Sunday, April 29, 2007

Culture, Contemporary Nomad and The Reason I Can’t Stomach Cozies

Kevin Wignall has opened the discussion on how culture influences book sales, in a manner of speaking. This has prompted me to post today, and I’m going to speak candidly about crime fiction and my personal view about cozies.

I won’t steal Kevin’s thunder – please do read his blog post for yourself. I am simply acknowledging that he set this in motion. Discussions of whether Americans will read works set outside the US aren’t new. This is a topic that’s come up on DorothyL, and there are quite a number of vocal readers who dislike the ‘Americanizing’ of British books. As I mentioned in the comments there, I referred to my current read, Steve Mosby’s The 50/50 Killer on DorothyL and immediately received emails from people asking if it was available in the US. Unfortunately, not at this time, as Steve hasn’t been picked up by a US publisher yet. It’s a damn shame – I read quite a bit yesterday and am loving it. No overdone cultural references that confuse either. No reason at all this book can’t do well outside the UK. Fortunately, there’s been great buzz in Italy and Germany around the book, so the international deals have been forthcoming.

But I digress. It’s just one example of why I’m sometimes glad to be Canadian. As a reader we usually get the best of both worlds. Steve is with one of my favourite publishers in the UK, ORION, so his books are available in Canada. Of course, they also publish God, so I get the books on a UK release schedule and unamericanized, which is how I like them. I love ORION.

We also get most American authors through their US publishers, so again, we get them on their initial release schedules. In Canada we seldom wait for anything.

Except recognition of our own, that is. The standard advice to Canadian authors is that if you want to get published, set your work south of the border. This is exceptionally frustrating. At a time when people praise authors who use the setting as a character why should we automatically be forced to move our work? For some authors this isn’t an issue. I maintain I have no problem setting my work in the US, if I choose. And that’s the key. I just don’t want to be forced to move it. Sorry to say, but if I’m going to move it I’d be more inclined to move it overseas. I have lived in Europe. I have never lived in the US, and I did make a mistake about Connecticut in SC, despite having the manuscript vetted by three Americans in the business and having an American editor – it took a Connecticut reader to catch it. However, it undermines my confidence, because I had done some research and found references that prompted me to make the change. Something I thought I was correcting turned out to be a mistake. It’s a minor point, but nevertheless, that’s the risk of setting work outside your country.

The Canadian publishing industry is such that agents aren’t as keen about selling works to publishers here. They want the US/UK sales, and who can blame them? They want to make money and that will prompt certain choices. Canadian author Rick Mofina sets work in the US, while Peter Robinson sets his work in the UK (and some debate whether he’s really ‘Canadian’ but that’s a whole other topic).

However, the tide may be turning. Giles Blunt fictionalizes North Bay, Ontario. I won’t digress with North Bay jokes, but I could. This is, in Canadian terms, but a stone’s throw from where I grew up and I’m familiar with the area. We have John McFetridge writing about an engagingly seedy, sleazy Toronto and he’s actually prompted affection on my part for the city. (And as someone raised in Muskoka, I’m not too fond of Toronto, but I will follow John to the city readily - I’ve already read book 2, which won’t be out until next year.)

And who can discount the popularity of Louise Penny? Now, I will be getting back to Louise Penny, so we’ll hold that thought.

I do not particularly care if a book is set in London or Las Vegas, Manchester or Montreal. I admit to being a bit bored with the same old, same old of using NYC and LA as settings, but I am not boycotting books from any location. I just admit that if two books sound great and I was trying to decide between them, if all else was equal in terms of interest and one was set in LA and the other was set in Minneapolis, it is the latter that would come home with me. If the author does their job I will have no difficulty with the book because of setting. Perhaps this is all unfair of me, because as Canadians we accept that almost everything put our way will be set outside our borders. I do know writers here who, after multiple rejections because their work was set in Canada, stopped reading American authors. I do not think that is a solution to the problem. I actually think there are a lot of open-minded readers everywhere in the world, just as there are a lot of narrow-minded readers everywhere in the world. Giles and John prove to me that Canada can sell…

And then there’s Louise Penny.

As I have stated before and elsewhere, the reason I read crime fiction is primarily because it matters. Every life is touched by crime, whether people acknowledge it or not. We pay taxes that are used to provide police and emergency services. We pay higher insurance premiums because of theft/arson/fraud. There are those who willingly turn a blind eye to this, but a crime is like a boulder dropped in a pond. The ripples from that might capsize a boat that’s close by, or only rock a distant canoe, but they touch everyone in the water. And we are part of our society together. There is no such thing as a closed system. Those who would shut themselves off find themselves dealing with the government at least, on some levels. I realize that friends I respect and appreciate hold different views, but this was what I loved about the movie Crash. The cause-and-effect, how the actions of one spread out and interconnected and affected others. We may never see those our lives touch, but our lives do touch others, for better or worse. And, in terms of crime, it’s usually for worse.

In the April 2006 issue of Crime Files there is a write-up titled Croissants, Christie and Café Au Lai. Louise Penny talks about what she wanted to accomplish with her debut, STILL LIFE.

“As an adult, when the world did something wrong, I’d retreat to my bedroom and crawl back into those well-loved and well-read cosies. Where murder and crumpets co-habit. Where people ‘toddle’ and eyes ‘twinkle’. It was a kindly world. STILL LIFE was born from a desire to create a modern cosy-crime novel, a marriage of the world that exists now and that idyllic village where people discuss murder over a nice café au lait and croissant at Olivier’s Bistro.”

Where murder and crumpets co-habit? I mean no disrespect to Louise Penny in what I’m about to say. She is entitled to her view, cozy readers are entitled to their reading choices.

But Louise did make me cry. I read that and felt so… dismissed.

I have talked candidly about being assaulted as a teenager and the havoc it wrought in my life. I have danced around the sexual assault and never really disclosed details on it, and don’t plan to. I’m open about the reality of it, but who needs to know more?

There are things I can tell you about my personal experience with crime, though. In the aftermath I didn’t have tea and talk about my feelings. I went to my room and screamed into my pillow and cried. I was afraid to go outside for months, always afraid something else would happen (and as there were ongoing problems this was a reasonable fear). I retreated from the world on multiple levels. The summer after I was attacked I had a job and the owner was a real jerk. I mean, a serious jerk. He physically dragged me across the kitchen by my wrists. I walked out and never went back to work there. (Well, that did happen on my last day...) I wasn’t murdered but I know what it is to feel as though a darkness from inside is opening up and threatening to swallow you whole, because you aren’t sure you have the courage to live, never mind enjoy life.

I watched a girl I knew go from a vibrant, beautiful person to a shell after she was raped. You all know what I’m talking about. Once there was a light shining in her eyes and so much joy and enthusiasm… a passion and zest for life others warmed to. And then you’d swear her soul had been ripped out of her. The eyes were hollow, empty, the smile gone.

I’ve worked home removals over sexual assaults and abuse and nobody ever goes and talks about it over tea and crumpets. That’s not the real world. It’s not the world I live in. And as someone who has walked both sides of the line (and I certainly know a lot of people who have endured far worse than I have when it comes to being a victim) I feel as though my pain, and that of every other living victim out there, has been belittled. I understand that it’s fiction, just not anything that appeals to me at all. Others have the right to like it, but I can’t stomach it. It makes crime seem so… trivial and unimportant. Like it happens, oh well, good it wasn’t me and would you like cream and sugar with that?

When I read I want to believe in these characters as real people and feel I can relate to them. Perhaps in connecting with them, I can understand more about myself. As a writer I am pushing myself for this, more and more. Does that mean everything I write will be some profound, introspective journey? No, not at all. But the people need to be real people I can believe would exist in the real world.

The books that speak to me are the ones that usually cut me to the heart. There is something about the people in them that I connect with, and I share their pain. The profound sense of loss in The Touch of Ghosts. The similar feeling from reading To The Power of Three.

This book broke my heart.

There is nothing cozy about the repercussions of crime.

When people are trivial about crime, when they gloss over the very real pain and suffering it brings in the lives of victims, they’ve lost me. And they’ve wounded me personally. I will tell you a little story.

Years ago I worked at a Bible school. The schools are international, and were started by one man and his wife after WWII, which gives you some idea of their age. These are the leaders of the international organization, which I do not wish to identify here, so I will refer to them as Mr. and Mrs. Q. I had the opportunity to have Mrs. Q for lunch once. She’s a lovely, sweet lady, but in the course of our discussion I opened up about some serious things going on in my life. She was polite and listened.

I saw her a few months later. She asked me, “Have you resolved your little faith problem?”

I’m not sure anyone has ever said anything more condescending to me, but I have the same gut reaction reading about talking about murder over tea and crumpets. How I feel is dismissed.

We have moved far from the original topic of discussion, but that’s how my mind works. One tangent leads to another.

At the end of the day what’s important about a book, for me, is not where it is set. It’s not whether the protagonist is a man or a woman. It’s not even if the protagonist is a cop, a PI or a hitman. I have some preferences, we all do, but I’ve pushed myself to read from a wider pool and found that what really matters is whether or not I actually give a damn about the characters, can I connect to them? Do they tell me anything of what it is to be human?

I do not read for escapism usually. I do not just read to be entertained. Being entertained is part of it.

But more than anything, I read to be engaged. There should be some emotional response – laughter when appropriate and at other times tears.

I think the very worst thing that can be said about a book is not that it was set in Canada or Greenland or on Mars, but that at the end it was entirely forgettable. A great book should linger on the senses. Give me not just work from one country – give me someone I can give a damn about.

(On a side note, Kevin Wignall really must be stopped. His blog posts invariably get me thinking, and it leads to a series of thoughts that ultimately must come out of my head, or they’ll drive me mad. I may have to wean myself from that blog for a few weeks so that I can get work done!)

"If You Fight For Me You Get To Kill The English"

Stephen: "Excellent."

It seems appropriate to be thinking of Braveheart with all the talk of Scottish independence these days.

Certainly the Scottish papers, and some famous Scots, have already had their say on the subject. It does sound like SNP is poised to win the upcoming election, from what I read...

But here is a different perspective. I have been waiting for someone to compare and contrast the movement for Scottish independence to the situation in Canada with Quebec, and finally, it's arrived. I'm damn glad I didn't have to write it myself. Now I just get to pick it apart.

Okay, I jest. The reality is, the author has nailed a few things down. I would take it even further. There is one distinct difference between Canada & Quebec and Great Britain & Scotland - Quebec was never a nation. It was a French colony. In this respect, I view the situations in a different light. Quebec is fighting for something it never actually had, recognition as an independent country, while Scotland existed as an independent entity before becoming part of Great Britain.

I have mixed and even conflicting views on these issues. Nobody wants to hear what I believe about Ireland. And why should they? I don't live in Ireland or Scotland, or even England. I have no right to tell these people how to live or run their country.

In Canada, however, there are some who are tired of hearing Quebec whine. I know those who say, "If you're going to go, go and be done with it."

I hope that, whatever happens, the Scots are more thorough in processing their decisions and charting their future than we have been. Another election, another talk of referendum. Ho hum, yawn. Can't really get too anxious about it, as it isn't like we haven't been there before. My amusement is that the Western Separation movement took a backseat with the election of Harper, and the sign on the highway reading 'Western Separation: Long Overdue' was replaced with 'More Power For the Provinces' when Harper was elected PM. Of course, if the Liberals force an election (I will hate them forever, because there have been enough damn elections lately and can we not just have a fucking break?) and oust the Conservatives the sign will change back, and I predict talk of Western Separation will increase dramatically. After all, it's one way to keep Ottawa from getting its grubby hands on Alberta's oil money. And considering how the Liberals like to spend our money I'd be nervous about electing them. Sponsorship scandal, take 2.

(Please note, I'm really just supremely pissed at the notion of another election.)

One interesting thing from the Toronto Star article:

The probable compromise, analysts say, is that Scotland may well face a referendum on independence as early as 2010 – but the option would be just one of several choices, including the option of remaining with Britain but gaining more powers over Scottish affairs. Scottish political researchers trying to take the public pulse are looking to Newfoundland for inspiration on ways to adapt the multi-option referendum that completed the Canadian project of confederation, in 1949.

"Newfoundland was given multiple choices in the referendum that brought it into Canada," said Nicola McEwen, senior lecturer in politics at University of Edinburgh's Centre for Canadian Studies.

McEwen's colleague James Kennedy, acting head of the university's Canadian Centre, suggested that facing multiple choices, Scots might be inclined toward the pragmatic middle. A made-in-Scotland version of Canada's "sovereignty-association," perhaps.

Whatever happens, it will be noteworthy. I resided in Europe during the fall of the Berlin Wall, so I have seen history in the making up close and personal, and have my own chunk of the Iron Curtain as well. This vote won't be as dramatic, but here's hoping that whatever the future holds for Scotland it will be positive for all involved. The worst thing about the situation in Canada is that it's gone on so long it's impossible to undue the offense. Many English-speaking Canadians feel they have bent over backwards to accomodate the 'spoiled child' that Quebec is, and still Quebec demands more and more and more... and they are fed up. How much of that is government and media manipulation is hard to say.

All I know is right now, I'm glad it's them and not us.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

I Failed Elmore Leonard

Yesterday, my agent forwarded me a rejection letter for WHAT BURNS WITHIN. It was actually an amazing letter. It referenced my work as “fast-paced and well written” with a “compelling story” and my favourite line: “I can see why Ms. Ruttan has garnered such wonderful praise; she writes with incredible vividness and great attention to detail.” The editor even called me talented.

This is much better than form letter rejections or, worse, a “please fuck off and take your hack elsewhere.” I haven’t experienced that yet, but there’s always next week.

Now, the only reason I mention this is that it prompted a discussion between Evil Kev and I this morning, about writing. I was saying one of the risks with WHAT BURNS WITHIN, is that it starts with a lot of action. Evil Kev maintains that a year ago, I told him to never start a book with action.

I have concluded that any such statement on my part was limited to considerations for entering the Debut Dagger competition. I haven’t been eligible to enter for a few rounds now, but in assessing the previous winners and discussing them with those thinking about entering, I concluded the Dagger judges wanted introspection more than action. Something I would stand by now. There was a very specific style that seemed to win. Anything heavy on dialogue and pacey wasn’t likely to make the cut, based on what I saw.

However, writing for the Daggers and writing for publishers are different things. My friend Marsha spent years working in television and film before moving on to publishing. (Be well Marsha. Sending positive energy your way.) Marsha gave me some great writing advice:

Hit them on the nose.

She said in film you want to have the impact of walking up to the audience and smacking them on the nose. You want to get their attention. Hence my assertion to Evil Kev that stories should start with something happening. Not some long, lollygagging bit about tree bark. Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t start a book with thought. Or dialogue. What it means is, you need to make sure that whatever’s being addressed, it gets people’s attention.

As we were discussing this we started talking about memorable opening lines. I said the other day I’d pulled down LET IT BLEED, because I always remembered the opening line:

“A winter night, screaming out of Edinburgh.”

Kevin said Ian Rankin broke Elmore Leonard’s first rule of writing:

1. Never open with the weather.

Elmore says that weather is only to create atmosphere and readers will skip ahead looking for people if it goes on too long. Well, look at the Rankin line. For me, I’m right there. I read this back when I lived in BC. We had an apartment on the roof of a building, with a view to the Fraser River. There were only two apartments on the roof of the building – ours and my best friend’s. We only had one wall bordering them. The rest of our place had no buffer. And when the winter wind howled we damn well knew it.

Now, let’s look at the first two paragraphs from LET IT BLEED:

A winter night, screaming out of Edinburgh.

The front car was being chased by three others. In the chasing cars were police officers. Sleet was falling through the darkness, blowing horizontally. In the second of the police cars, Inspector John Rebus had his teeth bared. He gripped the doorhandle with one hand, and the front edge of his passenger seat with the other. In the driver’s seat, Chief Inspector Frank Lauderdale seemed to have shed about thirty years. He was a youth again, enjoying the feeling of power which came from driving fast, driving a wee bit crazy. He sat well forward, peering through the windscreen.

‘We’ll get them!’ he yelled for the umpteenth time. ‘We’ll get the bastards!’

See, I’m right there. Weather, people and action. The perfect balance of setting the scene. I mean, do you think the weather might impact the car chase? Could it cause an accident? I think this is brilliantly setting the stage.

My first paragraph from Suspicious Circumstances:

“Pulsing light shimmered on the rock face. Thunder rumbled, lightning flashed and, for a moment, the image of the woman was clear. She scrambled along the ledge, glanced back over her shoulder and pulled herself on to the crest of the hill. Her loose, white shirt and dark hair were buoyed by the wind. Then the light faded and the black of the moonless night engulfed her.”

Damn. Weather. (But there’s still a person and movement.)

WHAT BURNS WITHIN does not begin with weather.

Okay, rule #2. Avoid prologues.

Well, SC doesn’t have one. WBW doesn’t currently have one, but I can see a strong argument for moving a section and making it a prologue. It isn’t backstory in this case, and not all prologues are. So I’m launching an official protest of the assertion prologues are backstory and putting rule #2 in dispute. I actually hate it when people take what should be a prologue and rename it chapter 1 and it’s just a page long.

Rule #3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

Bill shouted, “Shut the fuck up.”

I have absolutely no problem with that. In my opinion it’s preferable to:

Bill said with anger, “Shut the fuck up.”

And Rankin used ‘yelled’. Hmmm. Listen to Elmore, listen to God*, Elmore, God*…

Rule #4. Never use an adverb to modify the said…

Okay, see, that goes to my point above. In this case I tend to agree, but most authors do this, and sometimes effectively. Sometimes it’s appropriate.

Rule #5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

Elmore and I are of one mind on this one. Is there hope for us yet?

Rule #6. Never use the words ‘suddenly’ or ‘all hell broke loose.’

Suddenly, all hell broke loose and I’m so busy laughing at his explanation under that rule that I can’t comment!!!!!

Rule #7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Oh, bless your socks Elmore. Thank you thank you thank you! See, there are the masters – such as Ken Bruen, and Ian Rankin - who know how to do this perfectly. And then there are those, who shall remain nameless, who think it goes to setting and such but baffle the reader and pull you out of the story.

Rule #8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

You know, I’m with Elmore here too. I was always getting slammed on not doing enough description to give a full visual, but I didn’t really want to.

Rule #9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

This is definitely a Goldilocks and The Three Bears topic. There is an amount that’s ‘just right’. And it may not always be the same for everything. I mean, damn, if you spend a page describing a woman’s legs it better be erotica or her legs better be the murder weapon. Otherwise you should probably indulge your inner dog moment somewhere else.

Rule #10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Okay, so I let Elmore down about the weather. And I have some niggling issues with dialogue tags, because I do prefer people be more precise over using adverbs, in general.

But I also think that Rankin proves the point that you can break a rule and do it effectively.

I also think the word to the wise is that breaking the rules effectively comes with experience. If you’re able to craft a story to the point where people completely lose themselves in it they won’t even notice the nitpicky points because you have done your job – sold them on your world and kept them there. It’s fair to say editors read a bit differently – the more submissions we get for Spinetingler the fussier I get – so when you get feedback from them you know it’s an astute assessment.

That said, remember editors rejected Harry Potter too. As Elmore Leonard’s rules prove, to at least me, there are some things that come down to taste and it’s possible to do almost anything and get away with it. The minute you make a long list of rules you will find someone coming up with a long list of exceptions to them.

If I were to have one rule, it’s this:
Tell a captivating story so smoothly the reader never notices the details. If you do that, nobody will notice adverbs, exclamation points or weather. Ultimately, I believe that’s what Elmore’s getting at when he says, Being a good author is a disappearing act.

* See, I never learn.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Thinking Blog

My blog is a blog that makes people think? From time to time I’m sure people have thought a few things:

That chick’s wacked.
Canadians are weird.
Wonder what meds she’s on.

But no, alas, apparently I have a blog that inspires higher brain fuction. So says Susan Flemming, in the ultimate proof I haven’t been on the blogs much lately – I was tagged Wednesday and I’m just responding now.

I actually consider this a compliment. I have always clearly maintained that I would not just blog about my book, or about writing, or about the day to day details of my life because that’s boring. I’d much rather discuss an issue or a topic or rant at someone who’s pissed me off. And that’s cheaper than therapy.

Now, I am faced with the daunting task of picking five blogs that make me think. Just five?

Well, here are a few of my favourites:

Anne Frasier: Static. I’d like to think of Anne as my soul sister. We both have this incredible knack for putting our foot in our mouths, shooting straight from the hip, maybe saying more than we should sometimes, but always meaning well. Posts like Psych 101 demonstrate what it is about Anne that is so appealing – she’s refreshingly honest and open, and I have learned so much from her. Her blog is a mix of personal stuff, writing stuff, news and rants… If Anne stopped blogging I’d miss her terribly.

Contemporary Nomad. The gentlemen at Contemporary Nomad (Olen Steinhauer, Kevin Wignall, John Nadler, Robin Hunt) are amongst the most interesting bloggers out there. Kevin has contributed some of the more interesting and candid posts on publishing discussions that I’ve read anywhere, as well as blogging on political topics. Olen’s recent post on the Edgars was a treat. With so many blogs I feel as though it’s a foreign world, it’s been built up with such hype and I feel like I would never fit it at the Edgars. Olen conveyed a version of the Edgars that was more than nonsense about what people were wearing and showed that real people actually attend the event. Not only do they make me think, they make me feel like I belong.

Eileen Cook: Just My Type. I adore Eileen, so much so I asked her to chip in on a little writing project I’m working on. Eileen’s blog is one of the ‘non crime fic’ blogs that I read. Sometimes she blogs about her forthcoming book, but usually she poses wild questions that really get the juices flowing. And anyone who blogs about toilet seat recalls is performing a public service.

The Trenchcoat Chronicles. For those who’ve been around this blog for about a year, you may remember I interviewed Trench several months ago. Trench brings awareness to the serious subject of school shootings and is a wealth of knowledge. Not a blog that will have you laughing, but definitely one that makes you think.

And finally, the final thinking blog I’ll name:

Barry Eisler: The Heart of the Matter. Barry blogs on politics, and that can sometimes get heated, but he is knowledgeable and insightful and he respects people. He works hard to keep the discussion to politics instead of personal insults, and though that can be hard to do when you’re touching on such heavy stuff I always feel I’ve been challenged to think when I read Barry’s blog.

At this stage of the game I wasn’t sure who’d been tagged and who hadn’t. But**

Updated to add: ** very weird that the balance was cut off. Well, I'm sure it at least had you wondering what I was going to say next. It wasn't anything profound - just 'But these are five blogs that definitely qualify as thinking blogs, and from the bits of the meme I've seen they haven't already been tagged.'

A Grab Bag of Goodies

As though my Veggie Tales post below wasn't proof enough, I'm fascinated by the absurd, and today's a day when the headlines were just one wild story after another.

In Texas, a two-year-old hands over some cocaine while in Edmonton a four-year-old was taught to dance like a stripper while her stepdad watched porn.

In Winnipeg a four-year-old boy gets lost in a dump for a few hours. Probably a good thing it happened there because a trip to McDonald's to make everything better might have raised interesting questions if they'd been in New Zealand, where a woman found something unexpected in a Happy Meal. Maybe McDonald's is expanding with adult happy meals?

Despite the headline, though, there's nothing funny about the story of the woman who bit back when attacked by two dogs. Thankfully, RCMP arrived in time to save her life.

Ever look at the headlines and wonder what the hell is wrong with the world?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

For Stuart MacBride

It's hard to explain the appeal of Veggie Tales. How can I properly convey the depth of the lyrics, the catchy tunes? Probably the only way is to show you...

For Stuart: The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything

And, as though that isn't enough to persuade you of the pure genius of Veggie Tales, I must insist you watch this wondrous parody of a therapy session:

I Love My Lips

I will be back with more if I can find the one that goes
We could throw him in the Tigris
Let him float awhile,
Then we'll all sit back and watch him meet
A hungry crocodile
We could put him on a camel's back
And send him off to Ur
With a cowboy hat without a brim
A boot without a spur.

We could give him jelly doughnuts,
Take them all away
Or we could fill his ears with cheese balls
And his nostrils with sorbet
We could use him as a footstool
Or a table to play Scrabble on
Then tie him up and beat him up
And throw him out of Babylon!

It's a really funky dance number.

Oh I missed this one, and anyone who's ever been reviewed might enjoy this one:

Me & My Big Mouth

When my sister was a kid she climbed up on our Great Uncle Carl’s knee and said, “Uncle Carl, I’m smart. I’ve got rocks in my head.”

You know how it is –a story like that lingers. We all love to tell great, embarrassing stories about other people. It’s human nature. That school event I did back in January? I was telling the story of how someone broke into my sister’s house years ago and stole some things.

Including the vcr.

Which just happened to contain a Veggie Tales video Kevin and I had just bought for Arriel, who was all of five years old at the time. When Arriel learned that someone had stolen her Veggie Tales video she cried… Which was a natural reaction.

However, on re-telling at her school in front of dozens of her classmates it made her go a lovely shade of red. And (of course) I embellished it in just the right way to make it funny.

I have been thinking about conventions a lot lately. I have two more this year – Murder in the Grove and Bouchercon. So far I’ve been holding out on finalizing any plans for next year, but I was just asked to participate in one con, and I really want to go to that one. So, it looks like that one might just be on the list… And if all goes according to plan it will be a special one, because for the first time, Evil Kev has said he wants to come with me.

What do conventions have to do with my big mouth? Well, I moderated a panel at Left Coast Crime. And I’m moderating a panel at Murder in the Grove. Prepping is a lot of work, but there’s one great reason to moderate: You’ll never get caught unprepared by some embarrassing question from a rotten moderator...

Like me. (Robert Fate is so happy he's not on my panel this time!)

Despite the fact that I was moderating that panel at LCC I managed to embarrass myself. Someone in the audience asked who the first anti-hero we could remember was. Sam Reaves said Dirty Harry, and I said Han Solo. Okay, so I was born in the 70s, so sue me. Next person who asked a question said, “Now, for those of us who were alive in 1969…”

My sister said something stupid when she was a kid and nobody ever lets her forget it. I start thinking about panel prep and hope I can refrain from saying something stupid in front of a finite number of people, yet here I am, on my blog, saying stupid things that provide endless entertainment for others all the time. And there’s a permanent record of it.

Like, maybe it isn’t a good idea to refer to an author as ‘God’ on your blog, Sandra? That could never come back to haunt you, could it? No chance on earth he might actually read it. No no, of course not. I'll just install my 'anti-Rankin' device and he'll never be able to see a bloody word I say...


It’s become pretty much a daily event. Evil Kev comes home. I ask if he’s read my blog yet. He takes a look at me and says, “What have you done now?”

I have a sticky note in front of my desk right now. It has five sections on it, where I’ve been counting something. Evil Kev just looked at it and said, “Is that your short story?”

Me: “Uh huh.”

Evil Kev: “How many words are in your short story?”

Me: “A few thousand.”

Evil Kev: “And you’ve got that many fucks?”

See, the sections are totals for ‘fuck’, ‘shit’, ‘bitch’, ‘bastard’ and ‘ass’. I’m happy to report the story is bastard-free.... But not so fuck-free. Not even close to fuck-free.

Someone suggested if I could remove the colourful language I might be able to get this story published. I’m trying to figure out if it’s feasible.

The other thing I’m trying to figure out is if this is life imitating art, or art imitating life. When did I get so mouthy?

Courtesy of my friend, Deletta. I think I’ve experienced every one of these…


1. You must first learn to pronounce the city name, it is: "CAL-GREE".

2. The morning rush hour is from 5:00am to noon. The evening rush hour is from noon to 8:00pm. Friday's rush hour starts on Thursday morning.

3. The minimum acceptable speed on most freeways is 130 kph. On Deerfoot, you are expected to match the speed of the airplanes coming in for a landing at the airport. Anything less is considered "Wussy".

4. Forget the traffic rules you learned elsewhere. Calgary now has its own version of traffic rules. For example, cars/trucks with the loudest muffler go first at a four-way stop; the trucks with the biggest tires go second. However, Hamptons , SUV-driving, cell phone-talking moms ALWAYS have the right of way.

5. If you actually stop at a yellow light, you will be rear ended, cussed out, and possibly shot.

6. Never honk at anyone. Ever. Seriously. It's another offense that can get you shot.

7. Road construction is permanent and continuous in Calgary. Detour barrels are moved around during the middle of the night to make the next day's driving a bit more exciting, but nothing ever gets finished, and more construction starts everyday.

8. Watch carefully for road hazards such as drunks, skunks, dogs, cats, deer, barrels, cones, cows, horses, cats, mattresses, shredded tires, garbage, squirrels, rabbits, crows, and coyotes feeding on any of these items.

9. 16th Ave, TransCanada, and “Hwy #1” are the same road.

10. If someone actually has their turn signal on, wave them to the shoulder immediately to let them know it has been "accidentally activated."

11. If you are in the left lane and only driving 110 in a 80-90 kph zone, you are considered a road hazard and will be "flipped off" accordingly. If you return the flip, you'll be shot.

12. For winter driving, it is advisable to wear your parka, toque, fur lined mittens and mukluks. Make sure you have a shovel, food, candle and blankets in the vehicle, as snow removal from the city streets is virtually non-existent until the spring thaw.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Who Is Really Important?

Angie found the post about the stupid teacher a bit upsetting, so I have been prompted from my shell, yet again, to pen something new for you. Are you starting to figure this out? It isn’t really a ‘blog holiday’. It’s just that I’m not blogging regularly. I have hit my stride with The Work That Shall Only Be Referred To As “DEUX” and am just indulging in my love of writing.

But every day, people continue to drop by the blog. And it’s contributed an element to a long-standing debate I’ve had raging in my head, about dropping the blog or keeping the blog, and why.

In order to understand my thought processes on this, I think the best thing I can do is hold up an example. Here’s one: Ken Bruen. When I first met Ken Bruen I was so nervous about it. I mean, who hasn’t heard of Ken Bruen? If you’re in the crime fiction community you know the name, and all I’d heard was wonderful. And he was so genuine, warm… wondrous. It probably took me five minutes to pick my jaw back up when he mentioned my blog. Ken Bruen reading my blog? I tell you, in my wildest dreams I never thought Ken would be dropping by here to see what I had to say about anything.

This coincided with reading my first Bruen. Instant junkie. I know I’ve mentioned here before, about writing to Ken Bruen to say how nice it was to meet him…

And he actually wrote back.

There are a lot of people who won’t take the time. I can understand that some people are deluged with fan mail. I remember at first I was worried I was pestering Ken, but within such a short time of exchanging emails I found it was so easy to talk to him. And he read my book and offered a blurb. So, I sent him a small ‘thank you’. I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate or not, but I had his address and he had just been so bloody nice. Ever since then we’ve been great friends. If I need advice Ken’s often the first person I call.

Now, why I am I talking about this? Because to me, this is an example of someone who has kept their feet on the ground. I’ve also had a chance to see how Ken interacts with people – with people in the business, and with readers. Ken does not forget that it is the people who go to the store and buy his books who are important.

I don’t really think of myself as having fans, but lately, I’ve thought a lot about how to treat them. My experience comes more from being a fan. The little touches can go such a long way. I still remember early days on Val McDermid’s forum, when she responded to something I said. I had no idea she even posted there, or read it. Plenty of authors steer clear of their forums. It was a surprise – and a nice surprise – on multiple levels. She told me she was coming to my area on tour in a couple months, and I was able to get tickets as a result. Her event was on my wedding anniversary, and when I said I was “Sandra mre from the forum” she stood up, shook my hand, met my husband and wished us a happy anniversary.

She remembered. I was stunned.

One of the other things I’ve always appreciated about Val is that she utilizes her newsletter mailing list. When Val tours, we know. When she’s on radio, we know. When she wins an award, we know.

And you know what? If I take the trouble to sign up for an author newsletter, I really want to know that stuff. You want to make your fans grumpy? Don’t tell them when you’re touring - don’t even post it on your website. I mean, why in the hell would you want to tell the people who read your books that you’ll be on the road?

I don’t even feel like I’ve started a career, but I think it’s a good thing to consider all this now. Some author blogs you go to, they only acknowledge other authors or friends. Us unimportant peons languish unacknowledged until we get the hint: We aren’t part of the club.

Now, I guess that’s the risk. I think of my blog more as a way of keeping in touch with friends, and venting any unhealthy level of frustration I have about all manner of topics. It isn’t just about the writing, it isn’t just about my career, it isn’t just about me. I don’t find me interesting enough to write about all the time.

But the one thing I always try to do is acknowledge everyone who drops by and comments. This isn’t an exclusive hang-out for select members only.

And I’d really like to think that if I ever have fans I’ll remember this stuff. It’s my little bit of advice to authors:

1. Have a website, and update it with important information – especially tour information and, when available, links to interviews.

2. If you have a newsletter mailing list actually use the damn thing. Tell us when you’re on tour, when you win an award, what’s in the works. Otherwise, scrap it. Fans have signed up for a newsletter so they can stay on top of your news. If you don’t send a message out for a year, maybe it’s time to officially nix it. At least then we won’t be holding our breath.

3. Don’t forget who buys your books.

Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows I’m the ultimate fangirl, and definitely fill my quota of hero worship, and then some. If I admire someone I don’t tend to keep that a secret. I’ve met my fair share of authors, and it’s a very interesting thing. It’s easy to be caught up in that, especially when you’re a newcomer to this business.

Yet I have found that a lot of readers are much like me. They just love the chance to hang out with people and talk to them about their work. Honestly, this is what seldom gets to happen at the conventions. I pay attention to the lists so I know what readers think (and because I am one myself) and noted the comments about Bouchercon, about how the authors all disappeared at night. It hadn’t occurred to me, because I’d been invited to all those publisher parties, so I was surrounded by authors.

But the readers, the people who buy our books, who invest the money in going to these conventions not so they can sell themselves but so they can meet and hear their favourite authors, felt pretty shut out.

I’d wanted to spend more time with people at Left Coast Crime, and then got strep throat, so it wasn’t the best experience. And I completely understand our tendency to gravitate to other authors. After all – we don’t get to see each other that often.

We should never forget, though, that readers are the people we write for. Without them, we wouldn’t be here.

Now, this was all innocent enough, because when Angie’s comment came to my in box I thought, “Okay, I’ll post.” I hadn’t been blog hopping today, so I had no idea what Angie had blogged about.

But this… this is what it’s all about for an author. Someone read my book. Someone liked my book. They liked it enough to blog about it.

There is no greater compliment for an author.

And it makes me think, maybe one day, I should think about doing a newsletter. When that day comes I promise you, when there’s big news the people who’ve signed up for it will be amongst the first to know.

They deserve that. And that's the thinking that's keeping me from dropping the blog, for now. For some reason, people drop by to read what I have to say. And they invest that energy and time in me. It seems very rude to abandon them. So, I'm not signing off. Just cutting back a bit.

Saturday, April 21, 2007


Despite some stiff competition I do believe the fact that in a school the grade 6 and grade 7 students were asked to play roles from Monday's massacre in which a mentally ill student gunned down 32 students and teachers at the U.S. college before killing himself gets the prize for stupid move of the week.

Probably the month.

"This was a completely inappropriate lesson for this particular group of children," the principal said Friday.

You think?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

I really am going away...

But first, three things:

1. A journalist admits they all got it wrong? This is worth reading.

2. I've poked fun at this ridiculous thread about the forthcoming Rebus book before, but it's reached new heights. Or is that lows? The emotion, the angst, the drama of it all... It's enough to make me want to get a bowl of popcorn and wait for further entertainment. Did you detect the note of sarcasm? Here's a word to the wise: Never take the word of some random person on a forum as fact. Got The Boot got it right.

3. And finally, a joke. A naughty adult joke, so if you don't want to read something like that, stop now.

A husband and wife love to golf together, but neither of them are playing like they want to, so they decide to take private lessons. The husband has his lesson first. After the pro sees his swing, he says,

"No, no, no, you're gripping the club way too hard!"

"Well, what should I do?", asks the man.

"Hold the club gently," the pro replied, "just like you'd hold your wife's breast."

Taking the advice, he takes a swing, and POW! He hits the ball 250 yards straight up the fairway. The estatic man goes back to his wife with the good news, and the wife can't wait for her lesson.

The next day the wife goes for her lesson. The pro watches her swing and says, "No, no, no, you're gripping the club way too hard."

"What can I do?" asks the wife.

"Hold the club gently, just like you'd hold your husband's penis."

The wife listens carefully to the pro's advice, takes a swing, and THUMP -- the ball skips down the fairway about 15 feet.

"You know, that was a lot better than I expected," the pro says. "Now, take the club out of your mouth and hold it in your hands...

I really, truly am resuming my holiday now. See you via email.

Who Gets The Guns & Who Gets The Boot

There's a reason I'm a David Terrenoire fan. Beyond being funny, open and kind, David's also sharp. I was reading JD Rhoades' blog this morning, and David had posted a comment. Part of what he said was:

This is a real human tragedy, one that causes me to think about our place in this extended family, the pain a mother must feel waiting for that call that tells her her child is safe, the darkness that would bring a young man to do this horrible thing, and the trauma the survivors feel now and will feel for years, wondering why the kid next to them is dead and they're not.

David summed up so well what goes through my mind when I hear of these tragedies. And not just the shooting at Virginia Tech, but the bombings in Baghdad and the 17 corpses being found at a school in Iraq.

Why did I get to be born here, in a wonderful, free, relatively peaceful country? Why do I get to sit at my computer this morning and type, while elsewhere children are scrounging dumps for food? The questions could go on and on.

I hadn't planned to post this week at all, but it's cathartic. Maybe that's self indulgent. Maybe it's unfair.

One thing I know: David Terrenoire understands things about the human condition. He asks questions I ask myself, and that has a huge appeal to me. I understand all the reasons he doesn't want to blog on this subject, but his is a perspective I would actually want to read.

I feel strongly that lobbyists jump on situations like this to promote their agendas. It's cropped up on blogs and forums - the shootings are an excuse to attack the US, Bush and anyone ignorant enough to disagree.

That really isn't supposed to be the point here. I started a comment at Contemporary Nomad and knew it would be a mile long. So I just typed my thoughts. I didn't read it over and spell check it or check to see if it made as much sense as I thought it did or anything. Just posted it. Raw thought, which is about what you get here on the average day anyway, but yeah, there was a bit of knee jerk because I knew the gun control debate would rage.

My opinion: Focusing on gun control is missing the real point.

On that note, a sign of hope, and a final point about gun control that must also be considered. I don't disagree with having gun control laws. That doesn't mean I think nobody should be allowed to own one, but I do think the rules for purchasing guns should be tightened... but it doesn't matter what I think. I am Canadian. I live north of the 49th. And I have no business telling the American people how to live - when I say it I say it for my country. The thing is, I just assume people realize that, and then I see people refer to Spinetingler as an American ezine...

Tough gun laws don't eliminate gun killings. When Nagasaki's mayor was fatally shot in southern Japan, it wasn't much of a surprise that a gangster was arrested for the attack. In a country where regular citizens face strict gun laws, the mob does most of the shooting.

Please don't kid yourself. Criminals can always get guns. Anyone who knows me knows I love the UK. I've been there more times than anywhere else in the world, except the US, and sometimes think I could move in a heartbeat. But I was in Northern Ireland in 1990 and it was a different world then. I saw more guns there than I did when I was in East Germany when the wall came down. I went to the UK in July 2005, right after the London bombings. We're all well aware of the history of terrorist attacks on UK soil.

I never go to the UK and think there's not a chance something could happen to me. In the UK it would be a bomb. It's just different. And for all those gasping with shock that I've said it, and automatically thinking, "What are the odds, that's so rare, you're an idiot" consider this: The school shootings in the US are also extremely rare. In no way does that lessen the tragedy. It's just to say that people completely distort the truth by focusing more on some things out of context. Check out the history: Out of 42 incidents listed (not all involving a murder) 11 happened in Canada. A country with about a tenth of the population of the US racked up 26% of the incidents, and we have tougher gun laws than the US.

We are also taking a more proactive role in addressing school violence issues. The Ontario government will add bullying -- including the cyber kind -- to the list of infractions for which a student must be considered for suspension under a revamped Safe Schools Act. I am curious to see how this will be implemented but I can at least applaud the government for recognizing that threats must be taken seriously, and that schools must do more to ensure the safety of students.

It is this kind of action that could help prevent another Taber or Columbine. That is my hope, anyway.

Now, back to the blog holiday.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

More Proof Gun Control Is A Red Herring

In the wake of the deadliest school shooting in US (and one would assume world) history comes the news that the killer in the bloodiest U.S. gun massacre has been identified as a 23-year-old undergraduate English major at Virginia Tech whose creative writing was so troubling that the university referred him to counselling.

"He was reported to be getting increasingly violent and erratic in the days before the deadly rampage."

Television news is reporting he'd also set fire in a dormitory recently.

This is a clear example of a situation where a troubled person showed evidence of disturbing behaviour over a period of time and, other than the teacher who referred him for counseling, the standard response was the one we've mastered: Do nothing. Just ignore it. Someone's having problems but they'll go away. Nothing will come of it, what are the odds?

Although my post last night was really just an extended comment in response to Kevin Wignall's excellent post at Contemporary Nomad, I stand by it, and Kevin's musings. Although we now know the shooter to be an adult the speculation about how we're dealing with the youth of today is critical. You don't wake up one day and say, "Couldn't get the new stereo installed in the car today so I guess I'll go kill some people." The evidence of gun purchasing going back to March and the behaviour of the shooter over a prolonged period of time were all warning signs.

Signs people ignored.

I think the reason so many people focus on gun control is because it's an impersonal thing that doesn't require them to actually give a damn about anyone else or pay attention to people hurting around them. It lets them off the hook and allows them to continue doing what they do best - nothing.

Don't get me wrong. I don't own a gun. Yes, I know how to fire one. Yes, I grew up in a house filled with them. Kevin's military trained. But we have also lost a close relative to a bullet and I'm well aware of what a gun can do.

I'm also well aware that tougher gun laws wouldn't have made a difference in that case. It isn't until we understand the root that we can start finding answers, and it would be trite and short-sighted to suggest the roots are universal and absolute in all cases, but in the majority of these cases it goes well beyond whether you have access to guns or not.

And in this case the real question isn't how this man got guns. It's how so many people failed to recognize his increasingly unstable behaviour and intervene.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Slapping a Bandage on a Bullet Wound

I have been prompted by today’s school shooting and Kevin Wignall to break off the blog holiday, again, and post.

The events of today are tragic and beyond comprehension to most people. However, it is human nature to try to make sense of the senseless. This is what we all do. In the wake of the news soon comes the question on everyone’s mind: Why?

This isn’t news. I blogged about this months ago, in the hours following the reports of the Montreal school shooting. You can see how fresh the post was relative to the news: The number of dead was reduced in that case. Unfortunately, today, the first report was one dead.

Then 21. And now, it is believed 33 are dead, including the gunman.

I would encourage you to read Kevin’s post, because I am really processing my thoughts on a few things he touched on, and do not want to do him the disservice of rehashing what he has already so aptly stated. However, there is news today that I want to look at, in relation to what Kevin said about the environment of US high schools and universities.

We are approaching the anniversary of the Columbine shooting, and Kevin has elaborated on that as well. There have been reports of planned recreations of the massacre over the years. Today, news that in Calgary a fourteen-year-old was arrested after his parents alerted police to the fact that they believed their son was planning a killing spree in his school.

The article includes quotes from Diane Lang. What many Americans may not know is that, a matter of days after Columbine, there was a school shooting here in Alberta. Diane Lang lost her son. He was the only fatality, which is why fewer people know about it. The way school shootings get reported makes it seem as though one death just isn’t enough for it to be taken seriously, unless it’s a slow news day.

I do not say that to dismiss the extreme tragedy of losing 32 people, or 13, or any other number. It’s just that, in my opinion, one is too many.

As I started to state on Kevin’s blog, I don’t believe that gun control is the root of the solution. People always debate gun control when these events occur. While I am not commenting for or against the right to bear arms, what I am asserting here is that addressing gun control is the equivalent of treating the symptoms instead of curing the disease.

I had tried on Crimespace today to start a discussion about supportiveness, but somehow it got skewed off my original intent. Part of the reason was that I was trying to be vague enough to not identify anyone I was thinking of when I made the post. But really, what happened was, I relayed something a while ago to an author that I thought they’d appreciate. They didn’t, and took my head off for the effort.

Last night I couldn’t sleep, so at something like 2 or 3 am I was reading blogs and such, and saw a review of a book by an author I know. I forwarded it to them, then started kicking myself, wondering if they too would berate me for bugging them with it.

Instead, their reply made me aware that they were having a hard time lately, and I felt like shit. Where the hell had I been, that I hadn’t realized…? Of course, it made me think, again, of the fact that we authors live solitary lives, and we don’t check in at an office every day. Who sees when you’re having a hard time? Only those you let see. And what this often means is, unless we tell someone we’re having a tough time, nobody knows.

It made me think that we’d do better for each other if we found little ways to encourage each other. Reality is, we get so hell bent on our work that we can focus on it almost to the exclusion of all else. I know authors who flip out if you email when they’re writing. I don’t. I might not get back to you right away but I always appreciate people who think of me enough to drop a note. I love hearing from friends, but some of you guys go to work or school and have plenty of social interaction. My world is pretty limited to the computer, especially since the time of Evil Kev's* car accident: I’m grounded. I talk to the cats all day.

This ties in to what I see as the root issues behind school shootings, and in fact, many other things. When I did Wordapalooza back in January I focused on school shootings as part of the discussion, and one of the teachers there had been working in Taber, at that school, the day Jason Lang lost his life. I worked in education: I can’t imagine any teacher who hasn’t thought at some point about whether it could happen at their school.

Kevin is right in alluding to the hell that high school is for most people. I’ve always talked about things with candor. I was bullied in school, for years. I had a knife pulled on me in elementary school – not something I ever told my parents or teachers about. When I was 14 I was assaulted, ultimately ended up in the hospital, suffered permanent damage to my jaw and that doesn’t touch on the emotional impact of such an event. It was determined that my school could not ensure my safety and I was transferred to a high school in a different town.

There was one other thing that happened, for me, that may have made a difference. My original high school guidance counselor recognized the impact this had had on me emotionally and didn’t ignore it: I was referred to Children’s Aid and became a case file. CA has had its share of knocks in recent years about failures where kids have died, but I feel I had a good social worker who helped me with other things that had happened prior to the specific assault that was being addressed in this situation. Colleen tried to intercede with family counseling, and any failure to see progress there wasn’t for lack of her efforts. She was able, rather astutely, to pinpoint problems I was still suppressing.

This is the key. When people express any vulnerability at all, so many others are willing to jump on them and use it as leverage to attack them. In our society, particularly with boys, we tell them to buck up, be a man, a tough guy… Boys don’t cry. What do they do with their feelings? We don’t encourage boys to talk them through and we dismiss them or frown on them when they get emotional.

I say this as someone who worked in education, and dealt with children from the age of 1 to 15 over a number of years: It’s systemic. It starts early. And it’s a real problem.

Face it: So many kids are being raised in daycares here, and the ratios aren’t ideal. When there’s a problem in the room supervisors are glaring in, expecting staff to deal as quickly as possible. Solutions are pushed, not always explored.

For example, you would think that if there are repeated incidents between children that eventually a face to face meeting between parents and staff would be established to work through the issues. I did a lot of ‘in daycare’ support to children, so although I wasn’t responsible for an entire class and didn’t work for the facility I had a responsibility with my child. In my case I had a close working relationship with the parents and that involved daily reports and full disclosure of all areas of concern. It was a delicate balance to strike, because parents would become aware of ongoing daycare issues the facility staff weren’t informing them of. The reality is, the daycares just don’t have the time or resources to handle the problems they see.

Add in other dilemmas. I’ve worked with violent children, something else I’ve discussed on here in the past. However, there is policy about diagnoses before a certain age for children. I have known parents who’ve refused the autism diagnosis for their child because they didn’t want their child getting labeled. The result? The child doesn’t get funding. I have seen this happen with children with conduct disorders and oppositional defiance disorder as well… and these kids are already demonstrating unhealthy levels of aggression as young as four or five years of age. I’ve reported children who’ve abused animals… and nothing happens. Most of us here know the road that can lead to, and when you add in other extreme behaviours (drawing all pictures in black with red blood, and assaulting facility staff) there’s cause for concern.

And the solution? Maybe medication, but not counseling. That takes time. Takes money. Don’t want Johnny pulled out of class occasionally either because then Johnny looks different and classmates will pick on Johnny.

So we put pride and convenience ahead of the best interests of kids. We are failing our kids, on multiple levels.

This is where it starts. In an ideal world kids would have healthy relationships with their parents and be able to talk to them about their problems. We all know it isn’t an ideal world. Kevin refers to parents praising kids, even when their children have done something wrong. This, too, feeds an unhealthy self image. I have worked with children who’ve been aggressive, hostile, posed a danger to themselves and others, and then said, “You can’t do nothin’ to me, na na.” They know you can’t touch them. And in one case, where a child proved a repeated danger, the parent said we had to stop calling her to pick him up from school because she’d lose her job… and the decision was to do nothing. Should a school ever be forced to have a student on site who poses a threat to himself, staff and other students? Of course not, but there we were.

There are a lot of things that happen – or don’t happen – long before a person picks up a gun as a solution to their problems. I had ready access to guns and it never occurred to me to take one to school.

In my eyes, the real problems stem around the fact that we’re letting kids be raised second-hand, are too busy to deal with them when we do get them home, and in so many cases kids are an item on a checklist. Having kids is what you do. You never stop to consider if you’d make a good parent or not, or how prepared you are to deal with all the issues that families face. And so kids get slotted in to boxes, expected to fill a certain role, pressures to succeed or live up to family expectations, and then go to school and get pressure there as well. Teachers are often overworked and can’t deal with class sizes, and there are so many issues to address anymore. One classroom I worked in had 25% of the kids diagnosed and receiving additional aid. There were two other children who should have been assessed but we didn’t have the time or means to get that done. We were tapped, working from behind, in crisis management mode.

I’ve also dealt with social services on child removal situations and it is excruciating. The paperwork and legal issues are staggering, and they will deter lesser beings who don’t want the headaches. Spend six months removing kids for sexual abuse, neglect, physical abuse and then walk back to the classroom and realize you’ve still got the child with asperger’s who hasn’t been receiving due attention, and the two dealing with divorce, and the three ESL students who’re struggling with their reading and you can understand why I got to the point where I never felt I was doing a good job. For every one sign of progress there were ten signs of failure.

This may sound like another excuse to get back on my soap box about it, but I really don’t believe that tightening gun laws is the solution. It’s the band aid. The solution has to come with more mental health intervention earlier for young people. When schools are struggling with budgets counseling staff are often cut. Focus on those three R’s and everything else is a luxury. Sounds great from an academic standpoint but a lot of children are coping with extreme situations at home, at earlier ages. The gap between the haves and have-nots widens and the taunting and school teasing issues compound the problems. From the time I was in grade one I had a girl routinely try to steal things from me at school. She stole my Christmas present in grade one. I told on her. I still remember she said, “I had all my stuff in it too” when she had to give it back.

End of issue for the teacher, but not for me. She was one of my constant oppressors on the playground at school all through my elementary years.

As much as I admire the Lang’s for speaking out about school bullying and trying to bring awareness to the issues as a result of their son’s death, the reality is that until there’s funding and education to change the way people think about working on healthy conflict resolution this will still happen. I mean, look at us. We can’t fathom the thinking that goes in to martyrdom, why some people believe it’s okay to kill others and yourself. Is it really so different? Young minds are being conditioned from an early age to think that violence is an acceptable solution. This is reinforced by parents who ignore their whining, fighting children and fail to grasp what really happened and make an aggressor give what they stole from the other child back (I sympathize with how hard it is, believe me) and teachers who do likewise by turning a blind eye to problems. Or the solution to complaints at recess is ‘walk with me’ but they don’t deal with the bully who moves on to the next target. And when the bully is getting that snack out of your lunch kit or your milk money or peer validation for their behaviour, it’s being reinforced.

And the bullied see that violence produces results, and following the rules doesn't solve the problem.

Unless you counter the conditioning to aggressive behaviour with alternatives other kids begin to see that’s what works. I’ve mentioned working with violent kids, and I have seen other kids throw temper tantrums out of character for them and admit later that, “It works for X to get attention.” In their minds, X misbehaves, X gets attention from staff, X wins. Therefore, if they want attention from staff they should misbehave.

We do a poor job of talking up role models, of giving guidance and nurture to youth.

Anyway, before this descends further into a rambling mess that lacks any cohesion, I’ll say one last thing. First, in no way does this justify the actions of any school shooter.

But I understand what it is to be afraid to go to school. I understand having repeated assaults at school escalate to the point that I had to be transferred to a different high school.

And I understand wishing I’d had the guts to hit back, to find a way to defend myself, to take the power away from the people who made my life a hell. And when I acknowledge those feelings I had back then, I begin to see how short the road is between feeling that way and looking for a weapon. If I was attacked now, and I had access to a weapon, I think I would defend myself with deadly force. Nobody knows until they’re there, but I have no desire to be a victim again. (By this, I mean if I was being attacked as an adult - adult to adult. I can't imagine taking a weapon to school, and don't carry one now either, but I do know how to fire a gun. I'm just saying that I wouldn't let myself be victimized now.)

Maybe what made the difference for me was having one person to talk to, so that I didn’t feel it was hopeless. I survived high school by being friends with a lot of adults.

When you’re a teenager the angst is extreme. Everything seems so much more important than it really is, but try telling a sixteen-year-old girl it doesn’t matter if she doesn’t have a date to the prom or a nerdy boy not to worry, he’ll fill out in time to play football in college. We have all these external measures by which we validate people’s self worth, and in order for some to be popular others must be geeks.

Anyway, it’s just my 2 (likely incoherent) cents. I believe we have to get to root issues. Part of the reason is that not every child who’s bullied picks up a gun – we’ve had one case where a girl committed suicide and, in a landmark ruling, one of her tormentors was convicted of uttering threats and criminal harassment.

This is the kind of innovative action we need on the side of the law – we need people to take these behaviours seriously.

And we need to take the very legitimate feelings of kids seriously too and start listening to them before it’s too late. Dysfunctional families, emotional abuse at school and feelings of alienation compounded with a lack of healthy coping skills is a deadly combination, and the way society is going we're only going to see more of it, not less.

* Kevin is this post refers to Kevin Wignall - Evil Kev has been referred to as Evil Kev to try to avoid confusion. Of course, I could just call Kevin Wignall Wiggie...

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Crime & Trauma Scene Cleaners: Canada's Decontamination Specialists

This might be handy for someone who disposes of evidence for organized crime groups. Think they have these guys on speed dial? Or maybe the training program is part of the job requirements for getting on with the organization.

I always wondered how they scraped up the former owner of this house when he topped himself with a gun to the head in the... uh, room I can't mention. Because Evil Kev is squeamish and doesn't want to know what room the guy died in.

Don't mind me. I'm still on a blog holiday. I'm not even here.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Some Moments Never Come Again

We grow up hearing about celebrities in the media and inevitably feel we know them on some level. It's not uncommon for fans to hope to meet favourite musicians or actors...

And now, authors. I received an email recently, from a friend, who had a chance to meet his favourite author and it was such a great story. And then he reminded me that the way I think of Ian Rankin is the way he thinks of George Pelecanos.

Which was kind of depressing, in a way. It reminded me there were a lot of things I always thought, given the chance, I'd ask Ian Rankin. Nope. He said something shortly after meeting me that completely embarrassed me and I didn't say much after that. Not that he was rude, but it sure kicked my shy streak in to high gear. Anyway, don't suppose I ever will ask him. I've scoured countless interviews for the answers but nobody ever asks these questions - and yes, they are about the writing.

End of the day, it doesn't matter anyway.

Anyway, speaking of great Scottish authors, Swierczywonderboy presents Al Guthrie week and you can check out his blog every day for updates. No photos of the infamous Pussy Snorkel T-shirt yet though.

They're having fun kicking up their kilts in NYC... And I'm going away for a bit. Not sure when I'll be back, but meantime play safe and have fun.


Seeing Justice Done

She was 16, pretty, with her whole life ahead of her... Until she encountered a killer at a bus stop.

He raped her, stuck pins in her, struck her in the face with a brick repeatedly and she eventually died from a fractured skull and asphyxiation.

Her killer taunted police with a letter at the time of the murder: "I won't strike again until next year at the same time... Set up your bait and try to catch me ... See ya next year."

Her name was Darlene and 25 years after the conviction of her killer her family still lives with the pain, a pain compounded by the fact that in this country life does not mean life.

In order to keep Darlene’s killer behind bars her family must face her killer and read a victim impact statement. And, even if they’re successful in their bid to keep him behind bars he’ll be able to apply for parole again in 2 years.

This is something Darlene’s family hopes to change. They have a petition online that people can sign to support keeping this killer behind bars… and it’s a step toward seeing the laws change in this country.

Please consider visiting the website and signing the petition. There are a lot of laws in this country that should change. Consecutive sentencing instead of concurrent, which was a big issue raised by the Bernardo/Homolka trial, and you don't have to be Canadian to sign the petition.

You’d think with all the news I read and all the criminal profiling and books and such that I might get desensitized, but this story in the news put a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. Signing a petition is such a small thing to do to show a little bit of a support for a family that’s had to endure the unthinkable.

Monday, April 09, 2007

What I Really Wanted To Say…

My blog post yesterday gave the impression something had just happened that had set me off. This was not the case. The post was born out of a lot of long-term thought based on some experiences I’ve had, but I did not get an email this weekend that inspired it.

The perils of self promotion have been on my mind a fair bit recently. I think it’s because of a couple discussions that have happened on Crimespace.** I can’t read them anymore, because they’re driving me mad.

I’m a community-minded person. I have little tolerance for self-serving assholes. You want to know what I believe? Here’s what I believe:

1. When you’re a decent person others will feel positively about you.
2. When you maintain a certain level of humility and stay down to earth people will find you approachable and likeable.
3. People are more likely to want to see nice people succeed.
4. What is good for one can be good for all. When a crime fiction author makes the NY Times bestseller list they can draw new readers to the genre. That’s a fantastic thing, not just for the author, their publisher and their agent, but the whole community.
5. The only person you’re really in competition with is yourself. You push yourself to do better, to grow, to learn. You’re only as good as your last book, so if all the readers say it was “meh”, even if you sold more than 90% of the other authors out there, you have work to do.
6. Not all publicity is good publicity.
7. When you’re pushy it turns people off.
8. I’m interested in great writing not great gimmicks.
9. Your name sinks or swims on its own merits, not your friends.
10. If you think the way to get ahead is to step on others you deserve a mighty big fall.

There are probably lots of other things I could say here, but as usual, I’m just winging this. The reality is that I have seen the heavy-duty promotion tactics from multiple angles. I was on the phone with my friend Marsha earlier and telling her some of my recent experiences and I said, “It drives me mad.” She said, “Get used to it.”

It wasn’t very encouraging, but I know what she’s saying. You see, my mantra is be part of the community. Do things for others, not just for yourself. We’ve just produced our 11th issue of Spinetingler. I’ve lost track of the number of interviews and reviews I’ve done. If I’m enthusiastic about an author’s work you couldn’t get me to shut up about it – that’s just the way I am. I could never be a commissioned salesperson – I endorse what I’m passionate about. But if I’m enthusiastic I definitely spread the word.

How much good does it do me? Well, who knows? Plenty of people certainly know of me. I am officially a name on a checklist that some heavy-duty self-promotion types try to check off at conventions. But the interviews and reviews produce more traffic to the books/authors being featured than to me. Our stat tracker proves that.

More than anything, I just love the fact that I get to interview authors I’m interested in. I try to read most or all of their books before interviewing them. Doesn’t always happen, but that’s my goal. I read other interviews they’ve done so that I get a sense of the routine questions and then try to move in to fresh territory.

I love having the opportunity to talk to my favourite authors about their books. To me, that’s such a huge privilege. If there is something I can do to bring any awareness to an author I love and expose them to a wider audience consider me thrilled.

I was so naïve that it never occurred to me that people were going to start to see our little ezine as a stepping stone they could use to advance themselves. Here’s my rules about interviews:

1. Don’t call me, I’ll call you. I don’t typically take offers to interview people. If you’ve seen me talking about your books on my blog, or reviewing them, and you’d be willing to do an interview, great. I read you, you’re probably on my list of people to get to sooner or later. But if I’ve never reviewed your books, never mentioned your work, what you’re asking is for me to get your material, bump it to the top of the tbr pile, do the background research, conduct the interview, transcribe and finalize it… You’re asking a lot. Look at my interviews – they tend to run 14+ pages. And it’s the cart before the horse. I interview people who produce work I’m interested in. That list is hardly conclusive, as I can’t interview everyone. But if you want an interview start with offering a review copy. And for the love of Pete, follow the reviewing guidelines.

2. Tell me to call your publicist and we’re done. Sorry, I know that sounds unfair, but my experience with the few publicists I’ve tried to coordinate with has been that it never works. They make the options for how to conduct the interview so restrictive, as well as the timing of the interview, that it never works out. There are a couple publicists I’m friends with who would probably be the exceptions, but in general I find if it’s a headache to even try to coordinate a time the entire process turns into a nightmare…and this is my free time. I’ve got better ways to spend it.

So don’t corner me at a convention and stick your book in my face. Don’t tell me the intimate details of how you decided to write your book within 5 seconds of meeting me…

Be a person. Is that too much to ask for? I can only imagine how really successful authors feel, because I am not an important person in the grand scheme of things, and people won’t just talk. It’s all got to be about the book.

You know, I find that if I end up having a conversation with someone and they’re a really interesting person and I warm to them, I’m more likely to go pick up their book. Same when I read listservs and forums. If they’re interesting and entertaining and not taking every opportunity to stick their book in my face then I’ll be more inclined to check them out.

I really just don’t like being seen as a commodity. You know what? It isn’t personal. Follow our guidelines for sending in an ARC. If we’re interested in the book we’ll consider it. Fair enough. Don’t try to be my friend just so you can sneak one by. I give some preference on odd occasions to people whose work I’m a fan of, because I really want to read it, but my reviews are always honest to my impressions of the book so being insincerely chummy isn’t going to get you anywhere.

And when people try the friend route and it becomes clear they’re just trying to use us they’ve formed an extremely negative impression on me. It’s one of the few things that I have a hard time forgiving.

Frankly, I think anyone who is so over-the-head in the bsp arena doesn’t need my help anyway – hell, they’re shouting loud enough it isn’t that people can’t hear them, it’s that they’re covering their ears and running away because they’re sick of it. And when they’re turning me off, why on earth would I want to review their book and talk about it? I’m sick of it without ever cracking the cover.

I’m a low-key sales kind of person. I don’t like being helped in the clothing store, I hang up on telemarketers when they keep calling and calling and I don’t like door-to-door salespeople either. You’ve all got sucky jobs and I know it, but I just like to be left alone.

The reality is, I’m thinking about not doing any conventions next year because these things really undermine my enjoyment of the events. This stuff never happens to me at Harrogate, which is why I’ve always enjoyed it, and I hope B’con this fall will be small enough so that it won’t be a problem.

You’re welcome to have a different opinion and disagree, but stick your stuff in my face and I guarantee you won’t find my reaction favourable.

A couple authors who’ve recently gotten on my radar the right way? Sally Spedding and Carol Anne Davis. Which reminds me that I have a book order to put together…

** Changed to clarify - not all discussions on Crimespace. But there's too much bsp and promotion discussion lately IMHO.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Measure of a Friend

Treat people with respect and they will respect you. Treat them like garbage and you won’t win friends.

Deal with people honestly and they must respect that, even if they don’t always agree with you. Give me honest hurt over a fair-weather friend any day.

Don’t try to be someone you aren’t in order to gain something. Eventually you’ll be proven a fraud and then you’ll have no credibility at all.

I would rather someone come at me straight and say, “I don’t know you but I want something from you because I think you can help my career” than to pretend to be my friend and then disappear the minute they get what they want… or figure out they won’t get what they’re after.

I would rather make a friend, build a relationship with someone I can turn to for advice, share my ups and downs with (and share their ups and downs too) than check off another source I can use on a list.

I write reviews. I do interviews. I publish stories. This is part of what I do. There isn’t a person on earth who can stop me from spreading the word when I’m enthusiastic about a book or an author. It’s my way of saying ‘thank you’ to the people who inspire me and entertain me…

Not something I do because I expect to get my back scratched in return.

See, for me, this is where it really is all about the writing and nothing else. We don't have to be best friends for me to like your work. We don't even have to get along. I don't need to vote the same way you do or have the same religious convictions.

For me, it's the writing. Not how much it might help my career to sing your praises. If my endorsement is bought it rings hollow.

All I really want is decency. You don’t have to like me… But if you don’t know me you also don’t need to stick a goddamn knife in my back. That’s how you become a person I never want to know.

You know what I want, more than a beer at the next con? For you to tell me when I fuck up if you care enough for us to get along, or for you to leave me alone. And don’t be a condescending jerk. Don’t patronize me. If you don’t want to hear from me just tell me to get lost. I have real appreciation for the honesty that goes with, “Happy to have my work reviewed by you, glad you like it but I can’t stand your guts and I don’t give a shit about you, don’t email me about anything that isn’t business.” Keep on the professional level and steer clear of the personal. I can respect that.

When business overlaps with friendships and family it forms a sticky web that’s easy to get caught in. It’s far worse to try using a friendship to get a business advantage, because if there are problems you end up in a real mess on more than one level.

Your real friends are the ones who let you know when you screw up but want to sort things out because, while they know you aren’t perfect, they know you’re a decent person and like you. The people who take the first slip-up as an out and kick you to the curb were never your friend anyway.

I used to always accept people as friends first, and give them that until they proved themselves otherwise. It’s not something I can do anymore. Better to have three true friends than a thousand false ones. “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” Proverbs 18:24

Friday, April 06, 2007

Beyond The Writing

I always maintain that it’s about the writing, not the personal. And it would be nice if that were completely true…

It isn’t. Not in every situation, anyway, and it can be helpful to know when external rules apply.

For example…

1. Person buys book and reads it. Probably safe to say appreciation will be based solely on the quality of the writing, unless it’s a damn good author photo.
2. Person who is not your mother, spouse, sibling, former English teacher or otherwise connected with you is sent book and reads it. This person will likely base their opinion of the work on the writing.

On the other side…

1. Person submits story to magazine. In past they have submitted there and been accepted, refused to make necessary corrections to the story and argued over various things. Whether or not the magazine considers publishing them again will probably not just be about the writing.
2. Someone wants to sell an anthology. It won’t just be about the writing – they will have to consider having some known names contributing in order for the package to be marketable.

When I attended Harrogate 2005 there was a panel on getting published, and one of the things that Johnny Geller said was that he’d sometimes read the work and not be completely sold, but then meet the author and get a sense of the person and decide he could work with the person. At the time I remember thinking that was a bit unfair. Shouldn’t it just be about the writing? However, I can appreciate the reasoning that goes into things now.

It isn’t just the quality of the writing. It’s also whether or not the work is marketable. But there’s even more for agents and publishers to consider, and one of those things is productivity.

Workers are assessed on their level of productivity in a variety of ways, and the writing world is no different. If someone is invited to contribute to five anthologies, agrees to all of them, and only delivers to one it doesn’t look professional. Unless there are reasons (such as illness, family tragedy) that factor in, the editors the author failed to deliver for will be less likely to work with them again. This works in reverse as well.

I was reading Miss Snark the other day, and she said something that really got me thinking. I value clients who understand this is a business (for the most part) not operating at breakneck speed but also not at a standstill either. When I ask for something, I expect to hear back in a day or two at the most. If it's a task, it might not get done in a day or two but I'd like to hear you got the email and you're working on it.

The people I prefer to work with do that.
I've learned to be pretty clear about that preference before moving to "wanna sign up at Snark Central" but we never get to that point if you lollygag about. If lollygag is your default mode, that bodes ill for whether I think we're a good match… Agents vary, but I bet if you asked 100 of them, all 100 prefer someone who's prompt rather than not. This isn't some sort of rule. It's just a word to the wise. Have your stuff ready: bio, synopsis, people who might write blurbs if you have them, those kinds of things.

That shouldn’t seem like rocket science. It shouldn’t seem that complicated…

Yet clearly, Miss Snark felt it necessary to say it and, in my own limited experience on the receiving end of submissions from writers, I can appreciate it.

I’ve screwed up when I’ve submitted to the odd place. Okay, early days, we all make mistakes. But I learned from it. I didn’t walk around blaming the publication – I blamed me for failing to include everything they asked for.

We have submission guidelines and I’m continuously amazed at how many people don’t follow them. And if someone sends us a query, someone submits a story without the release form… Sayonara Sunshine.

And, if someone submits a story and then withdraws it and we see it’s because they did simultaneous submissions we remember that.

When we started out I tried hard to set things up in such a way that we could be fair to writers. The result was that some people tried to take advantage. Inevitably, you get to the point where your submission volume is such that scratching a few names off the list isn’t going to hurt your feelings at all.

The reason I say this is not to pick on writers. It’s because I’ve started to understand, in some limited way, what agents and editors think.

There are a lot of things to consider when you’re trying to market your work… And I’ve been wrong. It isn’t just about the writing. It’s about a lot of other things. If you have a reputation that you consistently can’t finish projects or deliver on deadlines it’s going to be a mark against you. If you have a reputation for trashing people online it might not be seen as helpful. It will certainly impede your ability to get blurbs, do joint signing events, etc.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I didn’t start this blog to sell books. However, everything on this blog reflects on me. Getting an agent and getting a book deal can be affected by my behaviour. Now, I have an agent… Yet I’ve found myself thinking a fair bit recently about whether or not the tone of my blog should change.

On the one hand I don’t like that idea. However, I do understand it. Free speech is a wonderful thing, but it can cause problems. Evilkev discovered a co-worker’s blog once, where she railed at length about her dislike for him. Not everyone has a sense of humour or can shrug that off as easily as he did.

My 2 cents for the day is, if you think you’re ready to start querying for an agent/publisher, make sure you’re ready. And make sure you can deliver. I think having a book out already helps in one respect: I’ve already proven I can bring a book to completion. Shopping another project demonstrates I can finish more than one manuscript. This is also good. It means that I have a track record.

Someone once said that you shouldn’t be in a hurry to get your first book published because you only got one chance to make a first impression. I beg to differ. The minute you start getting short stories published, the minute you start blogging, you’ve made your first impression. All of it can factor in to a decision about whether or not someone wants to work with you.

And that’s not something to dismiss if you want to have a career. It’s one thing if you already have an agent and a big publisher and books on the shelves – you can afford to do what you want more than others.

Those of us who are working toward that goal have to consider our behaviour more carefully. It’s hard to get published, and publishers aren’t prepared to throw money at proven risks. Bear in mind what your blog communicates about you and whether or not it might be hurting you more than it’s helping.

After all, having a hundred hits on your blog every day sounds like a good thing… But not if the majority of those people are dropping by for their daily laugh at your expense.