney, Jimmy Keane and Robbie O'Connell perform the song, to a work colleague. He handed it back to me a week or so later and his first – and only – comment was how that song had made him cry.
Maybe a lot of it is due to the stripped-down nature of both Duffy's poem and Moloney's song – you get to concentrate totally on the power of the words. You have one thing to focus on and that inhabits you for the life of the song or the poem. With books and films, perhaps there's too much else going on. Yes, I spot sad scenes or passages, but everything seems to move on too fast. Poems and music are an intense, brief experience.
I tend not to get too attached to TV shows, and the only tears I shed when favourite characters such as Stephen and Captain Ryan in Primeval, and Ianto in Torchwood, were killed off were tears of rage at what the bloody writers had done to two erstwhile unmissable shows. Oddly enough, I did snivel a bit when Owen and Tosh got bumped off in series 2 – I didn't care much for either of the characters, but the killer line was Tosh's "Because you're breaking my heart" when Owen asks her for one good reason why he should stop screaming. Mark it down as a tribute to Burn Gorman and Naoko Mori's acting.
And, 650 words later, I still can't think of a book that's made me cry. That's just plain weird and faintly disturbing.
I’d like to get my hands on the guy who started the rumour that publishing goes quiet in August. Not here, it doesn’t. For the past eleven days I’ve written press releases, stuffed review copies into envelopes, made posters for upcoming events, read manuscripts, written rejection letters, explained politely but firmly that our feedback service doesn’t include a week-long exchange of e-mails… pretty much business as usual, in fact, except that planning 2010 has taken the place of co-ordinating 2009.
And since our annual two-week break in the sun (there, I’ve jinxed it; it’s gonna pour) begins in just over three weeks, in fact just about the time Sharon bursts into song on the Trafalgar Square plinth (go for it, Shaz, it’ll be fun), I don’t exactly foresee any let-up in the imminent future.
So why am I planning a marketing campaign that, should it happen to take off where others have barely made it off the ground, will entail working at least one extra evening a week?
I told you I was mad.
Yes I did. Months ago. Unless it was someone else I told…
Deep breath, count to ten, and… calm. Sorry. It all gets a little too much at times. There’s blue sky outside, and the late-crop raspberries are ripening. I ought to be out there, breathing it in, not flipping between Outlook Express and three different Word files in a very messy office, wondering if it’s actually possible to fit that gallon of projects over there into this teensy little half-pint cup over here…
It’s a disease, this inability to be idle. Other people manage to shake it off; I’ve met lots of them who work part-time, or, shock horror, have retired. What worries me most is that I think I may have infected my daughter. Though she did take last week off to visit her aged and not-in-the-least venerable parents (though this one spent most of that week surgically attached to the computer), and she went to the theatre last night, for pleasure, not because someone asked her to review it, so maybe she’s built some immunity over the years.
Take time to smell the flowers, my lovely friend Douglas used to say.
I do cast a glance across the lawn at the wonderful bright pink football-sized hydrangea flowers most mornings, when I’m heading out for the brisk two-mile walk which is so preferable to pounding a treadmill or cross-trainer if it’s not raining. They’re beautiful – my favourite shrub by a mile, and at their best at the moment. And every time I walk into the living room I smile at the orchid someone gave me three years ago, which started out as one skinny leaf, one stalk, and a couple of flowers arching elegantly like a piece of Japanese art, and now has five fat leaves all the year round and sprouts three stalks, several subsidiary twigs and over 50 flowers every summer. I like to think of it as a metaphor yet to be fulfilled.
And of course the manic work schedule has its golden moments. Like the brilliant manuscript I received about this time last year, which I’m hoping will form part of the planning 2010 part of the madness. And the equally dazzling one I hope I’m going to be given in a week or two, the next-in-series from one of our most popular authors.
Sometimes I need to remind myself that like writing the books, publishing them is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. And that the one percent is the bit you remember.
by Barbara Poelle
I am sorry to say this entry will be short and sour. I have been a miserable sick person, petulant and morose and mewing, like the love child of David Schwimmer and Bjork. These past few days, with my fever spiking and my mucus freely flowing, I’ve been hiding from everyone yet blaming them all for my shortcomings, vacillating between caterwauling old jazz standards and spying on the neighbors, all the while embraced in the loving arms of an over sized t-shirt I defensively called a “house dress”.
Yup, I’ve gone all Grey Gardens up in here.
Until this week’s Entertainment Weekly hit the stands and oh cue the doves, sound the trumpet blast, unleash a fire hose of mojitos upon the masses, Sophie Littlefield’s debut A Bad Day For Sorry received a spectacular review! I got so excited that I coughed and coughed and then hacked out something that then turned around and attempted to pitch me a YA, which was just inappropriate to say the least, but easily ignored in my euphoria.
I don’t have any kids (I am sorely lacking the three S’s of parenting: Sympathy, Selflessness and Sobriety) so I cannot imagine what it feels like when someone reacts or responds to something your child does. But I think I can empathize a little bit, because when good things happen to my authors I get all puffed up and preening, but when unhappy things happen, I want to stand roaring and flexing over the offender’s flaming corpse. Is that about right?
Anyway, a lot of my duckies have had just an outstanding couple of summer months but now we are entering a slower time in Publishing, when the city depletes in population by half but still manages to smell like an old French prostitute, and I think that these are the times when we truly test our mettle. I have no idea what mettle is exactly, but I know it is important not to let it crumble and fall away like that corky bit of umbilical cord, so even though I am crabby and feverish and likely to throw a punch in the next 40 minutes, I want to muscle through my blog and make sure I am keeping to the minimum of mettle I see from my clients daily. The elbow grease they put behind every effort, whether on virtual book tours or on revisions, on book 2 or book 7, is quite frankly astounding. I have just a spectacular client list from A-Z and the least I can do is shuffle across the page scattering 500 words of wisdom to the winds. So let me raise my Theraflu in a toast: to you lovely clients, you make me flush with pride…alright and fever, but still. Thanks for all you do. You make this look easy.
P.S. Is it weird that I bought 7 copies of EW and then rolled around on them like a wolfhound on a fresh kill?
P.S.S. Um, did anyone see Janet Reid's haiku challenge? It filled up and was quickly closed, but stay tuned for the winner's entry: http://jetreidliterary.blogspot.com/2009/08/writing-contest.html
P.S.S. Um, did anyone see Janet Reid's haiku challenge? It filled up and was quickly closed, but stay tuned for the winner's entry: http://jetreidliterary.blogspot.com/2009/08/writing-contest.html
P.S.S. And yes, it is pronounced "Poh-Elle" like Noel, and that counts as two syllables...
P.S.S. And yes, it is pronounced "Poh-Elle" like Noel, and that counts as two syllables...
Short post today, as it is my birthday!
This week, Ben posted a video catalog entry for one of our Spring 2010 titles (The Deputy, by Victor Gischler):
We have a lot of fun making these videos (and, as you might be able to tell, I tend to drink a lot of coffee while we film them) ... but what do you think? Are they neat? Do you like having the option of listening to us talk about our catalog, in addition to reading the copy on our website, or on amazon?
As I have mentioned in the past, I am involved with a book festival here in Ann Arbor, the Kerrytown BookFest. This year's festival takes place on Sunday, September 13 at the Ann Arbor Farmer's Market. Last year we drew about 4,000 people - this year, with the inclusion of Jane and Michael Stern (of Roadfood fame) and Jeffery Deaver we think we might draw even more people. It's almost getting too big for our tiny 9 person board.
In any case, there are plenty of tasks involved with the bookfest that are just tedious or yucky (fundraising falls under that category) but there are some parts that make it all worthwhile. One, of course is the programming - spending nearly a year fine tuning a program and then getting to meet people you have only e-mailed is a thrill (and sometimes a surprise!) But last year we added a "Book Cover" contest for high school kids, and it's rapidly becoming one of my favorite things.
Now, the first thing that bugged me about this contest was the fact that we had to call it a book 'cover" contest instead of a book "jacket" contest. The board insisted that no kid would know what a jacket was (my own kids, having been raised by booksellers, were no example in this area). But we pressed on and last year, our first year, we got around 25 entries thanks mostly to one very industrious art teacher.
This year I figured out art teachers were the key and manged to snag two or three in my web - we ended up with 51 entries, a good improvement over the first year. Why it's so difficult to get kids to enter a contest where they can a) draw, and b) win $100 is a mystery, but it is. As we did last year, we chose a book and gave away copies so the kids could get the idea. This year's choice, to tie in with the overall culinary theme we are going with, was "The First American Cookbook", published in 1796. There's a recipe for turtle in it.
Anyway, yesterday was the "judging conference call" - our three judges, lifestyle guru Katie Brown, a local grahpic designer, Christine Golus, and Jan Longone, Curator of the Culinary Collection at the University of Michigan Clements Library, were our judges. I had sent them scans ahead of time and so each of them had picked a few of their favorites. The unanimous pick was the winner - the rest of the finalists (we have five) was a long coversation, some of the criteria this year being historical accuracy. Some of the kids had used hamburgers, straws, muffin cups - nothing is use in 1796!
I think I love this because even though we're not all in the same room I just get to listen in on an interesting discussion, and it's not my decision. I can just observe. Last year I was surprised by the outcome (our judges last year were an artist and a publisher) and this year I had no favorite picked out myself so was interested to hear the discussion. This year we added some points for originality, which was welcome.
Anyway the winners will be announced the day of the bookfest - last year our third place winner actually cried. I'm looking forward to meeting some happy and talented teenagers in September.
Authors tend to be an opinionated bunch. More so than a lot of groups I think. It's the nature of the opinions they have about themselves that I want to talk about today. Have you noticed that most authors either are now or have been active members of a writing critique group? And while the best of these groups try to accentuate positives as well as negatives, the very title by which they're called is definitive. Critique. Criticism. Spotlight and pinpoint what I've done wrong.
It's true, a good critique helps to expose our weaknesses. It's very easy for an author to develop tunnel vision that helps him or her to see only the shortcomings. Consequently even though an author has gained a coveted contract and finally has a book in print, and that author is fervently hoping that readers and reviewers will love the book, that author is often secretly remembering every weak spot and pleading "Oh please, I hope they like it, I hope they like it, I hope..."
On the other hand, most of us at some point have come across authors who seem supremely arrogant and full of themselves. Self-confidence to the extreme. Some of them are great writers, and some of them are not. So what makes them stand apart from the other writers who struggle to believe in their talents even after several books have been published? And why does this matter when it comes to book promotion?
I don't know what made me think of it, but I was reminded of myself when I was 15. We'd moved from Phoenix Arizona to a tiny town in Oklahoma and I suffered from severe culture shock. Ok, severe to a 15 year old is different than severe to many of us, but bear with me. This tiny town didn't even have a girls PE program. It had brick streets. I was certain we'd stepped into the dark ages.
I was a runner. And a basketball player. And they wanted me to be a cheerleader! I was not and never will be a cheerleader type of person. But the football field and surrounding track were a mere 2 blocks from our house so I gravitated there after school, decked out in my running shoes (they didn't have brand names back there in the dark ages, they were just running shoes). One of the coaches saw my talent and/or intent and allowed me to work out with the team. He even put me in some of the track meets hosted there since not all schools were as backward as mine about allowing females to participate.
I was a distance runner. Anything with the word "dash" in it meant I would lose. And hurdles were the things nightmares were made of. Yet the coach insisted if I was going to work out with his team, I was going to run the course. He wouldn't allow me to concentrate only on what came easy to me. I still have tiny scars on my kneecaps where I picked those cinders from my knees after running, or rather stumbling over, hurdles. He taught me a lot, though.
My day's efforts started on the hurdles - my worst event. It broke my pride because no matter how good I thought I was running the mile, it was hard to maintain an ego when I was picking myself up off the ground so often. It also increased my determination to do what I had to do in order to be able to do what I loved. Then I'd have to do sprints. Again, my pride took a beating because I rarely ever finished anything but last and some of those guys I ran against weren't great.
But give me a mile or a marathon and call me the energizer bunny. It wasn't too hard for me to understand why Coach made me work on the things I wasn't good at, even though I wasn't going to run those races. But it took a while for me to understand why he pushed me so hard on increasing distance. I was good at that.
Ultimately, I came to know myself, weaknesses and strengths. To know and accept that I was good at what I did both when I won, and when I didn't. I didn't run better because someone thought I did and I didn't run worse because someone thought I couldn't run. Not every race was my best, but my capability was constant. The type and quality of my competition didn't have anything to do with how good I was, it was merely a temporary measure that would change with the next race. And I developed a confidence in both what I could and couldn't do. Like Eastwood said, "A man's got to know his limitations." There's a serious peace in that.
There's a proverb in the Bible that says, "whatever a man thinks in his heart, so is he." There's a lot of truth in that. Or you might say so he'll become.
When an author is crafting a manuscript, there's always the potential for improvement so seeking out the weak areas for revision is good. But mentally, too many authors never break free of that mindset even after the book is published. They're still seeing weak spots and things they might have done better. They don't fully understand that the workout - for now - is over and it's time to focus on skill to run the race. When there's still time to improve, you focus on things that need improving. But when it's time to play the game or run the race, you focus on all the good you've brought to the table and ignore the weakness.
In promotion, what you believe about yourself and your work is everything. You have to come to peace with the idea that this manuscript is the best that it can be according to your ability at that time in your life. It doesn't mean you should be arrogant and prideful. It doesn't mean you shouldn't strive to be even better with the next project. But believing in the value of the finished work does mean you'll have resources and stamina to draw from to make one more phone call, or to ride out one more not-so-great review, or to endure one more rejection from whoever you're pitching at the time. It means you believe in you and your talent even if it seems like no one else does. Because in today's market, you have to believe in you if you expect anyone else to.
So go to your critique groups. Give them your best and take the criticism for what it's worth. But when the book is done, stop looking at what might have been and focus on your talents and skills that produced what you hold in your hand. For now, let it be good. Don't downgrade when someone tells you how much they like it by responding with things like, "Oh it's not that great," or "So and so's work is so much better," and learn to just smile and say, "Thank you, I'm glad you like it." And mean it.
Till next time,
I am about to be a piece of modern art . . . Possibly.
You see, I went and entered the draw to win a place on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, never expecting that I'd be one of the 2400 people to get lucky. According to the site there have been more than 30,000 applicants. I won't even try to do the maths on that one, as I'll run out of fingers and toes.
My mother thinks I'm mad (but then she's thought that for years in any case, so no change there). My friends have been much more enthusiastic and are threatening to log into the live webcam – or, in some cases, turn up in person!
I've got the 1am – 2am spot on Saturday September 5. Spooky . . . how did they know what hours I usually keep? And I bet there'll be plenty of drunks around in central London at that time to keep me company.
So what the hell am I going to do up there? My initial suggestion of regaling the late-night revellers with Pogues songs got the thumbs-down from all and sundry. My second idea would no doubt be eye-catching but probably also blasphemous, so I reluctantly shelved that as well.
Then I thought I had a plan with a hat, as my friend Jill would say – lighting a candle for all the British soldiers who've been killed in Afghanistan. And then I logged in to the webcam last night and realised how breezy it's likely to be up there at 1am. And the plinth's not that big (4.4m x 1.7m – erk!), so fitting getting on for 200 candles up there is probably a non-starter.
So I'm now pondering what would encapsulate me. I had to sum myself up in three words for the One and Other website (no, not stroppy, loud and opinionated, before anyone says) – I went for lively, enquiring and off-beat. But that's got me no nearer thinking of what to do eight metres above Trafalgar Square for an hour.
I've logged in to the webcam a few times to see what other people do. I don't think I can rival the fantastic swing dancer who was up there a few days ago. There was a bloke up there yesterday making bird boxes. Another woman cut up lengths of white fabric and draped it over the flagpole that you can apparently choose to have up there with you. Someone else seemed to spend the hour texting friends. And I did like the flashy suit that an artist appeared to have made for the occasion (there do seem to be a lot of them about – artists, not flashy suits!)
There are lots of causes that I believe in, so I maybe I should go for something to publicise one of those.
Or, I sit up there and write for an hour. After all, that's what I am and that's what I do.
There’s a controversy brewing in the British press about our venerable (and not quite so venerable) higher education establishments. Someone, possibly in the government, more likely in the media, has finally cottoned on to the notion that if you suddenly quadruple the number of university places, and therefore lower the entry requirements in order to fill them, some of the resulting students may just possibly not be quite as bright as the ones who earned places under the old regime.
There’s more. Maybe, just maybe, some of the degrees that get handed out at the end aren’t going to carry quite the same academic weight as the ones that were earned twenty (or thirty, or forty) years ago when a university degree was harder to come by. Or it could possibly be the case that degrees from some of the older, established and harder-to-get-into universities will be regarded more highly by potential employers.
And maybe some of the subjects on offer for degrees… shouldn’t be. Back in the days of the dinosaurs when I got mine, a degree was an academic qualification, not a practical one.
The debate has only just begun. I await its progress and development with interest.
It reminds me of another debate which raises its head about once a year: why the divide between literary and crime fiction? Why can’t a good whodunnit be regarded as a classy novel? Where does literary end and popular/commercial begin? And even more controversially: what makes literary fiction better than the popular variety?
Maybe debate isn’t the word: sometimes I think whinge is a better one. Certainly it seems to give rise to a lot of wilful misunderstanding of what’s actually being said. Last year the trigger was the inclusion of Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 on the Booker Prize long list. A thriller, put up for a major literary award: shock horror! This year it was down to a few unguarded comments at the Harrogate Crime Festival from crime writer Benjamin Black, aka John Banville, former winner of said Booker Prize.
A few years ago I was at an awards ceremony which took place in a venerable educational establishment for no other reason than it was convenient, and a member of the judging panel had access to the space. But the venue attracted quite a few people from the groves of academe, and I chatted to some of them, as you do at these affairs, about what we were doing there and what we did when we weren’t attending awards ceremonies.
Naturally I mentioned a keen personal and professional interest in crime fiction – and some of the reactions made me a little sad. “Oooh, I do enjoy a good murder mystery,” said one person with Doctor in front of her name and a string of letters after it. “Don’t tell anyone, though. It’s my guilty secret.”
From the look on her face you’d have thought she was ’fessing up to a heroin habit or a bad case of kleptomania.
What worries me is the way people make value judgements. What makes a book good or bad? Don’t get me wrong; a lot of badly constructed, poorly written and just plain boring manuscripts come my way, and they’re easy enough to recognise. There are some like that which even get into print, though not, I like to think, under the Crème de la Crime banner. But given a baseline of good writing, if I prefer J D Robb to Hilary Mantel, or for that matter Benjamin Black to John Banville, does that make my reading tastes in some way inferior to those of someone whose inclinations are the other way round?
Why does good and bad have to come into it? What’s wrong with different?
Seems to me the world would be a grey and tedious place if we all liked the same thing. To each his own. Please.
by Barbara Poelle
Okay. It’s Shark Week on Discovery and karma is kicking the crap outta me as I actually DO have a sore throat but NO ONE will believe me if I call in sick. And my throat isn’t the cool, “I’m Kathleen Turner from Romancing the Stone in 1984” it’s more like “I’m Harvey Fierstein from that really weird night you had in Soho in ‘97”. So I have to muscle through.
I will try and behave myself and not slobber and wiggle in my chair with glee over all of the new fun shark facts I will be learning this week, because some of them aren’t as, shall we say, comforting as one would hope and I have Husband 87% convinced that I should be allowed to cage swim with great white sharks in the wild. Here’s the thing he DOESN’T know. That I am going to work on the angle that I should get to do it how Michael Rutzen does it. I CAN TOTALLY DO THIS, I KNOW IT. You guys, Husband neeeeeeds to let me pet one. It is imperative. I will be very gentle and quiet and not disturb their ecosystem. I just want one snout rub.
Unfortunately, the only wildlife I have come into contact with these days is not of the gilled and delightful, but of the scampering and tiresome.
Last week I came home from work one night while Husband was out, collapsed on the couch, and then watched, wordlessly and with thunderous apathy, as a mouse darted across the hallway and into the kitchen. I mean my head actually slowly turned to gauge its progress. Then I sighed. And slowly rose. And then it was on like Donkey Kong.
I exploded into the kitchen and flipped on the light, and Stewie (short for Stewart Little, of course) darted for the corner behind the garbage and recycling bins. I kept my eye on the corner as I bent down and grabbed rubber gloves and a Tupperware. I donned the gloves, spun the Tupperware on the palm of my hand and then kicked the cans away. What happened next cannot be aptly described, but perhaps this series of texts I have lifted from Husband’s phone will help:
8:07 pm: F#@&! Me and a mouse are going AT IT! I had him, I f#@^ing HAD him and then he slid under the Tupperware and got away.
8:16 pm: F#$#@&!!! He just brought the F*%*ing fight to ME! He just charged at me in the living room!
8:19 pm: I have destroyed our home.
8:29: ohmigodohmigodohmigod there are tiny mouse turds on the ARM of the couch. He’s all over me. He’s like a turdfilled ninja! It’s like the beach at Normandy! $@*$#@ Come home and bring traps argrgrghhhhh!ohgodohgodohgod
8:40: He’s gone into the wall. The apt looks like a mongoloid rhino stopped by to enjoy some line dancing. Also, I’m crying a little.
When husband came home and viewed the carnage, he was not terribly pleased. “Why didn’t you go out and get traps?” he asked he up-righted a couch (Oh, believe it. I was flipping them like my toddler was trapped beneath a semi).
“Uh, because I would feel bad about it.”
“And what, pray tell, were you going to DO with this mouse when you caught him in a Tupperware?”
Well, I hadn’t really gotten that far in the planning.
The best part is that, as a day or two passed, Husband expressed some doubts as to whether or not I had actually seen a mouse. Like, maybe what had actually happened is that I scored some black tar heroin and invited that hooker with the scabby knees who works the GWB bus station back to our apartment but we had a bad trip where we thought Russian acrobats were trying to kill us and our only defense was to tip a couch and throw all of my shoes from the shoe rack at them as they flipped and jete’d through the living room.
But- aha! Last Friday, I called Husband to check in on broken ribs and such and what is he doing? Swearing and sweating as he has had his own run in with Stewie. Now this has tapped into Husband’s deep primal Hunter/Gatherer urges to which had heretofore only been satiated by Chinese takeout and Scrabble. Now our apartment is like a mine field. For example, I would love to have you over for dinner but I better get the linens for the table because if you were to reach your delicate hand into the linen basket in the kitchen SNAP! You would howl in terror and pain and Husband would yell from the corner where he is crouched wearing a grass skirt and covered in river mud, “I have to THINK like the mouse to catch him, Babe! I have to think like the mouse to catch him!”
Which brings up an excellent point. The mouse doesn’t think he is the villain. He’s just eating coconut shreds and pooping on the couch. Man, he’s living the dream!!!! This is a very important point when writing mysteries and thrillers. You can’t just have the bad guy be a bad guy. He has to have different priorities and motivations from our hero, but at the highest stakes imaginable. The old show (and then the movie) The Fugitive is the perfect example. It’s like a prism of villainy, our hero is the villain, but we know he’s the hero. Then the cop chasing him is both a villain and a hero. Then the villain is a hero but really a villain. Brilliant!
You can’t just be good for the sake of being good: booooring. So you can’t just be bad for the sake of being bad. Both sides of the coin must have supporting back story. Check out your villain. Does he/she have her motivations burning through from a legitimate place? Because that might be the cheese that makes me reach for the trap that is your brilliant plot.
Okay, now I am off to buy Red Bull and Ricola so I can stay up all night and watch Sharks, Glorious Shaaaarks!
Dearest blog readers, did you see the news this past week of the rescue dolphin and the sharks?
That incident is an example of life being tragic in that kind of way that you laugh at because it’s so unbelievable. The sort of incident that makes you think, “Ha, this is some clever internet hoax that will soon be uncovered on Snopes to be a fake news item, it’s too perfect to be otherwise.”
(I want to note here that I’m not advocating the death of rescue dolphins – or any other kind of dolphins, for that matter – as perfect. I’m talking about the general circumstances which came together to result in the news item.)
And then, when you realize that no, it’s a for-real story, you laugh again, because you’re horrified and there really isn’t anything else to do. It’s hard to feel outrage at a shark. And then it becomes one of those guilty “I’m laughing because I feel awkward about having laughed, and that’s funny, and I’m also laughing because my god can you believe this story, but oh it’s terrible, but also kind of funny, this is irony right?, so it’s ok to laugh?, oh god I can’t stop laughing in this weird, almost forced way, oh dear I better go see what’s in the fridge.” laughs.
Which brings me to: What if you’d read about this incident in a novel? Would you believe it, or would you fault the author for being too cute and heavy-handed and “writerly”?
I’d argue that it depends entirely upon the tone of the writing.
Some authors can totally pull off too-perfect scenarios, or obvious, normally unbelievable coincidences, and I’ll walk happily away with the package they handed me, all tied up with no loose ends. Other authors have me groaning, demanding of the pages in my hands, “Really? Seriously?! SERIOUSLY?!” before I turn to whomever I’m with and say, “This is so lazy and stupid, I hate it.”
So what’s the difference? How can some authors sell me the shark story, and some not?
I think it has to do with truth, and earnestness vs. sincerity.
Stay with me on this one, but to me, sincerity is a prefereable tone for an author to take than earnestness. Sincerity implies, to me, genuine desire to tell me a story, a real story, and a story that matters to the author and will matter to me. Earnestness implies desperation; the author needs me to believe the story, and though it may be 100% god’s honest truth, it’s less about the story and more about the author’s need to be taken seriously.
Sincere tone keeps the characters at the center of the novel. Earnest tone leaves no room for anything besides the author.
There are plot devices which appear again and again in fiction. That’s kindof the nature of storytelling – taking a few familiar ideas and either retelling them or reimagining them, twisting them slightly so they evoke a new response from the reader.
Take star-crossed lovers. Romeo and Juliet define that device, yes? Theirs is a familiar story that, when retold, doesn’t surprise anyone with its basic elements. Yet it can be retold sincerely, or earnestly, and if the latter, it becomes less enjoyable.
(Now I’m sorry, I have to jump over to movies here, because I have a good example of an earnest star-crossed lovers movie, but I can’t think of an earnest star-crossed lovers book [I’ve only had one cup of coffee so far this morning].)
Ok, don’t get mad at me if you loved this movie but … Titanic. Earnest all over the place. Each step James Caeron took just screamed, “Get ready! Pretty soon I’m going to make you cry!” Ugh, and as the ship is sinking (oops, spoiler alert!) and he does those cuts between all the lower class passengers who are frightened and facing death? Mother tucking in her small children, telling them it’ll be all right! Elderly couple, crying and spooning in bed as cold water rushes all around them! JAMES CAMERON WANTS TO KNOW, ARE YOU CRYING NOW? HOW ABOUT NOW?! That’s what I felt at the end of that movie – not the tragedy of the lives lost, but James Cameron delighting in telling me the story, assured he’d be provoking an emotional response.
On the sincere side, West Side Story takes the familiar plot points and characters and tweaks them just a bit, preserving a wonderfully sincere tone, so that the reader (or viewer, depending on how you’re digesting these stories) doesn’t feel hit over the head with the message that my GOD isn’t this TRAGIC and aren’t you CRYING so HARD. I actually am sad for Maria and Tony (and Anita, but that’s an entirely different post). No one is standing over my shoulder, asking me if I’m crying yet – they don’t have to, because that last reprise of “Somewhere” is so effective and comes from a place of such truth. The storytellers trust the power of the material, and believe in the reader/viewer.
And now, to bring it back full circle, some dolphin-safe Sharks:
Recently there's been released a highly touted book set in my very own town. I won't name names, but I will mention that this book is a mystery, written by a local author who has never been to our store. This sounds like sour grapes, doesn't it? And yet, mystery bookstores aren't all that common. We handsell. We recommend. We talk stuff up. That's what we're good at. This fellow's lapse is irritating to me, and it makes me not even want to carry the book (though my husband insisted we have a copy on hand). I refuse to face it out.
I will also say that this author got his start through a contest on Amazon.com. Are these two things related? Will all authors - naturally observant types, usually very interested in the world around them - thus begin to create inside hermetically sealed internet bubbles (only to have their work read on the Kindle?) What do you say, authors, if you are reading this blog?
To add insult to injury, the author's publisher, who scheduled him at Borders, sent me a review copy with a note: "Why not review this for the Ann Arbor Chronicle?" For a couple of months I've had a mystery column in the Chronicle. While it's pleasant to think publishers are noticing this outlet, it's beyond irritating to be asked for a review. She sent a copy to my bookstore after all.
Bookselling, reviewing, handselling - these are are all inter-related activities. If you're a new author in town, you might want to meet the booksellers around you (if only for the curiousity of viewing a rapidly vanishing breed). I tend to think we're a knowledgable resource.
While people from out of town absolutely love our store, people in town take us for granted or often want to sell us books. I guess this now includes certain local authors, not just customers. I guess this is a question of community. Why bypass what's under your nose? Not only is it a little silly, it seems like a waste.
And I'd be remiss NOT to thank the many, many authors who shop with us, sign with us, or in some cases hang out and talk movies or what's up in the world of books. You all know who you are, and you are all treasures.