Saturday, May 31, 2008
My friend and fellow author Jon Talton once said that his eighty-year-old editor at St. Martin’s rejected one of his manuscripts because it had too much sex, so he withdrew it and submitted another. Later, after he had switched to Poisoned Pen Press, he submitted the same book that had been rejected by St Martin’s, and was told by his new editor, Barbara Peters, that too much sex was a good start. Poisoned Pen published it. (The book is Cactus Heart, by the way. If you like a good, gritty, noir with a big old dollop of irony and sarcasm, Talton’s "David Mapstone" series is for you.)
And there’s the rub. The editor. We want to be published. A particular editor at a particular house likes your book and says she’ll publish it if you’ll alter parts of the MS to suit her. You don’t want to make the changes she asks for. What to do, what to do?
Every author who has ever submitted a manuscript has had to make changes, I’m sure. (If you haven’t, I’d like to hear from you.) More often than not, the editor knows the market infinitely better than the author, and so knows what’s more likely to sell. The editor is a fresh pair of eyes, too, who sees plot holes, mistakes, overwriting, etc., that the author, who has been messing with this book for months and/or years, can no longer see. I’m lucky to have an editor I trust, (the aforementioned Barbara Peters) and not just because of her reputation, but because thus far, every time she suggests a change, I slap myself in the forehead and mutter, "Of course! Why didn’t I see that!" Off the top of my head, I could list several changes she suggested to me that infinitely improved my stories, but I won’t, since I’d prefer you think me so skilled that my books leap forth from my mind perfectly formed, with no room for improvement.
But like I said, I’m lucky. My editor has never asked me to make a change that I objected to, or felt as though I couldn’t pull off. I’ve heard plenty of tales from authors whose experience has been otherwise. What would you do if an editor said she’d only recommend the book for publication if you make a change that will, in your opinion, change the whole tone of the piece, or totally mess up a scene, or force you to write something you feel uncomfortable with? How badly do you want to be published? Which is more important to you, publication or your principles?
My principles are rather slippery things, so I’d probably try to do whatever it took, at least getting a book out there, so that later I could submit something else to another house and be able say I had already been published. But then, if an author does something he doesn’t really like, I fear it will show in the writing. Besides, if you don’t like your own book, then what’s the point? A friend of mine once showed me a list of outrageous suggestions from an editor, and wondered aloud if the guy had actually read the manuscript at all.
And as for sex and violence ... Well. I’m the dame who said that I tend to grow impatient with lingering sex scenes because I want to get on with the story. And generally speaking, I hate to read about or see graphic violence. It disturbs me for days. Yet, in one of my books, I wrote a scene in which the villain gets a pickax in the chest and sprays gore all over his killer. Like Rick said, sometimes you want to shock, to make a point, to be real. Sometimes, sex and violence are just called for.
Friday, May 30, 2008
In honor of Ian Fleming’s 100th birthday (May 28th), and in keeping in line with the current discussion, I’d like to offer the following extended quote from the master as evidence of one reason why sex in a mystery (or action-adventure pot-boiler) is so difficult:
“He found something grisly in the inevitability of the pattern of each affair. The conversational parabola—sentiment, the touch of the hand, the kiss, the passionate kiss, the feel of the body, the climax in bed, them more bed, then less bed, then the boredom, the tears, and the final bitterness—was to him shameful and hypocritical. Even more he shunned the mise-en-scène for each of these acts in the play—the meeting at the party, the restaurant, the taxi, his flat, her flat, then the week-end by the sea, the flats again, the furtive alibis and the final angry farewell on some doorstep in the rain.”1
This is great stuff and you can certainly see the Bond of the books in this description, and, yes, sexual adventures do seem to fit this pattern. But can’t this pattern be applied to just about anything, say, murder mysteries?
“He found something grisly in the inevitability of the pattern of each book. The arching plotline—a body discovered, an unlikely protagonist introduced, the tough-as-nails cop, the supportive best friend, a second body in chapter five, a third in twelve, clues, then more clues, then less clues, the ah-ha moment, the accusation, the chase, the comeuppance, the grudging handshake—was to him as boring as it was predictable.”
Maybe The Godfathers, an outstanding late 80s alt band, summed it up best:
“Birth, school, work, death.”
Finally, in honor of the legendary comedian Harvey Korman who died yesterday at 81, I close with this existentialist quote from Blazing Saddles, the film that made Korman a star. Sure, it’s not a line spoken by him, but he’s still in the movie. In the scene, the townsfolk are about to try to recreate a replica of their town on the outskirts of their town to fool the bad men (hired by Korman’s character Hedy Lamarr2) and the Reverend Johnson leads them in prayer:
“Oh Lord. Do we have the strength to carry on this mighty task in one night? Or are we just jerking off?”
Amen, brother. Amen.
1Casino Royale, Chapter 222 “It’s Hedley.”
Thursday, May 29, 2008
I’m going to go off on a tangent, which should (I think) lead back to sex. How much do you find your writing is a process of self-discovery? What pushes your buttons? All our tastes differ somewhat, but we all have to make some decisions and discoveries about our personal limits. This has to spill over into our work, doesn’t it?
For example, our characters need to be pushed to commit to a course of action. Sacrifices are made, just like in real life. It’s hard to control other people, so what deeds galvanize others to make choices? Why do some women stay in bad marriages, and others, in similar situations, escape and then go on to exact a variety of paybacks? What children rebel against their parents and why? And how? Who kills and why—and what are the repercussions of the act? And do we read to discover what possibilities are out there?
Which leads back to sex, hooray. I squirm when scenes get so graphic that I could be reading a medical text. Emotional impact is more exciting than the physical parts. All the authors whose sex scenes I admire focus on longing, loss, striving, hope, joy, and fear. It’s what makes me care about the people in the story.
It’s been a long time, and I need to go back and reread, but I always thought Hemingway did a great job with sex. Though some of them were anti-sex scenes, and the more I thought about them, the more interesting I found the writing. Diana Gabaldon does good sex scenes, too. She makes readers long for relationships like the ones her characters have. Isn’t that part of the attraction for romance stories?
Same with violence—if there’s a long and vivid description of blood, body parts, and gore, it better have a direct bearing on the story. Real life probably gives the worst examples possible, and real perpetrators’ actions may have no anchor in reality, but I don’t think that gives us good fiction. A writer friend once pointed out to me that there’s a big difference between truth and believability.
Which reminds me of a story. I was on a panel a week or two ago at the Hawaii Book and Music Festival with a U.S. Treasury Agent, an investigative reporter for the Honolulu Advertiser, and a true-crime author. The reporter talked about an unsolved murder that happened years ago, and how local law enforcement has kept the head of the victim frozen for future analysis. Meanwhile, they charge the victim’s father a monthly storage fee. Could you put that in a story?
Which reminds me of Charles’s wonderful Moliere quote (see comments). And my figurative foot stamping. Are we allowed to say, “Oops, that was a mistake.”? Especially when priorities change, let alone perceptions of reality. And truth. Oh, and justice—did I mention that? Oh hell, just give me a good story.
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Okay, okay, I knew the topic I brought up last week would get the interest of readers of and contributors to Type M -- especially the sex part.
All of my fellow contributors have weighed in and the dialogue has been very good. Thanks should also go to all the readers who tossed in their two cents. Much appreciated!
But I'm going to stir the pot a little more.
I do think that graphic sex and violence can be a good thing in a crime fiction novel. It goes without saying that it also has to be written correctly and has to be integral to the plot. It's a bit ingenuous to say that when reading crime fiction someone doesn't want to be titillated, or horrified, or disgusted, but wants to be challenged. It seems to me that this is the road to "sanitization" of a story. Where's the challenge in that? If a story demands that extra "kick", it should be there. To leave it out because we don't want to offend someone is not a good thing, to my mind.
It's also been pointed out that Poisoned Pen will not publish a novel in which the plot revolves around a serial killer. Now it is Barbara's and Ron's company, and they can of course do whatever they want, but doesn't it seem that this policy is running close to censorship? Not knowing what their justification is, I can't speak past the previous point, but would someone be able to enlighten me? Does this mean that if a writer has written a truly great novel, but the story line comes with a serial killer, that they would not even consider publishing it, even if it had blockbuster best seller written all over it?
The last point I want to make is this: if all of a sudden, sex was selling really big in crime novels, would we turn up our noses at all that possible lolly and say, "No, thanks!" If one of our publishers said, "You know, Debby (for example), your story really demands a pretty graphic sex scene here, and I want you to add one," that Debby (in this case) would stomp her foot and say, "No way!" What if it was the deal-breaker on whether the novel is published or not? (Hey, it could happen!)
In my most recent novel, there's a shooting at the end, and I wanted it to be really horrifying to the reader (it certainly was horrifying to me) -- but I also didn't want it to be completely stomach-turning. I slaved over that scene for a long time to get the balance what I thought (and hoped) to be just right. The scene really needed to elicit a strong reaction from my readers or there was really no point to the whole story. So far there haven't been any complaints -- except for one reviewer who used the opportunity to make a rather cliched pun (and also gives away the ending). If anyone has feelings on it, assuming you've read the book, I'd love to hear what you think -- good or bad.
Violent death is a horrible thing. We somehow have to find a way in our books to make it so, but where's the edge of that cliff? And is my edge your edge, too? Or does that not make any difference?
Same thing with sex. Except the "horrible" part. Unless it's really bad sex.
You simply must show up on Sunday, dahlings, because Type M's very special guest will be the ever fabulous Louise Penny!
Monday, May 26, 2008
I am a pretty heavy reader (hey, enough with the weight jokes!). I read between one and three books a week. I probably read 90% crime novels, 9% non-fiction, and 1% other types of fiction. And I can’t remember the last time I read a book with a detailed sex scene. Seriously. As for violence, there isn’t much in my reading either.
I mostly read police procedurals of the British tradition, or fairly dark psychological suspense. When it comes to violence, the type of books I read usually have the violence happening off the page, often before the book even begins – the police arrive at the scene and the investigation proceeds, that sort of thing. Perhaps I have a delicate stomach, but I have absolutely no interest in reading anything detailed or gory or drawn-out, thank you very much. But more than that, I am of the opinion that detailed descriptions of violence more often detract from a book, rather than add anything. How so? I have just finished a book that illustrates my point – Lying Dead by Aline Templeton. In this book the body is discovered on the first page. About ¾ of the way through, another body is discovered. The police question witnesses, there are differing points of view regarding the machinations of the locals, the officer in charge of the case has problems with her family and her colleagues. Showing the killings from either the point of view of the dead people or the killer would do absolutely nothing to advance the plot. We know these people are dead. We, and the police, find out how they died from examination of the evidence and piecing together clues. The killer has very specific reasons for killing. He/she (giving nothing away in case you want to read the book) isn’t running around slashing people at random. Yet the ending of the book is an absolute shocker, all the more successful for not a drop of blood being spilled.
Can violence have a part to play? Occasionally. Another example – I have also recently read The Night Lawyer by Michelle Spring. There is a fairly detailed fight scene between the female protagonist and the villain. The fight in this book is essential for showing us the state-of-mind of the protag. (mild-mannered woman pushed to the edge) and for helping us to understand just how much her defeat of her enemy goes towards restoring her confidence in herself. But in this case it is a fight – a battle between two opponents, albeit unequally matched, not a sadistic killer spilling blood for the fun of it.
As for sex – boring! What do they tell us in Creative Writing 101? If a scene doesn’t advance the characters, the plot or tell us something about the setting, cut it. I can’t think of many uses of a sex scene that would do the above. Want to tell us something about the characters’ relationship – almost anything would work better than sex. They’re romantic and loving – try candles and dinner or gentle kindness. They’re bitter and angry – a dinner plate slapped on the table would get that across with a lot fewer words. Is the sex necessary to advance the plot? The only case I can think of is if it’s a rape, and if a book is going to describe a rape in graphic details, you can be pretty sure I won’t be reading it.
Same for violence. If the book is filled with descriptions of different ways to kill people, the author is not challenging my intellect. If I pick up a book, read the blurb, and the words ‘serial killer’ are mentioned, the book goes back on the shelf. I won’t read it. There’s something about SK novels that seem to bring out a writers’ joy in describing even more gruesome killings. (Incidentally, my publisher, Poisoned Pen Press has a no-serial-killers policy – they won’t publish ‘em.)
When I read, I don’t want to be titillated, or horrified, or disgusted, I want to be challenged. Sex and violence rarely do that.
I can't wait to hear what Rick has to say about the subject at his Bloody Words Panel.
Sunday, May 25, 2008
Charles has asked me to blog about the joys of launching a new series. In a word, it’s wonderful! (Okay, that was really two words. Ahem…)
I recently attended the Malice Domestic traditional mystery conference (some call it cozy) and I felt like a rock star. So many people had already bought the book (which, at that point had been out only three weeks) and wanted me to sign it. People asked me to have my picture taken with them. They wanted me to sign their author autograph books, programs, even conference tote bags. (Okay, I wasn’t the only one to sign those last three items, but I was surprised to be asked.) The two dealers that had the book sold out. I brought in more, and again--a sellout.
Since then I have visited bookstores in three states and everywhere I’ve been I’ve signed copies of the books. They really were in the bookstores. Even six weeks after launch, one chain bookstore still had the books on an endcap. “We keep them there as long as they keep selling well.”
Wow, all this is a little overwhelming. And to tell you the truth, it’s pretty unbelievable. But there’s a very good reason why this series has done well. In two words: Hard work. And in another two words: Good luck.
The hard word was writing the book. The good luck? Well, the cover is wonderful. Surely the artist must have read the book, she incorporated so much into her painting. If you blow up the picture on screen you can see lights on in the stores; bookshelves with books on them. The detail is phenomenal. The publisher was so pleased, they did what they call a “designed” cover. That is, instead of some white or yellow paper cover with just the title and author’s name, they did a version of the actual cover and sent them out to scads of review places.
The next stroke of good luck: a new publicist was assigned to me (and a bunch of others). She sent galleys of all the “first in a series” to all the big reviewers. I lucked out and got a coveted Publishers Weekly review. (“An engaging whodunit!”)
The book started appearing everywhere--early. In fact, my local Barnes & Nobel ordered the book in late February (for my April 5th signing) and they showed up the next day! So I was shocked on Launch Day to find that the book had been the #4 bestseller in March for the Mysterious Galaxy independent bookstore.
My book is set in a bookstore. To get the inside scoop on bookselling, I interviewed the Community Relations Manager of my local Barnes & Noble. I thanked her in the acknowledgments. When the book arrived at the store (early) her boss read the acknowledgements. Next thing you know, the CRM is being interviewed for B&N’s internal newsletter with a photo showing her holding the book.
Launch day came and I had a wonderful crowd. The store sold out of copies of the book. Boy, was the Community Relations Manager very pleased. (We talk about a return visit in time for Christmas!)
Unbeknownst to me, the book was made a lead title for Barnes & Noble.
After coming home from Malice Domestic, I got a note from my editor. The book had reached #8 on Barnes & Noble’s mystery best sellers list. Not only that, in less than a month from the official launch date, it had already gone for a second print run.
On May 1st I learned that the book had been the #1 bestselling paperback for April for (independent) Booklovers Mystery Bookshop.
Pretty heady stuff for an author whose first book tanked.
But there was a LOT of work going on before any of this apparent success happened. I’ve sent out over 2,000 bookmarks to interested readers, conferences, book clubs, etc. I’ve networked my butt off getting my name (er, rather my new pseudonym) known around the cozy mystery reader lists. I’ve guest blogged (and thank you so much for this opportunity), I regularly post on my own blog and on a blog called Writers Plot, and I’ve done library talks, visited bookclubs, etc. And now, whenever I travel, I’m looking for bookstores to make personal contact with booksellers in hopes they will remember me and hand sell the book.
And just this week I learned it had landed #3 in paperback for April on the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association’s best sellers list.
There’s been some kind of magic surrounding the book. And, like I said, hard work and some awfully good luck.I hope you’ll look out for Murder is Binding, first in the Booktown Mystery series, by Lorna Barrett.
[Visit Lorraine/Lorna's website, and look for either/both women at a book store near you]
Saturday, May 24, 2008
Which brings me neatly to the topic of genre fiction. The series I am writing now is different from anything else I had ever done, not least because it is a mystery series.
Are you like me? I was an English major and an English teacher. I was into serious literature. I was taught and I believed that if it wasn't literary fiction, it couldn't impart depth of meaning. That it didn't have gravitas.
Shame on me.
I discovered mysteries only about five years before I decided to write one. I always loved historical fiction, and quite by accident I got hold of Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael historical mystery series set in 12th Century England and Wales. These books are so charming and philosophical, and even poetic, that I ended up reading all twenty of them. They not only had all the elements that I love about historicals and literaries, each novel also has an incredibly clever and downright cracking mystery. I went on to read every historical mystery I could get my hands on, then every mystery, and thriller, and I was off to the genre races.
I had finally discovered that good is good, no matter what the genre. Literature is like music in that way. You may not particularly like pop music but adore Gwen Stefani. Or hate opera but get chills when you hear Callas. A master artist transcends our preconceptions.
Genre is kind of a false construct, anyway, made up largely by bookstores, as Debby said, as a marketing tool. Bookstores love to put their books into niches, but most fiction books don't really fit completely into one category or another. In truth, the categories bleed into one another. Many "literary" novels have elements of mystery or thriller, sci-fi or romance, and sometimes all of them at once.
In an earlier post, I mentioned Diana Gabeldon's Outlander series. What the heck is it? It's historical, with elements of thriller and sci-fi and romance, but since the Romance genre outsells the other categories by a large margin, the publisher decided to call it a Romance. It was a smart move, obviously.
I rather enjoy Tony Hillerman's take on the idea that "Literary" novels are superior to "Genre" novels. He said, "Literary fiction is where nothing much happens to people you don't much care about."
I might not go that far, but I suppose the type of novel you choose to read all depends on whether you want to have an existential experience, or whether you'd like to read a story that has a point.
Friday, May 23, 2008
Charles posting today folks.
( First, Debby - great post - so many things to comment on, but as promised, I'm posting about sex. Next week it'll be genres. Not sex genres, fiction ones. But then sex genres could be interesting too...)
So Rick brings up the ‘sex in books’ question (see his entry below and the comments). Sex in books is something I struggle with as well. I mean, first you have to find a big enough book…
Carolyn Hart wrote the blurb for the cover of Relative Danger, and it says, in part, “the non-stop pace, exotic locales, exuberant sex and swashbuckling hero combine for splendid entertainment.” Now I’m not one to argue with a legend – especially a legend with such nice things to say about me – but exuberant? Like any scene, the sex scenes in RD were written to both advance the story and reveal something about the characters involved. The first scene to which Ms. Hart refers, shows the female lead, Aisha, to be strong, controlling and exceptionally assertive. In the second, we learn just how far out of his league Doug is when he’s with the wild and self-confident Aisha. They are hardly titillating scenes – unless you’re the kind of reader who finds words like titillating titillating – and there’s a lot more humor written into them than erotica. Same with Out of Order – one sex scene, fondly remembered the next morning in hazy, vague detail. Again, I wrote a punch line into what should have been the “hot” part, which I guess tells you more about me than it does about the characters. And even though good chunks of Noble Lies take place in Thai whorehouses, there is no sex scene. There is one implied sex scene, but I’m always amazed by the attentive readers who miss it (page 130).
The first bit of fiction I ever had published was a Letter to Penthouse Forum. If you don’t know what Penthouse Forum is, a) I don’t believe you and, b) just ask for a copy the next time you’re at truck stop magazine stand. I was working at a small, mostly female college in upstate New York at the time with my pal and fellow late-night security guard, Frank Neville. Combining our less-than-original ideas, we composed a letter about the sexual adventures of two late night security guards at an all-female college in upstate New York. It was one male-fantasy cliché after another, but I’m sure it earned many a round of applause. Well, one-handed applause anyway. It was also awful and not in the least bit erotic or believable. Worst of all, it was written in first person. Now I don’t know about you, but when I’m reading a book and the characters starts in with the old, “I cupped her tight breasts in my hand…” I’m flipping pages. Seriously, are we in high school? No, that’s not fair – even in high school we didn’t brag about our exploits (mostly imagined, but still). I find that even some of my favorite authors do this stuff and it always creeps me out. Know what’s uncomfortable? Sitting at a bar with an author pal whose book you just read and he/she asks you what you thought about the sex scene. It’s like the morning after a double date and the guy who was in the back seat coming up and asking how it looked in the rearview mirror.
There are some things better left unsaid and for me, that’s the sexual details. I tend to do as Rick has done – pull the curtain and let what happens happen with out us knowing the details. Speaking of which, time to close this little missive as Rose is busy pouring me a glass of wine – which is quite tricky what with me cupping her tight breasts and all.
NOTE: This Sunday guest blogger Lorraine Bartlett (aka Lorna Barrett) regales us with tales about here new series launch.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
Not long ago, Rob Rosenwald asked Publishers Weekly reviewer Peter Cannon, “How come you review Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels in Fiction?”
Cannon ended up writing an article, where he answers Rosenwald’s question. If you’re curious, here’s the link to the article: http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6552980.html
Cannon’s explanation exemplified what I’m beginning to think of as the Genre Wars, a hierarchy that has less to do with the kind of book an author writes than the kind of marketing and sales for which the book (or an author) is being positioned. And this, it seems to me, is something readers would care about. What do you think?
Cannon said, “The basic rule I follow is this: thrillers (spy, legal, medical, etc.) are reviewed under Fiction; mysteries, ranging from cat cozies to hard-boiled noir, under Mystery. To make a simple distinction: in a thriller, the heroes are in a race to save the world from known villains out to destroy it; in a mystery, a sleuth seeks to solve a murder committed by an unknown killer whose identity the reader tries to figure out before it's eventually revealed.”
That makes sense, but he went on to say, “One can understand the impulse to call what the average reader might consider a mystery something else—like fiction or suspense—given that many thrillers sell at bestseller levels, while most category mysteries depend on relatively modest library sales.
“Not so long ago, Janet Evanovich's publicist suggested it was time Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels were reviewed in Fiction rather than Mystery. I had to agree it was, now that the series was hitting bestseller lists, and I made the switch.”
And that’s where my eyebrows went up, along with at least a thousand other people’s, I’m sure. It also jibes with another factoid that came to my attention. Have any of you heard that publishers pay up to $10,000 for placement of books on those round tables at the front of chain bookstores? I asked some of my non-writer friends how they thought those books got there, and all of them replied that the books must be best sellers or readers’ favorites. Hmm...
Now I’ve got to run and get ready for this lunch. Plus, there’s a south swell a-breakin’ and I think I may put my surf board in the back of the car.
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
I will be attending the Bloody Words conference here in Toronto in just a few weeks and the panel I've been assigned to is "Sex and Violence". You know where this panel is going to go right away, hence the title of this week's blog entry.
With Type M's earlier discussion about James Patterson, we've already delved into the topic of violence. Most of us seemed to feel that his writing went too close to (and probably over) the edge.
But what about sex in crime fiction stories?
My feeling with both sex and violence in any story is that what the writer puts in must be true to the paradigms that are set up in the beginning of the story. It would be pretty hard to swallow if an ax murderer walked into an English garden party and began hacking up the guests. That wouldn't be the case if the story was about a crack house in the Bronx.
I'll get off the fence right now and say that I find a bit of sex in a book to be quite, um, titillating -- but again, it has to be true to the story's set up.
I've tried to do this in my own writing. Some of my books have rather explicit sex and with others it's pretty much "Let's just draw the curtains here; you all know what's going to happen".
The reasons for this are the characters themselves. Some of them would tell you all about it. That's the way they are; maybe a bit in your face sometimes, but the sorts of persons who would tell you all about their latest conquest. Other characters are much more private, and while they wouldn't lie to you about getting it on with someone, they certainly wouldn't give you the "gory details", either. At best, they'd feel it was none of your business. At worst, they'd be too embarrassed.
Just like real people (hopefully).
Now, I expect a full and frank discussion from everyone reading this entry. If nothing else, I would like to collect your thoughts to share with those participating in and attending the panel I'm on.
(By the way, why don't you take this opportunity to join us? Visit www.bloodywords.com for more info! Vicki Delany will also be attending.)
Thanks for wading in!
Monday, May 19, 2008
Understand that this was at 11:30 on a payday in the biggest branch of the biggest bank in Canada. Lines were forming while my teller ran to get permission to take a break, and the customer who’d tied up a teller as well as a supervisor was discussing mysteries with me. Heads were turning to see what the hold up was.
It was all getting rather embarrassing.
I wonder if Angelina Jolie feels like that some times.
Saturday, May 17, 2008
Blog: May 18, 2008
Apologies for the mixed patois, but I’m on week six of an eight-week signing tour promoting my new hardboiled mystery, ANGELS FALL, the third book in the Mike Travis series. The tour has thus far taken me to Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, Phoenix, Dallas, San Antonio, Tyler—and most recently— Houston, hence the newly acquired “y’all” that I now find so useful.
I had the great privilege of signing (and talking story, Hawaiian-kine) with the lovely, charming and talented Deborah Atkinson at the LA Times Festival of Books a few weeks ago, and I offer a very large mahalo for her kind invitation to join you as a Guest Blogger.
I couldn’t help but notice that there have been a number of entries regarding the pros, cons, and vagaries of touring to promote our work, so I hope you will indulge me if I weigh in on the topic as well.
I’ve had a bit of time to ruminate on the subject—some of which while staring at the front door of one or another Big Box bookstore feeling a bit like a carnival barker (or something even less dignified). Like many of you, I’ve spent my share of face-time with the Endless Talkers, the Let-Me-Tell-You-About-The-Book- I’m-Writing(ers), the You-Should-Write-MY-Life-Story(ers), and my new personal favorite: the reader who painstakingly inspects every aspect of your book—from cover art to binding—quizzes you on the content, then informs you, “I never read anything that has a Prologue.” What? Excuse me?
Then I had one of those unexpected, big, hairy reality-checks.
I received an email from a reader who actually apologized for missing a workshop I did while in Arizona. It was one of the kindest, most heartfelt pieces of correspondence I’ve received in quite a while, and more than a little humbling. It ended with the phrase, “I just wanted you to know that you are living the life I have always dreamed of.”
Wow. Right between the eyes. Then I remembered: “Me, too.”
Forgive the forest-for-the-trees metaphor, but it’s easy to get our noses pressed right up against the tree bark, and temporarily forget what an enormous privilege it is to be able to have the freedom to practice the craft of writing, to experience the thrill of holding a book in our hands that contains the end-product of the stories we worked so long and hard to create; and most importantly, to meet and talk with the people who read them. And, of course, our collective lifeblood, the Book Sellers. We couldn’t do jack squat without ’em.
I have come to look forward to signings as the culmination—the final act—of the writing process. Sure, the travel can be an Industrial Grade Pain in the A** but so worthwhile. Always a great reminder of the real reason we do what we do.
I’m honored to be a part of this industry, and to share shelf-space with y’all (there it is again…) And I’ve never encountered a more helpful and generous group of writers than those who write Mysteries. You have my greatest respect and gratitude.
A hui hou,
Baron R. Birtcher
Friday, May 16, 2008
Last night Rose and I attended Art Loves Jazz, a fundraiser to benefit Jazz 90.1. It was held at ARTISANworks, this amazingly eclectic art gallery here in Rochester. There were all the things you’d expect at a charity event – hors d’oeuvres, live music, a silent auction and, since it was ARTISANworks, a live art auction. We had spotted a collage we both liked and, after a short bidding war with another determined collage fan, we added a new piece to our collection. We have maybe 40 works of art hanging up in our home, half of which are collages, and many of those by the Buffalo, NY artist, Pat Presutti. Now I love all the art that’s hanging in our home – from traditional Indian miniatures I picked up in Jaipur, the crisp pen and ink drawings of idealized Arabic motifs, to the wonderful airbrush work given to me by my artist/architect friend, David Gardner, but I have to say that there is something about a collage that pulls me in and won’t let go.
I’m sure that when some people see collages the first thing they think is, “I could do that.” Admittedly, all you do is cut out pictures (and other stuff), and glue it all together, and everyone made at least one collage in high school art, so how hard can it be?
Anybody can do it. Doing it well is another thing.
I think one reason I’m drawn to collages is that, on many levels, it parallels what I do as a writer. I don’t create anything completely on my own. Thailand is a real place, Raffles is a real hotel, there are trains in India. What I do is go around finding interesting snippets of stuff, isolate them and then mash them all together. Like a collage, it’s the unexpected juxtapositions of found images that make the piece work, the subtle placement of select elements that make it resonate with the reader. Now, choosing the right images, the right scraps, the right what-the-hell-is-this stuff and then assembling it all in a way that is compelling and exciting and different and surprising – well, that’s the challenge. Millions of people have seen the same things I’ve seen – how do I bring them together so that it seems fresh even to those who see it every day?
When I get it right, I know it’s good. The Egypt Air flight in Relative Danger, the bus ride in Out of Order, the club scenes in Noble Lies. Great art? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s the stuff that lets me know that with the right words and phrases, nouns and verbs, commas, dashes and incomplete sentences, I can create a collage as expressive as the ones I hang on my wall.
NEW NOTE: Guest blogger Lorraine Bartlett's blog will appear NEXT SUNDAY - so drop what you're doing and plan to read it. I know, I said this Sunday, but it's worth the wait. So, once again it's SUNDAY, MAY 25th. Got it? If not, let me know and I'll send you a reminder.
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
The vast majority of the signings have been enjoyable -- and successful -- but this past week's "singleton" on Saturday (I was helping to shear alpacas on Sunday. Long story...) brought something into sharp focus: other writers seldom buy books.
I had three of 'em this week: one had published 3 books many years ago, one is about to have one published and one of them is working on becoming a writer. I don't think any of them bought a book (I'm certain that two didn't.). But boy, did they take up my time. A lot of people walked by as they were bending my ear, telling me about themselves.
This is certainly not the first time this has happened, and I'm positive it doesn't happen only to me, but it is a legitimate phenomenon. Maybe every other signing, a writer of one kind or another drops by and wants to chat, usually for an extended period, maybe wants to pick your brain, but in the end, they never seem to buy. I have even pushed on occasion just to see what might happen and they seem firm in their resolve that they ain't there for any other purpose but to speak with you.
Now I'm wondering what's going through their brains? Are they looking for some sort of confirmation from me? Do they want to make me aware that they're "special" too? Would buying my book somehow be "uncool"? You'd think they'd understand what it is like to be sitting there with a large pile of books that you'd really like to whittle down by the end of the signing.
And yet, when they finally depart, the stack is stubbornly the same size as it was 5, 10, 15 minutes before.
How come? I am puzzled. Any thoughts from you Type M types?
PS I am not talking about other Crime Fiction (or CF) writers. They're usually more than supportive. Why just a few months ago, someone was chastising me on this very blog for not being forceful enough in talking about my new book. He'd already ordered one!
Monday, May 12, 2008
Sunday, May 11, 2008
The timing was perfect – I had my first local book signing this afternoon. To put it in context, I’ve been doing readings and conferences, but my only other bookstore signing was in mid-January, just after THE SILK TRAIN MURDER came out. That was in Seattle, and with a combination of snow (in Seattle yet!) and a long weekend – the store was entirely empty except for me and the very nice staff for the first two and a half hours of the three hour signing.
I didn’t take it personally (mostly) but I was a little wary about today’s signing, which was at the Chapters in Langley, about an hour outside Vancouver. I’d been dropping in and chatting with staff at various local bookstores (before I figured out that wasn’t a particularly productive way to promote) and they asked me to do a signing. Today suited both our calendars; then after the signing I planned to take my mother, who lives in Langley, out for dinner because tomorrow is Mother’s Day.
Well, tomorrow is Mother’s Day, and this is a big box book and gift store. With a Starbucks. The store was jammed – for three straight hours - with focused shoppers. Like shooting fish in a barrel, except – did I mention they were focused? I was standing beside a table near the front door. Half the shoppers went down the other side of the aisle (about twelve feet away.) The other half came my way, but without making eye contact, and hurried on by. Hmmmm. Attempts to stop people and talk about my book are not likely to be welcomed.
On to plan B. I had bookmarks with me – one side has a book cover and brief plot summary, with an author photo and review highlights on the other. And because they are designed by my very talented graphic designer sister-in-law, they look great. Plan B involved holding out a bookmark, smiling and asking “would you like a bookmark?” to anyone who passed by or stopped to browse the table of fiction books in the middle of the aisle. Most took one and some were clearly pleased. Usually they walked off reading the blurb, and when they flipped it over the heads would whip around to compare me with the photo. You could almost see the thought process “oh, that’s the author!”
And people came back. Some right away, some did their browsing, then came back and stopped at my table and asked about the book. And they bought. Despite the fact that it’s a hardcover book, and that Canadians are generally more reluctant to buy hardcovers than their counterparts in the US. (A few readers did decide to wait for the paperback edition.) One reader was so enthusiastic when she purchased the book that the cashier later came over and bought one also. And the store manager was so thrilled with the success of the signing, she’s asked me to come back again the day before Father’s Day. Works for me!
I thoroughly enjoyed the signing – largely because I didn’t go in worried about making sales, I think. Charles, Vicki and Rick are right - I was just there to talk about my book, and thrilled to do so. And I gave bookmarks to everyone, without trying to guess who might actually buy, until nearly the end when I was running low on them. I found that my guess as to who might buy was wrong about half the time. Good to know. Next time, I’ll just bring more bookmarks.
To close, I have to say that as a fellow historical writer, I’m still chortling over Donis’ post from yesterday. “Live, damn you, live!” OK, Donis, I can’t top that! And since I’m editing the next John Granville/Emily Turner book, you know what I’ll be yelling at the laptop screen tomorrow…
Saturday, May 10, 2008
I was going to write about P.E.O. Know what that is, Dear Reader? I didn't either, until a couple of years ago, when I was asked to go to a P.E.O. meeting and talk about my book, of which I only had one at the time. P.E.O. is a fraternal (or should I say sororital?) philanthropic organization of women from all over the U.S. and Canada which gives out educational loans and grants to women so they can complete their studies or return to school after a gap in their educations. The point, and I do have one, is that I missed my regularly scheduled entry last week because I was up in Carefree, Arizona, attending a P.E.O. convention, which coincidently led to my getting three or four book gigs on the side.
The reason I bring this up is because I'm finding that some of my more successful promotional efforts seem to occur when I'm not preaching to the choir of fellow writers. I have a friend who sells large numbers of books every year at her local zoo fund-raising event. I know of a woman who writes about a cat-loving sleuth and shills shamelessly to cat-fancier organizations. I just got an e-mail from mystery author Larry Karp who told me he does very well with music-box and ragtime music afficianados. I'm fascinated by the original ideas people come up with for marketing themselves. It's very important to be imaginative.
That's what I was going to write. But now I must say a word about writing historicals, doing research, and immersing yourself in your time period. At this point, I'm the only one of the four of us who writes a series of historical mysteries (though I'm intrigued by Charles' upcoming stand-alone). I love to travel, when I get the chance, and I think that the desire to explore the unfamiliar which interests me about exotic locales is the same thing that fascinates me about exotic eras. I can actually go to a foreign place and time and live there for a while.
Writing a historical is a very useful way for an author to comment on current events in a way that is illustrative and non-preachy and won't get you beaten up. A lot of science fiction is used in the same way.
A young lady actually said to me once, "if it happened before I was born, it doesn't interest me." Oh, foolish youth! Don't you know that the past isn't over? If I may wax philosophical, which I often do, Eckhardt Tolle said, "even the past happened in the present." There is no past - just one big now. When I do the research for my early 20th Century-era novels, I am amazed at how the same things keep happening over and over again. Remember the old Pinkerton logo of the open eye with the slogan "We Never Sleep" under it? The logo for the human race should be an eye with an eye-patch over it and the slogan "We Never Learn."
Right now, I'm researching the beginning of World War I in the United States. In the spring of 1917, Congress passed the Sedition Act, which made it illegal to write or say anything in public that could be construed as critical of the war or of the U.S. government, even if it was true. (I'm not making this up.) President Wilson authorized a civilian organization called the "Secret Service", whose members kept tabs on the people in their communities and reported any 'unpatriotic' activities to the Justice Department. Hundreds of people were sentenced to prison, including a U.S. Congressman who was sentenced to ten years for anti-war sentiments.
My joy as a historical novelist is to take those bare facts, apply them to the lives of the characters I've created, and make them real and immediate. I think being a a historical mystery writer, or a historical novelist of any ilk, is like being a Voodoo queen. You get to animate the dead. I'm like Dr. Frankenstein, toiling over my creation and yelling, "Live, damn you, live!"
Friday, May 09, 2008
Faithful readers of this blog will recall that last week Rose and I went to see Salman Rushdi and Umberto Eco speak at the University of Rochester. I would love to say that it was one of those transcendental experiences that changes your life forever, but then if it was and I realized it already and was willing to blob about such a intimate, personal transformation, it couldn’t have been that special after all. But still, it was a good time. And I took from it a piece of writing knowledge I’d like to share with you. Aren’t you lucky.
In the discussion, the moderator noted that both authors write books that require lots of historical research (especially true for Rushdie’s newest and much of Eco’s fiction). The moderator asked how the authors knew when they had done enough research and that it was time to write. I could tell that this was a question neither man expected since neither had a witty retort at the ready and both actually paused to consider the question. The answer – paraphrased and combined from comments both men made – went something like this: You know.
Okay, that sounds flippant but that’s not what I meant. It works like this. You research and you research and you research more until, when you come across something new in your research, you sort of knew it already. It’s as if you had submerged yourself into the era you are researching so well and so completely that when you encounter something knew you are like, ‘well, yeah, of course, it has to be that way.’ Think of it like this – let’s assume you know the era we live in quite well (a big assumption for some of you, but just play along). Word comes out of Bangalore that a new computer program will allow you to send simulated voice emails over your phone to someone’s website. “Okay,” you’re saying, “I can see that. What’s the big deal?” The big deal is that it’s not a big deal for you – you know this era and innovations that are in line with the era are no big shock. But let’s say you’re researching 14th century Italian monasteries and you come across a description of a typical day in the life of a novice and you say, ‘well, yeah, of course, it has to be that way.’ Now you’re ready to write.
This is a short list (in no order) of the books I’ve read while researching the book I’m writing:
Fubar: Soldier Slang of World War II, by Gordon L. Rottman
The Lost Masters: World War II and the looting of Europe’s Treasures, by P. Harcerode & B. Pittaway
Silent Wings at War: Combat Gliders in World War II, by John Lowden
Nazi Plunder, by Kenneth D. Alford
Anzio, by Lloyd Clark
World War II Infantry Tactics (1): Squad and Platoon, by Dr. Stephen Bull
Yank: Reporting the Greatest Generation, by Barrett McGurn
Europa Turing: Automobilführer von Europe, by Hllwag Bern
Four volumes of the Time-Life series on World War II (The Resistance, Partisans and Guerrillas, The Neutrals, The Home Front: Germany)
Operation Dragoon: The Allied Invasion of the South of France, by William B. Breuer
Berlin Diary, by William L. Shirer
The Beardless Warriors, by Richard Matheson (yes, the author of I Am Legend)
Up Front, by Bill Mauldin
Nobody Comes Back, by Donn Pearce (outstanding)
Fakes & Forgeries: The True Crime Stories of History’s Greatest Deceptions, by Brian Innes
Articles of War, by Nick Arvin (brilliant, BTW)
Command Decisions: The ANVIL Decision, by Maurice Matloff
G.I., by Lee Kennett (essential if you are writing about this era)
Pilot Training Manual for the CG-4A, By Headquarters AAF, Office of Flying Safety, March 1945
PLUS, 4 books on the plots to kill Hitler, a half dozen books on life in Nazi Germany, a short monograph on the SS, a stack of photocopies of plates showing uniforms from WWII, a notebook filled with sketches and notes taken when I field tested an M-1 rifle, NONE of which I can find right now (but for which, I assure you, I will be searching for all night).
Why do I tell you all this? Because Rusdie and Eco are right. When you are researching for a book on historical fiction, you start writing when you know.
Not 100%, that's impossible. Not even 50%. Maybe not even 2%.
But I know.
Thursday, May 08, 2008
I'm very, very late this week. In fact, I'm dangerously treading on Debby's toes for which I apologize. The truth is that I've spent the past week in Internet Hell.
There's no point in boring you with my tale of woe. I'm sure you all have similar stories, but the facts are, I've been without service, and for someone who relies the Internet heavily for work-related things as well as writing, life has been tough.
Not wanting the week to slip by without contributing, I offer the following comic sent to me many years ago. It's probably from The New Yorker and will certainly resonate with everyone here -- me, especially, since I'm in the middle of promoting my newest novel.
Tuesday, May 06, 2008
Out of Order. Isn’t that the name of one of Charles’s books? I missed my posting date yesterday because, in the opposite of being too busy, I didn’t do much of anything. You know the old saying – if you want something done, ask a busy person? The Tulip Festival is on in Ottawa, and the city looks lovely. As part of the festival, we got a nice brochure in the mailbox listing all the events. And what do you know – Salman Rushdie is speaking tonight. After reading Charles’s post and Donis’ comment, I’m going to head down and try to get a ticket. Later in the month Jared Diamond will be here. I’ll try and get to hear him as well. He’s best known for Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse. If you haven’t read them, do your intellect a favour and do so. Reading Diamond just amazes me as to how one person can know so many different things. Yes, yes, I’m sure he has research assistants, tons of them, but someone has to tie it all together.
I am thinking this morning about how much privacy there is on the Internet. Well, none, we all know that, I’m writing this blog entry hoping people will read it. But our e-mails? Someone posted an entry to a private discussion group mentioning a big Internet presence. They almost immediately got a message from said presence rapping their knuckles. In Red China Blues by Jan Wong which I mentioned last week, Wong talks about the persuasive spying on everyone by everyone and reporting any minor indiscretion to the authorities. Are we in the West progressing so fast that we don’t need anyone to report us? We’re doing it ourselves?
Friday, May 02, 2008
Yeah, it's Charles. Big deal.
So last night Rose and I went to see Salman Rushdie and Umberto Eco at the University of Rochester. Wow. I was reminded of the gulf that exists between what they do and what I do – no insult intended to me, just a straight statement of fact. These guys are frickin’ brilliant. They read from their works – Rushdie from his newest-yet-to-be-published-in-the-US, Eco from Baudolino, both captivating and humbling. I have read a lot more Eco than Rushdie – The Name of the Rose is one of my top ten – but Rushdie’s new book seems to be so in line with what I write that I might be adjusting my top ten. There was a short “conversation” facilitated by a U of R professor/author, but the joking asides by the two, Rushdie and Eco, were priceless. The main point they discussed (if that can serve for what they did) was the purpose of fiction in modern society. It’s too complex for me to recount* – suffice it to say that I am not treading water in a dying art.
The most important thing I took away from the night? A deep discussion on the subjectivity of the written word and why that is an amazing thing. Now forgive me, Rick and Paula will be here any second and I don’t have drinks mixed. This is truly unforgivable since I did not discuss the Festival of Mystery in Oakmont, PA, or my pal Lorraine Bartlett’s new book OR Vicki’s new house. Ah well, I blame it on the Beefeaters.
*Given that I’m on my third martini. But don’t worry, Rose and I are in deep discussion of the state of literature as I type. And she is soooo wrong…
Thursday, May 01, 2008
The L.A. Times Festival of Books is an amazing event. This was my first time, and I’ll make plans to go again. The newspaper reported 156,000 attendees. The UCLA campus was clogged with book-lovers. Strollers, toddlers, teens, meandering adults, thousands upon thousands of readers. Poets, essayists, non-fiction, fiction, you name it. It was great.
Not being a big name, I didn’t have the lines that Mary Higgins Clark, or James Ellroy did, but I sold a lot of books. I think I broadened my readership, though there were actually people who came by because they’d already read one or two of my books. I was amazed, and hugely grateful.
I also had the delightful experience of being sandwiched between Stephen J. Cannell (known for The Rockford Files and other TV shows) and Baron Birtcher, another Hawai‘i mystery/suspense writer, while signing at the Mystery Bookstore booth. (another privilege) Baron has changed publishers and is doing very well, and Steve Cannell had people standing in the hot sun for an hour, most of them holding tall stacks of books. But the really nice part was that Steve and Baron were not only great company, they both bought my book. I bought theirs, too, naturally—but they’re FAMOUS, where as I’m, well, I’m what we call mid-list. But I digress… Steve Cannell shared a quick synopsis of his Three Act Structure lecture with me, which people had bought $100 tickets to hear. The lecture was sold out, too. I’ll share this on a later blog, if you’re interested.
When I left Los Angeles Monday, it was 102 degrees Fahrenheit. I’m now in Boston, where it’s about 40 and lashing rain. I forgot an umbrella, naturally. At least I get to see my college sophomore son, which is balm to a mother’s soul. Then I’m off to NYC Wednesday to give out the short story award for the Edgar’s. You’ll probably know the results to that about the same time I do, but I’ll file a report all the same.
Last but not least, to rise to Charles’s challenge, I saw Denise Hamilton at the LATFB and started her newest, A Prisoner of Memory. I’m tapping Judy Clemens www.judyclemens.com, Karen Huffman, Libby Hellman http://www.hellmann.com/mystery-author , Nadja Gassert www.nlgassert.com , and Michael Chapman. Page 123, count down to the 5th sentence, and type the next 3 sentences. Here goes:
What did Nicolai have to hide?
Hey, this is getting good! Gotta run.