There are people, institutions and even physical objects that we unconsciously assume will always be around. They become part of the fabric of our lives, and we merrily roll along forgetting that nothing lasts forever. I’m not thinking of the important elements, family and friends, whom we treasure and see or at least communicate with frequently, but the ones that are called to my mind when a memory is triggered or a significant event occurs. As I grow older, I find that people and places that have been a piece of me are disappearing with greater frequency.
This week it was P. D. James. I knew her only through her novels and can’t claim any personal loss. And I was well aware of her age. Yet somehow I was expecting another Dalgliesh novel. And another. There won’t be any more, and despite the multitude of wonderful authors sitting in my “to be read” pile, I am sad.
I discovered P. D. James when An Unsuitable Job For a Woman was published in 1972. I was in my real “coming of age” years, out of college, working, living on my own and unattached. I was finally able to read free of the English Major’s syllabus. Cordelia Gray was my first exposure to a fictional female private eye, and she embodied the independence and ability to succeed in a “man’s world” to which many of us young women aspired. (Remember, these were the early days of “Women’s Lib,” and we all knew how hard it was to be taken seriously.) I thought at the time that this was James’s first novel, and only later discovered the early Dalgliesh mysteries. I was disappointed that there were only two Cordelia Gray books and always hoped for more. But we soon had Kinsey Milhone and V. I. Warshawski as role models.
Much has been written about Adam Dalgliesh, his quirks, his character, his depths, especially in the last few days. I appreciate the “humanness” with which his creator endowed him, making him so much more than a detective. But I am a plot lover, and what I enjoyed most about the books was the way P. D. James set up the crime for the reader long before it occurred. My favorite is probably Original Sin, perhaps because the background is a publishing house. As was typical in a James mystery, we are dropped into the daily life of the characters. The rivalries, grudges, betrayals and slights are slowly exposed. The murder doesn’t take place until almost halfway through the book, and, by then, the reader has identified several potential victims and perpetrators. James was not fond of the female mystery writers of the classic age, saying that their characters were one dimensional and stereotypical. She refined their plotting by creating believable characters with multifaceted personalities, keeping the reader guessing about motives as well as means and opportunity.
The one P. D. James novel that has haunted me for years, and which I still recommend to readers, is The Children of Men. It is not a mystery, but poses the question, “How would we as a society and as individuals behave if we knew that we were the last generation of humans on earth?” It’s well worth reading if you haven’t.
So from my youth through my years of work, marriage, parenthood, and now looming retirement, there was periodically the gleeful word that another Dalgliesh novel was due to be released. They weren’t annuals, and that made them even more special. And there hasn’t been one for six years. And now we know for sure that there won’t be. I’m grateful, though, that P. D. James and Adam Dalgliesh were around all this time and are a little piece of who I am.
by Erin Mitchell
Many Americans are out among the zombie hordes of shoppers today, and as we become consumed with what to get for whom, I’m sure some—if not all—of you are going to be giving people books.
My confession: I’ve always found it difficult to gift books. Reading is a supremely personal experience, and as such, giving someone a book is a bit like giving them underwear. Especially for people you don’t know super-well…you have an idea of what you think might be comfortable for them to read, but what if you’re wrong? What if under that calm, cool, and collected exterior beats the heart of a warrior queen?
What if you’re gifting soft cotton when what she or he really wants is lace?
It’s a risk. But sure, aren’t all the best things in life at least a little risky?
Rather than give you a list of books I’d recommend as gifts this year, I went to the Facebook hive mind and asked: What's the best book gift you ever received?
Mine would be a tie between the atlas my dad gave me when I was about 6 and the encyclopedia of cats that Santa brought one year
The answers I received comprise a list that will definitely get you thinking! Here it is:
So there you have it. I betcha have some ideas for gift books now, right?
Let’s be clear about one thing: gruesome accounts of violence and its results do not float my boat. Or light my candle, or set my blood racing, or any other such popular metaphors. There are authors whose work I avoid, because they seem to delight, if not glory, in the kind of lengthy graphic descriptions that the human imagination can usually achieve in far more vivid detail. And there are authors whose books I’ve put in the charity box after half a chapter for the same reason.
It works for some people, and that’s fine. Talking to readers at a Christmas market the other week, I found that a surprising number actually choose their reading matter for the gore and mutilation. In my previous life I even published one author whose accounts I had to tone down, partly so I could keep my breakfast down while I was editing, but mostly because those accounts went way beyond anything I thought even the most bloodthirsty readers would need. She was one of my best sellers; go figure.
What’s more, there are authors whose work contains plenty of examples of that kind of description whose books stand in whole rows on my shelves.
So today I have two questions: why can I read some books which contain thoroughly depicted violent crime but reject others; and, how far can violent crime in fiction escalate before the tide turns?
I don’t think question #1 is so very hard to answer. The difference between books containing the graphic stuff which I find I want to read and... the other kind is this: the ones I want to read also give me plenty I want to read about.
Usually that means great atmosphere, a central plotline which grabs me and makes me want to follow it to the end, however bitter it gets, and mainly, characters I’m persuaded very early to care about and want to get to know better.
Well-known examples of the above aren’t exactly scarce, but if you want a couple of names, how about Lee Child and Val McDermid?
On the less well-known front, though that may change, I’ve just finished my second sampling of T F Muir, one of the emerging ‘tartan noir’ authors I mentioned last week. A particularly macabre murder was described long before I applied the fifty-page test, but I took a deep breath, read those pages very quickly with my eyes half-shut and kept going. Why? Largely because Frank, as he’s known to his friends, has a deft hand with female characters (he’s a man – it’s not always the case). I wouldn’t have gone back for the second book if those characters hadn’t captured my imagination long before the end of the first, and I wanted to see how they developed.
The second question is trickier. I’m sure a lot of particularly horrible murders happen in real life as well as in fiction – but I can’t be the only person who has trouble with stomach-turning serial killings which seem to happen every few months in peaceful villages or scantily populated beauty spots. If I’d let myself believe there was a grain of truth in Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series, I would have strongly discouraged my daughter from studying at the University of Oxford. And I’m pretty sure the Royal Family would have felt much the same about the next-but-one heir to the British throne completing his education at the venerable institution located in St Andrews if the local newspapers gave any hint that T F Muir might have a point.
But that’s not really the issue here; my real question is, how much gorier and more graphic can the descriptions get? And how much further can the boundaries be pushed? Without giving too much away, Mr Muir will have to work pretty hard to top his latest foray into the realms of grotesque brutality.
There must come a point where readers say enough! I can’t suspend disbelief any more.
In the summer of 1980, I spent a month at Chase Tennis Camp in a boarding school in Pennsylvania. I’d gone to camp before, but this was the first time it wasn’t in the woods with bunks, but rather a dorm setup with a roommate.
My roommate was a kid from Long Island named David, also 12 years old; fine kid, we got along well. He was a slob, if I recall, but, I mean, we were 12 year old boys, so I’m sure he felt the same about me.
The first night we were there, David took out a little Panasonic cassette recorder and a home-made cassette. 60 minutes. I asked him what was on it.
“My Bar Mitzvah studying. I told my mother I’d listen every night.”
“You have headphones?”
So that was the last time his bar mitzvah was mentioned, and side A of the tape was never played.
Side B, on the other hand, contained the first half of the album Glass Houses by Billy Joel (You May Be Right through All For Leyna), which had just been released. For those of you reading this born post-cassettes, the optimal length of cassette was 90 minutes, because the typical album in the late 70s through the 80s was approximately 45 minutes, so you could fit two on one tape. The 60 minute tapes were annoying because you really couldn’t do anything with them without wasting a lot of time or cutting off the last three or four songs (or one song if you liked prog rock or live albums).
Sorry, digressed. In any case, for one month, therefore, I listened to Side A of Glass Houses, then the side would end, then there would be around 10 minutes of silence, and then the tape recorder would turn off with an enormously loud CLICK-THWAP, which would wake me up; and because Dave was my first roommate who also snored, it would take me forever to go back to sleep. Repressed memories…
I bring all this up because this evening, my wife, Amanda, and I, along with Amanda’s brother and his wife, and another couple of friends of ours, went to hear Billy Joel play in his “Residency” at Madison Square Garden. I’d never seen him, though so much of his music was part of my life (although I confess it was probably 10 years before I could hear Side 1 of Glass Houses after Chase Tennis Camp). The reviews of these shows, which he does once a month like Britney in Vegas only more badass, have been good, and it appears that at least some of his sloppiness of the past decade are behind him. And even though he has had the bald-and-grey-goatee look for a while now, I do kind of miss the scrawny kid from Long Island with the mop of brown hair.
And he gave us a two and a half hour throwback to a time of saxophones and story-songs, to the Entertainer and Paul the Real Estate Novelist and Virginia (and even Uptown Girls). And every time he sang a beautiful, tender love song like Always a Woman or Just the Way You Are, he concluded with, “And then we got divorced.” Everyone knew every song. And unlike U2, whom we’d seen a few years ago at a stadium where it might as well have been on TV it was produced and remote, this felt relaxed and fun, even as his band was ridiculous. And he even brought on Sting and John Mellencamp for cameos (it was a great show, albeit extremely…non-diverse).
This has been a long fall. I had surgery on my shoulder, we planned and executed my daughter’s bat mitzvah (she did not have a cassette of her part), and watched business fluctuate and get busier and busier. But as I stood there at the end and waved goodbye to Brender and Eddie, I realized that, as Amanda’s grandmother used to say—and which she said to our daughter on Sunday—“Kid, you got it good.”
There's what I want to think, and what I think. They're not the same thing.
Like many people, I have watched in morbid fascination over the past few weeks as allegations have multiplied against Bill Cosby. This past week, as they reached a crescendo, it was almost impossible to avoid the rising furor.
Let me say right off the top that I think sexual assualt of any kind is a horrendous, reprehensible crime that should be prosecuted and punished to the maximum extent of the law no matter who the accused party might happen to be. And at the same time, I have no knowledge whether the allegations are true or not. It is not for me to judge.
But it will be impossible to enjoy the comedy the same way ever again, no matter what. And that is what is personally hitting home right now. More than anything else, the Bill Cosby story now makes me sad.
A month of two after his son was shot to death Cosby gave an interview during which he said (and I'm paraphrasing) that people would see him and they would look sad. And that especially bothered him.
Imagine what he's seeing now.
That is not to in any way minimize what it has been said happened to a growing, seemingly large number of women over a very long period of time. If the allegations are true, their suffering is much more serious than anything that happens to fans of a comedian. For those women to find some measure of justice would be far more important.
For me, though, the accusations have damaged, perhaps beyond repair, a mental connection to an influence that helped formed some of the way I think. That's not easy to absorb.
I've posted here before about the way Cosby's stand-up comedy impacted me when I was a child, how it helped form some of the way I use language, which is (let's face it) a large component of what it is I do for a living, and even more, how I express every thought I have. I can't say I don't have some reflexive speech patterns that started when I first heard the man do comedy.
It's not the "America's dad" persona that is most destroyed for me. That was a period after I was an adult, when I could be more critical and had already formed my own personality. I'd seen the other iterations of Cosby before that. And he was one of those entertainers whose work I truly admired, a storyteller and observer with almost no peers at all. I thought Bill Cosby, if we were to meet, would understand me.
Now it would seem I, along with much of the culture, had misjudged him badly. Or that he was remarkably good at projecting an image that was completely contrary to his true character. If that is the case--and maybe even if it transpires that we never know for sure--the damage, on my side, has been done.
Much as I'd like to say that one can separate the art from the artist, I'm not sure I'll be able to listen to "Go-Karts" or "Track and Field" again the way I once could. To admire the way the comedy was constructed like a piece of music, the rhythm and the pitch of it. To immerse myself in the amazing speed with which the comedian could create characters and situations, switch back and forth from one to the other and have them pay off.
If what is being claimed is true, a number of truly awful crimes were committed by a person we thought we knew. It is perhaps that idea--that we thought we knew someone most of us had never met--that is especially hurtful right now. There's a strange trust between an artist and those who connect emotionally with the art. And when that bond is broken, the art can be broken, too.
Selfish as it is, I'll miss the Bill Cosby I once really admired. Too bad he probably wasn't real.
In her new book Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's "Learned", Lena Dunham includes a section entitled "17 Things I Learned from My Father."
Number 13: "Hitting a creative wall? Take a break from work to watch a procedural. They always solve the case, and so will you."
So that's why we read mysteries!
I'm serious. That might be why.
One night earlier this week, I pulled up to my garage door. It was late (for me) and dark. I was tired and just wanted to eat and go to bed. My husband spends two or three nights a week away, so all was quiet. And there in my headlights – a large carton with the “smiley arrow” of my least favorite retailer emblazoned on it. Aggravating enough to have to get out of the car in the cold and drag the carton inside; more aggravating because I don’t have the same happy reaction to receiving a package from this source as I do from Talbot’s or Land’s End.
The package was addressed to my husband, so I left it unopened in a prominent location. Even after all these years, we still respect the privacy of mail, packages, etc. But after all these years, I did feel free to get a little snarky when speaking to him on the phone: “Since when are we shopping on the dark side?” He disclaimed any contact with the despised source of the shipment, and technically, he had not crossed over. When the package was opened, it contained envelopes of an uncommon size which he had ordered from a small company. But guess who did the fulfillment and shipping?
This incident got me thinking about how this one large company has permeated every aspect of our lives, and how hard they are to avoid. In my shop I have daily reminders. Yesterday a customer asked if we had free Wi-Fi so that she could check her wish-list on A#%&* against my used-book prices. She was not consciously “showrooming” (identifying books she wanted or that I recommended to order elsewhere later), but doing what she considered to be normal comparison shopping. It never occurred to her that I might bristle (which action I carefully concealed) at the mention of the name. For her, and many others, the main retailer is A#%&*. She was astute enough, however, to realize that her chosen source is not always the cheapest despite what they would have you believe.
I have observed for a long while the use of the word “Kindle” as a synonym for “electronic reader.” In fact, I rarely hear “electronic reader” except from my own mouth. I can be reading on my iPad and have someone ask how I like reading on my “Kindle.” I was surprised to see in recent analyses of A#%&*’s business that they have about 60% of the e-book market; I would have thought it was higher. If the ordinary shopper, desiring an e-reader, searches on-line for “kindle,” they will have several models to choose from, but will also become a captive customer, since they will have only once source for books.
One company’s domination of a market to the point that they can set prices not only for customers who have no choice but for their suppliers who are equally without options is illegal; it’s called a monopoly. Whether A#%&*’s market power has reached that point is a subject of debate, and will sooner or later be resolved in the courts. While closing the doors of some competitors, they have opened doors to entrepreneurs and to authors that were not available before. And they have not succeeded in enmeshing themselves in every market they have entered. Witness the Fire Phone. Or their foray into publishing, where the refusal of independent booksellers to carry their books has actually kept authors away and contributed to the recent resignation of a high-profile editor of their “literary” imprint. But for the most part, it’s hard to avoid contact. Audible.com, Good Reads, now television; if you want the most common sources of entertainment or the easiest to access, they’ve bought it or created an alternative. I may be the last person in the country without a Prime account.
My resentment of the dominance of A#%&* in every aspect of our lives has recently been supplemented by another concern. The company does not seem to be profitable. Lynne Patrick wrote here a few weeks ago about the simple concept that any business needs to make enough money to pay its bills to continue operating, and needs to show a return on investment if it hopes to keep investors. (“It’s a mystery”) Although Lynne did not mention A#%&* by name, her post was closely timed to the quarterly earnings reports, which were coupled with the company’s own forecast of even greater losses in the fourth quarter. The response is that they are investing for the future. I, too, would like to take all my sales revenue and invest it in more inventory, technology upgrades, redecorating, and many other projects that would enhance future business. Unfortunately, the electric company, the book publishers, and many others would like to be paid for the products and services they have already supplied. I’m not sure how to work around that without bankruptcy.
What if my fantasy were to come true, and there was no more A#%&*? For me, it would probably have little impact. There would be an increase in sales which would be pleasant. But what about overall book sales? The publishers and authors would suffer. More chain and independent stores would surely appear, along with additional on-line retailers. But it would take some time. The manufacturer of oddly sized envelopes would have to find an alternative for fulfilling and shipping orders. Authors who have found a place to sell their work (even at 99 cents) and get some exposure would be back to trying to drive traffic to their own websites What about all the manufacturers and retailers, large and small, who rely on this one company as their prime outlet? Every area of commerce that has been overtly or covertly infiltrated by the overpowering retailer would suffer. Alternatives would spring up, but not overnight. There would be a big hit to this slowly recovering economy. So is Amazon (there, I said it!) too big to fail? Would they get a government bailout? I wonder.
by Erin Mitchell
My trip to Bouchercon was shorter than I had planned because of a death in the family, but despite missing the first couple of days, it included more than a few memorable moments. I’m going to limit myself here to talking about just two favorites.
On Saturday morning, I was honored to be part of the Bloody Murder: Voices from the Margin event. I’m calling it an “event” rather than a “panel” because it included 46 authors (plus me and Terri Bischoff) in a format that, to the best of my knowledge, was entirely new to Bouchercon.
I’m going to bypass a discussion of how this event came to happen (for the moment), and focus instead on what it was—and can be in future years.
While many of us attend Bouchercon for professional reasons, it is, always and above all else, a fan convention. A gathering of readers. A celebration of stories. It gives us the opportunity to discover new and new-to-us books and authors in the most dynamic ways possible. And it is exactly this that Bloody Murder: Voices from the Margin celebrated.
Each participant was asked to share an author whose work is less well-known than it could (should!) be or we might have forgotten. In this way, it touted the diversity and inclusion that is core to the crime fiction community we all love so much.
To say the room was electric does not adequately capture the excitement and enthusiasm present. Charlaine Harris and Sara Paretsky embraced their role as Fearless Leaders (click here to read Sara’s opening remarks) with gusto. There were cheers. There were laughs.
It was surely special.
I’m going to include the list of participants and recommendations at the end of this post, and I encourage you to check them out. I’ve already started doing exactly that. We could all do worse than to use this list for our holiday shopping.
I sincerely hope that this becomes an annual mainstay at Bouchercon. It would be a fantastic way to open the event, as the format and content would give attendees a quick introduction to a large group of authors, which would help them target their panel attendance. More importantly, though, it would set a tone for Bouchercon, reminding us that we, as readers, owe a great deal to an amazingly diverse group of storytellers, some of whom we have yet to discover.
Orchestrating the Bloody Murder: Voices from the Margin was an awesome feat that saw an ad-hoc team pull together in days what I would have easily expected to take weeks. In addition to Charlaine and Sara, here’s who you have to thank: Terri Bischoff, Lori Rader-Day, Catriona McPherson, Margery Flax, Dana Cameron, Clare O’Donohue, Jess Lourey, Jessie Chandler, and Jamie Freveletti.
Here’s a super photo of the event, by Kristopher Zgorski:
Saturday evening at the Anthony Awards, Judy Bobalik received the David Thompson Special Service Award, which “recognizes extraordinary efforts to develop and promote the mystery and crime fiction field.” I knew Judy was in the running (because the award is voted on by the Bcon board, of which I’m a member), but her winning was a surprise, and I couldn’t think of anyone more deserving. Judy has been involved with Bouchercon for years, and her support of authors, readers, and the community as a whole is unmatched.
Here’s Judy giving the World’s Shortest Acceptance Speech (she was really surprised!):
We’ve wrapped up Bouchercon for another year, and I’m hearing lots of folks making plans for Raleigh next year. So I’ll leave you with this: If you want to be considered for a panel, the registration deadline for Raleigh is May 1, 2015.
Kristi Belcamino: Sara Gran
Mark Billingham: Steve Mosby
Terri Bischoff: Barbara Neely
Allison Brennan: Deborah Coonts
Carla Buckley: Dennis Tafoya
Dana Cameron: Margaret Lawrence
Joelle Charbonneau: Tracy Kiely
Jessie Chandler: Amanda Kyle Williams
Hilary Davidson: Todd Robinson
Jamie Freveletti: Charlotte Carter
Jim Fusilli: Penelope Fitzgerald
Alison Gaylin: Lauren Sanders
Joel Goldman: Barbara Neely
Heather Graham: Harley Jane Kozak
Andrew Grant: Charles McCarry
Daniel Hale: Harry Hunsicker
Rachel Howzell Hall: Paula L Woods
Greg Herren: Sandra Scoppettone
Ted Hertel: Terrance Faherty
Naomi Hirahara: Hisaye Yamamoto
Linda Joffe Hull: John Galligan
Harley Jane Kozak: Georgette Heyer
Katia Lief: Sarah Weinman
Elizabeth Little: Steph Cha
Alex Marwood: Sarah Hilary
Clare O’Donohue: Wendy Lyn Watson aka Annie Knox
Karen E Olson: Mary-Ann Tirone Smith
Lynne Raimondo: Joseph Hansen
Hank Phillippi Ryan: Shannon Kirk
Daniel Stashower: Jan Marete Weiss
Wendy Corsi Staub: Tom Savage
Elaine Viets: Craig Rice, Jeffery Marks
Martyn Waites: Bill Loehfelm
Sarah Weinman: Jen Sacks
Jeri Westerson: Dorothy B Hughes
James Ziskin: Lynne Raimondo
My apologies for not posting last week. I was at Bouchercon and was so caught up in the festivities that I forgot to post. Or it might just be my old age.
I believe that tomorrow Erin will be posting on Bloody Murder, the ad hoc panel that a group of us threw together to celebrate writers on the margins - writers who haven't gotten the exposure or support they deserve. The event itself was amazing. I don't remember how many authors participated, but I know it was over 40. Overall a pretty fantastic event. We should shirts and raised $500 for WriteGirl. MWA graciously provided free Bloody Marys during the event. It sounds like an event like this may become a regular at Bouchercon. This situation was turned into a very positive event and I applaude Bouchercon 2014 and Ingrid Willis for their cooperation and efforts to make it happen.
And then a funny thing happened. Catriona McPherson won the Anthony Award for the Best Paperback Original. I was floored. Of course I loved the book. Catriona's writing is amazing. She absolutely deserved the award. And I can tell you, there are more of these in the pipeline - contemporary suspense stand alones. Two published and three more coming.
For me personally, I suddenly felt legit. Like many authors, I believe a lot of acquiring editors are filled with doubt about our talent. Let's face it, not every book or series we acquire becomes a best seller. Heck, most of us would settle for a good solid seller. We may be acquiring books that we feel are solid and deserve to be published, yet they fail in the marketplace. Winning an Anthony Award is one of those confidence builders that helps to heal the broken heart for those books that didn't commerically succeed. I have to say that I am extremely proud. Of Catriona. Of the Midnight Ink authors who attended the awards and were there to cheer Catriona on. Of the whole Midnight Ink family - our authors, our editors, our sales people, our publicity and marketing departments. Pubbing a book is a group effort. And we all should be basking in glory. I do have the best job in the world. Now if I can only figure out the magical formula to make all my babies succeed.
I am going to wrap this up with a link to the speech Ursula Le Guin made. She was honored for Lifetime Achievement by the National Book Awards. Here is a transcript. Take a quick peek. She is calling out publishers for acting as profiteers rather than creating art. Powerful words by a highly respected pioneer. It's a difficult balancing act - publishing the very best that comes across my desk, yet being constantly aware of the market and the chances for financial success. Ms. Le Guin certainly gives us in the industry something to think about.
Have a great rest of the week y'all.
They call it tartan noir. Somebody, quite possibly one of the authors I’m about to mention, suggested recently that crime fiction might be about to turn into Scotland’s third biggest export after whisky and wool. I’ll give you the whisky; my feeling is, though there are a lot of sheep in Scotland, it’s up there above wool.
For benefit of Dead Guy’s American followers, who are probably in the majority by a wide margin since there are so many more of you than of us: Val McDermid; Ian Rankin; Stuart McBride. And that’s just for starters. I’ve just googled Scottish crime writers, and found a list of sixty-one names. I don’t claim to have read, or even heard of, all of them, but a good half are on my to-read or to-read-more lists. Heck, I think I can even claim to have had a hand in discovering one of them.
A few of the others among the sixty-one write the kind of thing I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t enjoy – which doesn’t mean I don’t respect their work, just that they don’t write what I like to read. On which subject I’ll put the spade down and walk away from the hole.
So – today’s question is, what is it about Scotland? It has a population roughly a tenth the size of England’s. It’s hard to know if England can boast six hundred-plus crime writers, but the Crime Writers’ Association has just over that number of members – which, of course, includes Scottish, Welsh, overseas and associate members.
And membership is not compulsory; there could be any number of English crime writers who aren’t among the six hundred. so numbers prove nothing.
(While we’re talking statistics, though, my own homeland doesn’t seem to do well in the crime writing stakes. Population about sixty percent of Scotland’s, and only three authors come to mind; a quick google revealed more I wasn’t aware of, but not many.)
But numbers are irrelevant when it comes to quality – and if the ones I’ve read are any criterion, Scottish crime writers are up there with the best. The three I mentioned are arguably the top sellers, but not far behind, and with good cause, are Denise Mina, Christopher Brookmyre, Peter May, Alexander McCall Smith (though noir doesn’t exactly describe his work!). Then there are classics like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Josephine Tey. And my personal, but less well-known favourites, Louise Welsh, Gordon Ferris and T F Muir.
The list could go on and on; I don’t claim any special knowledge. I’m cherrypicking, and my idea of a sweet, juicy cherry might not chime with other people’s.
I asked why Scotland. Maybe it’s the unforgiving landscape, beautiful in its own stark way but not to be messed with: terrain that puts you in mind of cold-eyed psychopaths (cue loud protests from warm, generous Scottish people, of whom I’ve met many) and hidden dangers. Maybe it’s the long winters; they seem to get more than their share of the kind of blasting wind and rain that keeps you indoors, and the mountains had their first snow in early October.
Or maybe it’s the whisky.
Who knows? All I do know is that tartan noir has become something of a phenomenon here in the UK. It has its own annual convention, Bloody Scotland; and the term tartan noir is not my invention, but a recognized sub-genre.
Today’s supplementary question: aside from the New Jersey Crime Writing Brigade, is there an area of the US which could be said to equate to Bloody Scotland? Is there a specific group of authors I should be reading? Share with me, blog-followers, as I have shared with you.
No, as a matter of fact, I didn't go to Bouchercon but oddly, I will be in Long Beach, CA in a few weeks (read on) and visiting some friends I haven't seen in far too long. I did miss seeing dozens of people I'd have loved to see at the biggest mystery gathering on the planet, but there were other plans being planned and this trip couldn't be made financially reasonable. Hopefully next year on the East Coast, where I can theoretically drive.
Now on to business: I don't feel like a grizzled veteran just yet, but I realized recently that I've been involved with book publishing (as an author) for about 15 years now, given that's when I started writing my first novel, FOR WHOM THE MINIVAN ROLLS. And that sort of made me stop and think for a moment.
It's been a weird ride, a really enjoyable one, and I don't feel like we've even gotten far from the station yet, so there's plenty to go. And along the way I've met some people who will be friends for the rest of my life, I've heard from wonderful readers, I've been reviewed well and hilariously and I've been interviewed on radio and television, not to mention online.
But one thing I've never done has been a "book tour."
As you saw last week, the advantages (or dis-) of an author traveling from city to city and meeting with booksellers and readers (hopefully) can be a topic for debate. But I've never done one because publishers will generally not pay for an author to do so unless the author is a bestseller and can therefore afford to pay for it themselves. Keep in mind that the person who coined the phrase "Catch-22" was an author.
Still, I've always wanted to meet some of the booksellers I've contacted over the years and seen some of the stores other authors have told me about. So with the publication of INSPECTOR SPECTER a hair over two weeks away, I've decided that now is the time to hit the road.
But since I'm not a bestseller--at least not to that degree--I'm going on a short tour. There's only so much goodwill some authors can afford.
INSPECTOR SPECTER, the sixth Haunted Guesthouse mystery, will be published on Tuesday December 2. I have a class to teach on Thursday, December 4, so the "tour" will begin on Monday, December 8. And here's how it'll go:
Monday, December 8: Aunt Agatha's in Ann Arbor, MI (with our ex-DEAD GUY Robin Agnew!)
Tuesday, December 9: Murder by the Book in Houston, TX
Wednesday, December 10: The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, AZ
Thursday, December 11: I'm on the road. Literally. Plans are to fly to San Francisco and then make my way, via Los Angeles to:
Friday, December 12: Mystery Ink in Huntington Beach, CA.
Saturday, December 13: Mysterious Galaxy's holiday party in San Diego, CA.
So, five bookstores in five cities in six days. And if you work for a bookstore near San Francisco and would like to discuss an event on December 11, get in touch!
If you're in one of those areas and would like to say hi, please come on out! Keep in mind that I'm probably coming from a lot farther away than you are! And it's the readers and the booksellers who make these events special. So I'm hoping to see you there. Wherever "there" is.
Watching all the pictures of panels and partying popping up on Facebook for the last few days has made me wonder if I made the right decision in not attending Bouchercon this year. My reasons for forgoing one of my favorite events were timing considerations. I just returned from a trip to England and France a couple of weeks ago, and the mid-November scheduling of Bouchercon comes too close to the busy holiday shopping season, which seems to have begun already. Those organized individuals who are through their lists before the rest of us have made them are browsing the shelves and ordering the more esoteric items to be sure they have them in time. It’s not the cold snap here in the East that arrived just as Bouchercon began that prompted my second thoughts, but missing the fun and excitement of spending so much time with other mystery lovers. So with Josh and Jeff, I look forward to Raleigh next year. Terri and Erin, I hope you’re having a blast.
Speaking of envy (and I was), some recent posts from other Dead Guys, namely Josh and Terri, of the “day in the life of … “ variety have made me a bit jealous. The things they do, reading manuscripts, deciding what to accept, working with authors, marketing the work to others, holding meetings to plan schedules, and much more, are not necessarily things I would be at or even want to do. What I covet are the days that seem to be planned and organized. The blessing and the curse of a retail establishment is that one never knows what the day will bring. I have thought many times about writing here describing a typical day; it’s just that there really isn’t one.
A good day starts quietly; for the most part, there are few if any customers in the first hour or so after opening. I usually arrive an hour before opening time to do some paperwork or list the things that must get done (bills paid, orders placed, books displayed on release date). A bad start? A regular customer waiting in the parking lot because she can never remember what time I open, and, “As long as you’re here, can I just look around?” The distraction begins before I even get the lights on. I really can’t hide in my office while someone is in the shop, and it seems to be a pattern that one early shopper attracts others. One shouldn’t complain about buyers … but I’m thinking about reactivating the unused side door in the alley so I can sneak in to my own shop!
The daily stream of readers looking for their next pleasurable entertainment is the enjoyable part of my work. I love talking about books, finding out what a customer likes to read and making suggestions, and listening to their thoughts on their most recent reads. But there is another daily stream: those who want to solicit the shop owner’s time, money or space and know that the door is always open. So why not walk in? The local fundraiser is soliciting donations of money for ads in event booklets, or books for a “tricky tray.” At the least, could you put this poster in your window, and these flyers on your counter? Saying yes to all of these would solve my window decorating problem; it would look like a construction fence in the city, covered with ads. The counter would be unusable for actual business. Another self-published author wants just a little display space for his masterpiece and a consignment arrangement. The planner for the next town-wide event wants to discuss your participation. The publisher’s sales rep just happened to be in the area and decides to drop in. As does the salesperson with the latest great deal on credit card processing. And the lady with hand-made greeting cards that are sure to be a big seller if you carried them. None of these people call ahead; they know it’s much easier to say no on the telephone. The shop owner will always have a smile and listen, at least up to a certain point.
The telephone may no longer be the favored means of communication among friends and family, but it hasn’t lost its luster for sales solicitors. For every call from a customer asking to have a book held, or ordered, there are at least five offering small business loans or more credit card processing or another opportunity to enhance my on-line presence. Fortunately, more and more of these are recordings, making it easier to hang up quickly. I’m still not sure what the friendly female voice from Google that I hear at least once a week really wants. I find it hard to be rude to a real person, so it takes a little longer to say no. Someone suggested when I mentioned this in an earlier post that I make use of the caller-id feature. The problem is that an unknown or blocked number doesn’t mean it’s not a customer, who will go elsewhere if there is no answer. There are even legitimate calls from far away area codes, people who would like a book shipped to them. And the solicitors are very clever at disguising their identities.
It’s the nature of a retail business for the proprietor and the staff to be constantly available during business hours. We look forward to the “interruptions” that involve finding a specific book, or suggesting others, or hearing about what customer just loved. Sometimes these involve a reordering of the day’s plans; the book order for Wednesday needs to go in Monday because a book has been promised for Tuesday. The mid-afternoon lull that allows for some shelf reorganizing or unpacking the carton of new books doesn’t always materialize. Frequently, the day ends with many additions to the to-do list and few, if any, deletions. The days when there is help in the shop are a bit better, since someone else can field the phone calls; I’ve been known to tell Dani “I’m not here” when things are too far behind; the solicitors always want to talk to the owner. Unfortunately, the days I have help are ones I also need to attend to personal business, or I have to reveal my presence. Not all my work is in the office. I’m looking forward to the winter months when the shop schedule goes from seven to five days a week. I miss the interaction, but I can legitimately ignore the phone and doorbell and finish at least one item I’ve started.
I know my envy of my fellow bloggers who seem to have more organized schedules is probably misplaced. No job is without interruptions, unplanned events, and reordering of priorities on the fly. And I’m fortunate that many of my daily interactions are pleasurable: after all, they’re with book lovers. But sometimes I wish I could really know what the next day will be like.
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:
ONA SIMAITE (1899-1970), Lithuania
Ona Simaite, a librarian at Vilna University, used her position to aid and rescue Jews in the Vilna ghetto. Entering the ghetto under the pretext of recovering library books from Jewish university students, she smuggled in food and other provisions and smuggled out literary and historical documents. In 1944, the Nazis arrested and tortured Simaite. She was then deported to Dachau and later transferred to a concentration camp in southern France. She remained in France following her liberation.
Photo credit: Yad Vashem photo archives.
The thing I like most about crime novels is the way right always triumphs in the end. It kind of helps you believe that the world isn’t such a bad place after all – that it’s possible for the bad guys to get what they deserve despite the wealth of evidence to the contrary out there in the real world.
I’ve just finished reading one of those novels in which right triumphs over the legal system because a cop is willing to bend the rules to make sure of the right result. And the other night I watched a cop show on TV in which someone was found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit, but no one really minded because they knew he’d committed plenty of others without being caught.
And so was launched a train of thought. Apologies in advance if this gets a bit heavy; it’s the way I’m feeling today.
Is there really any clear definition of right and wrong? How helpful is any legal system when it comes to ensuring that right wins out? Are we all at the mercy of human nature with all its flaws and inconsistencies? And does crime fiction help us to understand any of it?
Let’s take the third question first. Human nature: is it just another way to describe self-interest? For instance, take the noisy, smelly, dirty, disruptive building site opposite my house, which used to be a peaceful stretch of green land where horses lived. The transformation has taken place courtesy of legislation formulated two hundred miles away by bureaucrats who have never visited this area or taken the trouble to acquaint themselves with a few salient facts, and despite the best efforts of several hundred people who live close by and have probably forgotten more about the area’s housing needs than those bureaucrats.
Emotive language, you’re thinking, and you’d be right; I do get pretty emotional about it, since I was at the centre of the fight to stop the building. But the other side of the coin, the bigger picture if you like, is the development company, who need to build and sell the houses in order to stay in business and do their bit towards regenerating the national economy – and, of course, to line the pockets of their shareholders, who also live a long way away. Whether it will work remains to be seen; houses still aren’t selling well, and these aren’t low-cost houses. But maybe best not to get me started on that; there are two sides to the coin after all.
There are always two sides to the coin, however dull and/or twisted one side may seem. The most hardened or sociopathic criminal operates according to his/her own internal logic. I had to kill her, says the serial murderer; the voices in my head told me to. Why shouldn’t we rob the old lady who carelessly leaves her door open while we lure her outside, ask the small-time villains; we have no jobs, nothing else to do. Of course I have to blow myself up and take fifty people with me, says the suicide bomber; I do it to destroy the infidels who don’t worship (insert name of deity who probably doesn't even require said worship) who everyone in the world should believe in.
Fortunately most people don’t think like that. At least, most of the people who pass through my life.
Let’s look at the other three questions. I suppose that when it comes to crime, we are at the mercy of the nature of a few humans; and there’s not much doubt that the law fails to do the right thing for all the people all the time, and sometimes just completely fails. But right and wrong? Who knows? I can think of a few people of my acquaintance who are absolutely convinced that what they believe about certain things is incontrovertibly right; and others who are absolutely convinced of something which contradicts them.
And crime fiction? I sometimes wonder if I should stop reading it; it fosters illusions, creates a fantasy world in which the good guys always come out on top, and it can be hard to come back to a reality in which ordinary people suffer through wars between two sets of bad guys, and smaller-fry bad guys rob old ladies of property laden with memories and are never caught because the police clear-up rates are more important and drunk drivers are easier to catch.
And then I think, no; I won’t stop. Those illusions aren’t really illusory: they’re reminders that good can triumph. Even if the rules have to be bent sometimes.
So I was looking through my Facebook feed this afternoon, and there are all manner of posts mocking me. THIS friend is packing short and tees for Long Beach. THIS one, already there, is posed in front of a film studio in LA. THAT one is saying where she will be at every moment of the next four days (not the bar. At least not ALL the time…).
And not me, this year. I’ll be getting ready for Child #2’s Bat Mitzvah, which is the Sunday following the end of the conference. I had no illusions. Last year, when we saw how the dates lined up, it was very clear that the HSG Client Bowl-o-rama against Team Decker would need to wait another year. I’ll miss you guys. Have fun talking about, thinking about, learning about, and listening to people talking about Crime Fiction.
First and most important: An absurdly happy 22nd birthday to one of the most interesting and wonderful people I know--my daughter Eve. Hope you have the best time anyone could possibly have today, Baby Girl. But you know the old man's going to be calling sometime today, so carve out a few minutes, won't you? We're never not proud of you.
Now, then. (Which is, let's face it, contradictory.):
Those who read this space regularly might have come to the conclusion by now that I am a know-it-all pain in the buttocks who thinks his opinion on every subject regarding the publishing of crime fiction is sacrosanct.
Others might have actually seen that I'm not all that confident, but you never know.
Either way, I'm lucky--and in this case, so are you--that over the years I've met a good number of other crime fiction authors, and have learned that many of them are really smart. So I've asked a few to chip in on a question (one that I've been struggling with, but more on that next week!) that has been a topic for debate among writers for a while now:
The Book Tour: Important Promotional Tool, or Outmoded Expensive Dinosaur
And here's what they had to say:
Chris Grabenstein (author of the John Ceepak/Danny Boyle mystery series, middle-grade books like Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library, and Treasure Hunters: Danger Down the Nile, with James Patterson): I think the Book Tour is still pretty important when you’re starting out, especially in the mystery genre. It’s a good chance to meet all the indie mystery booksellers and see the country, too. Love that drive from Houston to Phoenix. Next time I think I’ll fly.
In my new kids world, there is a new kind of book tour. It’s called “doing school visits.” Those are actually quite awesome-tastic, to quote a fifth grader. You put on three shows. The kids treat you like a rock star. And you sell a ton of books, usually at a discount, because the publishers and many bookstores offer very generous price cuts to schools. And, you get to drink chocolate milk at lunch.
Lorraine Bartlett (also Lorna Barrett, author of Victoria Square mysteries, Lotus Bay mysteries, and much, much more): Total and complete waste of time. Usually a book tour involved giving away books. People who hope to win aren't going to buy. If they don't win on this blog stop, they might on the next. If you do want to spend a LOT of time writing posts that won't sell any books, at least give away a prize other than a book. (People LOVE coffee mugs.) Virtual book tours are useless. Anything other than a stock signing is pretty useless these days. Unless you have a HUGE following, people have other entertainment options. It's been my experience that people don't go to bookstore signings. But ... these days I have much better luck at holiday craft shows. I sell copies of my own books, pay a table fee, and come home in the black. It's not a lot of fun, but after several years, people actually look for me. I don't do booksignings anymore.
Harley Jane Kozak (author of the Wollie Shelley mystery series and Keepers L.A. series from Harlequin Nocturne): I didn’t tour for my last book and so the last time I did tour was 2010, so I feel completely incompetent. My 2010 book came out as Doubleday was falling apart — oops; I mean restructuring — and so the hardcover turned to trade paper and the “tour” was minimal. My real tours were for the three earlier books, but that feels so long ago and far away I can barely recall. Plus, the stores that did my book launches are now long gone. Frankly, the world is so changing. I think it always helps, but I have no idea how much, and whether the cost of the tour is worth it. Does anyone know?
Renee Paley-Bain (co-author with Donald Bain and Jessica Fletcher of the Murder She Wrote novels): First of all, if the publisher isn't paying for the tour, forget it. You'll never make back in sales what you spend on travel. If you're less concerned about the money and more eager to market yourself and your books, then keep careful track of your expenses; they're tax deductible.
Just my opinion but in general signings are a tricky business.They can be grueling and embarrassing if too few people show up. BUT getting the chance to talk with store managers and sales personnel can do you a world of good if they like you and your books. In that case, they may hand-sell your books to their customers after you've gone on to your next stop. Make sure you sign all their stock before you leave so they can put a sticker on it saying "Autographed by Author." Bookstore managers usually like to get your bookmarks, too. The biggest plus happens if you can generate press interest. An article in the local newspaper or radio or TV interview in conjunction with your appearance may reap online sales as well as bookstore sales. And thanking the store on FB and/or your website will endear you to the store manager who worked so hard to host the event.
Thanks to my pals for contributing! (But now I'm confused--are you confused?)
My library recently acquired a copy of Harry Potter and Leopard Walk Up to Dragon, an unauthorized Harry Potter knockoff in Chinese with illustrations stolen from Disney and other sources. It may be of interest to Harry Potter fans, students of Chinese, and anyone interested in copyright and intellectual property; it may also be of interest to Tolkien fans, since in this novel Harry teams up with a wizard named Gandalf and goes after a magic ring and a dragon. Don't believe me? See this jaw-dropping excerpt.
Today I'm handing the mic to Stacey Cohran, author and chair of Bouchercon 2015 in Raleigh.
If you guys are anything like me, you get asked quite a bit: “How do you publish a book?” This question is usually posed by a wide-eyed and eager writer at a bookstore or library event or at a conference, and you’re standing there thinking to yourself, How do I respond to this in a meaningful way, perhaps even an inspiring way, yet also let this person know the odds are about as great as getting hit by lightning twice on a cloudless day and winning the lottery?
The standard response we all give is: You need to get a literary agent.
Where do you get a literary agent? the would-be writer asks.
You spend ten years sending out query letter after query letter, novel after novel, attend dozens if not hundreds of writers’ conferences, perhaps even chairing one of these said conferences yourself after you’ve been at it for fifteen years or more, and eventually someone at a hotel bar will say to his/her agent, You know you really should read this guy’s material.
No one wants to hear that.
Yet, it’s the path so many of us have taken to find our agents and then we pray to God the agent can sell a novel to a publisher, and then we pray to God the book finds a way to navigate the sea of other novels and eventually finds an audience.
So, leave it to the good folks at Amazon to try and reinvent the wheel. Once again.
What the hell is Kindle Scout? you ask.
It’s a brand new program whose sole purpose is for writers to upload unpublished novels, create a 30-day Kindle Scout page for their book, and then spend 30 days getting as many reader nominations for as possible.
At the end of the 30 days, the books with the most nominations will be offered a publishing contract. The contract offers a modest advance ($1,500) and standard Amazon imprint royalty rate (50% on ebooks) for a five-year period.
While it’s not the biggest advance in town, it certainly is the most democratic approach I’ve ever seen to deciding what to publish. Readers have a direct voice in nominating the books they want to see published. And, at least for now, the field of competition is small.
In another year? There will be thousands of books in this program, and the competition will be steep.
So the purpose for my visiting here today is simple: I need your nominations.
If you live in the US and have an Amazon account, you can follow the link and nominate the book in about three seconds.
I’d be grateful if you did.
I’ll stick around throughout the day to answer questions you have about the novel, about Kindle Scout, about book marketing, Bouchercon, or anything else you would like to chat about. Thanks, guys.
For me, the blues start in Fall, particularly right after we turn back the clock. For me, that means it's getting dark at 5pm. The lack of sun is a big downer for me. Thankfully, I have a few things to keep me going.
We just had Halloween which is a big deal at Llewellyn. Every department dresses up, decorates their rows, and brings food. Acquisitions dressed up as Saturday Night Live characters.
Here are some of the others:
Midday I left the Halloween festivities to road trip down to Milwaukee to attend Murder and Mayhem in Milwaukee. What a great event Jon and Ruth Jordan put together. There is only one track of panels, but that is the coolness of it. It creates an amazing sense of community.
And to cap it all off, next week is Bouchercon. Soon there will be official news about the response to the Men of Mystery fiasco. I think a lot of good is going to come of it. But regardless of that, I love going to Bouchercon. While I am an introvert and I like to hide from time to time, it's an incredible feeling to spend a long weekend surrounded by writers and readers. While it is physically exhausting, it also feeds the soul - well, mine anyway. If you can't make it to Bouchercon, I strongly suggest getting to a conference near you - Left Coast Crime, Malice Domestic, Magna Cum Murder, Murder and Mayhem in Milwaukee, Crime Bake, Sleuthfest... I am sure there are more that are escaping me at the moment, but go out and find one. You won't be disappointed!
Safe travels, all! Next week I will be blogging from Long Beach!
November 5th doesn’t have any great significance on the American calendar as far as I know, but here in the UK we’re already gearing up for a night (what am I talking about, a night? Make that a week, at least!) which strikes fear into the heart of any right-thinking professional firefighter: Guy Fawkes Night, Plot Night, or just Bonfire or Firework Night for those who don’t know the history. Whatever you call it, bonfire parties and firework displays abound, and some of it is sure to get out of control.
When I was a kid I suppose I enjoyed the treacle toffee and pretty colours as much as the next kid, and viewing the sunset pyrotechnic display at Disneyland from a safe distance some years ago was a memorable experience. But I’ve always been somewhat allergic to blazes and loud bangs (a hangover from a previous life, a friendly hypnotist once told me), so I’ll probably switch on the TV and turn up the volume on reruns of Cagney and Lacey, like every other year. And if that makes me a boring old killjoy, I don’t care. Each to her own, and I like Cagney and Lacey. It’s about people, so it doesn’t date, even if it features manual typewriters and bakelite phones that weigh ten pounds, instead of unreliable broadband connections and hi-tech gadgets designed to block out cold callers trying to sell me accident insurance or cavity wall insulation, like the one my husband is currently wrestling with.
But that’s a rant for another day. Today my thoughts have turned to... numbers.
Cue cries of Who are you, and what have you done with Lynne? But no, I haven’t been invaded by an alien entity. These are specific numbers, with a relevance that will become clear. First, though, just to prove this really is still me: on the familiar subject of putting commas in the right places and copy-editing manuscripts, let me issue a caveat to my last post. Copy-editors of the world, beware excessive enthusiasm in the comma department! I’ve almost finished a moderately amusing book which (literally) puts the magic into police work, and hallelujah, it had clearly been edited and properly proofread. Except... There were two places in which you might under some circumstances expect to find a comma, and indeed there the comma was – but unfortunately they were the wrong circumstances. Said comma changed the meaning of the phrase in each case, and the result was a meaning the author didn’t intend. Oh dear.
And so to numbers. Ten years ago I understood practically zilch about the different ways businesses operated; I don’t understand a great deal more now, but I do know that if a business doesn’t at least make as much money as it spends, it can’t pay its bills and soon reaches a stage at which it can no longer function as a business. And if a business is owned by a number of people who have invested in shares in it, those people expect to see some return on their investment, or they pull out; and if there’s no return on the shares on a regular basis, no one else wants to buy them, so... same result.
What I don’t understand is this: if a high-profile business consistently loses money, and announces this in a high-profile way at the end of every financial year, how can it afford to pay its shareholders enough of a return on their investment to keep them on board? Ergo, why do its shareholders keep on hanging on?
OK, I know my understanding of how business works is sketchy and basic at best, but to me this seems a pretty fundamental principle. So when a business tells the world year after year that it’s costing more to run it than it makes in revenue, yet continues not only to function but to thrive and expand, am I the only person in that world who wonders exactly what is going on?
Next week I'll talk about Bouchercon's Men of Mystery fiasco. But tonight, it's all about one thing: Whatever your political leaning, wherever you stand on economic or social or foreign policy issues, if you are a citizen of the United States it is your right to express yourself. This is meaningful, and can't be taken for granted. There are people around the world DYING to have this right in their countries. Complacency in this area is unconscionable.
What may emerge from this election is more gridlock, more partisan stonewalling, less concensus. It's a mess. But it's (largely--voter suppression efforts notwithstanding) our honest mess. And we need to live with it, and work toward our beautiful if nongrammatical more perfect union.
(Pay no attention to the photograph above. It's not their wedding picture, I'm relatively sure.)
Now on to business: Because Josh is a great agent, I had a little bit of extra money in the bank account. Not enough to go buy a new car or put a down payment on a mansion, but I didn't want those anyway. This was just a little extra. Enough after paying the bills (always a joy!) that I could indulge myself a tad.
So I went out looking for a guitar.
I have an excellent 12-string acoustic Takamine that my wife and children got me for a birthday that can't possibly be seven years in the past, and yet is. And I love that guitar. But every once in a while, you feel like playing something else, to get a different sound.
A few weeks ago, I joined my lovely wife in New Orleans for a few days after she had finished her work at a convention she was attending for her job. And strolling around while we were there, we'd wandered into a music store where a used six-string was on display at a very reasonable price. I sat down to play it and while I didn't fall in love, I certainly had a decent infatuation.
The problem was, by the time we added a case (you can't transport it without a case) and the cost of shipping back to New Jersey, it was no longer a very reasonable price for a pretty low-end guitar. So we passed it up--not really a big deal--and went to get some more beignets.
But it had put the idea into my head, so I figured I'd look around a bit.
Long story moderately shorter, I have been to all the music stores I know in the area. I've seen some nice guitars, many of which I couldn't afford no matter who my agent might be, and some that were affordable and knocking on the door of adequate.
But I haven't gotten an infatuation again. And I know why.
It's not the guitars' fault. No matter which brand name or model I try, the fact is that I'm not a very good musician. I can play all right as long as nobody's listening but me. I know a couple of tricks but my technique is certainly wanting, and 40 years of practicing bad technique have made it difficult to fix.
So I keep trying out guitars and I still sound like myself, which is disappointing. I'm sure that with some professional instruction I could improve my playing, and the day might come when I decide that's something I'd like to do. But a new instrument wasn't going to fix it.
It's the same with writing, to some extent. Each of us is born with whatever talents we're going to have. It's up to us to cultivate them and constantly strive to improve. But if we think that a new software program, a course from a "professional author" or an upgraded laptop is going to increase our talent level, we are seriously mistaken.
Yes, you can get better at writing. Practice doesn't make perfect, but it certainly does make better. But if you were meant to be a painter, no new gadget or online advice is going to make you a literary lion. You're already the writer you are. Practice and some instruction will make you the writer you're going to be. But if you're not a writer--someone who doesn't write just because s/he has to--there isn't a magic formula that will transform you.
Mel Brooks once wrote, "You may be Tolstoy--or Fannie Hurst." He did not suggest that if you're Fannie, you can become Tolstoy by getting a better pen.
I'll keep trying out guitars, though. And one of these days I'll come across one (probably used) that will have a sound I find pleasing when I play it. I just won't expect it to turn my into Eric Clapton.
That job is filled. My job is to be me.
P.S. I ended up getting a set of lighter-gauge strings. A definite improvement for less than $10.
In honor of Halloween, I present spooooooooooky x-ray images made by Colorado College professor Florian Cajori ca. 1896. These are probably the first x-ray images west of the Mississippi.
What you're seeing are a spooooooooky hand, a spoooooooky rat, a spooooooky bird wing, a spooooky foot in shoe, and a spoooooky pair of scissors. The hand and the foot belonged to CC professor Frank Loud. Colorado Springs photographer Horace S. Poley developed and printed the photographs and labeled them. He did not use any form of the word "spooky."
For more information, see: J. Juan Reid, "Florian Cajori: First X-ray Photographs in the West," Colorado College Bulletin, February 1982, pp.12-13.
When I hear friends, book group members, and customers talk about reading two, three, or even more books at one time, I have mixed emotions. Part of me is envious of people who can keep track of that many story lines, fiction or nonfiction, and jump from one to the other. Part of me wonders if they are really getting the full reading experience from any of the books.
When I read, I want to be transported to the world the book evokes. Whether it’s current day Minneapolis with John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport or 18th century Russia in Robert K. Massie’s biography of Catherine the Great, I want to be there, in spirit if not in body. If the book doesn’t take me out of my current milieu, it’s time to find another one. It’s hard enough to transition back to reality from one book; it seems to me that multiple transitions would be more than my feeble frame could take.
My recent holiday in the UK and France created a dilemma for this “one at a time” reader. Determined to lighten up on the packing, I not only took half as much clothing as usual (and what I took was more than adequate), but limited the books. I had my iPad, on which there were several novels I hadn’t gotten to, and, of course, the ability to access pretty much anything else I wanted. So I took an “airplane” thriller for the trip over, and two other more serious mysteries, thinking that I would be deep enough into one of them for it to suffice for the return trip. (Of course, I also had The Question of the Missing Head, a gift for my son, who also gets whatever I have finished reading during my visit.) Alas, I finished Gene Kerrigan’s The Midnight Choir (excellent!) just at the end of our stay. The Chatelet Apprentice, by Jean-Francois Parot, the first in a series set in 18th century France, looked like it was going to take a bit more concentration in the early chapters than this terrified flyer would be able to muster under stress.
I didn’t want to use my iPad on takeoff, when I need to be completely absorbed in something besides knowing that I am going to die momentarily. It seemed like the hassle of explaining or demonstrating that I was in “airplane mode,” even if that was allowed, was not worth the aggravation. I decided that the purchase of an “airplane book,” surely available at Heathrow, was the best bet. I still had the problem of what to begin reading in the meantime; I am not complete without a book in progress. I started reading Megan Abbott’s Dare Me in electronic form, thinking I would finish it first after returning home and then complete whatever thriller I had chosen for distraction. Not really reading two books at once.
My airport shopping was successful. The latest Reacher novel by Lee Child is available in paperback in the UK! However, I find that I am now reading two books at once, a new experience, and actually quite easy. Dare Me has turned out to be an intense emotional experience, and one that I need to undergo in small pieces. I find it compelling, and keep returning to it with anticipation, but the relationships among the teenage girls and their cheerleading coach are more twisted than any adult relationships I’ve known. In fact, these are pretty much the kind of people I stay away from in the real world. Reading about them feels like voyeurism, and I can’t stay away from the fictional embodiments. And then I have to for a bit. Watching the train wreck approaching makes me close my eyes.
I switch back to more comfortable fare. Reacher’s adventures are certainly scary, but I have emotional detachment. This type of books offers me respite from daily drudgery, problems and worries. And there is no problem keeping these two fictional worlds separate. In the future, when I find myself struggling with an emotionally charged book, I will try reading some less powerful material at the same time. I can have the intensity in the small bites I can handle, and the escape when I need it.
This experience has given me some insight into why people read multiple books at the same time. I am sure there are other reasons. What about you? Do you read more than one book at a time? And why?