Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Who buys books, and why?

Sandra Parshall

TV and movies may be aimed mostly at young men these days, but if publishers and booksellers are wise, they’ll go after the older female audience. A comprehensive survey of book-buying habits that was released at Book Expo in late May leaves little doubt that the book business as a whole would be sunk without the patronage of middle-aged and older women.

The survey, which you can see in slide-show format on the Verso Advertising website, involved 9,300 book-buyers 18 or older, 48.2% of them male (the U.S. population is 48.4% male) and 51.8% female (U.S. population: 51.6% female). The margin of error is given as 1.5% and the “probability threshold” as 95%.

The most encouraging statistic the survey turned up is that 28% of the country’s population 18 or older – that’s 62.4 million adults – reads more than five hours a week. Half of those read 10 or more hours per week. Of these avid readers, 63% (39 million) are female and 37% (23 million) are male.

When the study breaks readership down by age, it gets even more interesting. The majority of avid readers are over 45, and the largest group is over 55.

It’s not surprising that the amount of time “avid readers” spend reading rises sharply as they enter their mid-forties and jumps again as they move into
their fifties and sixties. Kids grow up and leave home, people retire, and they simply have more time for leisure reading. The 25-34-year-old group reads least of all, perhaps because those are the years when many people are establishing themselves professionally, getting married, and having children.

But what explains why women, at any age, consistently read more than men do?

In the mystery community, people always point to the willingness of women to read books by men as well as those by women, and the resistance of many men to reading books written by female authors. Maybe this holds up across all genres, but it doesn’t really explain why women spend more time reading. It’s not as if men run out of books by male authors to read. A man could read every minute of his life and never exhaust the supply of books written by other men. Something else must explain the difference between the reading habits of the sexes, but I have no idea what that something is.

A major section of the survey has to do with e-book purchases – the market share is growing, and is expected to reach 12-15% within two years, but only 7.5% of readers are willing to pay hardcover prices for electronic downloads. Of the rest, 28% want prices kept at $10 or less and another 28% won’t pay more than $20 for an e-book.

When asked about the primary factors in book-purchasing decisions, 52% of survey respondents cited author reputation, 49% said personal recommendations, 45% said price, 37% said reviews, 22% said cover artwork and blurbs, and 14% said advertising (including online advertising).

The survey (which is being conducted in several “waves” over the course of a year) is designed to help independent booksellers understand who the avid book-buyers are and how the stores can gain more of their business, but a couple of its conclusions should be noted by all booksellers – and publishers. Older Americans make up two-thirds of the country’s avid readers. And 63% of that sought-after group is female. A lot of older women say they feel “invisible” in society, but wise booksellers and publishers will recognize the value of this group of readers and be sure to provide them with the books they want to read.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Reading Deprivation

Sharon Wildwind

Since I’ve written about writing being a time battle for the last three weeks, I figured this past week it was time to walk the walk.

So for my walk—more about another kind of walk later—I chose reading deprivation, which I’d mentioned last week as one of the techniques recommended in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.

Beginning last Tuesday, I set out to find out if I could survive a reading-reduction week. Okay, so reduction isn't the absolute no reading for a week that Ms. Cameron recommended, but I figured even a little less reading was a start.

I have a lot of boxes set up to capture and sort incoming mail, so very few messages actually stay in my Inbox. Those that do are usually from family and friends. I promised myself that for 7 days, I would read only my Inbox and one other box, which was likely to contain time-sensitive material. I’d allow all of the other messages to languish for a week in their variously-assigned mail boxes.

I’m afraid I’ve been treating book reading as an indulgence. On a day off, if I want to lay down in the middle of the afternoon and read for hours, I do just that. Only lately, I think reading got a bit out of hand. So I proposed to the reading fairies that live in my head a limit of 60 minutes of book reading per day.

They counter-offered 60 minutes per book with a daily limit of three books.

We compromised on 30 minutes per book with a daily limit of three books.

The first thing I noticed on Tuesday morning was that my time spent every morning reading e-mail dropped from an-hour-and-a-half to fifteen minutes.

The second thing I noticed was that I was getting a lot of newsletters and electronic flyers that had come along because I’d once bought a product from a company, or I had a shopper’s card, etc. Every time one of those newsletters/flyers came in during the week, I unsubscribed.

The third thing I noticed was that if I didn’t start reading at 7:00 PM and keep reading until bedtime (or beyond), I had a lot more time in the evening.

What did I do with all of that found time?

I took a 30-minute walk every day. That produced a lot of side benefits. My hip stopped hurting. I enjoyed beautiful weather. I found two objects to use in art projects. I actually had time for a conversation with the guy who works at the art supply store. I slept better.

I made a gift for a family member.

I spent more time writing in my journal.

I thought up new characters for a stand-alone mystery.

I did critiques for two other writers. I would have done the critiques anyway, but I felt I could devote a little more time to them instead of hurrying through them.

I played with Zentangles. If you like doodling, check them out. They are even more relaxing that playing computer solitaire.

I realized it didn’t matter if I took four days to read a book instead of only two.

By the end on the week, I’d collected 207 unread messages and no one had been on my case about missing something, or not replying. When I went through those messages, it was amazing how much of what was in them was either outdated or just not interesting. I also unsubscribed to an additional three newsletters that I’d outgrown.

Two must-read boxes stood out like they were lit with neon lights. Now I had a better idea of why they were important to me and I could make an informed choice to go back to reading them daily.

Oh, yeah, did I mention I also read four books and enjoyed them immensely. Even the reading fairies in my head were happy.

So now I’m going to try reading my Inbox and those two essential newsletters daily and everything else twice a week. I really like all of this new-found time.

Happy Canada Day to those of you north of the border and Happy 4th of July to those of you south of the border. Me? I’ll be celebrating both days, hopefully by doing something other than reading.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Writing Gastronomical Goodness

by Julia Buckley

I once had a part-time job which involved reading restaurant menus from all over the country and highlighting new dishes; my employer was creating a restaurant menu website and needed to update it constantly.

The job paid fairly well and I could work my own hours (I had a baby at home), so I was thrilled to get it. After a while, though, it became psychologically painful. Each day I had to read descriptions of delicious food written by people who had probably majored in creative writing in college. The entrees had names like "Macadamia Nut Encrusted Sea Bass with Mango Cream Sauce" and "Goat-Cheese Encrusted Lamb with Fresh Mountain Herbs." Everything was "encrusted" with something else, and it always sounded delicious.

The desserts were even more spectacular. Things like "Hazelnut Chocolate Praline Cake with Chocolate Drizzles and Raspberry Glaze." These menus were a tribute to the power of words. I always left hungry.

I was reminded of the great writers--usually mystery writers--who write so well about food that I have to stop reading and make a snack. Mary Stewart did this so well that I don't think I've found her equal. In Nine Coaches Waiting, she writes about a midnight snack shared between three people and it's one of the loveliest descriptions I've ever read. She does the same in Madam, Will You Talk?

Robert B. Parker wrote some food scenes that had my husband setting down the book and heading for the kitchen to forage. That Spenser does love to cook, and sometimes I think my husband pretends he's Spenser.

Who else writes food well enough to make you drool? Which mysteries made you hungry? And what's the most delicious thing in the world?

I vote for the chocolate cake I ate at an Italian Restaurant called Marros when my husband and I were on our honeymoon back in 1988. I've tried to find a cake that delicious ever since, and I haven't. Are taste and happy memories entwined? Or is some food just that good? :)

Saturday, June 26, 2010


by Sheila Connolly

I've always enjoyed rules. It's nice to have something to follow, to know where you stand, to have a standard to meet. Writing was no exception when I was young.

Since I am of a certain age, I was taught a variety of rules for spelling, grammar and punctuation. You know, the trusty "i before e except after c," and one my mother passed on to me, "a preposition is a word not to end a sentence with" (joke there, people). Dependent clauses, independent clauses. Does anybody else remember diagramming sentences? What was that all about?

Spelling is holding its own, save for all those made-up words that keep popping up and gaining acceptance more and more quickly. And how many words have shifted their use? Like impact. When I was young, impact was a noun. Impacted was something that happened to a bad tooth. Now impacted is a verb. And likewise friend: once that too was a noun, and now we friend people on Facebook all the time.

But mostly I wrestle with punctuation. As a writer shepherding books into print, we have to submit our work to not one but two editors (not even counting the proofreader), both of whom feel free to tell us how things are supposed to be done. Which is usually not the way we did it. The first editor tells you that your characters are stiff and unsympathetic, and your plot resembles moldy Swiss cheese, and can you please fix it by next Tuesday?

Assuming you survive that battering, your writerly voice intact, the manuscript makes its way to the copy editor (in case you're wondering, Webster's says that must be two words, no hyphen). Danger, danger! The copy editor is responsible for cleaning up all your "errors" in spelling, grammar, and punctuation (and occasionally she nails you for repeating a word or phrase too often). She sends you a multi-page (Webster's has no opinion about that word, so I'm leaving the hyphen there) set of instructions telling you what you were supposed to do (which of course you didn't do, since you've been living in a cave since 1982 trying to write a book and you never got the memo about grammar changes).

Many of these changes I'm willing to accept, because I really don't feel strongly about them, and I hope they serve to make the text easier to read. But some just rub me the wrong way, no matter how many times I see them. Take "too," for example. I'm supposed to use a comma before a terminal too. Like, "you come, too." That just looks wrong to me.

Or hyphenating adverbs. I swear I can hear in my head some long-ago English teacher saying, "if you use a two-word term as a modifier, you should hyphenate it." This is enshrined in my memory. Like "newly-minted coin." Newly-minted is a single term, isn't it? Nope. Not now. I have it in writing that I may not do that. Unless, of course, the first word is "half." I am graciously allowed to say "half-witted copy editor."

My latest bugaboo is italicizing. Internal thoughts are italicized. I'm good with that. Foreign phrases are italicized. No problem. (But when does the phrase cease to be foreign and become part of our daily language? Like déjà vu? Hoi polloi? But that's for another day.) Book and newspaper titles are italicized. Fine by me.

What's burning me up now is whether a form I've used for years is now apparently a copy editor's no-no (Webster's approves that hyphen): the quotation marks within a sentence. In the past, I would say, I stashed my "bounty" in a safe place. The quotes there signified that I was using the term "bounty" sarcastically or with tongue wedged in cheek. The "bounty" might have been the last cupcake in the box, so the phrase was not meant to be taken literally.

Now I'm told I have to italicize that. I stashed my bounty in a safe place. I don't like it. In this context, italicization means to me that the word is meant to be emphasized (as you might hear it in your head) within the sentence. The copy editor's introduced italicizing looks wrong to me. It sounds wrong to me (see the difference?).

I have this image of editors and copy editors as nice, young (well, younger than I am) women who were English majors in college. I've met a few, and some of them are my daughter's age. Therefore I have to assume that they grew up with a different set of standards than I did. Life goes on. I accept that.

BUT! I'm guessing that the majority of my readers are closer to my age than to theirs. So when those readers read a paragraph with those weird italicized words, they're going to stumble. They're going to stop, if only for a microsecond, and say "huh?" (Not huh, I hope.) And that's going to take them right out of the reading, break the flow, disrupt their immersion in the story. It will work against all that we as writers have tried to create.

What are we supposed to do? Write to make the little copy editors happy? Or write to make our readers happy?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Is it just me?

By Lonnie Cruse

Sigh, ALL of my favorite television series ended this season with huge cliff-hangers. White Collar, NCIS, NCIS LA, The Closer, Burn Notice, you name it, I watched it, and then I was stuck waiting until June/July for the new seasons to begin. All at the same time. Sigh. And once they DID/DO begin, I'll be on series overload, trying to keep them all straight. Who died? Who survived? Who's new? Who isn't? Whew.

Lots of good drama on television these days. (Lots of garbage too.) This isn't Father Knows Best or The Donna Reed show any more (though they were good, in their day.) But the writers have to keep topping themselves, or the series dies. (Same for mystery writers writing a book series, but that's another story for another day.) How do they top explosion after explosion or disappearance after disappearance? How do they keep the characters fresh? Keep them growing? How many murders can Jessica Fletcher solve in one town? (Solution for that one, they moved her to New York where murders were a bit more numerous. Works for me.)

I'm old enough to remember riding with the neighbors over to the nearest television store and watching TV through the window on a warm summer night. I still remember who had the first television in our neighborhood (same neighbors, of course.) Television has come a looooong way, baby, since the 50's. Whew. A VERY long way. Like I said, some good, some not so good. I fear that our kids spend way too much time in front of the TV, instead of outside playing. Still, we can see news from across the world in an instant. Keep up with what's going on. We just need to control it, not let it control us, don't you think?

I'm going back to DVRing my fave shows, so I don't miss any explosions. You?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

English: the language of new words

Elizabeth Zelvin

My husband, who has limitless intellectual curiosity, informed me the other day that Shakespeare added 1,700 new words to the English language, including “bedroom.” Googling for confirmation, I found that figure came from a Dutch techie named Joel Laumans. Other online sources put the figure at 2,000 and even 3,000. Laumans explains that many of the new words were not pure original constructs, but the result of Shakespeare’s willingness to juggle parts of speech, turning nouns and adjectives into verbs and so on.

I nearly drowned in the deep end of Google, as one can so easily do while surfing the Net, checking out this claim. The Random House Dictionary puts the first use of “bedroom” around 1580-90, while the earliest performances of Shakespeare’s plays took place in roughly 1590. My husband suggested that the use of a room dedicated to sleeping was an innovation at that time. I had no trouble believing this when he said it. I know that privacy in the bedroom is a modern concept. Royalty in Queen Elizabeth I’s time had scads of people present when they got up and dressed, and the poor shared quarters out of necessity—as indeed they still do. We take the function of our rooms for granted. But when I lived in West Africa in the 1960s, even sophisticated urban locals kept the refrigerator in the living room, where everyone could see they had one (and handy for serving cold drinks to visitors as well), though that had changed by the time I visited again in the 1980s. It was a grand theory, but my husband was wrong. The Online Etymology Dictionary, which puts “bedroom” in the 1610s, points out that it replaced the earlier “bedchamber."

Laumans’s other examples range from “addiction” to “zany.” Random House puts “addiction” at 1595-1605, right in Shakespeare’s period, though the Online Etymology Dictionary points out that the original usage referred to a “penchant” rather than “enslavement,” from the Latin addictionem, a “devotion.” “Zany” comes from the Italian dialect zanni, a second-banana buffoon in the commedia dell’arte. I didn’t find any date or attribution of its use in English to Shakespeare in the online dictionaries.

English in particular, perhaps partly thanks to Shakespeare, lends itself to the creation of new words. We have beat out the French, who codified their language in the 17th and 18th centuries and have been fighting to keep it stable ever since, as the global lingua franca for just that reason. We say “restaurant,” “boutique,” and “savoir faire.” But they say le weekend, le brunch, and le Walkman. Also le blog, googler ("to google"), and surfer sur ("to surf on") Internet.

As an old English major, I can still rejoice in Shakespeare’s linguistic exuberance. My husband googled the playwright’s language in the first place because we had just watched the movie Shakespeare in Love for the umpteenth time, enjoying the in-jokes and how brilliantly writers Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman caught the Shakespearean voice. The other reason the topic is so fascinating is that we are currently living in a period when the invention of fresh language rivals that of Elizabethan times. In my high school math class, a “googol” was merely a big number: a one with a helluva lot of zeroes after it. A “weblog,” didn’t exist, so it couldn’t be abbreviated to “blog.”

“Surf” was certainly a word. Yes, we had oceans in the 1950s, and they featured what Random House calls “the swell of the sea that breaks upon a shore” or “the mass or line of foamy water caused by the breaking of the sea upon a shore.” The noun had even been turned into a verb, “to float on the crest of a wave toward shore.” But now we channel surf and surf the Web. It’s an apt metaphor, because these days we seem to be rushing toward an unknown shore, much like that in the final image of Shakespeare in Love. It’s exciting and scary, because it seems equally likely, at least to me, that this shore could turn out to be planet-wide destruction on which our species breaks or further proliferation of technology that leads us toward a destiny in the stars.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Meg Gardiner and the Deadshrinker

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

We’re giving away three hardcover copies of Meg Gardiner’s just-released thriller, The Liar’s Lullaby. To enter the drawing, leave a comment and include an e-mail address where you can be contacted.

Meg Gardiner, a lawyer and teacher in a previous life, is now the Edgar Award-winning author of the Evan Delaney series and the Jo Beckett series. A Californian living in England, she was published in Europe for years but couldn’t interest a U.S. publisher – until Stephen King, whom she had never met, happened to pick up one of her books on a trip. Today she talks about the improbable turn in her career, as well as her new book and her approach to writing thrillers.

Q. Tell us about The Liar’s Lullaby.

A. It’s the third thriller featuring forensic psychiatrist Jo Beckett. When a singer dies gruesomely during her entrance at a stadium rock concert, the San Francisco police ask Jo to perform a psychological autopsy. But the investigation turns Jo’s life upside down, because singer Tasia McFarland was the ex-wife of the President of the United States.

Tasia is a country-pop singer whose rocky life has been laced with addictions, breakdowns, erratic behavior, and broken relationships. Most notorious is her failed marriage to Robert McFarland, the former army officer who now occupies the White House. But Tasia’s on a comeback tour. In the opener for her spectacular stage show, she slides down a zip line as helicopters fly overhead. And the stunt goes disastrously wrong. The helicopters crash, the crowd stampedes, and Tasia plummets to the field, dead—from a gunshot wound.

Video can’t prove that the shot came from Tasia’s own Colt .45 and the ballistics report comes up empty. So the authorities call on Jo Beckett to do a psychological autopsy and clean up the potential political disaster. But as Jo sifts through the facts, she finds only more questions. Was Tasia’s gun loaded? Did she kill herself in one last cry for attention? Were her politically-charged lyrics the rantings of a paranoid woman losing her grip? Or warnings from a woman afraid and in danger? The media hounds Jo and the White House pressures her to shut down the investigation. Conspiracy theories ignite and right wing fanatics arm for a confrontation with the government. Jo finds herself racing to extinguish the conspiracy rumor mill before it incites a level of violence that reaches America’s highest corridors of power.

Q. Why did you make your protagonist, Jo, a forensic psychiatrist? What was it about this profession that appealed to you, and what can you do with this character that you might not be able to do if she were a lawyer or a detective?

A. Jo calls herself a deadshrinker. She analyzes the dead for the police. She’s the last resort in baffling cases. When the cops and the medical examiner can’t determine the manner of a victim’s death, they turn to Jo to perform a psychological autopsy and figure out whether it was accident, suicide, or murder.

Jo looks at victims’ emotional, moral, and psychological lives to figure out why they died. She digs beneath the clinical what and how of the police lab, into the messy, mysterious, and spooky realm of the mind. And that’s what fascinated me about her job.

CSI is great, but I wanted to go beyond it. In the real world, crime lab technology is not an infallible truth-o-meter. Physical evidence is not in fact bulletproof. Real life is murkier—and more fascinating. That’s what Jo explores. She goes beyond DNA sequencing and gas chromatography to uncover why a victim has died. And she can come at cases from fresh, atypical angles.

Q. How did you educate yourself about the work of forensic psychiatrists? Did you speak with any pros in the field?

A. I read. A lot. And I talked with real forensic psychiatrists about their jobs. It’s fascinating, difficult, and important work. I’m also lucky to have a sister who’s an MD trained in both neurology and psychiatry. She’s wonderful—and patient—about explaining medical and psychiatric issues, recommending books, and reading my first drafts to correct everything I goof up.

Q. Your career has taken an unusual course – you were published first in Britain, weren’t you, although your books are set in the U.S.? Would you tell us about your road to publication and how your career has evolved?

A. Writing is my third career, after law and teaching. I wrote my first novel when I moved to the U.K. after my husband took a job in London. But I’m a Californian, so I set the story in my hometown, Santa Barbara.

My agent presumed that an American woman who wrote novels set in the USA would generate interest from U.S. publishers. He sent the manuscript to U.K. publishers as well, but told me not to hold my breath. However, China Lake was bought almost immediately by a British publisher, followed by French and Dutch publishers—while American publishers said: No, thanks.

American publishers then turned down the sequel, Mission Canyon. They didn’t want to pick up a series mid-stream. This continued for five books. I couldn’t complain, because after all, the Evan Delaney novels were published everywhere in the English-speaking world besides the USA, and in a dozen foreign languages to boot. But I was frustrated that my books weren’t available at home. And my relatives were starting to think I had invented this whole “published writer” thing.

Then, through serendipity, Stephen King picked up China Lake to read on a flight to the U.K. He liked it, read the rest of the Evan Delaney series, and learned that I had no American publisher. He wrote an article on his website, urging readers to find my books. And then, in a spectacular burst of support for another writer, he wrote a column about my novels in Entertainment Weekly. Forty-eight hours later, fourteen American publishers had contacted me about publishing my work. Dutton bought my entire backlist plus the Jo Beckett series, which I was developing at the time.

Since then, Dutton and its fellow Penguin imprint, NAL, have published all my novels. American publication has given me a tremendous boost in visibility. My books have hit the bestseller lists in a number of countries, and are now published in, I think, 19 languages. The Dirty Secrets Club was a USA Today summer reading pick, was chosen by Amazon as one of its Top Ten Thrillers of 2008, and won the RT Reviewers Choice Award for Best Procedural novel of the year. And to my surprise and delight, in 2009 China Lake won the Edgar for Best Paperback Original. That was a thrill, validation, just a stunning honor. So: Thank you, MWA, and Dutton, and NAL, and Mr. King.

Q. How has your life changed now that you’re a mystery star in the U.S.? Are you spending more time here than before?

A. Star—ooh, I’m printing that out, so that the next time my kids demand to know when dinner will be ready, I can wave it at them. I’m excited that my books are now published in America and yes, I’m spending a lot more time in the U.S. But that’s okay—I may currently reside in London, but I’m a Californian, and I’m happy that when I attend Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, ThrillerFest, or walk into American bookstores, I can find my novels. Even better, all this travel means I get to see my mom more often. And I get to meet American readers, writers, and booksellers, which is wonderful. A few weeks ago in Portland, Oregon, I signed books at the Public Library Association national conference for three hours solid. That ain’t bad.

Q. You describe yourself as an “escaped” lawyer. I know several attorneys-turned-writers who say they’re “recovering” lawyers. This always make me curious – why were you eager to get out of the legal profession after going to school for so many years to get into it? Was the reality of law practice different from your expectations?

A. I always knew I wanted to write, but thought: I don’t want to live in a dump and be an unemployed novelist. I’d rather have a profession that will serve me all my life, and pay the bills, and allow me to write in my spare time. My grandfather was a lawyer who enjoyed a long, satisfying career, so I followed his path. And I love the law.

But after working in commercial litigation I realized I didn’t want to argue for a living. And litigation is both stressful and time consuming—you work intense hours. I didn’t want to burn the candle at both ends and the middle while I had little kids. So I jumped ship. I went and taught legal research and writing at the University of California, which was a blast.

Q. Your family seems to be full of musicians. Are you also musical? Did the popular music world feel like a natural one for you to explore in The Liar’s Lullaby?

A. I love musicians. Guitar players especially. I dig them so much, I married one. And the popular music world can be fascinating, exciting, and over the top, all at once. The Liar’s Lullaby is about fame, personality, and excess. But it’s equally about music as a singer’s core, obsession, and bliss—Tasia McFarland composes and sings as if holding back the songs would cause her to self-combust.

The book is also about celebrity and politics colliding in an explosive mess that threatens to scorch everybody involved, including Jo.

I am not a musician. In high school I was a mime, and there was a good reason for that.

Q. Your books are marketed as thrillers. How would you define the difference between a mystery and a thriller? What makes your novels thrillers?

A. In a mystery, the object is to solve a whodunit. The plot focuses on a detective’s efforts to interview suspects, sort clues, and solve the puzzle. Revealing the murderer’s identity is the climax of the story.

Thrillers play on a broader field, and they race across it. They might feature a murder mystery. But they might not. What they should always feature is pace, high stakes, and characters facing the worst crises of their lives. In thrillers, people face severe pressure and increasing threats—people including the protagonist, her friends, family, community, and perhaps her nation. Thrillers need to frighten, get pulses pounding, and keep people from putting down the book.

Q. You have one scene in The Liar’s Lullaby that involves a highrise building, dangling cables, and... Well, I won’t say more and spoil it for readers. How do you come up with scenarios like that? If you want an action scene that’s exciting and different, do you brainstorm with friends, read about weird accidents, or just turn your imagination loose and follow it wherever it goes?

A. Weird accidents… thanks, that’s a great idea. Let me note that down.

To write action scenes, you have to know what’s already been done—so you can purge those ideas from your writing. Cop in a fast car chases hit men; gunfire ensues. That had better be Bullitt, because if you’re writing that scene today it’s a retread, minus Steve McQueen and the Mustang. If readers have read or seen it a hundred times already, it’s a cliché. They know how it ends. It won’t thrill. And there goes your thriller.

So what do I do? I turn ideas inside out. Upset expectations. And back my characters into tight corners, literally or metaphorically. Then I think: Yeah, let’s see you get out of this one. Go ahead, drive over those spikes and get SEVERE TIRE DAMAGE. Then fight off the villain. Yep, that guy, the one toting a twelve-gauge shotgun—and fight him off using only a can of house paint. And when the good guys try, I throw crazed animals at them, or a 757 at takeoff velocity.

Sad to say, I also observe everyday situations and wonder how they could go horribly awry.

Q. Although your books are thrillers and, to use a cliché, action-packed, you also have quieter emotional scenes. Which is more difficult for you to write? Do you believe a thriller must have both?

A. “Must” is tricky. I definitely need to write both. Neither is more difficult; they just present different challenges. When writing action an author has to consider blocking (that is, moving the characters around physically), freshness, authenticity, and clarity. When writing quieter emotional scenes, you have to consider honesty, revelation, authenticity, and clarity. Actually, the two types of scenes are not so different. Getting the right emotional tone, illuminating the moment, revealing character through the choices people make, is vital for both.

Thrillers cannot thrive on action alone. That’s like turning up the volume on death metal and leaving it at maximum while a guitarist shreds nonstop. Authors have to give readers a breather. If you don’t, they become numb, and the action loses its impact, no matter how loud the screaming or how big the explosions.

Q. Is any subject matter off-limits to you – are there some things you would refuse to write about even if your publisher wanted you to?

A. Child abuse or molestation. I find it too upsetting. And I don’t want to spend a year of my life writing about something that would drag me, and readers, down. For what purpose? Entertainment? I don’t think so.

Q. In parting, what advice do you have for aspiring crime fiction writers?

A. Read. Learn about the genre. Learn what works, and what doesn’t. Read widely, read the classics, learn the clichés, avoid them, read what’s out there this year to see what’s grabbing readers – not to copy them or jump on a bandwagon, but so you get a sense of the modern crime novel and thriller. Then, if it’s your passion, go for it.

Above all, be honest. On the page you can break the laws of physics, but you must tell the emotional and moral truth.
Visit Meg’s website for more information and to hear the title song for The Liar’s Lullaby. Leave a comment below and include an e-mail address if you want to enter the drawing for a free copy of Meg’s new novel.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Time in a Battle, Part 3

Sharon Wildwind

Welcome back for the third part in our three-part series about too little time, too much to do. Two weeks ago, I wrote about tracking your time for one week to get an idea of where your time actually goes. Last week was a brief discussion about how our values influences what we rate as worth our precious time.

Today, here are some surprises about neurochemistry and creativity. We really can enhance our creativity by making choices about how we spend our time.

Neuroscientists are now able to hook up a whole alphabet worth of machines to the brain and peek in there to see what happens to brain tissue and chemicals during certain activities. Here are some that have particularly struck my fancy.

To be more creative, get more sleep
Going all the way back to 2004, scientists in Luebeck, Germany provided the first hard evidence that that subjects who got eight hours of sleep a night performed a task three times better than those who were sleep deprived the night before they attempted the task.

The brain chemistry associated with creativity or problem-solving typically happens in the first four hours of each sleep cycle, so if you’re getting eight hours of sleep a night, you’re treating yourself to two fill-ups of creative brain chemistry.

There is no such thing as multi-tasking
Studies done at Stanford University showed that people who multi-tasked consistently did all of the things they were attempting to do worse; they were more susceptible to irrelevant environmental stimuli, and had poorer memories of the tasks performed.

Neuroscientists Etienne Koechlin and Sylvain Charron of the French biomedical research agency INSERM used functional magnetic resonance imaging to show the following simple formula about doing one task or multiple tasks:
1 complex task = whole brain devoted to the task; more neuro connections, more parts of the brain stimulated
2 complex tasks = each of the two hemispheres takes on one of the tasks; the sides of the brain work independently, so they are less likely to produce that "spark" or synthesis that is crucial to real creativity
3 complex tasks = forgetting one task and three times the number of errors in doing the other two tasks.

Researchers at Vanderbilt University argue that even two complex tasks create problems. Distractions like e-mail, most songs with lyrics, instant messaging, and television shows, even when played in the background can diminish concentration. So saying, “I only have the TV on in the background; I’m not paying attention to it” isn’t true. Your brain cells are paying attention.

I could not find the source of this study, though I know I read it in the past year. (Maybe I was multi-tasking at the time.) If you know the source, please let me know. Essentially the study said that the brain can not multi-task, but it can sequentially process at a very fast rate. Imagine flicking your kitchen light switch on-off-on-off, etc. all day, every day. That is your brain on multi-tasking.

Eventually that switch is going to break. Eventually your brain on multi-tasking will break, too.

Think those multiple games of Solitaire are enhancing your creativity?
Think again.

Steve Pope, a senior lecturer in psychology (University of Central Landcashire, England) has concluded that spending two hours on a game station is equivalent to taking a line of cocaine in the high it produces. Apparently this addiction extends to things like eBay shopping and computer addiction is the fastest growing addiction in Great Britain.

Read it and weep
Do you like reading about writing? I do. It’s great to pick other writers’ brains so I can learn from them. However, there is a down side.

Reading about a subject stimulates the same part of the brain as doing the activity. It’s the equivalent of empty calories. If you read about a writing technique, your brain gets the same satisfaction as if you’d actually written, but without actually developing your writing skills. The more you read about how to do something, the less you’re inclined to actually do that thing.

So a little reading has to be followed up with a lot of doing. If you get a chance check out Julia Cameron’s ideas about the value of reading deprivation in her book, The Artist’s Way.

What does this all boil down to?
Know where your time goes. Time thieves are sneaky. Shoo them our of your mental house every once in a while.

Values affect the choices you make about how you spend your time. Clean out your values closet once in a while, too.

The neuro-chemical base for creativity is sleep, exercise, healthy food, and stress reduction. Who knows, maybe flossing your teeth regularly will help, too. It’s worth a try.

There is no such thing as multi-tasking. Turn off distractions, even if you have them “in the background” or “just on for company.” If you have more than one task to finish, work on each sequentially for short periods of time, rather than try to do them all at once.

Read less about how to do your favorite activity and do the activity more. Okay, I know that, coming from a writer, recommending less reading heresy, but there it is.

Honor how much time an activity takes. Creativity doesn’t come in an instant version.
Quote for the week:
Employees communicating at breakneck speed make mistakes. They forget, cross boundaries that exist for a reason, make sloppy errors, offend clients, spread rumors and gossip that would never travel through offline channels, work well past the point where their contributions are helpful, burn out and break down and then have trouble shutting down and recuperating.
~John Freeman, Tyranny of E-Mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox

Monday, June 21, 2010

A Surreal Storm

by Julia Buckley
You know those movies that are set in a post-apocolyptic world, and people walk around in shadowy caverns, hiding from the cyborgs that have taken over? Children cry in the darkness, and everyone's voice is pitched high with fear? That happened to me on Friday.

Well, not exactly. But almost. My husband, who had the week off, said he wanted to see a movie. Unfortunately, the summer crop of movies is horrible, and we literally couldn't find one that seemed appealing. We finally settled on THE A-TEAM because Jeff didn't want to let his whole vacation pass without one popcorn-swilling, giant-pop-drinking movie adventure.

So we set off to a cineplex about half an hour away. It was about 95 degrees and the air was thick with humidity. We entered the air conditioned theatre with relief and watched our movie. If you suspend your disbelief and just determine that you will have fun, THE A-TEAM is actually sort of a fun flick.

When it ended, we trailed out and I, according to tradition, had to use the ladies' room. My husband and older son waited while my younger son and I went into our respective doors. I went into a stall, shut the door--and the lights flickered. Then they went out altogether.

Ever been in a giant movie complex when all the lights went out? Neither have I. I decided not to go to the bathroom (even though I had to) and went back out to find my family. The hall was dark, too, and already the murmurs of fear were coming from the children in the place. Some people had still been watching movies--namely TOY STORY, which was packed with kiddies--and they came flowing out of the theatre into the darkened hall to see what had happened.

At first I decided they must have had some sort of problem within their own fusebox. Then we opened the door to the outside world and saw, just like a special effect on the big screen, a kind of green sky and trees that were bent almost to the ground. This was either one giant thunderstorm, or it was a tornado.

We opted to stay inside the dark theater rather than risk the tempest outside.

"Did you know it was supposed to rain today?" my son asked accusingly.

"No," my husband and I said in great surprise. In fact, the weather forecast had said 'hot, hot, hot,' but nothing about wet. The storm was moving fast. We watched it now and then out the door of the theater.

Meanwhile, none of the hundreds of other people who stood there in the dark with us was eager to leave, either. They comforted their children and talked to each other and made cell phone calls. No one was rude or unkind, at least not for the nearly half an hour that we squatted against the wall, waiting out the storm.

It was one of the stranger experiences of my life.

Eventually the sky looked a more normal color and the rain wasn't coming down as torrentially. We decided to risk the drive home. As we trotted through the parking lot, my youngest pointed at a nearby Wendy's restaurant. "Look! The storm knocked down the giant frosty!" Sure enough, the big yellow cup that had stood on top of the building was now on its side.

On the way home we heard the constant sound of sirens. The traffic lights were out, and we could smell things burning. Trees were down everywhere, and garbage cans sat in the middle of streets as though flung there by angry giants. Some streets were flooded, but most of the damage from this storm came from the wind, which had exceeded 55 miles per hour.

When we finally reached home, our dog was in quite a state. He actually talked to us, moaning and yipping as he met us at the door and then followed us back up the stairs. I think he was actually telling us the story of what happened. Our cats, on the other hand, were all still sleeping in the spots they'd been in when we left.

I thought our story was spooky and fascinating, but then I talked to my neighbor. I told her we'd spent the storm in a darkened theater, and she told me that she'd been on the El, which actually stopped between stations because the storm messed up its computer. They sat on the tracks and the train actually ROCKED in the storm; she feared it would fall right off the tracks.

In terms of scary storm stories, she wins hands down. :)

Image link here.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Canada Calling: Ross Pennie

Ross Pennie is a Canadian author who gets up early every day to wrestle with fictional mysteries before setting off to the hospital where he specializes in real-life detective work as an infectious-diseases physician.

His first medical triller, Tainted, combines his two passions as Associate Medical Officer of Health Zol Szabo struggles to find our why a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob—commonly called mad cow disease—is suddenly showing up in far too many human brains.

What is an infectious disease specialist?

An infectious disease specialist is Sherlock Holmes with a medical degree.

We use our powers of observation, backed up with specialized insider knowledge, to figure out what’s making patients ill. We rarely have our own regular patients, but consult on patients whose signs and symptoms have stumped other doctors.

Usually the patient turns out to have a straightforward infection in an unusual spot, such as a pocket of pus in the liver or a clump of germs clinging to a heart valve. Or patients might have something exotic picked up on their travels, such as malaria, intestinal worms, or Ebola. Often, they have something that mimics an infection but no germs are involved: gouty inflammation of a joint, a broken foot, a cancer burrowing from the nose into the brain.

The exciting part about being an infectious disease physician is the diversity of the patients’ problems. We deal with every part of the body and people of all ages. And although we have a sophisticated armamentarium of diagnostic tests at our fingertips, I usually figure out what’s wrong with the patient just be listening to their story.

What's the scariest thing you know about infectious diseases?

When I started my medical career more than thirty years ago, doctors could treat most bacterial infections with a limited variety of simple antibiotics. In remote Papua New Guinea, where I spent two years in the 1970s, life-threatening infections were my number-one preoccupation; I could treat practically everything, cheaply and effectively, with the two antibiotics we had in the cupboard.

Nowadays, our pharmacies are stuffed with all sorts of expensive, high-tech antibiotics that don’t work. The bacteria have outsmarted us; many have morphed into superbugs that resist every antibiotic known to modern medicine. If your child gets pneumonia or a bone infection or meningitis with one of these superbugs, even the finest infectious-disease specialist on the planet has nothing to offer except a shoulder to cry on. In a world where we take medical miracles such as heart transplants for granted, watching a child die of uncontrolled infection after a scrape on the knee truly is scary.

You've written on your blog about carving your writing time out of the early morning. How do you make that mental transition from writer-in-your-head to doctor-in-your-head each morning?

My drive from home to work takes thirty minutes on a freeway that’s blessed with little traffic. After writing for two hours at home in my study, I put the car in cruise control, tune to CBC Radio Two, and listen to the commercial-free, roots-rock they play at that time. It clears my head and reverts me to the doctor who writes from the writer who doctors.

How does the writer-who-doctors and doctor-who-writes influence one another? Is there a synergy there where one feeds the other? Are there conflicts where doing one makes doing the other harder?

Yes, there is a wonderful synergy between the doctor and the writer within me. Doctors and writers are keen observers, driven to record and understand whatever confronts them. Doctors transform their observations – patients’ stories, physical signs, laboratory tests – into clinical diagnoses. Writers analyze their observations – human foibles, current events, scientific wonders – and create interpretations that help make sense of a confusing world. The doctor’s client is the patient, the writer’s is the reader.

Clarity is the watchword of the skilled physician and the accomplished writer. A crystal-clear description of the minute details of a patient’s illness, when read out loud, often reveals the diagnosis before the laboratory tests are ordered. Likewise, when a writer chooses precisely the right words to convey images, actions, emotions, and abstractions, the resultant connection with the reader creates an epiphany, a luminous understanding that keeps the pages turning.

In short, I believe that my doctor’s keen eye and my writer’s precise descriptions have helped improve my skills at both endeavors.

Tell me about your character Dr. Zol Szabo and the world in which he lives.

The backyard of Zol Szabo’s renovated homestead ends at the sheer drop of the Niagara Escarpment. For Zol, balancing his personal and professional worlds is as tricky as avoiding that steep precipice at the bottom of his garden. He’s been a single father ever since his wife ran away six years ago to an ashram in India, which means much of his world revolves around eight-year Max.

Zol was lured to Public Health by the promise of family-friendly office hours, but in Hamilton, Ontario, crime and skulduggery cause more death and sickness than unhealthy habits like tobacco and fast food. Between Max and the criminals, Zol has little time for hobbies, but as a former professional chef, he can whip up a fine meal from whatever happens to be in his refrigerator and serve it with a delicious wine purchased at a bargain price. He dates from time to time, and at the moment he’s falling for a gorgeous private investigator but is terrified she could be another Hare Krishna in disguise.

For more on Ross and his books visit his web site.

Friday, June 18, 2010

I'm addicted . . . I might be in trouble?

By Lonnie Cruse

I'm addicted to a certain farm game on the Internet. I spend hours fertilizing crops, feeding chickens, harvesting crops, moving buildings, grabbing bonuses, sending gifts to friends, etc. Did I mention I'm addicted?

I don't know who creates these things, but they should be strung up and shot. Or made to feed my chickens. Whichever is most painful. Or most useful to me.

Social networks are HUGELY popular. They are also addictive. They can also be risky to your privacy. Meaning sometimes stuff gets hacked or copied or whatever off these sites. Visitors and players (like me, sigh) must be careful about what they share on these sites. I'm always appalled when someone posts on a public site that they are going out of town. Hellooooo? Robbers read these sites too!

Someone recently posted a link to use to check our personal information. The site that the link took me too listed my home address, phone number, and lots of other personal stuff I didn't want (and had NOT given permission for) listed on the Internet. I made them take it down. That doesn't mean it won't show up again. I have to be vigilant. So do you, if you are on the Net at all. Maybe even if you aren't, you fill out credit information which people SWEAR won't be shared, but sometimes it is. How else would your annual income show up on the Internet?

So, bottom line, have fun out there on the Net. Buy a farm, feed your chickens, plant your crops, connect with old friends or high school buds, whatever, but be sure, every now and then, to do a search on your own name and see what pops up. You might be shocked. You might want to make them take your information down. Meanwhile, if you want me to feed YOUR chickens, I'll be happy to, but you have to "friend" me on Farmville. I'll be the little avatar standing in the middle of the chickens. You can't miss me.

Care to share any Internet problems you've had? Thanks for stopping by!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

So Much Blood

Elizabeth Zelvin

As a mystery writer, I sometimes have to think about blood. I’m not particularly fond of blood. I’m squeamish enough to look away when my own blood is being drawn for lab tests. And I eschew both gore and forensics in my work. However, as Shakespeare knew, it’s hard to talk about murder without mentioning blood.

“Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” The line is Lady Macbeth’s, the play Macbeth, the victim King Duncan. The spilling of blood is dramatic and shocking, no less in Shakespeare’s day than now. One wonders whether the playwright wrote from personal experience or observation, or if the line came from his superb imagination.

The human body doesn’t really hold such a huge amount of blood in the general scheme of things. Its volume is related to the individual’s body weight and ranges on average somewhere between four and six quarts, or between a gallon and a gallon and a half. In comparison, it takes a gallon of paint to cover a 350 square foot room with seven-foot walls, assuming the room has no doors or windows. That’s a small room, only ten by fifteen feet.

Mystery readers absorb (no pun intended) a certain amount of information about blood from novels. For example, we all know that once a person is definitively dead, blood ceases to flow. So when a shot to the heart kills instantly, less blood is spilled on the scene than those who don’t know this fact might expect. (The absence of blood on the scene might also indicate the body has been moved after death. But that’s another plot device.)

I’ve always read that head wounds bleed copiously. But the information didn’t really sink into my imagination till I attended my fiftieth high school reunion recently. No, nobody paid off an old score by killing a former classmate. But there was an incident involving blood. One of the attendees, who’d become a stooped, balding man with a cane in the half century since graduation, slipped on the marble floor in front of the elevator, unfortunately cracking his head on the sharp right angle where two marble walls met. Within seconds, his white shirt was covered with blood. People rushed to help. (One exasperated woman, trying in vain to get her husband to come back, told the bystanders, “He’s a dentist!”) Luckily, the injured man was not hurt badly enough to call an ambulance. The injury looked a lot worse than it was—because head wounds bleed copiously.

Some writers still get stuff that should be common knowledge wrong. At a recent launch party, I heard a male writer I know read a passage about how a character could not get a bloodstain to come out completely, in spite of the determined application of hot water. Only a guy would make that mistake. Women, who spend their reproductive years periodically (again, no pun intended—well, maybe a little) scrubbing stains out of their undies, know that you use cold water, not hot, on blood.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Erasing Women from the English Language

Sandra Parshall

Have you changed the way you talk about women? Do you think twice when writing fiction – avoiding depictions of fat or ugly female characters, toning down a woman character’s bitchiness? Are you offended when a male author writes an unflattering description of a woman?

Just how politically correct is your language, and how did it get that way?

New words and changes in usage normally spring up in conversation (and these days the internet is part of the conversation), with official recognition from dictionaries and other publications lagging a bit behind. But when it came to the way we talk and write about gender, as well as race, changes were forced into being by law and a new social consciousness.

By now most government departments, businesses, colleges and universities, newspapers, TV stations, and magazines have written guidelines for avoiding racist and sexist language. Judging by the evidence, though, getting rid of racial references in everyday speech has turned out to be easier than achieving totally
gender-neutral expression. Regardless of how we twist and torture common words and phrases, it’s not easy to erase women from the English language.

The person who brings our meal in a restaurant may introduce herself or himself as a server, but male and female customers alike continue to use the terms waitress and waiter.

In the military, where women are expected to perform exactly as men do, no gender-neutral form of address exists for officers beyond their ranks. A female superior is addressed either by her rank or as ma’am.

In corporations where men hold most of the top-level jobs, the term chairman of the board has never been supplanted by chair. (Does chair of the board sound as peculiar to you as it does to me?) As in many other cases, the “man” ending is dropped only when a woman occupies the position, so the altered word fails its purpose by loudly signaling that this is a female we’re talking about.

In other cases, so-called gender neutrality is awkwardly achieved by dropping the female version of a word and applying the male version to men and women alike.
The Screen Actors Guild, for example, calls all its members actors. But they negate what they may believe is a principled stance by separating the sexes at awards time, presenting awards for “Best Performance by a Male Actor” and “Best Performance by a Female Actor.” If they want to remove distinctions between the sexes, perhaps they should give gender-neutral awards and let both men and women compete for them. That’s the way we do it in the writing field. Mystery Writers of America doesn’t give out Edgars for “Best Novel by a Woman” and “Best Novel by a Man” – and no other writing awards make that distinction either. Is SAG afraid women will be slighted if they have to compete directly with men? Do they think Meryl Streep can’t hold her own against Brad Pitt?

Fortunately, many job titles sound fine when given to either men or women. There was a period, blessedly brief, in the 19th century when grammarians wanted people to use words like doctoress and lawyeress, but the idea seems laughable now. However, some people still feel compelled, when mentioning a doctor who isn’t a man, to tack on a gender word: woman doctor, female doctor. The opposite side of the coin is the way we refer to nurses who aren’t women. If you were telling someone about a hospital stay, would you drop in the fact that one nurse was a he, even if the nurse's gender had
nothing to do with the story?

I believe some job descriptions have changed for the better in the campaign for gender-neutral language. The term stewardess was so sullied by smutty jokes and lame comedy routines that it did no justice to the trained professionals who will not only serve us beverages during uneventful flights but will possibly save our lives in a crash. Flight attendant is an altogether more dignified job title, whether it refers to a woman or a man.

On the whole, though, I think a lot of energy is wasted on trying to make people drop particular words from their vocabularies. A few months ago I was verbally attacked because I used the word “suffragette” in a group discussion. I was informed that by using such a word I dishonored the women who fought for female suffrage, that I was insulting them, making light of their achievement. Actually, I was making a distinction between suffragists – anyone and everyone who supports women’s suffrage – and the courageous, militant women who marched, protested, chained themselves to fences, went to prison, endured force-feedings and other indignities to gain the same rights men enjoyed. Suffragette may have been a derogatory term when it was coined by a British newspaper, but it stuck even as changing attitudes and laws swept away the negative meaning. No one who really knows me would seriously suggest that I don’t respect the women I call suffragettes.

In my opinion, we also waste time trying to remove job titles like waitress from
the language. The title is innocuous. What matters is how the waitress is treated by her employer, whether she is penalized for being overweight or middle-aged, and whether customers see her as a human being with a life and mind of her own rather than a faceless servant. Calling a female server a waitress doesn't have the same effect as calling a woman a slut or a whore. Sometimes a job title is just a job title, and it doesn’t automatically denigrate the person doing the work.

I know some writers who are so determinedly P.C. in their speech, and so terrified of offending readers with their prose, that I’m afraid their timidity will rob their writing of all originality and insight. For a fiction writer, too much political correctness can be deadly. We have to write about people as they really are. Women can do stupid things. For example, some women stay in abusive relationships. Some commit murder. Men, too, can be selfish and pigheaded and violent. Writers have to explore those realities. The minute we start censoring our characters’ behavior and editing their speech, it’s time to stop writing and find some other way to occupy ourselves.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Time in a Battle, Part 2

Sharon Wildwind

To recap: last week I wrote about that if you were stuck in a rut, and wanted to make changes in how much time you devoted to your favorite creative endeavor, one place to start was by writing down, for a week, what you were already doing.

This week I’m going to write about values and time.

Let’s pick up with something I wrote last week. You might want to argue that the weekly list you kept didn’t represent a typical week because the hot water heater broke down, or your pet got sick, or you had unexpected company. I told you not to worry about it.

The value here is that there is such a thing as a normal week, seven days when everything in our lives goes according to plan. The normal day, week, or month is a myth.

The unexpected always happens. It might be stressful (the broken hot water heater, the vet visit, illness, or an unexpected bill, etc.) or joyful (unexpected company, the arrival of a new baby two weeks early, or an opportunity to fly to Paris for dinner—don’t we wish!)

Creativity has to allow time for the unexpected. Yes, there are some events that knock us for a loop. A full meal plus wines at Lasserre (an exclusive Paris restaurant) would not only knock my pocketbook for a loop, but I doubt I would be able to write a single line for a week afterwards. Don’t wait for normal. Do what you want to do, even in the midst of chaos.

That brings me to a second value: I have to put off what I want to do until I’ve provided for all those people who depend on me.

A woman I worked with retired. She’d made a big production at her retirement party about how she was going to start quilting, something she’d wanted to do for years. Her retirement present from her co-workers was a gift certificate at a local quilting store.

I ran into her a year later. “How’s the quilting?” I asked.

“I never got around to it because I started volunteering with our church’s senior out-reach program. Just as soon as I can recruit more volunteers for that program, I’ll start quilting. That gift certificate came in so handy for buying arts-and-crafts supplies for the seniors’ activity room.”

It’s a story that I’ve heard over and over. The bottom line is that people who say they will start something—when the kids are older; when I’m not working a sixty-hour week; when I retire; when I move my parents into assisted living; when our finances settle down—never do.

The key word here is “start.” Start what you want to do now, even if you have only fifteen minutes a week in which to do it. Once you start something, and discover you like it, here’s the likely chain of events. You’ll
1. Sneak time to do it.
2. Get better at it.
3. Enjoy it more.
4. Find ways to spend more time doing it.
5. Repeat steps two, three, and four over and over.

Our next value: I have to [fill in the task of your choice] before I can take time to create. Let’s look at one have-to activity:
• I have to brush and floss my teeth. Probably a true statement. There are not-so-nice consequences to not brushing and flossing.
I have to brush and floss my teeth. Probably also a true statement. Brushing and flossing is one of those tasks that’s best done by the mouth’s owner.

Apply those same two emphases to other have-to values that are keeping you from being creative:
[This task] has to be done. (Maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t.)
I have to be the one to do it. (Maybe you do and maybe you don’t.)

I’m reminded of the son of a friend of mine. He “had to” buy only a quarter of a tank of gas at a time because that was all he could afford. After the third time his parents rescued him by bringing him gas, one time in a horrible rain storm, his mother offered him the cost of a tank of gas and an alternative.

“Use this money to fill up your tank. When your tank gets 3/4 of the way empty, buy a quarter of a tank of gas. You’re still buying only a quarter of a tank at a time, but you’re never going to run out of gas.” She also mentioned that neither she nor her husband planned to make any more midnight gas runs. He didn’t run out of gas again.

The point is that we are smart, resourceful women. We can find win-win solutions that go a ways toward balancing our needs and those of others. Some of those solutions won’t be easy, but heck, whoever said that creativity was easy?

Our final value for this week: I’m not wasting time, I’m having quality down time.

Everybody needs down time. I don’t have a qualm in the world about spending two hours last week looking for YouTube recordings of Robert Mitchum singing The Ballad of Thunder Road. It was fun, two hours wasn’t all that long, and I got it out of my system.

Take a look at that time diary you kept last week (or one you’ll keep in the future). How much of your time was spent on down time activities? Is there any way to turn some of that time into more creative activities? Could you watch 7 televisions shows a week instead of 8? If you went to the mall every other Saturday, instead of every Saturday, would that free up two afternoons a month for writing, dancing, painting, or singing?

Next week, in Time in a Bottle, Part 3, we’re going to look at how new neuro-research is blasting away at some time-honored beliefs about how creativity happens, and what we can do to enhance that creativity.

Quote for the week
Women need real moments of solitude and self-reflection to balance out how much of ourselves we give away.
~Dr. Barbara De Angelis, motivational speaker and relationships counselor

Monday, June 14, 2010

Celebrating the Milestones

by Julia Buckley
Since I am the party planner in our family (and since my husband and sons CLAIM to have no ability in this area), I made the decision to throw myself a party in recognition of my earning--FINALLY--a Master of Arts in English Studies.

Of course my family helped with some getting-ready chores (although they also tried to claim they weren't good at those. You know that excuse? You're so much better at cleaning, Mom. We just wouldn't do a good job. Blah blah), and they helped with hosting duties during the party, which included such eccentric things as keeping our warlike cat IN the house when he tried to slip out with each new arrival; keeping our super-hyper beagle OFF of people's legs as he tried to greet them in his own amorous style; and occasionally trying to lure my brother's soccer-loving family AWAY from the World Cup coverage and over to the buffet table for conversation. :)

The party invitation had specified no gifts: my diploma was truly enough in that department. But well-meaning visitors still handed me generous acknowledgments of my accomplishment. A bottle of wine, a bottle of Bailey's, cards with clever poems and heartfelt congratulations. A cute statue of a graduate with a cat at her feet (from my mom and dad, who know me well).

Two members of my writer's group stopped by, and one of them, in a hastily scrawled card that heralded my educational victory, had written me a check. I found this particularly sweet, as though she saw me on the same footing as the youngsters graduating from high school and college. And our family friend Ivan, a young filmmaker who writes and directs his own feature-length movies, brought me a DVD of his latest thriller, a vampire tale that is very much a philosophical treatise on the choice between right and wrong.

Best of all, though, was the fact that so many people accepted the invitation and came over to celebrate with me. Friends from my undergraduate days drove an hour to join the gathering, bringing their own teen-aged daughters (we spent much of the soiree trying to figure out how our children got so tall and we got so much older). Our neighbors, always supportive, attended, as did all of my family in the immediate vicinity.

My writer's group friends and I stole into a corner to talk about writing and publishing for a while; my friend Martha had received what she called "a flattering rejection letter" from an agent who loved her writing but not her genre. Martha is in fact a terrific writer, and I hope to be writing about her first publication here some day. My friend Cynthia, who is writing a mystery but also trying to turn one of her brilliant short stories into a young adult novel, was glad to report that she had left the writing doldrums, where she had been trapped for a couple of months, and was now in a productive period. This is typical of writers at parties: they like to talk about writing.

At one point in our chat, we writers cornered the two teenaged girls from out of town. They're very cute, blonde and blue-eyed, and they claimed to love reading in their school libraries.

"What makes you choose a book?" asked Martha.

Sarah, the older sister, didn't hesitate. "The color of the spine," she said. "There are so many books. I'm always drawn to the ones with bright colors."

She added that the covers were very important, as well. "If the cover's not interesting, then I probably won't look at the book," she said. Her sister agreed.

Armed with this knowledge, I moved to the sweet table, sampled a couple of cookies, and eavesdropped on more conversations, which ranged from discussions of the weather (rainy) to predictions about the Cubs' season (not optimistic) to what movies people should and shouldn't see.

On a side table, my diploma sat proudly for public viewing; I had meant to put out a copy of my 44-page thesis, as well, but I had forgotten to print it out. :)

Some people actually asked me to send it to them via e-mail, since it is a scholarly examination of the suspense novels of Mary Stewart, and many people remembered liking Stewart's novels back in the '70s.

After a few hours, people began to drift away, mentioning other obligations they had to keep before taking their Sunday rest. My college friends lingered a bit longer, agreeing to share some pizza with us before they headed back to the south suburbs.

I sit here now, reflecting on the importance of marking milestones. They come so seldom, really, and it's so much nicer to share them with friends and family than to let them pass by unnoticed. Included in those friends, by the way, are all of my Deadly Sisters here on the blog, who sent me nice e-mails of congratulation in honor of my educational advancement. Thanks, blogmates!

And happy milestones to you all.

Saturday, June 12, 2010


by E.J. Copperman

Poe's Deadly Daughters welcome as our guest the mysterious E.J. Copperman, the author of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEED, the first Haunted Guesthouse Mystery from Berkley Prime Crime. You can find out more about E.J. at or read E.J.'s blog Sliced Bread at

People who are not writers--and by that I do NOT mean simply people who have not yet been published, but people who actually never sit down and write anything longer than a grocery list--have a number of misconceptions about what it is like to write a story, a play, a screenplay, a greeting card, or for that matter a blog post. Well, the gracious folks here at Poe's Deadly Daughters have invited me aboard to fill in today and help a little. So let me disabuse you of your misconceptions, non-writers, and perhaps a few writers will also find some truth in what I say. Or not.

First, let me establish my credentials, which is not nearly as dirty a process as it sounds. I'm the author of the current NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEED, the first Haunted Guesthouse Mystery, which was published the first day of this month. And if you do a tiny bit of digging (like going to my website, for example), you might find that I've written one or two other things, as well. So I have, demonstrably, written in my lifetime, and there are even some people who have read what I wrote and, dare I say it, purported to enjoy the experience. So let's, for the sake of argument, assume that I'm a writer.

That means I can tell you a few things about what being a writer means, and more important, what being a writer DOESN'T mean.


1. No, you wouldn't write a novel if you just had the time. If you're not writing one anyway, let's face it, you're probably not going to do it.
2. Almost no writers are "famous authors." I am, believe me, NOT a "famous author."
3. We all don't KNOW the famous authors, either. I don't have Stephen King's phone number, but he can have my email address if he'd like it.
4. Our main characters are NOT all based on us. And no, my books aren't set in my hometown, or any real town. No, they're not. No, not even that one.
5. We don't just sit around all day waiting for inspiration. Who has the time? We have to figure out new ways to get you to buy our PREVIOUS inspirations.
6. Mystery writers really couldn't solve crimes. I don't care what they do on CASTLE.
7. We don't type "THE END" on a piece of paper in a typewriter anymore. Haven't for decades.
8. We don't all drink. I, for example, have a beer about every two months. SOME of us drink, and not that often to excess. It sure as hell isn't part of the creative process.
9. Mystery writers don't ALWAYS "kill off" people we don't really like. Okay, maybe we do. But not ALL the time.
10. No, it's not a good idea to set a mystery novel at a mystery writing convention, and no, you didn't just think of that yourself. EVERYBODY has thought of that.
11. Many of us, believe it or not, DON'T have classical music playing whenever we're working.
12. There are a couple of us who have developed at least rudimentary social skills.
13. We have no control over the covers on our books. None. We're consulted once in a while, and then the publisher does what they want. (Personally, I'm thrilled with the cover of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEED, but I still didn't have anything to do with its design).
14. Sometimes, we don't even write our own titles.
15. Writing is NOT fun. HAVING WRITTEN, on the other hand, is a blast. I recommend it highly.

I hope the above list is helpful. By the way, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEED is about a recently divorced mom who returns to her Jersey Shore hometown and buys an old Victorian with the hope of turning it into a comfy guesthouse. In the midst of renovations, however, she discovers two ghosts haunting the premises, and they won't let her complete her home improvement--or open her new business--until she does them a little favor: They want Alison to find out who murdered them. (You didn't think I wouldn't plug the book, did you?)

And if that doesn't hook you, feel free to ask questions, and maybe I can come up with something else.

Thanks to Poe's Deadly Daughters for the opportunity. Ladies, it's always a pleasure.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Ahhh, the classics . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

Our local Sam's Club is carrying newly released paperback copies of Daphne DuMaurier's books. I grabbed a copy of MY COUSIN RACHEL, missed REBECCA, but found it elsewhere. I'd read REBECCA years ago, (wish I'd held onto that vintage hardback, sigh) but wanted to read it again. Haven't read MY COUSIN RACHEL, but I've seen the old movie version, so I wanted to find out how close the movie was to the book. DuMaurier's writing is a bit on the dark side. Certainly not romantic fluff, but definitely grabs you. And holds on until the end. You readers have a fave classic? One you'd buy again, if you came across a copy?

I love reading the latest books, particularly in mystery, but sometimes it's wonderful to re-visit authors like DuMaurier and re-read, even though I already know the ending. Besides, I tend to miss details on a first read, which is why I've read WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE by Shirley Jackson at least three times, and I'm sure I'll want to pick it up again at some point.

I remember reading WAR AND PEACE as a young adult. Enjoyed it, not sure I want to read it again. I wouldn't mind reading 1984 again, so some other oldies. IF I come across copies.

Wonderful thing about the Internet, you can find copies of almost any book you want to read, either at big name book sites or from sites that sell only vintage. A search will find them for you. I've gotten lots of books that way. Love waiting for them to arrive. For me, anticipation of a book is nearly as good as actually reading. Nearly. (And if you have an e-reader, there are tons of free copies of classics online.)

What book would you search for on the Internet and be willing to pay a possibly hefty price for? What classic would you love to re-visit? Care to share?

Happy reading! Thanks for stopping by.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Prom: Peak experience or traumatic event?

Elizabeth Zelvin

What is the prom? Nominally what Cinderella would have called a ball, it’s less a dance than an adolescent rite of passage involving mate selection, dressing to kill, and a variety of ritual objects, such as the corsage and the stretch limo. I suspect that nowadays, for many kids, it’s an excuse for heavy drinking and, for some, an occasion to break out the mood-altering substances. There’s also probably a significant amount of sex in the back seat of the kids’ own cars. In some communities, an awful lot of money is spent to make the evening memorable, or at least ostentatious.

I’ve never actually met anyone whose prom was the best night of his or her life. I know one man who remembers, fifty years later, a good night kiss at his date's door with his dad watching from the car at the curb. Back in the Fifties in the outer boroughs of New York, we did not expect to have cars before we graduated from high school, and in ninth grade (graduation year in junior high) we were years away from sex and drinking. I don’t remember what I wore, but I doubt my mother let me get a “formal,” and I can’t remember if the boys went so far as to rent tuxedos. The dance itself was well chaperoned, and our parents drove us there and back. I remember the corsage—a single orchid with a pink or lavender ribbon. You put it in the refrigerator when you got home, and there it stayed until it turned brown and your mother threw it out.

My prom revenge story, “Dress to Die,” will appear in the e-zine Beat to A Pulp in August. I thought of saving this blog for then, but no, June is prom month, and it’s time to tell the story of my bad luck with proms. Don’t worry, it bears no resemblance to the story in “Dress to Die.” But what’s the point of being a crime fiction writer if you can’t get even once in a while? My true story involves two proms, junior high and high school, and three boys who all had the same name—it wasn’t Bob, so let’s call them Bob.

For readers who weren’t born back when girls couldn’t ask boys for a date, there was a lot of agonizing suspense in my junior high class as to which boy would invite which girl to the prom and when the actual asking would take place. Remember we were barely 13—a young and sheltered 13—whose only sexual experience was playing Spin the Bottle at parties. Some boys were a little more mature than others. Some were considered “cute,” others were not.

As it happened, all the inviting took place at my birthday party a couple of months before the prom. As the evening went on, all the cute boys asked other girls until I was left--the cheese stands alone—one thoroughly humiliated birthday girl. Enter Bob No. 1, a rather sullen boy who until then hadn’t been up to hanging out with the girls. I accepted his gruff invitation with a mixture of relief and disappointment. All was well till the next day, when he marched up to me in class and rescinded the invitation. In fairness to Bob, he saw it in a different light. He recently apologized handsomely, yep, more than fifty years later, confessing that he “chickened out.” Luckily, I had already written the revenge story when he got back in touch.

Did I get to the prom after all? Reader, I did. Bob No. 2, who had not intended to take a date or perhaps to go at all, took pity on me, and I accepted gratefully. There was no chemistry between us, but today he’s alive and well and living in the Castro, so it probably didn’t have anything to do with me.

Bob No. 3 was my high school boyfriend. He was already at college, so it was acceptable for me to take the lead and invite him to my senior prom. I was working up to ask when he broke the news that he had another girlfriend, also at college. It was time to choose between us, and he chose her. It was a good call: fifty years later, they’re still married. So I never did get to my high school prom. But I danced at their wedding.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Shhh! Don't talk about that!

Sandra Parshall

The publicity, complete with dollar figures, that greets deals by Big Name Writers might make you think publishing is a business where money is openly discussed. Not so. The book business is so secretive that many authors with major publishers have no idea how their advances and income compare to those of others with the same imprint.

Below the stratosphere inhabited by such luminaries as Grisham, Patterson, and Cornwell, ordinary writers dwell in a far different world where mum’s the word. Publishers don’t want their writers comparing notes about money. Experienced authors warn newcomers that they must never reveal details of their contracts and incomes. Or their print runs, for that matter. The reasoning is that this could cause jealousy and complaints. Writers who feel slighted might start demanding more of everything, and that would annoy publishers, something none of us wants to do. It’s best to treat such professional information as a taboo topic.

Writers comply because we tend to be insecure by nature, many of us have struggled for years to break into print, and midlist writers (and lower) are valued so little that they never feel safe. I know a lot of writers who are so afraid of inadvertently offending their editors that they wouldn’t dream of picking up the phone and calling them for any reason. (She doesn’t like being called. I might interrupt something important! And we’ve heard dark tales of writers having their contracts dropped because they phoned their editors too often.) I also know people who are afraid to call their agents. They’ll send polite e-mails and wait days or weeks for a reply rather than risk being branded a pest for telephoning even once.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that most writers accept without question the injunction against sharing professional information, especially about money, with other authors. You’d think the internet would have changed all that, but no. We seem as alone and puzzled as we ever were, afraid to ask questions, not knowing who to trust. So it’s a revelation – a shock – when any published writer offers reliable facts and figures that can help others decide which path to pursue.

Marie Harte wrote on her blog about her unrealistic expectations and the published writer who took pity on her and set her straight. Harte was planning to quit her day job, start writing romance novels, and quickly work her way onto the bestseller lists alongside Nora Roberts. She adjusted her expectations after a helpful author told her she might make $2,000 to $5,000 per book, and the money would come in over several years, not instantly. Now Harte is heavily into e-publishing, produces seven to 10 new ebooks a year, makes a satisfactory but less than extravagant living, and doesn’t mind being candid about money. See her recent informative post on the subject.

J.A. Konrath has always been outspoken about most aspects of publishing, and now that he’s moving into e-publishing in a big way, he’s talking with his customary openness about the kind of money he has already made and expects to make by going digital with his thrillers. Almost anything Konrath says is bound to generate controversy – that’s what happens when you make a little noise on the internet and you’re not afraid to share your opinions – and plenty of people are scoffing at his claims. I hope he’s right, though. I hope he has great success in e-publishing and continues to share the details with the world.

E-publishing is challenging a lot of ingrained practices in traditional publishing and making us rethink what it means to be a "published" writer. Is it possible that e-publishing will also shake up the culture of secrecy that keeps so many of us ignorant about the very profession we pursue? Is this a good development or a bad one for authors? What do you think?

(Writer graphic (c) Martin Green/