Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Greatest Mistake

Last night we were caught between two tornadoes, apparently. But I’ll get back to that.

Mistakes. We all make them from time to time. I certainly have. Several months ago, a friend called. They’d moved across county and I hadn’t heard from them in about 8 months.

I lost their address, and have been hoping they’d call back ever since because Mr. P doesn’t seem to be listed in the phone book.

More recently, I opened up a manuscript and was skimming over the first page and caught a mistake. How many bloody times did I go over that thing? And it wasn’t only read by me – I can think of three other people who’ve gone over that section of the story with the actual purpose of giving me critique and we all missed it. The mistake? ‘His’ instead of “He’. Sigh.

I say this so it doesn’t sound like I’m picking on anyone, because last night, as Evil Kev and I continued the Homicide marathon, we were watching an episode that was a crossover with Law & Order. So not just one, but two teams of writers and whatever researchers they employ screwed up.

The storyline? To do with a gas attack on a subway that kills twenty people. The style of attack is similar to an attack on a church five years earlier, in Baltimore, that was never closed.

Through the Homicide episode in particular, Frank Pembleton continues to recall the scene outside the church, the row of bodies, one girl sitting over her father’s body. He mentions the burning in the air as he’s approaching the scene, how he can feel it in his nose etc.

Which is when Evil Kev tells me that would never happen. Why? Death from breathing in poisonous gas would result in quarantine of the bodies – they’d never leave them out there because they would expose others.

And of course, at the end of the episode when the suspect has a heart attack and they try CPR for five seconds and then give up, well, that wouldn’t happen either. Once you start you aren’t supposed to stop until paramedics call it, and cops would know that. Should know that. Even I know that. But, as Evil Kev said, “It’s more dramatic this way.”

This morning, I’m still left wondering if we really were caught between two tornadoes last night.

We certainly had the weather advisory. First it came over Evil Kev’s radio for the fire department. A tornado had touched down in Crossfield and was headed east at 40 km per hour. Confirmed the alert online. Heard it on the ‘real’ radio. Was actually standing outside as the rain came pelting down. We were spared the hail that fell just east of town, though.

Then, heard it on the TV. A second tornado, this one to the south and east of us, heading west.

A lot of things go through a person’s mind when they hear this. The first was get the dogs inside. The second was what else do we do? And you realize there isn’t much you can do. Certainly nothing to stop a tornado if it’s coming. And for all the predictions of where a storm system is moving and what they anticipate, nobody can tame the wind. The one thing you know is the weather system moving through is apparently perfect for creating twisters and you may or may not be sitting in the path of two of them.

This morning, nobody seems to know. Apparently, not enough people saw the tornadoes to confirm they existed and, thankfully, there was no damage directly attributed to tornadoes. Just thunderstorms and hail.

Of course, all during this Evil Kev’s getting ready, in case he has to go out.

Um, remember that post yesterday, about us not having our wills done? And Kevin’s explaining to me the process of dealing with a hazardous goods call as we watch Homicide, and talking about what you do when it’s gas, and then he’s preparing himself in case he needs to go out in a tornado.


I realize now that if Homicide hadn’t made those errors with the episode, I wouldn’t have received an earful about it. And it wouldn’t have reinforced the nature of the risks Evil Kev takes when he responds to a call. But even if I don’t think about them, or he doesn’t talk about them, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t take them.

It certainly is easier to cope, in some respects, by putting your head in the sand and ignoring reality. After all, if I don’t think about the risks, I don’t have to experience the fear, right? But it doesn’t reduce those risks. In some respects, it’s actually a horrid thing to do. You don’t take people for granted when they walk out the door to a call and are ordered to proceed with caution and wait for the police. A part of you is steeling yourself for the potential knock at the door.

Also, how can you really appreciate the enormity of what firefighters/paramedics/police do if you don’t understand the risks on even a basic level? You can’t.

A little piece of wisdom I got from a Christmas cracker:

Without the sorrows of life, the joys would not exist.

One thing I don’t think I mentioned here was that recently I had a bad dream about a tornado outside our house. And in the midst of it arguing with Evil Kev about windows.

Last night, faced with the possibility that there were tornadoes moving through the region, I remembered that the greatest mistake is not taking a bit of creative license with reality to make a story work, or even losing an address, much as that sucks.

The greatest mistake you can make is letting your life slip by. No risk, no rewards. Sure, there’s a chance you fail (and fail spectacularly) but I’ll always give people their due for trying to fulfill their dreams, even if things don’t always pan out the way they hope.

Monday, July 30, 2007

A Rather More Serious Schmooze

Having been declared schmoozeworthy by Christa, who is rather schmoozeworthy herself, I bring you my thoughts this Monday morning, which are about pulling the plug.

You see, Evil Kev ordered the complete dvd collection of Homicide, and we've been watching episodes. The other evening we watched an episode called A Doll's Eyes. A boy at the mall is struck by a stray bullet, left brain-dead and his parents must first come to grips with that and then decide if they should take their only son off life support. Yes, yes, a barrel of laughs all around and pass the popcorn please.

This prompted a rather serious discussion, because Evil Kev and I have not done our wills. Now, one might think that, after I nearly brought him home from Africa in a box I might have insisted on it, but it isn't exactly an easy subject. (And I think Evil Kev has a lingering conviction that when he dies it'll be at my hands or on the other end of my cooking anyway, so he doesn't want to make it any easier for me to off him.)

But what will really surprise you is that on Saturday I watched Last Holiday and between the Homicide episode Friday night and that movie Saturday afternoon, I bawled like a baby, damn these emotionally manipulative programs.

There was one thing that the main character in Last Holiday put in her will that got to me. She said she wanted to be cremated because she'd spent her whole life living in a box and she didn't want to be buried in one.

This much I know: I don't want to be kept alive by a machine. If my spirit's gone, let the rest of me follow. But I do like that sentiment about living in boxes.

Bet you all feel uplifted after dropping by this morning.

(And I guess I'm supposed to pick 5 schoozeworthy blogs? Well, I'll tell you some of my must-reads, even if I don't always comment:

The Bearded Wonderboy
MG Tarquini
PJ Parrish, who recently returned to blogging
Detectives Beyond Borders
Hillbillies and Hitmen...

There are, no doubt, others. But I'm making this optional tag, because I know how busy people are.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Crime Fiction Should Know Its Place, According To Some

For the first time, as I listened to a radio special on Harrogate Crime Festival*, I was actually glad I hadn’t attended this year. Not because of the rain and floods, but because of the “spat” (as some called it) between David Roberts and Mark Billingham. I don't think I could have handled myself as reasonably as Mark Billingham did.

David Roberts throws down the gauntlet at the beginning: “What could be more old-fashioned and artificial than that? I’ll tell you what. It’s the gritty, realistic, blood-soaked corrosive rubbish that you see spattered all over Waterstones every day.”

Mark counters: “Crime fiction is uniquely placed to tackle rather important issues that I know you find terribly distasteful David, but issues such as child abuse and hate crime and terrorism. We live in a very scary and violent world and fiction that completely puts its head in the sand and refuses to address this is hopelessly out of date.”

David replies: “What is sad is that crime fiction, which is supposed to be entertainment, should try and think it’s superior enough to take on these major, gritty, realistic, subjects like child abuse and they love to have a violent scene with perhaps some woman or child being tortured. Is that what we want to read? Yes, if you’re a serious novelist, by all means tackle big social subjects but not if you’re a crime writer.” He goes on to say, “What we do want to avoid is the pornography of violence that is so prevalent.”

What’s with this recent trend making carte blanche statements against “blood-soaked corrosive rubbish”? In particular, the way this statement is made makes it sound like anything that’s a bestseller qualifies, which is hardly true. Roberts asserts that these books are detailing things such as torture and dismemberments, and yet the overwhelming majority of crime fiction I read – which undoubtedly falls on his ‘corrosive rubbish’ pile, does not detail such things. The majority of any violent acts happens off the page.

I have to say that if someone’s setting the rules that crime fiction can only entertain and not address serious issues, it’s time for me to stop reading crime fiction. I enjoy being entertained as much as the next person, but not at the expense of reality.

I realize that I’ve also had my say on this to a large degree a few months back, when I talked about how insulting it was to dismiss the harsh realities of crime. How the hell can you write crime fiction – make your living off of criminal acts – and then insist the books stay civilized, bloodless, without any pain or discomfort to anyone? That’s bullshit, and incredibly offensive to anyone who knows what it’s like to have a loved one murdered, raped, assaulted, etc.

And that doesn’t mean that you have to spend the book dwelling on that. But you don’t gloss it over and keep crime oh-so-civilized. Crime wreaks havoc, it rips lives apart.

You do not have to be gruesome in order to display that either. I know a friend who works in a Waterstones store has told me they’re getting more and more Laura Lippman in and the books are selling well, and I’d hardly call her work “blood-soaked corrosive rubbish”.

The truth is, the crime fiction genre is big enough for all manner of stories. I may not be particularly wowed by the idea of cat mysteries or cross-stitch mysteries myself, but they’re there for the people who like them. And as much as they aren’t for me, attacking them (and their readership) if I was so inclined would be a waste of energy. The people who primarily like those types of books aren’t as likely to be interested in my type of work. In some respects, SC is the ‘lightest’ thing I’ve written. While I don’t consider it hard-boiled, my work is definitely moving in darker territory, and that’s where I prefer writing. The readership is distinctly different.

What’s really unfortunate is that I found the comments made so distasteful, erroneous and offensive that it’s put me off reading/watching anyone Mr. Roberts commended. The truth is, sometimes I enjoy something that isn’t so bleak, but I have a hard time reading anything that’s serving as a way of looking down on the rest of the genre. And that, to me, was what really got me. It was the sense of this snooty attitude, of being more evolved and enlightened as to have better taste than those just putting out carnage.

You want to know what I admire most about Mark Billingham’s work? How careful he is to develop the victims. You have a sense of what they’ve gone through, of the loss, the cost. They are not used as items of convenience and dismissed. I try now to pay more attention to my victims, and that’s with particular credit to Mark.

And for the most part, the books I enjoy most are about the journey of the main character(s). As they are confronted by things, they struggle to deal with them. Over the course of time the crimes they’re confronting take a toll, and that is realistic. The problem with bloodless crimes that nobody gets too worked up over, in my opinion, is that your character can’t really be affected by them. After all, you’re taking such care to make sure nobody else is disturbed, so seeing a bad crime scene isn’t going to prompt your protag to drink, or keep them awake at nights. Let’s just keep it all nice and civilized so that nobody’s too offended by the crime… so why should anyone care?

Thing for me is, if I don’t care, why read it?

“The trouble with too many contemporary novels is that they are full of people not worth knowing. They characters slide in and out of the mind with hardly a ripple. They levy no tax on the memory; they make little claim on the connecting power of identification. They make only the skimpiest contribution to an understanding of the human situation. They leave you cold.” - Norman Cousins

Whatever else I’m guilty of, may I not be guilty of that.

And here’s another quote from Mr. Cousins:

"Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live."

Hence my interest in series characters and journeys. It doesn’t mean every book will end badly, or that there will never be moments of happiness. But that quote alone sums up what it is that captivates me about Jack Taylor. Its got nothing to do with any violence on the page – you either get it, or you try to find scapegoats to dismiss what you don’t understand.

Here’s to keeping it real, and those who do such a fine job not shirking from the realities of violence while also not glamorizing it.

* There will be a short lifespan on this link, as I expect come Wednesday it will be gone. That’s my guess, anyway, as I believe the ‘listen again’ feature is only good for a week.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

If The World Is Your Playground, You Might Just Rub Shoulders With The Natives

I had refrained from commenting on minor whisperings of contention with the recent Dagger Awards but was aware of some expressed concerns at the number of foreigners who won. Perhaps the best place to read a summary on it is Mike Ripley’s Getting Away With Murder column at Shots, where he says:

All the major awards, it seems, have gone to writers from abroad. Admittedly two of them were colonials (American and Australian), but one, I was told in hushed tones, was actually French!

Pedants may point out that the Dagger in the Library was won by a Scottish person, Stuart MacBride, but I take that as cold comfort, for British crime writing seems in danger of becoming a minority sport.

According to my own personal database (where new titles are meticulously entered into a ledger by my factotum Waldo), it would appear that to date, some 529 new titles (books published in the UK for the first time) are scheduled for 2007. Of these, 264 are by British authors, but 265 are not. Of course, Waldo’s ledger will have more entries by the end of the year but the trend is ominous and 2007 could just be the year in which British writers form less than 50% of the gross crime fiction output.

(Can I have a minor rant about that ‘colonial’ bullshit first? I swear, the next time I’m in the UK and some pompous ass says “Oh the colonies” I’m going for blood**. I may have mostly British blood in my veins but I’ve heard too many people throw that at me with conceit and contempt, which just makes me want to emphasize my French surname all that much more. We aren’t some lesser hand-me-down Brits here, and if we are then stop your whining about Americans winning your awards right this minute. Good enough to sell your books to but still looking down your nose at us. It’s the root of that outdated and short-sighted attitude that could launch a whole rant about how crime fiction authors in this country are selling out their culture because the very people who criticize the use of stereotypes in fiction have Canadians limited to popular misconceptions that are spouted from the mouths of, well, idiots. Next time I hear a Canadian crime fiction author say they won’t write about Canada because it isn’t interesting, I have a simple suggestion for them if they don’t like it here: MOVE.)

Will we ever agree about awards? Will there ever be universal consensus on how organizations should run them? No. But it is not so much the awards, as the commentary here, that ruffles my feathers. The Daggers are not the only awards that are open internationally – The Edgar (save the ‘best first’ category, which is limited to Americans), The Barry, Anthony, Leftie (and probably a long list of others that I’m forgetting at the moment) all allow international competition.

Which is as it should be, in my opinion. The reality is that many British authors have won the Edgar, and many British authors have won fan choice awards in the US. Why is it suddenly worrying if foreigners are winning on British soil? After all, the award is for crime novel of the year. Not British Crime Novel, not American Crime Novel, not Crime Novel of the Year Written by One Of Our Own Kind… It’s for best novel. End of story. The very fact that anyone is publicly putting it on a blog that it’s a concern that too many non-Brits won suggests the perception that although foreigners might get nominated for the Daggers, they aren’t supposed to win them. And then those points are followed by numbers of titles being published this year by Brits and non-Brits.

What matters when it comes to awards is quality not quantity. It doesn’t matter if authors from the rest of the world are having as many books published in the UK this year as British authors are – what matters is the caliber of the books.

In fact, I find myself wondering if there’s a shift happening in the reading habits of the population that has yet to trickle through to the level of the awards. Allan Guthrie’s recent Theakston’s win for Two-Way Split, as well as his Edgar nomination for Kiss Her Goodbye show the kind of recognition he’s getting from the writing community, but the Theakston’s win was a bit of a surprise to me. Not because of quality, but because of the British love affair with police procedurals, and the fact that it seemed harder for Guthrie to earn a following on his home turf: It certainly was a bit harder for him to get a publisher there, initially. Two years attending Harrogate Crime Festival I can safely say most of the authors I rubbed shoulders with were writing in the mainstream. Police procedurals. If they were amateur sleuths they were lawyers or journalists (people with a reason to investigate). Al had a panel the one year, for new authors, but otherwise it seems that those writing about the meaner streets – Al, Ray Banks, Kevin Wignall, Ken Bruen – are missing from the equation.

If the British crime fiction community is concerned about the lack of awards this year, I hope they don’t have a knee-jerk reaction and just make foreigners ineligible. They need to get to the root of the issue, to look at what’s being published and perhaps ask why it is that particularly American authors have made such a strong showing. Get over your ‘colonial’ crap, forget the country on the passport and ask who’s producing what.

And for the record, a hard push from elsewhere can only be a good thing, because it pushes authors to be better. I always think when watching the Olympics, figure skating in particular, you don’t really want to win because the other guy fell. You want to win because everyone went out and skated their very best and you still outskated them. That’s what makes real champions. Nobody should get awards because of the country they were born in and nothing more – they should get the awards because they’ve earned them.

The truth is, I don’t put much stock in the awards. Okay, I’m very happy if friends are nominated. Happier still if they win. Hope that those who place in writing competitions will find themselves with contracts and book deals. Whatever works to build your career.

Ultimately, awards are subjective to a large degree. Taste is a definite factor. I didn’t find anything about the Dagger Awards particularly noteworthy, other than the number of nominations Gillian Flynn received. In hindsight, I agree her book has absolutely nothing to do with a James Bond-style thriller and haven’t a clue what’s going on with The Steel Dagger, which should probably be renamed or redefined if this is indicative of the books being nominated in the category.

But what I did notice lately from awards that left me perplexed had to do with The Barry Awards. George Easter, the Editor/Publisher for Deadly Pleasures, was good enough to explain how the awards worked in greater detail on 4MA, which alleviated most of my confusion. However, it’s the comments on The Rap Sheet that left me pondering awards in general, more than anything.

Says George:

”There are a handful of authors such as Lee Child and Michael Connelly who are so popular that if we listed one of their books as a nominee, they would win. They have each won two Barrys already and have asked not to be considered in the future so that others can be spotlit. We also try not to nominate the same authors in consecutive years, but we slipped up a bit on that front this year with Joe Finder and Simon Kernick. And speaking of Simon Kernick--I’ve got to go back a few years to see how many times he has been nominated without winning, but I would guess four or five times--I hope you are taking note of this exceptional writer and reading his books. I’d like to see him win one of these days. But he’s up against some tough competition again this year.”

I wish they’d post a list on their site of authors excluded because they’d win each year, or because they’ve requested not to be considered, or those not being considered because they were nominated in the previous year. That might sound a bit flippant, but I’m serious. There are always murmurings that awards are political, that people play favourites, or are sexist but this statement actually indicates that the Barry has an elaborate set of criteria that goes far beyond just what’s published in any given year. I had no idea if someone was nominated one year they’d typically eliminate them from consideration the next year (and am surprised, as Stuart MacBride won last year and has been nominated again this year). For the most part, I actually don’t care how awards are run, but just tell people how you do it so they can decide how much merit the award has.

This isn’t meant to be as critical as it probably sounds. Part of the reason I didn’t blog on it earlier was because it doesn’t matter that much to me. I guess there’s a part of me that finds sadness in the idea that award judging is entered with the preconception that specific authors are certain to win. I mean – gasp, shock, horrors – last year when I went to Harrogate I voted for Val McDermid for the Theakston’s prize. Everyone in the world (and probably various lifeforms in the universe that spy on us) knows who my favourite author is, and that person was shortlisted as well… But The Torment of Others was one of my favourite books and so I voted for the book on the list that I thought was the best, not the name of the author. (I mean, Val is one of my favourite authors, but you see the point I’m making…)

This is precisely why we’ve waffled over Spinetingler awards. We’ve talked about it. But every time we do I freeze up over the process. If we’re going to do awards I would want an open process in place. There are some awards that are limited to considering only the books the award givers choose to read (you can’t submit your book and be guaranteed they’ll read it). There are others that guarantee reading every title, but then have a little list of catches, similar to how the Barry works.

And then there are others that declare no process at all and who knows how they pick them.

You may be surprised to hear that the Barry Awards actually went up in my estimation (not that they were low before, but you know what I mean) when I understood how they worked. It actually made sense of some past lists that had – in my opinion – glaring oversights. Now, I know, not oversights. Just ineligibility for various reasons.

And the Edgar is certainly a respectable award.

What calls to question the credibility of the Dagger – and tarnishes it to some degree in my opinion – is the expressed idea that there’s a problem because only one Brit won this year. It infers an unstated belief that the Brits will always dominate the awards.

And it’s those unstated beliefs that surface that then give credibility to the arguments that the Daggers were trying to stack the awards in favour of British writers by removing authors who’d been translated from consideration for the top prize. Now it’s “look, we did that and the Brits still aren’t winning everything” instead of coming back with more determination to clean up next year.

As authors, I think it best for us to focus on writing the very best book we can, that fits the style of book we want to write, and not focus on the awards too much anyway. Recognition is nice, but nothing matches the experience of having someone tell you they read and loved your book. I had some fan mail this week, as well as a message left on my Crimespace page that said ”I think (Suspicious Circumstances is) excellent, and the best debut novel of the past year.”

And that, more than anything else, has me floating on air. I never even stop to think about the nationality of the person, usually, but this time I did. British. My other lovely letters of the week? Americans.

We live in a global village. My 2 cents to those flipping out over the non-Brit haul at the Daggers this year: Get used to it. We’re all happy for international sales, and that means we compete in a global marketplace. What’s next? Banning buying foreign rights so that local authors don’t suffer lack of sales too? I’m the first person to say that the UK features a number of incredible crime fiction authors that I’m a big fan of, but no industry can rest on its laurels either.

British crime fiction is strong. One anomalous result at the Daggers shouldn’t be enough to throw people in a panic, but my personal hope is that we’ll see Laura Lippman nominated for Best Novel next year. Now, that’s a nomination that’s long overdue, and I’d be thrilled to see her win.

** It is better to be referred to as an American, as Agent Phil regretted doing when I was last at Harrogate. What was incredible, though, were the Americans who pinpointed what part of Canada I was from off of accent alone. Kudos to them, because I doubt I could do likewise, despite my extensive travels in the US.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Flies, Honey and Shit

I’m one of those people that believes that if your heart isn’t in something, most of the time others can tell. And that if you’re doing something that you’re uncomfortable with, you’re more likely to make a mess of it and put people off than anything.

You mean you’ve never done anything you were uncomfortable with because you needed to? Sure I have. We all face things in our lives that can be awkward, but we have to go through them. Funerals. Waiting in the hospital to find out if a loved one will be okay. That sort of stuff.

What I’m talking about is a bit different. For one thing, my position with the library involves running programs. Part of our problem out here is that there are a lot of people moving to the general area, but they don’t necessarily know about local services. Those who have been here for ages who don’t use the library don’t always realize what we have going on. You can put a notice in the newspaper and hang them up on bulletin boards all over town, and still not connect with people. In fact, it isn’t just us. Community programs – particularly those for kids – are down in attendance by anywhere from 60-80%. I don’t know if we’ve had a significant shift in the ages of our local residents, but I haven’t heard anything about the local school suffering a massive drop in registration.

So I have been going door to door, all over the village. Not to talk to people (heaven forbid!). Just to leave a flyer with some information about our summer reading program and the library hours for local residents. And after I did three streets, I got one new child registered. It’s possible more will come, since it wasn’t a requirement for them to phone and register.

As I was doing this, I was thinking about how much I hate door to door sales, telemarketing, spam… and here I am, going door to door. But not knocking on doors. Just leaving a flyer in the mailbox (or inside the screen door if they don’t have a mailbox). I don’t particularly like doing it, but I realize it needs to be done. And part of the reason I’m okay doing it is because the library runs a lot of programs that serve the community – tutoring, early literacy, summer and winter reading programs – and has the only free internet in town.

When it comes to promoting myself and my work I can’t justify that level of self promotion. There’s no way I’d go door to door. It goes to my philanthropic nature. I’ve been able to get over going door to door, to some degree, because we have things to offer the community that benefit them. Selling my work, however, primarily benefits me.

I’ve been in the position again, surprisingly, where I’ve needed to stand on the edge of my comfort zone with regards to self promotion. I hit walls with this very quickly and once I start feeling uncomfortable I imagine it must be pretty obvious.

Now, I have a number of things going on, most of which I’m not able to talk about right now. There’s something that requires me to ask favours, under an extreme deadline. And this is important. It's something that will be 'etched in stone', as it were. Having the right ones matters... But (despite the fact that people think I know everyone and surely must have an endless list of people I can ask) there are very few people I feel comfortable asking this of. This morning, I hit my wall on it. I’m done. I'll have to live with what I get, because the whole situation is bothering me.

Leave me staggered that it never seems to bother some others to ask things of others, myself included. How do they do it? Either because it comes naturally to them or because they’ve learned they have to do ‘whatever it takes’ to survive in this business, there seem to be a lot of authors out there who have no reservations at all about pushing for stuff. In fact, there are authors who treat me as though (as a reviewer and interviewer) I’m their publicist. One gave me a deadline about making a decision on something. Many ‘inform’ me they want me to interview them. Um, no. That isn’t the way it works, not with me.

There seem to be two extreme camps in the writing world. There are those who’ve gotten big deals and massive publisher push from the outset and have never had to mail out a review copy in their life. They think all publishers do everything for everyone. Then there’s the other 99% of the authors out there, at various stages of learning that they have to do a lot of things themselves. I lost count of the number of times I heard, in the last year, an author say I don’t think I can afford to be published.

No matter what you do, there will always be some who criticize. If you don’t participate on blogs/forums/attend conventions etc. you end up with people who think you’re snobby and conceited. If you do participate, you run the risk of overstepping, of being too present. One thing I’ve definitely learned is that you can’t please everyone. But damn, you have to be able to live with yourself.

One other thing I know is that there’s such a thing as market saturation, and this is something more authors should pay attention to.

Putting posters all over town has limited potential because people tend to tune out familiar environments, and only notice significant changes. You have to rotate those posters to have them make more of an impact. Think for yourself – how many times have you gone to visit friends/a town you used to live in and said, Something’s different… and then you try to put your finger on what.

If authors are omnipresent it stops being important to see them/interact with them because you know you’ll have plenty of opportunities to do so. They aren’t going anywhere – they’re always there.

I can cope with stepping out of my box long enough to do the things I need to do. I can even enjoy myself doing some of them. But I can only last so long. I’m not interested in working the promotional trail ten months of the year. If I was, I'd be in sales, selling something I could make good money from.

Part of the reason I got thinking about this was because someone recently commented that lately they’d been seeing my name everywhere. I know I did an interview, and was interviewed as part of a group of people for an article, but I didn’t really think of that being much. Neither were things I went after, both were situations where the person approached me, either for interview or for comment, and I was happy to contribute as requested. But everywhere? I've been leaving lists left, right and sideways - no time, or no tolerance left for the steady stream of self promotion that comes with them. I thought I'd been more low-key than usual.

It seems it’s a good time for me to slither back under my rock completely.

I suppose I have to have some level of admiration for those people who can (in my opinion, with some of them anyway) badger reviewers for coverage. I stick firmly to the ‘catch more flies with honey’ and ‘don’t be a pushy bitch’ philosophy. But I can see now that this is part of the reason why some people do get pages of blurbs and reviews. Squeaky wheels and all that. And, truth is, you can catch a lot of flies with shit. Maybe people just get tired of having it thrown at them, so they break down. (Me, I become more adamant that I won't be pushed.) The other day, a ‘publisher’ phoned our library, pushing for us to buy these books. They’re expensive, and my personal book-buying budget for the year is higher than what the library has in its budget. The books are low-demand, reference, and buying them would take one year’s book-buying money.

And despite having that explained to them, this is the second time the person’s phoned. I suppose it’s like those Nigerian email scams. They must keep doing it because some people are suckered in.

But is that really how you want to feel about why people bought your book? That you suckered them in?

Whatever happened to genuine enthusiasm for a good book that gets more and more attention through word of mouth because it’s a good book?

Speaking of which, a book that’s sure to get a lot of word of mouth in the coming months is Who is Conrad Hirst? by Kevin Wignall. Wignall delivers a punch to the gut that will knock you to the floor. And I’m not saying much more, not until I’ve written my review.

Monday, July 23, 2007

A Few More Words on Harrogate

There is a growing collection of places online where you can get your Harrogate fix.

John Baker has a quick overview of his highlights up.

Steve Mosby does a thorough assessment of the weekend and Vincent has managed to find time when he should be working to put in a lengthy post.

And for me, I managed to get a lot more sleep this year than last year. That would be the positive of not going to a convention.

Hopefully Chris High and Shots will have posts up soon as well.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Harrogate Highlights

Donna Moore notes that Kevin Wignall "looks bugger all like his author photo" and she isn’t the first to make that observation. We’ll have to keep an eye on Contemporary Nomad to see if Mr. Wignall will admit to playing with photoshop to disguise his identity.

Julie Lewthwaite admits to sharing a bench with someone, and I find myself wondering if it’s the person Donna referred to being benched in her post. Ah, the rumours begin…

Vincent may have proven men don’t have the staying power of women, since he lives much closer to Harrogate than Donna does and couldn’t even manage three full lines so far. And he didn't have to deal with crutches either! (Look for more here in the coming days, when he’s slacking off from work, making fake wounds or filming.)

Man of few words that he is, Al Guthrie has only managed this so far.

Russel of the bench and hangovers took my threat about taking advantage of his cell phone number at ungodly hours seriously and actually managed a Friday post. I responded in kind by not ringing him up at 5 am. There's always next year.

James hasn’t checked in yet, but no doubt will in the days ahead.

Stuart did check in with the best blog post title regarding Al’s Theakstons win.

And Euro Crime has posted a bit so far and I expect there will be more details in the coming week.

Incidentally, I got that press release as well, which I thought was interesting. Not the details, just the fact that I got it. I always find it really weird when I get some sort of detailed but somehow impersonal press release on an author I know. Considering some of the things I’ve talked to Al about on the record I felt this release really tried to highlight his sweet and respectable side. Steered clear of the sexual habits of rodents and fish completely. And look at that photo. Does that look like the kind of guy who would kill puppies in fiction?

I’m sure we’ll also have a full recap from John Rickards but the last photo he posted prompted me to scrub my eyes with steel wool, so I can’t link over there. I’m still only seeing shadows, thanks to that.

And, of course, I’ll be looking forward to Ali Karim’s recap when it’s up.

There will undoubtedly be more posts to come, and I’ll try to add links in the coming days, but this is the cheat sheet for all the blogs you won’t want to miss.

Confessions of a Reader Who Never Fell Under Harry Potter’s Spell

JK Rowling is without a doubt one of the most influential authors in the world. Despite whatever critics say about her work, twenty years from now parents will read Harry Potter to their children and remember it as a book they loved from their childhood, something to share and pass on, the way people have passed on Lord of the Rings, Narnia, and Anne of Green Gables. If I had children, it would be the first two, not the third (which I’ve never read), The Great Brain series, the works of Jack London and Gordon Korman’s Bruno and Boots series, which he wrote the first book for when he was in grade 7.

Those books we read and loved as children stay with us over the years. Perhaps it’s because we read them at an age where it was still possible to believe a magic world was waiting on the other side of a wardrobe. Perhaps it’s because the greatest thing about being a child is having the ability to escape from the harsh realities of the real world without having the same experience of those realities that most adults have had to face, and returning to those books is like returning to a gentler time in our lives, when things weren’t so complicated.

Whatever the reasons, things we grow to love as children do stay with us. And for this reason alone, I admire JK Rowling.

Okay, so I haven’t read the books. I have read a few reviews, so I’m aware of the criticisms. I’m an author, so I’m aware of the jealousy factor. I didn’t read the books for a variety of reasons. One is that I have a bit of an aversion to anything too popular. I tend to catch on to things in syndication. Northern Exposure, for example. I’ve seen more of Seinfeld and Friends as repeats than I ever did when they were actually on air.

Another reason is that, limited as my reading time is, I’ve chosen to focus on the genre I write in with most of my reading. This was necessary over the past few years as I covered a lot of ground and explored the genre.

And then there’s the part of you that gets sick of hearing about it. Much the same reason I never read Dan Brown.

I do think it’s fair to say that deep down, every author wants some recognition for their work, and they’d like to be successful. And so it’s fair to say that some of the most popular best-selling authors out there – John Grisham, Michael Crichton, James Patterson, Dan Brown, JK Rowling – find themselves often on the outside, alienated from their peers to some degree. (I haven’t read any of them, btw.)

There’s a really interesting opinion piece in the Scotsman on the topic of Rowling resentment. It got me thinking, not so much about JK Rowling, but about why it is we’re suspicious of success. We seem to have this idea that anyone too successful must have sold their soul to Satan, be involved in witchcraft, have slept their way up the ladder, or have good access to blackmail material. We seldom trust success.

I think this is especially true when success comes quickly. We hear the stories, how Grisham couldn’t get a publisher so sold his first book out of the trunk of his car then got a movie deal, thus doing an end-run around the publishing business. Boom, instant success, right? Only in our eyes, because we heard of him after he had a movie deal and then got scooped up by a publisher. Hardly instant for him.

But it’s enough to persuade some to try self-publishing, vanity presses, anything, to get out there… Because perhaps they’ll catch on the same way. And if they don’t, then it’s easy to look at the ones who did make it and resent them.

A great thing I heard from another author: No other author’s success diminishes my own.

I’m not in competition with JK Rowling. If anything, I owe her my thanks. She has encouraged children to be passionate about books. My niece and nephew were at a midnight costume party for the book launch. Children going to book launches. That’s fantastic, because years from now a lot of those children are going to be adult readers. They’ve experienced the magic of the written word, what it is to be caught up in a story, and that will stay with them.

So, although I’ve read the spoilers, and then read a few of the reviews, Harry Potter mania isn’t much of an event for me, personally, but I do appreciate what she’s done for the book industry.

And I hope the reports of her potential new writing project are correct. Whatever she does, all the best to her. Whether you like it or not, JK Rowling has left her mark on the literary world.

Although I think my niece now admits to liking Eragon a bit better… Of course, that may be a defense mechanism, to be less upset by the end of HP.

But if you want a different view on the brouhaha, read the July 20 entry here. (No direct links to posts on this blog, so you may have to scroll down.) Just don’t drink anything before you read.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Hunter S. Thompson: Newspaper Tribute

A Colorado newspaper published a special edition with a tribute to journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson. I'd love to see a copy of that.

The Barry Nominees

The list is in, and my congratulations to all the nominees.

Best Novel

White Shadow by Ace Atkins
Oh Danny Boy by Rhys Bowen
The Last Assassin by Barry Eisler
The Prisoner of Guantanamo by Dan Fesperman
City of Shadows by Ariana Franklin
The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos

Best First

The Faithful Spy by Alex Berenson
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
The Berlin Conspiracy by Tom Gabbay
The King of Lies by John Hart
Still Life by Louise Penny
A Field of Darkness by Cornelia Read

Best British

Priest by Ken Bruen
Dying Light by Stuart MacBride
Sovereign by C.J. Sansom
The Case of the Missing Books by Ian Sansom
Mr. Clarinet by Nick Stone
Red Sky Lament by Edward Wright

Best Thriller

Killer Instinct by Joseph Finder
The Foreign Correspondent by Alan Furst
Relentless by Simon Kernick
Cold Kill by Stephen Leather
The Messenger by Daniel Silva
Kill Me by Stephen White

Best Paperback Original

Bust by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr
The Last Quarry by Max Allan Collins
The Cleanup by Sean Doolittle
Live Wire by Jay MacLarty
Deadman's Poker by Jim Swain
Crooked by Brian Wiprud

Best Short Story

"Cain was Innocent" by Simon Brett (Thou Shalt Not Kill, published by
Carroll & Graf)
"Shaping the Ends" by Judith Cutler (EQMM May, 2006)
"The Right Call" by Brendan DuBois (EQMM Sept/Oct, 2006)
"A Man of Taste" by Kate Ellis (EQMM Mar/Apr, 2006)
"Rosemary" by Paul Halter (The Night of the Wolf, published by
Wildside Press)
"A Case for Inspector Ghote" by June Thomson (The Verdict of Us All,
published by Crippen & Landru)

I'll try to have something more personal than a list in the next day or two.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


Word is in that Allan Guthrie has won the Theakston's Award at Harrogate...*

More reports sure to come, since Ali Karim of The Rap Sheet is on the front lines. Although I'd figured Stuart MacBride to win, I'm delighted to be wrong. Well, not because Stuart lost, but he won the Dagger, so Al winning Theakstons is great, because they're both winners.

And now Stuart has something to whine about on his blog again.

* reported on 4MA via Donna Moore

Even More of Me...

Yeah, yeah, interviewed again. But how many times do I see my name in the same article as Otto Penzler and Charles Ardai? Matthew Baldwin has run a profile on Web Noir in The Morning News. The article is filled with insights from industry insiders and takes a look at the new trends in ezine publishing.

I realize I'm low-key right now, but I'm biting my tongue about something. Well, more than one thing, actually. But I will say this: Kevin and I have been saving something for a celebration dinner for some time now, and we're talking about making a day of it next week. When I'll be able to share the news publicly, however, is still the question.

Don't you just want to smack me?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

There's Enough of Me Elsewhere...

Author and blogger Sandra Parshall recently interviewed me, primarily about Spinetingler and reviewing, but there's a little bit in there about the manuscript that's in play at the moment. And if you're curious about what will be coming from me next, you might want to check that out.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Apparently, it's my fault...

...that Brian has written an insightful piece on Black Crime Fiction writers. (Don't you love it when you get an email with the subject line It's all your fault! Being me, the first thing that goes through my mind is, What did I do this time and how did you find out?)

I was actually writing up something else for today. I’ve seen a number of reports and commentaries on the decision to give away Prince’s new album in a newspaper in the UK, and how it’s angered retailers, who are already suffering from declining album sales.

And I’ve been thinking about it a fair bit, because the debate rages over whether or not to give away books for free online and if this is hurting sales or boosting profile. There are a number of authors – and publishers – exploring the benefits of free downloads in an effort to attract readers to new authors, and even established authors are benefiting.

But Prince’s move to offer his album for free in a newspaper prompted his UK record label to drop his album. Prince is receiving a fee plus a royalty payment of nearly £500,000 from the newspaper for the rights to give away his new album. The publisher picks up the £750,000 costs of printing and promoting the CD. So Prince is certainly getting paid - and arguably more handsomely than he would have done based on the lacklustre performance of his last release, 3121, which sold just 80,000 copies in the UK.

I think the main reason that retailers are upset is not because Prince gave his album away: It’s because they were completely cut out of the loop and are unable to benefit from this.

The argument with books is that offering them for free online is actually increasing sales of books. Consumers check out a chapter, like it, and then buy the book.

In reality, I also think the reason that the book industry hasn’t been hit with the same backlash is that online sales are a drop in the bucket. Consider these numbers. DorothyL: approximately 3200 receive the digest. 4MA: approximately 1000. Members on Crimespace: 760 (approximately). The DaVinci Code sold more than 40 million copies (60.5 in print according to Wikipedia) and I assure you, I didn’t buy a copy, and neither did my husband.

Clearly, not every book-buyer is reading mystery digests. In fact, I’m aware of debut authors with targets of 25,000 copies sold in hardcover, based on their book deal. 25,000 copies. That’s a long way from 3200.

In reality, online book sales are estimated to count for less than 10% of all book sales, and I think 10% is considered generous. A lady at Kevin’s work heard his wife had a book published and asked for the information, started writing it down and then asked which stores had it locally. (My publisher doesn’t permit me to deal with books on consignment, so…) Kevin said it was available online. She put her pen down and said, “I don’t buy books online.” End of discussion.

My theory is that bookstores haven’t been as affected by freebies online because of the limited reach of the internet. I’m not discounting the importance of a web presence (I don’t even consider interviewing authors who don’t have websites. I simply can’t get the background information about them that I need and it drives me mad if I’m moderating a panel and there’s no information about the panelists. I’d like to introduce Joe Schmoe. He’s an author. Yeah, there’s a newsflash.) but I am putting it in perspective. Right now, the internet alone isn’t enough to build a career as an author, and therefore it isn’t impacting stores in the way that Prince's move clearly impacted music stores.

However, I think that authors and publishers should take note of this example and consider it carefully. We have two dogs. One of them is adorable in every sense, except one. When we built a pen for the dogs outside we built a big doghouse, big enough for the two of them. It's huge. Put shingles on the roof and with an earth floor it stays nice and cool in the summer, and always dry inside. But the dogs never lie in it. Why? Nootka prefers to poo in the doghouse. And what Prince did reminds me of Nootka's annoying habit. He could have struck a deal to give the CD away in stores as part of a promotion. Instead, he bypassed the businesses that have helped him earn a living from his music in the past. Perhaps he thinks that, being desperate for sales as they are, they’ll forgive and forget by the time his next album comes out. However, the laws of economics apply to businesses. Few people work for love alone. Given that Prince’s own record label dumped the album, he may not be a quick scoop by a UK label next time around. He may find himself cut out of the industry there. And if others follow in the freebie offering trend in the UK newspapers may not jump for another opportunity to spend a few million on him and his album. Has he put short-term gain ahead of his career? Time will tell.

The Rap Sheet recently reported on the proliferation of serialized novels and as this trend continues the industry would do well to remember bookstores. Rankin’s serial novel began a few months ago in the NY Times. I missed the release (which feels pretty pathetic, but there just isn’t a newsletter/forum/list network in place that circulates the latest in a timely fashion – “Inspector Rebus” depends on fans to volunteer info they hear about, and contrary to popular opinion I’m not on top of what everyone is doing). Kevin caught it and printed off the first section (because he knows I actually don’t like reading online) but he didn’t realize it was a weekly thing and missed the following installment…

Anyway, enough said. If I’d known when it was coming out I would have bought hard copies, but since I didn’t and live a considerable distance from anywhere that sells US newspapers I shrugged it off with an “oh well” and will wait for the printed copy next year.

However, if I had known in time to order print copies I would have gone with the original and possibly skipped the book.

I don’t think the serialized novels have hurt publishers or booksellers to this point, but there is a risk in giving things away for free that compete directly with what retailers are selling. People could consider that hypocritical, coming from an ezine editor, but this is something I’ve considered. Do ezines reduce magazine sales? I can only say I hope not. If I felt that it was hurting the industry more than helping, I’d evaluate what to do. But since most ezines publish only short stories and there isn’t a big market for anthologies and most magazines publish considerably more than short stories I don’t think we’re in competition at this point in time.

I do think, though, that there will come a point in time where publishers and authors should look at utilizing the value of free offerings as promotion in conjunction with supporting bookstores. I have the niggling beginnings of ideas in my brain, but those will be saved for some future date.

Meanwhile, my 2 cents is to pay attention. Make sure you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. As more people jump on the trend to serialize novels in newspapers and offer free ebooks we need to make sure we aren’t cutting booksellers off at the knees.

And be sure to go check out Brian's article. I'll have to finish devouring it when I get home from the library later. I'm a bit scattered today, as I have some major stuff going on, but nothing I can talk about. At least, not yet. : )

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Crime Fiction & Politics

In a recent post at The Rap Sheet, J. Kingston Pierce wades in with opinion on legislation being pushed by a Republican that would ban violent TV shows from being aired before 10 pm. And for his efforts, he drew a wee, little bit of criticism.

I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone had dissected the post in contrast to this more recent offering, that cites the pet peeve of substituting opinions for facts. This is not what Mr. Kingston Pierce did (in my opinion) but if someone had disapproved of his perspective I could have seen them making an attempt to discount the earlier opinion piece.

However, the complaint isn’t about the nature of opinions expressed. The complaint in the comments is that a crime fiction blog engaged in a ”political diatribe”

I understand that some people have no interest in politics. I can even respect their right to not want to hear any political opinions expressed…anywhere. (And I admit I say that a bit grudgingly, but we’ll get to why in a minute.) But what I have a hard time comprehending is that people don’t see that crime fiction has an intricate connection to politics, and the particular issue being addressed by J. Kingston Pierce is one that has significance to all those interested in crime fiction.

‘Broadcasters should not be allowed to use the public airwaves to disseminate violent or obscene material,’ Brownback said in a statement. ‘The abundance of indecent material on television is one indication of the coarsening of our culture.’” (Brownback is the Senator pushing this bill, and the quote comes via The Rap Sheet article.)

The second part of his own statement is the proof of why restricting the content of television programs will not solve the problems with US society - or any society. (My apologies, in that I don’t feel I want to thumb my nose at my friends to the south. This is your political issue, in a sense, but we watch the same shows and have many of the same problems here.) The statement, however, indicates clearly what I believe about TV and books: They reflect society and its problems.

I do not believe books and TV (or music, or video games) create the problems.

I said above that I grudgingly respected a person’s right to take no interest in politics. This ties directly to my feelings on this issue. My teen years were spent in an exclusive Brethren Assembly. Women were not allowed to speak and wore head coverings. You had to be in fellowship to break bread. When I traveled I had to carry a letter recognizing me as part of the fellowship in order to participate at other meetings. The mindset was such that even many of the elders in my church disapproved of me going to Bible school. I was discouraged (by some, not all) from listening to secular music (and for many years I subscribed to that philosophy). I had a harder time with the belief of some that I shouldn’t read secular books.

What I ultimately couldn’t accept within the church was the tendency to close your mind. For a few years, I guess I lived in something of a vacuum. And I can see how some people find shutting themselves off from society to be an escape. I’ve never been good at being blind… and everyone reading this no doubt knows I call things as I see them. In part, maybe I spent too much time biting my tongue, first in the Brethren Assembly, later as a missionary. When I left the Brethren I did it in what no doubt some of you would consider ‘true Sandra form’: stood up and said my peace to everyone (without a headcovering). Reading Lake Wobegon Days still cracks me up. Of course, there’s a hint of sadness there, because that day was the day that our church split in two, with many things leading to a rift that blew wide open when one of the brothers served communion to a friend of mine who smiled. The complaint was, “She doesn’t even look like a Christian.”

The point is, I know the rhetoric used by many of the most extreme fundamentalist Christians intimately. Put me in a debate on the evils of secular music and I can talk you out of ever turning on your radio. It may not be what I believe now, but I can still slip those shoes on for show.

What my misguided friends quibbling over TV programming fail to grasp is that reducing the amount of violent content shown before 10 pm on TV will not make the streets safer. In fact, I would argue it might make them more dangerous. If there’s nothing good on TV, more people will be out. And if more people are out that increases the number of targets for theft, assault, rape. The week of The Calgary Stampede has been the same week Calgary has suffered a rash of random stabbings, including one murder. More people on the streets, the greater the chance of violence. That is, after all, why the police go out in full force when there are playoffs happening for the NHL.

That’s a very weak point, in reality. An incidental. The real truth is that if we turn on our TV at 8 pm and flick from channel to channel and see nothing but loving families with bright smiles and sunshiny lives, we can delude ourselves into believing that our world is a happy place. Some might even convince themselves that this is true of everyone everywhere. However, it does nothing to address poverty, crime, divorce, abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, terrorism or anything else that plagues our society. It is ‘out of sight, out of mind’ thinking. If I don’t see it, it isn’t real.

And isn’t it nice that you didn’t have to feel uncomfortable watching a show where a woman is beaten to the point she feels so desperate she shoots and kills her abusive partner, or that she’s willing to abandon her baby on a doorstep to spare the child from growing up with that violence? How wonderfully convenient for you that you didn’t have to acknowledge that the world is not a perfect place.

For those that do pull their head up from the sand long enough to take a look at the news, they will quickly see that changing TV programming regulations hasn’t solved a damn thing. And then they will focus their energy elsewhere. What’s next? Music? Radio? Video games? Books?

They’re putting the cart before the horse. It’s like giving sunscreen to someone dying of skin cancer - it might spare them the discomfort of one sunburn, but it isn’t going to do a damn thing to save their life.

In my opinion politics and crime fiction are intricately connected. Well, perhaps not all crime fiction. I can’t speak to the whole spectrum. But the part of the genre that I spend most of my time focused on is where the books are a reflection of society, where commentary is being made in a low-key fashion, through compelling stories. More than just entertaining reads, these books have weight because they’re actually about something important. They act as a window to the world at a point in time. Twenty years from now people will be able to read The Naming of the Dead and recall a chapter in history. G8 and the London bombings. The timing of the book coincides with my first visit to Scotland, so it will always convey a sense of the political climate of the time.

For myself, I believe that no matter how hard you squeeze your eyes shut and try to tune out the world, you are still affected by crime. You pay higher insurance premiums because of theft. You pay taxes that are used to hire police, fund the courts and house criminals in prisons. Whether you want to acknowledge it or not, you pay the price for crime.

And that’s where the politics comes in. It doesn’t matter if you don’t vote, know what parties are running or listen to the speeches or think about the issues. Someone gets elected, and they make decisions. They make decisions about whether or not to put half-way houses in your neighbourhood. They might be able to influence what shows you can and can’t watch at 8 pm… and they might also have some say in what kind of sentences criminals face. (Death penalty debates, for example. Here, we could argue consecutive sentencing. Do not get me started on that – we’ll be here for the rest of the month!) The decisions politicians make about funding for police departments and prisons can affect early release from jail for dangerous criminals, can affect whether or not there’s someone there to respond to calls when it’s you or a loved one who’s the victim. My husband’s on a fire department. Don’t think for a second that absolute responsibility for what happens within the department begins and ends with the department itself. There are always people in political positions who pull the strings.

So, for me, you can’t separate crime fiction from politics. That doesn’t mean the books I read are heavy-hitting propaganda. However, they do portray society, warts and all, and try to give a sense of how it all interconnects. There is probably no greater example of this than The Wire. If you aren’t familiar with this show (my God, where have you been? Picketing with the Senator, I suppose…) go look at that link. Just scroll down. Four venues of importance to tell the story: The Law, The Street, The Hall and The School. Because The Wire actually requires an attention span and some capacity to face things that might be uncomfortable (such as the violent deaths of some characters) what it does is demonstrate the intricate connection of all aspects of society. Each season has it’s arc, with a major investigation unfolding. Things are not wrapped up in an hour, they’re wrapped up in 12 or 13 hours. But beyond the framework of each season there is the bigger picture. Each season is like one panel of a quilt. It tells its own story, but is integral to the quilt as a whole, joining with the other panels to tell a larger story. What has been clear, from the beginning, has been the negative impact of the political power struggles within the police department, and how that actually aides crime by hindering police officers. In four seasons we begin to see it coming together, showing how in order to really change society we don’t need to ban violent TV programs or raise arrest quotas. What we need to do is simultaneously revamp our political, educational and legal systems to actually address the issues, rather than just keep slapping band-aids on bullet wounds.

As a former educator and huge fan of crime fiction I just love the show, and the insights. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tony Gray voiced David Simon’s own beliefs when he said that before you could even address crime you needed to get to the root and address problems with the education system and get to the kids before they started slinging on street corners.

Here I am, using a TV program to defend violence on TV. Some might discount that argument, but what I would say to Christians supporting this bill is that some of the most disturbing acts of violence I have ever read are contained in the Bible, and I don’t see anyone moving to ban that. We had David cutting the foreskins off men he slaughtered as the price for a bride. Brother raping sister. If we’re going to stick with the discussion from the perspective of religion, it’s called sin folks. “To miss the mark.” Darkness, the ability to commit violent or immoral acts, has been in the heart of each and every one of us since the dawn of time. The first child born to Adam and Eve was a murderer. And I hate to tell you this, but he didn’t kill his brother because he got the idea watching an episode of CSI.

Throughout history we have records of inquisitions, crusades, wars, genocide. Hitler wasn’t influenced by a bad episode of NYPD Blue and neither was Nero.

If people really want to “fix” what’s wrong with our society, they need to stop casting judgment on people and start meeting the needs that aren’t being met. For crying out loud, they have time to pursue a bill that will affect TV programming for two hours - when it would have no impact on curbing violent content on cable channels, and when so many of us have satellite that we can watch what’s on at 10 pm elsewhere when it’s only 8 pm at our home.

And we haven’t even touched on access to material via the internet. Who’s going to keep the impressionable and easily offended from viewing violent content on YouTube if they can’t even take responsibility to turn the damn TV off if they don’t like what’s on?

This isn’t exactly new opinion from me. I know I’ve touched on this before, but in light of the comment on The Rap Sheet I’m left scratching my head. If you don’t like what’s on TV, don’t watch it. (I seldom do.) And if you don’t like what’s on a blog, don’t read it.

Free choice. It’s a beautiful thing.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Jumping The Shark

Daniel Radcliffe says "What everybody would love to see is me having ditched school and then just going wild… That's what I'm determined not to give them."

The Harry Potter star admits that there are some people who will probably never separate him from Harry, but says he’s “just going to get on with it."

I’m glad to know that we won’t see him competing for scandal coverage in the press. In fact, I think we ought to give the kids that come through celebrity status without ending up in rehab a medal. Setting that aside, though, this article got me thinking. It is going to be hard for him to separate himself from Harry Potter. However, not impossible.

I was thinking about some who’ve failed to shake their past (that Home Alone kid) and some who’ve gone on to be quite successful doing other things. Rick Schroder’s part on NYPD Blue was quite a departure from his Silver Spoons days. I remember my initial what the hell? thought when I heard he’d been cast. As someone who was (ahem) never a die-hard NYPD Blue fan and only watched it sporadically, I actually watched it pretty regularly when he was on the show.

Another one who springs to mind is Leonardo DiCaprio. He’s come a long way from Growing Pains. (Another show I didn’t watch regularly.) I say this as someone who hasn’t seen Titanic and wouldn’t go see a movie just because he’s in it – I thought he was great in The Departed. And that movie featured another actor proving his worth – Mark Wahlberg.

One of the things I think that distracts from the roles of some actors is their own celebrity. There’s a difference between being an actor and being a celebrity. A big difference. And to be honest, I prefer the actors. When I watch a movie what should come through is the character, the role. Not the fact that so-and-so got $20 million for the part because they’re a name. I find myself almost distrusting those movies after a while. But when I hear Christian Bale has taken on a role I’m actually intrigued.

This is a problem that authors can face as well, and it opens up the series vs stand-alone debate. When an author establishes themselves with a series and it’s popular, it will always be difficult to make a transition and write something else. There are people who will love certain characters and it will be those that tie them to the series, more than the writing or the author.

However, there’s a real risk of jumping the shark with a series. I’ve abandoned two series where I felt the books were becoming repetitious. One author is doing something different now, and I tried one of those books but never really got into it.

Will I try something else by them in the future?

Possibly. There are a number of factors at work. If an author pushes a series to the point where you do feel they’re past due, they can lose some credibility with their readership. Of course, this is a tricky thing. A reader may lose interest long before the author does, and all readers are not equal. Others might have reached the conclusion long before I did, and there may well be others still begging for more.

The other factor will be how enticing the new material is.

It’s interesting to assess my own reading habits, because there are some authors I’ll follow anywhere and give their new stuff a try. I suppose it has to do with the level of consistency in what they’ve offered. In reality, I like series books, because I like following a character over time. And you already have a starting point with the new book. Every book you read is work in the beginning, because you’re getting to know the characters and sorting out what’s going on. And sometimes, I don’t want to get to know someone new. I want to catch up with someone I already like and enjoy spending time with. Call it lazy, call it my comfort zone… it’s something I enjoy as a reader.

As a writer, I find series books to have a unique challenge. For one thing, it’s always in your mind that you could hit the point where you’ve gone too far. For another, you don’t want to be repeating yourself. You want to be moving the characters and stories in to fresh territory. This is something that comes up with movies and sequels a fair bit – the sequels usually suck. Not always, but sometimes. Sometimes, you get the sense that the original movie was meant to be a one-shot deal, but because it was so successful they pushed it out for another go, just to make money. That’s something I’d never want to do with my books.

One of the ways I stretch and try to expand the scope of my portfolio is with short stories. Anyone who’s read SC will note it’s got quite a different tone from the short fiction, like Bull’s Eye, The Butcher, Last Shot and Fucked Again.

However, I’m already working on different things, one of which is a planned stand-alone. And that brings to mind the debate about whether it should be under a pseudonym, or whether I can carry it under my own name.

I have no idea right now. I think I’ll trust the discretion of my agent and editor when the time comes. I think the plus of putting it out under my name is that it helps alleviate the ‘typecast’ thing that can happen to some authors. But then, there are always risks…

In the program with Peter Robinson that I watched the other day, he said something interesting. He said he didn’t really want to be a writer, he just wanted to write. It’s something that’s stayed with me this week, and when I read the article on Daniel Radcliffe it struck the same note. The difference between writing and writers. The difference between actors and celebrities.

What is real about being an author is what happens between yourself and the blank pages, when the ideas are forming, the words are flowing and you’re creating your story. Conferences, book signings, interviews and all that jazz are incidentals. Sure you can have fun, but they aren’t your every day. At a guess, I’d say at least 80% of readers don’t participate on lists, read forums or blogs. When I talk to bookstore staff and now library staff, this is all foreign concept to them. If you read some lists/forums and then look at the bestseller lists you’ll be left to wonder who it is reading some of those books, because I never see people mentioning them as favourite authors.

It’s always nice to catch up with friends who happen to be authors, but I’m not going to kid myself that it’s the same thing as meeting readers.

Something to remember.

On that note, the waterfall story. I think I'll save that and share it on a special occasion. Which may be soon.

UPDATED TO ADD: Amra has an agent! Congrats Amra! I kept forgetting to post a link...

Thursday, July 12, 2007

8 Random Things About Me

James Goodman tagged me, so I’m coming out to play briefly. Then I’m going to The Stampede.

First, the covenant:
1. We have to post these rules before we give you the facts.
2. Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
3. People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
4. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
5. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

Okay, eight random things about me:

1. I played bass guitar in stage band in high school.

2. When I was 8 I was hit by a car while riding my bike home. The gentleman had gone to town to pick up his birthday cake (he was 80) and his cake somersaulted on impact, and so did I. I heard the cake was still edible, it just didn’t look good. I ended up with stitches in my head because I struck it on something. And the thing I remember most? The guy who got out of his vehicle from the other side of the road (the reason Mr. Birthday Man couldn’t pass me – solid traffic coming the other way) and picked up my bike and threw it in the ditch. He never even asked if I was okay. Jerk.

Almost a year after the car I was running along the beach and landed on broken liquor bottle, partially severing my right foot. That was incident #2 in my three-year run of catastrophes…

Disaster #3. I fell down a waterfall. Just don’t ask. In fact, forget I mentioned it. (Evil Kev is standing here laughing, saying “I didn’t know that.” Jerk.)

3. When we were in Indonesia we spent a day sailing out to Lambongan Island and went snorkeling. Despite multiple applications of sunscreen, I got a horrible sunburn. Fortunately, it was at the end of our trip. Unfortunately, that meant I had to suffer with it on the plane…

4. So, returning from Indonesia via Japan, I had one of those we must go now! moments. Kevin was rather annoyed with me, but I wanted to get to the airport right away. We took a cab (although we could have waited for a free bus) and when we got there to check in they kept asking us weird questions. “Just the two of you?” “Is Vancouver your final destination?” Once this was established, we were asked to take a flight half hour later because they’d overbooked. They bumped us up to first class on Air Canada and paid us a pile of money for our inconvenience, and bought us dinner.

5. My first marriage proposal was from an Italian man in a train station in Austria who was so… expressive I had to pry him off me. And his father was there saying, “If you feel this in your heart you must pursue it.” Yes, my first experience with Italian men when I lived in Europe. It wasn’t the last.

6. I went swimming in the Arctic Ocean. (I’ve actually gone swimming in the Arctic, Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans, and the Mediterranean and the Irish Sea.) This may not seem like a big deal to you, but thanks to my near-drowning experience when I fell down the falls I actually have a fear of water.

7. If I don’t have to go out I’ll stay in my pajamas all day.

8. I have a piece of the Iron Curtain. Since I was living in Europe when the wall came down, I watched the carve it up at Checkpoint Charlie and do have an East Germany stamp in my old passport, so technically, I guess I’ve been to a country that no longer exists. Weird.

Now, I’m supposed to tag 8 people… I’m sending out the subliminal messages, have you got them? Okay, okay. How about James, Anne, Angie, Amra, Christa, Eileen, Trace, and Bonnie? But I won’t make it to your blogs to leave a note until tonight or tomorrow morning.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Music & Pop Culture References in Books

Music in crime fiction: the insert of a lazy author, product placement or an often essential ingredient?

Let me qualify part of my position before I state it. Undoubtedly, how each person feels about music will influence where they fall on this issue. It would be exaggerating to say that every Ruttan is musical, but growing up it certainly seemed that way. For me it was piano, fiddle and bass guitar. (And have I mentioned Deric Ruttan has a new single due to hit airwaves soon? He’s co-written hits What Was I Thinkin’? and Lot of Leavin’ Left To Do with Dierks Bentley. The lead-off single for Deric’s new album? A Deric and Dirks duet called Good Time.)

But I digress. (That was product placement, btw. It did nothing to create atmosphere, was pure indulgence.) The main thing is, for me, there’s always been music. Having an appreciation of music, and how to play, gives you an interesting insight into writing. With music, there’s as much said in silence, in the breath between the notes, as there is with the notes themselves. Timing is a critical element. As a writer, I look to my musical knowledge to remind myself to give pause where appropriate.

As someone who loves music, I actually love musical references in books. So, perhaps I’m a wee bit biased…

This came up in one of those weird flukes of timing. Last night I watched the program on Peter Robinson that Evil Kev had recorded for me. When he was sitting on his couch talking, there were bookshelves behind him and right beside him was the prominent display of Ian Rankin books. (Not really surprising, but there is a point.) When he was in his office he was showing how he researches, and for one book that part of the story happens in 1969 he has books with pictures of the location from the era, and he had a collection of popular music from 1969 that he listened to.

Then, I stumbled across this post about Rankin and music at Detectives Beyond Borders. (Well, okay, I was over there to reference the post about Ken Bruen’s appearance on the Craig Ferguson show. Evil Kev had expressed surprise that nobody – none of the industry blogs – had even mentioned it, and he hadn’t seen any posts on the show, so I pointed out the two I had seen…)

So, it was complete coincidence on both sides of the equation that I ended up reading this old article on Rankin’s radio series, Music To Die For. A series I remember listening to.

In my opinion, the Telegraph article is bizarre. It begins by injecting what the writer would have liked to see. However, there’s no author name on the article, so I don’t know who it is expressing this opinion. One assumes it was a reporter…

But the words “sadly” and “vainglorious” put it squarely in the realm of editorial opinion (although it isn’t noted that way. Or even as a review of the program).

And I feel like taking issue with the statement It's true that Rankin's dominance of the British crime-fiction market is remarkable - he commands maybe 10 per cent of all sales - but then again this may be partly because the competition here is not so hot. The Americans do it better. Whoever wrote it, I wonder what the hell they’re on. Um, Martina Cole. Val McDermid. Stuart MacBride. Mark Billingham. Simon Kernick (a Richard and Judy summer read pick, which is the UK equivalent of Oprah). Ruth Rendell. PD James. Alexander McCall Smith. Denise Mina. What a loaded, unqualified opinion thrown in the mix of an article that’s supposed to be about music in crime fiction.

The article goes on to say, But the harder questions, such as whether the use of music is not sometimes just lazy piggybacking, if not product placement, and whether or not resorting to it so readily further suggests that crime fiction as a genre is condemned never to be much more than mood music itself, were not raised. The most original use of music in crime fiction wasn't mentioned either, the appearance of the Goldberg Variations, beautiful 'beyond plight and time', in The Silence of the Lambs.

Um, I actually listened to the program, and I distinctly remember Karin Slaughter mentioning thoughts on using music as a lazy way to convey emotion. Factual error is followed by another opinion, as I’ve seen no survey or pronouncement from some identified body of authority to suggest that the music he’s referring to is, in fact, considered the most original use of music in crime fiction.

And then the article goes into a summary of some other show with a “real music-inspired policeman,” which apparently makes his strong Christian roots and references valid.


Um, are you sort of sensing I didn’t like the article? No, not much. I write opinion as well as (and occasionally even better) than whoever penned that but I don’t have the audacity to stick it in a newspaper and try to validate it as relevant. What really bugs me, though, is how often people will read something like that and, because it’s in the Telegraph or whatever paper, consider it to have some authority, but I’ll steer away from that. I may have pissed off everyone else in the world this week, so I need someone to offend next week.

Getting back to the issue, let me answer my own question. Music in crime fiction: the insert of a lazy author, product placement or an often essential ingredient?

My answer? Yes and no, yes and no, and yes.

I want to be clear that this is a generalization. There are undoubtedly those who use musical references as a lazy way to set the mood. I can’t say off-hand that I have an example that comes to mind, but I’m sure this is true of someone, somewhere. Claiming otherwise would be silly when I haven’t read everything in the world.

I’m sure there are also those who use music as product placement, or in such a way that it comes off as product placement. I haven’t really experienced it coming off that way to me. In reality, I’m not keen on product placement. I’ll split hairs on it. This is part of what I stated recently on the subject on 4MA:

I consider the appropriate interests of a character before I put a book in their hands, or music on the stereo. Just because I like something, it doesn't mean it will be their thing. For example, it's not at all a commentary on quality but there's just no way either of my protagonists from SC would read Vicki Hendricks - Lara and Farraday are both a bit...reserved about sex.

There's a difference between product placement and pop culture references, and that's something else to consider. In all things, there's a degree of "know your audience". I suppose if you're targeting people who like fashion because you're writing a series of fashion designer murder mysteries, making multiple references to brand name shoes and clothes and designers would be appropriate. As a reader, I'd be lost, though, because I know nothing about that world. That is always the risk that you face when you decide to mention stuff.

I love musical references, and have bought albums/tried out artists solely from references in books. I love book references. I'm not crazy about fashion references, but I own fewer than nine pairs of shoes. And offhand I only know where three are - my regular shoes, my running shoes and my sandals. (A characteristic no doubt influenced by the fact that I partially severed my right foot as a child and actually am not supposed to wear most types of shoes.)

However, products might have a specific purpose. They may denote wealth or lack thereof. They may also reveal character. We might assume someone who drives a Ferrari is more vain than someone who drives a Pontiac Firefly. (Said with absolutely no intention of offending anyone here!) It may also reveal things about access. I've been up to the Arctic, and there are some things that simply aren't available locally that we might take for granted. In a book if someone was missing and a search of their house revealed items that locals typically wouldn't have, it could be significant to developing the case. I'm trying to think of a good example but my head's blank - suffice to say that if a search of a home in Inuvik revealed a recent Canadian Tire receipt and there was no indication this person had been away recently, it might indicate they'd had a visitor who may have had something to do with their disappearance.

But even then, it would be delicate to use clues such as that, because unless you've been there maybe you wouldn't understand the significance. (And even those of us who've been there are left wondering what new stores they might have since I last visited. I mean, I can remember when Muskoka had NO McDonald's. Then Bracebridge got one... And eventually Gravenhurst. Referencing a stop at McDonald's in Gravenhurst automatically dates the book in my head, because it opened in 1989.)

On the subject of dating the work... Just about everything is dated, in some capacity. Cities grow or decline over time. Women today are able to hold different jobs than they were hired for fifty years ago. When I read something set in the 50s references to places/products that were common then establish the setting. And that actually communicates a lot to a reader. The world wasn't the same September 5, 2001 as it was September 12, 2001. One week and a world of difference. The timing communicates far more to the reader in a case like that - it carries with it fears and uncertainties, etc. Works that are timeless are not ones that don't have a sense of the era they're set in, but ones that reflect issues/concerns that are relevant to people as much today as they were whenever.

One other thing. There may be references that have some significance to the setting. If someone here is going for coffee there's probably as much chance they're going to Tim Hortons as Starbucks. (Okay, I don't know what share each company has of the market, because I hate coffee, but I know a lot of coffee drinkers who love Tim Hortons.)

For me, this is one of those things there are no hard and fast rules on. If it's the protagonist's car knowing more details (make, model) might make sense. It may also make sense to know something about the suspect's vehicle if it's significant to the story. A person's choice of vehicle might also indicate how easy it would be to identify it. You drive a red Honda Civic you won't stand out much, but if you're driving a gold Porsche you'll be easier to find.

So...in one book the references might work for me perfectly. In another, they might not work at all.

I can’t honestly say I remember reading anything that felt forced with regards to musical references. The truth, for me, is that music is something I consider important. Walk down the average street past houses and you’ll hear the faint (and sometimes not-so-faint) murmur of music from inside. People listen to music when they’re driving, many people wake up to music with alarm clock radios. Kids have Discmans and iPods. Almost every place I’ve ever worked has had music playing in the background or used music in the program.

In some respects, music is the international language. When you hear a song that’s heartwrenching you often don’t need to understand the words to know it’s sad. Here in the real world, music does invoke mood. That’s a reality. If I’m in a certain mood, where I could go either way, choosing to listen to sad music may make me cry and choosing to listen to something upbeat may get me out of my melancholic state.

To be honest, with music being as important to people as it is, I find it hard to fathom characters that never intersect with music. They never listen to anything on the radio when driving. They never turn on the stereo when at home. They notice a house/suspect/location/suspicious vehicle and remember intricate details about it but never walk through a neighbourhood and notice the music. That seems a bit unrealistic to me. Even if it isn’t something they ‘know’ or ‘like’ why not reference the noise pollution emanating from the neighbour’s house? You noticed their flower bed.

To me, this is where balance comes in. It’s all about what else is in the book. If the character is the type to notice and reference everything in detail, then I would expect music to be there. If the character’s a music fan, I’d expect it as well. There’s no one right amount of references that work – it will vary story to story, character to character, author to author.

One thing I do find curious is when someone says that the character’s musical tastes don’t fit the character as they see them. I suppose it’s fair as a personal observation. But one of the things I enjoyed Peter Robinson saying was that he’d given Banks eclectic music tastes because his own musical interests were diverse. I think that’s true of a lot of people. We all have some degree of range. Some who read here are crime fiction fans solely. Others are sci fi and fantasy fans first. Some like horror. Others don’t. If we can have range in our reading, why not range in what we listen to?

In reality, I don’t see how music can be carte blanche labeled as a cop-out for creating emotion. There’s a lot that goes into the atmosphere that tells us how a person is feeling. Music might be one component, but it’s only one component. In books it comes nowhere near being the substitute for acting that it often is on TV.

To me, anyway, music is natural atmosphere. A moment ago I was listening to someone working with power tools a few yards over. Not so long ago, it was my own dog, demonstrating his vocal skills. Right now, silence. If you step outside and hear Eminem blasting, or if you hear birds chirping, or if you hear nothing at all it might all be relevant as one component in establishing the setting. That silence might be coupled with houses with all the windows covered, and although it’s 4 pm and kids should be outside playing there’s nothing but a ball rolling across the yard, blown by the wind. Gives you a sense that something isn’t right. People perhaps hiding in fear. In another scenario, someone might be listening to some loud rap music and one of their crew tries to whistle a warning to them, but they can’t hear it because of the music so they get caught by the police or another drug dealer they’re beefing with…

It’s writing to our ears. And we talk all the time about writing to senses, about not just showing but letting the reader taste, hear, touch, smell when appropriate.

In my opinion, it doesn’t matter whether or not I like the music. It’s part of giving a picture of a scene, a person, a mood. Used as such, I think it’s tremendously effective.

Incidentally, I heard Rankin on a radio program a few years ago and as a result heard The Blue Nile and Jackie Leven, and loved their stuff. The Blue Nile’s album High is one you can get lost inside and Jackie Leven is a poet.