Saturday, June 30, 2012

Second Helpings

by guest writer John Barlow

Seven years ago I decided to abandon my teaching post at York University in the UK and move to Spain. I would become, ehm, a writer. Over the course of those seven years a lot of things have happened. Perhaps the happiest and most gratifying to me has been my book Everything but the Squeal, which I wrote for the publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2008. It’s a travelogue about Galicia, the north-western tip of Spain, where I live with my wife and young family. Having become a sort of adoptive Galician, it was quite a moving experience to write about the place and its people, especially since it is the homeland of my sons.

I didn’t want it to be a typical Brit abroad account of life amongst the foreigners. I have an abiding passion for food, and I wanted to combine a portrait of Galicia and its people with a food-based theme. Apart from anything else, food up here in Galicia is very close to people’s hearts, and a book about Galicia that didn’t mention food would have been ridiculous. I also thought that some sort of dramatic quest would provide structure for the book. The idea I hit on was to take the example of the pig, and to travel around Galicia for a year trying to visit as many places as I could, seeking out as many different traditional ways to eat pork as possible. In effect, the quest was to eat every bit of the animal over the course of a year: everything but the squeal. 

I more or less managed it, including bladder puddings and braised pancreas. When the book came out, it was reviewed in Newsweek, The Economist and the New York Times, amongst many others. Back home in Galicia, I became something of a minor pork celebrity, appearing live on Galician TV, as well as numerous times on the radio. It wasn’t so much the fact that I had written a book in English about Galicia; I had written the book. Mine was the first English language book of its kind about Galicia since Nina Epton’s Grapes and Granite in 1953. Essentially, if you wanted an English expert on Galician food and culture, I was your man.

Since then I have given talks about the book and about Galicia all over Spain, as well as in the UK, where the book was published in 2009. I also spoke at the Tasting Australia food festival in Adelaide 2010, where the book was a finalist in the Cordon Bleu Food Book of the Year competition.

The book itself never sold all that well, perhaps around 10,000 worldwide, which certainly didn’t persuade the US publishers to let me do a follow-up. Nevertheless, it has been a wonderful experience, and has opened many doors. I became a feature writer for the food magazine Spain Gourmetour, and the chef Rick Stein asked me to help with the organisation for his recent TV series about Spanish food (I’m also interiewed the series, looking a bit jowly for some reason...). Apart from this, I’ve had a pretty much constant stream of emails from readers all over the world who’ve enjoyed the book, most gratifyingly from a number of chefs.

Here’s the strange thing, though. This year I have made some tentative steps into the world of ebooks, self-publishing a couple of crime novels. Given that my Galician book was already published in the US, UK/Commonwealth, Australia and NZ, I didn’t hold any English e-rights. Nevertheless, one by one I politely asked publishers if they’d mind if I did my own ebook version, complete with photographs and a new cover. Amazingly they all said yes, even Farrar, Straus and Giroux, who have their own ebook version, but who nevertheless allowed me to sell my own e-version in the US.

So, not only was publishing Everything but the Squeal far and away the best experience I’ve had in publishing, I have now been given a second bite of the cherry, which, for a food writer, is most gratifying.

NB Everything but the Squeal is available for free on Amazon until midnight June 30th.

Read an interview with John Barlow from last year here.  


Friday, June 29, 2012


by Sheila Connolly

As you may have heard, a couple of weeks ago my current hometown (settled in 1660; current population 22,207 according to their official website) voted in the annual Town Meeting (a peculiarly New England tradition) to "decriminalize a 1968 bylaw that made public profanity illegal."   Following the vote, anyone using profanity in a public place would be subject to a $20 fine.  The vote was 183 for to 50 against.

The town has a voting population of something like 14,000.  233 voted at the Town Meeting.  This is typical, but that's another story. The ordinance passed by better than three to one.

According to Tuesday's article in The Boston Globe, enforcement of this ordinance is on hold until the state Attorney General determines whether it is constitutional.  That didn't stop some 100 people (from as far away as New Mexico) from gathering in a torrential downpour on Monday to hold a "swear-in"—to defend the right to spew verbal sewage in public.

This process has been fascinating to follow.  The day following the original vote I received emails from a number of friends scattered across the country saying they had heard about it.  I even found one article in an online Irish newsletter.  Clearly this is a hot-button issue.

The arguments against the ordinance seem to fall into two related categories.  One is the right to free speech, guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, no matter who it might offend.  The other is hostility toward what one protester called "pathological bullying" by government.

Off the record, the ordinance was directed toward the local teenagers who gather on street corners in our small town (one stoplight) after dark, and enthusiastically exercise their right to free speech, which aggravates those good citizens who believe in their right to walk through town without being assailed by profanity.  On the other hand, the protesters (funny—quite a few came from out of town, and even out of state) come off sounding a bit childish.  "Nyah, nyah, you can't make me shut up!"

How interesting to find a constitutional conflict taking place in my back yard.  I confess that I did not attend the meeting, although I have in the past.  I'm not sure how (or even if) I would have voted, because I can see both sides of the issue—as well as the potential for abuse by supporters of both sides.  For the moment the kids in town will no doubt revel in their constitutional rights to foul speech.  But the same ordinance would give anyone the right to complain if a neighbor's roofer slams his thumb with a hammer and utters a few colorful words.  Where do you draw the line?

I write cozy mysteries, which by definition are largely free from profanity.  That's what the readers want, and that is our pledge to them when we market the book in that niche.  Yet I am often faced with writing scenarios when an armed killer is threatening my characters with mutilation or death—is it believable to have them say, "gosh darn it, don't kill me"?  Our society designates certain words as extreme and harsh, but there's a reason for that.  We need to signal extreme emotions—fear, hate, anger—and better that we use words that go straight to physical violence. 

Profanity, used correctly, conveys a message and sends up a warning flag.  Or at least, it should. When it's overused, it loses its effectiveness.

Which does not mean I condone a bunch of teenage guys trying to outdo each other with the frequency of use of the F-word, where small children and grandmothers can't avoid hearing them.

How would you vote?  Yea or nay on public profanity?

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Recovery: Way Beyond Going on the Wagon

Elizabeth Zelvin

My new mystery, Death Will Extend Your Vacation, my third novel about recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler and his two sidekicks, Jimmy, who’s been sober in AA for many years, and Barbara, who goes to Al-Anon and whom I always describe as a world-class codependent. I’ve also written four stories about the trio, the most recent of which, “Death Will Tank Your Fish,” was a Derringer nominee this year.

I’m certainly not the first mystery author to explore the theme of recovery. The great Lawrence Block’s tough-guy protagonist Matt Scudder got sober more than twenty years ago. In recent books, he’s maintained his sobriety and attended an occasional AA meeting. Scudder’s sobriety has the ring of authenticity. Yet Block still takes readers for a walk on the dark side. Far from finding a new family in AA or a spiritual path through the Twelve Steps, Matt still meets his best friend, a career criminal, in a bar. In his 2011 book, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, Block finally wrote his long overdue love letter to AA. But to do so, he took Matt back to his first year of sobriety—the period when an alcoholic’s recovery is all about not drinking.

Another fine writer, James Lee Burke, presents New Orleans homicide detective Dave Robichaux in novels frequently described as “brooding,” “dark,” and “gritty.” I suspect that Robichaux is depressed. In one of J.A. Jance’s J.P. Beaumont books, she has J.P, investigating far from home, meet a suspect’s sister for dinner when he doesn’t really want to because the only other thing on in town that night is an AA meeting. Any real-life alcoholic with any sobriety to speak of would love to find an AA meeting in a strange town. The second he walked in the door, he’d be home.

Alcoholic fictional cops and private eyes still outnumber their recovering counterparts, even though many writers cite “alcoholic detective” as one of the stereotypes they want to avoid. My Bruce is an amateur sleuth. I made him one because I didn’t know any cops or private eyes when I started the series. That has changed, thanks to the mystery community, my clinical work as a therapist, and the Internet. I’ve talked to a thousand cops about post-traumatic stress and even hugged a few, in addition to tapping their expertise on guns and police procedure.

But the most important difference between Bruce and a lot of his fictional counterparts is that the drama of the continuing series arc is not the struggle with booze. To tell the truth, after twenty-five years as an addiction treatment professional, I find that struggle boring. What inspires and moves me is the ongoing recovery process, in which, having laid down the enormous psychological defense of the alcohol or whatever addictive substance or compulsive behavior serves the same purpose, the recovering person experiences a remarkable transformation. After the first book, Bruce is uncovering his feelings, trying to mend his relationships, finding other issues that need attention, and growing enormously as a person as the series unfolds.

This does not mean that Bruce doesn’t do a lot of kicking and screaming about having to change. Nor does he lay down all his defenses. If he weren’t still a smart-ass, he wouldn’t be any fun. If you think he can’t possibly have any fun if he can never take a drink, that’s what every active alcoholic thinks, a belief that every recovering alcoholic has to unlearn in order to stay sober. Barbara does a lot of backsliding too in her addiction to rescuing and controlling others and minding other people’s business. I have good reasons for that. For one thing, her insatiable curiosity drives the investigations, along with her conviction that sleuthing keeps Bruce’s mind off drinking. For another, it’s her lapses that make her funny and save her from preachiness. Besides, nobody can abstain perfectly from nosiness and a compulsion to help. You can’t put a cork in it the way you can in a bottle.

I think readers like Barbara not only because she’s so human and screws up in such comical ways, but also for her candor, the willingness to admit her mistakes that lies at the heart of twelve-step recovery. And in Death Will Extend Your Vacation, I give her an addiction of her very own. Bruce even gets to laugh at her—and in hindsight at himself—for being afraid that recovery will mean no fun ever again. They learn that’s not true at all. And so, I hope, will readers.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Nasty People

Sandra Parshall

My characters are tough so I won’t have to be.

Rachel Goddard stands up for herself and for anybody, or any animal, who needs protection. Hurt her or somebody she cares about and you’ll be sorry.

Tom Bridger is a no-nonsense cop. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll show him some respect.

Rachel and Tom’s creator is a wimp. 

I’ll do something if I see an animal or child being abused, but I’m not so good at standing up to people who bully me. Even online, or by e-mail, my responses to nasty people are sadly lacking in snark factor. I long to be like Rachel or Tom, instead of always being the type who thinks of a stunning, unanswerable rejoinder 24 hours too late.

In hopes of improving my skills, I devoured an article in the June issue of Psychology Today with the title Difficult People: How to handle whiners, manipulators, bullies & more.

Straight off, I was discouraged. The lead-in to the article warns “there’s evidence that some types of troublemaker are on the rise.” Just what the world needs – more nasty people.

The article’s author, Hara Estroff Marano, accurately pinpoints the way a lot of these people operate. They provoke us. They drive us to the limit of our patience. They keep it up until they get a reaction – then they give us that “What’s wrong with you?” attitude that makes us doubt ourselves and feel guilty because we behaved badly. It’s the emotional equivalent, Marano notes, of being mowed down by a hit-and-run driver.

I was reassured by Marano’s advice that it’s best to simply avoid the people who make us feel bad. That’s what I do, as much as possible, not out of wisdom but out of cowardice. I’m profoundly grateful that I don’t have to work in an office, where I would be forced to spend time around people I might not like.

But we can’t always walk away. Sometimes we have to deal with troublesome people, whether we want to or not? So how should we handle them?

Marano offers handy classifications for these banes of our existence: the hostile (includes bullies); the neurotic; the rejection-sensitive; the egoist. All have one trait in common: they care only about themselves and are not interested in anyone else’s feelings. And the rest of us need one trait to deal with them: emotional maturity.

Most of us have had friends who fit the definition of pessimistic, anxious, negative neurotics who can’t let anyone enjoy life. They’re worriers. They want to help you by detailing every awful thing that might happen on your vacation or by making you see that your success is just a sham. I’ll admit that I slip into this pattern myself sometimes – but I aim my pessimism at my own life, nobody else's. Still, I understand how tiresome it is to try to reason with people like this.

Bullying, hostile people are all around us, wherever we go, including the internet and chat groups. And who among us has not had a bully for a boss at one time or another? They verbally abuse us, try to control us, and humiliate us in front of others. If we react, our jobs are in peril. Another type of bully is the colleague or supposed friend who is nice to your face but
does everything possible to undercut you. Marano recommends a calm confrontation. I know I could never do it. I will always prefer to stay silent and walk away.

The rejection-sensitive clingers are incredibly annoying but so pathetic that we hate to hurt them. Their constant emotional demands can become overwhelming. They want all of our attention, and they want it immediately. Some of these people become stalkers. Unfortunately, this type of behavior appears to be on the rise.

So what can we do when we have to deal with annoying people? We can control our own reaction. Stay calm. Hold ourselves aloof from the other person’s one-man show. Walk away from bullies and people who are always angry.

And take notes. These people make great characters.

Do you have annoying people in your life? How do you handle them?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Accentuate the Positive

Sharon Wildwind

Occasionally, when I’m speaking with new writers, I want to say, “Run for your life. Get out now, while you can. Write for joy, write for pleasure, write for personal development, but whatever you do don’t write for publication.”

This is not an attempt to decrease the competition. It’s more the difficulty of trying to coach someone through a system that is changing so fast very few people can keep up. Creative careers have never been linear, but when I look at “my class,” I sense a speed up in the rate of decay, the half-life of agents, publishers, and publishing opportunities.

“My class” are the writers who came seriously into the business at the same time I did, around 2000 to 2001. We were Sisters in Crime together and hung around the same news groups, helping each other through the tough questions. Do I have to have exactly 250 words on each page? (No, you don’t.) What is a Harvard comma? (The last comma in a series, used before the final conjunction. Yes, it’s a good idea to use one.) How do I write a query letter? (Send me your e-mail address. I’ll send you a sample.)

Eleven years after graduation, most universities classes have barely gotten through their 10-year reunion. Eleven years for writers is a long time.

Some of my “classmates” have died. Granted, many of us weren’t in the bloom of youth when we started, but losing people is always sad and I miss every one who has gone before. For others health or family obligations have intervened and they no longer have the time or finances to support a writer’s life.

More than a few have laid down their sword and shield and walked away. “I don’t want to do this any more.” “It’s too complicated.” “It stopped being fun a long time ago.”

On the other hand, I do have a few cards and e-mails in my “I knew them when” scrapbook. More than a few, a lot. A friend of mine had to tell me about a terrific book she’d just finished. I told her that she should write the author to let him know how much she enjoyed it. “I’ll ask him if it’s okay for me to give you his e-mail address.” Her jaw dropped. “You have his e-mail address?”

Yes, and his home phone number, but I didn’t tell her that. I also didn’t tell her that she could probably have found his e-mail address on the Internet. Allow me a small moment of vanity, okay?

Years ago, I had lunch with an author who now routinely makes the best-seller list. There is another writer who refers to me as “Minor Goddess,” because I once located a reference for her that she’d been trying to track down for years. It all comes with the territory.

It helps that I’ve taught for a long time. I know how much teaching, and coaching, is performance art. Deep breath. Big smile. “Good morning, everyone. Let’s talk about some of the good and exciting things that are going on in publishing and how those things are going to benefit your writing career.”

The nature of reading is changing. Fewer people are reading solely for pleasure, but more people are reading. Start thinking about what else a book can be besides slabs of paper between two covers.

The choices of what to read are phenomenal. This includes not only new works, but works that haven’t been in print for decades. One thing I noticed lately on mystery blogs is how many of them are going back to read, review, and refer to the legacy of mysteries from half a century ago.

Alice’s White Queen might have believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast, but I can research than number of impossible questions on the Internet in the time it takes me to boil water for tea. The Internet is a marvellous tool. Every writer needs to learn how to use that tool.

Yes, publishing is in free fall. That means you have so many more opportunities than I had when I first became serious about getting published. It’s a matter of finding those opportunities and taking advantage of them.

Talent has a lot to recommend it, but persistence has even more. If you stop now, you’ll never know how far you could have gone.

The funny thing is, the more I say those things to other writers, the more I believe them myself.
Quote for the week:

You've got to accentuate the positive,
Eliminate the negative,
Latch on to the affirmative, and
Don't mess with Mister In-Between
~lyrics by Johnny Mercer/music by Harold Arlen, 1944

Monday, June 25, 2012

Explaining the "Earworm."

by Julia Buckley

Every day, without fail, I wake up with a song in my head.  That's not surprising, because I'm a musical person and I like to sing and hum.  What's odd is that the songs are never the ones I expect to wake up with, and sometimes they take me WAY into the past.  For example, I recently woke up with the Levi's commercial above in my head--a commercial from around 1970.

It's actually a great tune, although when I play it my children scream and beg for mercy.  I always liked it, back when I watched it on tv.  But the question is, why did it pop into my head in 2012 with no apparent provocation?

This blog calls the unbidden tune an "earworm," and suggests that we have little control--or understanding--of why these tunes come back to us.  "To a psychologist – or at least to this psychologist – the most interesting thing about earworms is that they show a part of our mind that is clearly outside of our control. Earworms arrive without permission and refuse to leave when we tell them to. They are parasites, living in a part of our minds that rehearses sounds" (Stafford).

Tom Stafford also suggests that earworms become "musical memories," and therefore they don't have finite lives.  Once we have a tune imprinted on our brains, it is potentially there forever, to emerge at any unexpected time. Stafford writes that "the mind is an inner world which we do not have complete knowledge of, or control over."  

I guess that's the best explanation for the random variety of songs that become my morning music--from children's songs I used to hear (the most recent was "God is bigger than the Boogie Man") to a ditty by Crowded House; from a Doors tune (and they are, by the way, a band I don't even like) to a gospel song.  The only thing these songs seem to have in common is that I never see them coming (or hear them, I guess I should say).

Stafford suggests that the only way to conquer an earworm is to make yourself sing something similar to it, thereby somehow confusing the circuitry of your brain and potentially destroying the "slave system" that patterns the repetitious cycle.

I'll give this a try--perhaps when "Winter Wonderland" pops into my head at work, as it so often does.

Or, if all else fails, I'll just learn to really love that song.  :)

What was your latest earworm?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Life Cycle of a Book: The Naked Truth, Part One

Even as more books are becoming self-published, the world of publishing continues to be a mystery. So for all the would-be authors out there, I'd like to tell you the truth, the naked truth, of one author's story of what to expect when publishing with a traditional publisher. I had a lot of expectations myself once I signed that book contract for the first time, six years ago. And even though I was networking with other mystery writers through Sisters in Crime and learned a lot, there were still some things that I didn’t count on. What can you expect? What will happen next? And what should you be doing in anticipation?


St. Martin’s, one of the big New York guys, is my publisher. Specifically, the imprint called Minotaur Books. Publishers divide up into imprints that define the sort of books they like to publish. Minotaur Books does mysteries. Since St. Martin’s holds a contest each year that offers a mystery book contract with an advance of $10,000 as the prize, I thought that this was the very minimum I could expect when my agent said that St. Martin’s made an offer. So I rubbed my hands and waited until the news came back to me. 

Uh…no. It wasn’t that amount. It was about half of that and just a smidge more. This was disappointing, but as it was pointed out to me, a book has to sell a certain number to make the advance back. And if St. Martin’s is good at anything, it is knowing exactly how many books it could expect to sell in any particular genre. And let’s face it. I was writing an historical mystery, a sub-genre of mystery. And further, I was writing medieval mystery, a sub-sub genre. There were only so many readers out there that I might entice to buy the hardcover. Which became a much smaller number than I would have had to come up with had I gotten a $10,000 advance. It seems small comfort, but you gotta put aside the ego and look at the numbers instead.

So that was fine. After all, I was excited that St. Martin’s, a publisher I had targeted in the first place that I thought could do justice to my series, was going to publish me. I was over the moon.

The contract was for a one book deal. Again, for a newbie in a niche sub-genre, this was probably a decent start. So after my agent hashed out the contract and I signed it, the next thing to happen was my editor going over the manuscript. I don’t know why authors say that editors don’t edit anymore. Sure, they have a slew of other things they have to worry about these days besides editing—marketing and budgets, for instance--and it no doubt cuts into that time, but my editor still edits. He reads it several times and I get back a few pages of notes, observations, and suggestions (this was about five to seven months later. It all depends on when your novel is scheduled for release or how busy your editor is.) Mine is the master of politeness. I don’t know where they go to learn this stuff, but, obviously, he has gleaned how to deal with egos over the years, and he phrases his edits as suggestions and in such a way that I feel that I am doing him the biggest favor ever if I change this or expand on that. I mean, it isn’t as if I have to drive him to the airport. I’m just tweaking a manuscript.

And here’s a tip. I say “yes.” To everything. Well, 99.9% of it. Because he is a professional—been at it over twenty years—and he knows whereof he speaks. Yeah, I know I’m the author, the “Creator”, the “Talent”, but what he’s doing is making smoother prose, making sure the story makes sense, has me expand on details and certain scenes that need more zing or that the reader should spend more time on. I respect that and he in turn respects that I’m a professional and that I should want a better baby. When I say “yes” 99.9% of the time, then that means when there is something worth fighting for—a British spelling on this or that, or opening my chapter the way I originally wanted to—he has no problem saying “yes” back. That’s what we call a professional relationship.  

So I made the changes and got the manuscript back to him within the allotted time frame and off it went to the copyeditors. The copyeditors checked my punctuation, grammar, spelling, did fact-checking, and read it again for word sense and sentence structure. In other words, they make sure I don’t look like an idiot. I appreciate the work they do. I hate getting caught actually being an idiot, but what do I know? I just wrote the darned thing, apparently not worrying about such trifles as punctuation and grammar. They send me a manuscript with the changes, asking questions and pointing out boo-boos. (That edit came back to me some three to four months after my editor's edits). Once I made those changes I sent it back with a note of thanks. I’m grateful they caught the stuff that they did.

Then it went on to be “typeset” and designed and put into first pass galleys. It comes to you in loose pages but paginated and in the font in which it will be printed. Basically, it looks just like the book will look. (this arrived a month after I sent back the copy edits). I read the manuscript yet again, and this is the absolute last time--barring any major catastrophes--you get to make changes. Before, with the editor’s notes and even the copyeditor’s notes, you have your chance to make big changes if you want to, adding paragraphs or deleting. But now that it’s been typeset and paginated, big changes will screw up all sorts of things. It’s not unheard of, of course, but it is time-consuming (which means $) and no one likes to do it. You will not be looked upon kindly.

And do read it. This will be the third time since I handed it in to my editor that I will have read my manuscript all the way through. Why? Because with each pass, that’s the only way to catch the clunkers and to make sense of it all. And since this is essentially the last time you will do that before it’s published, you really want to give it a careful once over. Even a twice over if you have the time.

Now it’s down to the wire. With changes made to the galleys, its last trip is to the printers. (At this stage, we were four months from publication date.)

Now, around this time, you’ll get to see the cover. Notice that I didn’t say you’ll get to “approve” the cover. At my level in the midlist, I have no say about my covers. Although, after the very first Crispin book was published with its nice historical novel art, the book was sent to the paperback division. And just so you know how much power they have, they said they wouldn’t print the trade paperback unless we changed the cover art because they hated it.

Original Hardcover
Re-vamped Paperback
Originally, I was thrilled with the cover art (left) because it was my first published book and it looked okay to me. Not perfect, not something that particularly characterized the “Medieval Noir” concept I came up with, but it was okay. Turned out they ran out of time designing the cover and they had to go with the art that neither my editor nor anyone else seemed happy with. But now, if we wanted a paperback—and we did—the cover would have to be changed. Was there enough in the budget for it? Beats me, because the “budget”—for printing, editing, paying the author advance, marketing--was one of those mysterious things I wasn’t privy to. But apparently, there was enough for that. And now we were going to do it right. My editor asked me what I thought it should have by way of art (now they ask me!). I told him that since the series is so character-driven, and it was so unusual to have a medieval PI, that I thought there should be a figure on the cover, maybe a shadowy rendition of the Crispin character with a dark medieval London in the background. He liked that idea, too, and found several cover artists/photographers who specialized in the kind of style we were looking for. Once he nailed down the photographer, he presented me with a model sheet of the Crispin model they had chosen. Looking at the model, I declared him “drool-worthy.” The model was hired, put in a (correct) costume, and photographed in a billion poses to be used for future covers. The London scenes would be dropped into the background and then the whole would get a digital painterly effect. (see the photo at right)

I love them. They look the way I always pictured they should look. By then, we negotiated a contract for the second book, with, again, a single book contract. This was now 2009, when the financial shit had effectively hit the fan, and sales were down everywhere, including library sales, the bread and butter of my hardcover sales numbers. The publisher was cautious. Understandable. Drove me nuts. Also understandable. But we’ll get back to this in a moment.

Meanwhile, the uncorrected proofs of the book were printed and cobbled together into an Advanced Reader Copy, or arc, and the publisher sent them to newspapers, industry magazines, and other places (like bookstores of record, certain librarians) for reviews, which can be about six months prior to the book’s release. I was also sent the text for the book jacket to approve. At first I thought my editor wrote it, but was happier learning it was done by an intern. I made changes to that and to my bio. I gave them the photo that my photographer husband took of me for my author photo, giving him copyright credit, and it all went into the works.

Prior to my getting a contract, I was fortunate enough to go to my first Bouchercon, the biggest mystery fan convention on the circuit, and I scored some blurbs from some great authors. I gave St.Martin's those to use in their publicity and in their catalog that goes out the bookstores and libraries. That catalog, by  the way, is the main sales tool that publishers use. Not ads, not media blitzing (and certainly not on a little ole midlist author like me), but that catalog. Once it's in a catalog from a big publisher, it is the imprimatur to librarians and bookstore owners that it is worth their notice and their dollars. It helps to have good reviews from the main magazines they use to determine book buying, BookList and Library Journal.

They gave me a book release date. And early on I gave my publicist a list of other places, like certain blogs or magazines he may not have thought of (since I was deep into the historical novel community), to send arcs to and to set up a book tour in southern California and Arizona that I could drive to (he booked it, but I would have to get there and pay for it myself. All authors have to pay for their own book tours, unless you are a huge bestselling author, the people who, ironically, can afford to pay for it themselves.) Fortunately, living in southern California affords me many good opportunities for indie mystery bookstore and library appearances. I planned my book launch at a venerable independent bookstore in Pasadena where I used to live, with dueling knights and medieval food, and counted down the days. The pre-order page went up on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It’s actually going to be a book.

I’ll have to cut it off there. Next month, I’ll continue this story. We’ll talk about bookstore placement and other secrets. Stay tuned.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Whitey's Bookshelf

by Sheila Connolly

This past week federal prosecutors released hundreds of page of evidence used in the recently-concluded trial of Catherine Greig, the woman who accompanied notorious Boston gangster on his flight from prosecution, and stuck with him in hiding for more than 16 years (talk about "stand by your man"!).

If you're not familiar with Whitey Bulger, you've been living on Mars, or outside the greater Boston area (may be the same thing).  I've lived in the far suburbs of Boston for the past nine years, and for another eight in the '70s, so I must have absorbed the story through my skin, one way or another (no, I am not related to John Connolly, the disgraced FBI agent who allowed Bulger free rein to kill, extort, etc., while supposedly using him as a confidential informant).

But what I found interesting about the news story this week was that the main photograph (Boston Globe, Metro section, above the fold) was not of either of the protagonists in this drama, but of Whitey Bulger's bookshelf.

If you want a good timeline for the whole sorry Bulger mess, read Thomas J. Foley's recent book, Most Wanted.  Foley was a member of the Massachusetts State Police, and he stuck with the case for a large portion of his career.  Regarding Whitey's reading habits, Foley writes that during Whitey's sole stint in prison (Alcatraz), Whitey read, "just about everything in the prison library.  He pored over the major battles of World War II, scrutinizing them both from the viewpoint of the Allied general and from that of the Nazi commander."  He learned from everything he read, and then he applied it well (if his goal was to seize power in Boston's criminal underworld and terrorize anyone who stood in his way).

My point?  This was an intelligent man, who read books and made use of what he learned from them.  He followed newspaper reports, from his cozy apartment in Santa Monica, two blocks from the sea.  He collected recordings of such shows as America's Most Wanted.  He kept tabs on what was happening in Boston, on how he was depicted in the press, and on what his former associates were saying about him (in and out of jail).  He boned up on search procedures, the better to evade detection, all the while stockpiling weapons and cash in case the FBI caught up with him.  They didn't, for 16 years, even though he was living in plain sight in a rented condo.

And this man was an amoral murderer who enjoyed the act of killing.

Why is it that I want to believe than someone who felt no compunction about taking the life of anyone who stood in his way or posed a threat to him, including former colleagues in crime, couldn't possibly also be smart and analytical? Clearly he planned his strategic ascent to power years in advance, and he carried out his plans without compunction.  On another front, he had two lady friends, and when one balked at going on the lam with him (while refusing to give him up to his pursuers), he had a back-up ready—Catherine Greig, who stuck by him faithfully until they were both captured.

Whitey's trial is scheduled for November, if all goes as planned.  No doubt the papers will be full of the testimony; no doubt there will be further revelations, and we all watch in horror.  How often do we get to witness evil, in our own back yard?

Wonder what he's reading in prison now? 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Is e-publishing hastening the demise of editing?

Elizabeth Zelvin

No, I’m not talking about the debate on whether authors who self-publish do so to avoid professional gatekeeping. I’m talking about the untouched-by-human-eyes formatting of traditionally published books. I’ve been shocked to find that the purveyors of e-books don’t hesitate to sell the reading public text that would disgrace a high school student handing in a term paper in its inattention not only to spelling and grammar, but to accuracy and meaning.

I’m not talking only about free or 99-cent works in the public domain e-formatted by who-knows-whom. I paid $3.99 for the Kindle version of a favorite from my youth, Dawn’s Early Light, the first in Elswyth Thane’s series of historical novels set in Williamsburg, VA, this one just before and during the Revolutionary War. My paperback edition was crumbling to dust, and I wanted to be able to return to this perennial comfort read.

To tell the truth, I learned much of what I know about American history from these novels. (My husband, who learns his history from nonfiction written by historians, may laugh at me, but the truth is we have ended up with similar funds of information about the past. And let no reader whose knowledge of the Battle of Waterloo derives from Georgette Heyer cast the first stone.) The point is that I’ve read this book innumerable times in the course of a lifetime, and I remember big chunks of what it said.

Small but irritating errors were constantly throwing me out of my story trance as I reread the book on my Kindle. For example, the Prussian general Von Steuben, one of the Continental Army’s most helpful allies, was repeatedly referred to simply as Steuben.

(I suspect that xenophobic formatting software simply dismisses any word or particle that sounds “foreign.” I may have mentioned in another post how, in novels written in a gentler age when the use of the occasional French term was taken for granted, I’ve seen Kindle render habitué as “habitu” and congé (in the phrase “given his congé,” ie “dismissed”) as “cong,” not once but throughout a text. “Von”? Damned foreign bit of a word. Take it out!

In one section of the book, the protagonist, wounded, is rescued from the British and taken to the hidden headquarters of the Swamp Fox, the Continental guerilla leader Francis Marion. One of Marion’s officers, a Captain Horry, appears as a minor character. (The historical Horry, who was eventually promoted to general, wrote a book about the Swamp Fox. Like any celebrity author, he had a ghostwriter: Parson Weems, the same guy who invented the story of George Washington and the cherry tree.) Anyhow, Captain Horry’s name evidently inspired a painstaking copy-editing computer to make sure no Continental force harried the enemy but “Horried” it for a hundred pages before and after the captain’s appearance. It also conscientiously referred to George Washington’s cousin in the cavalry, of whom I’m sure you’ve heard, as Light Horse Horry Lee.

Does this matter to tomorrow’s readers? Probably not. They’re the kids who start thumbing on Mommy’s iPhone at the age of two and by their teens are texting their peers in a language that reminds me of Speedwriting, an abbreviated notation method that was heavily advertised on the New York subways in the 1950s as an easier kind of shorthand. (“If u cn rd ths u cn gt a gd jb.”) But if the next generation sees only butchered vocabulary and gaping holes in grammar, fact, and meaning, what will that eventually do to their capacity for coherent and critical thought?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

21 years on the World Wide Web

by Sandra Parshall

The World Wide Web turns 21 this year, but we’ve all seen enough “revolutions” in the cyber world to know it’s still in its infancy and will never reach full, static adulthood.

On August 6, 1991, physicist Tim Berners-Lee created the first basic website and published it on the world’s first web server from the CERN facility in the Swiss Alps. The only people who could see it were Berners-Lee and his colleagues, because they were the only ones on Earth who had web browser software. The WWW didn’t become truly worldwide until the Mosaic browser (remember that?) was released in 1993.

But wait, I can hear you say, the internet was around before 1993. Yes, it was, but those of us who would rather pull out our teeth with tweezers than learn anything technical may forget that the internet didn’t begin as a vast collection of websites.

Like all great leaps forward, the concept of high-speed electronic communication and exchange of information existed in the minds of scientists before the technology to support it had been invented. MIT researchers published papers and memos on a “Galactic Network” and “packet-switching theory” in the early 1960s. These ideas drove the development of software and hardware. The first e-mail was sent in 1971 by computer scientist Ray Tomlinson – to himself, as a test. By the 1980s, the internet and e-mail were widely used in scientific and academic circles, and with the advent of small personal computers the cyber world opened up to the rest of us. Websites began to appear in the 1990s.

Although only about one-third of the world's population uses the internet, well over three billion e-mail accounts now exist worldwide. Depending on the source you consult, between 367 million and 555 million websites are up. Millions of sites are added every month. (Sometimes it seems as if most of them belong to writers, all of whom want me to “take a look and tell me what you think.”)  

My first computer was an IBM PC, purchased in the early 1980s, but I didn’t have the internet or even an e-mail account for another decade.  When I finally ventured online, I used the CompuServe subscription service. Cserve was born as a dial-up financial information service in 1969, and it evolved over the years into the world’s largest consumer information source. By 1990, it was an interactive social/professional network, complete with e-mail service. My first e-mail address consisted of my CompuServe account number. For a few years I spent hours every day on Cserve, where I was an unpaid sysop, or section manager, in the Writers Forum and the Authors Forum. This was the first community of writers I had ever been part of, and it changed my life in a very real way. I “met” the incomparable Diana Gabaldon (who was also a sysop) and many other writers there, and I learned a lot about writing, agents, and the publishing business. I also discovered the internet through Cserve, when it became the first online service to offer internet access to its subscribers at no extra cost.

America Online came along in 1989 for Apple and 1991 for PCs, and that meant trouble for CompuServe. When AOL bought Cserve in 1998, subscribers were promised that nothing would change, but within a year dozens of Cserve’s 400 forums had vanished, and the devastation continued until my cyber home was unrecognizable. I dropped my membership. I felt bereft, adrift, but that didn’t last long. By then the WWW was bursting with free special interest groups for writers. Both AOL and CompuServe still exist, but I don’t know why anybody would pay for either service when most of what they offer is available without charge.

By the time my first novel, The Heat of the Moon, was published in 2006, writers were expected to have websites where readers could learn more about them and their books. I hired Doranna Durgin, who designed a beauty for me, and it was up before the book came out. I was more resistant to blogging, which was fast becoming all the rage among writers. It looked like just another chore I didn’t want to take on, like an extra bathtub that needs scrubbing regularly. I could be heard ranting against the person who started the insidious practice of posting little essays about oneself.

I couldn’t pin the blame on any individual, though, because blogs didn’t spring up overnight in their current form, but rather evolved over several years and didn’t get a name that stuck until the late 1990s. The origin of blogs was being debated as long ago as 2007, when this article, which is still up on the CNET site (nothing on the internet ever goes away, does it?), first appeared. As the article notes, programmer and James Joyce scholar Jorn Borger coined the term “web log” in December of 1997. Before long the two words were compressed into one snappy moniker and blogs were born.

Although I resisted for a while, I was swayed by the refrain coming at me from every side: A writer MUST have a blog these days! Before long, here I was, posting once a week as part of this group we named Poe’s Deadly Daughters. As you can see, I’m still on board after nearly six years. Today the number of blogs on the web is reportedly between 180 and 200 million. I don’t want to guess at how many are writers’ blogs, competing for attention. I’ll settle for knowing that at least a few people will click in here to read this one. While it's true that on the internet nobody knows if you're a dog, I always try through this imperfect medium to be honest with you about who I am.

Those of us who couldn’t have imagined the internet 40 years ago are too wise to make firm predictions about its future. All we know for sure is this: it will change, and change again, endlessly, and as long as we’re alive we’ll change with it.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Sharon Wildwind
Monologue, anyone?

I’m not talking about that tiresome situation where the heroine, after driving to the deserted warehouse at midnight—without her cell phone, which she forgot to recharge—is confronted by the murderer, who delivers an 11-page monologue to tie up every loose thread in the book, except maybe one tiny element needed for the denouement.

I’ve got this ever-evolving system for character development. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a few major points, and then dive into the writing. Sometimes I find a character so interesting that I’ll go for pages, knowing virtually none of what I discover will make it into the book. I figure it’s my time and if a long character development makes me happy, why not?

Lately my character development has sucked. What dominant impression does the character make? Write a answer. What jobs does the character have in this book? Write another answer. Boring. I’d gotten stale doing the same thing for too long time, but I didn’t know what else to do. I might have been getting boring answers, but at least I was getting answers.

Except, after a while, the answers stopped. I tried writing with no character development, which was interesting, but neither satisfying nor productive. What I was writing was as dull as dishwater.

A writing teacher, who I respect for a lot of things, suggested that I write characters monologue. Oh, please. What possible good could that do?

I got desperate. Monologging wasn’t going to work, but it was at least more active than staring at a blank screen. So I said to a character, “Talk to me. Say anything. Just keep talking.”

The first thing that happened was I began to hear their individual voices. Accent. Timber. Pitch. Word patterns. Vocabulary.

The second thing was that I stopped focusing on events and started focusing on emotional reactions. I discovered that where I’d gotten off track was that I’d become more interested in the answers to questions than what the answers meant to the characters.

I also discovered that I'd been so focused on getting the answers right that I'd put on blinders. I was missing a whole lot of peripheral material that would make a better story, if I just paid attention to it.

I’m pleased to report that I now have a new stable of strong, interesting characters, whom I like, and I’m ready for a summer of writing.

So the writing teacher was right, and I was wrong. Monologging could do a lot of good. Give it a try.
Quote for the week
Writing became such a process of discovery that I couldn't wait to get to work in the morning: I wanted to know what I was going to say.
~Sharon O'Brien, life writer, biographer, and teacher

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Road Less Travelled

by Julia Buckley

Perhaps everyone is familiar with Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken."  It is referenced endlessly in positive thinking manuals, graduation cards, posters for offices and dorm room walls.  People see it as a mantra for success, or for making the right choices--or at least for embracing the choices one has made.

Back in the 90s I remember my wise English department chair and colleague saying, in reference to that work, "That's the most misinterpreted poem in the English language."  His contention was that the poem's speaker was NOT happy with the road he had chosen; in fact, the poem's title clearly shows that the speaker, even after many years, is focused on the road he did not choose, "and that has made all the difference." The speaker is not clear about what that difference is, but as with all of Frost's poems, there is ambiguity that allows for a darker interpretation.  One must especially consider the speaker's sigh as he contemplates the choice that he made long ago, wishing at the time that he could go down both roads to see where they led, but knowing that he could only choose one.

For me, the poem is an acknowledgment of life's difficult choices and the fact that we often wonder, in retrospect, if we made the right one--but by the time we pose that question, the second option is long gone. There is also the suggestion, I think, that after the passage of time we will often focus not on the choice we made, but on the choice we didn't, because we wonder about parallel lives we could have lived, and about imaginary doppelganger selves who had different fates. When we are young, perhaps, we feel that our choices are limitless.  When we are older, we may see them as far more restricted, and therefore we might naturally look back to a time of myriad options as something attractive.

Or of course both roads could be illusions.

I have had many "road not taken" moments in the past few years wherein I wonder how my life might have been different with another scenario.  For example, I was dating another person when I met my husband, and I have never regretted marrying the man I did--but that doesn't prevent the writer in me from wondering about that alternative scenario.  Had I married someone else--would I have had children?  Would I live in the same town?  Would I have the same career I do now?  Would my life have been significantly different, or would my path have had a very similar course?

Alternately, I sometimes think of my chosen career(s) and wonder what would have happened if I had chosen something else (doesn't everyone have at least one occupation that they secretly wish they had tried?).

Do you see the poem's message as positive or negative?  And have you ever indulged "road not taken" contemplations?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Canada Calling: When Words Collide

Calgary, Alberta is celebrating a lot of 100 year milestones this year: the Calgary Public Library, Calgary Parks, and the Calgary Stampede.

There’s also a brand new event, the second When Words Collide Convention. Last year’s inaugural WWC brought together Mystery, Science Fiction and Fantasy, Romance, Literary, Historical, Western, Film scripts, Poetry. It was so great that the convention was nominated for an Aurora Award, given by The Canadian Science Fiction & Fantasy Association for the Best Fan Organisational category.

Once again readers and writers, in Calgary and beyond will come together for a weekend of fun.

August 10 - 12, 2012, Best Western Village Park Inn in Motel Village, 16th Ave N.E., Calgary, Alberta.

Guests of Honour
Anthony Bidulka (Mystery), Kelley Armstrong (Romance), Kevin J Anderson (Science Fiction), Rebecca Moesta (YA), Adrienne Kerr (Penguin Books), Vanessa Cardui (Poetry/Songwriting Guest).

Four concurrent streams of programming, including panels of speakers on writing, publishing, and art.

Merchants' Corner for local booksellers, publishers and writers' groups to advertise / sell books / display art (fee applies). Includes a freebie table for affiliate groups to share information and a table for local authors to sell their books and do signings.

Seven parties will be held over the weekend as informal opportunities for readers, writers, Guests of Honour, editors and publisher to meet and mingle.

Aurora Awards
Prix Aurora Awards and banquet, Canada's top Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards.

Current registration cost is $55 CAD per attendee (student/senior and child rates available). Registration cost at the door is higher.

So come celebrate something new with us in Calgary in August.

For more information

Or snail mail:
When Words Collide, c/o The Sentry Box,
1835 - 10th Avenue SW,
Calgary, Alberta,
T3C 0K2, Canada

See you there.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Congratulations to Deadly Daughter Jeri Westerson!

Her blog sisters offer our wildly enthusiastic congratulations to Deadly Daughter  Jeri Westerson for her FOUR award nominations  for Troubled Bones. This entry in the Crispin Guest medieval noir series has been nominated for the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award, the Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award, the Agatha Award, and now the Macavity Award. All well-deserved, Jeri!

Antiques Road Show

by Sheila Connolly

This past weekend I realized a long-cherished dream:  I went to the Antiques Road Show in Boston (and I might, just maybe, appear on the Road Show next winter sometime, because I taped a segment with one of the appraisers, but there are no guarantees.)

The filming of the 16th season is taking place now, to be aired in 2013.  The show originated under the auspices of the public radio station WGBH in Boston, and is one of their most popular and enduring shows.  And I've been watching it from the beginning.

But there's more to the story.  In the late 1990s and up until 2002 I worked as a "Researcher for Hire" at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. One day I fielded a request from one of the producers of the Road Show, who had acquired a sampler (as a result of a Road Show appraisal that he did) that came from Pittsburgh, and I was asked to find out as much as I could about it. I remembered the episode because it represents every viewer's favorite fantasy:  a couple moves into a house they've just bought, and in cleaning out a closet they pull out what they first think is a rag from the back of a closet.  It turns out to be an early 19th-century sampler valued at over $25,000. Don't you all wish?

The research relationship with the producer continued for several more projects over a couple of years, and we kept in touch occasionally. Then that original episode from the show became a central part of my most recent Orchard Mystery, Bitter Harvest.  Of course I acknowledged the show and the producer in the book.

Which in turn led him to get in touch with me and mention that the Road Show would be filming in Boston this year and would I like to go?  Uh, yes? And that's how I ended up with guest passes for myself and my husband for this past weekend. (BTW, those guest passes took us to the front of the line, which, when there are over 6,000 people involved in the day-long event, makes a real difference!)

I love to see how things work, and I love to see what goes on behind the scenes, so I was a happy camper.  I had never analyzed the mechanics of filming the show.  The short course:  they set up a more or less circular perimeter of hanging curtains with signs identifying the appraiser stations.  The long lines wait outside the curtains, and people with items (at least one but no more than two) are allowed in a few at a time (and then usually hustled out after their quick appraisal).  But what I'd never figured out is that the camera equipment occupies the center of the circle, so it can pivot from one table or stand to the next.  Efficient!  There were four or five cameras (not including the handheld ones for peripheral taping).

And so the fun began.  My husband and I brought three items:  a silver trinket, a commemorative sword that was presented in 1895 to my great-grandfather, and a lamp—or more precisely, an exceedingly heavy cast bronze lamp base that had been in my family since it was new, I think.  It's the lamp that's next to the chair my husband likes to sit in when he watches television.

And no doubt you can see where this is going: it's from the Louis C. Tiffany Furnaces in New York, ca. 1920 (the Furnaces closed in 1924).  It's not from the gorgeous glass shade era, but it's still a nice piece—and still worth less than my car, which is the dumb statement that came out of my mouth when the appraiser told me.  The lamp, after its excursion and fleeting fame, is now back where it started from, next to the chair.  I did not say the infamous words, "oh, I'd never think of selling it—it's a family heirloom." Both of which happen to be true.  I love it because I know who bought it, it's nice to look at—and it's too heavy for the cats to knock over, even if they work together.

Six thousand people—including, the mayor of Boston, who I suddenly recognized from about ten feet away—trooped through the set-up in one day (BTW, while it may air as three one-hour shows, it's all taped in one day; host Mark Walberg changes clothes in the Green Room between intros).  Most of what they carry is, uh, mainly of sentimental rather than financial value.  I can't imagine being an appraiser and seeing hundreds upon hundreds of items pass before them, most for only a minute or two, most of them forgettable.  I can say that it's obvious when they see something they like, because their ears prick up like a cat's and they get very busy on their computer, and then they call in someone else to consult, and then they call in a producer, and then … there you are in front of the cameras, trying not to make a fool of yourself.  It can happen!
Me with appraiser Eric Silver and
The Lamp

What I love about this is the arc of the story:  one show I happened to watch in 1999 led to a couple of years of interesting research, and then to an entire book, and now a possible segment on television.  Ain't life grand?