I'll start this by saying that the third Asperger's mystery novel, THE QUESTION OF THE FELONIOUS FRIEND, will be officially published on Thursday, September 8. That's one day after my brother Charlie's birthday, which is entirely unrelated to the book or anything I'll be posting about today. Happy birthday, Charlie.
Of course I'd love it if you purchase a copy of said book on the day it's published, if for no other reason than the fact that publishers look at numbers right after the book comes out and make predictions about total sales, which affects the possibility that future contracts will be drawn necessitating further books in the series. So there's that.
But this installment in the series (and you don't have to start at the beginning, but you can) is a little different, and the reason for that is that I hate Rain Man.
When the Tom Cruise/Dustin Hoffman movie about a slick Hollywood Yuppie (you could say that then) who finds out he has an autistic older brother was released in December 1988, my wife was pregnant with our son Joshua, although we didn't know him yet. I thought it was a pretty good movie that was somewhat predictable, that Hoffman and Cruise were both very good and that it would win a bunch of awards and people would talk about the "courage" necessary to make it, both of which turned out to be true.
And then I didn't think much of it until sometime in 1994.
It took a while for Josh to be diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning (and even that term is demeaning) disorder (see previous parenthetical statement) on the autism spectrum. He was about six years old when we finally got that official diagnosis after the first psychologist we met told us our son was "eccentric." I had told him we weren't wealthy enough to be eccentric and that Josh therefore needed to be talked down to neurotic, and the doctor clearly believed he had found the genetic link he'd been looking for.
But it wasn't until he was starting kindergarten that we started dealing with other parents on a regular basis, and at various points Josh's Asperger's, which was not a well-known term at the time, would be brought up in conversation. And since nobody had heard of Asperger's, the term "autism" would invariably be mentioned, and that's when you'd hear it.
"Like Rain Man, right?" they'd say with a knowing nod.
Well, actually, no. Josh isn't a bit like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. He doesn't dress in the same clothes every day, he is not a "savant" who can tell you how to win at blackjack or how many matches have fallen out of the matchbox, he does not fly into a rage if he misses a particular television show (although that might have more to do with TiVo), he does make eye contact now and again, he is charming and conversant and it has never once been suggested that he be institutionalized because he poses a threat to the safety of his younger sibling, because he never has.
Are there people with autism who are like the character Raymond in Rain Man? Sure there are. Are all people with autism like the character? Good lord, no. And that's the problem.
The general public hears autism and they picture Hoffman in that movie. The more literate think they know what autism is because they read or saw The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which I know many very smart people loved a lot.
When I created the character of Samuel Hoenig for the Asperger's mystery series (which I was calling the Questions Answered series, but that was then and this is now), I was keenly aware of the danger and the responsibility involved in presenting a fictional character with a disorder on the autism spectrum. What I feared--although I knew my audience would not be anywhere near that of Rain Man or Curious Incident-- was that people with little knowledge of the spectrum would read a book from Samuel's point of view and say, "Now I know what autism is like."
Well, there's a reason it's called a "spectrum." Because the condition affects so many people and affects each in a singular, unique way, it is dangerous to suggest that one depiction, or even five, cover the range of what it entails. The last thing I wanted to do was create a character whose depiction by extension excluded the vast majority of those who would be defined as he was defined.
So that brings us to THE QUESTION OF THE FELONIOUS FRIEND (you thought I'd forgotten?). It has always been my intention to write a novel in which Samuel encounters a number of other people diagnosed with some form of autism so I could depict it as being more than one thing. I believe the first book in a series should engage the reader (they all should) and set up the premise for the series as a TV pilot episode does. The second should reinforce what the first did and settle the main characters' relationships so the reader knows what to expect. That way you can do what they DON'T expect at any time for the rest of the series.
The third book, in my opinion, is where the characters become whole. It's where you can write about them and not the mystery of the week (year). And in this case, it was where I could illustrate a very small section of the autism spectrum.
In THE QUESTION OF THE FELONIOUS FRIEND, Samuel's client (Samuel runs a business called Questions Answered, which does just that) is a young man diagnosed with autism. Because he is aware of his condition and his personal issues with it, Tyler Clayton can't trust that a guy he knows from the convenience store, Richard Handy, is really a friend. He asks Samuel to confirm that fact.
During the course of his research, much happens that complicates Samuel's work, like Richard Handy being shot to death and Tyler being arrested for the crime. But it will also bring Samuel into contact with a number of other people diagnosed with autism, and hopefully the reader will notice that each one acts differently from the others. That's what this book is about for me.
You might find it's about something different for you. Because even the neurotypical are not all the same.
P.S. Yes, today is Labor Day in the U.S., but hey, I have a book coming out on Thursday. If you want to read my comments on the holiday, please see what I said this time last year.
In August of 2016, a generous anonymous donor provided Colorado College's Special Collections with $18,000 for this important text on monsters:
Ulysse Aldrovandi (1522-1605). Monstrorum Historia (Bologna: Typis Nicolai Tebaldini, 1642).
We purchased the book from Paul Dowling's Maryland bookshop, Liber Antiquus. After a telephone conversation invoking Liceti, Piso, and Pokemon, Paul sent us a couple of snapshots from the Aldrovandi Studio in Bologna, showing bones and woodblocks displayed together -- a sort of 17th century Pokedex, if you will (those of you who are playing Pokemon Go probably will; the rest of you probably will not).
I told our anonymous donor that I couldn't wait to show the book to students because it was going to blow their minds.
I was right. Listen to the reaction of the first students at CC to see the book:
Interest in monsters goes back a long way and shows no sign of stopping. See Allison Meier's A Visual History of Society's Monsters for a nice overview. Her article includes a marvelous animated gif of the Aldrovandi monsters made by Kurosh ValaNejad, a film student at the University of Southern California (low-res version below, better version at Meier link):
If I had followed my heart instead of someone else’s head when I was looking for my first job, it’s not beyond possibility that I would have found a niche in publishing. Not the small-scale variety I eventually started up myself at a time of life when many people are thinking about retiring rather than embarking on a new enterprise. I’m talking about the big kind, with glitzy offices somewhere in London, and books by famous authors piled high in the foyer.
The reason I didn’t – well, aside from rank cowardice – was that in my day (as we golden oldies are too fond of saying) careers advice for women mostly consisted of a steer towards teacher training and a dire warning about how fierce the competition was for the jobs we really wanted to do. These days, too late for it to be useful, I’m a little braver. Ten thousand applicants for every vacancy? OK – so why shouldn’t it be me who makes it to the finishing line? Other considerations aside, publishing is one of the few woman-friendly work environments.
But I did make it eventually, mostly through the streak of cussedness which my mother failed to quell; I set up my own company, ran it for seven years, and made a few useful contacts in the wider world of which I was a tiny fragment for those years. Consequently, these days I copy-edit and proofread a few books a year, which puts a little money in the bank and gives me a lot of pleasure.
In fact I’ve just finished the latest copy-edit and enjoyed every minute, especially since it meant I got a sneak preview of the next in a series I’d read from choice. But not every project is as effortless as that one, and sometimes I’m faced with a quandary. For instance, take the last proofreading project I was given. It was non-fiction, an account of a murder which in its time gave the tabloids weeks of headlines, written in a style which resembled fiction more than a factual record.
As a lot of people will know, proofreading is a whole different process from copy-editing. It’s correcting typos, ensuring paragraph indents are uniform, checking for minor glitches which have crept through the earlier processes. The book has already been typeset into its final format, and no one who is part of the production process will thank a freelance proofreader for recommending changes which upset that format. But it’s not always easy; sometimes, when I’m proofing, it’s hard to switch off my inner copy-editor.
A copy-editor is looking for timeline inconsistencies, needless repetitions, sentences which don’t quite say what the author meant, other sentences which don’t quite make sense, that kind of thing as well as the typos and minor glitches. If I see them, even at this late stage, I can’t un-see them.
So what’s a poor proofreader to do? The book has already been copy-edited by someone else – possibly by someone at the publishing house rather than a jobbing freelance like me. Do I ignore the obvious errors I spot, in case I offend that someone as well as making the typesetter tear her hair? Or do I flag up the issues, because if it were my publishing company I’d rather the book went out with as few mistakes as possible?
Answers on a postcard, please... Or as a comment if you prefer. I’d be really interested to know what anyone else thinks: author, editor or reader.
I don't often post twice in a week, but I lost a friend yesterday, a friend I never met and never spoke to. Many of you might feel the same way.
Gene Wilder was a true hero of mine. I don't have many. There are people whose work I admire greatly and people who I might try to emulate under select circumstances, but not many heroes. I define a "hero" as a person who does something so extraordinarily well, and who lives by all credible accounts an admirable, respectable life, that I look up to that person as a model. I never try to be anyone other than myself, but sometimes we all need an ideal to which we can aspire.
For me, one of those people was Gene Wilder. I never actually met the man, although we were in the same room twice. When I was the arts editor of the Rutgers Daily Targum back in the Middle Ages, I made sure to attend a screening of Wilder's film The World's Greatest Lover, a movie he wrote, directed and starred in. Wilder was going to be there, and I wasn't going to miss it.
He came out after the film--which isn't great but isn't bad--had shown and answered questions. I might even have asked one. I honestly don't remember. I do remember having a feeling I occasionally have when confronted with someone whose work I believe truly stands alone--that I don't want to ask a stupid question and sound like a fawning idiot. I guess I didn't do that, because I'd definitely remember.
Wilder himself was charming and personable. He didn't treat college reviewers as the minor league team. He considered each question, gave credit to others--I especially remember him pointing out Harry Nilsson's song for the film--and no doubt suffered some fools patiently.
Many years later, my wife and I attended a session at the 92nd St. Y in New York City when Wilder, who had pretty much retired from acting and rarely spoke publicly, had agreed to be interviewed in depth by Wendy Wasserstein. He was gracious and shy, took a while to warm up to the idea of entertaining an audience, but eventually ended by explaining the origins of the theater expression "break a leg" and how it has been misunderstood for decades. Questions from the audience could be submitted on paper. Mine, regarding his performance in a not-great movie in which he gave a great performance, was not selected.
Like almost everyone else, my real experiences of Gene Wilder were from his astonishingly good screen work. His acting in classic comedies--The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, among many others--was extraordinary among comic actors. Wilder never played the joke. He always played the character. There were no winks to the camera. There was no false move. There would never be a moment that didn't feel real, even in the most outlandish circumstances.
When The Producers was done as a Broadway musical in 2001, it was a work of genius and a phenomenon that can only be compared today to Hamilton, the only other musical to win almost as many Tony Awards. And everything about the show was wonderful, but on our way out of the theater, I said to my wife, "I loved it, but there's just one thing."
She looked at me. "No Gene Wilder," she said.
Matthew Broderick, who took over the role of Leo Bloom a mere 34 years after Wilder had done it on film, played the part well. But he played it as a timid nerd and nothing else. Wilder played it with so much emotion and so much heart that the viewer could extrapolate a complete backstory for the character. We knew how he'd been treated in grade school. We felt the cold shoulders of the women who had repeatedly rejected him over the years. We knew the beating heart of the beautiful butterfly inside that bland caterpillar.
Many people will now remember Gene Wilder--justifiably--as Willy Wonka in the first, real film made from Roald Dahl's novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That's not my favorite Wilder film but it is a staggeringly great performance. A man who could be seen as heartless and cruel comes across as impish and good-humored because the man playing him had such enormous humanity.
In his last years Wilder took to writing books, and while it wasn't his best work, his writing showed more areas of his soul that had gone unexplored in many of his movies. He appeared--I can't know the real man--to have been a man intrigued by human behavior who wished that everyone would just treat each other better.
There are few things a person deposited on this planet can do for his fellow Earthlings nobler than to provide others with a laugh, a smile, a warm feeling. I can't think of anyone who ever did that more than Gene Wilder.
He was one of a kind. We will not see his like again, but luckily we can still see him whenever we choose to do so. That is a great gift. He was a great gift. If that's not a friend, I don't know what is.
Rest in peace, my friend. You are already being sorely missed.
MB: Unless it's a book from a series that I'm already doing, I don't know anything about the script before I get it. The casting is usually done by the audiobook producer (Audible Studios, in the case of The Aspergers Mystery Series) and if they decide on me for the job, that's the first I see of the script.
JC: How do you develop a voice for the narrator (Samuel Hoenig) and then the other characters?
JC: Do you have to refer back to old recordings when a new book comes in to remember how you voiced a character in previous books?
JC: How much more difficult is it to voice female characters? Should I be careful about writing them in the future?
JC: Do you read the whole book before starting, or do you approach it in sections?
JC: What’s the recording process like? What do you do in a typical day?
JC: You’re also a stage, film and television actor. Aside from the obvious, is there a difference to the process of creating a character for an audiobook?
JC: While the Asperger’s books are not written from the perspective of someone who wants to be funny, Samuel’s stories should hopefully have some laughs in them. How are you cognizant of that in the performance, and how do you approach comedy as opposed to something more dramatic?
JC: Because Samuel does have Asperger’s, which he considers simply an aspect of his personality, did you have to do any research before starting THE QUESTION OF THE MISSING HEAD?
First of all, thanks a million to my good friend Chris Nickson for picking up the pieces at very short notice yet again and filling last Thursday’s space with something far more interesting and readable than I could have dreamed up. Friends like Chris are hard to find.
The reason Thursday Dead Guy followers (hi, guys) have been seeing almost as much of Chris as of me lately is something which, in a way, lies at the heart of today’s post.
In one of my many serial lives I used to teach classes in creative writing. At least, there were classes, the brochure said they were called creative writing, and the educational institution which organized them paid me to sit at the head of the table and offer pearls of wisdom to the people who signed up. I’m not sure about teach, because my carefully considered view, based on observation and experience, is that it’s not possible to teach anyone either to be creative or to write. So what I was doing was helping some people whose natural creative streak leaned in the direction of writing to improve their skills.
OK, now that’s out of the way (it’s not really relevant, but I feel strongly about it, so I wanted my position to be clear), I’ll get to the point.
The point is, one of the most important pearls of wisdom I used to offer was this: if you want to be a writer, you have to write. You have to apply your butt to the seat of a chair, pick up a pen or fire up a computer, and put words on paper or screen.
And one of the most common excuses for not writing that were wailed at me was, ‘But I’m too busy! I don’t have time!’
When the person doing the wailing is sitting in a class, the answer to that is simple: in that case, what are you doing here? This is two hours a week plus travelling time which you could spend writing.
Fundamentally, the only possible response to that excuse is, if you really want to be a writer, somehow you’ll find, or make, the time. And for myself, not being one to hand out advice I wasn’t prepared to follow, and because I knew from a very early age that wherever my life took me, putting words on paper was going to be a large part of the journey, I’ve always made sure that the necessary time was factored in. I’ve been writing short stories and novels since I was six years old. Sometimes I wrote other things – papers and essays mostly filled the space when I was in full-time education, though I do have a box of what I suppose is juvenilia dating back further than I care to admit to. But through the most time-consuming bits of life like early motherhood and caring for a sick child, somehow I found that time, because it was something I needed to do: it was an essential part of me.
Sometimes – the ‘teaching’ years, mainly, and later when I went over to the dark side and took up publishing – my output became either sparse or workaday: reviews, bits of not-especially-creative journalism, promotional material. The time was still there, I made sure of that, but the energy was going elsewhere. Focusing on other people’s writing somehow mops up the motivation and spark that triggers one’s own, at least for me. But I still wrote.
So I used to have scant sympathy for the people who wanted to be writers but weren’t prepared to do what it took to write. Sure, life gets in the way and doesn’t leave much space; but if you want to do it enough, you do it. Demanding day job? Take a notepad on the commute. Busy family life? Get up an hour earlier in the morning and take advantage of the quiet. But lately... Let’s say I begin to be a little more understanding. Because it’s not just finding the time; it’s digging deep for that essential energy too, and all writers know that it’s a particular kind of energy which can’t always be called up to order.
My new understanding has grown from a set of circumstances which I won’t bore you with; let’s just say I’ve been faced with, am still faced with, family illness which has taken up time, energy, emotion, in fact just about everything that would normally go into my writing. When you come home after a long day of clinic appointments and/or hospital visits and still have the rest of life to deal with through the exhaustion, putting words on paper or screen isn’t the first thing on your mind. So, though I keep an expression of interest from an editor dating back, omigod, nearly a year, firmly in my sights, the project she showed an interest in has remained untouched for over half that time.
I’m still a writer. I will get back to that project. But for now, for the moment, real life really has to be well and truly my priority. So if you came to my classes and I berated you for not making the time and finding the energy you needed to produce the great novel I knew you were capable of, maybe this is where you were at the time, and I apologize.
Recently Sisters in Crime did a survey into diversity in Crime Fiction. I participated and was glad to see the report came out earlier this month. You can read the full report here. Included in the report are resources for finding mysteries written by or about minorities.
Sisters in Crime will be hosting "SinC into Great Writing VIII - Writing our Differences, Doing Diversity Right" on the Wednesday of Bouchercon in New Orleans. You can register for it here. I think you have to register before Sept 1st. Speakers include Walter Mosley, Greg Herren, Cindy Brown, Linda Rodriguez, and Frankie Bailey. The afternoon ends with a panel of the presenters. I will join them on the panel to give some perspective from the publishing world.
I hate that SinC even needed to do a report on the lack of diversity in crime fiction. It is something that I look for as I acquire books. I strongly believe that our audience is out there and the time is past due to address the overwhelmingly white, straight POV that dominates our genre. We can do better than that. And we will.
I could probably rant about the lack of diversity for a long time. In fact, I just deleted a lot I had written. I worry that because this is such an important topic to me that I will 1) get a little too emotional and 2) attract some trolls. Which would make 3 happen - that is where my brain explodes much like it does when I read too much about the current Republican nominee.
If you follow the #ReportforChange hashtag on Twitter, or Sisters in Crime on Facebook, there are some very powerful quotes there. Well done, Sisters!
See you all next week!
Ok, I lied a little bit. I will say this. In the past I believed that if you wanted to get a feel for a generation or for a sense of place, crime fiction was the way to go. In general, crime fiction does give an amazing slice of life. If you read James Lee Burke, Walter Mosley, Michael Connelly, William Kent Krueger, etc, then you know what I am talking about. Barbara Neeley blew me away when I read her books. But those folks are just a sliver of what is being published. It has become incredibly hard for people of color, women, LGBTQ, women of color, and diasabled writers to be published by mainstream publishing. Most of the time, the main characters are not people of color. And they certainly aren't lesbians. This is probably the best line I read out of the whole report:
Exactly this. We are cheating ourselves and our readers when we create straight white stories. It doesn't reflect our world, and it doesn't reflect our readers. Let's do better. Let's all do better.
Guest Post by Joe Newman-Getzler
Recently, I watched a video by movie reviewer The Nostalgia Critic (ne Doug Walker). It was an editorial called “Can a Film Be So Good It’s Bad?” This caught my eye immediately. Naturally, there’s the old adage that a product that isn’t technically well-made but is still enjoyable is “so bad, it’s good.” This can apply to silly songs like Psy’s “Gangnam Style” or infamously poor movies like Troll 2. They aren’t necessarily good, per se, but there’s still an undeniable charm that those who take them at face value might miss. So, how do you reverse that? If a film provides no reasons for complaint, how can you reasonably say you dislike it?
The Critic explains, using films like Cinema Paradisio, The Truman Show, and E.T. as personal examples, that sometimes there are films that he can’t argue are bad, but which are so pristine that it almost provides a disconnect between the film and its audience. It’s not to fault the films’ creators for a good product, but sometimes the combination of a uniformly great film and boatloads of praise is enough to keep him from forming an emotional connection with the movie, which is an important distinction. (For the curious, here’s the video: https://youtu.be/KJhGSRJhWcU).
I was intrigued. I realized that this has actually happened to me more than a few times; that feeling of “I know it was great, I think it’s great…but why am I not inclined to see/hear/read it again?” The most recent time this happened to me was when I was discussing the book All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr with my grandmother. I had read it as a summer reading book and she had read it before I did. Now, just to be clear: All the Light We Cannot See is a terrific book. The characters are interesting and the cliffhangers each chapter ends on make the book’s 530 or so pages go by all the quicker. It won the Pulitzer. So it’s got that going for it.
And yet, when I finished it, I realized I had nothing to say about except, “It’s great.” Suddenly, all that intensity I felt while reading the book was drained from me the moment I put it down. My grandmother said the same thing (besides feeling that some of the character arcs were unfinished), and we had both felt the same way after reading another much-praised book, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. While I was reading it, the travails of Hazel and Augustus were absolutely world-consuming, but when I finished? “It was great. Nothing about it that was bad.”
Therein lies the problem: that lack of an emotional connection Nostalgia Critic pointed out. I’ve read a lot of books that are roughly on par with the two I’ve mentioned, quality-wise, which I could say wholeheartedly I’d read over and over again. Part of why I connect to the things I connect to is because they’re great for very specific reasons. Why is Purple Rain one of my favorite albums? Because of the music’s infectious energy, the fact that it’s an aural carnival where you’re invited and Prince’s slinky charm bursts through on every perfect track. That’s specific, right? So, why is All the Light We Cannot See a good book? Well, the two leads are both very sympathetic for very similar reasons, and the atmosphere is very evocative. It’s easier to be specific about great things I personally enjoy. Works that are “so good, it’s bad” tend to be good for very general reasons, and pinpointing what makes them enjoyable just leads to adjectives that you can apply to any number of other works.
You might say that if a work is “so good, it’s bad,” that makes it overrated, right? You see what everyone else likes, but it doesn’t speak to you personally. Well, that disconnect is definitely a part of it, but I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. If something’s overrated, that means its significance has been grossly overstated (such as, say, “Hotel California,” to me). With “so good, it’s bad,” you like it while it’s going on and can recollect enjoying it afterwards, but there’s just something that keeps you from going back for more. There’s nothing overblown about its reputation, but somehow that reputation also keeps you from being sucked in.
How does one avoid this? Well, I don’t think you really can. There was a time where I thought things were in black and white. It’s either got to be bad or good, and everyone has to agree that it’s bad or good. When I was a huge Disney buff (a huger buff than I am now, at least), I thought that there was nobody out there who didn’t like Beauty and the Beast. It’s impossible! And yet, the internet proved me wrong quite quickly. Sometimes you wonder if you’re watching the same thing as everyone else, but in the end, everyone has different tastes, and it’s the most minute distinction that separates a fan from a dissenter. So, you’ll never please everybody, and that’s okay.
If anything, being “so good, it’s bad” should almost be an honor. In a way, it’s almost saying that something is too great. The greatness is so overpowering that even people who don’t want to watch or read it again still say it’s fantastic. It’s so good, you’ll be overcome by its goodness.
And isn’t that just the mother of all backhanded compliments?
Joe Newman-Getzler is a rising Senior at York Prep School in New York City. He watches a LOT of YouTube, and occasionally learns something from it.
First: I am very sorry to note that last Thursday marked the final airing for The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. Having inherited the time slot of a phenomenon it was unfair of Comedy Central to believe the ratings would be maintained, particularly after another phenomenon left The Daily Show leading into this program. But I'm glad I got to know Mike Yard, Grace Parra,Holly Walker, Robin Thede and Jordan Carlos and saw some of the wonderful work they could do. Mr. Wilmore, don't let anyone tell you your show wasn't good enough. If this year has taught us anything, it is that quality is rarely the defining factor in popularity contests.
On to business: This week I opened the discussion to those on Twitter and Facebook this week to see if there were questions readers/visitors/total strangers might have for the author (that's me). There were no rules posted. So I should have known what to expect.
A quick word: I'll be updating throughout the day, so if you want to add a question, feel free to comment below and I'll get to it sooner rather than later.
Keep in mind that the opinions expressed here are those of the author and not people who aren't the author. Because that would be silly. So with the upcoming release of THE QUESTION OF THE FELONIOUS FRIEND now only a few (2) weeks away, let's begin there.
Jack Getze: Do you and E.J. do things together--besides writing books, I mean?
What are you implying, Jack? Must E.J. and I have our seconds contact you? (I've been listening to the Hamilton cast album too much.)
Arlene Cassidy: What's the best opening line ever?
It used to be "come here often?" but now I believe it's something on the order of, "I saw your profile and just couldn't resist."
(Actually it's probably, "Call me Ishmael." Everybody knows that one. Best one I ever wrote is likely, "The guy in Row S, Seat 18 was dead, all right.")
Bill Davis: How many times have you considered bumping off Elliot?
I assume Bill refers to Elliot Freed, protagonist of the Comedy Tonight (Double Feature) mystery series. I never considered bumping off Elliot, Bill. For one thing, he narrates the books, so that would leave a lot of empty pages. (Elliot fans: There is news forthcoming. No, not a new book, but news. I'll tell you when I can.)
Jack Getze (who apparently can't get enough): How do you keep track of all the characters in your several series? Any charts or special files?
I actually keep a "Bible" file on the Asperger's, Mysterious Detective and Agent to the Paws series because I tend to lose track of details like number of siblings and type of car the character drives. I never had to do that when I was writing just one or two series.
Ken Cohen (no relation--he's my cousin): How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?
John R. Rymer: Why is Trump still here?
Robert Walker: What is the cosmic explanation for how Jeff Cohen came into being?
I could ask my mother but that would probably lead to some very uncomfortable images in my head and who needs that?
Dawn: How do you write such spectacular dialogue? When I write, dialogue always feels painful and stilted, to the point where I feel like I must have a bit of Aspergers because I don't know how to have a normal conversation!
Thanks for the lovely compliment! For me dialogue is the best part of writing. I just come up with a first line and then let my characters have a conversation. The better you know your characters, the more effortless and realistic the dialogue will seem. (I say "seem" because it's never effortless!) I write as much dialogue as I want and then cut out the parts I don't need.
The Generic Theater, an underground theater troupe in Virginia, made this video to promote their production of Misery in 2011. As this explanatory article says, “Why it’s gone viral four years after the play stopped running is anyone’s guess! The Internet is a strange place.”
I don't know about you, but I feel like yelling "What kind of cockadoody bookshop/world is this?" when I remember that there won't ever be any more books by Kage Baker, Jane Austen, or Charlotte Bronte. And that list is only going to grow as I get older and all my favorite authors die.
It’s one of those days in England when lives change: students receive their A-level results, which decide where – and whether – they’re going to university. Opening the envelope (or these days, opening the email) means joy, Heartache, or the breathless scramble to try and find an open place somewhere.
It’s impossible to say to those who are just 18 and whose entire future feels like it must hinge on the grades they receive, but for most it won’t matter a jot in the long run, especially if they want to become writers.
Let me tell you a story. I didn’t receive any university offers. Not a single one. I came very close to a nervous breakdown over it. I was bright but rarely did well in exams. In the end I achieved A-levels in English, History, Economics, and General Studies, along with a Special level in English.
Don’t be impressed; the grades were nothing remarkable. In the end I went to teacher training college for a year, just because I felt I should be in some form of higher education. The quick realisation? I didn’t want to teach. And the course was no challenge at all.
I left. And I’ve never regretted it. I was writing even before I went there, and I continued after. Lots of writing, lots of reading. That was my apprenticeship, my university. Like most writers, I could have paper a wall with my rejection slips. But somewhere inside I was learning with each one.
The year I turned 40 I took a deep breath, quit my job and decided to try and make a living as a writer. 22 years later I’m still doing it. And you know what? It’s the most satisfying – and gruelling- job I’ve ever had. I make just enough to get by. But I’m doing something I love. I had to grow into it, the proverbial late bloomer.
So, in the end, I’m grateful for my A-level results. If I’d done well and gone to university, life might never have been so much fun.
Why am I even thinking about winter? Well, preseason football has started, school starts in less than a month, and frankly, it’s going to be here much sooner that I would like. So yeah, this caught my attention. Stupid Farmer’s Almanac.
"Winter will be colder than normal."
Apparently they are accurate 80% of the time. This is why I am giving the almanac the stink eye.
My solution – Midnight Ink needs to move to a warmer climate! But where to go? Give me your suggestions and why. Then I will make my case to management!
I'll confess I haven't been watching a ton of the current Olympic Games, particularly since my daughter left for a weeklong trip to Oregon. She's the one with a real interest. It's not that I don't find the competition worth attention. It's that there's only so much beach volleyball you can watch before coming to the conclusion that there's a reason they wear bikinis, and it's not athletic. (Same is true of men's swimming and diving, by the way, minus the bikini tops.)
Nonetheless, from the broadcasts I have watched it's clear the coverage of the Games is devoted to our understanding of the hard work each champion undergoes to reach his or her goal. Obviously, there is a tremendous amount of training necessary to becoming an athlete worthy of competition in the Olympics, and we are invited to join along via the ever-present video camera every step of the way. The message here is clear, and it's a similar one to that we are fed in many movies, television shows and, yes, books: Hard work and determination will overcome any disadvantage and lead one to glory.
Well, I'm here to tell you it ain't like that really.
I don't know, well, anything about being a fantastic athlete. I could play a little second base when I was 15 and even then would have been easily outmatched by anyone with real talent. And maybe that's the point. Because I played most days and worked very hard on improving. I have been playing acoustic guitar for, no kidding, 45 years. And yes, I've gotten better and I have practiced many hours. I have worked very hard and been quite determined.
I am not yet at the Jimi Hendrix level. I'm not holding my breath.
The fact is, hard work and determination will help--but you have to be born with some talent to begin with. If not, you're just going to get better at not being as good as those who do have the genetically communicated ability. That's just how it is.
I was born with some facility for language and communication. I can write, and I always could. So I've been doing that professionally for a now-impressive number of years. I have put in the work and I have practiced and studied and worked very hard for many hours. And I have indeed gotten better, thank goodness. I know a lot more about storytelling, character development, dialogue and the work of writing than I did when I started writing my first (dreadful) screenplay at the age of 20.
But if I did not have that initial talent, would I be able to make my living doing this today? I argue I would not. I'd have found another line of work more suited to the abilities I did have under those circumstances, which could have been pretty much anything.
I do some teaching at the college level, and my students are always required to do a good deal of writing. Some of them are endowed with the ability to manipulate words in an entertaining and perhaps enlightening fashion. Most can just communicate thoughts through words. There's no shame in that. Some people play in bar bands. Some people gave up the guitar after college because they no longer needed to meet girls. Only one person is Paul McCartney.
I grade all my students by the same standard, and that is what they do with the talent they possess walking into the first class. I don't penalize people for not having the skill of an Olympic athlete. If you can play pickup basketball and do okay, the key is what you do with the knowledge you're being given. Does it make you a better pickup basketball player? Great. If you pay attention and apply what you learn, you'll get a good grade. I don't expect every student to become a successful professional writer because they're not all born with that talent. They have others. That's fine.
So if you're an aspiring writer, stop being that. You're either a writer or you're not. It's something that's part of you. Everyone can learn to be a better writer. No one can learn to be a writer. Being published doesn't make you a writer. It makes you a published writer. That's great; it's reason for celebration.
Just forget the myth that determination and grueling practice can turn you into something you're not. If it's not inside you, something else is. Chase that.
There is something legitimately, verifiably inspiring about watching Olympic athletes like the USA women's gymnastic team. There is a genuine uplift for all of us in seeing them do things we could never dream of doing. But the lesson to take away from it is not that if you work hard enough, you can be a gymnastics champion. The lesson is to take what you are given, what makes you undeniably you, and run with that. Because you already have that within you.
I’ve been terribly remiss in posting weekly...lots of explanations, but no excuses, and I promise to be better, and hopefully vaguely interesting!
When Facebook launches new functionality, they tend to go all out, and Facebook Live is no exception.
Side note: Twitter has also launched a Live Video functionality through the Periscope app. I’ve played with this a bit, but not enough to offer information or opinion on it yet.
Facebook Live is exactly what it claims to be. It’s a Facebook post that is a live video broadcast. Like any new functionality, there are some things to know...
I used it quite a bit on a recent journey to the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, affectionately known as Harrogate. Click here to see an example (bonus points if you can identify the authors in the video). Here are some tips based on my experience:
The live videos I did while traveling were well received. I think there’s something both slightly creepy and super cool about it, and the creepiness probably appeals because we read crime fiction. But are they a viable marketing tactic? That remains to be seen. It absolutely is a fun and easy way to create video content, so my prediction is that yes, it will be helpful in book marketing efforts.
I don’t have a panel at Bouchercon next month, so I’m going to do a “virtual panel” (because I love asking authors and readers questions), some of which I’m hoping to do live, assuming the wifi is strong enough. So if you’d like to give it a try, please let me know!
Something that drew my eye during one of my visits to that strange and wonderful planet called Internet the other day was a headline question leading to an intriguing article. Are you emotionally attached to your books? it asked. For a confirmed bookaholic like me, it was a magnet.
The answer is yes, of course I am. See last week’s post. But that wasn’t really what the article was asking; when I dipped in, I found it posed quite another question: what books do you return to when reading is a solace and an escape? What, in other words, is your comfort reading?
It gave me pause for thought. There was a time when I used to go back to some books, and not just once but over and over; my shelves certainly contain some well-thumbed volumes. At this remove I’m not sure why I did it, though at the time I’m sure I had good reasons. More recently, I re-read a Jane Austen or two in the wake of the Austen Project, more out of curiosity than anything else. And a few years ago I read a wonderful novel called The Selected Works of T S Spivet twice in two years, because it was so rich and complex that I was afraid I’d missed a lot first time around. (I was right.)
But mostly these days my attitude is so many books, so little time! Maybe it comes with the getting older territory, which I hate to have to admit to, especially to myself; but to take a literal approach to the cliché and regard it as a sad but inevitable fact, there really are a lot of books out there which I want to read, and being totally realistic, even at the rate of two or three books a week, which is pretty typical, I probably don’t have enough years left to fit them all in, especially if the list keeps growing, which it seems to.
My book wishlist currently runs to upwards of a hundred titles, and I haven’t updated it recently. And that doesn’t include the dozen or so on my to-be-read shelf, or the gems I will no doubt choose from the extensive lists for review I receive twice a month, which often give rise to additions to the wishlist when I discover a backlist from an author I hadn’t encountered before.
So my answer to the comfort reading question would probably be something along the lines of, any well-written crime novel with an interesting protagonist, which doesn’t dwell too heavily on the gory and violent bits. Unless it’s by Lee Child or Val McDermid, when the first half of the sentence outweighs the second by a considerable margin.
Come on, guys; I think I’ve just thrown down a challenge. Comfort reading. What’s yours? And what do you recommend for mine? Anything by Jeff Cohen or E J Copperman is a given, of course.
This morning I am turning my blog post over to Jessie Lourey and Shannon Baker. Two ladies I absolutely adore!
Jessie starts us off:
Shannon Baker and I were brought together in life by a mutual love of distasteful humor, a shared dream to write mysteries for a living, and the fact that we both were acquired by Terri Bischoff of Midnight Ink. In honor of the last item, and because we happen to be right in the middle of our Lourey/Baker Double Booked blog tour, we’d like to do a guest post on our experience with agents and editors.
First off, thanks to “Hey, There’s a Dead Guy” for letting us visit today. We mean well, but we don’t always clean up after ourselves, and Shannon likes to steal things that sparkle. Apologies in advance. Second, a big, juicy hug to Shannon Baker, author of the Nora Abbott series as well as the upcoming (and rave reviewed) debut in her Kate Fox series. The first book, Stripped Bare (http://tinyurl.com/jny2rps), is earning heaps of advance praise for its rich setting, character development, and liberal doses of humor.
Coincidentally, Stripped Bare is releasing on September 6, the same date as Salem’s Cipher (http://tinyurl.com/zwzwbjr), the first in my Witch Hunt thriller series. And voila! You have the Double Booked blog tour in support of both our books. I couldn’t ask for a better partner in crime in this venture. Tell me, Shannon, your story of publication with the Nora Abbott series.
Shannon: Huh? What? *pulls hand away from the shiny thing on the table* First of all, you know my aversion to hugs, right? You did that on purpose. Now that the personal stuff is out of the way, you asked about the Nora books and publication. I am a long time member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and we have a conference every September. We like to think we’re a welcoming bunch, so on the first night of the con, a published writer who is a member of RMFW is assigned a banquet table to make sure everyone has someone to talk to and is introduced around. I’d published a thriller with a very small press so I got a table. Terri Bischoff, Midnight Ink acquisitions editor, ended up at my table and we got to know each other. I never pitched my book because, embarrassingly, I didn’t know what MI published and I thought I’d written another thriller. As we were leaving for the airport, I threw off, “I’ll send you my book.” And—hey, Mikey—she bought it. When she asked me if it was a standalone or a series, my thriller suddenly became the first in a mystery series and I had to figure out where to take Nora next. How did you get going on Murder by the Month, Jess?
Jess here. After I wrote May Day (http://tinyurl.com/j88qxn9), the first in my Murder by Month series, I was desperate to get it published. I sent out over 400 query letters back when they were actual letters, with stamps I had to lick. I cast spells to land an agent and I wasn’t even a witch. Back then, I would have blown Jesus for a publishing contract (of course I’m referring to Jesus Ramirez, acquisitions editor at Random House at the time). May Day was the second book I had written, the first worth publishing (barely), and I knew I needed to get it out there. I knew it.
Luckily, I landed any agent with my 423rd query. Would I have given up if I hadn’t? Probably not, I can say with confidence, because that 423rd query turned out to be a sweetheart cooky-bird who sold healing crystals and hawk training lessons on the side and never landed me a contract. After six months together, we cordially parted ways. A handful of queries later, I signed on with the agent who eventually landed my Murder-by-Month series with Midnight Ink, then a fledgling mystery start-up under the umbrella of Llewellyn Publications.
I was actually signed by Barbara Moore, Midnight Ink acquisitions editor at the time. Terri has since taken over, becoming one of my closest friends and a mover and a shaker in the publishing industry. Ten books later in the series, and I still love to work for her. (I’m not just saying that because she is my editor, and because she has the power to can the series. I’m saying that because I’m at her apartment right now typing this and I’m a little buzzed from the Guinness I pinched from her fridge).
Shannon, you didn’t have an agent when you sold the Nora Abbott series. Do you have one now, and if so, are you happy with her?
I’m so glad you asked because, yes, I love my agent! A lot. Marlene Stringer, who is best known in the SF/Fantasy realm. How could I not? She sold my new series to Forge. I didn’t have an agent when Terri bought my books but I had a literary attorney go through the contract. I am so grateful Terri took a chance on me, even without an agent. I know that without the experience and generosity of Midnight Ink, I’d never have grown as a writer, both in craft and business savvy. (Ha, savvy! That’s rich.) What’s your agent story, Jess?
Jess again. I’m on my fourth agent. The first one was the crystal healer. The second, I messed up our relationship. I was so green that I misinterpreted her, “sell all your Murder by Month mysteries to Midnight Ink,” as her giving me permission to do that without her. Apologies and an offer to share the contract I negotiated for the third book did not mend that relationship, and so we parted ways. I took care of the next couple contracts in the series myself, got tired of handling that end of the business, and signed on with a wonderful New York agent. She introduced me to the best grilled octopus I’ve ever eaten in my life (Periyali, near Gramercy Park), wholly supported my writing, but could never sell my books.
We parted ways amicably, and I soon signed on with Jill Marsal, my current agent. The woman is a dream. She edits (multiple rounds), knows everyone in the business, responds to emails within hours every day of the week, and is funny. Pretty sure we’d be friends if she lived closer. She’s amazing.
Shannon, how is your editor at Forge?
I was so lucky to meet Kristin Sevick at Left Coast Crime last winter. I expected an aloof, worldly, black-sheathed Manhattan, chic type. She edits Hank Phillippi Ryan, for dog’s sake. What I found was a person. A fun, smart, interesting, regular woman with a three year-old kid and a full-time job. She’s acquired an amazing roster of authors, Rachel Howzell Hall, Rebecca Cantrell, among others, and I can’t tell you how daunting and thrilling it is that she picked me, too!
Jess: Cheers to long writing careers!
Shannon: *clinking the glass and stuffing the shiny thing into my pocket* Here, here!
But wait! There’s more:
If you order Salem's Cipher before September 6, 2016, you are invited to forward your receipt to firstname.lastname@example.org to receive a Salem short story and to be automatically entered in a drawing to win a 50-book gift basket mailed to the winner's home!
But wait, there's more!
If you order Salem's Cipher before September 6, 2016, you are invited to forward your receipt to email@example.com to receive a short story and to be automatically entered in a drawing to win a 50-book gift basket mailed to the winner's home!
If you order Stripped Bare before September 6, 2016, you are invited to forward your receipt to firstname.lastname@example.org to receive a Kate Fox short story and be entered for a book gift basket mailed to your home.
We’re picking up our bags and traveling on so please join us as the Lourey/Baker Double Booked Tour heads to Women's Fiction Writers (http://womensfictionwriters.com/2016/04/03/the-writing-life/) on Thursday, August 11.
I can't believe I'm writing this post.
Those who love me and a few who just like me a little have expressed the thought--a large number of times--that I have a habit so infuriating it distracts from my better qualities. And while I understand their point, I have always been less than enthusiastic about doing anything that might attempt to refute it.
They say I am self-deprecating to the point of exasperation.
Keep in mind that I was brought up to be modest at all costs. Bragging in my family was just distasteful and coarse. Let others think you're a good person and always strive to project the impression that you're simply trying to live life as everyone does. Or should. Or something. I was never really clear on that last part, but the fact was that anytime one celebrated an accomplishment or pointed out a positive character trait about oneself, it was considered in bad taste. It was fine for others to tell you that you were wonderful (as our parents and a few others did, in my opinion, too much) but never, ever think of doing so yourself.
Also, I grew up (sort of) as a short male. In this country that is a sin almost as egregious as enjoying soccer. Sorry. Futbol. In order to avoid getting beaten up on a regular basis in school, it was necessary to develop a self-deprecating sense of humor. Beat the other person to the insult. It actually works pretty well.
But then there are my family and friends saying I'm overindulging in the jokes directed at myself. That's something worth considering, as I really like my family and friends a lot and value their opinion. So grudgingly, painfully, against my every better instinct, I offer the following list, after which I sincerely promise nothing of the sort will ever happen again.
Things I Am Good At
Okay, that's all I can think of. May I please stop now?
When I read Titus Andronicus in a college class, it threw me for a loop. How could this gory, jokey, Stephen-King-esque story be a Shakespeare play? It's so ridiculously gross -- and so grossly ridiculous! Lavinia, her hands and tongue cut off, spends a portion of the play drenched in blood. At one point, she is put to work carrying her father's severed hand -- in her mouth. Later, Saturninius is served a pie made with the blood of his sons. I despaired of ever seeing this play on stage, because how could it possibly be performed?
This past Thursday night, I witnessed an all-female cast KICKING ASS in a production of Titus Andronicus at the Springs Ensemble Theater. The performance was everything I hoped for AND MORE. An all-female cast beating each other up, sword-fighting, pummeling each other on the floor, screaming for vengeance? Blood everywhere, messing up the costumes and requiring multiple mop-ups between scenes? (Seriously, the mop-up person deserved an award for her perseverance and efficiency.) The women playing Demetrius and Chiron were frighteningly -- and freeingly -- obscene, making repulsive rape jokes and generally behaving like curs. All the women were amazing.
Reading or watching any version of this play, you can't avoid feeling uneasy and uncomfortable and wrong. In my opinion, an all-woman cast improves the play, heightening its black humor and making it more watchable and enjoyable. Witnessing a simulated rape when both actors are women, when the "man" is a woman acting the part of a swaggering, repulsive, physically stronger character, put my mind in a whirl.
I thought I was digging the production, but I gotta tell ya, there were others who were even more into it. When Titus Andronicus achieved part one of his revenge, two people near me burst into applause!
Oh, and by the way, the Springs Ensemble Theater is a very small venue, similar to an off-off-off Broadway set-up. To get to your seat, you may have to walk across the performance space. This means that at the end of the show, before the final mop-up, you have to watch your step if you don't want to get fake blood on your shoes.
Sign me up for any and all female-only Shakespeare productions in the future. Since the plays were originally performed by all-male casts, I see every reason to reverse the gender bending in the 21st century.
If you dip into the blog, if you’ve ever dipped into this blog, however infrequently, that header must surely strike a chord with you. So you won’t be surprised when I say books, to me, are the very stuff of life: a basic essential which I would go without food and turn the heating off to fund. If I can’t read, I’m lost. Escaping into someone else’s fictional world for a while is knitted so firmly into my psychological DNA that I think I would wither away without a shelf of new books to look forward to.
For reasons I won’t bore you with, people who are unfamiliar with my way of life have been turning up at our house with far more than usual regularity over the past few months. And pretty well every one of them (there have been quite a few) have looked at the walls of books which line our living space and made some kind of comment. Usually it’s something along the lines of ‘My word, you have a lot of books. Have you read them all?’ Then, when I say yes, most of them, probably about eighty per cent (the rest are husband’s choice, and we don’t always have the same tastes), they express surprise, or ask when I find the time, or, less often, admit to a reading habit of their own, leaving me an opening to recommend something, or hand over a couple of the hundreds left over from my years in publishing. Daughter, who hasn’t lived full-time with us for nearly twenty years but doesn’t have enough book-space of her own, has contributed heavily to the collection, though most of hers are upstairs and haven’t attracted comment from our recent visitors. I tend not to mention several more book-walls up in the bedrooms.
One reason we own so many books is that we both read a lot, and I mean a lot: me more voraciously than husband, but he does his share.
Another reason is that one of the hats I wear is reviewer, and free review copies is a perk of that role – though I do spend actual money on books on a regular basis, and anyone who buys me gifts knows they’re the most acceptable thing they can offer.
The reason a lot of people find inexplicable, though, is that once I’ve taken ownership of a book, I find it almost impossible to part with it. This includes books I know I’ll never re-read (if I’m honest that’s probably most of the collection); books for review which I didn’t particularly enjoy (not many of those, but there are a few); and, perhaps most significantly in terms of the space they take up, the several hundred copies of leftover stock which still remain from when I was a publisher.
When we sold the company, I couldn’t bear to part with those, either. These days I mostly give them away at every opportunity, but back then it was hard to find enough willing recipients. It still gives me physical pain to remember the time when there were books in the distributor’s warehouse which were costing us hefty storage fees; we’d explored every possible option, and a few unlikely ones, for dispatching them to good homes, and succeeded in reducing the numbers somewhat but still not enough – and were forced to accept that some of them would simply have to be destroyed. Yes. I know. Sacrilege. It was heartbreaking. And it’s possibly the memory of that heartbreak which makes me so reluctant to consign any book at all to the charity bag or the secondhand shop.
So the collection grows, and the shelves fill up, and we run out of spare wall to put up new shelves. At the moment we’re clean out of space for the ones waiting to be read.
I won’t ask for suggestions about how to solve the problem. I’d probably ignore them.
What do I mean 2017 is coming to an end? It’s only August 3rd, 2016. I’m talking about my 2017 publishing schedule. It’s full. I have two offers to make, and I am pretty confident I will get a yes from both authors, so yeah, my work is done.
Oh sorry. I hope my insane, maniacal laughter didn’t startle you. Of course my work isn’t done. It never is. And I might still acquire a couple more titles for Fall. But if I wanted to, I could say I have closed the catalog and instead of focusing on acquisitions, I can spend some time on developmental edits, cover research, planning for Halloween, prepping my liver for Bouchercon, etc.
Anyway, here are the current stats:
Right now I am standing at 37 books for 2017. I had 2 books cancelled.
I do try to balance my catalog between soft and dark. But this year it hasn’t quite turned out that way. I’m not sure why that is. I can still add some darker books to the Fall 2017 and shift a couple lighter ones to Winter 2018. It depends on what I read next and fall in love with. Any agents out there to who happen upon this (hi Josh!) I am looking for some suspense – domestic suspense, romantic suspense, psychological suspense. Personally I don’t like a lot of kids in jeopardy books, but if it’s done well, I can get over that.
If I look ahead to 2018, I have 14 contracted books and I have 13 series that we will have to evaluate to determine if we will continue to publish them. If I stick with 37 books next year, that means that if we continue all our series, I only need 10 new books for 2018. Publishing is such a crazy business!
A few years ago I wrote a post for Dead Guy about authors who use adjective after adjective because they think it beefs up their work. You can find it here: The Modifier Zone
(If you can't click on this, let me know and I'll try to deal with it...)
The past few months I’ve seen a recurrence of this trend, but I’ve noticed an element I hadn’t seen before: Authors have been front-loading their modifiers, putting all the ten-dollar adjectives in the first few pages—usually first five, sometimes simply in the Prologue. Might be because they assume (correctly) that if we aren’t impressed we’ll just stop reading. And this is true. The mistake is that so often this over-writing is covering up what might otherwise be very competent. I can’t tell you how many times—particularly when the author seems qualified but then I need to wade through three pages of ochre sand and jouncy, bouncy curls the color of honeysuckles but without the staman, etc etc...only to go to Chapter 1 and see “When Smith left his house, he didn’t expect to see a dead body.”
When I see that, I understand, and I want to scream “THAT’S how you write! OWN IT! Don’t think you need pyrotechnics on page 1! What you need is a real voice, a sense that you are in control, the start of a plot. You don’t need to modify rain or footsteps (other than, at times, “quiet” or “loud”) or EVER use the word “Turgid,” really. And do write with a consistency of voice and pace.
There are a multitude of disturbing trends in today's society. One of them is running for president, but that's not the point here. The bottom line is, it's virtually impossible, no matter what one's point of view might be, to watch the news, read the news or download the damn news without being upset (often horrified) about what you see.
And the political or global issues are not the only sources of outrage and anxiety, not by a long shot. There are some wonderful things about the current version of the modern age, and I'd list them here but right at the moment I'm having a hard time remembering what they are. Trust me, I know they exist. I'll think of them tomorrow.
What concerns me at the moment that won't upset people whose ideologies are not in line with my own? The decline of simple rules of grammar, punctuation, usage and syntax, to begin with. I teach people at the college level who can't tell the difference between you're and your. I see posts and documents indicating that even those who have completed advanced degrees don't bother to use apostrophes properly. You'd be amazed how many people think the sentence, "Lots of woman do the same thing" is perfectly acceptable.
And then there is the odd sense of entitlement among those--and I do not limit this to millennials and young people, as I have seen done--who believe that entertainment is a right. These are individuals with working brains who don't see the problem in downloading music off "free" sites, who will buy bootleg copies of movies before they are released to DVD, who steal a cable TV signal and believe they are somehow completing a victory over "the system."
Well, I'm "the system." Nice to meet you.
There are any number of online sites that right now, today, will let you read books that I spent months writing and to which I own the copyrights and they will not charge you for those books because they themselves did not pay for them. The site might charge visitors a fee as a "subscription," but trust me, when they send you the file with my name (or my other name) on it and you read the book, I am receiving a grand total of nothing for it.
The idea that somehow this is a victimless crime, that no one is losing out when you "beat the system" by getting free entertainment, is crap. I hear the argument all the time that there's no harm in a bootleg download of a movie because "Tom Cruise already has enough money." Maybe so, but guess what--the key grip doesn't. The Foley artist needs a salary, and if revenues go down, she won't get any. The guy who cleans the recording studio isn't getting paid when the artist can no longer afford to book the place because nobody is paying for the art.
I have close friends and relatives who see no harm in finding "free" entertainment. They seem to feel they're being clever, winning a victory over a corrupt system. I see them stealing. Period.
Right now, I am contracted to write four separate mystery series which some of you read and hopefully enjoy. If sales don't hit the right numbers--and no, I have no clue what those numbers might be because the publishing industry changes its standards about every 20 minutes--I will no longer be releasing any books at all. Because I need to make a living and pay the bills. This is true of every author, every singer, every filmmaker, every producer, every actor, every screenwriter and all the people who serve the industries they inhabit.
If you're taking copyrighted content from a source that doesn't compensate the creators of that content, you're stealing. Pure and simple. You're not being a Robin Hood outlaw. You're robbing from everybody and keeping everything. At most the only concerns you're keeping alive are the ones that steal from artists.
There, that got your attention, didn’t it? There’s a school of thought, and to a great extent it’s one I subscribe to, that the main purpose of sex in any novel other than the kind shelved under Erotic, is exactly that: to get the reader’s attention.
But today, aside from that initial grab, which has got you reading this far, I don’t mean sex as in naked bodies and heavy breathing. I’m contemplating the other meaning, the one which is more accurately referred to as gender. It’s a subject which must surely be in a lot of people’s minds at the moment, what with the leading political lights in several countries being of the female variety, or about to become so. (You know who I’m talking about there, so I won’t spell it out again; I’ll just say please, please, please!)
It all began... well, with Adam and Eve, I suppose, if that’s your creation myth of choice. If it isn’t, feel free to substitute appropriately; all creation myths must surely address the issue of the gender divide. Male and female. Masculine and feminine. Mars and Venus. Man and woman. Until medical science progresses to a point at which women no longer have the job of carrying the human young around in their bellies for nine months (and I find medical science which meddles with natural processes more than a little bit creepy, to be frank), it’s never going to go away. And probably not even then, since men and women are quite simply wired differently. (Oh, yes they are! And thank goodness for it!)
Which can only be a good thing for writers of fiction.
There was a time when women in crime fiction, leaving aside the blessed Miss Marple, were there largely for decoration, or as victims to be rescued by Our Hero. I’m delighted to report, though I imagine most crime fiction readers have noticed by now, that this is no longer the case, though maybe the high proportion of female senior policepersons in fiction is more an example to be aspired to than an accurate reflection of reality. But it has to be said – well, no, maybe it doesn’t, but it’s true all the same – that some authors are more skilled than others at portraying the opposite sex accurately. Or in a way which allows the reader to believe in them as people, not just ciphers who help to move the plot along.
So what set this train of thought in motion? Something always gets things moving around what passes for my brain, else I’d never have anything to post about. This time it’s easy; I can pinpoint the remark, the very moment in a conversation, which planted a seed that some part of my brain appears to have been watering and tending ever since. Ever since a Saturday back in June, in fact, somewhere between three and three-thirty in the afternoon. I met up with an old friend, someone I haven’t seen for years, and we started discussing the one-woman play we’d just seen. The one woman was Annabelle Harper, wife of Detective Inspector Tom of that name, the protagonist of my good friend Chris Nickson’s series of police procedurals set in 1890s Leeds. Chris describes her as a force of nature, and has been heard to claim that he doesn’t write about her so much as channel her. And that’s how she comes across, in the books and in the one-woman, one-act play he has created around her backstory. Annabelle is a one-off.
The remark which gave rise to this train of thought was ‘He’s really good at writing women, isn’t he?’ The rediscovered friend is almost as much a fan of Chris’s work as I am, so she’s familiar with his other female characters too. And she’s right; good or bad, major or minor, the women in Chris’s novels are memorable, and invariably have the ring of truth about them.
That remark has resurfaced each time I’ve picked up a new book ever since. I don’t know why some authors can pull it off and others can’t: this stepping into the shoes, or maybe even the soul, of someone of the other gender (and let me just add that sometimes the ones that can’t are women writing about men). If I start speculating we’ll be here all week and I’m sure you have other things to do. But I will say this: a novel whose author makes me feel that characters of both genders are real people with lives outside the fiction is a novel which is far more likely to pass the fifty-page test, and to make me inclined to seek out more of that author’s work.
As Annabelle Harper might say: think on!
Earlier this week a friend of mine posted on Facebook about a short story she submitted getting rejected and how she was bummed out about it. She is pretty successful in the short story world, getting several award nominations each year. In the rejection the editor said: The story was well written but it didn't work for me. Now, the author wasn’t throwing a pity party, in fact, she was sharing the rejection to show other writers that everyone gets rejected. I loved that she put it out there and felt compelled to reply.
In the last two weeks I have read over 12 manuscripts. I am interested in acquiring two for sure. I’m still on the fence about the other ten. They are close, but I didn’t fall in love with them like I did the two. So I’m going to let them sit on my desk a while and see what else comes along and grabs my eye. It might very well acquire another book out of those ten after giving them a second look. (Sometimes I read a manuscript and I think I am going to pass on it, but then I can’t get the story out of my head for days. Then I take another look.)
I have to love a manuscript to acquire it. I have talked about this before. I have to work on that ms in one way or another for the better part of a year. I have to love it. Not only that, but for me, acquiring a book is one “sell” built up over time. I have to “sell” it to the editorial board. I have to “sell” to sales, marketing, and publicity at sales conference. Our sales folks have to “sell” it buyers. The bookstore clerks have to literally sell it customers. If I am not raving about the book, it could lose momentum. (And also explains why I carry the weight of MI on my back!)
Another reason why authors get the “it’s not you, it’s me” response is because we only have so much space in our catalogs. (FYI - For 2017, I only had/have seven spaces available. I don’t yet know about 2018 because I have to see some of the sales on the 2017 books.) But the point is – because most mystery books are series, if the series is successful, that series takes up slots for the next few years. Which means - I have hundreds of submissions for those seven slots.
Publishing is full of rejections. It sucks. But please don’t quit. If you love to write, keep writing. You will get there. But you have to keep writing. Your first book may never see the light of day. Your tenth book might be the one that sells. You never know when the stars will align and your manuscript falls into the hands of the right editor on the right day. And if you are feeling a little blue, I highly suggest going to see Ghostbusters. It is amazing!!!
Or this weekend go see Jason Bourne. I am hoping to go. I read somewhere that Matt Damon only has around 25 lines of dialogue. I guess that means there is a lot of grunting, punching, car smashing action!! Yay!
So much of the time as crime fiction writers we are working from a place of ignorance. I haven't murdered anyone and don't plan to, so any crime I depict is strictly the product of my twisted imagination. I'm not 100 percent sure I've done much that violates the criminal code other than speeding (just kidding, New Jersey State Police!), which is a Garden State common law tradition dating back to the Lenni Lenapis, who were rumored to run faster than other local tribes (I made that up, too).
My criminal record is squeaky clean. I've never actually used an illegal drug, although I did probably have some beers before I was legally able to drink alcohol at the age of 18 (back in the day that was the age). I just never found the idea interesting and didn't bother with it. I'm the kid in your class who never did any of the cool stuff at all because he either wasn't invited or didn't care.
Writing about crime, then, is something of a stretch for me. Luckily for me as a writer, the type of work I do doesn't rely heavily on gritty reality and leans more towards the willing (one hopes) suspension of disbelief. If anything about crime or the way it is committed doesn't feel authentic to you, feel free to chalk that up to the author's inexperience.
As I said, my record is impeccable, other than the time I almost got arrested for robbing a bank.
Oh, did I forget to mention that? Sorry. It was so long ago it tends to slip one's mind. Yeah, there was this moment in my very early 20s when I was a suspect in robbing a bank. Well, plotting to rob a bank. That's closer to the fact. Plotting to rob a bank. Attempted bank robbery; would that be the charge? I leave it up to you:
I was just out of college and just starting work as a newspaper reporter, but still living "at home" (anywhere you live is "at home") with my parents until I could save up enough for a security deposit and one month's rent on an apartment. And keep in mind, this particular flat was rent-controlled and going, at that time, for a whopping $214 a month. Heady sums.
Part of that plan involved opening a new bank account at a local branch where I could drop my vast savings and start writing checks for my anticipated expenses. My family had moved while I was in college, so I was dealing in that age before ATMs with a new bank closer to home. I put on my college windbreaker, stuck my old checkbook (which was actually connected to my father's account) in a pocket and walked into the branch to open the account.
I was a little jittery, I guess; I was young and dealing with actual money, something I'd never really had before. I had not been given a "small loan of one million dollars" by my father to start my way in the world, so the numbers were not exactly eye-popping. But it was my money, and this was a step into adulthood, and here I was, talking to the nice young lady about giving the bank my funds in exchange for some absurdly low interest rate.
She smiled, in retrospect wanly, and said she'd be right back with the necessary paperwork. So I sat in the chair, hands in my jacket pockets (in case anyone asked for the checkbook in a hurry), and waited for her return.
It seemed to be taking a long time, but I had no frame of reference. After a while I saw two men in jackets and ties walk into the bank. They looked around and strode in with some kind of purpose. I figured they were important customers or something. They walked over to one of the bank managers and talked to her for a moment.
Then they all turned and looked directly at me.
Before I could register that, the two men marched to the desk where I was sitting. One of them asked my name and told me he was with the local police. Would I mind--very carefully--producing some ID?
I found my wallet, no doubt hands shaking, and gave the man my driver's license. He asked if I would stand up, so I did. He instructed me to take my hands out of my pockets. I did that, too.
I don't remember a lot of the rest of this, but what it came down to was that the young woman I'd been dealing with had decided that since I kept my hands in my jacket I must have been armed and intending to rob the bank by... giving them my money. That part isn't clear. The cops ran my ID, I think I might have given them my jacket to search, they found nothing but pens, and that was pretty much it.
Total and utter idiot that I was and am, I believe I even closed the deal to open the account. I guess I was impressed with the bank's security measures.
Does the remembered fear of that encounter infuse my writing? I tend to doubt it. I think about that incident very infrequently. It was my only actual brush with the law, I had done a grand total of nothing wrong, and I was a white guy in America so there were no special consequences. No harm, no foul. I have led a life on the right side of the law before and since.
I mean, it's not like I stole public property, or anything.
My friend Sejal Shah recently published an article in the Kenyon Review blog about handwritten postcards. Simultaneously, a discussion has been brewing on a similar topic at Cafe Blue Writers, a group I've been part of since 1998.
Poet David Graham posted about his notebooks. What he said was so similar to what I planned to post that I was able to embed my few changes, in green:
DG: Like many writers I guess I'm kind of obsessive & ritualistic. So not only do I have notebooks, I have, to be specific, 82
DG: more or less identical notebooks, all filled with words written in black--never blue, green, red--ink.
J: mostly black or blue, occasionally red or green
DG: Always 2 or 3 blank ones on the shelf ready to go. Began doing this in 1975,
J: 1981 at age of 11
DG: and probably will continue till I die or become unable to write. Each notebook is 6x9", college ruled; and for the past 15 or 20 years I've favored the kind with plastic covers, because these notebooks often travel in backpacks, suitcases, and duffel bags, and cardboard covers sometimes fall off. The best are Mead 5-Star, and if they ever stop making them, I'll no doubt shrivel up & turn to dust.
J: composition notebooks, college ruled if I can get them, in early years black notebooks, in recent years green if I can get them.
DG: I go back & revisit old journals less & less often, I find, but from time to time I do some excavating.
J: I excavate journal while I'm still in it, waiting usually a month or more to see what might be worth further work. I frequently go back to older notebooks, more and MORE often, by which I mean maybe twice a year where it used to be once or nonce.
DG: Mostly the journals have been where I beginthings--poems, essays, lectures, even letters sometimes. Not much is diaristic: very little about my travels or what I ate or who I talked to on a day to day basis. It's raw material for my "finished" writing, random, and for my eyes only. Practically everything I've ever published has started as a daily scribble in my notebooks. First draft in journal, sometimes 2nd through 4th; but at some point it moves to the computer when I think I might have a real fish on the line.
I like the low-tech nature of writing by hand; the slowness of it; the physicality; the quiet; the portability. I don't like the fact that my handwriting has gotten steadily worse, so that sometimes I have trouble deciphering what I've written.
DG: Storage is a problem. 82 notebooks take up a lot of shelf space. Not sure what I'll do with them once we are forced to downsize out of the rather large house we've been in for going on 30 years. . . .
J: I keep the older notebooks in a box in my closet. I'm actually surprised at how LITTLE space they take up. One moving-box size carton of notebooks, plus another carton filled with diaries, letters, and odds and ends, all handwritten. I hope that someday a library will be willing to accept my papers as a donation, but I'm a ways away from finding out. DG, if Ripon's library doesn't want your notebooks, I will eat my hat. Contact the archivist/curator and see what happens!
Writer Dwain Kitchel had this to say:
DK: i have about 30 first one is a secretarial notebook of 80 pages for 39 cents titled creative writting (yes spelled like that)and dated to 72 am sure this from a class i took in school. first entry is:
Traffic Court 8/30/72
The round faced man
slaps down my hand
and smiles at me
in his greed
'More than you can' this section has a notation by the teacher What does this mean?
answers the fan
sure of the guilty
'Sometimes it's better to forget rhyme if it restricts clear expression of thought'
dear teacher, thinking back i have lived by these words...thank you
On a related topic, the editors at Menacing Hedge have a side project, Scary Bush, where MH authors can share their juvenalia, much of which is handwritten. As you can see, I've contributed a couple of embarrassing scans over the years.
And by the way, I'm not the only person in the world who loves green composition notebooks.
Sometimes a book is pure entertainment; it fills a few hours enjoyably, lets me escape from reality for a while, and that’s enough. If it lets me feel I’m spending time with some old friends, or meeting new ones, or visiting a new place, or revisiting a familiar one, that’s an extra. I read a lot of books like that.
Other times, though, there’s more. Those times, I come to the end of the book feeling I’ve learned something new, expanded my horizons, explored new territory. The author has clearly researched thoroughly, in order to recreate a setting or a scenario accurately; in those cases the details can usually be regarded as reliable and true to life, because there’s always a reader out there who has been there, done that, got the t-shirt, and is willing to go public when it doesn’t ring true on the page.
I’ve learned a lot reading crime fiction. I’ve learned about wine-making, the oil industry, archaeology, the customs of a Mennonite community and native American reservations and plenty more besides. My horizons have widened, my knowledge base has improved, and all with great stories attached. But sometimes that accuracy can be two-edged, and maybe even a little scary; there are occasions when I think, hmm, maybe I’d have been more comfortable without that knowledge. And if not me, then maybe another reader.
For instance I recently read a book set mainly on a cruise ship. Seagoing craft and I do not get along, and a cruise would definitely not be my idea of a great holiday, but many people think differently, and might find the background to this gripping story just a little offputting. Did you know (I didn’t, before I read the book) that if a serious crime is committed during a cruise, jurisdiction lies with the police in the country where the ship is registered? (Unless the victim is a citizen of the USA, many Dead Guy followers may be glad to learn; then it’s the FBI.) So no one on board has the power to investigate; they have to wait until detectives arrive from whatever country that is, however long it takes. It could be some tiny (or war-torn) African or south American country which doesn’t run to the kind of well-funded, well-equipped police force a crime victim might want. That’s the way merchant shipping works. And, well, give or take the odd episode of piracy on the high seas which makes headlines, when did you last hear of a major crime committed on a cruise ship? Major incidents, yes; but crime: say, a murder or kidnapping? No, me neither.
See what I mean about being more comfortable without that knowledge?
What else? Oh yes, the football. We didn’t make the final. But you know what? That’s OK. We were knocked out in the semis by the team that eventually won the whole tournament, and for a small country with a population not much bigger than Chicago, I think that counts as triumph. The squad arrived home to a heroes’ welcome: crowds, champagne and flag-waving in every town, a full day of TV devoted to their success. I don’t know what kind of reception the eventual winners got, but it couldn’t have been a better one. The Welsh word for what I’m feeling, what every Welsh person is feeling, is balch. It means proud. But so much more besides; in Welsh word meanings are never simple.
And finally – thanks again to my good friend Chris Nickson for picking up the pieces at short notice again last week. He’s far too modest to tell you himself, but he has a new book out next week: the fourth in his brilliant series featuring D I Tom Harper and his suffragist wife Annabelle, set in 1890s Leeds. There’s more: September will bring you Lottie Armstrong, also a Leeds police-person, but twenty-some years later than Harper, and whaddya know, a woman! (Shock! horror! said some in the 1920s. But Lottie confounds their dubious expectations.)
Find them. Read them. You won’t regret it.
Today in the Twin Cities, temps were in the low 90's, but with the humidity, it felt around 102. I was glad to learn that my kid's soccer game was cancelled because of the heat. The next two days will see a rise in the temps and humidity. That makes me very, very cranky and I swear it turns my brain into mush. But I will do my vest here! And as I know these temps are spread over much of the eastern half of the country, I hope you all are being safe. Don't forget your furry children too!
First I apologize for missing a couple weeks. We had sales conference which always eats up a lot of time. This season we had a commission sales rep group in attendance. That turned out to be a good deal of fun. It gave me a chance to talk about our entire line for a bit and introduce some of our longer running series.
This week too brought some interesting things for me. First I read two cozy submissions that I really like. Both are direct results of attending conferences which is pretty awesome. Second, just like when a reader sees their favorite author has a new book out - a manuscript hit my inbox this week that I makes me want to push everything aside to read it. I haven't even had a chance to crack it open yet, but I will. Soon. Like maybe tomorrow morning!
This week also brought a meeting where I sat down with sales, marketing, publicity, and my boss the publisher, to talk about the future of Midnight Ink. We discussed what we are doing well and what areas we can do better. It was exciting as everything was on the table. Now I can't give away any secrets, but I do hope that we can put those ideas into play. I'm pretty excited about it.
I'm hoping for a quiet couple of days where I can get some work done. But again, a heat fried brain might not allow that! If so, perhaps I will use the time to clean my cube. :)
Greetings from Prague, where my wife Amanda and I ran away to for a week while all the kids are away at summer Things.
We arrived yesterday, and today we spent the day doing two VERY different but exceptionally interesting things: We spent seven hours exploring the Nazi camp in Terezin, and the evening having casual barbeque (complete with black bean burgers!) at the residence of the US Amabassador to Czech, Andrew Schapiro (whose wonderful wife Tamar grew up with Amanda).
It was a bit of culture whiplash; going from a place where a (Jewish) prisoner might have been unsure on ANY DAY whether he or she (or his or her family) would live to see evening (or be put on a train East to Auschwitz), to a place where the (Jewish) representative of the largest superpower discussed the issues he has with the other diplomats in town--and the real-world difficulties those issues can trigger--over blueberry sorbet and a really lovely Moravian wine.
But we learned on common thing from both parts of the day: People, whether in contemporary times or in the 1930s and 40s, are afraid of the Other, and will take the opportunity to oppress that Other when it is afforded them. And rhetoric hasn't changed that much over the past 80 years (or much farther back than that). It made us want to hold our children, and to protect them. This rhetoric isn't just on line, or theoretical. It is the rationale behind many of the movements gaining momentum across Europe and the world, and in the US, and it's scary as hell. Because thousands and thousands of well-off Europeans thought "oh it's ok, I'll be safe" in the 1930s, and ended up in a lice-ridden barrack in 1942, separated from their families and hoping to avoid a beating or worse.
The hate speech I see every day on line, on TV, in the newspapers is chilling. I say this to everyone (Though sadly most of the people I'm preaching to are the Choir): We need to be good to each other, and to allow people who don't look like us or pray like us or come from somewhere else to be good to each other too. Then we can be better than people were 70 years ago, or 50 years ago, or last week.
Hopefully next week will be cheerier!
Lately, more than usual, it has seemed impossible to escape the darker areas of society. One hideous, heart-wrenching event comes after the last hasn't had time to leave the news cycle. Violence seems to be erupting more often and more brutally everywhere. And the upcoming Presidential election in the U.S. is not anywhere near as funny as it used to be.
I'm not going to impose my politics on you, but to me the choice seems embarrassingly clear. And that's all I'll say.
People complain that there's "too much bad news." That's largely because bad things tend to happen and they are reported upon. If you want more good news, get out there and make some.
For a crime fiction writer, there's a debilitating effect from all the sadness, rage and carnage in the streets. You start to wonder if what you're doing is actually contributing to the societal mayhem.
Particularly in my end of the pool, where the murder in the mystery is meant to be "fun," a moral question arises: Am I desensitizing a (very small) segment of the population to the horror of violence? Does my insistence on writing entertainment that revolves around the ultimate personal crime mean I'm adding to the problem instead of working to reduce it?
That's probably an example of a writer assuming more importance and influence than he's entitled to feel. The 8,820 people who have, to this date, bought GHOST IN THE WIND (oh yes, I get to check the numbers) have, I'm willing to wager, not killed anyone since buying and (hopefully) reading it. I don't think the cause-and-effect idea is that literal. But it does make one wonder whether the cumulative effect is more subtle, but just as insidious.
Writers are just like everyone else. Wait. Writers are a lot like everyone else. Okay, writers are the same species as everyone else and that means we do see the news and we are affected emotionally as is the bulk of the population. How can you view people being shot, assaulted, blown up and run over and not feel anything? So when it comes the part of the day when it's necessary to sit down and concoct tales of shootings, stabbings, poisonings and assorted mayhem, is it possible to disconnect and simply serve the story?
Sadly, yes. I write that 1,000 words every day no matter what the news has been personally or around the world. I wrote the day my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and the day we found out it was Stage 1 and she'd be fine after treatment. I wrote the day my dog died. I wrote the day doctors told me I had lymphoma (they were wrong). I've written in hospital waiting rooms, mechanics' waiting rooms, on airplanes, in hotel rooms, from sickbeds and trains. I have written at conventions like Bouchercon and Malice Domestic. I have written while tending to sick children, on the day I moved each of them into and out of college dorms.
I wrote on 9/11.
I'm not proud of all those facts, but I'm a writer. It's my job and it's what I do. But does what I'm writing help, hurt or have no effect whatsoever?
For the record, I've decided the answer is no. I respect my readers enough to assume they know the difference between reality and the fiction I pull out of my twisted brain. As for the tone the stories take, it's true that I try to make my readers laugh. Enough are buying the books that I can say with some certainty that I'm successful at least sometimes. Does that make the death and violence more "fun"?
I don't write "funny" murders. I'm not looking for quirky methods of bumping off characters. The comedy, hopefully, comes in the reactions to the crime rather than the event itself.
And I do not glamorize weapons. When a gun is pulled in one of my books it's seen as a scary, dangerous object. Because that is how I see guns. Your mileage may vary.
So no, I don't think I'm damaging anyone's mind. Maybe that's a way to make myself feel better, but if so, it works. I rail against real violence; I decry the awful events that seem to permeate our news feeds on a daily, if not hourly, basis. I am not in favor of private citizens owning AR-15 assault rifles. That's me. My fiction is a character in a situation. Each one will react based on his/her personality. Yeah, they come from my mind, but they're not all me. I'll write characters I disagree with if it works for them.
The ultimate judgment, I have to say, probably rests with the reader. I've gotten emails from people who said they were helped by the diversion my book provided while they were going through a rough time. If I have written in hospitals, they have read my books in hospitals. I've heard from others who read the book at home while trying to deal with a new diagnosis of autism. Those, too, have been very touching to read, because people usually don't email an author if the book has had no impact on them at all. The ones who get in touch when they're angry usually just didn't like the book.
From my point of view, the writing will go on. It hasn't been a small consideration that over the past few weeks when things have seemed especially awful I've been working on a novel in which nobody gets killed. My first, and I'm happy about it. (Thanks, Terri!)
Do crime fiction novels (especially cozies) take violence to a place where it's unthreatening and "fun"? I leave that to sociologists and critics. If I felt that I was a bigger part of the problem than most, I would have to find another way to make a living, and this is the only thing I'm good at.
Here's my only piece of advice to anyone who's as horrified and upset as I am about what's been going on: Try to see the other person's side of the argument. Is that justification for violence? Absolutely not. But maybe if we understand WHY the person feels that way, we can start to work toward making fewer people feel that way. That's all I've got.
And don't vote for Trump. Sorry. It slipped out.
Publicity. It might not make or break a book – word of mouth will always carry more power – but it can certainly establish it in the general consciousness. The question, of course, is how to achieve that.
Most publishers, even small ones, have publicists. Some good, some mediocre, a few plain terrible. The big publishers, of course, have a budget for all this, at least for some of their releases. Move away from that and much of the onus is on writers. But even in small houses, creative publicists can make an impact. And even judiciously placed ads, ones that don’t cost much, can’t bring some readers to the fold: I had a ‘50s British noir published, where the main character loved jazz. The publisher placed a cheap ad in a couple of jazz magazines and it definitely helped. That’s lateral thinking.
We do what we can. In the UK, unless you’re with one of the big publishers, it can be hard to get a review in one of the daily newspapers. The thing is, they’ve become less important. Something regional, if a book is set there, can have resonance. Crime fiction blogs (or appropriate genre) can reach people who actively look for books. Win-win.
Blog tours have become a thing, but the jury seems to be out on exactly how worthwhile they are. Yes, it’s good to be very visible for a period, but that fades. Better, perhaps, to have a good social media presence and build a community – that valuable word-of-mouth can flow from that.
But back to publicists. Work with them. I often write my own press releases and pass them to the publicist. To be fair, I write press releases as one of my gigs, so I know how to do it. But I know my book, I know the points in it that might raise interest. And publicists are working on several projects at once; I can ease a little bit of the pressure on them.
It's worth brainstorming a little with the publicist, suggest outlets they could approach, ones they might not consider without knowing the book well.
Small things, perhaps, but as the supermarket saying goes, ‘every little bit helps.’
I write mysteries--mostly murder mysteries--for a living. It's what I do, it's what I like to do and it's what I have become (in a small circle) known for. I've been doing that for over 16 years now. But I still haven't gotten used to the questions people ask when they find out this is my job.
No, I'm not going off on the "so, are you still writing?" rant again. This is about something else.
With WRITTEN OFF, the latest of the E.J. Copperman titles to be published, I was thinking a little bit more about the writer's life because the character narrating the story is an author whose circumstances are a little like mine. But so far I haven't had anyone ask Rachel Goldman the question that most baffles me when I get it in conversation or at an author "event."
"Do you get revenge on people in your life by killing them off in books?"
So here's your answer: No.
There appears to be some odd temptation among those who do what I do for a living to purge their anger and frustration by naming characters after people they don't like and then offing said characters in some especially ostentatious method. I guess that makes them feel better, and if so, more power to them. I never question another writer's method.
But I never do that. For one thing, there aren't that many people I'm angry with. Most of them are orange-colored Presidential nominees and other public figures and there's no fun in killing them off in books. Especially since I almost never set my mysteries anywhere but in suburban New Jersey and we don't get that much traffic in major party candidates here.
I just really don't get the impulse, to tell the truth. Killing off someone I don't like would require me to spend time mentally with that person while writing, which is the last thing I need. And I wouldn't get any satisfaction out of the practice. The next time I saw that person in real life it would just serve as a cruel reminder of my utter lack of power in the non-fictional world. I'd probably crawl into bed and stay there for a week, which would be a real inconvenience when the bed got made in the morning.
I don't often name characters after real people anyway. Again there's the problem of thinking about a real person when writing a fictional one, which means I can't make fun of the ones I like and I have to think about the ones I don't. There's no upside. I will occasionally name a character after a contest winner or something, but that's usually a person I've never actually met. Easier to do whatever the story requires under those circumstances.
In the interest of full disclosure, very early on I did fashion one murder victim after a guy I sort of knew in high school who had achieved some notoriety, if you want to call it that, in subsequent years. But I didn't really know the guy very well so I could mold him into exactly the kind of person I needed the character to be, and I gave him a completely different name for many reasons, some of which didn't involve the possibility of a nasty lawsuit. And now that I think of it, that character turned out not to be so dead late in the book, anyway. So I can stick to my statement: I haven't ever "killed off" a real person for symbolic revenge or any other reason.
When I was writing the first Aaron Tucker novel For Whom the Minivan Rolls, I figured nobody would ever read--let alone publish--a book written almost entirely by accident by a first-time novelist who clearly had no idea what he was doing. So I gave the character some of my own circumstances and made up others. And no, I did not kill off anybody I had ever actually met.
But once Aaron had made his 17th comment about how lovely his wife Abby's legs were and a neighbor met my wife in the supermarket and called her Abby (thinking he was being amusing), I resolved never to get that close to home again.
So do me a favor and don't ask me about my wife's legs, okay? It's fiction. All of it.
For legal reasons.
No, not the aftermath of Brexit, though that's continuing too. This is far more important.
Last week I announced with great pride and glee that we were in the quarter-finals of Euro 2016.
Reader, we won. We’re in the semis! And by the time you read this... no, I’m not even going to put the thought into words; I really, really really don’t want to jinx the possibility that... Shut up, Lynne; that little nasty gremlin is probably listening.
OK, a catch-up. The semi-final of the second biggest football (soccer if you prefer) tournament in the world takes place tonight. (I’m writing this a day early, because tomorrow will be busy.) My team (and bear in mind that football is definitely not a game that interests me as a rule), my little, insignificant team from a small country with just three million inhabitants, a team which was never expected even to qualify for the tournament, has somehow, through some miracle of luck, skill I didn’t know they had, and sheer gritty determination, is playing in that match, just one step away from the final battle. And, biggest surprise of all, I’ve been sitting through the entire ninety minutes of each match they’ve played to get here, unable to take my eyes off the TV screen.
I’ll keep you posted. Watch this space.
Meanwhile, in other news...
Loved Jeff’s post on July 4th. Read it, if you haven’t. Makes you proud to be human. If more people talked that kind of sense, instead of digging their heels in and condemning everyone else; in fact if more people simply communicated in real words instead of in violence and rhetoric, listened as well as shouted, and were open to change and amendment of anything in need of it, the whole world would be a better, safer, happier place and we might be able to enjoy living in it again instead of being afraid to turn on the TV for fear of much darker news than a football team from a small country making the semi-finals of a big tournament.
And now to crime fiction, which is, after all, the prime purpose of this blog.
Over the past week I’ve read two books, both set in beautiful places, and I’ve been revelling in the way they drew me in and made me feel I was there alongside the characters. The plots and casts were fine, no complaints there; but in each case it was the setting which really did it for me. Fortunately both books form part of long-running series, so I can return to those beautiful places over and over again. Maybe even literally. One of the places lies a short drive from my own front door: the Derbyshire Peak District, a glorious area of rocks and moorland, sprinkled with pretty villages and lots of sheep, and wonderful places to walk and rest and let the scenery feed my soul. The author is Stephen Booth; the series features small-town DI Ben Cooper and his abrasive city-loving nemesis DS Diane Fry.
The other place is France profonde: the real France, outside the cities, where farmers sell their produce in village markets without paying too much attention to rules and regulations which reduce everything to bland ordinariness, and incomers from across the English Channel are welcomed as long as they make the effort to fit in, and don’t try to disrupt a lifestyle which has worked just fine for centuries. The series is by Martin Walker, and features Bruno, the police chief of a small town in this beautiful area.
If you enjoy exploring unfamiliar places, even vicariously through the pages of a book, these two series will grab you the way they’ve been grabbing me for a few years. Try them and see.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness..."
To the Americans, like me, who read this blog: Isn't it great that our country was founded on these words? Isn't it great that our country was founded on words?
There is a tendency in the U.S., and perhaps other places, to confuse patriotism with a belief that a country (or a government) must never be seen as being wrong. To criticize or point out problems is considered treasonous or close to it. But this country was conceived based on the idea that nothing is perfect. Our constitution was immediately amended and continues to be to this day; it is a living document that is never meant to be finished.
That's because we're built on ideas. Other places became organized because everybody already lived there or because the monarch decreed it. The United States was somebody's idea. Writers put together the concepts that would initially establish the nation but left open the possibility that changes over time would be necessary.
So the unquestioning dedication to a pledge of allegiance, the inclusion of patriotic songs at sporting events, the almost religious dedication to the flag--these are all things that, if you truly believe in them, have value. But if they're just part of the reflex of belonging to a group, if they exist because we must not question them, they run counter to the idea that started this country.
It has now been 240 years since the words above were written and signed as a statement of clarity and defiance, of purpose and explanation. We celebrate the words and we celebrate the traditions, but we should also keep in our minds the idea that was behind it all.
All people (because even Jefferson, perhaps especially Jefferson, is subject to amendment) begin life as equals. Each person is entitled, by virtue of being a person, to certain basic rights: Life. Liberty. The chance to be happy.
I celebrate those concepts. I am proud of the fact that my country came to being because of them. If I don't stand up when a recording of Kate Smith is played at a baseball game, that is my way of being patriotic. This place was conceived to revel in differences and to question everything.
I absolutely love that.
This is a revolution, dammit! We're going to have to offend SOMEBODY!--John Adams, "1776"
First of all, many thanks to Chris Nickson for stepping into the breach (again) when my own times became a little too interesting for comfort and both my spare hours and my energy had to be directed elsewhere. If you enjoyed his blog posts, try his books!
And I’m afraid that’s the last mention crime fiction will get in this post. Sometimes I have other things on my mind.
An e-mail from my sister a couple of days ago read: Ooops, another Brexit. Nothing to do with politics; this was far more important. Football. Which my friends across the pond call soccer. It’s being played big time in France at the moment, and the UK’s four countries separate into their component parts for the purpose of Euro 2016, the biggest tournament this side of the World Cup. Scotland didn’t make the cut, which left England, who were expected to qualify, at least by their supporters, and Wales and Northern Ireland, who weren’t, by anyone at all, really.
Regular blog-dippers may recall that my national affiliation, on account of birth and blood, is very firmly to Wales. And guess who, against all the odds and expectation, are the last team standing in Euro 2016? My boys are doing great; they scored first against England, beat Russia three-nil, fought off Northern Ireland, and now they’re in the quarter-finals.
England, on the other hand, collapsed against Iceland, a country with a population the size of Leicester, a city which also made footballing history earlier this year.
And I don’t even like football.
It just goes to show that interesting times doesn’t always suggest bad stuff.
On the other hand...
My own personal interesting times lately have mostly involved wrestling with what is laughingly called the best health service in the world. I’m sure this description was once true, but I’m surer that it’s now used ironically, despite the plaudits heaped on it by an American friend who visited the UK recently and found herself in need of urgent medical attention.
Try this for size:
A sixteen-week gap between diagnosis and any form of treatment for a potentially life-threatening illness.
A surgeon who invented a patient’s job on his record without ever having asked what it actually was, and got it insultingly wrong.
A whole series of nurses and doctors (I lost count) who failed to get the patient’s name right because they simply didn’t read the notes.
A letter from a doctor dated three days before the date of an investigative procedure, the results of which were included in the letter.
A referral from one medical department to another related one which took three months to process – for a condition which was caused by someone screwing up, should never have happened at all, and should in any case clear up by itself in a few weeks.
All this and more, at a time which is especially stressful for patient and family without additional administrative hassle.
I could go on, but I don’t want to depress you if you’re planning a trip to the UK. They say the NHS is free. Maybe that’s because no one would pay the bill if there was one.
So, as you see, I’ve been having really interesting times, and they’re not over yet. And that’s before I even mention Brexit.
I suppose I have to, don’t I? I’ll just say this: I don’t know who was more surprised (or appalled, for that matter) by the result: the In camp or the Out one. But if it gets UKIP off our TV screens, it can’t be all bad.
A question I often get is “do you have national distribution?” And the answer is yes. Of course I will be using Midnight Ink as an example, but you can extrapolate your questions from what we do when you are talking to a publisher.
First we have internal sales reps that sell to some bookstores and to the big outlets (I will talk about indy bookstores next). Our sales reps go to Barnes and Noble for face to face meetings to present our books. That salesperson also works out co-ops with them. (I will talk promotions in the near future.) We go to Books a Million. Other internal reps sell to:
Baker & Taylor
Thorndike (large print)
We also do advertising and co-op with these folks. There are a bunch more places our internal salespeople sell to, but these are the biggies.
Here is the one thing that authors need to know – we can NOT make any of these companies stock books in specific stores or distribution centers. They buy and stock according to their own expectations of sales. They usually stock the stores in the region the book takes place and/or where the author lives. I don’t know how many panicked emails I get from authors reporting to me that the store can’t order books because their Ingram or B&T doesn’t have any in stock. This is why I always suggest that for signings and events, the store should always order directly from us.
So, as you can see, we sell to the large stores and distribution centers. What about indy stores?
We have commission sales rep groups throughout the country. I think we have every area covered except Texas. These various rep groups will visit a store and present our titles (including Llewellyn) to the bookstores. This is a very good thing! Back when I owned my store, I loved meeting with the rep groups. I bought more from the reps who came into the store versus the ones who called or emailed to take my orders. It is simple – by being in the store, talking to me and looking around, they had a better understand of my customer base and what I could sell. I even had sales reps tell me that I wanted to order LESS of some books. And while that may seem crazy, it was a very good business decision. Sales reps don’t just want to sell a ton of books. They also need good sell through. It does the rep no good to sell a store 100 copies and then have 80 returned. Much better to sell them 25 or 30. Better for the publisher, the store, and the rep.
One last thing about distribution… when we receive books into the warehouse (we are all in one big building here) as soon as the books are entered into the system, we beginning the shipping process. B&N has their own distribution warehouses. We ship to one location and they sort and ship to their stores, which is why they are sometimes slower to get on the shelves. Stores are free to start selling the print books as soon as they get them. Quite often that is 3-4 weeks before the publication date. (Ebooks are always released on the pub date.) Even with that lead time, we ask authors not to plan any events right on the pub date as occasionally a snafu occurs.
OK, I think that is it. If I missed anything, let me know!
So this morning we said goodbye to our girls, off for seven weeks at camp in the Berkshires. Sunday, we will drop The Boy at Skidmore for a pre-college program. As usual, I will list everyone's summer reading--a pretty good, well-considered list, from which they chose strong books. They are:
Ita (rising 8th grader): The Chosen, Chaim Potok
JJ (rising freshman): Soul of an Octopus, Sy Montgomery
Joe (rising senior): Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Layla (failed Dogwarts): Working on Go Dog Go, PD Eastman
It's summer (finally!) and that means things tend to slow down. The publishing business is pretty much on hiatus until Labor Day (except for writers, who plow on throughout, and no doubt agents, right Josh?). All there is for me to do is write and tell you once again that WRITTEN OUT is now available from Crooked Lane. I won't mention the very positive review of the upcoming THE QUESTION OF THE FELONIOUS FRIEND from Kirkus Reviews, although now I have mentioned it so you know what I liar I am.
But since the pace is a little more relaxed at this time of year, I thought maybe we could devote today to a slightly off-topic topic. Lately, after a spate of... a while... I started listening to some new music, albeit not all from new artists. I am after all a geezer and should not be expected to keep on the cutting edge of new material. But assuming there might be a few other tail-end Baby Boomers checking in here every week, let's look at some new releases because they've been on my mind and for no other reason.
First, a quick mention of methodology: I pay for the music I listen to, just as I pay for the books I read, the movies I see and the food I eat. I do not steal other people's work. If you do, please don't mention it to me. My stomach is so easily upset.
As for the way I critique music: Like everything else in the arts, it's completely subjective. I like what I like. You like what you like. In all probability they are not exactly the same. That's okay. It doesn't mean one of us is right and the other wrong. It means I like what I like and you like what you like. Good. More employed artists that way. So onto the latest:
After a spate of only 40-something years, The Monkees (of all people) have put out a new album of music and not another "Greatest Hits" or "Unheard Tracks" rehash. This is new material, albeit some that really is from forever ago but you've never heard it before. And it was produced, played, sung and arranged this year, not in 1966 for the most part.
I'll admit that when I heard the news I was, let's say, skeptical. But it turns out Good Times really is a very good album. It opens with Micky Dolenz, finally starting to get credit for having a really good voice that hasn't lost very much at all since the "hey-hey" days, duetting with of all people the late Harry Nilsson--and a young Nilsson, to boot. The album's title song is taken from a demo tape Nilsson (who wrote for the band when it was a TV phenomenon) made but that was never recorded by the Monkees. Here Dolenz, who was a close friend of Nilsson, gets to play with his pal one last time and it's a great deal of fun.
Besides Nilsson, songs are written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond, Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, and band members Peter Tork, Michael Nesmith and Dolenz, among others.
Much of the album hits the same emotional points as a vintage Monkees album but the production by Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne (with whom I played softball when I was in my twenties and he was maybe 12) is impeccable and not at all dated. Yes, the 13 tracks are probably two too many but the whole album comes in at less than 40 minutes and is garnering respect from those who would have dismissed the band in its heyday. (And yes, Nesmith took part and has a couple of lead vocals. The late Davy Jones does get a vocal on Love to Love taken from old tapes, and it's nice to hear him one last time.)
After a break of a mere five years, Paul Simon is back with Stranger to Stranger, which has been getting massive critical acclaim and incorporates exotic instruments and sounds that seem to have inspired the brilliant songwriter and performer. The problem is, listening to the album is too much like work. It was probably a lot more fun to record it than to hear it.
It's not that Simon doesn't have good ideas--he always has good ideas--but the melodies are more like a grumpy man mumbling than a great artist spreading his wings. Simon has clearly decided that there's no reason to appeal to a listening audience anymore (in other words, no hooks), meaning he can make music just for himself. That's fine. An artist should be free to express himself as he sees fit. And a few of the tracks (like the single Wristband) are interesting to hear. But overall, I've only gotten all the way through it twice and I had to force myself to pay attention. It might be great, for all I know, but it hasn't stuck with me at all, and I am a long-time Paul Simon fan. He is one of the few artists (I can think of only the one) to whom I have written a fan letter. This one just didn't grab me.
On the other hand, as virtually everyone on the planet now knows, the original cast recording of the resplendent Hamilton will get into your head and never leave. That's fine, because you won't want to banish it ever.
You'll recall--if you're a regular reader and given to such things--that my family and I saw the musical a couple of weeks ago after a seemingly endless wait having bought tickets before last Thanksgiving. As a last birthday surprise for my wife--the occasion for which said tickets were purchased--the recording was waiting in the glove compartment of her car when we were driving home from the performance. It went into the CD player then and I don't think has been out since.
It's one thing to hear a middle-aged Jewish woman quoting rap lyrics around the house or having a 27-year-old explain the Presidential election of 1800 to you a few times (or more). It's another to get repeated listenings to a work this diverse (ethnically and stylistically) and truly appreciate the scope and the ambition of the whole score. It's a marvel to hear and better than that, it's so entertaining that the music, which ranges from hip hop to speed rap to pop to Broadway to girl groups and back again, will occupy your mind.
I managed to steal the CD from my wife's car and make a condensed copy for my car. It hasn't been out of the player for a couple of weeks. It probably won't leave for some time.
Not brand new, but anything by Circe Link and Christian Nesmith (see Michael Nesmith, above, and note that he is frequently referred to here as "Papa Nez") is worth hearing. Take a listen. Smart lyrics, genius arrangements and some of the friendliest music you'll ever hear. Their latest is a collection of covers called Side Dishes which is fascinating but the original albums are the real treats. Either way, what's not to like?
After falling in love with Jane Steele and its author, Lyndsay Faye, I've been reading The Gods of Gotham, the first in Faye's three-book series. It's soooo good! I don't talk about every mystery book I read here at Dead Guy, but I have to talk about this one because it's kinda meta. It's a mystery novel that takes place in 1845 in New York City. The protagonist, Timothy Wilde, is a member of the newly-formed NYPD.
Pause for a second here to contemplate the idea of New York City without a police force. Apparently, in the pre-1845 era, there were watchmen and guards and things, but the New York Police Department didn't exist. And when it was formed, it didn't really know exactly what its job was, or how to do that job. It had no automatic authority. The "copper stars" on the force were in fact widely mocked and disrespected.
(The Oxford English Dictionary has the first use of copper to mean police officer in 1846, probably from copperstick; it has the first use of cop in 1859 and says its origin is American. According to the the Grammarphobia Blog, the word cop doesn't come from the stars, but from the verb form of cop.)
So, this is a detective novel that takes place at the birth of the idea of the detective. I researched the history of detective fiction in an earlier post, but it didn't occur to me to think about the history of actual detecting. Faye's protagonist, a former barkeep, has an attention to small details akin to Sherlock Holmes's, and he's able to use his skills to solve crimes; in reward (spoiler alert), he's promoted at the end of the novel from plain old cop to a new kind of profession, one we readers know as "detective," but he doesn't yet.
I'm looking forward to the next book in the series, Seven for a Secret.
Waiting For Feedback – The Sequel
Last Thursday I mentioned that I was in limbo, waiting for comments from my agent on my newest book. No doubt you’ve been on the edges of your chairs ever since, wondering anxiously if I’ve heard yet.
There was an email yesterday. To everyone she deals with, saying she’ll be on holiday from three weeks from June 29. A little over a week away, as I write. I replied – of course – asking when she’ll have her feedback for me. I’d like to get everything fixed and off to the publisher before she leaves, if possible.
There was a response. She hopes to have comments for me today (Thursday). I hope so. I really do. I’m also involved in going through the proofs of a book that’s coming out in September as well as working on a new book.
But…things are as they are. Hopefully the changes she suggests will be few and early next week it can wing its way to the publisher.
An update. The manuscript arrived back with comments on Wednesday afternoon. No huge changes, but some things that needs a little work. So I know what I’ll be doing for the next few days.
And I can start an entirely different limbo.
Wish me luck.
How do we measure success? As a writer, as an editor, as a person?
Are you successful when you sign your first publishing contract? When you get your first advance check? When your book is finally published? When you get a good review? When you get a starred review? When you earn out? When you get that next contract? When you are an award finalist? When you are an award winner?
As an editor, when am I a success? When I sign an author? When that book gets a starred review? When it wins an award? When a book I acquired hits a bestseller list? When I have my own imprint? When NY houses come calling?
Am I successful when I own a new car? A home? When my boys graduate high school and head to college? When I can vacation whenever and wherever I want to? When I can afford to retire when I want to?
I think we all kill ourselves to be successful. We work harder and longer. We take on more responsibilities. We juggle more than we can handle. But does that make us successful? Who decides that?
You do. Did you finish your first novel? That is a success. You set out to do something and you did it. You achieved what you attempted. That manuscript might be in the back of your drawer, never to see the light of day, but that isn’t a failure. Because you made another goal – to write the next one. And you kept at it until you landed an agent or an editor. You got a publishing contract. Even if that book doesn’t earn out or become a best seller, you also reached another goal – being published. Every step of the way is as accomplishment. A success.
I’m not very good at recognizing success in myself. Because I am always comparing. Some days I feel like I am a success. Most days I don’t. We are all a work in progress, right? So let’s make a deal. I will stop beating myself up for doing XY or Z better if you all will start celebrating every success. J
I'd like to talk for a moment about a miracle.
Now, those who read this post regularly might remember that miracles are not part of my belief system. I generally put my trust in science and verifiable fact ahead of faith in pretty much anything. But there is the odd exception at which I marvel, even if I'm not attributing that phenomenon to any higher power.
And I speak here of speaking. I talk of talking. Am I not being clear?
Human conversation just knocks me out. It amazes me in so many different ways. It makes me stop and shake my head in wonderment when I actually consider what's going on when two--or better, more--people get together and just talk. About anything. Yes, even the election, although I would like to take something of a break on talking about that. Suffice it to say that I have no argument with people of color assuming the color isn't orange.
But that's beside the point. Conversation. Think about it. You have a thought. You take that thought and convert it to a verbal expression. Then you voice that expression to someone who can hear it. That person hears what you're saying (or signs it, if that is the mode of communication), comprehends it (assuming you're being coherent) and responds to it almost at the moment you are finished expressing that thought.
That's amazing. We humans have the ability to compute and analyze verbal communication we didn't know we were going to hear and respond to it pretty much immediately. How is that not a secular miracle?
Now. Let's talk about dialogue. That's right--the words writers put into the mouths of their characters in an attempt to get them to communicate with each other (and, quite frequently and unfortunately, to dispense plot information). When you're writing dialogue, your character who is not speaking at the moment doesn't know what is going to be said. S/he doesn't have a written transcript of the coming speech and in all likelihood does not have hours or days during which to fashion an appropriate response.
Your characters are having a conversation. They are not trading speeches. It makes me crazy when writers of novels, screenplays, theater works or any other fiction refer to things their characters say as "speeches." When you're talking to the guy at the Post Office and you ask if Forever Stamps (best deal ever) will always be valid postage--something that should be obvious from the name, I'm just saying--are you making a speech? No, you're not. You're having a conversation. That's what your characters are doing, too.
Conversation assumes that the people involved can't foresee what's coming. It assumes that the thoughts being expressed, no matter how long they're been in the person's mind, are just being put into words for the first time. Conversation isn't perfect. It isn't gorgeous. It's sloppy and improvised. It's human.
That doesn't mean dialogue in a story should be people grunting and being inarticulate. Stylized dialogue is fine in the right setting. Banter is my favorite game to play. Do most people talk like that? Probably not. Does it work for my story? I like to think so. But the message to be taken away from all this blather is that your dialogue needs to sound like your characters. It needs to be real for them. It needs to sound like they're having a conversation and making it up as they go. That's conversation.
And that's a miracle.
P.S. By the way, get a copy of WRITTEN OFF. Here are excerpts from a few reviews.
I’m in for Lynne for a couple of weeks. Hello (again)
I’m in the middle of the waiting game. The manuscript for my new book is with my agent, awaiting her comments and suggestions. Make those changes, then on to the publisher. It’s the fifth in a series, but each time, on every single occasion a complete books goes off into the ether, I hold my breath.
A couple of people (including Lynne) have read it and offered comments and constructive criticism, all taken on board.
I suppose I’m not the only one who indulges in extended breath-holding with each new novel (and this is number nineteen or so). But it’s a very humbling exercise each time, like being a beginner, and that’s not always a bad feel. It stops me feeling jaded and keep me very much on my toes.
In a very (very!) strange way, I’ve come to relish the not knowing. That way, if the publisher wants the book, my sense of relief is much stronger. And, let’s face it, unless you’re a big-selling author, it’s never a foregone conclusion. You’re only as good as your last royalty statement.
Right, I’m going back to holding my breath. I’d be interested to know whether others suffer from the same fears. And maybe I’ll have a bit more to report next week…
I think I speak for all my DEAD GUY colleagues when I say the events over this weekend in Orlando, FL are unthinkable, unpardonable and absolutely unacceptable. No matter who you might consider voting for it is clear that action needs to be taken. I know what I think should happen. Consider what you think and contact your legislator immediately to let him/her know you will not let the status quo stand. Too many families are crying today. It's not okay and it's not "the cost of doing business." It needs to stop.
This weekend saw my wife hit a birthday that had a 0 in it. Since I did not marry a person whose age was in the single digits and we have been married for 29 years, you can probably make a decent estimate of the number involved. That's not relevant.
The point is, whenever such an occasion comes around, I plan something a little more spectacular than I might if the numeral in question ended in a 3 or an 8. One year isn't any different than another really, but we do tend to mark these occasions more significantly than others. Once I organized a surprise birthday party and convinced friends to fly in from Cleveland, Chicago and Honolulu, among other places. The next time a 0 was involved, our children and I took my wife to Rome for a week.
You might have heard of the show. It's gotten a little buzz. So I bought the tickets last November and we sat in seats where only the lower half of the set was visible. They were the last four seats available in the theater. Last November. For a performance that took place this past Saturday.
Well, everything you've heard is true. The blend of hip hop beats, mile-a-minute rap and Broadway song styles is dazzling. The storyline is enlightening and presents history in a way that has already proven to be mesmerizing to young people of all stripes. My daughter teaches algebra to high school students in the Bronx. Not one of them can afford a ticket to Hamilton. If you think they haven't memorized the lyrics to the songs, you are mistaken.
The talent on that stage is astonishing and the inventiveness never stops. Two hours and forty-five minutes go by in a flash. As an audience member, you're moved and amused and devastated and any number of other emotions in rapid succession. I don't know how much play there has been with the facts of the first Treasury Secretary's life, but it rang true even as the style was completely 2016.
And that brought me back to the essence of storytelling and why a good story well told always works. Interest an audience, get their attention, make them care about what goes on. It will take you places and take them places. It will make a difference. It can change the way things are. And as we've seen most painfully, things can use some changing.
By the way, the latest story I have told, WRITTEN OFF, the first Mysterious Detective Mystery, is officially published today. It's gotten some very nice reviews and the readers who have contacted me seemed to have enjoyed it a lot. This is usually the post where I do my best to get you to buy a book, but there was too much going on. And a significant birthday treated to a significant story told in an unusual way.
(We also got as many friends and family as we could to video birthday messages and had my son the filmmaker edit them together into a DVD. And next March my wife and I are going to Hawaii. If the IRS asks you, it's for Left Coast Crime.)
You can't get tickets to Hamilton, but when you can, do. Or buy the soundtrack. But you might want to take a look at WRITTEN OFF, too. After all, there isn't just one story worth telling.
P.S.: In order to better celebrate (that is, shamelessly promote) the publication of WRITTEN OFF, I'll be visiting the book club and signing copies at Booktrader of... wait for it... Hamilton (NJ) Wednesday evening at 7:30. Please drop by if you're in the area--all are welcome!
Also, I'll be blogging all over the place this week (what a coincidence, no?):
Cats, Books and More Cats (spoiler alert–there’s no cat in the book): Week of June 12 Speculating on what I’d do if WRITTEN OFF happened to me)
Dru’s Book Musings: June 14 (Publication Day!) A Day in the Life of Rachel Goldman (Plus a book giveaway!)
Jungle Red Writers: June 15 (The Day After Publication Day!) About my dad, not about WRITTEN OFF (too much)
Interview at Shelf Pleasure (hey, we don’t name these things): June 17
Kings River Life: June 18 How do you publicize a nutty book?
Stuff & Nonsense: June 22 On characters doing what they want
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