Wednesday, October 31, 2007

That Covers It (& an SOS for technical help)

It’s exactly two years, today, since I started this blog.

(Although I must say, I think my second blog post was more entertaining.)

Now this blog serves as a reminder of just how much has happened over the past two years. Placed in one contest. Won another one. Multiple short story credits, several issues of Spinetingler. One book. Another book deal.

And now, the thing that makes it oh so real…

My cover.

I understand there are four blurbs on the back, but I don’t know which ones. My thanks to all my first readers.

"One absolute wallop of a novel. Not only does it make you want to know when Sandra Ruttan's next book is due, but when's the next flight to Canada… A totally mesmerizing narrative and a plot that literally burns off the page."
- Ken Bruen, Shamus Award-Winning Author of THE GUARDS

"A taut, crackling read with switch-blade pacing."
- Rick Mofina, internationally best-selling author of A PERFECT GRAVE

"Sandra Ruttan writes with utter ferocity. Twists and turns that stun and dialog that absolutely crackles with wit and authenticity. With each page, Ruttan delivers the goods. A nonstop chiller of a mystery that keeps you turning the pages."
- GREGG OLSEN, New York Times Bestselling Author of A WICKED SNOW

"Ruttan effortlessly brings to life a varied cast of complex characters. She writes with tremendous passion, honesty and skill. This is a story you will care about."
- Allan Guthrie, Edgar Nominated Author of KISS HER GOODBYE

"When we talk of the next generation of great crime fiction writers Sandra Ruttan's name is near the top of the list. WHAT BURNS WITHIN has a compelling clockwork plot that comes together with Swiss precision but it's the real, sympathetic and utterly human characters that infuse it with depth and power. WHAT BURNS WITHIN is a stunning book. Not only is this the start of a great series but more importantly it's the start of a long and successful career. Sandra Ruttan is one to watch."
- Brian Lindenmuth, Mysterybookspot

“WHAT BURNS WITHIN reads like a favorite television series. A large cast, lots of dialogue to advance the plot, a great setting, and well-drawn characters make for a compelling police procedural.”
- Anne Frasier, USA Today Bestselling Author of HUSH, SLEEP TIGHT & PLAY DEAD

I always do a rough mock-up for a cover, because it’s easier than trying to explain what you mean. Just show. And I’m very, very happy that the team at Dorchester went with the basic idea and made it their own, and did such a fantastic job. (I won't show my rough, because, well, the one they did is so much better!) In a bookstore, the only thing you’re guaranteed for shelf space is the spine of the book, so I really wanted the wrap around fire, and spine blurb, and got both.

That’s the other thing. Sometimes, covers try too hard and fail spectacularly. Far better to go with simple and effective, IMHO. I mean, I could point out some ugly covers just to prove the point, but that wouldn’t be nice.

And it’s a cover that doesn’t commit the cardinal cover sins. There’s no tree on the cover, and no recycled photo.

So three cheers for the team at Dorchester, who have done some wonderful covers for others…

And now, I get to see my book added to the list. Very, very cool.

Of course, we celebrate the covers, because they're more fun than editing...

Dedicated to MG. (Link courtesy of Russel.)

Technical Help
Does anyone know if it’s possible to have a file posted on a blog that people can download? A pdf or a word doc? I’m trying to deal with transitioning Spinetingler to a blog so that I can manage it myself, but this… this I can’t figure out how to do. And yes, I’m using blogger, in part because Wordpress doesn’t allow most functions with Safari and I really don’t have the time to learn a whole new blog system right now.

If you know how to do this, please feel free to e-mail…

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Confronting the Truths about Fact and Fiction

“Where's the guy or girl who can stick out their novel in the midst of media furore and say "fuck you, I'm not exploiting this, you are, and I've got interesting things to say"?” – Steve Mosby

(Edited to note: The better post is here.)

By the time I got back to the comments yesterday (moderating them can be a bit of a pain) I almost didn’t know where to begin in replying. The wheels were still turning (and after a long chat with someone from Dundee about so many things I can never mention on my blog that was hardly surprising) and I think I finally started to process some of what bothers me about blatantly copying real cases.

It’s about how you do it, not that you do it. In the same way that we have our debates about gratuitous violence in fiction and where the line is, talk about using shock to sell, candidly ripping off a highly publicized and controversial case may be nothing more than a gimmick to get people to pick up the book and make a name.

Do people have the right to do that? I suppose they do. What turns me off about the blatant cases is that I do wonder if the author of fiction actually has any imagination or capacity for creation. I’m not tarring all works inspired by true stories with the same brush. Like gratuitous violence or sex, to some degree blatant exploitation of a real case will be in the eye of the beholder.

I’m more interested in insights about human behaviour than perspectives on specific scenarios.

For me, I think that’s the main point. A real case may be an ideal launch point to address specific issues in your work, but I don’t think that conveying insight about human behaviour has to rely on a strict representation of a real situation.

Steve raised some interesting points in his comment on yesterday’s post and when he asked where in crime fiction were those “unafraid to tackle confrontational themes in their fiction” I thought, “I’m not.”

The only difference is that to this point I haven’t done a literal representation of real people, and I don’t plan to at this time. Everything a person writes can be shaded by their own experiences and perspectives, and those things will trickle through at times, but there are some specific drawbacks of working off of real cases;

1. If it’s blatant you risk pulling people out of the story.
2. It risks becoming a commentary on just that scenario, not on a larger issue in general.

It’s the second point that really hits with me. I’m more interested in commentary on concepts than specifics. I don’t need to cite Mary Kay Letourneau in order to make a commentary on abusive sexual relationships between adults and children, or to make a commentary on sex in general. I don’t need to point to a former president to ask what is or is not considered sexual relations. If I want to make a commentary on the abuse of political power I need not limit myself to any one government, political party or scenario…

My agenda is to tell a captivating story that almost sneaks the deeper thoughts in. It’s more of a compliment to have someone say that they found themselves thinking about the book later, or realized I was making an observation about something. What Burns Within hits on all sorts of things: sex, abuse of authority, trust, religious abuse, equality. In reality, there were things even I didn’t consciously think about in the writing of it that were pointed out to me during my first interview on the book, but at least it gives me plenty of stuff to talk about.

When I think of memorable fictional characters, I find myself thinking about characters who resonate because they’re so real, so believable. The archetypes and stereotypes don’t stick at all. The ones who linger are the ones I’d say wrestle with angels and demons. In the process of the book they’ve become very human to me, although I may not be in the same situation or even have the same values, I can relate to them because of their process of questioning things in their life. Jack Taylor. I’m not an alcoholic, and need never be, to connect to the darkness within him. Others who linger with me? Hagar, from The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence.

I was thinking about some of my top reads so far this year:
The Hackman Blues by Ken Bruen
The 50/50 Killer by Steve Mosby
For The Dogs by Kevin Wignall
Money Shot by Christa Faust
Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
A Thousand Bones by PJ Parrish
The Darkness Inside by John Rickards
Who Is Conrad Hirst? by Kevin Wignall

We have a university student, a few cops, a former porn star. I asked myself what it was that these books had in common. Ultimately, each had a character that was wrestling with something – guilt, grief, tragedy, loss. Using different styles, very different settings and situations, all of these books spoke about something of what it is to be human. No matter our gender, our race, our religion or lifestyle, we all feel. And often, it is through making people feel that we make them think and we make them connect. Anyone can shamelessly rip off the latest headline (and please note, yes I’ve read books inspired by real cases and not felt they were intrusive or exploitive – undoubtedly some are, and if I feel that way, I toss them, same as any other form of exploitation in fiction that doesn’t work for me) but as authors we breathe life into our characters and we can’t just copy the facts and expect it to all carry over. Facts alone aren’t enough to make people care.

There’s a word for books that have no contribution to what it means to be human: fluff. We’ll all define it differently, but for me, as much as I want to be entertained (after all, you are supposed to tell a story and meandering for hundreds of pages through musings on colours isn’t going to cut it for me) I want to be challenged to think about human behaviour and why we do the things we do. I want to feel I’ve expanded my understanding of people and the choices they make.

When I thought about that episode of Without a Trace and the concept of removed reality, I found myself thinking automatically following someone around, photographing them without their consent and then painting the photograph wasn’t a good idea.

And when people found out, they weren’t too happy.

If people wrote about things in my life? Well, the only person who really knows it all is me, right? So at best all anyone could do is project. And that’s when I start to understand why it can be risky to rely too much on a real situation. I would rather comment on domestic violence than just comment on one specific case. It may be a fine line, but that’s how I draw it.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Removed Reality – Can You Handle The Truth?

Last week, I watched an episode of Without a Trace. A talented artist was missing, and the investigators had to consider her artwork. She would follow people and photograph them (without their knowledge or consent) and then produce a painting of the photograph.

Some people, once they’d discovered they’d become part of her work, weren’t very happy about it.

This was something that had already been on my mind. At the risk of crossing the line myself here, when I saw last week the headline Diana’s last words: ‘Oh my God’ I found myself wondering if we really needed to know that.

I found myself sympathizing with her family, who might be understandably upset by such a headline.

Just one more thing to weigh on my mind about the whole topic of removed reality.

This was compounded by incidents that happened here last week, with the blog comments I ended up removing. I think it was something like 50+ e-mails along when my pseudo-stalker sent a message that they were unsubscribing from my gossip blog, which got me thinking.

You see, it’s hard to balance what you can and can’t say from your own life sometimes. What I posted about the events of the previous weekend was minor, and I never identified the person in question. In fact, until they popped up in the comments, the only people who would have known were Kevin and I. Any damage to their reputation was the result of their actions, not mine.

Several months ago, on my birthday in fact, a woman came on our property, got in Kevin’s face (not exactly pushing him, but poking him) and threatened us. We went to the RCMP station and made formal statements, so that if she returned we could press charges.

Is it gossip for me to share that? Or a record of facts? I lean on the latter here. It was also my fault, in a way, for the woman’s behaviour. A few years ago her dog kept getting free and ending up on our property. We’d just adopted Chinook, and he got stressed out by the presence of another dog. I brought him inside and he had diarrhea from one side of the basement to the other. The first time, that dog was in my possession for three hours, because the bylaw officer wasn’t in town that day, and my options (given by the town office) were to confine the dog, find the owner, or let it go, because it was also unregistered. Well, letting it go meant it just stayed on my property. Three hours to find the owners…

After repeated incidents, I filed a complaint with the bylaw officer. It’s not the first loose dog I’ve seen here, won’t be the last, but it was a real problem for my dog (who was adopted, and as a previously-abandoned dog this was stressful for him. We’d only had him a few weeks at the time).

The dog’s owners were charged. And they physically threatened the bylaw officer, who then returned here and advised me of the situation.

Now, this is an actual experience I had, and I don’t see anything wrong with sharing it if I choose to. It would be different if I identified the person by name or told you where they lived, but I think we’re all allowed to share our personal experiences, and when you aren’t doing it to trash someone who’s unidentified, it’s not exactly gossip.

The actual post in question from last week was 99% about other people. You know, I said once that one of the things I hadn’t thought about with books coming out was being contacted by people I’d once known, long ago. And some of it was odd and uncomfortable. I heard from someone I played with as a child, who used to live down the road, and that was awesome. It had been years. But I also heard from people who, well, were keen to tell me how far I’d fallen. That was not awesome. More like irritating.

All of this has been tossed in the cooker, simmering on the back burner, and I’ve been considering it carefully, because real cases are often inspiration for crime fiction books. I will hear something on the news, and it will get the wheels turning. I don’t think I’ve ever intended to directly represent a specific case. I might hear a story about a group of kids beating someone to death and start thinking about youth violence and hear some other stories and out of all of that I might develop an idea about teen violence.

But what about taking real cases and very clearly adapting them, or drawing off them, for the purpose of fiction?

That’s awkward. Having said that, it’s also possible to write a book and have a crime occur later that has similarities, or to be unaware of a similar case at the time of writing, and not intend to represent a real situation. One of the things people assume when they accuse someone of copying them is that the whole world pays attention to them. I mean, consider GONE BABY GONE and the Madeline McCann case. The book was written years and years ago… just a case of life imitating art, and not even that closely. However, enough for the movie to be delayed from release in the UK.

I do find myself wondering at the ethics involved in writing. Part of what we bring to the work, as authors, is our perspective, our opinions, our philosophies and how they’ve been shaped by our experiences. We understand human behaviour through our exchanges with other people, and what we observe.

I was recently asked if I agreed with the philosophy that there’s a little of the author in every character. I guess I’d have to say that there is. At the very least, there’s a little of our experiences in every character. I don’t think of a person I used to know and try to literally represent them in a book, but as a character is shaping I might remember an attribute or characteristic, or experience I had with someone, and that might be woven into the character.

For example, in WHAT BURNS WITHIN there’s a child who can recognize vehicles because he’s fascinated with cars. It’s a characteristic I lifted from a real child I knew, who played a game when driving and ID’d vehicles. Ask me, I’d say, “It’s a blue car.” He’d say, “Mustang.”

The character and that child have absolutely nothing else in common, beyond being male and being human.

Now, my musings were taken to a whole new level with the story about a photographer who was forced to photograph victims of the Khmer Rouge before they were killed. I see those photos on display, and I think it’s a good thing. It’s a record, to say that this was a person, and this person’s life was taken in such a horrific way. It’s why people read the names aloud, of those who died on 9/11 – to remember they all had names. That they weren’t just part of a number, they were an individual with hopes and dreams.

But it is different. I’m not fictionalizing it. I can’t imagine doing that.

I know that part of what many of us do in our writing is work through issues, and I certainly do that myself. I, uh, expect in the wake of WHAT BURNS WITHIN to go through another round of religious criticism.

I guess each situation becomes one we work through ourselves, and we have to ultimately be comfortable with our own choices. There are some things that have happened to me I would never want to write about. Others can feel free.

Part of me feels it’s more important to take our observations about people and insert it in the work, than to take any specific experience or story of interest to us. I’m a bit uncomfortable about the trend to take on lawyers to write legal thrillers or doctors to write medical thrillers. It is, after all, fiction. Otherwise, all police procedurals should be written by cops, men shouldn’t have female protagonists… I mean, how far do we take this? It is fiction. Despite what the conservative Christian set might have said at their book burnings JK Rowling isn’t a witch…

It isn’t that I have a problem with people changing professions and becoming writers. It’s just that sometimes, we’re too close to something to give it an objective view. Frankly, I expect there are some virgins who write romance, because they have an active fantasy life and are still enamored with the idea of romance. Believe me, I won’t be writing one myself any time soon. My reality stands in the way of that.

You know, this isn’t something that only fiction writers have to contend with. I remember the ethical debates when I was studying journalism. Even think of 9/11 and choices people made then. Pictures printed of people jumping from burning buildings, falling to their deaths…

Ultimately, whenever we write a news article, a column, a blog post, a book, we have to wrestle with all of this. Truthfully, I never felt comfortable sticking a tape recorder in someone’s face in their moment of grief, I felt I was exploiting their pain.

My own pain, my own life, is fair game.

I wonder how everyone else handles it. And I wonder if a book is too similar to a real situation if readers might have a hard time with it.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Crimespace Short Story Competition, With A Note For Spinetingler Contributors To Consider

To celebrate growing to 1000 members strong, Crimespace is having a short story competition for stories up to 2500 words in length, with a submission deadline of January 31, 2008. Winners will be announced March 31, 2008, and there are some good prizes there.

In order to fully support Daniel's initiative, Spinetingler is giving all writers who have work currently under submission with us (not those who've had it accepted, but those waiting to hear) the option of withdrawing their submission if they'd like to consider entering it in the Crimespace competition. Being blunt, I have two books due out next year, we're full for the January issue, and something special is being planned for the Spring/Summer Issue, which means we may not be considering stories for an issue before Fall 2008.

Recognition through the Crimespace competition would come a lot sooner.

And there will always be an opportunity to resubmit to us.

If anyone wants to withdraw their story, no questions asked, just e-mail me at

Or, of course, you can get motivated and start working on another story...

And check this out: Anne Frasier goes In For Questioning with Angie Johnson-Schmit.

Changes, and Other Random Thoughts

Today’s inspiration: Cynthia Dale. After reading about her departure from Stratford I find myself wondering if she’s ever considered directing.

My first exposure to Dale was years ago, when she was on Street Legal, as the article above says playing a “bitchy, sexy witch named Olivia Novak.” But something I’ve found true of many Canadian actresses is a keen eye and ability behind the camera, as well as in front of it. Sarah Polley is an obvious example with her directorial debut showing a keen mind capable of achieving great things both sides of the camera.

Add in another Canadian talent I’m a fan of: Neve Campbell. Neve (it’s pronounced like Bev, one syllable, btw) has already added writing and producing credits to her name.

When I was asked last year to consider “My book, the movie” and answer the questions for Suspicious Circumstances, I found it challenging. I never thought about actors when creating my characters. I know some do, some use storyboards and pictures, but not me. In some respects, I almost prefer a hazy description, because whenever a movie is made people undoubtedly say, “That’s not how I pictured so-and-so.”

But honestly? I look at Neve Campbell and think she could be Ashlyn Hart. Well, Sarah could play her too, with dark hair. What I love about both of them is that they bring an intelligence and thoughtfulness to their work. Some actors are only skin deep, just something to look at. These actors have substance. Brains. And that’s critical with Ashlyn. In fact, in many respects, she’s the most level of my three protagonists, balancing off two guys with issues. In What Burns Within you hardly get to know anything about Tain’s personal life, but things explode for all three of them in The Frailty of Flesh, which has been scheduled for a November 2008 release, just six months after WBW comes out. Not a long wait, which is nice.

Intelligence is what I would want from someone involved in converting my work to screen, more than anything else. It’s funny, now that I think about Cynthia Dale, I think she could fit the role of Alison Daly. Alison isn’t in WBW much, but she has more face time in the second book.

I know other people might consider it an oddity, but I’d be just as thrilled to see my book converted to a Canadian TV series as anything else. I was a fan of Cold Squad and Da Vinci’s Inquest has even done well south of the border. Hmmm. Maybe someone should send copies of the books to Chris Haddock. However, despite the old jokes about Canada, no I don’t know him.

Getting back to the point, reading about Cynthia’s departure from Stratford made me think about transitions, change, and how tough they can be. If you’d asked me three months ago I would have maintained I’d never get divorced, happily married. Well, now I’m getting divorced.

Such is life.

Change can be scary, but sometimes it can be good. In my case, the jury is still out. Somehow, though, what I sense in Cynthia Dale is the kind of tenacity and drive that tells me she might be off stage for now, but not for long.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Someone Get Jesus Some Lederhosen

An anti-pornography activist wants officials in the Alpine city of Innsbruck to take down a large crucifix bearing a sculpture of a naked Jesus Christ.
Martin Humer, who gained notoriety last year after he painted part of a statue of a nude Mozart and stuck feathers on it, is pressuring authorities to remove the crucifix from a public square where it has been displayed for 20 years, public broadcaster ORF reported Thursday.

Is it a full moon or some other cosmic event? Because the crazy people just keep coming out of the woodwork…

Okay, let me ask this. If a person has been guilty of bestiality and gets turned on by the site of animals, would pictures of dogs and cats then be considered porn? I would think so, since porn is defined as “films, magazines, writings, photographs or other materials that are sexually explicit and intended to cause sexual arousal.” (MSN Dictionary).

If so, we must lobby for all animals to have their backsides covered when in public or being photographed… Right?

Oh, but wait. Wasn’t there something in the porn definition that talked about intent? “Intended to cause sexual arousal”.

So don’t we have to track down the creator of this offending image and ask him if he intended for people to get turned on when they saw a naked Jesus nailed to the cross? Because really, that’s what these prudes are saying. That they see this image and think, “I wanna get me some of that.” (Why yes, I am burning in hell, thank you very much. But at least here we get to watch the film versions of John Rickards’ Hardboiled Jesus. With beer and extra-buttery popcorn too, and we can make smors. Ummm.)

However, it’s one way of putting a site on the map. Now I really, really, really want a cover with a naked person on the front (and maybe a pop-up penis inside) so that the moralizers of society can take offense and start the book burnings. They’re wondrous for sales.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Artistic Integrity, Why I Judge & Spiritual Manipulation

If you ever wanted to understand my negativity, this is the post to read. We'll call it a confession.

I recently asked if it’s ever okay to kill off a beloved character, or career suicide. The result of the discussion on Crimespace led way beyond that one topic, to questions about whether or not novels are collaborations and what constitutes compromise.

I think almost every novel produced is, to some degree, a series of triumphs and compromises. The reality is, we all have a learning curve, we all get things drilled into us. How many times can it be debated whether or not you have to drop a body in the first chapter? Perhaps more established authors have forgotten, because the rules are more relaxed for them? I don’t honestly know.

I certainly know I’ve been told to put the victim in chapter 1, many times over.

There are other things I’ve been told as well. We could make a long, long list, but the point isn’t what people get told to do… It’s more why they get told to do them. As far as I’m concerned, the writer can consider those things, and decide for themselves whether they are essential truths that should be applied to the work, or whether or not they’re opinions that can be dismissed.

Now, I just finished EXIT MUSIC by Ian Rankin, purported to be the last Rebus book. And I raised the question about killing off beloved characters, in part, because of extreme anger raised repeatedly on discussion lists and forums about the latest Karin Slaughter book, and a while back, an Elizabeth George book. In both cases, I hadn’t read the work in question, so I had no personal opinion. But the reactions gave me pause.

Some readers took the death of beloved characters personally.

For me, if the Rebus series had ended with knowledge that at some point a few months earlier Rebus and Siobhan had been alone with opportunity (but she’d had the same opportunity with someone else, and in both cases, we didn’t know if she’d taken it) and the end of the book was her standing over Rebus’s grave and feeling the baby move for the first time, golden. In all honesty, as much as I’d be sad to see a character I’ve enjoyed spending so much time with six feet under, I would completely respect the author’s right to decide to kill him off, as long as I didn’t feel it was simply done for emotional manipulation. If it fit the book and was what was called for, no issue at all.

However, I’m well aware that the publishers might have a different opinion about that.

If we listen to our agents/publishers/fans, I don’t think we’ve necessarily compromised artistically. Okay, in the case of Sherlock Holmes, I found it worrying. Kill off a character because you’re done with him, but be forced to bring him back. (And thus were many soap opera storylines born, with people surviving plunges over waterfalls, explosions, drownings, etc. etc. etc… Thanks to Holmes, we can say death really is not the end for all.) Now, that… seems to me like a compromise.

But what if my editor said, “I don’t like the name Ashlyn Hart. Can we come up with something else?” Well, I would have produced a list of possible changes and discussed them with him. After all, in SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES, Lara originally had a different name, and I changed it. I can handle that. Sometimes, it’s necessary, because maybe the editor knows someone else has a book coming out with a character named Ashley Hart. Artistic compromise? Not in my opinion, certainly not for that reason.

Some things boil down to the practical. What matters not is the specifics, but the reason behind them.

With WHAT BURNS WITHIN, setting was crucial for the story. There is a technical aspect to the story that means it can’t work just anywhere. For the most part, I expect readers won’t even know what it is. It doesn’t matter. What matters to me is that I do my homework, and knowing that a crucial element of the story hangs on this, it required a very specific type of fire department. This story could not work in Calgary. It could not work in Vancouver, or Burnaby or New Westminster. It could work in Surrey, Langley or Coquitlam.

So I chose Coquitlam. Yes, yes, it’s part of the Greater Vancouver Area, and that generally means ‘Vancouver’ in simplest terms. But if I was told to move the story to literally Vancouver, I would have said no and held my ground. Why? Because the setting was dictated by an aspect of the story, and therefore crucial to the story. The same scenario could not happen in Vancouver. And because a major component of the plot hinged on this, essentially the book couldn’t happen just anywhere.

Did I get to keep my setting? Yes. Triumph. Did I change character names along the way? Well, don’t blame my editor, but the current names of some characters are not the original names I had picked. For a variety of reasons, I changed them. Artistic compromise? Well, I don’t think so.

Ultimately, I don’t really care about the decisions others make, as long as the product works and they’re happy with it. Have I been told to relocate books to a US setting? Yes. Have I done that? Yes – SC. Would I set books in the US again? Yes, I would. It isn’t that I’m necessarily opposed to relocating a book, it’s more that I don’t want to have to for everything, especially if the story won’t work somewhere else.

Another example? When I interviewed John Rickards for Crimespree Magazine last year, I asked why he chose to set his books in the US instead of the UK, seeing as he’s British. He said guns. And there’s a great point. It’s hard to have a lot of realistic gunfights in books set in the UK. And so much more delicate to try to describe a stabbing attack… See, a reason to pick a different setting.

I don’t have a problem with people moving settings, or with people renaming characters, or with someone changing their mind about killing off a character after a discussion with their editor. I don’t think that’s all artistic compromise.

When it’s compromise is when it’s dictated and there is no good reason for it, or making the change would compromise the technical correctness of the storyline.

Do I have a bit of an issue over the Canada vs US settings? Yes, I do. My initial rejections from agents and publishers centered on one thing, Canada. Not the quality of the writing. Not the storyline. Just the setting. I was repeatedly told a police procedural series using the RCMP would never sell to a US publisher.

Frankly, I could set everything else I write outside this country and not take it so personally, having just proven all the naysayers wrong. Yeah, I’m remarkably stubborn that way… But I love setting stuff in places I know, where I can use that as a strength in the work.

Whatever anyone else does is up to them. And whether or not it’s an artistic compromise, only they’ll really know in their own heart. If so, it’s them living with it, not me.

The only thing I don’t understand is the idea that you absolutely should not listen to anyone about something like killing a character off because you should be true to your vision of the work… but if a publisher had told Rankin to relocate the Rebus books in England because it has a much bigger population, would that have been okay?

In my mind anyway, once you set a standard for what constitutes compromise, shouldn’t it be universal, not situation specific?

You see, that’s a throwback. That’s me wanting the world to be black and white.

Okay, I honestly don’t get it. I don’t get how changing a decision about whether or not to kill off a character because of the opinion of your agent or editor is a compromise, but changing something else, like setting isn’t. I pare it down to that root – asking why the decision was reached – for myself anyways. But it doesn’t matter if I don’t get it. I’m sorry if I offended anyone in the process of raising my questions. I honestly haven’t got the foggiest idea (unless someone tells me) who’s relocated a book or made any decision about their work that might tie to my general thoughts. I felt like the conversation risked getting personal, and that wasn’t what I intended out of it. Nine times out of ten, six days a week, I’m one of those people who can agree to disagree and still love and accept a person. I have many friends from different cultures, backgrounds, religions, belief systems, and as long as they don’t go against my core (ie: abuse a child, for example) I don’t care what they do or what they believe. I can like and accept them for who they are, even if I completely disagree with their politics or don’t practice their religion.

But this whole discussion became a throwback, to the world I lived in a long time ago, one that denies gray. Over the past few days, I’ve had reason to think a lot about my religious background, and how it shaped my life. And my biggest regret is the judgment I put on other people, based on them not measuring up to the standards I’d been taught to believe were God’s. I was trained by the best, to quote chapter and verse, to know the standards and tell everyone and anyone when they weren’t living up to them. Ah, to be a young, impressionable teenager, armed with a healthy dose of brainwashing that you are RIGHT.

I was such a screwed up kid, on so many levels, I looked for absolutes to give my life meaning and structure. This isn’t to say that I don’t believe in God – I do. But I was manipulated spiritually by a number of people who used religion as a weapon and a method of abusing others. (Not all the people I knew were like this. Sooner or later, it becomes impossible to look back on your life and regret things, because so much good and bad becomes intertwined that you realize if one bad thing hadn’t happened, some good things wouldn’t have happened either. I knew some wonderful people, people I still love.)

Without detailing the whole history here, part of the reason I connected with Rebus, became so attached to the books, was because I felt like I was on the same spiritual journey. I was so conditioned to what was supposed to be acceptable that I couldn’t really talk to anyone about what was going on in my head and my heart. When I read Rebus musing over the death of the priest he talked to, I found in a character someone I could connect with.

I don’t think it’s easy to understand what it is to have worked for organizations that you’ve seen destroy people, to carry the guilt and shame of that on you, to feel this constant pressure to measure up and live a certain way. People wonder how I can often be so open here? I lived in a fishbowl. I spent three years of my life living in a community. Whatever I tried to keep private was pried open and exposed. I’ve seen people publicly shamed over choices others didn’t approve of. I’ve seen people fired because of “sin”. A girl was raped, and she was coerced not to press charged because God says to forgive (and boy, wouldn’t it have been bad PR for this ‘godly’ community, but let’s not talk about that, just stick to the spiritual manipulation).

Newsflash. Jesus hung out with hookers and tax collectors, the reviled amongst society, and didn’t judge them. He loved them. And it’s a Goddamn shame more Christians don’t put a priority on that over everything else. Lecture me about my secular music like that’s a fucking priority when my mom’s just tried to commit suicide. Yeah, that’s what I remember about my teenage years. Judgment. Criticism. Standards impossible to measure up to, and most of the time accusations thrown at me by people who didn’t have planks in their eyes – builders had poured a foundation and started building skyscrapers.

When I learned to walk away from it, when I started to learn that God was more than a list of rules and regulations, that most of these organizations and churches were corrupt to the core and that by heeding their counsel I was condoning their sin, I learned to question everything to the root.

The problem is, I never really learned to stop.

I read about organizations and start dissecting the rules for contradictions and gaps. I can’t join political groups because I can’t handle that stuff. I was actually vice president of a writers’ group and I actually believed as an elected official of the group I had a responsibility to serve the interests of the group as a whole, not my own personal agenda. How could I have been such an idiot? Meanwhile the president is dictating what services to use or not use – even if it means paying more – because they don’t conform to her religion or her politics. For fuck’s sakes, I left my religion and politics at the door and evaluated decisions based on the best interests of the membership.

Sometimes, I look at the disagreements I have, and I still see so much shadow of the church and what it represents to me, because in reality the Christian organizations I was a part of were bureaucratic manmade constructs that had little to do with truth and God, and a lot to do with control.

I guess I’m still trying to get the monkey off my back.

Maybe part of it is that when I perceive contradictions, it’s just so ingrained in me to judge. I don’t know. I really didn’t mean to over the whole kill a character/setting thing… but I realized I had to walk away from that discussion because I didn’t want to say something poorly phrased that came off wrong, or that I would end up regretting.

Anyone who’s read this blog knows I have strong feelings and strong opinions… or believes it, anyway. Sometimes, I really do. And sometimes, things come off harsher in type on a screen than I mean for them to.

But I have found that there is a willingness to assume without asking, to draw conclusions without seeking clarification. When someone misreads you, you notice it.

And then you realize how often you do it yourself.

In the ultimate irony, so many talk about how authors are great because they aren’t celebrities, they’re people. But then some wag fingers about how to behave because there are some times you’re expected to pucker up and kiss ass.

I don’t know if figuring out why I feel my chest tighten at the thought of dealing with the politics of organizations is going to help me be okay belonging to them. I realize I’m afraid of being put in a position where I feel like I’m back in that religious community, where just the act of being there makes me complicit in something horrendous.

Sometimes, I feel like I have enough guilt in my life. Part of me wishes I didn’t have to concern myself with decisions, but I’ve never been the type to put my head in the sand. I tried in my church days and failed. And that flaw of mine was my saving grace and what got me out of the borderline cult life I was in, because I didn’t turn blind eyes.

I just hope I can learn to switch some of that off so that I’m not always so suspicious. When I feel I'm being handled the way people in the religious communities used to belittle, condescend and judge, I'm quick to dig my heels in. Defense mechanism, sure. And some people are beligerent assholes who shouldn't be mollycoddled, but the reason behind my reaction is an issue I have to deal with.

Something Kevin made me face, when he said I had poor impulse control. I just jokingly blame it on an Irish temper, but the truth is, it's more about defending myself to all the abusers over the years, wishing I could get back to that moment and stand up to them. I can't, and no matter how much I argue with some people, it won't change the past.

This may be hard for people to connect, but something happened over the weekend that destroyed a twenty-year friendship I’d had with someone. And they used the name of God to level judgment, first in my life, then Kevin’s. But in the course of doing this, they lied to me… and hit on Kevin. Then they talked about the sanctity of marriage…

Reminding me again, of that religious community. A leader’s wife fucking another instructor. Yes, yes, God will forgive, but repentance means you’re supposed to stop. It reminds me of lines from a Steve Taylor song:

There's a sweaty hand handling his cocktail napkin
"come on up and see me" is scribbled with a gold pen
"but you'd better ring twice"
seven months after his little indiscretion
he sits with his wife at a therapy session
for a little advice
"if the healing happens as the time goes by
tell me why I still can't look her in the eye"

"God I'm only human, got no other reason..."
sin for a season...

Wealthy lips say "keep us from the Evil One"
while the praying hands prey with deliberate cunning
on the carcass of the cold
gonna get the Good Lord to forgive a little sin
get the slate cleaned so he can dirty it again
and no one else will ever know

I don’t mean for it to sound as melodramatic as it might, but some days, I feel broken beyond repair. It’s one of those days.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Interesting Stuff Elsewhere

Margaret Atwood interviews Ian Rankin in Toronto. I know it seems as though there should be video, but it's just audio.

A publicist has a few things to say to an author about their complaints about how publicists work (or don't work). (Courtesy of Brian.)

Does one honest mistake (since retracted) discount an entire review? Juri Nummelin blogs about a negative review and in the ensuing comment trail is taken to task over the question of how the book was published.

Personally, I think that's all smoke, no fire. He stated clearly that it appeared to be a mistake and issued a correction, but that seems to be considered an acceptable reason to attack him over his opinion on the shortcomings of the book itself. On the one hand it seems pointless to address this, but there are a few things I'd like to say:

1. Most reviewers I know DO NOT read the publicity inserts included with a review copy. They want to form their OWN opinion of the work, not be told what to think of it. Therefore, if a work crosses your desk that is published by a known self-publishing company, you will most likely assume it was self-published. I received a book recently that had not been presented to me in description as self-published, but the minute I opened the package I knew. I flipped it open and looked at where it was printed. Now, it may be that the press label on it is a legitimate press and that the author didn't pay to publish it. I won't address it in a review, if the book is reviewed. However, in the same way I know Harlequin publishes romances, I know this 'publisher' produces self-published books.

2. The assertion it's a professional author. They should know better than to argue a review if they're a professional. Most review sites and reviewers I've discussed this with have policies that they will ban authors who argue over reviews, especially if they're volunteers. It's simple - too many books, not enough time to review them all, and certainly not enough time to deal with arguments.

3. Reviews are ultimately opinions. Informated opinions, but still opinions. When a reviewer says your book is slow, filled with cliched characters and didn't hold their interest, make a note and next time, don't send that reviewer your book, and move on. 99.9% of the world might disagree with them, but arguing over it won't change anything. The reviewer isn't going to retract their statements about your work, unless they've criticized a technical issue which you can prove they were mistaken over. But when it comes to whether or not a book was boring? They aren't going to change it, and they shouldn't. If they let themselves be coerced to change an opinion on a book that change is meaningless, and so is every review they write in the future.

Everyone gets negative reviews sometimes. It comes with the territory. Don't like it? Get a blog and whine and bitch and moan there. But arguing with the reviewer and trying to make them see the light? Well, here's hoping you don't get a lot of negative Amazon reviews...

Sunday, October 21, 2007

What’s In a Name?

This week on In For Questioning Angie interviews Debut Dagger short-listed writer, Scotsman and international traveler James Oswald on the program.

Oh, and did I mention that James is a friend of mine? That he and his lovely Horse Doctor wife have visited me in Canada and that we broke bread at Harrogate and I bugged him about his retro 70s wardrobe?

This is all important, because James mentions me in his interview. Which is very lovely (or should be) except for the fact that he says my name wrong.

I mean, so I’ve been told. I haven’t listened yet. But yes, word has spread that James referred to me as a Ruttin’ instead of a RUE-tan.

Ruttin’ is the bastardized form. It’s the hillbilly version, rhyming with “nuttin’”.

“Whatcha doin’ Peggy Sue?”

However, my name is pronounced RUE-tan. Rue rhymes with Sue, tan rhymes with fan.

And what would James know of mispronunciations? How many people say Jam-ez instead of James, and how could you mispronounce Oswald? That would take concentrated effort.

But when you have a name that’s not so straightforward, this is what you must contend with.

Personally, I blame whoever was doing the census in the 13 Colonies back in 1675. Abraham Rutant sailed to what would become the US, and for some reason, they changed Rutant to Ruttan. Don’t ask me why.

We can argue if the name is French or Flemish. What I know is that Abraham apparently fled Metz at the ripe old age of 13 in 1670. Now, since Louis XIV invaded in 1670, maybe things weren’t good. My understanding was that the Rutants were Huguenots, and that Abraham fled to Mannheim, Germany, and five years later sailed to America.

And because the Ruttans were United Empire Loyalists, they ended up in Quebec after some tea went in the harbor in Boston. Which is an interesting thing, if you think about it. Fleeing what became part of France to go to the US, which they left to maintain loyalty to Britain, and in the process ended up living in Quebec.

Once, when I was driving home from Calgary I had the radio on, and Deric Ruttan’s song ‘When You Come Around’ was playing. Afterward, the DJ started to say “That was Deric Ruttan…” and then his partner prompted him and he went into this big explanation for hesitating because he said it looked like the name should be said Ruttin’ instead of the correct way, which was how he said it, and he was very funny and made a big joke of it, and I almost drove off the road laughing… But the truth is, it really really sucks having a name people always mispronounce.

Add to that the fact that some people think I should want to be called Sandy. Hey, if other people like it, that’s great. I will punch you. Okay, only in my imaginary world, in my little fantasyland between my ears, but I hate being called Sandy, and I hate being called Susan even more, it’s not funny, it wasn’t funny ten years ago and no, you aren’t the first person who thought of it and you aren’t that damn clever.

Which is making me feel guilty, wondering whose name I’ve made fun of over the years. I went to school for 8 years with a guy named Julius Puckler. I am not joking. And many kids substituted an F for the first letter of his last name. I have to say, Julius was a bit cruel. The name, not the guy. He had an older brother named Rocky. Come on. Rocky is a tough guy name, and Julius, well... It was a 'get your ass whooped at school' name and he got bugged a lot.

I actually have a cousin named Ruttanna, and I once had friends who laughed in her face, because they thought her name was Ruttanna Ruttan. No, dummies. Her mother had been a Ruttan, and so Ruttanna had her father’s surname, which was Stahls.

When I was a kid, I wished I had a common name. I guess most kids just want to fit in. Sandra was a boring name. Now, I never understand why people insist on calling me other things. I suppose it's some sort of twisted symbol of intimacy, but very few people call me anything other than Sandra.

One thing I learned traveling? Sandra is a universal name. In Africa they had no trouble with it (In Tunisia, in the Arab countries) in Europe, in Costa Rica. It's actually very nice having a universal name people can handle almost anywhere.

Few people mispronounced my surname when I was a kid because there are a lot of Ruttans where I grew up. Great big community of bootleggers left over from Prohibition…

Then as an adult I learned what a difficult name Ruttan apparently is. In my career, I worked with so many kids with speech impediments, my first name was impossible for them (with a three consonant blend, and one of my kids couldn’t pronounce ‘S’) so with some I was called Sara, and some, well, I guess Anna is the closest name.

And now, my friend is on In For Questioning and even he can’t say my name right.

Before you ask, my married name is always mispronounced as well, and now that I'm legally changing my name back.. Maybe I'll change my surname to Brown instead. Sandra Brown.

I can’t imagine why anyone would have a problem with that.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Well, It’s The Movie Everyone Else Will Be Talking About…

I went to see Gone Baby Gone. Before I elaborate on my thoughts, I should point out that I have not read this series by Lehane, so I can’t compare the movie to the book. I’ll be taking the movie at face value, for what it was or wasn’t, in my opinion.

The premise isn’t a complicated one. Girl goes missing. The girl’s aunt hires private investigator to augment the police investigation. Things don’t go particularly well. And if you want to completely avoid spoilers, you probably shouldn’t read this post. It would be impossible to really comment on the movie without touching on some plot points, so consider yourself forewarned.

We don’t have a lot of sympathy for the mother. She left her daughter at home alone, apparently just for half an hour. But it isn’t long before the PI team of Patrick and Angie uncover the fact that the mother actually left her daughter alone much longer, and that she was off doing drugs at the time.

Weak point #1. In the process of gleaning this critical information (which comes pretty darn quick and easy – in a book, you’d have to actually work for this) I’m starting to get an impression of Patrick, or at least, how Casey Affleck plays Patrick, or how the writers wrote him for the movie, or how the director interpreted him or something. Let’s just call it ‘the movie version’ and not worry about who’s responsible. But this guy borders on Too Stupid To Live. In this scenario in the bar I’m getting my first glimpse at a guy who I guess must be pretty green as an investigator, and doesn’t seem to think anyone has anything to hide. Discretion is not his middle name.

Weak point #2. Now, without going through the entire plot and dissecting it, it boiled down to the critical lead in the investigation, and how it was handled. Again, Patrick is proving himself green. Thank goodness Angie had the brains to question how this was going to be handled… Unfortunately, that leads me to…

Weak point #3. Angie, and I’m sad to say that. I liked how Michelle Monaghan played her (nicely understated, no female theatrics), and let’s face it, MM was wonderful in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and the character of Angie had so much potential. Unfortunately, this was the “let’s give Casey Affleck the most face time possibly imaginable, even if it means compromising the development of other characters and the storyline” version. And clocking in nicely under two hours, it leaves me to wonder if it boils down to stupid budgeting decisions or just what. But I got the sense that there was a whole storyline under Angie that was completely ignored. From the beginning, she doesn’t want to deal with a case with a child. I had the impression there was more there, but they don’t delve, don’t even hint with a ‘I know this might be hard for you’. She changed her mind pretty quick, though. And then took the aftermath of how the critical lead was handled (or should we say mishandled) very hard.

And then, there was the end. Okay, that’s what convinced me. There was more there, there had to be some reasoning. We got to see why Patrick made the choice he did, or at least, we were given a reasonable go at his reasoning. But with Angie it can all be a surprise because she’s undeveloped. Damn shame. Fucking tragedy, actually. Great actress, great potential, completely underutilized.

Oh, and she backs down from her doubts about The Plan pretty quick. Kinda makes her come off as spineless…

Weak point #4. Now, I can see how someone could make this work in a book… but the way the midsection of the movie was handled, after the child was declared dead and when Patrick and Angie were drifting, bugged me. I didn’t feel it was built up enough, for one thing, to come off as much more than an extreme coincidence. Sure, the kid abduction was prepped, and the suspects named. But how that unfolded to the point where Patrick got that critical piece of information that got his wheels turning was a bit of a reach in terms of the movie. In a movie like The Departed you’re getting layers upon layers of clues and revelations and the way it’s played comes off like you know you don’t know who to trust. Unfortunately, that goes back over to Mr. Too Stupid To Live. First of all, as a PI he goes into this house with a drug dealer and participates in the sale of drugs? Turning a blind eye is one thing, but this? I don’t know. It was a niggle point.

Weak point #5. The ending. Um…. Let me get back to this.

Now, I realize that it may come off like I thought the movie was bad. Actually, I’m giving it a B/B+. Overall, it was entertaining. It had suspense. It had a few twists (although they bordered close on divine intervention instead of plotting). But in digesting it, I felt it was too bad Patrick came off the way he did. If that had been a woman she would be raked over the coals as one of those incredibly dumb women who shoots off her mouth and waltzes in to dangerous situations recklessly. Patrick does that. He shoots off his mouth, a lot. And he seems to think he has a suit of invisible armor on, and shows no discretion or caution.

In fact, the one time that he does shut his mouth (when being questioned about the cop who died after the “hold-up” at the bar) is when he could have opened it without fear. He knew where the road led. He knew these people were prepared to kill – they’d already done it, and only hours earlier one had put a gun in his face.

But no, he’s going to go out there himself and confront the person he now suspects of involvement in the kidnapping of the girl.

This movie had a lot of overall strengths. High points? Well, Amy Ryan is a pleasure to watch on The Wire and she really showed her stuff in this movie. What a bitch of a character, played brilliantly.

It was an absolute delight to see The Wire’s “Omar” in blues. Sweet.

Ultimately, I felt that with another half hour or so, with more overlapping of the two cases from the beginning instead of the case 1, case 2, case 1 segregation, it would have been stronger. Round Angie out and develop that character more and it could have added a lot of emotional punch. As it was, the way she was written bordered on a typical crime in films – using the woman as window dressing. And develop the clues a little better and it’s not a B movie, it’s an Oscar contender. (I mean, hey, if The Departed could win won, why not? I had my nitpick points with that movie too, although overall it was stronger than GBG.)

I left certain that the book is vastly superior, which is often the case. Would I go see a sequel? Yes. I would give it a chance.

I expect to be lambasted now by enthusiasts of the film. Like I said, it was good. It was just a shame because I could see how it could have been so much more.

And having said all that, what about the ending? What about social services? What about the fact that the mother participated in a crime, and confessed to that? Uh, am I really believing we live in a cell phone and PlayStation era as portrayed in the movie and nobody did anything to see that the girl wasn’t returned to her mother?

Where was Angie’s conviction then?

Okay, I’d better stop, because the more I think about it, the more I’m left to wonder. I wanted this movie to be an ‘A’. It’s rare enough I go to the movie theatre to see a film, and I never go to movies alone, as I did today.

Damn. Thinking about that ending may have knocked it down to a B- for me.

(Oh, and delaying it in the UK over the Madeleine McCann case? The book was written years and years ago, so this is one of those situations where life has imitated art, but there are some eerie coincidences. Four-year-old child. Blonde and cute. Left home alone. Because of all the media hype around the MM case, it would be hard for people to shut it off. And it really doesn’t matter when the book was written, because a huge chunk of the audience probably won’t even know it was based on a book. The main difference here is with GBG we’re looking at a bitch of a mother, single mother, drug user, corruption and illegal activity… The similarities are superficial.)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

We interrupt this blog post about David Simon and The Wire to mention…

You could win an exclusive writing masterclass with Ian Rankin with the Scotsman & National Library of Scotland short story competition. Well, if you live in Scotland and can get your hands on a newspaper, anyway.

Wondering what David Simon has in mind to follow The Wire? Apparently, he plans to take on the Big Easy.

I miss Baltimore already.

Okay, this blog post really isn’t about David Simon and The Wire, but yesterday I noticed a friend and regular reader of this blog mentioned elsewhere they didn’t know who David Simon was, which made me realize I have obviously neglected fulfilling my regular quota for expressing my enthusiasm for Simon’s work.

But I can actually sum it up in short order in a way that this person can appreciate. David Simon is Laura Lippman’s husband.

I know this person knows who Laura Lippman is.

Okay, okay, The Wire does have something to do with my albeit scattered thoughts of the day. You see, I recently finished Frailty, and despite my angst over the book my first reader has assured me it’s brilliant. However, in bringing book 2 of a series to a close, my mind has already turned to the next project…

And I’m asking myself the question, Is it ever safe to kill off a protagonist? I’ve asked this in a bit of a looser format over at Crimespace but then, I also expect writers to be a bit more forgiving on the issue. After all, it’s our imaginary world and we’ve set ourselves up as God, so shouldn’t we be able to make the life and death decisions?

I have absolute admiration for a series like The Wire, where season after season, popular character after popular character has bit the dust. Season 1, episode 12… I can’t believe George Pelecanos* did that to Wallace. It’s probably the most disturbing scene of that whole season. And yet, completely fitting.

I’d like to believe that if it was truly fitting for a character to die that I would be brave enough to kill them off, and defend that choice. I have definitely killed off peripheral characters, close to protagonists. There was one in SC I really didn’t want to kill, but it was the right thing to do.

The problem for me is that I become attached to the protagonists, likeable or loatheable, and begin to feel their pain. I don’t even like putting them through the ringer. I don’t get some perverse satisfaction from tormenting my main characters. (Okay, there are a few peripheral characters I’m happy beating on from time to time, but not my protagonists.)

I suppose the reason I’m having such conflict over this is that one of my upcoming projects includes a story where the/a protagonist must die. Toward the end of Frailty I found myself procrastinating, not wanting to deal with the next scene because every scene was bringing me closer to something I didn’t want to do.

Am I the only one who finds it hard? Do I have some abnormal bond with my characters that’s making it difficult, or does everyone go through that? You know, as a reader I’m usually forgiving. As long as I feel it fits the tone of the work, I’ll accept the author’s choice.

But as a writer I find some of those big decisions tough to make.

* And if I had interviewed George Pelecanos for the upcoming Spinetingler Issue, I would have had a chat with him about that. As it is, we hope to have the new issue up in a few weeks, and there is an interview with George…

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Remedy For Self Pity

Truth time. I started writing Suspicious Circumstances about 5.5 years ago. We then went through some hard times, and I was working so much it would be more than 2 years before I finished the book. And another 2.5 years before it was published…

And guess what? That’s fast for the publishing world.

Have I broken even on my investment in website costs, publishers marketplace subscription, the organization memberships, the traveling expenses, cost of the diploma program I took, the seminars I’ve attended, mailing out query packages, producing and mailing out review copies? No.

Sure, some authors do make big bucks right out of the gate. Maybe one in twenty thousand. But most are working a second job to pay the bills.

Simple reality.

And as much as we are allowed to have the odd bit of frustration, for me, it was put in perspective before I got back on track with the plan to write, about four years ago. After getting sucked back in the work world I wasn’t sure I’d ever take another shot at a writing career. You see, SC wasn’t even the first book I tried to write. In all honesty, not by a long shot. But it was the first book I finished.

Oh, I came close with one. It was 1996. I was living on Vancouver Island, working at a job serving ice cream and hot dogs at the farmer’s market while I tried to complete studies in business communications and communication theory. I spent an hour or two every morning working on The book that shall remain unnamed. See, it had a name, but I don’t want to go there. Truth is, I looked at it recently, and it wasn’t as scary as I thought…

It just probably would shock people to know I was working on a children's fantasy book.

And I was probably about 10 pages short of finishing it when I quit. Because I had no idea how to end it, or what to do with it.

The easy excuse is, it’s impossible to get published. In fact, it’s such an easy excuse I bought a writer’s market book and didn’t do anything else.

Believe me, it’s hard to get published when you don’t even try. You will not be serving tables one day and have an editor at one of your tables who’s so taken with how you talk he decides you’d be a brilliant writer…

What got me back on track was a good smack upside the head. And I got it from Deric Ruttan. Oh, he didn’t know he was nudging me at the time, but he was.

He shamed me.

Deric had what most Ruttans have – the music bug. I wouldn’t be surprised if more of us Ruttans have been to Nashville than Disneyland. Anyway, part way through college, Deric got a gig playing with a band, and that was it. He was determined to make it.

He’d always had the talent. In high school he used to do a lot of CCR and always performed. His hair was about as long as mine, and just as thick and curly, and he had rock star persona all over him. I'd post a photo, but I do value my life...

Somehow, he got the country bug.

Turns out, a lot of that had to do with story songs. He was turned on to the works of Steve Earle, and others, and when the dust settled, he was in Nashville.

The next decade would be tough. Working odd jobs to get by. Sometimes not having enough money for food and electricity, so it was eating in the dark. Sometimes, not enough gas to get to songwriting sessions.

But after ten hard years, he had a record deal and an album out. More good news. He was picking up songwriting awards for What Was I Thinkin’? a party tune recorded by Dierks Bentley that went to #1.

And they continue to collaborate on hits.

Yeah, it only took ten years.

And you know what? It’s been four years since Deric’s debut album, and the second one is just coming out now. One thing Deric said was that he’d seen a lot of people come and go, but if you had a dream you had to believe and stick it out.

Oh, and did I mention his SO and the five kids?

But I learned more than just to persevere. Deric can tell a story that will break your heart. You’d probably have to get the album to hear Tom and Annie but it’s a heart-wrenching song to rival the best noir stories out there.

No, I'm not living on easy street, and yes, I know what it is to have to scrimp pennies to put something in the mail. But when I get discouraged I just think about ten long years, eating in the dark, and I realize I don’t have it so bad.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Protecting the Author Label

Are all ‘authors’ created equal? A quick look at the evidence says “No”.

Over the past few years the lines have been shifting, and with the advent of self-publishing options, with it getting harder and harder to get a publishing contract (particularly for fiction) organizations have responded by asking pertinent questions about how to define an author.

The MWA recently made changes to their ‘approved publisher’ list, and this has resulted in criticism and argument amongst some.

I got thinking about it a bit more, looking at the new Barnes & Noble Crime Fiction Club, where registered participants are labeled under categories.

There have been other fights this year, such as the brouhaha over Simon & Schuster’s contract changes a few months ago, and the ensuing argument over the contract amendments.

What if an author gets to the point where their work is only available in POD format? If their membership to an organization lapsed, and they went to renew, would they be considered an author or an associate? The problem is, there are so many gray areas to address, the risk is that the rules will be rendered pointless IF loopholes are created or exploited that allow for double standards.

Meanwhile, a recent decision by an author to self publish their backlist is not meeting with the usual criticism dished out against self-published authors by some.

Does this send a mixed message to authors currently considering self-publishing? Perhaps.

One of the problems is that we try to operate in black and white when the world is varying shades of gray. Archer Mayor is not the first author to undertake a publishing enterprise to keep his backlist alive. However, I’m left wondering about decisions of authors to self-publish their backlists when other legitimate publishers will consider reprinting works. Good idea or bad? Many will be watching to see how well Mr. Mayor does before reaching a verdict.

All of that is somewhat secondary. Here are the simple facts. If you choose to start off self-published, you’ll be ostracized within the crime fiction community. In most countries, most writer organizations will not consider you an author. They will not consider your work for awards… but you will be ‘published’ in the sense that you are no longer eligible for consideration as a debut author by award status, and can’t enter competitions for unpublished writers. And reviews? Forget about it.

If you choose a small publisher that is not on the approved publisher list for various organizations, you will also have a difficult time. It’s harder to get bookstores to carry your work. It’s harder to get reviews. Every aspect of your career will be a challenge, because super-small publishers don’t have the distribution of the big guys, and they don’t have the marketing budgets. That doesn’t mean that you can’t consider that avenue. It just means that if you do, you have to understand that the deck is stacked against you.

For all the talk about it being about the writing, reality is, it’s as much about who publishes your work as anything else. Hey, if you want to be considered for an Edgar Award, know the list of MWA approved publishers and don’t settle for anyone else. It’s that simple.

Why am I posting this? It isn’t a criticism against the new rules. What it is is a reality check. On a regular basis I receive e-mails from people, asking me to refer them to an agent, to recommend them to my publisher, to suggest a publisher for their work, if they can get their self-published book reviewed, for advice about how to get published… etc. etc. etc.

Here’s my wake-up call to the aspiring authors out there. A lot of people won’t consider me a ‘real’ author until my book with Dorchester comes out next May. And if you think it’s easy, think again. I made my own specific decisions, for specific reasons. Would I recommend the same course of action to others?

Not lightly.

It is true that many good books are overlooked by the conventional publishers. MJ Rose started off self-published. However, before you use that justification to do likewise, you need to consider why she did it, how she did it, and ask if you’re in a position where you absolutely have to.

Simply put, many writers are starving for affirmation about their craft. They want to get an acceptance letter so that they can say to themselves (and everyone else) that they’re a real writer. Come on, it’s partially about validation. Otherwise, we’d never try to get published and just write for ourselves, not go through the criticism and angst.

Until you’ve

a) written a full manuscript
b) tried dozens and dozens of agents without getting any requests for full manuscripts
c) taken a course/attended workshops with editors/publishers on how to shop your work and get published
d) written a second manuscript and queried again and again and again, still with no success

I personally don’t think you should consider self publishing. Now, I know there are good books that get self published, but they are so few and far between that most reviewers have strict rules about not reviewing them.

What do I say about the small press option? Well, you just never know. I know others who started off with brand new publishers the same time I did, and we talked about the roll of the dice. With some, it turned out devastating. With others, it turned out well. And for some of us it was somewhere between the two.

I’m not a published author… at least, not by the standards some groups set. Did I pay to be self-published? No. Did my manuscript go through a review process before an offer of publication was made? Yes. Is every manuscript submitted to the publisher in question offered publication? No. Is it fair? Well...

My advice? Try anything else under the sun first. Impatient? Get over yourself. This is a slow business, and until you get in there and have a regular editor/publisher at an established house it takes a while to jump through the hurdles and see your work in print.

If there’s no other way, then there’s a different discussion to have. But when people e-mail me and say they haven’t finished their manuscript, but are already querying and have had ten rejection letters so they’re going to self publish, I want to smack them.

Instead, I’m posting this, as a bit of a caution. Consider every hope and dream you have for your debut, and what it is you really want. If you say it’s just to see your name on the cover of a book, you’re probably deluding yourself. (Okay, if you have a terminal illness, I understand. But if not, you’re kidding yourself.) You don’t just want to have a book with your name on it, you want it to be read, and you want it to be enjoyed. You want people to validate your work and what you’ve poured your heart into.

Don’t settle lightly. Think carefully about what it is you want. If you don’t, you may find yourself facing a lot of heartache on the other side of a bad decision. What do I think about my own choices? It doesn’t matter. I know why I made them. I also know where I’m at now. But my reasons aren’t yours, and my outcome isn’t yours either. For the odd story (like MJ Rose’s) where clearly the publishers were wrong, at least 99 times they’re right when they send out a rejection.

How do I know that? I read short story submissions.

Whatever you do, do it with your eyes wide open.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Proverbial Rollercoaster of Emotion

Yesterday, I penned the last words of the new book, and since then I’ve been alternating between elation and depression.

There’s a profound sense of satisfaction with bringing a book to completion, at any level. I believe it’s the holdback for the majority of aspiring authors, that instead of completing a draft they tweak endlessly, wanting the book to be just right as they type the end. For me, I’m not a plotter. I’m fairly confident the outline I sent to my agent last Friday is outdated and inaccurate. What I do now is read through, with a little list of things to check on. One such question (Do the Patels live in Anmore?) has already been answered and crossed off the list. Things that might seem silly to others…

But it’s only once I see through to the end that I have the whole picture. Now that I feel satisfied the perfect ending is in place, I’ll go through and re-read with an eye to that moment, and make sure everything does its part to point to that ending.

At some point next week, off it will go, ahead of schedule, and I am thrilled. Truly. 100%.

But I’m worried the book coming out in… about seven months is already doomed.

WTF? you’re wondering, right? I must be completely irrational. Well, unfortunately, not completely.

There is a process that occurs in the book industry, and the lead-in time is critical. Review copies start going out. Normally they go to authors as well as booksellers and reviewers. Why? It generates discussion. People in the business start talking about the new releases to look forward to, and that generates buzz. We all know that the first month a book is on sale is critical, and that means that the buzz has to start pre-release. We aren’t afforded as much opportunity for readers to spread the word.

So… I got thinking about the fact that it’s only seven frickin’ months until May. And it was full-scale panic. I think Patti’s recent post lodged in my subconscious. As much as I try not to think about all that stuff it’s there.

As you know, I never became an author because I was enamored with marketing and self promotion. I realize fully that I should be producing some early review copies and getting them out there. After all, in a few short weeks it will be six months. By the time I had copies ready and in the mail, it would be five months when people got them in their hands, which is perfect for reviewers.

Instead, I’m thinking about… other stuff I don’t want to talk about.

But then I get back to that one point of happiness, that the new book is pretty close to ready. By that, I mean ready to be read by my editor. I don’t mean it’s to my complete satisfaction. No book ever is. (Well, okay. I'm pretty damn happy with What Burns Within, although I haven't seen my editor's notes yet... I honestly finished WBW and thought it showed significant growth and a solid move in the direction I want my writing to go in. The new manuscript takes that one step further, as I believe every new work should raise new challenges and mark growth.) I could tweak endlessly, and it feels like my work is finally pried from my hands with a slap of the fingers and a stern lecture.

Am I the only one who goes through this? Probably.

But insightful posts like the one Kevin Wignall* wrote about sales & marketing only serve to keep the wheels turning…

*Kevin Wignall’s new book, Who Is Conrad Hirst? hits the shelves in a matter of weeks! It’s available for preorder now.

A haunting story that flows at a hypnotic pace to a heart-wrenching conclusion, WHO IS CONRAD HIRST? is one of the most compelling books of the year. Wignall is an expert storyteller, an absolute must-read for fans of hardboiled crime fiction.
- Sandra Ruttan, Spinetingler Magazine (Fall 2007 Issue)

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

All Together Now… DUH!

If you ever find yourself on trial for murder, there are certain things that can really help your case. And finding an expert witness who does not make the mistake of looking like a complete idiot on the stand is important.

Courtesy of my good friend John McFetridge (Toronto novelist John McFetridge has studied at the knee of Elmore Leonard and taken away lessons that I wish more Canadian novelists would. Dirty Sweet is an amusingly sordid tale that features amusingly sordid people … you can’t read it for long without a smile coming across your lips. If more people wrote the kind of clean-as-a-whistle, no-fat prose McFetridge does, this reviewer would finish a lot more of their books.”— David Gilmour, National Post, Saturday May 13, 2006) comes this juicy little story, and as he said to me, if you wrote this in a book you’d be taken to task for how unbelievable it is.

From the Toronto Star:

It was – how to put this? – a pathological boner, stand-up (or sit-down, in this case) ba-da-boom comedy.
Not that forensic pathologists are, by nature, a barrel of laughs. They deal in the minutiae of death, after all, getting down into the squishy stuff of tissue and organs and bodily secretions.
But Dr. Arkady Katsnelson, sworn in as an expert witness for the defence in the first-degree murder trial of Rick Wills, verily tripped on a banana peel, or fell on his scalpel yesterday whilst explaining the odd markings on Linda Mariani's neck, allegedly evidence of the skipping rope that had been wound about her throat.
Helpfully using a pointer, Katsnelson drew the jury's attention to a trio of lesions, vivid red on the slide that was being shown. "In my opinion, it is some kind of artificial marks. It is not marks from a skipping rope.''
Artificial markings, all right. They were strokes drawn onto the slide by an earlier police witness, indicating triple "furrows'' in what remained of Mariani's skin. The expert witness had mistaken red highlighter for wounds. And the little arrows pointing to the strokes, these Katsnelson couldn't explain at all, describing them as "shovels'' in the flesh. Further: "This is not consistent with strangulation because the marks are so short.''
Confusion gave way to disbelief as prosecutor Harold Dale rose to his feet.
"He's talking about evidence that isn't evidence.
"He's opining about lines that were put there by another witness. It's highlighter! It's not a furrow, it's not blood.''
With spectators straining to control their titters and snorts – which severely annoyed Wills' three teenage children – a clearly embarrassed Katsnelson tried to pick his dignity up off the floor. "Sorry, I did not know it's red highlighter.''

Click on the link for the full story. I realize it’s probably in very poor taste to laugh over something in a murder trial, but I mean… come on! Artificial indeed.

Meanwhile, Chelbel has provided a link to a humourous little video, very entertaining. If you need a smile, go here forFight for Kisses.


Ten years ago, it started in one city, with one newspaper, and grew into a national event. Today is Raise-A-Reader day in Canada, an initiative that’s raised over $7.5 million since it was started, with all the money going to literacy programs.

From the Vancouver Sun: ”Those of us who are literate can take our good fortune for granted. We may forget that 42 per cent of Canadian adults have low prose literacy skills; more than 20 per cent have severe problems with reading and comprehension. Vast numbers of Canadians are not able to read such crucial information as food labels, product safety warnings or instructions for prescription and other drugs. People with low literacy skills suffer from higher unemployment and lower self esteem. They are often ashamed of their inability to read and try all sorts of strategies to hide it from family, friends and co-workers.”

Raise-A-Reader aims to ensure that people acquire literacy skills at an early age and don’t face such challenges throughout their lives. It’s a program that’s made a difference for families and individuals and from Vancouver it’s spread across the country.

And it isn’t just corporate sponsors and educators that get involved.

Every Canadian can contribute to the program today, nation-wide. Check out the links to stories in the Vancouver Sun for more information, and please spread the word. If you don’t have a Raise-A-Reader program in your country, perhaps today is a good day to ask why not.

“The gift of literacy empowers people and enhances our communities."
Leonard Asper, president and chief executive officer of CanWest Global Communications Corp.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Dorchester Publishing Teams Up With Barnes & Noble

Charles Ardai, editor with Hard Case Crime takes the helm as Dorchester teams up with Barnes & Noble to create a forum for crime fiction discussion.

From the press release:
New York, NY – October 2, 2007 – To celebrate Mystery Month, Barnes & will launch its new Crime Book Club this October with an online discussion among award-winning mystery novelists on the topic “Chandler’s Children.” The discussion will provide fans of detective fiction, hardboiled crime fiction, and film noir the opportunity to discuss with some of today's most talented crime writers how Raymond Chandler—the legendary novelist, two-time Edgar Award-winner, and creator of iconic private eye Philip Marlowe—continues to influence the genre almost 50 years after his death.

Moderated by 2007 Edgar Award-winning author and founder/editor of Hard Case Crime Charles Ardai, the inaugural Crime Book Club discussion will feature fellow Hard Case Crime authors Ken Bruen, Jason Starr, Allan Guthrie and Christa Faust, as well as Charlie Huston, Duane Swierczynski and Megan Abbott. The discussion will cover topics as diverse as “The Necessary Library: The Top Ten Novels that Every Noir Aficionado Must Have,” “Film Noir and the Novels That Inspired It,” “The Novelist as Screenwriter,” “Crime as Literature and the Origins of Crime Fiction,” “Dead Street: The Forthcoming Final Crime Novel from Mickey Spillane,” and—perhaps most importantly—“Chandler’s Children: How Today’s Crime Novelists Are Honoring and Adapting the Traditions of Noir Master Raymond Chandler.”

One of the originators of hardboiled and noir crime fiction, Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) authored nine novels, including The Big Sleep (1939), which was adapted into the 1946 film, directed by Howard Hawks, and The Long Goodbye (1953), which was adapted into the controversial 1973 film, directed by Robert Altman. Chandler is also the renowned screenwriter of the Oscar Award-nominated films Double Indemnity (1944), directed by Billy Wilder; The Blue Dahlia (1946), directed by George Marshall; and Strangers on a Train (1951), directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Additional Marlowe novels that were made into celebrated films include The High Window (released as Time to Kill in 1943), directed by Herbert I. Leeds and Farewell, My Lovely (1975), directed by Dick Richards. A new film based on Chandler's novella, "Trouble Is My Business," is currently in development by Universal Pictures, to be helmed by Frank Miller, director of Sin City and 300. A Philip Marlowe TV series is also in development.

Barnes & Noble’s Online Book Club provides a unique forum where readers and writers can meet to exchange ideas and opinions. Starting October 2, 2007, anyone interested in participating in the discussion or just discovering outstanding crime novels they might never have known about should visit .

For more information on Hard Case Crime and the authors participating in this event, please visitHard Case Crime.


The release suggests more pairings between Dorchester and Barnes & Noble may be in the future for other genres. As something of a cousin to the Hard Case Crime crew, I've already been snooping around a bit, and with Ardai's plans for the forum it promises to generate a lot of interest.

The Repercussions of Indifference

The lovely Alison Gaylin of First Offenders gave me the perfect opening for something that was already on my mind.

The most serious issue in the publishing industry today is not quality of work or distribution. The most serious issue in the publishing industry is indifference.

We’ve all heard the saying actions speak louder than words. There is truth in that expression, and it’s also true that the lack of action speaks louder than words. Consider if a man tells you he wants to marry you, but never proposes and then moves out of the country and doesn’t give you his address. Logic infers the declared desire to marry was a lie, or if not a lie, there were other competing interests that overshadowed any desire for a permanent relationship. Waiting for him to return and propose would be considered by most foolish.

What does this have to do with Alison? Today, she writes on the blog about getting a billboard for her latest book, and how that’s helped boost sales. And then she adds in a bit of commentary about the growing onus on authors to handle their promotion. ”So many people have come up to me, a look of shock in their eyes, saying they saw the billboard and, as a result, bought TRASHED that I'm wondering -- why didn't NAL get me one of these babies? (Oh yeah, because they're not friends with the billboard people and it would actually cost them lots of money.)”

That connects with something Steven Torres said in a comment on a recent post here, and with his permission I quote:

"Publishers generally refuse to see the books they publish as cultural events - unlike movie producers or even music producers. Publishers prove that they don't think the books are relevant when they refuse to spend advertising dollars saying - rather weakly - that no one buys things because they see ads...Movie/music producers are happy to run ads claiming that their product will "change the way you think about XYZ." Publishers don't run ads at all. What is the public supposed to think about which is more relevant?"

Let me be emphatic about the purpose of this post: It is not to attack publishers. What these comments actually got me thinking about was the culture of indifference, and social conditioning. No, I haven’t been smoking anything illegal this morning…

It is a very simple reality that in our society, we follow trends. We reference cultural shifts, such as the fashions of the 70s, the music of the 60s, the sexual revolution. Anyone remember when Cabbage Patch Dolls were all the rage, and the stores couldn’t keep them stocked long enough?

The reason that I believe JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series was such a success was because the release of a new book became a cultural event. It was anticipated, widely discussed, publicized and promoted.

In the publishing world, we typically seem run counter to the norm. With movies, they tend to spend a lot of money making the movie and, unwilling to then not recoup the investment, they promote the movie. Here’s a question: How many movies that are released to mainstream movie theatres have a zero advertising budget? How many movies will Famous Players (or whoever it is now) show this weekend that didn’t have a TV ad?

I think we probably all know the answer. And yet, this same week, dozens and dozens of books will be released that will have no promotion behind them at all. In the book world, the theory seems to be make money by not spending money. Refer back to my recent post citing Jeri Westerson's, and the reality of publishers not shipping out books for signings, thus rendering author events ineffective. And one would truly think that in order to make money it would be important to get the books out to stores... In the movie world, advertising generates awareness of the existence of a movie and the release becomes an event. Compared to the release of Harry Potter, I’m struggling to think of any other book launch that’s been so greatly anticipated. For individuals, we can all name our own, but I’m talking collectively.

Yet I remember lining up for the new Star Wars movie, how anxious people were to have tickets for opening night. I remember the line-ups for Titanic, which was sold out long before I got to the ticket booth, which is why I never saw it. (I’m going to get back to this in a minute.) And I most definitely remember the anticipation of The Lord of the Rings and going on opening weekend to see each of the movies. Indeed, as Steven said, movie releases become cultural events. I can scroll through the news articles in the Toronto Star today, and they’re talking about two music artists. Yesterday it was ‘must-see TV’. On the weekend, the latest films. On a daily basis other arts are discussed and celebrated, and the very act of discussing those releases increases public awareness and, consequently, their significance to the public. Do you want to be the only one at the water cooler not talking about the latest Bond film, or who doesn’t know what happened in the last episode of Seinfeld or hasn’t heard the new Bruce Springsteen album yet?

And really, what is it that’s different about CDs, movies, TV shows and books? There seems to be a tendency to discount interest in books, saying they’re a luxury item, nobody needs it to live.

In short, I think it goes over to social conditioning… and access.

I grew up in a small town. In the summer the Muskoka Theatre was a busy enterprise, providing live entertainment to the tourists. I lived in Muskoka for almost twenty years of my life, and it was not until that last year that I took my cousin to a play at the Muskoka Theatre. Why? Because as a local resident I was far too busy working to indulge in the entertainment the tourists enjoyed. Locals made their bread and butter off of the tourist industry. The tourists played, we worked. It isn’t that simple for everyone, but I remember friends saying how lucky I was to live there year-round. They visited, on a holiday, and had a picture of paradise. I remember the long winters, the fact that we had no mall, a furniture store sold a small selection of records and tapes, there was no bookstore but the pharmacy had a few racks of titles and the grocery stores had a small selection as well, and by the time I was an adult the one, lone movie theatre was gone.

It was easy to feel as though the world was a place you only heard about on TV, and occasionally people who lived in it visited. From the perspective of a teenager it was isolating and dull, and yet we weren’t far from other major cities. Orillia was half an hour south, Barrie about an hour’s drive, and half an hour beyond that you were on the outskirts of Toronto. The nature of our location, and access, made a sixteenth birthday an enormous cultural event, because it marked the age at which we could drive, and being able to drive meant being able to gain access to all of the things we didn’t have in our town.

As a result, you also would not commonly hear people talking about going to the opera, the ballet. People made events of going to rock concerts. I will always remember going to see Les Miserables, an event followed by a visit to a city bar where we spotted famous actors. I was with my sister and future brother-in-law. Since my BIL had family in the city, they knew the spots to visit, and his father and step-mother introduced me to a different world, his step-mother a cousin to Timothy Findley, and she actually possessed the letters which had inspired The Wars.

Since I distinctly remember a childhood thinking life was what was happening everywhere else, I remember the transitions in my own thinking. I didn’t think I would ever travel and see the world. Books were a window, and an escape, and therefore treasured. We would drive to Orillia or Barrie to go to the mall and my mother and sister would go to look at clothes, while I went to the bookstore.

Through TV, even through newspapers, we’re subtly and sometimes brazenly conditioned to consider certain things important. If other people are talking about it, it must be significant… even if what they are talking about is nothing more than Britney Spears losing custody of her kids. How is that relevant to us, as individuals? It isn’t. And yet it was marked as ‘breaking news’ yesterday. We have a culture that is built on the creation of idols, and our media (and consequently many individuals) assign significance to everything they do, even if it has no bearing on any of us. Why should Britney Spears be newsworthy? Why is her divorce, or her shaving her head, more newsworthy than the recent releases of The Bone Garden by Tess Gerritsen, Mark Billingham’s Death Message, Ian Rankin’s Exit Music?

The answer is, simply, that we’ve been conditioned to think her behaviour is significant. While it’s unlikely that regular readers of this blog assign much value to her as a source of news (other than, perhaps, as a cautionary tale) clearly the media believes putting her on the cover sells newspapers and magazines. Hollywood is a physical location, where multiple ‘celebrities’ can be tracked (in the same way multiple country stars can be found in Nashville) and therefore, it is easy to have a few reporters there to follow the latest news and gossip because it is easy to access several “newsworthy” people with limited resources. Their antics are newsworthy, and of the dozens of books released this week, few will ever receive even a review in a newspaper, never mind inspire a column or article.

The importance – or lack of importance – a culture puts on the printed world says a lot. Consider what was said of the formation of schools in the early days of colonizing America:

”More than any other device,” Lewis Mumford wrote… “the printed book released people from the domination of the immediate and the local;…print made a greater impression than the actual events… To exist was to exist in print: the rest of the world tended gradually to become more shadowy. Learning became book-learning.” In light of this, we may assume that the schooling of the young was understood by the colonists not only as a moral duty but as an intellectual imperative. (The England from which they came was an island of schools. By 1660, for example, there were 444 schools in England, one school approximately every twelve miles.) And it is clear that growth in literacy was closely connected to schooling. Where schooling was not required (as in Rhode Island) or weak school laws prevailed (as in New Hampshire), literacy rates increased more slowly than anywhere else. (Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, page 33.

The printed word revolutionized society. It brought knowledge of other places, people, beliefs, to others. Shared knowledge could become a strength, and conversely, keeping knowledge from others became a means of control. Think back to the history of the Church, to maintaining the practice of performing Mass in Latin – a language which exceptionally few people have any grasp of – and how that isolates. People can be classes as in the know or not in the know. Knowledge becomes a source of power. Just consider how desperately scholars try to decipher hieroglyphs and ancient symbols. Why? So that they can attach meaning to the organization of strokes connected to represent some shape which had significance to a culture, even if that culture no longer exists. We want to know what they knew. Curiously enough, we live in a society replete with contradictions. We do not want to think of others knowing what we do not know. Did ancient Egyptians know of life on other planets? What happened to the Anasazi tribes? Is there a mystical key to immortality in some remote jungle on the planet?

Civilizations have killed, and been killed, for the knowledge of their secrets. What was the quickest way to suppress a people? Take away their language, destroy their culture. We need think no further than England and Ireland. In the seventeenth century, under English rule, many Irish chieftains and teachers were forced either to emigrate or go into hiding, and for many people education continued only in the illegal 'hedge schools', in fields, barns and sheds….
It was also at the beginning of the nineteenth century that scholars, notably Germans, began to unravel the mysteries of 'Old Irish' and Irish studies became a recognized scholarly pursuit. Towards the end of the century the Irish cultural revolution, or 'renaissance', began. Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League) was founded in 1893 with the principle aim of reviving the Irish language, which was showing signs of decline.

TV now means that you do not need to read to be able to know, and we have come full circle, with students now able to graduate from high school and college remaining technically illiterate. The printed word is not afforded the same significance by society at large, which is odd, because to be immortal is still to exist in print. That's why people cut out newspaper clippings about themselves or loved ones, it's why people still publish obituaries to mark the passing of a loved one. You can be on TV and your appearance over in a heartbeat, without ready ability to recapture that moment and share it with others, but being in the newspaper is something that can be framed, referenced... It is permanent in a way that TV is not.

And yet, I am left referring back to what Alison Gaylin said, and could cite example after example that demonstrates that awareness does generate interest. It is not that people do not have the time or money for books. Let me go back to Titanic. Sold out the one time I tried to see it, so I believe I saw a Bond movie instead, and never saw Titanic. Why? It really wasn’t that important to me. I was with someone who wanted to see it, and since attending a movie was really more of a social event (let’s not touch on the contradiction of socializing while sitting in the dark with strangers watching a movie and not talking) than anything else, it lost significance for me in the absence of that person. I had no individual desire to see the movie.

The point there is that people will spend $20 going to see a movie (by the time you drive to a different town, buy book and tickets, probably more) for entertainment, even if they have no overwhelming desire to see the movie. People are often willing to dispense with money if they feel they will be somewhat entertained for a few hours. We make excuse after excuse for why people don’t buy more books or read more – too busy, books are too expensive – but if you examine our consumer habits I would say that an overwhelming majority of what I see advertised on TV is not anything essential. You don’t have to advertise groceries, because people need to eat to survive. (And yet some products are advertised – local potatoes, Milk. I note that many of the items advertised are either local or ‘special’ in some capacity… or are items that have become a subject of controversy as people debate the health benefits. Eggs and peanut butter are good examples.) No, what is advertised on TV is not what it essential, but what is regarded as desirable, items of convenience that are going to make your life better. Movies you should want to see, because everyone else does. TV shows you shouldn’t miss. New albums you simply must get your hands on. The latest fashion trends. Beer. In fact, the most memorable commercials for me, for some reason are beer, coke and Canadian Tire ads. God only knows why. But I remember that Barry Eisler had an ad in the NY Times…

Last week I saw an ad on TV for a book. The new James Patterson. It is not that advertising doesn’t work, or that there’s an unwillingness to invest in promotion. It’s that it is done for exceptionally few items. I think back to the summer and the Edinburgh Book Festival, which received plenty of media coverage, based on an over-hyped comment blown way out of proportion… which was soon followed by a joke that got out of hand (about JK Rowling and her “new” book) that earned Ian Rankin headlines in the national news here in Canada. One remark, well-placed, earned enormous free press coverage, simply because of who he was talking about and the cultural significance she’s considered to have.

Meanwhile, review space declines, and we mourn its loss, while not grasping the cultural shifts that have brought it to this place or what the implications for the future are. Michael Connelly was one person I saw who dissected the issue with intelligence, talking about how newspapers were doing a disservice to themselves in the long-term by undermining the importance of the written word by not covering books. His thoughts on the topic (which if someone has a link to, please do share in the comments) came closest to a discussion of communication theory and the culture of literature. I could digress and go on whole new tangents and easily be here day after day, week after week, on the subject because it fascinates me, but instead am reduced to trying to whittle down my thoughts into one semi-coherent post. What reviewers fail to understand is that yes, all forms of the written word, have merit. Going back to Postman (page 51 this time): To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another. The very act of reading conveys a level of intelligence not needed to watch TV, listen to a CD or even watch a play. We translate lines and curves into letters, and again into words, which we assign meaning and when words are put into sentences it can alter their meaning. The act of reading is one that requires knowledge and intelligence. I am not suggesting that there aren’t intelligent people who can’t/don’t read, but when someone can read we assign certain merit to them. Reading is a skill. Watching a movie isn’t.

And yet, what do we celebrate as a society? What gets discussed? The latest books… or the latest movies? Why do I review primarily genre fiction? Because reading is what is important, and if people find what they will enjoy they will continue to read. Some want humour, some want drama, some want romance, some want purely to be entertained and others to be challenged. We make the mistake of denoting significance to things based on content. One of the main reason ‘literary’ types are thought to snub their noses at genre fiction is because of the ‘fluff’ factor, and so we categorize things based on relevance… but there can be as much merit in making a person laugh as in making them think about an issue.

This is not all about publishers needing to do more promotion. What I fear has become lost in the recent push for authors to do more and more to promote their own books is the bond we share as people who love the written word, and love writing and reading. It’s been replaced by necessary competition, to get our work noticed ahead of others. I read on a blog a few months back a candid admission from an author that when someone walked into a bookstore, they wanted people to buy their book instead of anyone else’s. Believe me, when What Burns Within comes out I hope a lot of people buy it and read it, and more than anything that they enjoy it… but my first love does go to reading, and recognizing that individual tastes vary, more than anything I want people to find the books that will speak to them. When they find those books it will ignite their love of reading, and have them seeking more and more books. This is what one author did for me at a critical point in my life, and as a result I discovered so many other authors.

I look to the UK. I’ve had a long-standing love affair with British fiction, and have to applaud their culture, for it is a culture that indulges the love of books. The press takes note of literary festivals. I can tell you about Hay-on-Wye when I’ve never even been to it, or to Wales. I read the news about book launch parties, the Edinburgh festival and others, and feel a new sense of isolation, because we do not have the passion for literature here to sustain those types of events.

I look to the CWA who, in recognition of the fact that much of what we give significance to in society is attached to a dollar value, and made the top prize at their annual awards £20,000. They created a newsworthy event that in turn conveys significance to the awards, and raises awareness outside of the industry. And that's critical, because we are far too good at preaching to the converted, and ineffective at reaching beyond genre insiders.

What is needed is not just clever marketing gimmicks. What is needed is a culture that stands up and says that books are to be cherished and celebrated, that inside on those pages is a story worth reading, that opening a book is like opening a window to the world, allowing you to see inside the minds of others, to experience what they experience, to feel their pain, their joy, their conflict.

The author organizations can invest in the future of their industry by making a stand that books are relevant. We need to get over this apologetic attitude that treats books as luxury items that aren't important.

Or, we can carry on, everyone out for themselves, and still fail to spark the awareness of the many, many great books out there well worth reading.

In closing, I’m going to quote myself, from something I contributed in the comments to a post Patti Abbott made.

At some point in your life, you pulled out a book, held it in your hands, and fell in love. And it might have been right then, or maybe a little while later, but one day you thought, I want to see my name on a book some day. And that was the dream.

And it isn't the same achievement self-publishing. It's the difference between getting a mail-order bride and having someone genuinely fall in love with you - that's the feeling when an editor says they love what you do, and want to publish it.

That's the moment to write for. I know there's everything else (believe me, I know) but to be able to hold a book in your hands with your name on the cover is the dream. We just have to try not to let it be overshadowed by the nightmare.