Friday, April 30, 2010

School, is it worth it?

By Lonnie Cruse

How much do you remember from elementary or high school? Probably not nearly all you learned. I know I don't. Yet, again, I do. I remember a good deal of the Spanish I learned from Mr. Alvarez in high school. Algebra? Probably not, unless I'm using it without realizing it. Add, subtract, divide, multiply, yeah, I use those a lot (except the pesky nine times table, I must've been absent that day because I always have to have help.) Grammar? I struggle with it a bit, but when I hear some young people speaking today, I wonder if they've been to school at all. Geography? Well, some countries are sneaky and change their names, probably trying to keep us from knowing where they are, but I remember some others. History? I retained a few facts about Washington and Lincoln and interesting guys like that. Ask me where certain battles took place or what year and likely I'll have no clue. Except the Civil War battle at Franklin, TN, and that one only because I have a good friend who lives there. (Bet the rest of you didn't know about that battle either.)

Time for my point for today. One of my grandsons hates school. He's at the age where he doesn't see how he's ever going to be able to "use all this stuff." Sigh. No matter how often we try to explain that he WILL need math in almost any job and he'll need to know how to speak properly in order to GET that job, and that he might need a foreign language if he ever hopes to travel, and geography to know how to get there, and history so we can all avoid the mistakes of the past, so far, he's not getting it. Neither are a lot of our kids today.

When I worked as a substitute teacher's aide, I worked quite often with kids who were struggling in high school. Kids who didn't see the need of the education they were getting there, kids who were often discouraged and wanted to drop out, kids who might have a very limited future if they don't stick with it. But they can't seem to see that far ahead. It's all about today for them.

What's the solution? The only one I see is this, if you know a young person struggling in school, try to point out to them how YOU use what you learned in school, and what you know they will need when they are grown. Our young people really have to understand that they are building the foundation of the future they will live in, and if that foundation is weak, the rest of the building won't stand.

Is there a kid who needs your encouragement? Your help? Your understanding of what it's like to have to study and learn?

Thanks for stopping by!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Pernicious plotting or literary license?

Elizabeth Zelvin

Sue Grafton’s latest Kinsey Millhone novel, U Is for Undertow, is a terrific read. Her masterful shuffling of past and present and of different points of view, with meaty characterizations and skillful handling of pace and plotting made me enjoy it more than most of the mid-to-late alphabet books. But. As a psychotherapist with many years of bearing witness to the consequences of childhood abuse and trauma, I was jerked right out of the story by the presentation of Kinsey’s client as a young man whose therapist had convinced him, without any supporting evidence, that his parents had abused him as a child. I understand the literary motive: Grafton wanted her character to be unstable and his family, whose reputation and peace of mind he had destroyed, to destroy his credibility in turn. But did she really have to play the so-called false memory card?

I’ve spent a lot of time on my soapbox ranting about how therapists are portrayed in fiction and film. Grafton’s therapist is a quack. Every profession has its quacks and con artists. But there is so much myth and misinformation about psychotherapy in our culture that this kind of portrayal can do a lot more damage than, say, the portrayal of a dishonest doctor.

My beef with Grafton’s scenario, however, is that in dramatizing the impact of a family torn apart by accusations of sexual abuse, she chooses the rare case in which the accusations are false. I feel the same when a novelist chooses to highlight an accusation of rape that turns out to be false. The victims of sexual violence, whether in childhood or adult life, have had a long, hard fight to be believed and treated with respect in our society. When novelists—and journalists—choose to keep the spotlight on the phonies, as if they were the norm, not only justice but our collective psyche takes a giant step backward.

I have a similar reaction to some of the current crop of TV series, notably United States of Tara, about a woman with multiple personalities, and Big Love, about a polygamist and his three wives. Some fine actors and other serious people are involved in these shows. Their intention is not to trivialize the issues. But they do. Tara is a high- functioning wife and mother whose alters include a Betty Crocker-like homemaker and a foul-mouthed male Vietnam vet—great material for a sitcom. But in real life, dissociative identity disorder is not cute and funny. A real-life multiple’s split-off alters are the result of a child’s attempt to distance from and survive severe abuse. If none of Tara’s alters is an abreacting four-year-old, cowering in a corner during a flashback of sexual torture, she’s nothing like the real thing.

As for modern-day American polygamy, it’s not cute or funny either. Betty Webb’s Desert Wives, in her Lena Jones series, tells us what it’s really like: domineering old men raping underage girls and keeping them pregnant and uneducated. And don’t say that the picture painted in mystery novels and films is mere literary license, without impact in the real world. Webb’s book played a role in changing legislation that eventually led to the arrest, conviction, and imprisonment of notorious polygamist Warren Jeffs.

Believe me, I’m not arguing in favor of “political correctness.” I didn’t like the term when it was a Stalinist catch phrase back in the Fifties, and I still have no use for the thought police. I’m just saying, writers, when you have choices to make, think a little harder about the message that you’re sending.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Mystery Anthology Boom

Sandra Parshall

Magazine markets for short crime fiction are scarce, but readers who want a sharp little dose of murder and mayhem have plenty of anthologies to choose from. These collections have popped up like mushrooms across the genre in the last few years, bringing us everything from tales of murder on family holidays (haven’t we all been tempted at least once?) to crime with a supernatural flavor.

While some anthologies are made up entirely of work by crime
fiction stars, most also give exposure to work by beginners or lesser-known writers. The number of anthology stories nominated for major mystery awards is an indication of how important the collections have become to the genre.

Some anthologies are highly visible, like the International Thriller Writers 2006 anthology Thriller, which has sold more than 400,000 copies and been published in nine foreign countries. Others have more modest ambitions but are worth looking for if you want to read the best short crime fiction being published.

A lot of anthologies are focused on themes. Akashic has produced a series of noir collections set in various cities and features dark tales from Orange County,
California, in its latest. Tony Burton at Wolfmont Press publishes Christmas-themed mystery anthologies, and the profits go to Toys for Tots.

Hook, Line & Sinister, an April release from Countryman Press, is another themed collection that will benefit charity, in this case two organizations that use fly-fishing as therapy. Casting for Recovery helps breast cancer patients and Project Healing Waters aids returning veterans. The anthology’s theme, naturally, is fishing, and 16 bestselling mystery authors came up with stories that involve the sport. Edited by T. Jefferson Parker, the book includes work by such notables as Michael Connelly, C.J. Box, Ridley Pearson, John Lescroart, and Dana Stabenow. And no, you don’t have to enjoy fishing to appreciate these mini-mysteries.

Charlaine Harris’s name on the cover as editor tells you that Crimes by Moonlight is devoted to supernatural mysteries, but it’s not exactly what you might expect. Along with a new Sookie Stackhouse story, the collection includes shorts by Carolyn Hart, Barbara D’Amato, Margaret Maron and other authors we don’t usually associate with the woo-woo end of the genre. Writing these stories gave the writers a chance to stretch, and even readers who don’t normally enjoy the supernatural mixed with crime may be pleasantly surprised.

Unusual Suspects, a fantasy/mystery anthology edited by Dana Stabenow, also features a new Sookie Stackhouse story and work by writers like Laurie R. King
who haven’t produced this type of fiction before.

Two of the Deadliest, edited by Elizabeth George, features stories by 18 established women authors and five relative unknowns. In its anthology In the Shadow of the Master, Mystery Writers of America also gives exposure to a few lesser-known writers by placing them in the company of stars.

A number of Sisters in Crime chapters across the country have published anthologies, giving some SinC members their first professional publications. Stories contributed by “name” authors lend cachet and draw the attention of readers. The Los Angeles Chapter will launch Murder in La-La Land on May 22 (early copies will be available this weekend at Malice Domestic). The Desert
Sleuths Sisters in Crime recently brought out How Not to Survive the Holidays.

If you have a secret hit list but know you’ll never act on it, you can savor an ample helping of vicarious satisfaction when you read They Had It Comin’, the fourth Chesapeake Crimes anthology from the Chesapeake Chapter. Stories from previous CC collections have been nominated for, and have won, major awards. A fifth anthology is already in the works. (Full disclosure: I’m a member of the Chessie Chapter and I’m honored to be on the editorial committee for the fifth anthology.)

Have you read a good crime fiction anthology lately? Have you contributed to one?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Prolong the life cycle of a story

Sharon Wildwind

A couple of days ago I got really, really lost on the Internet, the electronic equivalent of starting out to take the #3 bus, and an hour later, realizing you are on the #27, with no clue where you are, other than it looks interesting.

I ended up watching a guy named Jeff Gomez give a 25-minute speech to the 2010 O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing Conference. I knew nothing about the conference or the speaker, so I did a little surfing. When I got to Mr. Gomez’s company, Starlight Runner Entertainment, I had a total brain freeze.

His clients?

Coca-Cola, Mattel Hot Wheels, Avatar, Transformers, Magic-The Gathering, Microsoft Halo, Walt Disney (Tron, Prince of Persia, Pirates of the Caribbean, Fairies) and Dexter. I’d wandered into one hot dude here.

His first message: forget the gismos and gadgets. They will come and go.

Second message: the most important thing that creative people can do is to prolong the life cycle of a story.

In a time where many series are dying after the third or fourth book and where even long-term series are suddenly no longer of interest to publishers, a lot of the conversation we writers have among ourselves has to do with how to prolong the life cycle of the stories we love.

I had to get my head around a fifty-cents term—transmedia storytelling—and two head-filling definitions.

“Transmedia storytelling is the vanguard process of conveying messages, themes or story lines to a mass audience through the artful and well-planned use of multiple-media platforms. It is a philosophy of communication and brand extension that broadens the life-cycle of creative content. . . .The purpose of transmedia storytelling is to prolong the life cycle of the story itself.”
~Jeff Gomez, TOC 2010 Conference, 2010 February, New York City

According to the Producers Guild of America, who recently added the term Transmedia Producer to it’s approved list of skills which a producer can list on her/his resume, “A Transmedia Producer credit is given to the person(s) responsible for a significant portion of a project’s long-term planning, development, production, and/or maintenance of narrative continuity across multiple platforms, and creation of original storylines for new platforms. Transmedia producers also create and implement interactive endeavors to unite the audience of the property with the canonical narrative and this element should be considered as valid qualification for credit as long as they are related directly to the narrative presentation of a project.”
~Producers Guild of America press release, 2010 April 6.

It’s okay if you go lie down for a while. I know that I had to.

What I think is being discussed here is that the work needed to keep alive a really big, really complex story has grown beyond one writer’s ability.

What makes transmedia storytelling different from typical media franchise, like Star Trek and Harry Potter is the in a typical franchise the elements are designed independently without regard for how, or even if, they fit together. The author writes the books; the movie makers make the movies, the gamers devise the games, etc. without even talking to one another.

In a transmedia project, the pieces are, from the beginning, designed to create a cohesive whole. Creative people, from many different disciplines, work with one another to develop trust and look forward to working as a team. Customers look forward to experiencing the fictional world by connecting the pieces.

In many ways, this new idea of team storytelling scares a lot of people. Authors are scared that other people will steal their ideas. Agents are scared that they don’t know how to manage their clients’ rights in this new world. Media People are scared of losing control over the vision of the project.


I am excited about transmedia. There’s a great movie called Rare Birds, in which a chef succeeds, against all odds, with a gourmet restaurant in rural Newfoundland. While Dave (played by John Hurt) is busy running around in the movie’s foreground, in the background Bette (played by Leah Lewis), a quiet local woman, hired to help out in the kitchen, is doing everything from hauling cases of ingredients out of the freezer to worrying about plating. At the end of the movie, when Dave has a chance at love, if only he can find someone to take over the restaurant, Bette steps forward and says two words.

“I’m ready.”

Dave realizes that she is, turns the restaurant over to her, and takes off after the woman he loves.

I’m ready, too.

If Jeff Gomez’s car happens to break down in front of my house, and he happens to have to use my phone to call AMA, and we happen start talking about the importance of keeping stories alive, and he happens have an opening on one of his transmedia teams . . . well a woman can dream, can’t she?
One more quote for the week:
If all this makes your head hurt, go for a nice walk. Because exercise is still good for you. ~Karen Hopkin, Scientific American on-line

Monday, April 26, 2010

When to Intersperse Fact with Fiction

by Julia Buckley
I once read an essay by Carl Hiaasen in which he wrote about borrowing from a real life news story in order to bump off one of his characters. The fictional man in question was a nasty, steroid-addicted fellow named Pedro, who was a security guard at an amusement park. Around the time that Hiaasen decided to kill off his this horrible man, a news story had caught the attention of Floridians: tourists swimming with the dolphins had triggered in the animals what scientists called "high risk activity," which was, Hiassen said, "often aggressively sexual." So he used that particular idea in order to kill off Pedro, who fell into the tank with a super-sexualized dolphin. (1)

Hiassen's mysteries are humorous, and this sort of satire works well with what might be happening at the moment in the real world. But it's always a question for someone writing a novel: How much fact can I blend in with my fiction?

I have found in my own work that I like to weave in certain real facts--characters referencing real crimes or the behavior of real politicians--in order to lend veracity to my fictional world. But of course this can complicate a story; once an editor told me that I was walking a fine line, because my fictional setting was rather vague, but my real-life allusions were very specific.

Still, the temptation to borrow from real life is always there, especially since fiction is meant to echo everything about real life. And certain news stories stay with me for a long time. When it was revealed that a SECOND Austrian girl had been held captive in a subterranean dungeon--this one by her own father, and for 24 years--I couldn't stop thinking about the story. What must it have been like to exist down there, without hope? What must it have been like to give birth to children in that moldy basement--without medical care, without love, without light? While I can envision some horrible things, I doubt my imagination could come close to understanding what that girl felt; even in my fiction I cannot conceive of an act that cruel.

If I borrow from reality, then, I tend to stay in the realm of the satirical, the historical, or, sometimes, the topical. In my first book I drew several parallels to Nixon and Watergate. I made an O.J. Simpson reference because it was pertinent to my fictional story. I also borrow heavily from literature--this may be fiction drawing on fiction, but it also means my characters are reading real books, not made-up titles.

And if I or another author want to borrow something humorous, the real world provides plenty of examples. All I have to do is Google "wacky news stories" to learn of a burglar who said he wasn't robbing a house--merely playing hide and seek. Or of the cat who somehow made it from New Mexico to Chicago on his own feline initiative. Or how a Croation girl woke from a coma speaking not her native tongue, but German, due to a condition called "bilingual aphasia."

The real world provides a rich tapestry of facts which can inform our fiction. The challenge is finding the right facts and the right balance.

(The Hiassen information was borrowed from his essay "Real Life, That Bizarre and Brazen Plagiarist," which appeared in WRITERS ON WRITING, Times Books, 2001).

Saturday, April 24, 2010


by Sheila Connolly

I've been working happily on my new book, which my publisher wants July 1st. For you writers out there, you know how it goes when things are rolling smoothly. You're in the groove, the zone. The words are flowing, and plot twists are blossoming like daffodils (and falling over like daffodils, but that's a different problem). All's right with the world.

I had written about thirty-five thousand words and then looked at my rather casual outline. I was eight days into the story–and there was no weekend. Now, one could call my protagonist a workaholic, but still. The world expects breaks now and then, and my books are supposed to take place in the real world, or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

The problem is, I have no idea what Nell Pratt does over the weekend, or in any of her "off-screen" time. And worse, I have no idea how much my readers really want to know.
Nell commutes from her suburban home to her city job by train. That means I can put her on the train for a couple of hours a day, where she can read the newspaper or a book, or she can stare pensively out the window and think about the current murder on her plate, which presumably helps her solve it by page 278. Thinking is good–in moderation.
But that's not going to help out with the weekend, where there's still time to fill. Does anyone really care about what she eats for dinner, when she does the laundry, how often she cleans her house or pays the bills? We all live ordinary daily lives, and we don't want to spend time and money reading about someone else doing all that boring stuff.
Sometimes I can send her off to do something to "clear her head" (so she can get back to solving murders, fresh as a daisy, on Monday morning). I can make her take a hike in the country, go antiquing, see a movie. But someone–either my editor or a reader–is going to tell me that whatever mundane activity I choose doesn't contribute anything to the plot, which is true.

My poor heroine has no pets and apparently no hobbies. She's reasonably handy at home improvement, but how many times can she paint the bathroom? She lives in a small house with no yard, so gardening is out of the question.

And she has no friends. In my own defense, the original version of this story included a book club that met every few weeks. It was like a Greek chorus, made up of women ranging in age from teens to 70s, who would listen to my heroine's woes and provide sympathy and advice. I liked the group, but in the interest of shortening and tightening the book, it disappeared. Yes, it didn't advance the plot, but it filled in a few blanks–and gave Nell some additional human contact.

We know that as writers, or at least those of us who write traditional mysteries, we must create a protagonist with whom a reader can identify and empathize. We have to flesh out a character who is believable, with quirks and foibles, but with a strong and solid core. How do we do that? Does knowing that my heroine is a lousy housekeeper make her more endearing? Or do you say, when confronted with her stack of dirty dishes, "get on with the story already"?

On the other hand, do you feel cheated when a writer says something like, "She spent the weekend doing necessary chores" and stops there? Two days, gone in one sentence. That doesn't seem right either: given that a successful murder investigation usually takes only a week or two, throwing away two days feels wrong. If Nell were a cop she could work around the clock until the murderer was caught, but she's an amateur, on the sidelines, and she's stuck with those pesky weekends.

Still, a writer doesn't want to be compulsive, accounting for every minute of the day. One could write, for example, "She pushed her chair back from the desk, stood up, and walked around the desk to the door, which she opened with her right hand, simultaneously turning off the light switch with her left hand." Or, "she picked up her blue toothbrush and carefully spread a one-inch worm of shiny green toothpaste with sparkles in it over the bristles, noting as she did that she really ought to get out a new toothbrush, as her long-time dentist had recommended more than once." Are you asleep yet? No, just drowned in minutiae. You have put the book down and gone off to do something a bit more stimulating, like balancing your checkbook.

How do I find a balance? I have to leave some room for the reader to fill in the blanks from his or her own imagination. At the same time, I have to build enough of an outline so that the reader can color it in–and I can't just leave out big pieces. What's the best solution?

One final note: you might have noticed that the calendar at the top of the post has only six days in a week. Maybe that's the solution!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Book stores? What is happening to them?

By Lonnie Cruse

A lot of book stores have closed in the last decade. Small, independent book stores and large chain book stores. Metropolis, Illinois no longer has the small independent that was open when we moved here, and Paducah lost its Borders just last year. Sigh. What to do, what to do?

I don't mind buying books on the Internet, be they vintage and hard to find or brand new, but I far prefer walking into a book store and browsing, handling the books, seeing the cover for real as opposed to on my computer screen, smelling the fresh pages, flipping through to see what the book is about. Don't you? So what happens when more and more book stores close? Will we be forced to get all of our books online?

Yes, we can see the cover online. We can often even "flip pages" to see what's inside. That's helpful. But it's no where near like holding the physical book in our hands. I love the tote bag Books A Million carries that has a grocery list printed on the outside that reads something like this: Books, milk, bread, etc. Firmly putting books where they belong, on any shopping list . . . right on top!

I own an e-book reader and I love it. I love being able to carry multiple books in my purse without the weight. I love being able to buy a book late at night while laying in bed, simply by going online with the unit, finding it, purchasing and downloading it. But nothing can ever take the place of a physical book in my hands. Which is why I have four or five large book shelves in this house plus books in the closet, in baskets, on tables, and a box or two in the shed. Whew.

I don't know what the answer to this book store closing problem is. Maybe the number of readers IS down, yet I often hear people talking about what they are reading. Maybe the online option has taken much of the business from the brick and mortar people, yet I know others like to browse the book store as much as I do. Whatever the problem is, it will be a sad day if all book stores go out of business. Sad for those of us who like to browse, sit in the chairs that the store provides and take a better look at the books we've chosen, maybe even grab a cup of coffee if the store has that option, and just plain enjoy.

Book stores, both independent and chains, need our support if they are to stay in business. Just my $.02

Thanks for stopping by. Read any good books lately?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

How important is the publisher to a book’s success?

Elizabeth Zelvin

Ever since I became part of the mystery community, I’ve been hearing that having the support of your publisher is one of the essential factors in success, along with writing the very best book you can, being persistent at every stage of the process—finding an agent, persevering till you can sign that elusive contract, and being proactive in promoting your work—and creating buzz through word of mouth. But it took going through the experience with a couple of books to get it at a gut level. And unfortunately, sometimes it's the luck of the draw rather than the quality of the work that determines how much support you get.

Here are some of the things an author needs the publisher to do:

1. Your editor has to be a powerful advocate for you in house with marketing, sales, and all the decision makers regarding your contract, distribution of your book, and how long they give your series a chance to build.

2. Promotional dollars, especially for coop in the chain bookstores. The publisher won't pay for your book tour unless you're a bestseller or a celebrity, but that's the way it is for everyone. More important, you need those face-out copies and dumps and endcaps and front-of-the-store position, and that only happens if the publisher pays. If your name begins with Z and you're shelved spine at the end of the last Mystery shelf at floor level, readers will have a hard time finding you, and browsers won't find you at all.

3. Distribution: your publisher has to be proactive in making sure your book gets into the stores, especially in a timely fashion, ie at the time of publication, when you're doing your book tour (including drop-in stock signings as well as scheduled events), and in the two, three, or four month window before the stores start thinking about returns.

4. Signs of support like good coverage in the publishers' catalog, eg one or two pages vs half a page (compared with how the other authors are being presented) and content that presents the book in the most advantageous light. The catalog tells booksellers and librarians whether the publisher thinks your book is a must-have, and the catalog blurb for your book will eventually appear all over in the catalogs of libraries and all over the Internet.

5. Open communication and respect. Can you or your agent call or email your editor every time you feel concern about something and know that you'll be heard? If you spot a typo or erroneous change while the book's in production, are you given ample time to get them to change it, and are they responsive to your requests in cases where you're right and it's important? Are you seated at the publisher's table, both literally and figuratively, at public mystery events?

If all this doesn't happen, it's likely that your book will languish. Sooner or later, disappointing sales may lead to cancellation of your series no matter how you throw your heart and your own funds into your part in promotion.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Myths That Control Us

Sandra Parshall

Why do some myths about human behavior persist, even though we can see the evidence that they aren’t true? Why do we try so hard to fit our feelings and actions into rigid patterns dictated by authors of pop psychology books?

Novelists play their (our) part in perpetuating certain myths about human behavior. We know that everybody does this, or believes that – we know because that’s what we’ve always been told, and all the pop psychology books say so. We write our characters to conform with popular beliefs. We make them behave in ways that might, in fact, be unrealistic. If readers all believe the myths, they’ll accept what we’ve written. If we write characters who behave the way people really do, those characters might be dismissed as unconvincing.

What’s going on here? Why do we want to believe, for example, that letting go and “blowing off steam” is the best way to get rid of our anger? Hasn’t anyone noticed that the more we indulge negative feelings, the more negative we feel? Anger feeds on itself, and the more it’s expressed, the stronger and nastier it becomes. Besides, losing your temper and screaming at another person is likely to make the object of your rage pretty mad too. So why do we write characters who feel calm and relieved after they break something or throw something against a wall or tell somebody off?

It’s puzzling and frustrating. Maybe we should pay more attention to books like 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Nature. The four psychology professors who authored this enlightening book are up against the roughly 3,500 self-help titles, a lot of them based on false premises, that are published in the U.S. every year. In 50 Great
Myths they challenge the beliefs that all people experience a midlife crisis, that subliminal messages can persuade us to buy products, that adolescents inevitably go through emotional turmoil, and that everyone experiences the same stages of grief. They also point out the fallacies in common beliefs about memory, romance, happiness, and lie detector tests.

The authors – Scott O. Lillenfield, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein – pulled out half a dozen popular myths to focus on in an article for the March/April issue of Scientific American Mind magazine, and heading the list was “Myth #1: Blowing Our Tops Defuses Anger.” More than 40 years of research has shown again and again that the more people express anger, the more
aggressive they become. Thirty-five studies have concluded that playing violent video games increases aggressive behavior in everyday social situations.

The 50 Great Myths authors also found little proof to support the popular conviction that a positive attitude can cure cancer. It might improve the patient’s quality of life, and so might a support group, but no evidence exists that either will prolong life or bring about a cure. Yet as many as 94 percent of cancer survivors attribute their recovery to positive thinking.

What about those supposedly universal stages of grief that everyone looks for and writers use as templates for their grieving characters’ actions? Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss-born psychiatrist, popularized the concept in the 1960s, and it has taken root with amazing tenacity. As we all know, first comes denial, then anger, then bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. Doctors and nurses expect us to follow these steps. We expect it of ourselves and others. But guess what? People are not all alike. If someone you love deeply dies and you accept the loss without getting angry and depressed first, that doesn’t make you heartless or abnormal. You’re just reacting in your own way. But you may be judged harshly for it. A fictional character is also expected to conform to popular misconceptions.

In writing and in personal relationships, it’s wise to keep individual differences in mind when we feel ourselves drawn to any common belief about how people should feel and act. But the unfortunate truth is that we’re taking a risk anytime we stray from popular myths about human behavior.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

It’s all in your mind

Sharon Wildwind

Or is it in your brain?

I can’t remember who was in vogue when I studied literary criticism. I have a hazy recollection that we studied Northrup Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism and possibly Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, with a sidebar on Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces for the archetypal stuff.

Whoever we discussed, it may not matter any more. Reading and literary criticism may be all in your head.

A Yale University team composed of scientists and literature professors has plans later this year to hook up students in New England to Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines, have them read specifically-designed texts, and measure the blood flow and neuro-firing that happens as the material is read.

This is part of neuro-literary criticism (neuro-lit crit for short), which is looking for the physiological basis of why we love to read. One goal for the project is to discover and use a scientific basis to improve the reading skills of college-age students.

People on the other side of the question argue that it’s the artistic experience of literature rather than the fired neurons that is more important. Does reading happen in the mind or the brain?

In that weird way that the Internet has of clapping two seemingly-unrelated things together, no sooner had I read the article on neuro-lit crit than I happened on another article about the Canadian military’s plan to use a 3-D full-immersion virtual reality platform to rehabilitate injured soldiers with spinal cord injuries, amputations, and post-traumatic stress syndrome. Think the holo-deck in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Being immersed in a controlled virtual simulation can help people relive and rework traumatic experiences. It might be possible in the future for counselors to kibitz as the person relives the experience. “I know what you mean” would take on a whole new dimension.

For people who have to learn new skills, such as a person with a spinal cord injury learning how to transfer from a wheelchair to a car, programming the holographic experience would allow trying many different parameters. Could he get into a Ford or Chevy easier? How would getting into a car that has been sitting in the July sunshine different from one parked outside at forty below? He would have the option of trying a lot of scenarios without harm, rather like student pilots who can crash a flight simulator multiple times without killing themselves or their instructors.

What if—twenty minutes in the future—neural stimulation and holographic immersion programming are two hallmarks of a great book?

Remember that fast-food jingle: “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce. Special orders don't upset us. All we ask is that you let us serve it your way!” The word is already out there that if your audience is under thirty-five you have to write a different kind of book than for an audience that is over thirty-five. What if the reader could pick details and the order in which plot points happened?

For this reading, I want the protagonist to interview the strawberry-blond chanteuse first. Setting: a diner. Menu: burgers and fries. Turn on the appropriate neural receptors and the reader would hear background diner noises and smell diner food.

I can imagine the questions on the writing lists:

Does anyone have an opinion on thalamic stimulations? How do you judge the amount of stimulation needed to produce visual or aural sensory experience versus putting the reader to sleep?

My first 3-D effect happens on page 32. Is this too late in the book?

Has anyone else heard that XYZ writers’ group won’t consider a book for their award if you stimulate artificial flavor receptors instead of natural ones?

My detective has to interview five suspects. I can’t figure out how many total versions I need to write. Does anyone have that formula for calculating in how many different orders 5 people can be interviewed?

My editor hates cinnamon and says I have to change it, perhaps to chocolate. But I think cinnamon in this scene is essential. Do I listen to my editor’s suggestions or my gut feeling?

Quotes for the week
Reading is a very hard-wired thing in our brains. There are brain cells that respond to reading and we can study them.
~Professor Richard Wise, neuroscientist; Imperial College, London.

Knowing the science behind the movement of a comet through space does not degrade the beauty of the night-time sky.
~Professor Jonathan Gottschall; Washington and Jefferson College, Pennsylvania.

The patient actually feels like they're in that environment. You can actually get completely immersed in your virtual environment to really push yourself.
~Commodore Hans Jung, surgeon general for the Canadian Forces.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Why I Need A Handy-Person

by Julia Buckley

This was a big spring-cleaning weekend. For some reason this year I've become particularly manic, getting rid of old furniture, papers and clutter and painting walls. Saturday was devoted entirely to painting my dining room, which I did alone, because way back when my husband and I divvied up chores he made it clear that, while he was willing to do many things, he hated painting and would prefer not to have to do it. This is okay with me, because I love painting, and I'm rather obsessive-compulsive about it, anyway.

But it is time-consuming. And in between trips up and down the ladder, I have to be a mom. So I put down the brush at noon, dart into the kitchen and make grilled cheese. There I remember that we have a burner on our stove that doesn't work. Neither my husband nor I have any idea how to fix a burner on a gas stove. HANDY-PERSON need number one.

Back up the ladder. A driplet of paint falls on the floor, and I notice, upon closer inspection, that there are plenty of drips down there, old and new, marring the wood. It could really use buffing. I think I can do this myself, but would need to get some advice from a HANDY-PERSON about where to get a buffer and if in fact it would get old paint out of wood. That's number two.

I take a break; while washing the brushes I contemplate the pointless fireplace in our living room--no longer functional for actual fires and rather an eyesore, since someone long ago just painted it white, bricks and all. The white has become dingy, and the non-fireplace takes up room. I'd like to rip it out of the wall and re-finish. Can this be done? Only my fantasy HANDY-PERSON could tell me for sure (or better yet, he or she would just do it for me, for the price of a spaghetti and meatball dinner). :) Number three.

Eventually I take my paint-speckled self out to the car to pick up my husband at work. I gaze sadly at our little anniversary tree, which is looking pretty dead. (My husband, I fear, accidentally killed it by dumping charcoal near it last summer). But I could be wrong. My fantasy HANDY-PERSON would also be good in the garden, and could give me all sorts of tips about my peonies that bloom less each year, my vines that murder other plants, my forsythia that seems depressed. Not to mention--which of the things in my tangled side garden are actually weeds? And of course they'd be able to share the prognosis for the stick we called a tree. Number Four.

Back in the house with hubby, I hunt for something on my dark stairway. There is no light here and we could really use one, as we could in our hall and on our porch outside. HANDY-PERSON? How much of a job is that? Five, Six, Seven.

If I had thousands of expendable dollars I would find one of those guys that advertises himself as "handy, does all jobs" in the local paper and just hand him a list. I'd revel in watching him do all those things that I was never trained to do. I'd even throw in the spaghetti dinner as an extra bonus.

The fact is, those of you who are handy will always be in demand.

And if you, HANDY PERSON, are reading this, I wonder . . . do you like spaghetti?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Canada Calling: Howard Shrier

Howard Shrier is a Canadian author who abandoned corporate communications in 2005 to write crime fiction. He is far poorer for this decision but somewhat wiser and much happier, especially since winning the 2009 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel.

PDD: Tell me about Jonah Geller: his world, what drives him

Jonah Geller is a young secular Jew, born and raised in Toronto, who fell into the world of private investigation more or less by accident. Unlike his older brother, who was always driven and focused (he is now a highly successful lawyer and family man), Jonah always felt a bit lost in school, especially after his father’s sudden death at age 44, when Jonah was just 14. He was one of those smart but scattered kids who couldn’t quite decide what he wanted to do with himself. He wound up going to Israel in his early twenties, searching for something meaningful. After his lover was killed by Hezbollah rocket fire, he joined the Israeli army in a misguided search for revenge, but found himself caught in the cycle of violence that haunts him to this day (all of which is described in my first book, Buffalo Jump). After returning to Toronto, he began teaching martial arts, and met a man who owned an investigation agency and eventually went to work for him.

He now owns his own agency with his friend Jenn Raudsepp, who is also introduced in Buffalo Jump.
What drives him is a sense that he has done things in his life he wishes he could change or take back. Knowing he can’t, he tries to make up for them as best he can. His mission, if you will, is to provide justice for people who can’t find it under the law or through conventional means. To make the world a better place, any way he can.

PDD: Why did you choose to write a mystery series around this character?

I grew up reading classic private eye fiction, especially the novels and stories of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. I knew if I ever wrote a novel, it would be a first-person PI book. And I wanted that PI to have a voice like mine—urban, Jewish, and comic. Somehow that led me to Jonah.

PDD: Both of your books have been optioned for movie and television rights. How did that come about?

The producer at Media Headquarters, Rob Cohen, read Margaret Cannon’s glowing review of Buffalo Jump in the Globe and Mail and picked up a copy. He liked it enough to contact my agent and ask about the rights. Things took awhile to negotiate, but a few months later, on my birthday, the option contract arrived. One of the Canadian networks recently struck a development deal with Media Headquarters and a pilot script for a series is now in the works.

You were a police reporter. I think most of us have the old movie image of some guy in a battered hat and trench coat who is either not going to make waves in the police department or is a young, hot blood out to expose police corruption. What does a police reporter really do?

I joined the Montreal Star (sadly, now defunct) in 1979, just before I graduated journalism school. And the place they would stick green rookies like me was the police desk. It was a fascinating job in many ways.

Much of the time was actually spent in a glassed-in booth in the newsroom, listening to chatter on scanners—almost always in French, which made it even more challenging to pick out the gems from the dross—and monitoring TV and radio stations, wire services and other sources to see what they were covering.

Some of the stories were formulaic and mundane: “A (fill in age) man was found (shot/stabbed/strangled) to death in what police are calling—choose one of the following—a gangland settling of accounts, drug deal gone sour, drunken brawl….”

Others were heart-wrenching, like the interview I did with the family of a little girl who had gone missing from her neighbourhood and was never found. Or demoralizing, like the feature I wrote about an amusement park after a near-fatal accident on one of the rides—the very amusement park I went to every summer as a kid and thought was fantastic, now revealed to be shabby and second-rate in every way.

But I got to do a lot of things I might never have otherwise done. Got tear-gassed, visited prisons, met cops and criminals, chased fire trucks.
I never wore a trench coat, but I did learn a lot, especially about the value of clean, crisp prose.

Your comments on what makes a Jewish book Jewish are very thought-provoking. You’ve lived in both Toronto and Montreal. Is there a difference in the Jewish community between those two cities?

There are definite differences between the Jewish communities in Montreal and Toronto. Being a port city, Montreal was where many immigrants first settled. Toronto was where they moved later on. Montreal Jews were more observant than their Toronto counterparts, at least in my day. Most synagogues were Orthodox. Jews there did not assimilate as readily. They also had to deal with two different strains of anti-Semitism, from the English and the French.

Today, Toronto’s community is much larger than Montreal’s and quite spread out geographically. The secular crowd tends to live closer to downtown; the more religious Jews have mostly migrated north. Consequently, you can’t get decent smoked meat south of Steeles (with the exception of Caplansky’s).

PDD: Do you have any hobbies or special interests?

I’m a reasonably accomplished singer and guitar player. I’ve sung in choirs, rock bands, musical theatre and better living rooms everywhere, and still take part in hootenannies and jams from time to time. Luckily my wife is a singer too, so we amuse each other with harmony. I also love cryptic crosswords, will read pretty much anything other than celebrity magazines, and keep hoping I’ll develop abs before I die. I used to be a rabid baseball fan but the strike of 1994 pretty much killed that. I was also a rabid hockey fan, until I moved here from Montreal. I love good singer-songwriters, like Tom Waits, Steve Earle and John Hiatt, and have been known to sample the occasional whiskey with friends. My other delight in life is spending time with my sons, now 13 and 10, who are great company—and voracious readers, like their dad. With any luck, they’ll inherit their mother’s hairline.

To learn more about Howard, Jonah and the books visit Howard’s web site.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Categorized? Sub-categorized? Sub-sub-sub . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

I'm sure all of us know that books come in different genres like mystery, romance, science fiction, western, etc. But there are also now a great many sub-genres or categories which leave book store clerks scratching their heads as to where to shelve the books, not to mention the writers who write them. Sigh. (Publishers always want to break a writer's book down into all of these small categories which drives the writer nuts trying to figure it out. Trust me. We write them we don't categorize them.)

Mysteries alone come in categories like: cozy, procedural, suspense, thriller (one presumes thriller is a step further into scary than plain suspense, but, one could always be wrong) and so on. Then comes all the sub-sub-categories JUST for cozy mysteries like quilt cozy, knit cozy, cat cozy, cooking cozy, scrap booking cozy, and, um, well you get the picture.

Obviously if you are a knitter or a cat owner or someone who loves to cook, or drink multiple cups of tea then when you see that listed on a cover, it will draw your attention and might make you put down another book in favor of buying the one that matches your particular hobby or fascination, assuming you can't afford both books. So, the cover with the beautiful quilt or lovely knitted "whatever" will grab you first, followed closely by the description of what the heroine is doing in her spare time between murders to be solved. And, boy howdy, has this trend exploded in the last few years.

Time was when a mystery was fairly simple, suspense with plenty of blood and gore was probably set in a big city, and cozy with lots of cats was probably set in a small English village. If the protagonist was a knitter, like Miss Marple, it was barely mentioned. No knitting patterns, no recipes for tea or cookies or whatever were included in the book.

Mind you, I'm not complaining. These new categories get my attention just as fast as anyone else's. I adore beautiful covers on books. I adore the new variety in books to read. No more straight, simple, bloody murder. The protagonist must be able to do more than check footprints or bloody fingerprints. I like that. Guess I should say I love it because the lead couple in one of my series has the hobby of restoring vintage cars. Where did that come from? Perhaps the TWO cars parked in our garage that are painstakingly being restored while the car I drive parks outside, regardless of the weather. Where was I?

My point, here, is to ask you readers what you think about all these genres, sub-genres, and sub-sub genres? How much attention do you pay to them? Do you look for books that feature hobbies that you enjoy or would like to enjoy if only you could master them? Do you struggle to find books now that there are so many different varieties?

And if you could write a book, what sub-sub-sub-sub-sub category would you want it to be in?

The inspiration for today's blog post comes from my recent struggle to learn how to knit. I used to knit a few decades back and want to re-learn, but this is NOT like riding a bicycle, something you don't forget. I've had lessons from a friend, printed instructions off the Internet, snookered my way into a consultation with the ladies at J & R Needlenook here in Metropolis, started the same shawl three times and ripped it out three times, and I'm still not knitting properly. I plan to try again. I love self-punishment. Will I write a book where the protagonist knits while she solves crime? Not a chance. I might, however, stab someone with one of those pesky long needles. Most likely myself.

Have a great day. Thanks for stopping by. Anyone up for a craft day?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Confessions of an Income Tax Birthday Girl

Elizabeth Zelvin

Yep, today is my birthday. Me Irish husband was born on St. Patrick’s Day, the Seventeenth o’ March as the real Irish say. I was once (long, long ago) crazy about a guy who was born on Valentine’s Day. And (also long ago) I had a somewhat dysfunctional relationship with another guy whose birthday was Halloween. But me, I’m stuck with April 15th, when most people are thinking not about cakes with candles and how much I love flowers, but about the [supply your own expletive] IRS.

Not to malign my mother, when she picked my birth date (I was what they then called a Caesarean baby, so scheduled in advance), April 15th was not Income Tax Day. Much more appropriately, taxes were due on March 15th, the ominous Ides of March. That was the day the soothsayer warned Julius Caesar about (there he is again—what a coincidence!). And that was indeed the day on which he got stabbed to death in the Forum. But the process of filling out taxes got more complicated, and taxpayers needed another month—of procrastination if not of figuring out how much they owed the government. So the date was changed to April in 1955, the year I turned eleven.

My childhood birthdays run together in my mind. My mother always made a chocolate layer cake. My presents were always piled on my dresser during the night before, after I fell asleep, so when I opened my eyes in the morning, they were the first thing I saw. (Since we were Jewish, we didn’t get Christmas presents, but this had the same impact.) I’m sure I had parties, but the first one I remember was on my thirteenth birthday, when all the boys and girls in my ninth-grade class spent the evening dancing in our basement and asking each other to the prom. (I know I’ve told that story before. I’m still looking for a market for my prom date revenge short story.)

On my fifteenth birthday, I combined forces with another mid-April birthday girl and had an even bigger party. I think we had graduated to the living room by then. I also remember that we invited so many people that we staggered the times on the invitations, of course telling the kids we liked best to come the earliest. I don’t know how we managed not to realize that everyone would notice. (If you live long enough, the most embarrassing memory becomes just another story.)

My most memorable birthday, though, is a recent one: the publication date of Death Will Get You Sober in 2008. The party was at The Mysterious Bookshop in New York. The cake was chocolate, with candles, in the shape of a book: an inspired surprise from my husband. Last year, my birthday marked my eligibility for Medicare. This year, it means I start getting Social Security. I’m also eligible for one of those candles that instead of spelling out a number, says “Don’t Even Ask.” But it’s my birthday, and I’m going to enjoy every moment of the day.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Recycling--the Literary Version

Sandra Parshall

I was happy to hear Ian McEwan on the radio last week, describing his habit of saving deleted passages from his novels because they might contain “nuggets” he can use in later work. I don’t have much in common with this renowned writer, but we’re alike in one way: we both practice a literary version of recycling.

I don’t reuse only the nuggets, though. I recycle characters, subplots, whole scenes. Like one of my cloth tote bags, many elements of my books used to be something else.

When Disturbing the Dead was published, I wrote about the transformation of a character who first appeared in a manuscript titled Outside Agitators, a story about young antipoverty workers and the Appalachian people they tried to help during the War on Poverty. I worked on that novel for years and never turned it into a coherent story with a proper ending. But I’ve been carving away chunks ever since and using them in other books.

One of those chunks was a teenage mountain girl with red hair and freckles and the unlikely name of Lana Turner. She longed to leave the poverty-stricken hollow where she grew up and move on to a better life. When I wrote Disturbing the Dead, I kept Lana’s dreams but made her a little older and gave her a Melungeon – mixed race – heritage, which meant changing her coloring to olive skin, black hair, and bright blue eyes. My agent told me I would also have to change her name, because some editors disliked characters with famous people’s names. Lana became Holly Turner.

I wasn’t finished cannibalizing my old unfinished manuscript. In the original, I wrote about antipoverty workers as young idealists, well-intentioned but naive about their power to effect change in a region where gigantic energy corporations control the economy and politics. When I began working on Broken Places (released in February), I asked myself what some of these people would be like decades later, if they had stayed on after their government service ended and tried to continue their activism on behalf of the poor. Maybe they would have had some small successes over the years. Most likely, they would have experienced far more failures and been forced to swallow a bitter dose of disillusionment.

I plucked Cameron and Meredith Taylor from the pages of Outside Agitators, fast-forwarded to the present, and made these two disappointed idealists my murder victims. Meredith, I learned for the first time, had a secret ambition to be a writer, and her final – unfinished – manuscript was titled (ta da!) Outside Agitators. In its pages, Captain Tom Bridger of the Mason County (VA) Sheriff’s Department discovers clues to the motive behind the murders.

Mrs. Lily Barker, the self-educated woman from Disturbing the Dead who believes she has “the sight” (that’s what Appalachian natives call the ability to see beyond the tangible world), wasn’t lifted from any earlier work of mine, but she was inspired by a minor character in Outside Agitators who was too colorful to discard. Mrs. Barker proved popular with readers, and a woman who attended one of my library events made me promise to bring her back, so she returns in Broken Places and also shows up in the book I’m currently writing.

Mason County, my invention, is similar to the mountain community in the original Outside Agitators, but it’s in southwestern Virginia rather than West Virginia, and even the coal companies have largely deserted it by now. In my work in progress, though, Tom will pay a visit to a mountaintop mining operation. Other writers may favor idyllic small communities, but I’d rather write about places where sudden gashes of ugliness mar the natural beauty and decades of lies and rivalries and betrayals simmer just under the surface, ready to erupt and bleed all over the present.

All those years I poured into Outside Agitators, with no end in sight and little hope of ever seeing it published, have paid off richly, and I suspect I’ll use still more chunks of it before I’ve exhausted its possibilities.

When I delete a passage from a work in progress, I’m careful to stash it in a file rather than throwing it out. There must be some reason I wrote it in the first place, and if it doesn’t seem to fit now, it might be just what I need to fill a hole in a future story.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Plotting by the Seat of Your Pants

Sharon Wildwind

Indian or Chinese tea? Friends of the bride or groom? Vacation in the mountains or by the sea? Plotter or Panster?

Writers often ask one another, “Are you a plotter or a panster?” as if being one precluded being the other. Admittedly, they are different head spaces. The plotter’s answer to the blank page is to arrange material carefully before writing. Make an outline. Draw up extensive character sketches, flow charts, graphs, etc. A panster’s answer is to start laying words down in any order, about anything, figuring that if all roads lead to Rome, all words will eventually lead to a story.

Each head space is a different kind of tool, and that we need a variety of tools in our writing toolbox. It is possible to use a pair of pliers as a hammer, thought it’s not very good for the pliers. A hammer is less useful when what’s needed is a pair of pliers.

The plotter’s soothing siren’s song runs like this: if I nail down every detail, know what Jennifer eats for breakfast, plot out a minute-by-minute timeline for what Jeffery did on the day of the murder, know the history of conflicts seething underneath their little town back to the day the founding father arrived, then I’ve half-way written the book. I can copy-and-paste a lot of that material into the text. It ain’t necessarily so.

Neither does flinging words helter-skelter at a blank page, rather like standing six feet back from a large canvas and flinging paint at it. You’ll get something: maybe art and maybe not. But whether or not you achieve art, there is a lot of cleanup coming.

So how do you decide which tool to use?

Sometimes it boils down to waking up and saying today I feel like being a plotter/panster. Fine, go for it.

Since most people favor one style over the other, the harder question is when to use the method that feels a little—or a lot—uncomfortable. Run a diagnostic check.
1. Have I spent far too much time rewriting a scene, chapter, or character, etc. that is dull and flat?
2. Am I repeating myself? Didn’t I use this unknown-relative-turns-up plot in the last book, and also two books before that?
3. Am I ready to spread my wings and learn something different?

A “yes” to any of those question is reason enough to try the road less travelled.

Contrary to popular belief, plotting is more than making outlines, and panstering is more than filling a blank page with words. There’s nothing wrong with either of those things, and they are simple to do.

If you are a plotter, write words at random on the blank page.

If you are a panster, make an outline. I.—A.—1.—a. and so on. If you’ve forgotten the form for a formal outline, there are lots of on-line sites where you can get a refresher course.

If you’d like to explore some even less travelled territory, here are three exercises each for plotting and panstering. Have fun. Write if you get the chance.

3 Plotting Exercises

Draw a map of where your story happens. If it’s a real place, like Chicago, go on-line and see what real references you can find. Photos? Picture books in the library? A street-side view on Google Earth? A YouTube clip?

If it’s an imaginary place, draw what you already know to be there, but leave some blank, unexplained spaces.

What you’re looking for in both situations is the equivalent of the “here be dragons” as found on old maps. Is there geography that you didn’t know existed, which can be used to develop the plot or characters?

Draw family trees or friend clusters for your characters. Go two generations backward and two generations forward. Even if your characters have no intentions of having kids, their friends and relatives are still reproducing. What you’re looking for is the relative who has a secret or a story tell, and for those relationships that reveals something new about your character.

Write a list of at least 10 major turning points, in the order they are currently happening. (If you’re writing a short-story, you might have fewer.) Cut the list apart and rearrange the order several times, even if the order makes no sense. In this exercise, it’s okay for Jennifer to be furious with Jeffrey before she meets him. Maybe Jennifer sees a stranger doing something she doesn’t like and later meets Jeffrey and realizes he’s the stranger she saw.

You’re looking for gaps and what would fill them. You’re also looking for repeats of the same material. Which version is the strongest? What would happen if you limited yourself to using only that one version?

3 Panster Exercises

Imagine that a character is looking for something, perhaps a witness or a clue. Go do what they would do, visit the places they would visit, etc. In essence walk the walk, and collect sensory details along the way, not just the sights, but the sounds, smells, textures, and maybe tastes as well. I don’t have to remind you to use your common sense here, do I? Some places and activities are a no-no, even for research.

Pick a soundtrack for your story. Sit or lie down, close your eyes, and listen to your story unfold through music for 15 or 20 minutes.

Shape your story with your hands. You’ll need some sculpting material: clay, bread dough, paper maché, etc. We talk about peaks and valleys in our stories and story arcs, so okay, let’s see what yours looks like. Bread dough is particularly fun for this because you can mold your story, leave it for an hour in a warm place, and come back to find it has taken on a completely different shape. The bonus is you can bake it and eat it.

So yes, you can be both a plotter and a panster. You can spend one week in the mountains and one week at the beach. You can be friends with both the bride and groom, though that does complicate the seating arrangements. And mixing Indian (black tea) and Chinese (green tea) tastes wonderful. My favorite mix is #10 blend by Murchies.

Quote for the week
Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to be a certain way. Be unique. Be what you feel.
~Melissa Etheridge, singer & songwriter

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Reigning Evil

by Julia Buckley

I might be a rarity in America: I don't own a cell phone. My children have them (mostly so I can keep in touch with them), but I haven't yet felt the urgent desire for a portable phone. If I have a night class, I borrow my son's phone so that I can call home and let them know where I am.

So far, what I've seen of cell phones out in the world has not persuaded me that I need or want one. A few examples:

Today my son and I went to a movie (Date Night--a sort of weird choice for my date with my eleven-year-old, but still a fun movie for both of us). On our way there we saw a female pedestrian cross against the light up ahead of us. She was on a cell phone and didn't seem to be paying any attention to where her feet were leading her. As if to prove this, she changed her mind mid-stride and turned around, heading back (still against the light), right in front of our car. I slammed on my brakes and leaned on my horn, frightened and angry that she would put us all in jeopardy. She sent me only a vague smile, as though my reality were different from hers. On the sidewalk her friends all laughed; it was an amusing story to them, not a near miss.

A larger danger than pedestrians on cell phones is, of course, drivers on cell phones. Last year when my older son was hit by a car (when he and his friends crossed the street responsibly), the driver was talking on the phone and driving too fast in the rain. My son's friend had to chase her to make sure she didn't drive away, and when she pulled over she continued to sit in her car and text message people on her phone.

I don't understand the curious addiction people have to cell phones. Of course I see the value of communication and the convenience of being able to communicate no matter where you are--but why is it MANDATORY for so many people? To whom are they talking so endlessly? Do they speak that volubly to their family and friends when they are physically present?

Recently we visited the most technology-addicted members of our family. Our niece had to be lured away from the television to greet us, and she texted people while we sat around the table talking. Eventually she excused herself so that she could go upstairs to play on Facebook and download some music. We continued to talk with her parents and siblings; later we adjourned to their living room where, during a lull in conversation, EVERY member of their family took out phones and started looking at them. I stared in mute astonishment. Finally I suggested that they could call us on those phones so that we could talk to each other. They laughed at the joke, but their eyes remained downcast, drawn by the lure of whatever magical thing is located inside those slim little pieces of plastic.

They seemed to have very short attention spans for the conversations we did have. They kept interrupting each other and interrupting themselves and running out of the room to answer their endlessly ringing land line. The evening was so fragmented I felt as is I were inside a kaleidoscope.

I was relieved to get back to my quieter house. My little family has many flaws, but I am grateful for the fact that they make eye contact with me when I talk and allow me to finish sentences without growing bored and seeking some sort of technological stimulation. I suppose that in my worldview, this is a major priority.

I'm sure that cell phones help people out greatly; they aid communication, perhaps even enhance personal security. But I fear that too many people, drivers especially, are becoming licentious with these tools and making them toys--toys they are reluctant to put down even when it's the polite, or the safe, thing to do.

Am I a curmudgeon?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Don't Talk To Me, I Might Be Working

Simon Wood

My bio says I’m an occasional private investigator and I am, although I play girl Friday to my wife. She’s the one with a PI ticket. I’m the one with the sassy attitude and the legs that don’t stop, if I do say so myself—or should I say I’m Hawk to her Spenser.

We aren’t PIs by design. Like so many things in my life, it was something I kinda fell into. Ten years ago, my wife and I were struggling to make ends meet. I’d been unemployed for nearly 18 months with nothing on the horizon and paying off her college loans wasn’t helping. We needed to supplement our income and we tried doing that with mystery shopping. If you don’t know what mystery shopping is, it’s where people go into various establishments and ensure the store has the right promotions in the right place and the staff say and do the things corporate wants them to do. We signed on with a couple of agencies and started “shopping” various places. We shopped supermarkets, fast food joints, movie theaters, electronics stores and oil changers to name a few. Now, there wasn’t a lot of money in it, but everything we purchased we got to keep. So effectively, we got a lot of essentials and some of our entertainment for free.

We did so well that we were promoted to restaurants. We ate at national chain restaurants and some very fancy restaurants (famous chef fancy). We must have eaten at virtually every 5-star restaurant in San Francisco. Our next promotion led to hotels. Finally, a call came with the intriguing offer. “Do you want to shop casinos?” Sure, was our answer. For several years, my wife and I would fly to Vegas or one of the larger Indian casinos in California, posing as ourselves just taking in the sights, but all the time vetting the hotel, the casino and its staff. Usually, there was a special assignment which involved investigating someone in particular, such as a barman suspected of stealing from the register or the concierge offering personal services or dealers suspected of cheating at the tables.

It sounds fun and it is, but it’s also a lot of hard work. You are essentially working undercover, playing a role. You might turn up to a casino as a high roller staying in the penthouse suites. Me, a regular Target shopper, needs to pull off the image of a high roller, which means having a cover story, knowing how much to tip, pretending to be used to receiving personal service. When we worked a restaurant, it usually meant hanging out in the bar watching the bartender to ensure he wasn’t snagging cash sales or pouring drinks incorrectly. This is fine when the bar is busy, but not when it’s empty. You kinda stick out. Restaurants often wanted to move you to your table early, so we need a reason to stay. We learned to have stories on tap. We would be waiting for friends meeting for drinks, but not staying for dinner then answering phantom cell phone calls when those friends couldn’t make it. There's also the detail work to contend with. There is a lot of paperwork. Every detail needs to be recorded. You need the description of every person you meet. That needs to be cross referenced by a time. That conversation needs to be remembered and noted down. My wife and I divided the duties. I would take names and descriptions and she would note times and conversations. All this starts to add up. A three night stay at a casino results in a 20,000-word report.

Why so much detail? Our report could lead (and has led) to someone losing their job and if criminal charges are brought, we may have to testify. Luckily, we've never had to testify, but our actions have had repercussions. My wife once shopped a store where the person she reported on was dismissed. Fast forward to a few weeks later, when I received a call telling me my wife can't return to the store and we can't shop the store again. The reason was that our report said when and where everything took place. The fired employee told her coworkers these times and date. The coworkers rewound the security tapes back to that time, got a description of my wife, found her name, presumably from the credit card used, and handed that info to other coworkers and kept it handy so that if my wife returned they could enact a little revenge out back. The store manager found my wife’s details on a sheet of paper pinned underneath a checkout and phoned it in to the agency. There have been a couple of other queasy moments along the way, where the situation could have gone sideways. The most memorable was receiving a phone call from the agency owners on the way to a job saying, “It’s off. Abort. Don’t go in there.” It was funny, silly and a tad scary.

With the downturn in the economy, it means we don’t get as many calls to run off to Vegas anymore. That’s a shame, because it’s fun gambling with someone else’s money. It does give me the time to convert our adventures into a fun mystery series. It would be criminal not to.

Simon Wood is an ex-racecar driver, a licensed pilot and an occasional private investigator. His next novel is the thriller, Terminated, dealing with workplace violence. It debuts on June 1st. He's the Anthony Award winning author of Working Stiffs, Accidents Waiting to Happen, Paying the Piper and We All Fall Down. As Simon Janus, he's the author of The Scrubs and Road Rash. Curious people can learn more at

Friday, April 9, 2010

Speed reading, what is it, does it work???

By Lonnie Cruse

I'm a fairly fast reader, but no where near to a speed reader. I admire people who can read a book in a week. My jaw virtually swings in the breeze at the thought of reading a book in a day. Yet many readers can do that. So I'm curious.

Which are you, speed reader (a book read anywhere from a day to a week?) or slow reader (longer than a week, maybe a month sometimes?)

Whether speed or slow, do you avoid very thick books, fearing they will bog you down? I sometimes do because I'm not only slower, but I'm often impatient to get to the end. Looking at thick books can give me stomach pains and a thick book must be highly recommended to get me to turn the first page. Which might be the reason I haven't gotten into those VERY thick vampire books that are currently so popular. Thoughts? Anyone?

IF you can read a book quickly, do you retain it, or is your reading just for the enjoyment of the moment? I confess, even though I'm not a speed reader, I often have difficulty remembering "whodunit" several months after I've read a book, and I'm sometimes in danger of re-buying/re-reading a book IF I don't keep a list. How about you?

By speed reading are you able to savor the good passages? Or do they go by too fast? Do you ever have to go back and re-read a passage? I confess to that one too, having to go back. Inattention (in multiple areas) is one of my worst faults.

Are there certain books you read faster than others? If so, what are they and why? If I'm not really into a book, I'll "skim" pages to see where it goes and how it ends. That's the sum total of my speed reading.

How did you learn to speed read? Was it automatic or did someone teach you? If learned, HOW did you learn?

IF you could only have one fiction and one non-fiction book in your library, what would it be. (Little torture here, may give you nightmares, muhwhahahah!) Mine would be the Bible, non-fiction, and, whew, fiction, WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE by Shirley Jackson. Unless, maybe, I chose something thick like WAR AND PEACE or a famous certain vampire book in order to have more to read. Choices. Whew. Yours??? C'mon, don't be shy. Give!

Thanks for stopping by. You can stop defending your book cases with whatever weapons you had on hand now. I'm not going to come into your home, grab all of your books, and force you to choose which one to save. Or am I? Hmmmmm . . .

Thursday, April 8, 2010

“You have to be happy with nothing.”

Elizabeth Zelvin

The Mayor of Central Park, Alberto Arroyo, died on Thursday March 25 at the age of 94. The pioneer jogger and friend and inspiration to thousands of New York runners took a vow of poverty in his youth as a way of acknowledging human misery and lived a simple, even austere life. It came as a surprise to almost all of his many friends that he left, apparently, significant assets. I attended the convivial post-burial dinner at a local restaurant, his estate’s treat. But of course Alberto’s real legacy was the love he gave unstintingly to so many people and the positive, even joyous attitude he had toward life and the world around him.

All of us at the funeral service and the dinner remembered how he would lift his face and hands to the sky, open his mouth wide, and say, “It’s a beautiful day!” whether the sun was shining or a storm howling through Central Park. We all agreed that as we ran past the bench where he held court at the South Gatehouse of the reservoir, he would wave and nod and say, “Looking good!” whether you were flashing by at a champion sprinter's pace, or, like me, always chasing that elusive 15-minute mile.

“He was a babe magnet,” one of the guys at my table said to another, and then looked guiltily at me as if I might attack him for being non-PC. But it was true. On Alberto’s 93rd birthday, he paid me a compliment that I’m still smiling about more than a year later. “Did you ever get one of his foot massages?” one of the women asked. I hadn’t. “When he was younger,” she said, “some of the women were wary, but as he got older, they all realized they could trust him.”

I’ve written about Alberto before. What I really wanted to talk about today is the power of simplicity he embodied. It was mentioned at the funeral service that in a documentary film about him, The Mayor of Central Park, there’s a wonderful moment when Alberto says, “You have to be happy with nothing.” He certainly practiced what he preached. Until the last few years, he spent his days in Central Park from morning to night. His bench near the South Gatehouse was his court room (both regal and judicial), his living room, and his therapy office. His shared room at the residence where he spent his final years held the bare minimum of clothing, no chachkes or memorabilia, not even a framed photograph or greeting card. What made him happy was being outdoors and seeing his friends. Those of us who took turns wheeling him to the park that last year agreed that the second he was out the door he started nodding, waving, and greeting everyone who passed—long-time friends, acquaintances, and strangers, especially those in running clothes. That’s all he needed.

How many of us are happy with nothing? How much of our lives do we spend bargaining with destiny, totting up what it will take to make us happy? Some of it is material (the house, the car, the investments), sometimes it’s prestige or fame or power. For writers, it’s getting published—until that happens. Then it’s a better deal, a better agent, laudatory reviews, impressive sales, and the next contract. After that, movie options, bestseller lists, awards. Blaming stress or hard times or the general unfairness of life, we excuse ourselves from the joy of the journey. Alberto was happy with nothing because he lived steeped in the joy of the journey—running the Marathon in his prime, making his way around the reservoir with a cane, as he did when I first met him, then a walker, then in a wheelchair, dependent on others to reach his beloved park. But getting there—even to that bench by the South Gatehouse—was not the point. I hope I never forget Alberto and stay focused on the journey all my life.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Mean Girls

by Sandra Parshall

It’s the saddest kind of story: a 15-year-old girl driven to suicide by relentless harassment from other teens.

Phoebe Prince, a pretty new student from Ireland, was tormented for months by classmates at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts. The other kids sent her threatening text messages, knocked her books out of her hands, threw things at her, called her a slut and a whore on Twitter, Craigslist, Facebook, and Formspring.

The explanation for all this is baffling. Apparently she briefly dated a popular football player, and for some reason–maybe it makes sense in a twisted adolescent version of logic–that turned the whole school against her.

On January 14, after enduring weeks of bullying with no adult coming to her aid, Phoebe hanged herself. After her death, her tormentors posted nasty comments about her on a Facebook memorial page.

Nine teenagers were arrested in late March, only after a community uproar forced an official investigation. Two boys, ages 17 and 18, were charged with statutory rape, but seven of the accused are girls. Charges include criminal harassment, stalking, and civil rights violations. One girl was charged with assault for throwing a can of Red Bull at the victim.

This isn’t the first incident of teenage girls targeting a schoolmate and tormenting her emotionally until she kills herself, and it won’t be the last. Every day, in schools and neighborhoods, similar situations play out. Most such bullying doesn’t result in suicide, but it can destroy the victim’s life just the same.

Many adults don't want to admit that girls are capable of such behavior. After all, boys and men are indisputably more physically aggressive than the so-called gentler sex. Almost 90% of murders in the U.S. are committed by males. Road ragers are usually male. Researchers have discovered that males even have more violent dreams than females do. While females are capable of violence, they usually favor a form of bullying that doesn’t depend on size and physical strength. What teenage girls excel at is the social and psychological destruction of their victims. Gossip, rumors, shunning, the silent treatment, malevolent stares. Anybody who was ever an adolescent girl knows exactly what I’m talking about. Boys do the same things, but bullying by boys is more likely to turn physical–and adults are more likely to intervene. Girls can drive someone to suicide and still claim innocence because they never physically touched their victim.

Certainly the majority of teens are good kids–the kind who hold candlelight vigils after girls like Phoebe Prince kill themselves. But it only takes one girl with a sadistic streak and a strong personality to pull weaker ones into her orbit and turn them into a hunting pack out for blood.

So who's to blame for what Phoebe Prince endured?

Parents are often the last people to learn what their kids have been up to, and when children are accused of criminal or bullying behavior, many parents' automatic reaction is to deny the possibility. Mothers and fathers may be more interested in getting their kids off the hook than in facing what they've done and acknowledging that they, the parents, might share some of the blame.

Online networking sites provided public bulletin boards where Phoebe Prince's tormentors could slander her relentlessly, but Facebook, Craigslist, and other sites have refused to cooperate with the investigation and admit no culpability in her suicide.

The prosecutor learned that “numerous” employees at South Hadley High School were aware of what was happening to Phoebe Prince, and some witnessed the abuse, yet no one did anything to stop it. The prosecutor says the school staff’s failure to protect the girl was not criminal and they will not face charges. If the staff had seen evidence that the girl was being sexually molested or physically battered by an adult, and didn't even report it, would the prosecutor be giving them a pass now? School personnel are directly responsible for the safety of students. If they could look on silently while a girl was bullied to death, how can any child be safe in their care?

The real culprits, though, are the teenagers who devoted so many hours and so much energy to making one girl's life miserable--and didn't stop even after they'd driven her to suicide. It's about time we started treating this kind of behavior as the crime it is.