Raymond Chandler famously praised Dashiell Hammett: “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare, and tropical fish.” Two pages into a Charlie Stella crime novel (like his latest, Tommy Red) and you can’t help but feel it: he gives murder back to the people whose lives involve murder, not the teenage models who play cops and crooks on television. And no one does street talk like Stella. He’s George Higgins. Let’s hear him in action:
Gresham: By this point there’s a sort of national myth of the mafia, an army of guys in the same gorgeous suits, all-knowing, all-powerful, and even kind of noble. On TV they arrive in a fleet of black Cadillacs and the show is over. Your books move in and around the world of organized crime, but your depiction is of a rougher, more casual group. What’s your reaction when you see slick stereotyped mobsters?
Stella: I don’t see them anymore. There was a time the big shots dressed that way. I’m talking very higher ups. Captains and above, although I guess some wiseguys (soldiers) did if they were into it and had the scratch. The guys I knew weren’t. Formal ceremonies, yeah, but walking around all duded up? Those were the very high ups, the ones didn’t have to get their hands dirty anymore. Even those, however, traded in the Cadillacs for the foreign models. They spoke a great game of patriotism, believe it or not, and most were rightwing patriots clueless about politics in general, but then they bought Italian suits and drove foreign luxury cars.
To be fair, I went through my Cadillac/sports jacket phase. The jacket was required on certain nights, even for associates. Used to drive my wife at the time nuts that I’d get dressed to go out with the boys but never with her.
Gresham: And the cops—in your novels, the cops aren’t far from the crooks. Instead of virtuous police force, a blue wall, these are guys with names and ex-wives and mortgages to pay….
Stella: Oh, there’s a blue wall all right … it’s just a blue wall of omerta. That politically correct 99%-of-all-cops-are-heroes bullshit is just that, bullshit. Cameras (from cellphones and otherwise) are starting to show the real story. You can knock that 99% down to 60-40, and depending on where you’re doing the research, the 60-40 can go back and forth as to what percent is dirty versus clean.
Gresham: Your latest, Tommy Red, is a lean machine, at just over 160 pages. You mention that you cut it down….
Stella: It was YUUUUUUUUUUUUUUGE before a friend read it and said, “What the fuck, man?” Yeah, I usually overwrite, but with Tommy Red I’d started it back in the MFA program (Star Island) and went in and out of it over and over … once Gavin Borden (the friend) told me it was too much (it was making him dizzy), I cut it down to size.
Gresham: You’ve been at this for a while. What have you learned, as far as approaching a novel? How do you it differently than when you started?
Stella: Patience. Can’t be enough said for it. I was kind of turned off to writing crime novels the last few years and have engaged in several other projects, including the non-fiction Dogfella, but then immediately after Tommy Red came out I started a new crime novel that isn’t mob related. It is dirty cop related and I’ve written half of it since the end of April. Whether it comes to fruition or not is no longer an anxiety issue for me. I used to think I had to pump out one a year. I’m gonna be sixty and I enjoy reading as much as writing, so … it’s all patience and an acceptance that this writing stuff isn’t going to be my ticket to financial paradise. I made a lot more money on the street than I do from writing and working. A lot more, but I never minded working for a living and writing keeps me out of trouble. You learn patience over time, I guess.
Gresham: How about navigating the publishing world? Any advice? Lessons learned?
Stella: I’m probably not the right guy to ask about the publishing world, although I’m very happy where I am now. Stark House came through a very nice guy and terrific writer, Ed Gorman. I’d gone to battle with my prior publisher and just didn’t give a fuck if I had to start over. Turns out I didn’t, but that was all Ed. He recommended me to Stark House and Johnny Porno wound up being their first original crime novel.
I don’t do well with authority figures. I don’t do well with fraternities either. I dropped out of the MWA a long time ago and I don’t buy into the ass kissing most businesses require. I write books. That’s the deal I made with myself. I’m fortunate to have a publisher I trust, and I don’t think or care about the politics within the business. My agent does the right thing by me, especially in Europe, and my first six novels I retain rights to bring in some change with ebooks. The best advice I can give is get ahead of the publicity thing as best you can (something I’m not good at) and understand that there’s leg work involved in hawking books. Sometimes it’s pleasant and sometime it isn’t. Mostly it’s good, but be prepared for people who’ve had a bad day … or just assholes who assume they can treat every author like a used car salesman. I told one to go fuck themselves when they assumed I’d eat their condescending sarcasm bullshit. Should’ve seen the look in their face when I showed up to that convention. “Oh, you’re Charlie Stella.” “Fuckin-A, I am.”
Those are probably important, too, the Bouchercons and Thrillerfests, and whatever they call them now. I don’t go to them because the few I did attend reminded me of frat rush parties and I’m still a GDI, but they are essential to networking, I guess.
Gresham: You write about violent men. I’m thinking of Tommy in Tommy Red, or Washington Stewart, one of the leading man in Rough-Riders, or…well, it’s quite a list. When you’ve spent the morning inside the heads of some of these guys, do you ever find that it takes you a while to come out?
Stella: Never. Movies still influence me that way, but not writing. I’ll watch a movie I like, The Drop, for instance, with Tom Hardy playing Bob Saginowski, and I immediately want to write. In that case it wasn’t the character that stayed in my head, it was the memories of what goes on that makes me want to write. That was overblown fiction, make no mistake, especially as regards the take on Super Bowl Sunday (there wouldn’t be a dime in cash that night), but just the atmosphere brings it all back (memories). The guys at the start sitting at the bar, the give and take with Gandolfini’s character, etc. That’s the stuff that stays in my head, but once I’m writing and stop, I usually want something to eat.
Gresham: Is it true you wear a purity ring? On your hand or on your toe? [Editor’s note: this is a joke about jewelry available to Bernie-Or-Bust believers.]
Stella: I’m a purity MF’er, yes, it’s true. I know what corruption does over the long haul, so I’ve turned to my version of Jesus, Bernie Sanders, at least until he endorses Lyin Crooked Hillary, but my fingers and toes are too fat for rings. I’m thinking of having one tattooed around my neck, but now that I’m pretty much turned off to the NFL and in love with the NHL, my next tattoo should probably cover my Buffalo Bills logo with a Lightning Bolt. A purity Lightning Bolt.
Seriously, wisenheimer (as I step on my soapbox), we as a society have become so used to government corruption, the likes of the two frontrunners is no longer a big enough concern for revolution (the nasty kind, never mind political revolution). That said, it’s why I didn’t choose to become a police officer back in the day, because I more than likely would’ve started out like so many of those poor bastards, with a sense of moral justice and self-righteousness (purity?) and wound up a dirty cop for any number of reasons. I’m currently reading Kill Anything That Moves about the countless untold My Lai massacres during the Vietnam War, and it is a sobering reminder of how and why some of the violent shit perpetrated by law enforcement occurs. That blue wall mentality is no different than what is taught in the military. Perhaps necessarily so, but the results those mindsets yield are often tragic. How can we blame anybody when we allow the people running the show to be hardcore corrupt pieces of shit? I’m all for Bernie’s political revolution, but I’m thinking we’re headed for a much more physical one a lot sooner than we might want to believe. At some point, the toys (video games, reality TV shows, cable series loaded with T&A, the free porn, the heroin, etc., all the distractions that are American exceptionalism—sarcasm intended) just aren’t going to quell the storm. Eventually people will get bored with all the opiates and wake up.
So, yeah, to answer your question … I’m a former criminal turned purity MF’er … and you know what they say about former addicts, right? Biggest ball busters on the planet …
Charlie Stella's books:
Tommy Red (April, 2016) Stark House Press
Dogfella: How an Abandoned Dog Named Bruno Turned This Mobster's Life Around--A Memoir (May, 2015) Da Capo Press (Ghostwriter)
Rough Riders (July, 2012) Stark House Press
Johnny Porno (April, 2010) Stark House Press
Mafiya: A Novel of Crime (January, 2008) Pegasus
Shakedown: A Novel of Crime (June, 2006) Pegasus
Cheapskates: A Novel of Crime (March, 2005) Carroll & Graf
Charlie Opera: A Novel of Crime (December, 2003) Carroll & Graf
Jimmy Bench-Press: A Novel of Crime (December, 2002) Carroll & Graf
Eddie's World: A Novel of Crime (December, 2001) Carroll & Graf
(Note from Josh: 35 years ago, my cousin Glen took me to the Brendan Byrne Arena somewhere in the swamps of Jersey to see Bruce Springsteen in concert on his tour supporting The River. I had heard about the experience of a Springsteen concert--the energy, the ferver of the fans, the way Bruce left it all on stage. And I left the Meadowlands in awe. This winter and spring, Springsteen has been on the road again, now 67 years old, still playing The River--and so much more. When my son Joe, who's almost 17, was infuriated that my wife and I got tickets to a show without him, we figured out a way to get him a ticket to another concert. We went last night. Here's his report.)
You can only hope to make so many people happy and on such a large scale. On Monday night, I caught Bruce Springsteen on the final stop of his The River tour, in which he and the E Street Band played the entirety of the 1980 double album followed by an hour and a half of bonus goodies. I was accompanied by my dad and some friends from our synagogue who were courteous enough to invite us. Barclays Center was packed to the gills with men and women of all ages (including Chris Christie, apparently), setting an attendance record for the venue. Aside from The River, it was nothing but crowd-pleasing classics and covers. Aside from the ones from The River, there were no bummer tracks to be found - nothing from The Rising, no “Born in the U.S.A.” The Boss came to please, and boy did he.
Before I proceed with the review itself, let me just add that this was something of a coming-of-age experience for me. It felt almost ceremonial having my father take me: he was a Bruce Springsteen fan years before I was even born, and he was ready to make sure this budding music enthusiast could share in that experience with him. Getting to discuss music with Dad has helped us bond a lot, so getting to share music with as big a venue as this was an experience I’ll never forget.
In short, this was a classic rock fan’s dream come true. Nothing but the hits - “Born to Run,” “Rosalita,” “Thunder Road,” “10th Avenue Freeze-Out,” and lord knows how many others. There were moments of Bruce grabbing his sidemen by the shoulders and having them belt into the microphone with him. He thrust the mic into the crowd, knowing full well that he’d be greeted with a thousand voices knowing each song by heart. Crowd-surfing! Selfie-taking! Covers of The Isley Brothers and John Lee Hooker! Even a transcendent Purple Rain. Inviting fans onstage to dance and sing along. If he was tired, he didn’t show it: it was his last U.S. tour stop and he aimed to please.
Truth be told, I only heard The River for the first time right before the show. In his opening remarks, Bruce said it was his attempt at being more mature and introspective following his grittier early records - an album encompassing a thousand emotions and styles at once. Honestly, hearing it live helped me appreciate this a lot more than I did just listening to it. His melody skills evolved, incorporating his earlier Phil Spector-influenced sound while also taking some clear influence from the changing musical trends at the time (Songs like “I’m a Rocker” or “You Can Look [But You Better Not Touch]” would fit in well with the slowly emerging garage rock of the ‘80s). Certainly, it’s got a pretty wide range of styles: slow ballads (“Independence Day”), down-home honky-tonk (“Cadillac Ranch”), gospel (“Fade Away”), and, of course, the tales of troubadours in love/dealing with life that are so very Bruce Springsteen (“The Ties That Bind, “Jackson Cage”). Not every song is created equal - the slower ones tend to drag (note from Josh: One day you'll like them more...)- but with the way the Barclays crowd shouted along with all of them, you’d figure every they were all standards by now.
Bruce just feels like a guy who's so happy to be doing what he’s doing. For the roughly three and a half hours of non-stop performing, he always had a huge grin on his face, playing his tracks with gusto and palling around with the band and the audience. One especially adorable moment came when, during the requests, he brought up a 10-year-old girl whose sign declared she knew every word to “Blinded by the Light” and put her to the test. Everyone sang along and cheered in encouragement, and it was capped off with her getting her poster signed and the Boss admitting she knew the words better than him. After a while, it felt less like a concert and more like a family reunion. All of us were united by a love for Bruce and his music, so whether we came from New York or New Jersey or Mars, we all shouted along and screamed our lungs out because you can only experience something like this once in a while. He’s a Kennedy Center Honoree and inductee into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, but most importantly, Bruce Springsteen is a happy, nice guy who wants to put on a show for us. As long as he has that ability, I say we let him and I hope you can all have an experience like this (with Bruce or otherwise) at some point in your life. Sometimes, the idols are idols for a reason.
 For he is Bruce (or The Boss), not Springsteen. Doesn’t matter if you’ve met him or not; it feels like he’s on a first-name basis with everybody.
Some years ago, I knew a woman with an epic obsession---literally. She was obsessed with a particular epic work of storytelling. Since this digital age is prone to public humiliation and the actual title of her obsession does not matter much, I’m going to call it Star Wars.
It was remarkable: All conversations with this woman---whether they began with talk about politics, the weather, or what kind of pizza to order---could only wind up at one destination: Star Wars. Improbable, but true. It wasn’t long before I was snickering behind her back, referring to her as “Star Wars Woman,” and avoiding her like the plague.
Star Wars Woman was intent on drawing other people into her obsession, no matter what the damage to those relationships. Had she been able to kill every remark, idea, or situation that could not be turned into a pertinent allusion, she would have done it. Those who came right out and told her that she was being insufferable were met with a knowing look and a reference to the forces of evil. Those who tried to ignore her were hunted down and accosted. Star Wars Woman was at heart a fundamentalist, by which I mean a person who is angered by the mystery of other people.
Other people are mysteries indeed. They refuse to be reformed on our terms; they refuse to share our obsessions; they refuse to fall in love with us or Go the F--- to Sleep or do their homework or follow us on Twitter. Billions of people, this very minute, are busy being their mysterious selves in an already mysterious universe. Intolerable and wondrous.
It seems to me that detective novels are a creative means of dealing with the anxiety that the presence of mystery among us evokes. We all know the story of the typical detective novel. A crime has been committed and we want to know whodunit. There is pleasure, often humor, in the process of figuring out whodunit, but there is also a certain urgency, because while the person or persons go unidentified, the innocent remain at risk. In fact, additional crimes do usually happen and the clues pile up. Then, at last, the guilty party is caught. We can shut the book and (one hopes) go the f---to sleep.
This story captivates us because we live it every day. We live in a world which is beautiful and good, but also a place where evil lurks. We want to know why. We bring the perpetrators of crimes to justice and there is satisfaction, a “sense of closure,” in seeing justice done. Wrongdoing, though, continues to happen; there are always more criminals where the convict came from. Something deeper is at work. We look to our heroes to fight that “something” and to help us fight it too.
The heroes and heroines of the detective novel come in all shapes and sizes. He may be an English lord with a fondness for poetry. She may be a frumpy little old lady of whom nobody thinks very much. They may be hard-bitten types, good-hearted Cops with a Theory Nobody Believes In, or a middle-schooler named Turtle who knows which way the wind is blowing. They come in all shapes and sizes, these heroes and heroines, like all of humanity, like us, and yet they are set apart because they have a special job to do. That job is to struggle with mystery and yet emerge whole.
I’m fascinated by people like that. Quite often, I find them reading, writing, and starring in stories. What about you?
Paula: Before we get to your Klepto Cat Mystery series, let’s talk about how you began writing. When did you first become addicted? (Knowing you, I’d say that’s an appropriate word for your love of the writing process.)
Patricia: Yes, I guess you could say I’m addicted to the process of writing. It all started when I married young and began a family. We didn’t have the means to buy gifts for birthdays and holidays, so I made cards. Everyone seemed to like the personal verses I wrote inside and I realized that I enjoyed writing them. As my three daughters got older, I began writing stories for them. And I became an avid letter-writer. Heck, I even enjoyed making lists, if it involved the writing process. When my children were quite young—so was I—and with the feedback and encouragement from others, I decided, “I’m going to become a writer when I grow up.”
Paula: How/where did you learn your craft?
Patricia: While busy with diapers and formula, then elementary school activities with my children, I studied. I decided early on that I wanted to write articles for magazines. I was fascinated by all the different ways you could write on the same topic—the various tones and styles you could take with a piece—and I read the magazines I wanted to write for. I subscribed to writers magazines and read them from cover to cover each month. I also took a couple of creative writing classes. And, of course, I wrote every chance I got—practice, practice, practice.
Paula: What made you persevere through the initial rejections?
Patricia: Actually, I didn’t experience initial rejections. Oh, I’ve received many rejections over the years—but not initially, because I’d done my homework. I knew the importance of writing what you know and knowing the publication you want to write for. For me, it was horses. When I started branching out to write about business, relationship, and family issues; cats, spiritual matters and so forth, I tried not to take the rejections personally. A rejection doesn’t necessarily mean the idea or the article is a bad one. Often, it means, “we just published something similar,” “this isn’t a topic we’re interested in at this time,” “we call on experts to prepare articles on this subject,” etc.
Paula: What was your first published article about and where was it published? Do you remember how much your first check was?
Patricia: My first article appeared in Horse and Horseman Magazine in 1975. At the time, my girls were in junior high school and our family was involved in horses. We did a lot of trail riding and supported the girls in horse shows. This article featured some of the things you can do with all those horseshow ribbons you collect. They paid me $175 for the article and the cover photo. As I said, I’d done my homework. We subscribed to several horse-related magazines, so I knew what sort of pieces they used. I also knew the submission procedures and followed them. The first several articles I wrote sold, as did the first book I wrote, which was, Hints for the Backyard Rider. I was on my way!!!
Paula: During your long career, what was the most challenging genre?
Patricia: Nonfiction came very easy for me. I’m a give-me-the-facts kind of writer and managed the how-to, informational piece, self-help, profile article, etc. easily. I’ve had to stretch some since I decided to write fiction.
Paula: At what point in your article-writing career did you produce a book—what motivated you to explore other possibilities in the publishing world?
Patricia: My first book was published by A.S. Barnes in 1978. I established my own publishing company, Matilija Press, in 1983 to produce my second book—The Ojai Valley: An Illustrated History. Ten years later, I began writing and publishing more books through Matilija Press—sometimes two at a time. Most of my subsequent books are for authors—some published through my own publishing company—the most recent ones, however, are published by Allworth Press. I was among the first professionals to produce books on the business side of writing—how to publish, book promotion, how to write a book proposal and so forth. Soon my career took a sharp turn. My articles for authors were in demand and I was traveling all over the US speaking at conferences and writers club meetings.
Paula: And then your career took another turn. After years of writing only nonfiction, you started writing fiction. When was that and what prompted this major shift?
Patricia: It was my birthday in 2012. I’d hit retirement age—according to some standards. I was becoming a little burned out on the work I was currently doing and I decided to give myself a unique gift—the space and time to try writing fiction. I pushed everything else aside and sat down at the computer hoping for an inspiration. That very day, the Klepto Cat Mystery series was born.
Paula: Although you’re an avid cat lover, what triggered the idea of writing about a cat who becomes a detective and now has a number of solved mysteries under his collar?
Patricia: I knew I wanted to write light mysteries—now called cozy mysteries. I was pretty sure my stories would involve a cat. I have a cat who carries things around in her mouth—her toys, my socks, even paper money. My mother has a cat who is super confident and seems to have a great sense of humor. I decided to combine the traits and purrsonality of these two cats, plus several others I’ve known, and create a cat character who steals things that sometimes turn out to be clues in the current crime. Ragsdale (Rags) is clever and creative, but he doesn’t talk. There are no talking cats in my stories. He’s an ordinary cat with a few extraordinary habits. He can’t keep his paws off other people’s things.
Paula: Do you struggle to come up with storylines?
Patricia: No, and that surprises me. Once I’ve finished a story—there are currently 13 books in the series—I sit down to start the next, not knowing what will happen, and before I know it, I’m deep into another plot involving Rags and his animal and human friends.
Paula: Tell us about your latest book.
Patricia: A Picture-Purrfect Christmas is a feel-good holiday story featuring Rags at his purrsonal best as he strives to save a little girl so she can experience the joy of Christmas for the very first time.
Patricia Fry is the author of 54 books, including the Klepto Cat Mystery series.
Paula Spellman is the author of the soon-to-be-released Write Through It: Finding the Pinpoints of Light in Depression and also a lighthearted series called Big Adventures in Little Books chronicling her life adventures.
I had a long night ahead of me. At a few minutes past six, I opened the Manhattan phone book and located three department stores within a ten-block radius, wondering why we call it a radius when blocks are rectangular and not circular. I jotted down the numbers, then made three separate calls to directory assistance to confirm them. I called the first number, letting it ring two hundred times to verify my hunch that the store had closed at six.
I called the second number, and a woman answered on the fourth ring. She was slender but shapely, with hair that fell in curls around her ears and a mouth that gave me the information I needed. I ended the call, and within fifteen minutes I was in a cab heading uptown. I left the cab at 86th Street, then caught a downtown bus and rode it as far as Penn Station. I hopped on a commuter train to Newark Airport, whence I flew to Boston. From Boston I walked nine thousand blocks southwest to New Haven, where I picked the unlocked door of the Amtrak station just for the thrill of it, before boarding the next train back to New York. By eight forty-five I was in the department store, where I bought three polo shirts in the same color. I discarded one of them in a trash can on 49th Street before taking a cab back to my building. This way if an APB went out for a man with three recently purchased polo shirts, the cab driver would only remember a guy with two. Ideally, I would have taken the receipt for the three shirts to a forger I know in Times Square who could convincingly doctor a “3” to a “2,” but my travels had eaten up a fair amount of time, and we can’t have everything.
The next phase of my preparations involved a tiny pair of scissors that I keep in my medicine chest. They’re designed for trimming nostril hairs, but since I’ve never heard of anybody clearing fifty grand a night trimming nostril hairs, I use them in a different way.
I walked into the living room and selected a particular box from my shelf of classic movies on VHS. The box purports to contain Million Dollar Legs—the W. C. Fields Million Dollar Legs, not the Betty Grable film of the same name—but in fact it contains neither because I somehow misplaced the video tape years ago. I worry that if it ever turns up, it will throw my entire system off. I removed the actual contents of the Million Dollar Legs box—a pair of brand new, extra-thin surgical gloves in blister pack—and returned the empty box to its place on the shelf between Hellzapoppin’ and A Night at the Opera.
The outer edge of the blister pack was a three-millimeter layer of DuPont consumer-grade plastic. Hardly a challenge for a seasoned professional who is expert in the use of nostril-hair scissors. It yielded to my seductive overtures in less time than it takes to tell it, especially with my going into so much detail about the manufacturer’s specifications.
The middle layer of the blister pack presented more of a hurdle, and it took me and my nostril scissors close to seven and a half minutes of delicate negotiations to wheedle the finely textured Armani plastic into complicity. A sensual shiver ran through me when I finally heard the characteristic glick of the Armani giving way.
The final layer was child’s play: prewashed General Mills cereal cardboard. I didn’t even bother with the scissors.
I slipped the gloves out of the package, then wiped my apartment, Penn Station, and the train tracks to New Haven clean of fingerprints. My prints might still be identified in Boston or Newark, but so what? The police would lose the trail before tracing them back to me. Then I picked up my trusty nostril scissors, wiped them clear of prints, picked them up again, and carefully cut the pinkie out of the right surgical glove. I snapped the gloves on, made myself a cup of tea, and drank it at my kitchen table, extending my pinkie through the hole I’d prepared.
I made eight phone calls and recorded the results in a three-subject spiral notebook bearing the NYU seal, which I then threw in the incinerator. The pencil went down the garbage disposal, and the eraser into the grease trap. Then I picked up the shopping bag containing the two remaining polo shirts and walked into my bedroom.
The woman in my bed looked familiar, but I told myself this was only because I’d met women like her in the earlier books. Her eyes were jade green. Her hair was burnt Sienna, and I was feeling rather warm myself. I can’t tell you what clothes she was wearing, because she wasn’t.
“Oh,” I said.
“Oh,” she said.
After considerably more time than I will take to tell it, I reluctantly left my bed, where she now slept the sleep of the sated. I made myself a cup of instant coffee and sat down once more at the kitchen table. Something had been nagging in the back of my mind all night, but I’d been unable to put my finger on it, not least because my fingers had been so happily engaged elsewhere over the past hour.
I reviewed all my activities of the evening, all my painstaking preparations and elaborate precautions.
Then it hit me.
I’d forgotten to actually plan any crime.
Jonathan Caws-Elwitt (www.jonathancaws-elwitt.com) writes farcical stage comedies and droll humor essays. His racy fiction, under the name Jeremy Edwards, includes The Pleasure Dial: An Erotocomedic Novel of Old-Time Radio.
Dead Bread, Killer Debutantes, and Peanut Butter Cups: Dishing with Debut Mystery Author Ann Myers
by Susan McBride
Susan: It’s funny to look back and realize I’ve been writing mysteries of one kind or another for 16 years, so I’m the grizzled veteran in this conversation. It definitely doesn’t feel like 11 years has gone by since Blue Blood came out, introducing my nutty mother-daughter duo of Andy and Cissy Kendricks to mystery readers. But it’s fun to be back with these characters after a brief (um, seven-year) hiatus, and it’s even more fun to get to chat with fellow HC/Avon author and true newbie Ann Myers about Bread of the Dead, the first of her new Santa Fe Café Mystery series. Not only do Ann and I share a publishing house, but we share a literary agent, and a pub date. Both Bread of the Dead and Say Yes to the Death have the same release date (September 29, 2015). I think we’re publishing twins separated at birth.
Susan: Okay, Ann, why mysteries? Did you feel the urge to kill somebody?
Ann: I’ve been driving around doing errands and pondering whether I want to kill. Almost definite answer: No, although I have wished for a blameless act of nature to take care of an obscenity-shouting former neighbor. My mother always says that she’d like to discover a body. Maybe I take after her in that. My main character stumbles on a lot of bodies, and I wouldn’t mind finding obscenity guy…. And you? You must have killed a lot of people in your books by now. What inspired the first one?
Susan: Ha! Yeah, I guess “a lot” is probably accurate, although committing fictional crime is very neat and clean. Heck, I scream when I see a spider (isn’t that what husbands are for?). In the beginning, there was Blue Blood, the first of my Deb Dropout series, in which I killed the owner of a restaurant called Jugs. I guess I’d gotten a little tired of hearing that guys went to places like that just for the chicken wings. (Um, not!) I find writing very cathartic! It’s my version of therapy.
Ann: I love that you killed off the owner of Jugs. Great therapy! As you say, clean and neat on paper and a lot less scary than spiders.
Susan: I’ll say! Tell me about Bread of the Dead and the inspiration behind your mystery debut?
Ann: Mmm…the inspiration behind Bread of the Dead… I knew I wanted to set a culinary mystery in Santa Fe, which I love and visit a lot for my husband’s work. I also love to bake, especially breads and holiday recipes. Pan de muerto (bread of the dead) has such a great name and is made for Day of the Dead—a perfect holiday for a mystery. It’s also really tasty, like a brioche you can shape in the form of a skull and coat in sugar.
I see there’s a baker in Say Yes to the Death (fabulous title!) and a dead wedding planner. I’m sure you don’t want to name names, but are there any real-life wedding stories behind this book?
Susan: Not sure about real-life stories—at least none that happened to me at my wedding, and I did all the planning so I’m glad no wedding planners were in jeopardy—but I had heard various tales about awful MOBs (mothers of the bride) from a good friend who is a wedding planner and also from watching reality shows about weddings (including “Say Yes to the Dress”—I love that one!). One I just had to use involved a bride getting stuck in a bathroom wearing a Scarlett O’Hara-inspired gown with hoops. Needless to say, I will not be acting that scene out at any book conventions.
So, who’s the protagonist of your new series? And is she anything like you?
Ann: Rita Lafitte is a Midwest transplant to Santa Fe, New Mexico. She’s a single mom to a teenager daughter, a chef at Tres Amigas Café, and a reluctant sleuth. I’m afraid we share some traits, like weaknesses for Frito pie and cookies, and neither of us can dance or stay on a diet. I, however, would never dare chase after killers.
Susan: I hear ya!
Ann: How did you come up with Andy Kendricks, the Debutante Dropout? Is she based on anyone in particular?
Susan: Andy was inspired by my time as a sorority pledge at UT-Austin. I was in the company of a lot of privileged young women from Texas who were debutantes-in-training. They would practice their Texas Dips—the nose-to-the-floor curtsy that Texas debs must learn to do—and I would feel like the “one of these things is not like the other” in the old Sesame Street song. I wanted to write about a girl who grew up with a silver spoon, but felt much more comfortable with stainless steel. Andy is the anti-debutante who refused to debut when she was eighteen, much to her mother’s dismay. Oh, yes, I gave her a dyed-in-the-wool Chanel-wearing blue blood mother just to balance things out. They are a fun pair to write about, and I think anyone with a daughter or a mother will relate. ;-)
What’s next for you, Ann? More of Rita?
Ann: I hope to continue with the Santa Fe Café Mysteries. I just finished book three of the series, Feliz Navidead, and have lots of mysteries (and recipes!) I’d love for Rita and her friends to tackle. And then there’s Rita’s developing relationship with hunky lawyer Jake Strong. She started off as a reluctant dater, but how can she resist a man with shiny cowboy boots?
Ann: I see you’re writing another River Road Mystery—yay! Is another Debutante Dropout in the works too?
Susan: I’m working on the fourth “Helen” book now (well, I’ve started it anyway!). It’s called Come Helen High Water and should be out next year. I haven’t thought about another Debutante Dropout book, but you never know. I’m just amazed still that Andy and Cissy are back in Say Yes to the Death after a seven-year vacation. This is one crazy business, full of twists and turns, kind of like the mysteries we like to write and read. Speaking of reading, what’s on the top of your TBR pile? Something scary?
Ann: Hamish Macbeth mysteries and a lot of them. I’m binge painting almost all the walls in our house and listening to Hamish audiobooks while I work. I’ve gotten so caught up with the series that I’m reading them on my Kindle too. It’s hot, sunny, and dry in Colorado right now and lovely to imagine Scottish fog and cold, bleak moors.
Susan: Cold and bleak makes me think of Halloween! So let’s jump to a very important question: Snickers bars or Reese's Peanut Butter Cups? Then I'll know whether or not to ring your doorbell and say, “Trick or treat!”
Ann: Ah, easy one: Peanut Butter Cups! Hands down. How about you?
Susan: I’m torn between two candies and feelin’ like a fool. (Seriously, I’m a Libra. I like to keep it balanced.) I always buy more than we’ll need of both to give away just so I can keep the leftovers. Are you dressing up to answer the door? Or do you turn off the porch light and hide until it's all over?
Ann: I shouldn’t admit this, having written a Halloween book: I hide! There are all sorts of rationales, like the years I’ve been home alone and worried about opening the door to potential ax murderers, or apartments with coded entries, but excuses aside, I’ll probably still hide. However, I might reconsider if it means I could stock up on those Peanut Butter Cups you mentioned…
Susan McBride is the USA Today bestselling, Lefty Award winning, Anthony Award nominated author of Blue Blood and the Debutante Dropout Mysteries from HarperCollins. Say Yes to the Death is the sixth in the series. Susan also writes the bestselling River Road Mysteries for HC/Avon, including To Helen Back, Mad as Helen, and Not A Chance in Helen. A fourth in that series, Come Helen High Water, will be out in 2016. Visit Susan's web site at susanmcbride.com or facebook.com/susanmcbridebooks for more scoop on Susan and her books.
Ann Myers lives in Colorado but, like her main character Rita, feels most at home in Santa Fe. Bread of the Dead is the first in her Santa Fe Café Mystery series, to be followed by more holiday murders in Cinco de Mayhem (spring 2016) and Feliz Navidead (fall 2016). Follow Ann’s Southwestern cooking and writing adventures at www.facebook.com/AnnMyers.writer and www.annmyersbooks.com/.
True crime author Harold Schechter recently sent me a copy of his new book, Man-Eater: The Life and Legend of an American Cannibal. (He'd done some of his research on Alfred/Alferd Packer at Colorado College Special Collections, where I'm curator.) I asked him if I could do a one-multipart-question interview with him for the blog, and he said yes. Enjoy!
Q: Do you read detective fiction? What do you think differentiates the crimes in detective fiction from the real-life crimes in your many books? In other words, what are mystery writers getting wrong, and what are they getting right?
A: I'm not a particularly big reader of detective fiction. Of course, I've read many of the standards, going back to Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin stories--and in fact, I've written a series of historical mysteries myself: NEVERMORE, THE HUM BUG, THE MASK OF RED DEATH, and TELL-TALE CORPSE, all featuring Poe as the detective/narrator. I've read all of Conan Doyle's Holmes stories, many of Agatha Christie's Poirots, the hard-boiled classics of Chandler and Hammett, and a smattering of Ellery Queens, John Dickson Carrs, Nero Wolfes--the usual suspects. But I can't say that I'm a devoted or even regular reader of detective fiction.
There are a number of major differences between detective fiction and the actual historical crimes I write about, the most obvious being that the latter are not typically mysteries in the traditional narrative sense: mind-teasing puzzles that can only be solved by the extraordinary mental abilities of a great detective--the "ratiocinative" brilliance of a Dupin or amazing "little gray cells" of a Poirot. The atrocities of Edward Gein, for example--the "real-life Norman Bates" who was the subject of my first true crime book, DEVIANT--were uncovered when he walked into the local hardware store, shot the proprietor in the head, and dragged her corpse outside to his waiting pickup truck, leaving behind a trail of blood and the empty shell casing. The local sheriffs figured out that Gein was the killer before the day was out. Robert Irwin, subject of my 2015 (and, I'm proud to say, Edgar-nominated) book, THE MAD SCULPTOR, was identified when police found his name in the diary of one of his victims. I'm sure I'm telling your readers nothing new when I say that most real-life cases are solved through seat-of-the-pants, often plodding detective work as opposed to the incandescent insights of a Sherlock Holmes-like mastermind. Though some of my books feature particularly heroic detectives, what often distinguishes them is not their extraordinary forensic brilliance but their relentless, often years-long pursuit of an elusive criminal.
If mystery writers create larger-than-life heroes, they also tend to create wildly implausible villains. The classic case, of course, is Hannibal Lecter. While I bow to no one in my admiration for Thomas Harris, Lecter is a purely mythic monster, who bears as much relation to a real serial killer as, say, Professor Moriarity does to the average mobster. Even contemporary detective stories that rely on a great deal of verisimilitude--Patricia Cornwell's books, for example--transform bleak, often sordid reality into heightened fantasy. That's exactly why we read it! (Whenever someone I know sees a movie and complains that he or she didn't like it because it wasn't "real," my answer is: "If you want reality, why go to the movies?" I guess I feel the same about popular detective fiction.)
Guest Post by Danielle Burby
(Note from Josh: After Thrillerfest last week, Danielle and I were sitting in my office discussing the pitches she received in the 3 1/2 hours of Pitchfest. As she was describing her frustration with the trope of "strong women" protags in fiction these days, vs "complex women" I realized her differentiation was both interesting and very instructive for authors looking to write female characters effectively. I asked her to put it out on the blog--Enjoy! JG)
I have represented HSG at Pitchfest for a couple of years now and it is always a whirlwind. There’s something energizing about looking authors in the eye while they pitch, especially because you can ask questions and engage them in conversation. It’s a nice change of pace from reading queries on a computer screen. It’s also a really good chance to see what the upcoming trends will be. This year brought a rise in the number of medical thrillers and, surprisingly, vampire books. There is another theme that emerged, however, both this year and last, that I find particularly interesting. And it likely isn’t what you’d expect.
For the past two years, I’ve had author after author sit down, look me in the eye, and confidently inform me that they chose to approach me because I’m looking for Strong Female Protagonists. Without exception, when a writer pitched a novel helmed by a woman, the character’s gender was paired with the word strong. Let me say that again. Every single time I heard about a female protagonist, the writer rushed to assure me that she was strong. Authors were so assertive about what I was looking for that I found myself actually turning around during a break to double check the description of my tastes taped to the wall behind me. I was relieved to see that my wish list reflected what I actually wanted to see—complex female characters. It was a word I had chosen intentionally.
On the surface, this may seem like a silly little thing to harp on, but, from where I’m sitting, the strong female character trope is flooding my query folder and I’m ready for it to slow to more of a trickle. I don’t want strong—I want nuanced. I want your female characters to have the same depth and dimensions as your male characters. I want them to be people.
I understand where the strong female character came from. She came from a good place. The idea was to give female characters more space to maneuver, to give them the chance to move past love interest and damsel in distress. The strong female character was allowed to be hard and powerful. She was allowed to do more than love and be loved. She had her own adventures instead of being a prize in someone else’s. But she is just as limiting, in her own way, as every other female archetype. She is still the product of a society that values masculinity above femininity and allows very little room for complexity when it comes to women.
It’s the same feeling that I have about Lean In, which tells women, ‘if you can’t beat them, join them.’ Don’t be soft, be hard. Don’t be sweet, be assertive. Femininity is bad. Masculinity is good. It’s a simplistic approach that paints the world as flat instead of round. We are more than that. We, as an industry can—and do—accommodate more than that. For example (since we’re focusing on thrillers at the moment), there are a lot of different opinions out there about The Girl on the Train, but, personally, I adored it. Rachel is pathetic and repulsive and unreliable and I loved her for it. She was a person not a trope. And, clearly, she thrived in the marketplace.
But the authors at Pitchfest and, beyond that, the ones who query me, don’t seem to trust that. One author at Pitchfest had written what sounded like a wonderful novel, but she rushed to assure me that her protagonist was strong. She wrinkled her nose in disgust as she said, “She isn’t girly and feminine and silly; I can promise you that.” I wanted to reach across the table, place my hands on her arms, and say, “Feminine is not synonymous with silly. There is nothing wrong with femininity. Your character can be both girly and strong.”
Don’t get me wrong, I love a badass lady at the helm of a novel as much as the next person, but I want more from her than just that. I think we are in a growing place in fiction right now. We are in a place where we can push ourselves harder to give all of our characters more depth. So don’t give me strong—give me real. Give me complex.
Guest Post by Joe Newman-Getzler
Note from Josh:
One day last week, I was sitting calmly at home when Joe, my 16 year old son familiar to readers of this blog as my periodic stand-in (and current HSG intern), came in, outraged. “I can’t believe what happened!” I thought perhaps the Supreme Court had ruled on something. But it was better. “My Little Pony just used the Idiot Plot,” he said, sputtering, and then gave me a 10 minute explanation. It was fascinating and cogent. He has agreed to summarize it below, and I thought it has somewhat surprisingly strong relevance to our readership. JG
Before I begin, I should warn you: this is an essay about the significance of a writing trope found in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Yes, the show about cartoon ponies with names like Princess Twilight Sparkle and Pinkie Pie going on adventures where they learn about friendship and being nice to each other. If thinking about this undermines the overall message of the essay for you, bear with me. I actually have something to say here. If it’s too distracting, turn back now. It’s only getting more ridiculous from here.
Of all the writing tropes and clichés that can be commonly found in media, the one I can’t stand the most is one called “The Idiot Plot.” The Idiot Plot, a name coined by the late film critic Roger Ebert, is the kind of plot where a misunderstanding arises that could be solved in minutes if the characters weren’t idiots. Say, in a romantic comedy, a girl spots her boyfriend from afar huddled up with another girl, making her believe he is having an affair. In actuality, he was just showing this other girl a video, and when he gets home, he is bewildered to see his girlfriend so mad. In the world of regular humans, a situation such as this would be resolved by him explaining the situation to her, with the other girl backing him up. It might be hard to believe at first, but if he’s sincere enough, they can hook up again and live happily ever after. But, being the Idiot Plot, he now has to jump through hoops to regain her love (ideally through several misunderstandings that make him look like a clod).
The biggest problem with The Idiot Plot is that it is so completely out of touch with how humans actually act. It can work in the right hands, but most of the time it’s just a frustrating cliché. You feel as though the writer is shutting his brain off to prevent himself from thinking of a logical solution. Following The Idiot Plot’s logic in the real world would be, well, idiotic. If you accidentally send someone a text where autocorrect has made it say “Someone took my whale” instead of “Someone took my wallet,” you wouldn’t need to beg their forgiveness and stand outside their window playing Peter Gabriel. It can be dismissed with a “WALLET, not WHALE. LOL. Damn autocorrect” and forgotten.
That being said, let’s talk about Friendship is Magic…I kinda like it. Not just on a guilty pleasure level, either; I find this a genuinely well-crafted show with interesting situations and characters. I’ve been following the show for about 5 years now, and while it’s not the next The Wire or anything, it’s still perfectly harmless, and quite enjoyable if you allow yourself to be sucked into the world of Equestria and overlook the silliness for a while. That being said, I’m not treating this as anything more significant than what it is. But I hold it to a pretty high standard because of its solid craftsmanship, but I’m not trying to make it out to be the animation event of the century. Just a good show.
Part of those high standards stems from the writing. Despite having to deal with some pretty silly stuff (if I ever tried to write anything that contained a sentence like “Twilight Sparkle and her friends use their Elements of Harmony to destroy the evil Nightmare Moon and release the banished Princess Luna,” I’d probably lose my mind), the writers of the show make it all sound natural and interesting, building the world of Equestria and coming up with creative adventures to send the gang on, as the show is very inspired by Greek mythology and pop culture. The morals can sometimes be stupid (one episode says that you should blindly accept things if they satisfy a friend who believes the same thing) but they never talk down to the viewer, which might be why the show has such a large fanbase of adults. I often like examining the episodes for how the writers develop the plots and keep the characters developing, and it just makes the skill with which the writers balance out kid-friendliness with emotion and adventure all the more impressive, as it shows they have respect for the audience.
Of course, there have been missteps. The last episode I saw was particularly flawed. It’s called “Princess Spike,” and I must warn you that it has an unbelievably silly-sounding plot.
In the episode, the four princesses – Celestia, Luna, Candence, and our heroine Twilight – are holding a royal summit in Canterlot, where delegates from all areas of Equestria are gathered to discuss the important issues of the day. Spike, a little purple dragon and Twilight’s assistant, needs to make sure she gets her beauty sleep, as she has been preparing for the summit all night and is exhausted. When the delegates start bringing up problems they want Twilight to resolve, Spike tries to take things into his own claws so as not to wake her. Shenanigans ensue.
While I was watching the episode, I slowly began to realize that it was an ideal example of The Idiot Plot. Kids’ shows in general thrive on The Idiot Plot, and “Princess Spike” has it in full force. Imagine you are in Spike’s place, and two delegates have just arrived to have a dispute settled over which one gets to have space for a conference. They demand to see Twilight and won’t take no for an answer. If it were me, I’d remember that there are three other princesses in Canterlot who are currently awake and perfectly fine at resolving conflicts, and I’d tell the delegates to see one of them because Twilight is asleep. Being reasonable adults, they’d accept these terms. Problem solved. It’d take about a minute. Any further issues could also be brought up to the princesses, such as the leaky water main whose fixing is prevented due to being too loud for Twilight to sleep.
This isn’t cool with The Idiot Plot. After all, there are 22 minutes to fill. So, rather than seeing the princesses, Spike has to make orders in Twilight’s place without conferring with anyone beforehand, which leads to disaster that can only be resolved with a heartfelt speech and a lesson about not getting carried away with responsibility. Is it worth all the mess? Who cares, problem solved. It pains me to have to use a show I enjoy as an example of a writing trope I really hate, but I feel it’s important to get this across: using The Idiot Plot is a bad idea. Unless it is a last resort, a story’s conflict should stem from an actual, legitimate problem. Hinging a conflict on something as light and easily-resolvable as a simple misunderstanding is silly. If we, the reader/viewer, are supposed to sympathize with the main characters, they should generally be intelligent. If your audience pities your character’s intelligence level rather than envies it, you’ve done something wrong.
That’s why it’s so odd that Friendship is Magic used it. These are smart writers! They’ve made great episodes that had smarter plots. I mean, what about “Pinkie Pride”? That was a great episode! Or how about “Sonic Rainboom” or “Sisterhooves Social,” those were very deep, interesting –
Hey, where’d everybody go?
My early admiration for Sherlock Holmes—and not only Holmes—led to a growing collection of books both in the Arthur Conan Doyle canon and otherwise. When I was a teenager in the 1980s, Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (and novels) were the only mystery works that I read. I don’t remember how I first became aware of Holmes, but I think that I can safely say that he was one of my first crushes (along with Luke Skywalker and all of the members of Duran Duran).
An odd Holmes memory that I have is of playing the role-playing game Chill (a horror-focused RPG) with a high school friend’s boyfriend and his gaming buddies. Holmes and Watson were both characters. Looking online for information on Chill now, I don’t see very much mention of Holmes, so my memory might be unreliable. This wasn’t my introduction to Holmes, but it did reinforce my interest in him.
I didn’t begin collecting Sherlockiana or feel drawn to the mystery genre in all of its many forms until several years later. But in high school, Holmes with his air of superiority, his varied knowledge, and the hints of a troubled personal life was very appealing to me. I loved the idea of the West End apartment where Holmes resided, surrounded by books and newspapers, his chemistry equipment and violin—not to mention his many disguises—and could easily envision living in such a place. And as it turns out, the bookish disorder that I’m writing this in the midst of isn’t too far off. There are no disguises or chemistry sets, but I do have a clarinet tucked away in my closet.
But despite my youthful enamorment of Holmes, my fascination with this late Victorian world isn’t solely focused on him. I would have become aware of Irene Adler in high school as well through “A Scandal in Bohemia,” the one story where she is mentioned. The first sentence of the story is familiar to many: “To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman.” Opera singer and general adventuress Adler captured my imagination, and in fact, as I’m writing this, I realize that it’s not possible for me to discuss Holmes without discussing Adler. I might have had a crush on Holmes, but I wanted to be Adler.
“A Scandal in Bohemia” takes place after Watson’s marriage, and by chance, Watson is passing through Baker Street one night, having resumed his medical practice. Watson sees that Holmes is awake and pacing before the windows and decides to pay a visit. He is in time to meet the heavily disguised but opulently dressed King of Bohemia. (Rereading the story this morning, I am in love with the description of his “deep blue cloak which . . . was lined with flame-coloured silk.”)
The case focuses on the retrieval of a compromising photograph of the then Crown Prince and Adler. This is the story in the Holmes canon that I’ve read more than any other, and I revisit it often not for the description of the case but for what details I can glean about Adler herself. She was a contralto with La Scala, she was impervious to several previous attempts to recover the photograph, and she was as skilled at disguise as Holmes himself. And she showed more initiative—and honor—than many of Holmes’s opponents. I know that I am not alone in my admiration—not only does Irene Adler play a large part in the recent Sherlock Holmes movies, she also plays a detective role in Carole Nelson Douglas’s series of books that began with Good Night, Mr. Holmes. This series started in 1990, 101 years after Doyle published “A Scandal in Bohemia” in the Strand magazine.
And even though I no longer—quite— want to be Irene Adler, a woman “of dubious and questionable memory,” she remains to me an idealized literary figure to this day. In my mind, I happily leave Adler to her further adventures and successes, just as I’m content to leave Holmes to be himself in his study. I can easily visit him on his shelf in my own solitary (and somewhat untidy) retreat.
Jennifer Finstrom teaches in the First-Year Writing Program, tutors in writing, and facilitates a writing group, Writers Guild, at DePaul University. She has been the poetry editor of Eclectica Magazine since October of 2005, and recent poetry publications include the Silver Birch Press The Great Gatsby Anthology, Escape Into Life, NEAT, Midwestern Gothic, and YEW Journal, among others. She has long been a fan of the mystery genre, and one day might even try to write one.
(Note: A rational, thoughtful take on the Charlie Hebdo shootings, from the perspective of a 15 year old artist who sometimes likes to be a bit edgy. It brings you up short, doesn't it...? JG)
On January 7, 2015, two masked men attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine famous for its cartoons, killing 11 people and injuring 11 more. This news shocked the world, as many were surprised that a magazine intended to make people laugh could lead to so much bloodshed. Certainly, the news surprised me. Seeing as I am a cartoonist myself, it definitely made me both worried and fascinated by how simple drawings on paper could lead to something like this.
For those who don’t know, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are generally designed to provoke. Many of their cartoons depict taboo subjects, such as the sex slaves taken by Boco Haram militants; a threeway between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and several covers depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad (“100 lashes if you are not dying of laughter!” he says on one of them).
Of course, there have been many cartoonists in the past whose cartoons have been designed to provoke strong emotions. As far back as 1831, Honore Daumier drew a portrait of the French King Louis-Philippe entitled “Gargantua,” which showed the king as a Goliath-like beast swallowing sacks of money fed to him by his subjects. The cartoon was prevented from being printed, and both Daumier and his editor Charles Philipon were sentenced to jail time and had to pay a fine. But by then, word had already gotten around about the drawing, and its notoriety led to Daumier and Philipon finding work again
Another notable cartoonist to rebel against the system was Ralph Bakshi. Bakshi was an animator for the animation studio Terrytoons in the 1960s before moving on to make independent feature films. His first, Fritz the Cat, based on the underground comic by R. Crumb, became the first animated feature to earn an X rating. Bakshi’s films tended to be about New York City and the goings-on of its seedier denizens. One of his most notable films was Coonskin, a modern-day take on Song of the South that depicted three black main characters leaving the South and coming to Harlem, only to be confronted by oppression and discrimination. The film was wildly controversial upon its release, with the Congress of Racial Equality protesting its release and the film’s original distributor pulling out, despite the fact that the film was meant to satirize ethnic stereotypes, not reinforce them.
So, why do I bring up Daumier and Bakshi? Because their cartoons may have provoked many people, but they still had an overall point. Daumier was making a point about how the king was getting wealthy off of his citizens’ hard-earned money, and Bakshi was showing the life of the lower-class and the injustice of racism. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons to the untrained eye, seem to do little but provoke for the sake of provoking, and maybe a laugh now and then. Is there any underlying message in this cartoons? Or are they just there to provoke?
Luz, a cartoonist who survived the attacks, stated that “Since the ‘60s, [it] has always sought to break taboos and shatter symbols and every possible type of fanaticism.”[i] In that sense, there’s nothing wrong with what the Hebdo cartoonists do. Certainly, fanaticism of any type could be taken down a peg, and cartoons have forever been a way to take the high and mighty and bring them down to the level of the common man (although it is ironic that a magazine intended to attack fanatics was then attacked by fanatics). It puts a face behind the cartoons, and, to some, it stops the cartoons from being completely mean-spirited attacks on religious and social beliefs.
Frankly, I think everyone has a right to speak their mind about certain subjects. That’s what freedom of speech is all about, right? So, in that sense, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists have every right to continue making their cartoons. But the question is, should they? You see, a cartoon depicting Mohammed isn’t just offensive to the Islamic radicals who burst into the offices. They’re offensive to anyone in the Muslim faith, as their law strictly dictates that none can create depictions of their prophet (not to mention anyone who has respect for other peoples’ customs). By not just drawing the Prophet, but also drawing him in very degrading positions, they don’t seem to be doing much more than pointing and laughing, like schoolyard bullies. They have a right to do it under free speech, but it still feels pretty insensitive toward an entire religion.
Does this mean that the shooters were justified? Absolutely not. Whether or not the cartoons were offensive, violence is never the answer, and killing people just for their art is an example of stifling freedom of speech. Though the cartoons can be considered offensive, they still had the right to make them. But, like I said before, it does get you to thinking when simple strokes of pencil or pen on paper can lead to reactions like these.
 Cartoon Brew
[i] VICE News
Guest Blogger: Dani Looney
With all the talk in the mystery world about Boucher-con, Marilyn thought it would be a good idea (which she may later regret) to let me be a guest blogger and write about my experiences at New York Comic Con.
In the beginning, comic conventions were pretty much just for comics. Buying and selling them, sharing the art, and premiering new story arcs. Over time though, these conventions have become something much bigger. Not only are they celebrating comics, but now they include a wide range of media. Movies, television, books, and video games are all included under the umbrella of a comic convention. Since it is now cool to be a “geek” and with the growing number of superhero movies, the explosion of gaming culture and the popularity of shows like “The Big Bang Theory”, Comic Con has become a 4 day extravaganza of all things “nerd”. There are plenty of panels, screenings, games, vendors, and celebrities to draw even the most introverted of us out into public. Those running the show very quickly figured out that the quickest way to our hearts was to offer us a chance to buy merchandise from our favorite shows, and also offer us a chance to discuss and find out more about the things we loved.
As an avid reader and as a fan of things including, Doctor Who, Sherlock, Marvel, etc., Comic Con allows me 3 days of non-stop fun. Not only do I get a chance to meet some of the actors portraying my favorite characters, like Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch last year, but I am also surrounded by other who enjoy these things and who are just as enthusiastic as I am. Most of us have created cosplays, costumes, of our favorite characters, and quite a few attendees put some serious time and effort into these costumes. The creativity that attendees put into their cosplays can be seen in what they can come up with. Just this year, I saw a man dressed as the many characters Johnny Depp has played, as well as quite a few gender bends of male characters. We all praise each other’s creativity, take pictures, and discuss our loves without fear or worry of others thinking we are “obsessive” or “crazy” or “too involved” (and those are some of the kinder things said). It is easy to find friends while waiting in line for a panel and begin sharing theories over what the next series of Sherlock will be like, or how we are enjoying the newest regeneration of the Doctor. Overall con going is a very enjoyable experience and the people in charge are continually trying to make things better. This year there was even a new harassment policy about how cosplay is not consent. This was a very welcome reminder that just because someone is dressed up, no matter how scantily, that it is not okay to just touch and take pictures of them. As a woman, I was very appreciative of this new policy, and how it was a reminder to people that asking before touching is a good thing.
Now to get to the best part of Comic Con for me: the books. Since attendance this year topped 150,000+ people a day, publishers were ready with new releases and lots of new authors. I found myself circling the few book aisles and chatting with the people working the booths. Many times I was friendly and polite enough to snag some free ARCs. There were also buttons, stickers, book samplers, and tote bags just being given away as you walked past a booth. In total, I think I walked away with eight to ten books and around six of those were free. Some of the free books being given away were part of a signing that was going on. I was able to meet fantasy writing veteran Robin Hobb, who was happy to hear about the independent book store I worked in and that they were still around. Many new authors were also in attendance and were encouraged to see how busy the publishing booths could get and how many readers were out there and wanting to take a chance on a new author. The best part of these booths was the people working them. Their enthusiasm for books and authors was contagious and I really loved being able to share my own love of books with them. Many of them were very encouraged at seeing how many people stopped at their booths to ask about new releases and their favorite authors. I garnered quite a few compliments on my own female Percy Jackson cosplay, which then of course led to discussions of what we all thought of the last book in the Heroes of Olympus series, as well as a few cries of, “No spoilers! I haven’t finished yet.”
Books were not only just available on the main floor, but this year there were quite a few literary panels that were incredibly interesting to go to. There were panels for young adult readers, Doctor Who fans, ones for fantasy fans, and ones for fans of any kind of books. Some of my favorites were, “Damsels in Distress Need Not Apply” and “How Game of Thrones Changed Fantasy, or Did It?” . All of these panels featured authors talking and discussing different subjects. A big topic of many of the panels was the representation of female characters. It was very refreshing to see authors really looking at how women are presented in books, especially these genres where it’s easy to make them damsels who do nothing but be rescued. Many authors are noticing that a good portion of their fan base is female and is craving unique strong female characters, and they are actively trying to give us these characters. Marvel is really trying to show that comics are not just for boys anymore and have been trying to really incorporate more female heroes, including a new incarnation of Thor where a woman is worthy of the Mjolnir as well as separate arcs for characters like Black Widow and Captain Marvel. No longer are they in skimpy costumes and armor that only covers the “important” bits, but they are taking charge and showing everyone that they are just as capable as any of the male superheroes out there.
Sadly, Comic Con is now over. I had a blast and would not change a thing. After some great panels, a few autographs, numerous lines, a few hugs for a fallen Castiel, and one very damp day as Han Solo, you would think I’d be bone tired and very sore, and truthfully I very much am. Carrying around multiple tote bags, early mornings, and lots of walking have left me very exhausted. There are two things I know for sure though; I don't regret a single bit of it, and I cannot wait for next year.
This week I’m very pleased to welcome as guest Tuesday Dead Guy author Todd Moss, whose Golden Hour (Putnam) is available at all the usual outlets, plus airports, train stations, Costco, and think tanks everywhere. Todd has been let loose the past few weeks, following publication; but his experiences may have been slightly different from what either he or you might have expected.
I had no idea what to expect from the book tour for my debut thriller THE GOLDEN HOUR, released September 4th. I’d written several nonfiction books and had spoken in front of groups about foreign policy hundreds of times, but this was my first foray into fiction and certainly my first book tour. It’s been strange, nerve-wracking, and pretty cool all at the same time. Here’s what I think I’ve learned so far.
It’s okay to be excited. After all the hours alone in the office and alone in my head, the novel is now, finally, out there. And people who’ve heard about it, want to meet the author. I’ve been really struck at the number of friends (some I haven’t seen since high school!) who are both giddy and gracious about my first novel. Most haven’t even read it yet, yet it’s been tremendously gratifying and humbling to receive the flood of emails, Facebook messages, and even knocks on my front door. I’m a guy who normally shirks away from being the center of attention, so I’ve had to force myself to soak it all in, to take a few moments to just enjoy it. And even at 44 years old, it feels good to make your parents proud.
Yeah, no one knows you… yet. While friends and family have been pouring it on thick, no debut author has a fan base. This means any “book tour” sounds like a grand affair… but it’s not. I’d assumed that book signings would be at big box bookshops in cities like New York, Los Angeles, perhaps Atlanta and Chicago. Nope. After two launch events in my hometown of Washington DC, my publisher sent me to independent shops in Arizona and Texas. At first, I didn’t quite get it either. Then it was patiently explained what should have been obvious: “No one knows you yet. No one will show up, especially in the big crowded markets.” So instead, my stops have been specialty crime and thriller bookshops. Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale organized an intimate discussion about my book and, in an age of ISIS and Ebola, the role of America around the world. Murder by the Book in Houston hosted a reading and Q&A with around forty thriller fans. Just as importantly as these in-person events, both shops provided a marvelous platform for tapping into their enthusiastic reader networks. Even if you aren’t generating lines around the block, it’s still exhilarating to sign a tall stack of your own books! (Note from JG--This was the best photo we had--it was after Todd had already signed the tall stack, and folks were carrying their own copies to him by then. Because even better than signing the tall stack is SELLING OUT the tall stack...)
A modern tour is much more than bookshops. I keep hearing that the halcyon days oflarge crowds to meet authors are largely over for all but the most famous writers. So, in addition to a handful of select bookshop appearances, I’m talking about THE GOLDEN HOUR at lots of other venues that can draw interested crowds. Since my thriller revolves around a professor who works inside the U.S. Government, I’m speaking at colleges (Columbia, Pomona, Texas A&M, Tufts, Harvard) and related professional associations (World Affairs Councils, think tanks). I’m also promoting the book through radio, newspaper opeds, social media, and even a few TV shows. Each of these hits relatively small audiences, but they accumulate. These efforts, I hope, will build fan momentum for the next book… and maybe even a more ambitious second tour?
In the end, that’s the point: lots of small steps toward a fan base who will love your book, tell their friends, and (fingers crossed!) buy the sequel.
Todd Moss, senior fellow and COO at the Center for Global Development in Washington DC and the former top US diplomat for West Africa, is author of THE GOLDEN HOUR, the first in the Judd Ryker series from Penguin’s Putnam Books. Todd is represented by Josh Getzler.
In the wake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Swedish mysteries are all the rage. Not that they aren’t good, but they may be getting more attention than thrillers set in, say, Honduras. Anything with a Swedish connection seems to have a little extra oomph right now. Cecilia Ekbäck is, in fact, from Sweden, but she now lives in Canada and wrote this book in English, which probably makes it easier to present to a U.S. audience. Historical novels are also hot, and Wolf Winter wins on this front too.
Set on the frontier of Swedish Lapland in 1717, Wolf Winter includes a murder, but it goes beyond to study human behavior under extremes. In 18th century Scandinavia, the struggle with winter and just finding food to make it through until spring was brutal. Maija has moved from a coastal town to a rugged mountain with her husband and daughters. This sparsely-settled area holds just a few families, and the closest town is miles away. Almost as soon as they get there, one of the daughters finds a dead body; the story of how and why this man was killed unfolds throughout the novel. Against a backdrop of the politics and culture of the time, Ekbäck explores of how people act under pressure, whether political, social, or religious. The culturally distinct Lapps play a role in the story, as does the state-sanctioned church and even the King of Sweden. In the end, Maija and most of the other settlers survive the harsh winter, but not without much suffering, both physical and psychological.
At times I was reminded of Halldor Laxness’s Independent People and other novels that bring home the fundamental toughness of rural life in Scandinavia. I can’t evaluate the authenticity of Ekbäck’s recreation of Sweden in 1717, but I found it all eminently believable. I enjoyed both the historical detail and the characters. The author’s spare style fits well with the reserved people and harsh landscape she describes. This title is due out in January 2015.
Gwen Gregory is the resource acquisition and management librarian at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She reads books the way many people watch TV.
I was first drawn to The Art of Secrets by James Klise (Algonquin, 2014) because it takes place in Chicago and the author is a librarian. Once I started reading, I found that Saba Khan, the teenage heroine, lives just a mile or so from my home in the Rogers Park neighborhood on the north side of the city. I was quickly drawn into the story, which blends elements like teen angst and learning to get along with arson and art theft.
Without revealing too much of the plot, here’s a quick rundown. Saba’s family’s apartment burns in an arson-caused fire and they lose all their possessions. Her fellow students at the private school where she is on scholarship want to have a benefit auction to help the family, and one donated item turns out to be quite valuable. Chaos and crime ensues.
The text is almost all in the form of first person narratives from different characters, including Saba, her parents, others students, and teachers. Some are police or newspaper interviews, some are journals entries; there are even a few text messages. It took me a bit to get used to this, as well as to the different fonts used to express handwritten entries, but I got into it fairly quickly.
Klise manages to touch on quite a few interesting issues, especially cultural, religious and socioeconomic diversity as exemplified by Saba and other students. The mystery is not particularly complex, but it did keep me guessing until the end. While the crimes committed are serious, there’s no violence or drugs involved. The Art of Secrets will be engrossing for most young adult readers, and quite a few grown-ups as well.
Librarian side note: there were comments in the text about a student using the library catalog terminals for email. Only a librarian would bring this up, so I know the author is the real deal.
As I write this, my to-be-read pile is teetering precariously. With my debut novel, The Black Hour, out this week, I’m behind on just about everything. The dog always gets her walk. No one in the house is starving. Sure, the bathroom could use a good going over—with a flamethrower. I’ll get to it.
The book stack only grows taller.
Yet this week instead of picking up one of the many (many) new books I’ve purchased to support a mystery-writing friend or to keep current with what’s selling in the genre, I took up a book I’ve probably read five times before.
If I tell you that it was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, maybe you’ll understand why I turned to the same book again. If you haven’t read it, Bird by Bird is a book of essays but also a balm for the soul of any fretful writer. Since on any given day what I’m fretting about is finding a few minutes to write some fiction, the advice, the balm, and the off-genre reading are all part of why I return again and again.
Stephen King said in his book On Writing (which I have read three times), “If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
I would amend: If you don’t have time to re-read something once in a while, you’re missing out on one of the best self-education tools available to you.
Writers are often fast readers. That’s good news if you like to see your to-be-read pile decimated as though it’s being fed into a wood chipper. You are the wood chipper. But if your goal, like mine, is not just to know what happened in a story but to understand how it all came together satisfyingly—or rather how it petered out and bombed, which is another good thing to understand—then once in while, you need to pick up a book for the second time.
The first read, you’re finding out what happened. You’re experiencing the book as a reader—emotionally. This is not an unimportant part of the process, because you want to write stories that take readers on an emotional ride. The trick is: can you go on the ride and not stand to the side, spectating? You’re a reader on the first time through, a passenger.
The second time, you’re a conductor, pointing out to yourself the twists and turns the other writer took. You’re also probably going more slowly, which has its own benefits. This time through you’re not a tourist. You might still enjoy the ride, but you’re also hanging over the side watching all the mechanicals underneath.
With so many books on my shelves—and yours, I’m willing to bet—is it crazy to reach past those signed hardcovers your friends wrote and whose online reviews you’d really like to add to? There’s only so much time and so many (many) books. Sometimes I mourn that I’ll never read all the books I want to. You probably do the same. We’re a different breed. All we can do is go bird by bird—read the books that speak to us, learn from those that call to us a second or third time, read widely, read deeply, read.
Lori Rader-Day is the author of the mystery The Black Hour (Seventh Street Books, 2014). Born and raised in central Indiana, she now lives in Chicago with her husband and dog. Her fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Time Out Chicago, and others. Visit her at LoriRaderDay.com.
Guest post by Jon Khoury for Jessy Randall
If you're unfamiliar with the great work of writer Richard Laymon you owe it to yourself to find a book or two and take the plunge. Laymon, the author of over 50 mystery, thriller, horror stories follows the traditions of absolutely no one. In fact, suffice to say, that any 21st century writer of mystery and horror without understanding Laymon is cheating the genre by ignoring a wonderful and true talent.
In Laymon's 1994 mystery In The Dark, librarian Jane Kerry finds a note in an envelope sitting on her chair at the circulation desk just before closing one evening. "Jane," the only word on the sealed envelope lurks in front of her as she turns and notices. As she glances around the library to see who may have left the note, she is interrupted by several last minute patrons checking out last minute books for the evening. Finally, once the library is closed, Jane is able to reach down, open the letter and read what it says. "Look Homeward Angel," it says along with a further clue or two as the book and the mystery begin.
Jane is subsequently led, via these notes into more and more dangerous tasks while receiving gifts from The Master of Games, doubling after each mini-adventure. (the first envelope contains $50) If you know Richard Laymon, the tasks become more and more difficult, risky, ambiently and overtly sexual and what lies ahead is good old fashioned, pre-cell phone to get you out of a tough situation, mystery, horror suspense,with spot on dialogue and absolutely not, your grandparents' cheerful Miss Marple adventure.
Once you read Laymon, assuming you'll accept exactly who he is, as a writer, you will crave more. Like the great works of Alfred Hitchcock, innocent people get tangled in most unusual ways. My promise to you is that a treasure hunt of your own will ensue as you begin looking for more and more Laymon books. And in a funny way, the prize and pleasure seems to double, as does Jane's fortune, with every read.
Jon Khoury is the Executive Director and CEO of Cottonwood Center for the Arts. Although he has a knack for being a people person, the people he meets in books are his favorite company.
Note from Jessy: Thanks, Jon, for recommending this book to me. I found it compulsively readable, couldn't put it down and finished it in two days. Here's my favorite sentence in the book: "The pistol went nicely into the big, loose pocket on the right front of her culottes" (p. 296). (Not a sentence you'd find in many books today.) I was disappointed that Jane didn't use her library and information skills more, however. Her librarianhood seemed to be for titillation rather than for plot. On the other hand, how titillating are culottes? Well, at least she was wearing something at the time. For great swaths of the book she's at least partly in the buff.
Walter Kirn is a respected contemporary writer, author of novels including Thumbsucker and Up In The Air. He is also widely published in magazines, including Time, GQ, and Esquire. Kirn’s new book Blood Will Out is being promoted as the next great true crime story, right up there with In Cold Blood. I beg to differ. While it focuses on Christian Gerhartsreiter, a man of many aliases perhaps best known as Clark Rockefeller, it isn’t really the story of this German who came to the U.S. and remade himself as an American aristocrat. There is another book all about that, The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal. There was even a Lifetime TV movie about Gerhartsreiter. Rather, this is the story of Kirn’s relationship with the man he knew as Clark Rockefeller and how being a writer affected the situation.
Kirn first encountered Gerhartsreiter/Rockefeller in 1998, when Kirn agrees to take a rescue dog from Montana to the latter in New York. From the beginning, Kirn admits, to himself at least, his interest in meeting a Rockefeller, both as a writer in search of characters and out of a fascination for the rich and famous. After a rough journey, Kirn delivers the disabled dog and thus begins a years-long friendship. The two men are in contact off and on for many years. In 2008, Clark Rockefeller is arrested in a child custody/kidnapping case, his real identity is discovered, and he ends up in prison. In 2011, he is charged with the 1985 murder of Jonathan Sohus in California. This trial took place in 2013, with Kirn in attendance. He used it an occasion to reflect on his relationship with the man he knew as Clark Rockefeller and considered the testimony of the witnesses through the lens of his own experiences. Kirn made friends with other writers at the trial and even took his own teenage daughter to court one day. He was really into it. After the guilty verdict, he visited his old friend in prison a number of times. Even after hearing all the testimony, and knowing so much about all the cons and lies, he could see how easy it was to be manipulated by him.
The strength of book Blood Will Out isn’t in psychological insights about sociopaths or forensic evidence about cold murder cases. It is really about Kirn’s relationship with this totally off the wall person and how that worked out. Like most people, Kirn generally believed what Gerhartsreiter told him about his life, maybe taking things with a grain of salt but never imagining that it was all totally fabricated. In fact, he dismisses the first reports of his friend’s false identity in 2008, until it becomes fully clear that it was all a lie. Kirn examines his thoughts and feelings, ranging the gamut from being impressed at Rockefeller’s modern art collection (which turned out to be all forged) to betrayal upon the revelation of his true identity and full-on anger at some points during the murder trial. Along the way, Kirn shares bits and pieces about his own life, including his family and divorce. He frequently refers to stories of self-invention like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, believing they inspired his friend’s efforts. This is an interesting exploration of both our fascination with celebrity and how we react when faced with someone who breaks all the rules of social convention.
Gwen Gregory is the resource acquisition and management librarian at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She reads books the way many people watch TV.
My writer friend Bruce Bentzman recently published a three-part essay about being burgled in the online magazine Snakeskin (part 1, part 2, part 3). I thought Dead Guy readers might be interested in some of the real-life procedural details of the case.
Bentzman left his apartment unlocked for about fifteen minutes while he did some outside work. When he returned, he discovered his laptop and a few other things had been stolen. Bentzman and his “more significant other,” Ms. Keogh, called the police. Meanwhile, they soon learned, the burglar had already begun using the credit card to purchase gift cards from local shops.
Bentzman was especially upset about the less-monetarily-valuable thefts: his mail, his journal, and three beloved fountain pens including a Sailor Bamboo Susutake similar to the one pictured at right. (I occasionally receive handwritten letters from Bentzman; it’s clear from looking at them that he cares deeply about ink and penmanship.) He followed the credit card trail of the burglar, hoping to recover whatever he could from nearby trash bins. He says:
In the trash at the Rite Aid in Yardley, I found three envelopes that were not mine. It appeared that someone had paid bills and thinking they were mailing them, inadvertently tossed them into the blue recycle bin mistaking it for the blue mailbox that was only a few feet further. I picked them out, noted the return address, mailed them correctly, and called Mr. N. of Yardley to reveal the error. Mr. N., who sounded like a dear man, 92-years-old, was thoroughly astonished and grateful. So was I. I felt I had been afforded the chance to restore some goodness into the world, countering the damage caused by the shithead burglar or burglars, only I never found my mail.
Bentzman soon learned that two women, likely the burglars, were under arrest for other crimes in the neighborhood. He filled out a form requesting to see the crime report for his burglary:
A week later, I received a letter from the Township Manager informing me that my request has been denied pursuant to the Pennsylvania Right to Know Law Section 708 (b)(16). 708 (b) are the exceptions. (16) has many parts. Which parts are pertinent to me? One that stood out was, “(iii) A record that includes the identity of a confidential source or the identity of a suspect who has not been charged with an offense to whom confidentiality has been promised.” But maybe more pertinent was, “(v) Victim information, including any information that would jeopardize the safety of the victim.”
Then there was (vi), which is subdivided into five parts. “(A) Reveal the institution, progress or result of a criminal investigation, except the filing of criminal charges. (B) Deprive a person of the right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication. (C) Impair the ability to locate a defendant or codefendant. (D) Hinder an agency’s ability to secure an arrest, prosecution or conviction. (E) Endanger the life or physical safety of an individual.” That last one, would my inquiries place me in danger?
Bentzman found out as much as he could about the accused women. The more he learned, the less likely it seemed he would ever recover his pens or his journal (and indeed, as of this writing, he hasn’t gotten them back). He learned that the two women were heroin addicts and repeat offenders, and that he would be in attendance at the hearing for Anne Bambino, the woman who had used Ms. Keogh’s credit card. What was it like to see her up close?
The courthouse was unimpressive, a one-story white stucco building. It looked insignificant, as if the law did not merit any special honor, held no particular virtue. When Ms. Keogh entered the stark lobby of the building, I pointed to the window in the wall where she needed to sign in. We then sat together and waited, wondering if we would recognize Ms. Bambino when she arrived.
I expected to recognize her. After all, I had seen her photograph. I had seen the pictures taken by surveillance cameras. I had seen her mug shots. There are several as she has been arrested multiple times. I had seen her Facebook portrait. She would not have recognized me or Ms. Keogh. Whether it was she or her associate who rifled our apartment, we had no photographs of ourselves on the walls. And there she was. She was easy to recognize. She arrived under guard and in chains.
She wore a maroon prison suit under a winter jacket. A chain dragged between her ankles. Her wrists were also chained and it extended to a steel loop on a thick leather belt. Even in this sad state, she was more attractive than I expected. It was disconcerting to see this small, pleasant appearing woman in such determined restraints.
Ms. Keogh and I took a seat in the last row of the small courtroom. I looked at Magisterial District Court Judge John J. Kelly, Jr. I knew him! Was I to call the kid I wrestled back in our Neshaminy High School gym class “Your Honor”?
It hardly mattered that we came to the hearing. There was no confrontation. We were not called to speak. Ms Bambino was offered to sign a waiver. It wasn’t that she was pleading guilty, but she was not contesting the charges and was having the case combined with other charges that would involve other courtrooms.
They placed the waiver on the judge’s bench for her to sign. It was too high for the small Ms. Bambino, only 5’3” and her arms restricted by chains. She rose on her tip toes to sign. One of the officers of the court said she was looking well. It caused a charming smile to arise across her face and I heard her pleasant voice. As I made it out, she was admitting that despite prison life she felt she was doing well. Then it was over and they led her away.
We left the courtroom and Detective Nicastro discussed the matter with us. He told us about Ms Bambino. She had been married, but it wasn’t known if she was separated or divorced. I asked if she had any children, but he didn’t know. I asked about my stolen pens. Detective Nicastro said that when the burglars realized they were just some pens in those little sacks, they probably threw them out.
It was hard to be indifferent to whatever happened to Ms. Bambino. I was angry with her, but with all the years she will be incarcerated, it would be terrible enough; I could not bring myself to wish her more. What is the value of my pens compared to several years of her life wasted in prison? That day at the hearing, seeing this meek blonde incongruously shackled and fettered, I felt sorry for Ms. Bambino. I am relieved the decision isn't mine to make.
So we’re on vacation in Florida, and my son Joe, who’s pinch hit for me before, told me as we took a walk that he’d like to write the year-end post. Since I really had written my Last-of-year post last week, I figured it would be OK. So this is where my always-unique freshman son is on December 31. I hope we all succeed in our hopes and dreams for 2014, and that our expectations are realistic. Happy New Year, everyone!
On the Cusp of the New Year
By Joe Newman-Getzler
Well, folks, in mere hours 2013 can be officially known as “last year” and 2014 will be upon us. I have to say, 2013 was a very mixed year, and at times like this I like to look back at the old year and think of the positive things in my life. After all, I’m an optimist, and who likes thinking of the lowlights when we can celebrate the highlights? In the previous year, I:
So, you might be wondering: what are you going to resolve for the new year, and, for that matter, what am I going to resolve? Here’s the thing: I don’t believe in making huge, lifestyle-changing resolutions for the new year. I fear that too often I’ll forget them and resort to old habits. For instance: you can’t just go out and say, “I’ll never argue with my sisters again.” You could never live up to that. It’s easier to say, “I’ll try harder not to argue with my sisters.” And don’t set huge goals like, “As soon I can, I’ll lose 50 pounds!” Start with 5, then 10, then 15, and move up. It’s easier to receive gradual gratification than immediate. So my new year’s resolutions are relatively small. They aren’t huge lifestyle changes, just little things I’d like to do or improve on.
You see? All of these goals aren’t impossible to reach. No, I can’t do them all at once, but that’s what so many people don’t understand about new year’s resolutions. They think the moment the clock strikes midnight, their goals must be set into action and they can never go back. This isn’t realistic! It will make them feel pressured to meet the expectations immediately, and when they forget or change their minds, they’ll feel immensely unsatisfied and guilty. Be gradual, and set realistic expectations. Good things come to those who wait.
In closing, let me wish everyone, on behalf of my dad and the folks here at Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room, a happy and safe new year. Let’s hope you all set good goals and achieve all of them. Bonan Novjaron!
Darryl Wimberley has five novels with St. Martin's Press in the Barrett Raines mystery series: A Rock and a Hard Place (1999), Dead Man's Bay (2000), Strawman's Hammock (2001), Pepperfish Keys (2007) and Devil's Slew (2011). A separate, literary work, A Tinker's Damn, was published in 2000 by MacMurray and Beck; another literary novel, The King of Colored Town, was published in 2007 by The Toby Press, and was awarded the Willie Morris Prize for Southern Fiction. His script Kaleidoscope was Grand Prize Winner for Fade In: Magazine's 1998 competition. He and my husband, author and editor Ross Gresham, are former colleagues.
RG: You’ve written award-winning literary fiction, and you’ve also done a long genre series. Is it a different experience to write?
DW: If you have a dead body in your story and you are Dostoevsky, you are operating with a very different purpose in mind than if you have a dead body in your narrative and you are John Grisham or Scott Turow or Stephen King. To oversimplify-- How far would you get in a genre series if your protagonist couldn't figure out who the murderer was? And how far would your series run if your protagonist was killed in the first book?
Purpose matters, not just for the subject undertaken, but as a determining factor in every other aesthetic decision.
That does not mean that any given literary work has more merit than any given work of sci-fi, noir, fantasy, etc. It does mean that good literary fiction and good genre fiction develop narratives informed at their outset by parameters and purposes that are narratively distinct, and so ready comparisons can't be made. Both Daisy Miller and "The Turn of the Screw" are great fiction. But Henry James, self-consciously, knew that these works were not directly comparable.
Another over-simplification in this argument would be to say that works can always be neatly binned as genre or literary. That clearly is not true. I'd argue that a lot of Elmore Leonard's work deserves merit both as genre, and as literary fiction, and of course Tolkien is rightly cited in every convention of fantasy-lovers as an example of literary work.
On the other hand many novels that I read (or perhaps read badly), especially when touted as examples of post-modern purpose/construction, are for me simply tiresome. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is, for me, mostly unbearable. I don't have much patience with authors who disdain basic story-telling; I suspect them of being lazy because, from my own experience, developing a coherent plot is not just hard, hard work but intellectually challenging. It can't be an accident that works enduring for readers, whether the Iliad or To Kill A Mockingbird, observe the basics of story-craft -- a narrative that makes sense, a voice that is unexpected, characters whose actions are not entirely predictable, and, I would add, a concern for a world unrelated to meta-fiction. Anyone looking for a model for genre fiction or literature might profitably sit down for a season of Breaking Bad.
RG: You’ve also worked as a screenwriter. What did that teach you?
DW: It taught me how to forge a damned good plot-line. People now often joke about Syd Field's nonfiction book. The first edition is best, titled simply The Screenplay. Most of the book is derivative. Even so, the chapter relegated to "The Plot Point" is something novelists need to read along with screenwriters. It is hard to come up with a plot that will sustain seventy thousand words.
It's not an accident that most writing schools virtually ignore the business of story-boarding. Most students in those arenas write short stories—pretty hard to write a novel in a 15 week semester. But short-narrative writing can screw up folks wanting to move on to multi-hour series, feature scripts—or novels. Understanding the narrative structure that repeats and underpins well-written films and dramatic series is part of a craft that can be learned and applied to works of prose.
RG: Setting is important to a lot of thriller series, and of all the places you’ve lived, you chose northern Florida? What’s the flavor you were after?
DW: The importance and influence of setting in any well-written fiction is hard to overstate, but setting has no necessary relationship to "reality". As I Lay Dying and "A Good Man is Hard to Find" derive much of their power from an authentic evocation of an actually-extant time and place, but The Lord of the Rings and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are equally powerful narratives set in settings that are almost wholly imagined.
Setting is the lens, real or fabricated. through which the stuff of writing is refracted. All settings get filtered through the author's consciousness. A writer, whether James Lee Burke or Bill Kennedy, has to know his story's period and place inside and out to be effective. A story's setting includes details of its period as well as its place, so for example when I set my novels in northern Florida, I can't take for granted that the region familiar to me from childhood was the same place in 1925 or 1965 as it is in 2013. The "flavor" changes, necessarily, with any particular place or time. I grant myself no special provenance or expertise in my setting, but I do know enough to mine that region to create those authentic encounters essential to any fiction.
RG: You’ve been in the game a while. What’s changed in the publishing world?
DW: Technology has somewhat paradoxically created a choke-point between new writers and agents. Anyone submitting manuscripts to agents sees the "Submission Guidelines" that populate almost any literary agency's website. Most of these sites require an electronic submission which is much easier for newbies to manage than in previous years where a hard-copy of the manuscript, or some sample of the text, would accompany the obligatory SASE.
So much easier to send. But is this a good thing? I asked a New York agent recently if her agency even looked at submissions submitted over the internet and she freely admitted that they did not. In the first place, easy submissions mean that agents get many more manuscripts, most of them bad, flooding into their hard-drives. And there is another factor at play. Recreating the agent's response to my question roughly— “Our offices are small. Space comes at a premium. In the old days, when manuscripts came in shoeboxes or whatever, we'd stack 'em up around the office and eventually they'd get in the way, and we'd sit down every month or so and weed 'em out, just to get some room to move around. You'd read the first twenty pages of each submission and maybe halfway through the stack you'd find something meriting more attention. But with the computer? There's no mess. There are no boxes under your feet or stacking up the wall, so there is no incentive to actually start reading the hundred or so submissions that we get DAILY." So who gets agents now? Several contests offer a publication or meeting with an agent as incentive to submit. Those can be worthwhile. Other manqués get recommendations from writing schools whose profs often are published themselves with ongoing relationships at many agencies, or with editors. OR (new info for me) folks with manuscripts have to shell out coin to get personal sit-downs at conferences where agents pay to meet aspiring writers. Ten minutes to make your pitch.
A lot like Hollywood, come to think of it.
In the old days.
Julia Spencer-Fleming, filling in for Jeff
I have a new book coming out November 5th. I want to get that out there up front, because let's face it; that's the purpose of the Blog Tour. You pester your friends for a spot on Monday (or Wednesday, or Friday) and attempt to write three to five hundred words so charming, so compelling, that the reader is seized with an irresistable urge to abandon their reading (and Tweeting and the work on that file the boss wants by noon) in order to whip out the old credit card and order the book right now!
How am I doing so far? Any of you reaching for your wallet?
In the category of Things the Author Does to Sell Books, however, the blog tour isn't even close to the dreaded Book Tour. Dear readers, a caveat here: when I say "Book Tour Terror," I'm not talking about you. Meeting readers is actually energizing and delightful. It's all the other stuff that can make the book tour feel like a person who thought she was signing up for a 5K fun walk and discovers instead she's enrolled in an ultramarathon. Some of the highlights:
Most business travellers go from point A to B and back again. The author on tour, however, goes from point A to B to C to D, back to A and then out to F two days later. The TSA finds this string of one-way tickets intensely interesting, and the author will become very familiar with "assuming the position." Don't pack anything embarassing in your carry-on luggage.
Speaking of which, don't think about checking your bag. I once flew into a conference wearing comfy clothes of the "who cares what I look like?" variety. Of course, the airline lost my luggage. I had to do two days of panels and teaching wearing stretched out leggings and a leopard-print sweatshirt. Never again.
It doesn't matter how well-known you think you are, or how many New York Times bestsellers you have under your belt, at some point you will be stymied by a sales clerk who has never heard of you. You will stand there as he (they always seem to be very young men in this scenario) slolwly sounds out your name. "I don't think we've got any of your books," he'll say. Since your publisher has cut a deal with the head office and all 300 stores are supposed to have you on the New Fiction aisle, this is very bad. You go to the New Fiction aisle, and indeed, you are not there. "I have to go check with my manager." The author will be left standing around, trying to look nonchalant while wondering if her entire print run is in a box beneath the table in the breakroom.
The author will get significant numbers of people at some events. This is to put you off your guard. Rest assured, at some point in the tour, you will show up at a bookstore that has sent out newsletters, emails, postcards, and run a story about your appearance in the local paper. Three people will show up, and one of them will be the guy who comes to every author talk for the free wine and cheese cubes. Another will be the bookstore owner's mother.
The author on tour goes to beautiful, historic, interesting places: LA, Denver, Nashville, Chicago. While there, the author will see the airport, five bookstores, a library and the hotel. When you come home, your spouse asks, "Did you try some [delicious local must-try specialty]?" No, the author had room service chicken caesar every night and ate it while staring mindlessly at Say Yes to the Dress.
The author will take Airborne, eat vitamins, guzzle water, and squirt hand sanitizer throughout the tour. She will still come down with a miserable cold as soon as she's gotten home and unpacked.
Obviously, you should all come out to see me when I'm on book tour, unless,of course, the blog tour has convinced you to rush out and order THROUGH THE EVIL DAYS, in which case you can just stay in your comfortable, germ-free home and have a nice evening's read. Remember, there are other mysteries coming out on November 5th from authors whose first name begins with 'J', so double check to make sure you're getting the right one.
Julia Spencer-Fleming's New York Times bestselling books have won multiple awards, including the Anthony and Agatha, and have been Edgar and RT Reader's Choice nominees. The next Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne novel, Through the Evil Days, comes out on November 5th. You can find Julia at her website, her readerSpace, on Facebook and on Twitter as @jspencerfleming. She also blogs with the Jungle Red Writers.
(NOTE FROM JOSH: I was sitting down to write this evening when the Boy, two days done with Middle School but not yet a Freshman, tells me to step aside. “You’re tired,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about something.”
Clearly he has been. And he’s not shy about discussing it. I hope I miss the train to Weenieville.
By Joe Newman-Getzler
What is a “classic”? Depending on whom you ask the answers could vary wildly. For some, a classic could be a book like Murder on the Orient Express, a movie like Casablanca, or a song like “Let It Be”. To others, a classic could be a book like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a movie like Johnny Dangerously, or a song like “Boom! Shake the Room." This need not only apply to books. The term “classic” can also be applied to anything from a good joke to a memorable sports play. But what, indeed, is a classic? And how does it unify these many different things?
To most people, a classic is merely a thing that stays in their head for a long time, usually for a positive reason. But to some, the name goes much deeper than that. A classic means a piece of cultural significance, something considered a great thing that all should love and cherish for its greatness. Typically, there is a predetermined set of “classics” for any kind of genre or type. For example, if you want a “classic” book, the names that’ll probably come up would be books like Animal Farm, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, or Gone with the Wind. A “classic” movie? You’d probably see names like Citizen Kane, Some Like it Hot, or Singin’ in the Rain. But should we have our classics defined for us? Or should we form our own opinions on what is classic and what’s not?
This is a question that has been troubling me for a while now: what’s a classic and what’s not? The reason this has been rumbling through my mind is because lately I have been trying to give myself a “classical” film and literary experience. Summer’s just begun, and now that I have gobs upon gobs of time to spend, I want to fill them with great books and great movies. For the former, my family has been supplying me with tons of great books like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye. And yes, they are great. But I will admit, my standards for classics are pretty low. The whole school year was peppered with classic books in my English class, like The Woman Warrior, The Chosen, Animal Farm, you name it. But my ideas of classics are Dave Barry is Not Making This Up, Bugs Bunny: 50 Years and Only One Gray Hare, and There Is No Dog. And yet, Mom and Dad say not to read those over and over. Read The Hobbit. Come on! It’s only 500 pages long, you wuss!
Movies are another area of “classics” that drive me crazy, though for a different reason. While I would consider myself a rather decent film lover, there are still so many movies I haven’t seen that I feel pressured by myself to watch. Seriously?, I ask myself. You haven’t seen Citizen Kane? Jaws? The Dark Knight? You, sir, are on the train straight to Weenieville. And even my gym teacher’s let into me about my lack of film exposure: he spent 10 minutes telling me how I simply must watch The Empire Strikes Back in order to truly deem myself a Star Wars fan (BTW, I’ve only seen A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. That fact led to not only the aforementioned monologue, but another about how I should watch the prequels because, yeah, they suck, but I MUST have the complete Star Wars experience.) And yet, I also feel that there are a great many films that I truly love and yet many don’t even think of in the same league as “classics.” Seriously, does nobody but me consider UHF a classic? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory better than the Gene Wilder one? I feel so lonely.It’s times like this when I start to think about how subjective a term “classic” is. Can only what has been previously called a classic be a classic? Can others come up with their own “classic” films to share with the world? That is my hope. While, naturally, classic books and movies are to be revered and respected, they aren’t the only good books and movies out there! I wish more people would realize that. And YES, I am going to watch The Empire Strikes Back this summer. But the prequels? Hmm. Maybe. But for now…keep on readin’.
Meriel Patrick, guest blogging on behalf of Lynne
Some time ago, I started reading a crime novel that had been on my to-read list for quite a while. Within a few pages, it became obvious that the first victim was a small child, and my heart sank. In fact, I still haven't finished the novel.
Now, on the face of it, there's nothing particularly odd about this. Child murder is a horrendous thing. But then, any murder in real life is a horrendous thing, and I quite happily read fictional accounts of all sorts of people meeting untimely ends - is fictional child murder really so much worse than the adult version?
As I pondered on this, I remembered something I heard at a crime fiction conference a few years ago: as a crime writer, you can bump off as many people as you like, and your readers will cheer and ask for more. But kill a cat - or worse still, a dog - and the chances are you'll get angry letters.
So what's going on here? Why are normal, law-abiding citizens happy to read about grisly deaths of fellow humans, but are shocked and outraged if the victim is a pet?
It struck me that in my case at least, my reactions to animal deaths and child victims in crime novels are very closely allied. It's partly that they're both helpless casualties of events beyond their control, but it's not wholly that.
The main reason I don't like these kinds of deaths in crime novels is that the victims aren't involved in the story in the right kind of way. They generally just happened to get in the way, or (particularly with animal deaths) were killed as a warning to someone else. You can't hope to solve the crime by finding out about the victim.
This all finally clunked into place in my head when I encountered the term 'malice domestic', used to describe a particular sub-genre of crime fiction. This is an umbrella term used of works where the crime is, in the broadest sense, domestic - where the victim(s) and killer know each other, and the key to the puzzle lies in figuring out the relationships between them.
This, I've realized, is a large part of the essence of what makes something a good crime novel for me: a delicate balance of a nice chewy intellectual mystery to solve, and some well-developed characters whose lives I can be drawn into. If those key relationships aren't there - if the central murders are in some way impersonal - there isn't the right kind of tension to keep me really interested. I may admire a high-octane thriller or a well-crafted serial killer novel, but the chances are it won't suck me in in the same way.
Given that there are plenty of people who do like thrillers and serial-killer novels, this is clearly at least partly a matter of personal taste. But I don't think I'm alone. That perfect blend of characters to love and puzzle to solve is a heady mixture!
Note from Josh: My son Joe is off from eighth grade this week for Spring Break. He saw me sitting down to write the blog this evening, and asked if he could do it for me. He said he’d been thinking about character, and wanted to explore it. He shooed me off my computer, patted me on the head, and yelled a bit later that he was done and could I have a look. I tell you—sometimes good advice comes through experience and deep, thought-provoking examples. And sometimes it’s through Loony Tunes, Enjoy.
Guest Post by Joe Newman-Getzler
What’s the first thing that draws your attention to something? Color? Size? Overall flashiness? Whatever the case, these first impressions help leave an important mark, whether positive or negative. When you write a book, however, these cannot help you. Unless you’re writing a picture book, you must rely on your own writing to draw peoples’ attention to something—give an image in peoples’ minds about what this thing looks like. In terms of characters, you must look to personality, which can be incredibly difficult for many writers.
You see, whether the character is good or villainous, something about him/her must rope you in. Some key facet must intrigue you or interest you. At best, these characters transcend the written word; knowing how they feel or what they’re doing is a major matter of importance to you, and you want to see what happens next. In the hero/heroine’s case, you want to see them defeat the bad guy and escape safely without dying (which, leave us be frank, is rare for literary characters these days). In the villain’s case, you want to see how they meet their doom, or how they are put off until the next encounter. If a character is poorly written, you couldn’t care less about what they do or what happens to them. They strike you as having no personality whatsoever.
A prime example of personality lifting a character to superstardom is that of Bugs Bunny. Not a literary character, I know, but bear with me. The rabbit we know and love actually began life as a screwy bunny known unofficially as “Happy Rabbit”. Even his creators admitted that he was little more than Daffy Duck in a rabbit suit, with some elements of Goofy and Woody Woodpecker for good measure. Viewers couldn’t care less what happened to this irritating screwball; some may have preferred to see the rabbit hastily shot. Basically, he had no personality. He was all cartoon and no character. But, through revisions, directors began changing the bunny. Director Tex Avery completely revised Bugs, and even after that, directors added more, and within less than ten years, Bugs Bunny, as we know him and love him, reached complete fruition. And why did they not simply abandon him after his early failures? As some directors put it, while they were drawing Bugs’ misadventures, they became Bugs. If something happened to Bugs, it de facto happened to them, and they needed to be as clever as the character they drew to get out of it.
This is an important key to giving a character a personality: you need to care about the character yourself before you get everyone else to. If a writer gets completely roped into the story-where he or she, as said before, experiences what the character experiences through their writing—they put the emotions of the character right onto the paper. You can imagine some writers catching their breath after writing a swordfight, or sighing with happiness after writing a happier scene. And this literary form of method acting pays: you care, your readers care, and the book is a success.
Sherlock Holmes, Dorothy Gale, Peter Pan, Atticus Finch: if you’ve read the books these characters have starred in, you basically have been them for all the time you’ve read the book. They grip you and instill a bit of themselves in you. The best writers do this effortlessly, but no fear: the more trying, the better you get, even if you’re an established author. And always remember: there is no such thing as too much personality. Even a little makes a huge difference.
Doubtless you’ll all be glad to know that Lynne will return from her travels next week, but I’m afraid that in the meantime you have to put up with me once more. This week I’ve been pondering the idea of the book launch, as I have one coming up on September 14the for my new novel, Come the Fear.
My books are mysteries, set in Leeds, England, in the 1730s. The launch will be in the city, at Holy Trinity Church, built in 1727 and now an arts centre – about as perfect a location as I can imagine. There will be short extracts from the book read by young local actors (the centre has a mission to foster young talent, although I’m far from young!), some artwork by young local artists inspired by passages from the book, some music and some storytelling by two of England’s best tellers – friends who volunteered their services.
So far, so good. I’ve held launches for two of my three previous novels, and they’ve been fun affairs. The question that keeps coming back to me, however – and I’m the one paying for this launch, as I don’t expect my publishers to kick in anything – is how worthwhile is a book launch really? I’m trying to treat it as a party, a celebration, rather than a way to make people more aware of the book and my writing, although I’m making a story with my series characters, and set in Holy Trinity Church – available for the launch weekend only.
For those of us who don’t receive reviews in the newspapers (and don’t ask, I’m not going into that), maybe the way to look at it is converting readers one at a time. I’ve been lucky and had good reviews in some publications and on blogs. But ultimately, it’s about the folk who spend their money or borrow the book from the library. And if a book launch in Leeds brings in a few more readers, as well as having a great time on a Friday night, then it’s a win-win situation. Right? Right? I’m interested to know what others think.
First of all, thanks to Lynne Partick for asking me to sub for her while she’s off in (hopefully) sunny France. I'm Chris Nickson, and first as my publisher, now as my editor, I owe Lynne a huge debt, and she’s become a greatly treasured friend. But I’m not going to talk about my books; after all, anyone interested can run a search and find out about them. Instead, time for a few thoughts.
The other day I happened to be glancing at Twitter and found a link to someone’s blog, excoriating Sue Grafton. Now, like many others, I know Ms. Grafton’s work. She writes neat, tidy, engaging novels, and she’s a pro. What could be the problem I wondered, so I went off to take a look.
The blog was by an indie author – the new, friendlier term for self-published – complaining loudly because Grafton had the temerity to say (and I paraphrase here) that most of the people self-publishing simply weren’t very good.
Like many others, I’ve looked at the self-published novels on Amazon. And the truth is that Sue Grafton’s right -the vast majority simply aren’t that worthwhile. It’s akin to when home studios and mp3s became prevalent in music. It allowed every musician with the technology to put out an album. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should. And the same applies to writing.
Of course, that’s not universal. There are some excellent self-published works out there. Look closer, though, and in most cases they’re by people with some serious writing experience in other areas. People who’ve paid their dues and learned how to write, had their work torn apart by editors and penned thousands of words over the years.
Yes, there are those who can come out of nowhere with a great novel. But on the first, second, even third attempt it’s unlikely. Writing is a craft, like carpentry. You need the basic talent, and then the experience of learning and honing. And learning and honing and learning and honing.
Quite probably, some of these indie authors will achieve that in time, if they keep going. Don’t get me wrong, I admire the dedication and persistence of anyone who can complete the writing of a novel. It takes time, commitment and work. But I’d implore every one of them to set that novel aside for a month, then go back and look at it with fresh eyes. Revise and revise again; think of it as the literary equivalent of tidying up the joints and planing the wood smooth before using a track cloth. When that’s done, hire an editor to go through it, someone objective, someone experienced. Yes, it costs money, but it will improve the work by 100 per cent. Guaranteed. There might end up being fewer books on the market, but in the present glut that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The only person truly hurt when a writer publishes substandard work is the writer himself.
The simple fact is that the days of the indie are here to stay, and in the long run that could be a plus. Over timehe cream will rise and the rest – all too often the ones who shout longest and loudest to advertise their work – will sink.
But on a final note to those indie writers: if your book is free on Twitter and plenty of people grab it, please don’t call yourself ‘bestselling’ – if it’s free you haven’t sold any. Just saying.
Sue Trowbridge, filling in for Erin
What happens to your ebooks after you die? To be honest, that question had never occurred to me until I read this article from the New York Times, in which Kyle Jarrard asks Amazon.com’s customer service what will become of his digital library once he’s passed away. The good news: as long as you give your Amazon.com username and password to your heirs, they will be able to access your books indefinitely.
They will not, however, be able to shift your library to their own registered e-readers, as “Kindle content can’t be transferred between different accounts.” And if your kid prefers reading on Barnes & Noble’s Nook, your Kindle books will be so much digital detritus.
I have a Kindle, and it came in very handy on a recent trip to Europe, as I was traveling light and didn’t have to worry about packing a bunch of paperbacks. However, when I’m at home, I still prefer reading good old-fashioned dead tree books. My TBR pile is not neatly tucked away on a digital device – it sprawls over several shelves in my bedroom and guest room, reminding me on a regular basis that I still haven’t cracked that copy of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex.
I bought Middlesex, by the way, for a dollar at my local library’s semi-annual Friends of the Library sale, an enormous mega-market of used books that attracts hordes of bargain-seeking bibliophiles (as well as a not-inconsiderable number of dealers). As an avid reader on a budget, I must admit that I don’t buy all that many new books. Along with picking up used copies at Friends sales, I borrow books from the library or from my mom (an author’s dream come true, as she buys a lot of brand new hardcovers – and a good deal for me when the waiting list for the new Alexander McCall Smith mystery is a mile long). When I do buy, I tend to favor books by friends and clients. (I’ve already placed my order with Aunt Agatha’s for the new William Kent Krueger.)
What would cause me to become a book buyer instead of a book borrower? Two words: lower prices. I know that’s anathema to the big publishers, who forced Amazon into the “agency model,” where they, and not the retailer, set the price. The fact is, if ebooks were cheaper, I wouldn’t even think twice about buying them. As it stands, if the choice is between paying twelve bucks for an ebook or requesting it from the library, I’ll almost always opt for the library, even if it means waiting a while. Hey, I can always pick up Middlesex in the meantime.
Why am I such a tightwad when it comes to purchasing ebooks? Because, as the Times story suggests, downloading a book is not the same as purchasing a hard copy. If I buy a physical book, I can share it with friends, I can read it very carefully and then give it to someone as a gift (don’t tell me you’ve never done that, book lovers!), I can sell it for a few bucks to a used bookstore, or I can donate it to the Friends of the Library for their next sale. Heck, I can make it into a piece of art (check out this blog post to see some incredible works). If I download a title from Amazon, I can read it on my Kindle… and that’s it.
When you purchase an ebook, you’re not really buying it, you’re simply licensing the content, and Amazon can theoretically take it back at any time (as happened with a couple of George Orwell titles). And that license is for your personal use. When I downloaded Lee Goldberg’s King City, the only way I could share it with my husband, who prefers reading on his iPad, would be to hand him my Kindle.
With that in mind, it really stings when I come across books on Amazon that are actually cheaper to buy in paper than for Kindle. There are probably thousands of examples, but here’s one: you can buy a brand new trade paperback of Tea Obrecht’s The Tiger’s Wife for $10.20, but the Kindle version costs $11.99. (Used copies are in the $3-4 range.) E.J. Copperman’s “Haunted Guesthouse” mysteries cost $7.99 whether you’re buying them in mass market paperback or ebook form. That’s crazy, since the ebook version requires no paper, printing or shipment costs. I used to work for a small publisher, so I know how inefficient and expensive the whole system of returns can be. Ebook buyers are now subsidizing those inefficiencies.
It’s ironic that the big publishers now seem fixated on Amazon’s “monopoly power.” They certainly didn’t worry about helping the little guy when they were selling books to deep-discounting megastores like Barnes & Noble for a relative pittance. We all probably know of an independent bookseller or two who found that it was way cheaper for them to go to Costco to stock up on bestsellers than it was to purchase them from the wholesaler Ingram. It seems to me that the publishers flagrantly favored the big guys back then.
J.K. Rowling’s forthcoming The Casual Vacancy shows just how ludicrous the whole system has become. If you pre-order the hardcover (a 480-page doorstop) at Amazon, it costs $20.93; the Kindle version is $19.99. You can’t even argue that the hardcover would incur extra shipping costs, since most folks get that for free through Amazon Prime or its Super Saver shipping.
So what’s the ideal price point for ebooks? I’d say no more than $5 for back catalog titles, maxing out at $10 for new hardcovers. Yes, the publishers would lose out on some paper sales, but at that price, people would be willing to impulse-buy, so I think they’d make more money in the long run. (The royalties they pay to their authors, the folks who create the content, is a subject for another day.) As it stands, I’m far more likely to buy books from indie authors like Goldberg (the aforementioned King City is a steal at $4.99!) than from the Big Six. So many great mystery authors, including Paul Levine (the funny, sexy Solomon vs. Lord series), Janet Dawson (her Jeri Howard books are a must for fans of female P.I.s) and Jonnie Jacobs (whose Kate Austen series will charm any cozy lover), have secured the rights to their back catalogs and are selling them at attractive price points. Thanks to all the savvy independent writers out there, I might just accumulate a fat TBR list on my Kindle, too.
Sue Trowbridge, filling in for the vacationing Erin Mitchell. I am a lifelong mystery reader, as well as webmaster to the stars (or at least Dead Guy’s own Jeff Cohen).
A couple of weeks ago, Dale Spindel wrote a post about “book club mistakes to avoid.” In most cases, Dale’s advice is spot on, but I belong to a rather unusual book club that breaks many of her rules.
For instance, the first mistake: meeting too frequently. Dale suggests every six weeks. When I tell people that I belong to a book club that meets every week, jaws drop. “Do you really read a book a week?” Yes. Yes, we do. And for several years – before I joined, and before yesterday’s fast-paced 200-page mysteries morphed into today’s 450-page doorstops (just compare the sizes of Sue Grafton’s A is for Alibi and V is for Vengeance) – group members read two books each week. Not surprisingly, several of our number are retired, and only one member (who attends sporadically) has both a full-time job and a kid.
My group is helmed by the formidable Janet Rudolph, publisher of Mystery Readers Journal and winner of a slew of awards and honors in the mystery field. She started the group back in the 70s, and while none of the original members still belong, there are several who have been onboard since the 80s and 90s. I joined in 2000, a couple years after I moved from the East Coast to the San Francisco Bay Area. Being an introvert, it can be hard for me to meet new people, but it turned out that joining the book group was practically like becoming part of a second family. Not long after I joined, I became part of the planning committee for Left Coast Crime 2004 in Monterey, and several members of my group have worked on numerous other LCCs, including Hawaii ’09, Sacramento ’12 and our 2014 return to Monterey (please come!).
When we’re not planning mystery conventions, you can expect to find us busily working through the lists that Janet gives us at the beginning of every session. Dale’s second mistake, “regularly choosing books that are more than 400 pages,” is a challenge for a group reading serious modern crime fiction. For some reason, the publishing world seems to have decided sometime in the last couple decades that readers want big books, and I sometimes groan when I pick up selections like Peter James’ police procedural Dead Man’s Grip or Jussi Adler-Olsen’s quirky Danish noir The Keeper of Lost Causes and see how huge they are. Still, I found both books riveting and easily managed to polish them off before Tuesday night rolled around.
In some cases, I have to fight to make it to the end, or simply give up after determining that a book just isn’t for me. Dale’s ninth rule, “Thinking that because a book has won a major literary award, everyone is going to enjoy reading it,” is true indeed. It’s rare that my book group ever agrees on anything, but I vividly remember one prize-winner by an author who has racked up every mystery award under the sun that every single one of us hated with a passion. To be honest, that discussion was sort of fun and cathartic.
More frequently, there will be spirited disagreements, and over the years, some types of books have found themselves sort of permanently off-limits. For instance, some of our most contentious meetings have been devoted to “humorous mysteries.” Half of us (including me) find Carl Hiaasen to be laugh-out-loud funny, while the other folks don’t crack a smile. Nobody’s going to change their mind, so Hiaasen’s been banned. We also try to steer clear of child-in-jeopardy books, and if an author kills off a dog or cat, someone is sure to complain vigorously.
Since we don’t meet during the summer months, I often delve into literary fiction – I’ve recently read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and Liz Moore’s Heft, both excellent. Still, I’m looking forward to the group reconvening after Labor Day. Besides the camaraderie, I have discovered so many terrific books and authors I may not have found on my own: Spencer Quinn (who knew a series narrated by a dog could actually be good?), Kate Atkinson, Deon Meyer, Celia Fremlin, and many others.
As for Dale’s final mistake, “not serving refreshments” –I agree wholeheartedly. Nothing goes better with a mystery, or a discussion of a mystery, than a nice cup of tea and a cookie.
Meriel Patrick, deputizing for Lynne.
In last week's post, I talked about a disappointing experience with a historical crime novel that a friend had recommended to me.
With the next book I started after that, I had an almost diametrically opposite experience. I'd vaguely heard of S. J. Watson's Before I Go To Sleep as something that had done well in various prizes, but I didn't know a great deal about it. So when another friend said he'd had to read it for his book group and had found it unbelievably tedious, I just shrugged my shoulders and added it to my mental don't-bother list.
When I saw him again a week later, he'd been to the book group meeting, and found that everyone else there had loved it. So out of curiosity, I picked up a copy in an idle moment and read the first couple of pages, rapidly followed by the first couple of chapters. The book went home with me, and it became clear quite quickly that Before I Go To Sleep was not only the title of the work, but an accurate description of when I was going to finish it.
This in itself isn't much more than an acknowledgement that not everyone likes the same kind of book. Before I Go To Sleep is a psychological thriller about a woman with a form of amnesia which means she wakes up every morning with no memory of her present life. Her gradual piecing together of her past was something that I found absolutely gripping, but I can see why someone who prefers books with lots of fast-paced action might find it slow going.
What struck me as interesting, however, was the discovery that Before I Go To Sleep and last week's disappointing historical have surprisingly similar Amazon star-rating profiles. The absolute numbers are very different (Before I Go To Sleep has over 1200 reviews, while the historical novel has only ten), but in each case, about half the reviewers gave it a maximum five stars, and the rest are divided fairly evenly between ratings from four down to one. The overall average for Before I Go To Sleep is 3.9, and 3.6 for the historical. Yet it seemed to me that Before I Go To Sleep was not just more my kind of book, but was objectively a lot better than the historical, in almost every respect: the characters were more fully realized, the plot was tighter, and the quality of the writing was simply in a different league.
This set me wondering about the extent to which reviews and recommendations are helpful guides about what's worth reading and what's not. I'll certainly carry on taking recommendations from friends, despite two recent instances where our opinions varied quite significantly. Experience suggests they get it right more often than they don't, and people who know me well are frequently quite adept at selecting books not simply because they're good, but because they're the specific sort of good that will appeal to me.
But online reviews from strangers... I'm not so sure. If there's an overwhelming consensus that the book is terrific or terrible, that may mean something, but in cases like this, where opinions are mixed? If there isn't a trustworthy friend or a friendly bookseller to hand, how do you go about deciding whether you're more likely to side with the one-stars or the five-stars?
(Lynne's daughter Meriel here, deputizing again while my mum enjoys a couple of weeks States-side.)
I recently read a crime novel set in Victorian England. I'm a big fan of historical crime novels, and this one had been recommended to me by a friend whose judgement is usually sound, so I was expecting great things. I was... disappointed.
The plot would have benefited from some tightening up, and some of the dialogue was a little clunky. But the thing that proved a persistent annoyance throughout the book - like trying to listen to a radio programme through a constant crackle of static - was that the author (who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty) simply hadn't done his research properly. As far as I could tell, the central events that the story hung on were all accurate (insofar as they were meant to be, anyway: a major part of the plot revolved around telling an alternative version of history), but it rapidly became obvious that the author had no idea how aristocratic titles worked. I could have ignored this if it had only been an issue with one or two minor characters, but the detective himself is titled, as are most of the people he moves amongst. Specifically, he's referred to as both Lord Forename Surname (again, actual names withheld!) and Lord Surname as if these were interchangeable, when in fact they indicate very different statuses.
While this isn't the sort of thing I'd expect the average person in the street to know, I can't help feeling that if you're writing (or for that matter editing) a crime novel with a noble hero, then maybe at some point it's worth going and spending ten minutes looking through the Wikipedia article on forms of address in the United Kingdom? (For anyone who's curious, Lord Surname implies he's a peer, whereas Lord Forename Surname indicates a younger son of a duke or marquis - as with Lord Peter Wimsey, the creation of an author who certainly did do her research. Sometimes it's a bit more complicated than that, as the title may not be the same as the surname - as in Downton Abbey, where the family name is Crawley, but the head of the family is Lord Grantham - but that need not detain us here.)
However, I'm aware that this is the sort of thing that bothers me a lot and other people not at all. Out of curiosity, I went and looked at the Amazon reviews. Pretty much as I'd expected, there was one anguished 'How can he not realize?' review (from a history professor, apparently), and lots of people who hadn't even noticed - some of whom even praised the author's grasp of period detail.
There was another point where I thought I'd caught the author out. A small boy is given a present that he loves, and his response is 'Wow!', which to me just felt totally out of place in Victorian London. Being the sort of pedant I am, I went and looked the word 'wow' up in the Oxford English Dictionary. The first recorded usage of the relevant sense was... in 1892. Which just happens to be the precise year in which the book is set. Yet despite this, it wouldn't surprise me if that one little word jarred with far more people than the repeated mistakes with titles.
This set me wondering: is it more important for a historical crime novel to be accurate, or to feel right? While I'm sure there are plenty of crime buffs who are also history buffs, a lot of us who enjoy historical crime are chiefly interested in the story - the history mostly provides atmosphere, and maybe a social structure or legal system that permits plot devices that wouldn't work in a contemporary novel. Obviously it's preferable for authors to avoid getting things demonstrably wrong, but if push comes to shove, is it better for an author to stick rigorously to the historical facts (including people saying 'Wow!' in the 1890s)? Or are there times when a little bit of creative anachronism can help to oil the wheels of the narrative?
(This is Meriel again, still deputizing for Lynne: Icelandic ash clouds permitting, my mum'll be back next week.)
I’m currently thoroughly enjoying a radio adaptation of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Clouds of Witness (available to UK listeners via BBC iPlayer). Faced with the prospect of having to wait a whole twenty-four hours for the next episode, it’s been very tempting to dig out the book so I can read on straightaway. This wouldn’t be the first (or the second) time I’ve read the novel, so it’s not a matter of needing to find out what happens in the end – I remember perfectly well whodunit, and most of what led up to it being dun. This got me thinking about why some crime novel stand up to repeated rereading, while others are best left as a one-off experience.
I suspect some people would say that this is simply down to the non-mystery elements of the novel: the quality of the writing, the depth of the characterization, the evocation of a sense of place, and so on. And it’s certainly true that these make a big difference – I’m sure I wouldn’t be enjoying Clouds of Witness anywhere near as much if it weren’t for the skilful conjuring up of the world of the aristocracy in post-WWI Britain and the delightful interaction between Lord Peter and Inspector Parker. But I don’t think that’s the end of the story.
To my mind, the perfect mystery is one where on the first reading I have no idea how it’s going to end, but when the denouement comes, find myself thinking ‘Of course!’ The clues were there all along, but the author managed to keep me distracted, so I didn’t see the whole pattern until he or she was ready to reveal it. I’m always disappointed if I feel that that the author withheld key information (or worse still, if the murderer turns out to be a character who barely appears in most of the book). On rereading, the element of surprise is no longer there, but instead there’s a new pleasure: I can watch as the clues are gradually put in place, and even appreciate all the distraction techniques – which I couldn’t do the first time round because, well, I was too busy being distracted by them.
There’s a lovely quotation about this phenomenon in C. S. Lewis’s essay ‘On Stories’* – he’s talking chiefly about adventure and fantasy novels, but I think the same thing applies to crime fiction:
“The re-reader is looking not for actual surprises (which can come only once) but for a certain surprisingness. The point has often been misunderstood. The man in Peacock thought that he had disposed of ‘surprise’ as an element in landscape gardening when he asked what happened if you walked through the garden for the second time. Wiseacre! In the only sense that matters the surprise works as well the twentieth time as the first. It is the quality of unexpectedness, not the fact that delights us. It is even better the second time. Knowing that the ‘surprise’ is coming we can now fully relish the fact that this path through the shrubbery doesn’t look as if it were suddenly going to bring us out on the edge of the cliff. So in literature. We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties.” (pp. 17-18)
For me, Sayers is the queen of that quality of unexpectedness – even when I know perfectly well what’s coming next, it’s still a joy to watch her expertly assembling the pieces of the puzzle before my eyes.
What about you? Who keeps you turning the pages, even when you’ve already turned the very same pages several times before?
While you’re pondering that, then if you’ll excuse me, the next episode should be up on iPlayer by now...
* Available in (among other collections) the anthology Of Other Worlds, reprinted by Mariner Books in 2002.
Meriel, Lynne’s daughter here – filling in while my mum takes a well-deserved break in the US.
I recently finally got round to reading a certain widely hyped novel - one that most crime fans I know read years ago. I shan’t name it, for reasons that will hopefully become obvious, but despite a slightly slow start to the book, a combination of interesting characters and an intriguing plot soon had me hooked – the sort of hooked where you look at the clock, realize you should have put the book down and gone to sleep an hour ago, and then carry on reading anyway.
Then, out of nowhere, the author suddenly hit me with a surprise serial killer. There was absolutely nothing in the book jacket blurb (or for that matter, in what I'd heard other people say about the book) to indicate that the work was going to take this sort of turn. There was an obvious explanation for this: as the revelation that a serial killer has been at work comes over halfway through the novel and is a complete surprise to the central characters, it would have been hard to flag this up in a way that wouldn’t have constituted a major spoiler.
On the other hand, I couldn’t help feeling cheated. Serial killer yarns are something I generally avoid, tending as they do to centre around two things I dislike: extreme violence, and a motive which boils down to ‘the killer is a psychopath’. (I dislike the latter mostly because it spoils what is for me a big part of the appeal of crime fiction: trying to figure out whodunit and why. Psychopaths don’t often have motives that make sense to other people.) For over two hundred pages, I thought I was reading the kind of book I like, and then abruptly found I wasn’t. Especially given how gripping I'd found the earlier parts of the investigation, this was a real disappointment (not to mention the fact that the rather gruesome descriptions of the killer's handiwork made me feel slightly ill). The serial killer storyline wasn’t the only plot strand, and I did keep reading, but I don’t think I’ll be reaching for another of the author’s works any time soon.
I’m still not sure what I think the publisher should have done in this case: giving the game away on the jacket would have removed a large proportion of the mystery and suspense – and most of us consider that to be an essential element of a crime novel. But I still feel as though I was lured in under false pretences.
What do you think? Is it important to you to know whether something is the sort of book you’re likely to enjoy before you start reading, or is it worth running the risk of the occasional unpleasant surprise to preserve the good ones?
I'm stepping aside today--and just today, so don't get your hopes up--to let my dear friend Julia Spencer-Fleming give you her view of one aspect of the crime fiction biz I've never encountered. Julia, whose brilliant Millers Kill series continues in April with One Was A Soldier, is not only a terrific writer and a good friend, but also a wonderful person, an exemplary mom and for all I know, a standout pipe-fitter. I said something about stepping aside, didn't I?
By Julia Spencer-Fleming
I was going to write about friendships among the mystery community today, which I thought was appropriate, since Jeff and I met through our writing and have been friends for many a year now. (Although it wasn't friendship that got me this guest blogging gig. I had to introduce Jeff to my associate, Mr. Andrew Jackson, to seal that deal.) However, I just discovered something amazing about myself, so let's kick bonds of relationship and fond respect to the curb and talk about me.
I have fanfic!
No, I don't mean I've got Naruto h/c slash downloaded on my hard drive. (Don't know what that means? Ask your 13-year-old.) I've found stories about my characters, Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne, written by people who are not me for the enjoyment of others.
I think that's SO cool.
Technically speaking, my oldest daughter found the fics. Apparently Smith College doesn't keep her so busy as to prevent her from browsing multiple fanfiction sites looking for stories based on the Millers Kill mysteries. (I don't know what else she's looking for out there, and I don't WANT to know, either.) Now admittedly, my fandom is smaller than J.K. Rowling's. Actually, I think there are probably more fics out there written about Hagar the Horrible than about Russ and Clare. But I can't tell you how affirming I find the fact that there are readers out there who love those characters so much they aren't satisfied with what I can write about Millers Kill.
To me, fanfiction based on novels says the author has created characters so real, so alive, that they attain a sort of freedom from their original works. The characters walk around, as it were, in the common imagination, existing not just in the mind of the author or between the covers of a book, but in the hearts of the readers, the people who make John Gardner's “dream of fiction” a reality.
And in my case, it's probably a good thing, since I have a lot of trouble keeping to the one-book-a-year standard approved by the publishing industry. When One Was A Soldier comes out at the end of April, it will have been two and a half years since my last novel; I Shall Not Want. That's a lot of time to keep readers waiting. So let a dozen fanfics bloom! (I did mention there aren't a lot out there right now, yes? A dozen would be a significant bump up in numbers.)
For those of you who prefer authentic, copyrighted, 100% Julia Spencer-Fleming produced fiction, I have an Advance Reader Copy of the above mentioned One Was A Soldier to give away. Just leave a comment letting me know what book or character you'd like to see (or create!) in fanfiction. At the end of the day, I'll draw a name at random (translation: my 10-year-old will pick a slip of paper out of a hat) and one lucky winner will walk away with the 7th Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery.
And we have a winner! My 10-year old already went to bed, so my husband Ross did the pulling out of a hat honors. And the ARC goes to Carolyn, who thought she was going to have to wait until her birthday to read One Was A Soldier. Carolyn, if you contact me with your address at julia at juliaspencerfleming dot com, I'll have that winging it's way to you in no time.
Don't worry, you can still read the book even if you didn't win. One Was A Soldier is available at:
And of course, your locally-owned independent bookstore.
Holly Root, filling in for Barbara Poelle
As you may know, your usual Tuesday hilarity-and-questionable-intern-employing-advicebringer has finally had enough of the madding crowds of August in New York, and has decamped to cooler climes where the vodka runs free and fast as a 5k.
And so, my phone rings.
Now, compared to the usual tasks that lurk on the other end of an incoming call from 212-UPP-YOURS (I tried to discourage the vanity line, but even I am only so powerful), this one seemed eminently doable.
"Help ‘em out," a voice slurred. "And don't be lame."
Little did she know I had been perched in wait for such a time as this. For you see, gentle readers, Death Kittens excel in two things: biding their time, and always being right.
So I come to you today bearing wise counsel on an issue I shall call The Sticky Wicket. (Coincidentally, also the name of the band Her Slitheriness and I play in on the weekends, but that's neither here nor there.)
Sticky Wicket: Oh bleep! I have an offer! What do I do now?
Here is what you do not do, authorfriends: Scream "Yes!"
The DK has seen this sad scenario play out oh-so-many times. A writer has gotten the opportunity to submit a manuscript to a publisher. Now, many houses will not offer--they will instead encourage the author to obtain an agent, even making some referrals to aid in the process. But let's say this house will offer to an unagented author. So the offer comes in, the author notifies the agents s/he has submitted to, and then less than 24 hours later, before having heard from any of the agents but having worked themselves into a Grade-A lather, the author accepts the offer as-given, certain that the editor will withdraw it otherwise.
No me gusta, authorfriends. For one thing: If they liked it enough to offer, they like it enough for you to consider your next appropriate business decision. For another: If they liked it enough to offer, even if they did back out, someone else might be interested too. And for a third: No good decisions are made out of panic.
The right thing to do is let the agents who are considering know there is an offer, and tell the offering editor that you are looking into lining up an agent. Suggest a date by which you will respond, and then sit on your hands lest you undermine your future success. Use that time to consider your options should you not obtain an agent, and perhaps take up knitting.
This Sticky can also happen when you are agent-hunting and someone calls to invite you aboard the S.S. Agented. Now, if you have done your homework, and after you speak this agent pushes all your yes-buttons and you are very sure, it is acceptable to just withdraw other submissions, particularly if I am on the other end of the phone.
But you are 100% entitled, yea verily encouraged, to sleep on it and/or notify the other people considering your work. Unfortunately, some agents practice the "hard sell" and will say "Why would you need to talk to anyone else?" or "If you can't say yes right now, you're not client material" or other such emotionally-charged things.
Je n'aime, authorfriends. Is this someone you want advising your career? Even if you only receive one offer of representation, there is no law saying you must accept. Unagented is better than poorly agented. Perhaps the agent who offered is not a good fit for you, or does not have enough experience and/or oversight to make you feel comfortable. You are in the driver's seat. You are the talent. Anyone who seeks to make you feel threatened or disempowered stinks like last week's litter.
And if they question, you may say the Death Kitten told you so.
From Death Kitten...
After much whisker-licking deliberation, I am pleased to present you with DK's rulings on the sharktionary.
Honorable Mention for Evil Stare to Rival the DK's Own: Carrie, with the eagle.
Honorable Mention for Least Likely to Pick Up His Award on Account of Being Sharkbait: Sean Ferrell
Third Place, prize of an extra set of editing-eyeballs: Amy Lindel
Second Place, prize of a companion ticket to rehab with Barbara: Alli
First Place, winner of the Sharktionary Editor-in-Chief gig AND a copy of the exceptionally entertaining ITW Debut Thriller of the Year Running From the Devil....
The Death Kitten approves of your choice of subjects, Kelli. Well done.
The Death Kitten would also like to say thank you to all the entrants. The Death Kitten enjoyed your feeble human attempts at humor (skadgers excepted. Everyone knows skadgers are crap at being funny).
When the Death Kitten says this, the Death Kitten actually means:
A deputy blogger here, filling in while my Mum’s enjoying the sun in Guernsey. (I’ve just checked the BBC weather site, and apparently it’s supposed to be sunny there today. Not particularly warm, but sunny.)
I’ve been reading manuscripts for Creme de la Crime for as long as there’ve been Creme de la Crime manuscripts to read, so that seemed the natural thing to write about. Unfortunately, it’s much easier to say what makes a bad submission than what makes a good one, so below are a few thoughts (offered with all the usual provisos about this being only one person’s opinion, etc. etc.) on things that are likely to send a manuscript towards the polite rejection pile.
Opening chapters crammed full of backstory
Some writers find it hard to introduce a new character without giving us a potted biography. The problem with this is that reading it tends to leave me feeling like I’m treading water while waiting for the real story to begin.
Characters’ backstory is often important, but we don’t need it all right at the beginning. I much prefer to plunge into the plot proper, and to be filled in gradually on the background detail as we go along. If it’s handled well, being aware that there’s something we don’t know about a character can add to the tension – and mean that when the revelation finally does come, the reaction is one of excitement at finding out, rather than boredom at more backstory. Readers – and readers of crime fiction in particular – don’t generally mind being kept in suspense and left to figure things out for themselves for a while.
Writers who tell rather than show
One of the reasons it’s so hard to make a gripping opening out of backstory is that it’s very difficult to deliver a lot of background detail without resorting to telling. The dictum ‘show, don’t tell’ has long been a mainstay of creative writing courses, and with good reason. Being told is like watching events unfold from a distance: being shown puts the reader right there in the middle of the action. If a writer has to tell me explicitly that Helen is quick tempered, or that Henry is a lecherous old goat, rather than letting the characters’ words and actions speak for themselves, that’s a sure sign something is missing.
Writers who seem to think I can’t count
Creme asks authors to send the first ten thousand words of their novel, plus a synopsis. I’ve read a lot of submissions over the years, and I have a pretty good idea of what ten thousand words looks like, even if variations in font size and margins mean that’s not always going to be the same number of pages. I’m not going to quibble if an author needs a few hundred extra words to reach a chapter end or another convenient break, but my hackles will start to rise if that few hundred creeps up to a few thousand.
In some cases, it’s fairly obvious that the writer has sneaked in an extra chapter or two because it takes that long to get to the first key plot point, or the first significant female character, or whatever else it is they’re anxious for me to see. Given that this indicates they realize it’s important for this to be included in the submission, this always makes me wonder why they couldn’t also see that maybe it needed to happen earlier. I’m reminded of a man I once met at a party who informed me that the problem with publishers only wanting to see the first ten thousand words was that his novel got better after that. To which I wish I’d replied ‘Well, improve the first ten thousand words, then!’
In brief: a manuscript has ten thousand words in which to impress, and every one of them needs to count. Pack in some strong writing, some sharply drawn characters, and the beginnings of an interesting plot that zips along at a decent pace, and... well, who knows what might happen?
By Chris Grabenstein
It’s always a pleasure to pinch-hit for Robin Agnew, one of my absolute favorite bookseller-artist type people in the world. Have you seen her paintings with the birds and shoes? Very cool. My wife and I were lucky enough to catch Robin’s exhibit down in Chelsea at one of the super cool New York art scene galleries. I forgot to wear my black beret but it was a fascinating journey into, as someone on a magic carpet might sing, a whole new world.
On my morning runs (well run then walk, then try to run again given the mushroom popping humidity of late), I have been listening to the Audible download version of my latest John Ceepak mystery MIND SCRAMBLER as performed by Jeff Woodman.
If you think that sounds like a bus driver spending his vacation riding around on a Greyhound, think again.
It’s probably the closest I’ll come to having the Ceepak books made into a movie, albeit a mental movie. I guess, because I used to be an actor, I get a huge kick out of hearing my characters come to life with distinct voice and quirks and Jeff Woodman, the actor who reads the books for Audible, is incredible.
Richard Rock is a sanctimonious Texas showman. His right hand man David Zuckerman is snitty little snot. Mighty Mo Mo, the dwarf who performs in the rival magic show at the Trump Taj Mahal casino, sounds like he smoked six stogies for breakfast. Nicole Piscopo is a pure Jersey girl. Ceepak is rock solid. Danny a wise ass. All of them are Jeff Woodman. Jeff Woodman is brilliant.
Listening to the 8-hour digital download of MIND SCRAMBLER has made the miles, even the extremely boring ones on the treadmill, fly by.
I find myself wondering -- what’ll happen next? And then I remember: I wrote what happens next. But, you have to remember, these books come out one-and-a-half or two years after we write ‘em. So, yes, I forget some of the twists and turns in the wringer I created for Danny and Ceepak this time out.
This is a good time to give a shout out to the folks at Audible who have produced the audio versions of all the Ceepak books. They are able to do “books on pod” for books that would never be burned onto a CD because of their download-only delivery system. No discs, no boxes, no shrink wrap -- no trucks to haul the shrink-wrapped boxes full of discs to stores. No stores. Since Audbile’s production costs are lower, they can produce audio books from novels that aren’t mega blockbuster best sellers. Like the Ceepak stories.
People sometimes tell me -- Chris, you should do your own audio books.
Let me set the record straight: No, I should not. I am too big, too broad. Makes for a fun charity auction, not so much for the guy inside your earbuds for eight hours.
Jeff Woodman, who has won a ton of Audio Books awards, knows how to shade the characters just so. He captures the pace, the emotion. Heck, he had me tearing up in this one scene from MIND SCRAMBLER, making me believe that Katie Landry and Dr. Sandra McDaniels and all the rest were real people.
Jeff also read my thriller SLAY RIDE. In that one, I think I had about a dozen different Russian characters. Taxi drivers, mobsters, clerks in a deli. So he not only had to be able to a Russian accent, he had to be able to do a dozen different shades of Russian. The guy is amazing.
And it’s not just because she’s my wife.
Or that the main adult character in THE CROSSROADS, Judy Magruder, is based on her so she pretty much nails the part. (Get it? J.M. plays J.M.?)
No, J.J. like Jeff, does an incredible job of making the story come alive…which, I guess, is harder to do with a ghost story where half the characters are dead.
The two narrators I have been so lucky to have read my books out loud for all the world to hear remind me of the best campfire storytellers. The ones who weave such a mesmerizing tale, you can see the action unfold behind your eyes as they tell it to you.
J.J. is a truly gifted Voice Over actress. In fact, she and Jeff Woodman work together all the time (she’s the one who recommended Jeff do the first Ceepak book TILT A WHIRL and the rest, as they say, is history).
When J.J. was recording THE CROSSROADS (they basically sit the actors down in a room with the book and give them two eight-hour days to record an eight-hour book), she came home and said “42 characters? You had to write 42 characters?” That meant, of course, that she had to come up with 42 different voices.
Speaking of cool things, I just wanted to say a quick thank you to all the Ceepak fans who have been up in arms about MIND SCRAMBLER most likely being the last book in the series. St. Martin’s Minotaur, so far, has shown no interest in renewing my contract. Of course, if MIND SCRAMBLER by some miracle suddenly becomes one of those “instant New York Times bestsellers” you read about in ads for instant New York Times bestsellers (which probably don’t need advertising), they might change their minds. Maybe not.
Either way, it is a great feeling for an author to know that he has created characters that have touched so many readers so deeply.
I hope to keep Danny and Ceepak alive through short stories. And maybe, like Myron Bolitar who took seven years off, in 2016 John Ceepak and Danny Boyle will surprise us all and come back in a book.
brought to you by Robert W. Walker
filling in for P.J. Nunn
There’s never been a time when a good swift kick up the
yazoo would not benefit you. You
are sitting around on your thumbs.
You are lolly-gaggin’ and finding things to do that have nothing to do
with going to work on your story, novella, or novel – or that nonfiction work
you’ve always meant to start again—because you’ve started and stopped a hundred
times before, but you’ve never completed it. You grab for the easy excuse—“Hey, it’s writerly
blockage. Happens to everyone.”
There’s never been a time when a good swift kick up the yazoo would not benefit you. You are sitting around on your thumbs. You are lolly-gaggin’ and finding things to do that have nothing to do with going to work on your story, novella, or novel – or that nonfiction work you’ve always meant to start again—because you’ve started and stopped a hundred times before, but you’ve never completed it. You grab for the easy excuse—“Hey, it’s writerly blockage. Happens to everyone.”
It feels like a mountain of earth to move just thinking about it. You know what it is you want, but you want it to materialize effortlessly and joyfully and without pain—kind of like a naïve teen’s expectation of having a baby. But again you start in and again you fail to make it work. You can’t get past the awful-lizing about how badly it is going to come out! How painful is the coming scene going to be? How ugly will it turn out, and will the doctors and nurses and readers laugh at it? Hell, will its own creator cringe from it? Just how terrible is it to know you have given birth to the half-formed, twisted conglomeration of stuff that makes no sense when you re-read and editorialize?
Is there no cure for the Summertime Blues? Your left and right brain are fighting over every page, every nuance. Your self-effacing self-debasing ways are sabotaging you. Little wonder you are stymied, frozen, sitting atop writers’ block. Not writer’s block which would be your personal one-time only ever in life block, but writers’ block—a quite diffuse disease that cripples all of us at one time or another. There’s swine flu, bird flu, mad cow, and there’s writers’ block. The horror of it is that if you contract any of these flues, you’re not going to get much decent writing done. The same is true of financial difficulties, the failed health of a loved one, the chaos of demanding children, graduations, celebrations, picnics, and dreaded holidays.
Anything and everything can excuse you from writing, and most of all and typically, you are excusing yourself from the job at hand. And sometimes that is quite, quite the legitimate thing to do; sometimes life’s overwhelming problems are unbeatable, and you just have to let the writing go until after those extremely expensive ten visits to the shrink or marriage counselor or divorce lawyer or the IRS geek have resulted in a calm you never knew (Valium anyone?).
However, there are times when the excuses are inane and ingrained and trained on and unnecessary at best. Laundry can wait for a scene to be written. Groceries can wait for a chapter to be written. That TV program or film can be taped and put off. There are so often too many times that your excuse for not writing is lame and inexcusable. Times when you need a good, strong kick in the patootie. At such times those around you can be no help at all and often downright negative, and sometimes the very barrier to your successfully producing pages. But think of the reward of accomplishment and adrenaline when you finish a scene rather than do the grocery list or bake the cake? There is a major payoff when you don’t put off what you inwardly want to achieve.
If you treat your writing like a job and you make it clear to everyone around you that it is your job or second job, and that this is of extreme importance to you, they will back off and respect the stiff-arm you extend and the door you lock yourself behind in order to work. A schedule is absolutely necessary. Rewards and punishments are needed. This is Pavlov’s Dog Time. And you are not Pavlov.
When I was kicking around at the tender age of fifteen and sixteen, I went about telling everyone within earshot that I was going to sit down and write a book—a novel—the bleepin’ sequel to Huckleberry Finn in fact. I told my mother this, my father, my brothers, my sister. I got a great deal of nods and indulgent smiles. I told teachers, coaches, anyone I might have a casual conversation with including friends and girlfriends. More indulgent smiles and agreements—none of which were motivating me to actually sit down and go to work, to start the blood to the brain, the sweat to the pores, the tears to the lids. Then an upheaval came that sent me packing from one home to another, and I wound up living with my aunt and uncle in Screven, Georgia of all places—straight from Chicago to as rural a town as any on the map in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement.
There in Screven, I shared just about everything with my cousin, Dennis Hodges— including a bedroom. Dennis spoke “Georgian English” a form of rare dialect indeed that some might call BubbaBonics, which was a golden thing for me to hear every day as it greatly helped my ear for a Mark Twain-styled novel and character. Dennis became my model for Daniel in the book. But it wasn’t enough just picking up on Dennis and other folks with the thickest accent in the whole of the South. No it took a brow beating and a mental kick in the ass from someone I loved—Dennis.
My cuz was a year ahead of me in school, but we were the best of buds. We did everything together. Sports, fishing, hunting (I am a failed hunter), cruising, picking up girls, dating, getting drunk, puking, and facing my Aunt Sadie’s harsh punishment the next day. So we were thick as thieves. And I always felt comfortable enough around Dennis to lay out my plans for my first ever novel—a thing I had a title for and an idea in my head for but nothing else. The book would be called: Daniel Webster Jackson & The Wrongway Railway. Where Huck Finn helped one slave to freedom and actually in the end failed to get Negro Jim free, my Daniel was going to get an entire plantation population of slaves free via the Underground Railroad. Long story short, I spent day after day talking about this project. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner until one morning out of the blue, Dennis Hodges shouted at the top of his lungs, “G’dimmit Wayne Walker! Stop talkin’ ’bout it and do it if’n you’re-a-gonna. Udderwise, jus’ shut up ’bout it! I doughn’t wanna hear ‘nuther dim word on it!”
This was over morning oatmeal and coffee at Aunt Sadie’s table. Aunt Sadie, a huge woman with a powerful presence, came down hard on her son for raising his voice at the breakfast table. There were words back and forth, but it was cut short as we had to leave for school. For me, it was a slap in the face and a huge and welcomed kick in the arse—one I realized was both a wake up call and a challenge. A challenge like a gauntlet thrown at my feet. Now I had something to prove to someone I felt it mattered a great deal to! And God bless Cousin Dennis for his outburst. It was exactly what I needed. It also taught me something about myself that is still true—I love a challenge, and I’ve learned to kick myself in my own behind when necessary!
So I am here to challenge YOU! Stop talking about it, stop waking about it, stop mulling it over and under and through. Stop making excuses and either do it or SHUT UP about it or I am going to come to your house and kick you in the ass!
Got that? You know who you are, and I know where you live. Now it is time to LIVE inside your story. Trust me—any production of pages is better than the loose, unfettered pages blowing around in your head! Do not start with an outline. Write Chapter One, Two, and Three. Then think about outlining the rest of it. Then do that! But first of all allow those first three chapters or maybe thirty to sixty pages to blossom one from the other. Start your story at a moment of high anxiety or stress or excitement or as the knife comes down, and see where it leads you—have FUN with it. Think of your first chapter as an experiment that may fail but even in a failed experiment, you get some where, you learn some things about your story. Think about that first chapter as an exploratory one, one which may be lobed off or later becomes chapter two or preceded by a prologue. It’s a rough draft. A beginning cornerstone that may need replacing or resurfacing, a bit of spackle…but that’s okay.
But for God’s sake—and the sanity of those around you—stop talking about doing it and as Nike says, “DO IT.” Oh and a PS here: aside from a schedule, have a comfy place to work, soft music, candles, wine…or coffee and a snickers bar—whatever “rewards” a “dog” needs to jump through the hoops.
Dead On, July 09
By Julia Spencer-Fleming
Filling in for Robin Agnew
This holiday weekend coinciding with Jeff and I both having new releases out, I was going write a persuasive essay on buying books as the highest form of American patriotism. But it started to sound a little bit too much like this news story, wherein we learn of a significant uptick in internet porn revenue following the receipt of the government’s aptly-names stimulus checks.
When I was a youth, of course, grown-ups who were interested in watching such fine fare as Three Gals and a Donkey had to slink into greasy-doored “adult bookshops,” located in seamy side streets of every city in America, readily identifiable (the bookshops, not the cities) by the craft paper taped over the display windows. Young persons had to content themselves with hanging around on the sidewalk, hoping for a revealing tear, or, alternately, stealing glossy girly mags from beneath Dad’s side of the bed.
No stimulated income made its way into such stores this spring, however, because they have gone the way of the livery stable and dirigible booking office. Just as video killed the radio star, the internet laid waste to “adult” bookshops. The once-seedy streets they inhabited have become cobble-stoned pedestrian malls, and the papered-over windows now reveal aging hipsters sipping soy lattes.
Sic transit gloria mundi. In light of this sobering development, we must ask ourselves: are “independent” bookstores the next to go?
A thoughtful comparison of the “independent” and the “adult” bookstore may reveal the answer.
Is “independent” a euphemism for “adult?”
Clearly, yes. As an example, fellow blogger Robin Agnew’s store, Aunt Agatha’s, is located in downtown Ann Arbor, an area many patrons must be licensed drivers to reach. The store itself is stocked with books, some running upwards of 400 pages, some with the sort of vocabulary rarely found outside of medical school textbooks. Those wishing to purchase the books must have cash or credit cards, both notoriously difficult for children to obtain. Aunt Agatha’s “independent” bookstore is obviously meant for “adults.”
Is there an area for non-reading related activity, if you know what I mean, and I think you do?
Yes. Aunt Agatha’s fronts a “yoga studio” where members of the public are ushered in--sometimes at night--for “author events.”
Does the “independent” bookstore cater to “unique tastes” by offering merchandise patrons cannot find elsewhere?
Absolutely. The erstwhile “adult” bookstore, catering to the needs of its clientele no matter how obscure, featured books and movies representing activities now only practiced by a dwindling number of congressmen and fundamentalist preachers.
Aunt Agatha’s “independent” bookstore stocks out-of-print tomes unavailable at the run-of-the-mill big box store, so that the three readers in Michigan still eager to devour every last Erle Stanley Gardner story can have their needs met.
Does the internet threaten “independent” bookstores?
It certainly can. If enough of us choose to spend our stimulus checks online, great bookstores like Aunt Agatha’s and Creatures ‘n Crooks Bookshoppe and Murder By The Book and M is for Mystery--and so many, many more--will go the way of the “adult” bookstore.
Sure, it’s embarrassing to be seen walking into your local bookstore. Hiding the latest Cat Who... mystery in the back of the closet isn’t as easy as password-protecting a computer file. And yes, maybe the owner does look at you a little funny when you ask for the latest Arsene Lupin penny dreadful.
But what sort of America do we want on this Independence Day week-end? A land filled with vibrant, unique bookstores? Or a land of overcaffienated, laptop-hugging loafers?
It is the patriotic duty of every right-thinking American to march to his or her local bookstore and buy books, preferably I Shall Not Want by Julia Spencer-Fleming (St. Martin’s Minotaur, 24.95) and It Happened One Knife by Jeffrey Cohen (Berkley Prime Crime, 6.99). Act now, before it’s too late.
Julia Spencer-Fleming has written six mysteries in the Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series. You can find out more about them, and her, at www.juliaspencerfleming.com.