Friday, August 31, 2007

I realize we've already touched on my feelings about math...

But what I don't get is, how Charges for three counts of attempted murder and three counts of intending to cause explosion only adds up to one count of possessing explosives for unlawful purposes.

Since he'd already mailed three letter bombs, and had three more bombs in a vehicle, shouldn't that be four?

If I Loved Math I Wouldn't Be A Writer

The subject of author royalties has been raised in a thought-provoking post well worth checking out. The comment trail is interesting as well, with varied thoughts on the subject.

I don’t feel I have much useful to add here. I have some confusion. Publishers never receive RRP, do they? I mean, standard is something like 50% of cover price is what booksellers pay for the book. (Yes, this varies, depending on distributor, publisher, who the bookseller is – major purchasers often scoring higher discounts than independents because they’re favoured by distributors because of their volume sales – all of which speaks to the issues the blog post is addressing.)

The only thing I can say is that in my limited experience the contracts often are so convoluted, I’ve had authors with two, three books to their name tell me they have no idea how many copies they’ve actually sold because their statements are impossible to make sense of.

I guess this blog post explains why that is.

You know, Harlequin has (or had - I'm not really up on this) some imprints where they didn't do royalties. If you have a book picked up for the line you just get $10,000. No muss, no fuss, no headaches and that’s about what I earned annually working in education. Shame I’m not a romantic. I wonder if I could fake it?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Gary and the sheriff :If you were gay

There are moments in your life you'll never get back, that you'll be longing for on your deathbed. Only you can decide where the next 2.5 minutes will fall.

Spinetingler Awards

After much debate, we've decided to implement an annual award through Spinetingler Magazine. Two things were paramount in my mind when considering this:

1. I didn't want us to just duplicate what others were doing.
2. I wanted the awards to invite the participation of readers and authors.

As a result, October 1, 2007 we'll open up the nominating process. I will have information about this on our site and post more (assuming that's okay with the moderators) when the time comes.

Our categories have been selected to try to make sure newer talent isn't overshadowed by the greats. In order to be nominated, the author must have had a new title out between Oct. 1, 2006 and Sept. 30, 2007, available in Canada. (Don't you worry about that - we'll worry about it. If we can't get the book here, we may not be able to consider it - depends on how long it takes us to get it in.)

The categories:

- Best book of the year by an author with 9+ titles published OR an author who has secured a six-figure advance. (Readers don't need to worry about figuring this out - we will.)

Rising Star
- Best book of the year by an author with 4-8 books published

New Voice
- Best book of the year by an author with 1-3 books published

Best Cover Art
- Lots of whining about repetitive cover art lately. We're not going to whine. We're going to applaud the good stuff there is.

Best Publisher
- If you're a reader who just loves a certain publisher, or an author who's had great experiences or a bookseller who believes there's one publisher out there that's outshining the rest, tell us who and why.

Best Editor
- Pretty much the same as the above. Even if you don't know who edited a book you can nominate it with the title, author's name and publisher's name. Plenty of people have commented on poor editing. When you see a book you think is rock solid, really impressive, we want to know. It's about time someone told editors they were doing a great job.

Best Short Story on the Web

There has been a lot to complain about in the publishing world, and much of it is valid. But we've decided to spend our time and energy focusing on celebrating the positive. We'll open nominating and see what readers tell us is worth looking at. Then we'll narrow down a shortlist of nominees in each category, and announce the winners in our January 2008 issue. (I’m hoping we’ll have a shortlist available early December.)

And the reason for three categories up top and not just two (debut vs best) is because we want to encourage publishers to grow their authors. We're moving authors with big deals into the toughest category to level out the playing field for good authors without as much publisher support, who would otherwise be overshadowed because of the amount of publicity the authors with major deals get.

I hope some of you will start thinking about it. Every person will be able to nominate up to five selections in each category. Every little bit of PR helps, right? And we could tell you our opinion... But I kind of figure we do that in our reviews already. There are a lot of people who can't attend conventions and vote for the other fan choice awards. You can nominate for this one for free, from the comfort of your own home, and have your say. We're still working out some logistics, but we'll be ready to roll October 1.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

On Publishing, Bookselling and Frustrations of the Business

There is an excellent – if depressing – post from Jim Huang on the current state of publishing. Where I Am, After 20 Years in Bookselling isn’t exactly food for thought: it’s more like the medicine you have to swallow as an author, and maybe a reader.

And in the comment trail there are a string of remarks from well-known authors, adding their agreement, sharing experiences and in some cases asking what authors can do.

It’s that last question that frightens me a bit, to be honest.

I can’t help feeling discouraged. First, as a reader. I love series books. If I hear of a book getting a lot of good word of mouth and that it’s part of a series I might have a whole new set of books to indulge in. I will go out and buy a whole series – as I recently did with Olen Steinhauer. The publisher didn’t get one sale, they got five.

But if the backlist wasn’t in print? Well, I don’t like buying used books. Sorry, I’m fussy that way. And I don’t want to read part of a series, unless I don’t like it and choose to give up on it.

I’ve already talked about the fact that there’s a current trend to do one book deals. That makes it really hard for authors to develop a series, and it’s also hard on readers. I think most people know there’s usually six to twelve months between books (depending on the publisher and format) but I’ve been getting emails since February asking when my next book will be out. (And possibly nobody will ever give up on asking if there will ever be another Lara and Tymen, although I have to say that won’t happen, unless maybe SC’s publisher goes out of business. I’ve let it go.)

I feel and understand the frustration for readers, and I know what it is to be on the other side of the coin. The people I want to make happy are, of course the people who’ve bought and enjoyed my work and want to see more of it. What do you tell them when you don’t have answers?

The thing is, the authors are on the front lines in all of this. We come up with the idea. We write the book. We seek a publisher… and when the book does come out we’re the ones that get the emails or the people coming up to us and asking when the next book will be out or why the series has been cancelled or whatever.

It seems like there’s precious little communication between publishers* and readers. Everyone has their philosophy of how they operate, and it may be completely out of touch with reality, but that’s how they do it. The cycle of frustration for readers plays out differently. I know very few readers who’ve banned publishers. People ban authors, say they won’t read them, but don’t blacklist publishers they won’t touch. So even when a publisher makes a habit of upsetting customers it takes a long time for that to hit the publisher, and they may never connect the bad decisions people were reacting to with their bottom line.

All I can say is, it’s a good thing there are days when the writing is going so well that I get lost in it. I don’t have any delusions about making a living from writing.

But here’s a question I have to throw out to the universe:

I’ve heard of publishers* who don’t believe it’s worthwhile to support author events, and the lack of publisher marketing efforts is a constant complaint amongst authors at conferences. Authors are paying their own way for most of their touring efforts, advertisements, even producing their own ARCs and mailing them out for reviews.

If the publishers don’t think it’s worthwhile to invest money in promoting their product, one can only assume it’s because they don’t think they’ll see a reasonable return. So why then are authors spending the money? Are they not just throwing it out the window?

Or are the publishers wrong?

At the end of it all, the only thing I can do is write the best book possible. Everything else feels like one great big roll of the dice. I worry there will be a day when almost all we find in stores is the same-old, same-old, formulaic stuff that gets churned out. If that happens I’ll feel I’ve lost out on a great love, both as an author and as a reader.

* This is all being said in the great big generic ‘publishers’ way. It is about no one specific publisher exclusively, and there are actually many publishers I think do a great job. I’ve had terrible experiences with marketing departments as a reviewer, and great experiences. I applaud publishers like Orion for investing in authors and nurturing them – my only complaint is Ian Rankin’s website, and we won’t go there. I could launch a whole new rant about the pointlessness of sending authors out on tour when you don’t post their friggin’ itinerary. I mean, hell, it's not like we actually want to see the authors and get our books signed, right? Newsflash: readers aren’t telepathic. Or at least, this one isn’t. But I have pretty much given up on going to signing events.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Of Loss And Life

Tonight, we have to go to a memorial service. He was barely more than a kid, not even two years out of high school. Snap. Gone. Forever.

I haven’t been to a funeral since my friends buried their daughter, and I’m probably not alone when I say I don’t particularly like going. And that’s where this gets interesting for me, because I can read and write about death and its effects on individuals and whole communities, day in and day out, but going to a service for someone I know – knew – runs the risk of somehow becoming perverse. I want to keep it compartmentalized in my brain. I don’t want it to be fodder for my writing.

And that’s always a potential problem, but especially now. Where I’m at with the second book in this series is the point where it’s weighing on my brain night and day. I was writing notes in the dark, while lying in bed last night, and since it was dark I didn’t realize the pen had died. No matter. They were the first thing on my mind this morning. It’s all right there, just waiting to get out. And some of it has to wait, because I’m not quite ready for all the pieces that I can clearly see in my mind.

In the past, when I’ve been at this stage on a book, I’ve even gone so far as to sleep in my office. I lack the discipline to stop my brain from playing things out. Characters are speaking and I’m processing all of it. Although I’m not a plotter, and usually start a story with one piece of inspiration, in this case I can see through most of the book. I know where all the major lines are going to end.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t prevented my characters from throwing me the odd curve ball. Just yesterday, Ashlyn put her foot in her mouth twice, and now two of the people she’s closest to are both upset with her. Of course, in one case that’s perfect. In the other case I’m left to wonder how the hell they’re going to work it out. Don’t ask me. I haven’t got a clue, though it should make the next scene I’m going to write a hell of a lot of fun.

I had been banging my head against a wall for a while on this book. John Connolly recently wrote about what he calls The Doubting Stage, reassuring some of us that we’re not alone when we struggle with all the angst of self doubt when working on a book. Maybe if you don't write you just can't understand this, and so many "newbies" are afraid admitting to it will make them look like an amateur. Thank goodness we've got pros like John to reassure us this is normal, 'cos it also seems to be sort of taboo to talk about it. No, you have to compound the doubting stage by struggling with it alone...

The Book Otherwise Known As The Frailty of Flesh* has proven to be the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to write. “Oh, it’s a series book, you know the main characters. Shouldn’t it be easier?”

Um… NO. Not in my opinion. Particularly with series books, especially early on, every book should be stronger than the last. Too many authors fall prey to the week (that would be weak - duh!) second offering. In this series, WBW is the intro, and this book has to move deeper. Why should readers bother with this series if they don’t get to know the characters better? There has to be a compelling storyline, but it needs to develop the protagonists. I guess I’d say at the end of WBW I hope people think, “I really like them^, I want to know more” and that at the end of this book people are addicted to them.

In the midst of all the doubt and all the frustration, and wondering if you really wouldn’t be better as a shoe salesperson (despite the fact you can barely distinguish between Nikes and the things they call pumps, except for saying with confidence which ones are more comfortable and which ones you're supposed to wear with a dress) you keep pressing on and reach a point where the book is talking in your head, the scenes are begging to be written and you remember that (politics, criticism, and the cutthroat competition that comes with this business aside) this is why you do this – because you love to write, and when the writing is going well it’s the best feeling in the world.**

But tonight, I’m going to turn it all off to go and say goodbye to someone who died far too young, senselessly, the situation reminding me that part of the reason I write about death is to serve as a reminder that life is precious, sacred, and that taking that from someone is the worst sin.

I just wish more people understood that their cruelty and pettiness and need to tear others down in order to feel better about themselves often isn’t any different than physically killing another person. Badgering a person to the point where they’re unable to really live, remaining as a shell, having given up on their dreams… It doesn’t take someone special to do that to another human being. It takes someone pathetic.

And today, Ken Bruen writes of loss in a way that cuts to the core. That’s the post you should really read.

*The boss doesn’t like the title, so I’m contemplating alternatives…

**Next to how I feel about Evil Kev, of course.

^ Or, more appropriately, "I really like spending time with them, they're interesting." Others will agree with Brian that not everyone is likeable.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Back Door To Publication

I doubt there is one writer who hasn’t thought about or dreamed of some variation of the above when dealing when a rejection letter at least once in their early efforts to get published. Except maybe authors who never got a rejection letter, but we’ll leave them out of it, because they are exceptionally few and far between.

Today comes word of another method of getting published. It’s called Slush Pile Reader and is similar to the Media Predict experiment a few months back.

I already shared my thoughts on Media Predict and this is why I’m touching on this with some caution.

One of the things writers have to deal with is that sometimes, they aren’t ready. As much as I know rejection is tough, completely dismissing all rejection letters as invalid or the editors/agents as ‘idiots’ is a way to stunt your growth as a writer. Have there been times I’ve disagreed with a rejection letter? Absolutely. My personal favourite is the editor who had a partial manuscript who rejected it because of something they said I did that I didn’t do (and since they only had the opening chapters I was baffled about where they got the idea). That one got the big “whatever” response from me.

However, with every rejection I put a mark of consideration down. Characters, plot, writing, marketability. If a number of rejections start to show that there’s a consensus that one area (or more) is weak, then I would be a complete idiot not to address this.

I don’t think it surprises anyone that I’m speaking as someone who sort of crawled in the back door of the publishing world. I couldn’t get an agent initially, my rejection letters not touching on work but on the fact I’m Canadian. Those were decidedly unhelpful, except on one point: I developed a list of agents I didn’t think I’d want to work with, if they had such an issue with my nationality. I actually had my sights set on getting a Canadian publisher, but the consensus from the Canadians was that what I was writing was too ‘grim’, ‘realistic’, etc.

That left me looking at small publishers. And I ultimately ended up with a very new one, one that only had one book to its credit at the time, and no real way for me to check them out beyond assessing contracts. Believe it or not, a legitimate and well-known Canadian agent recommended I take the contract.

Coming out on the other side of that, I would caution anyone thinking of trying their luck with a completely new publisher. Unless there is someone attached to it who is known in the industry, who has a solid reputation, be very careful.

The reality is, you may think that being published is enough. That may be all you think about, as many aspiring authors do prior to publication. But there is a whole other side to the equation, that has to do with distribution, rights, foreign sales that factors in. You will not just be published and suddenly be a millionaire.

There have been some excellent small presses to crop up in recent years - Capital Crime Press has done an exceptional job with their books, with their authors garnering award nominations and wins and plenty of attention from the industry, for example.

However, they’re the exception, rather than the rule.

Before you sign any contract you need to have proof that the publisher not only has distribution in place, but is pricing the books affordably so that stores will carry them. That they make an effort to get the book into bookstores. Estimates show online book sales are about 10% of total book sales, so if you’re only online, you have a very limited market.

In reality, a recent discussion on Crimespace demonstrates that even writers successful in selling a manuscript to a legitimate, well-known publisher and selling short fiction to high-profile magazines can have difficulty getting an agent.

So why is it so many aspiring authors think they should be the exempt, they shouldn’t have to go through that?

I guess we all want to believe we’re the next big thing. That someone will read our work and sense our greatness, just waiting for a chance to be exposed. Perhaps whatever insecurities we push down within ourselves we hope to bury completely by instant success.

Truth is, I’ve learned a lot from rejection letters, and the whole process of going from aspiring author to editor to published to having an agent to, well…

I’ve been working on this for over three years, and now just feel as though I’m actually on the path.

I realize it sucks to long for validation for your work and not have it. I know it’s hard, wondering if your dreams will ever come true. The three months of manuscript shopping this year… Hell. Pure and simple, with every email putting my stomach in knots. I understand how discouraging every rejection letter is.

And I’m not saying this to tell you whether or not to consider trying Slush Pile Reader. In all honesty, I’m saying this because I don’t know enough about them to recommend them. They say they’ll publish you. I don’t know who they are. They’re new. There’s no track record to fall back on. All I can tell you is, sometimes, taking the quick road isn’t the best way. A year ago I didn’t think I was doing that. I thought I was doing what I needed to do via a small publisher to build enough profile to get an agent and a deal. But even with profile you may not always be successful in achieving your long-term dreams.

One other note from me on all of this. I have dreamed more of one thing than anything else in my pursuit of a book deal – a great editor. One who believed in my work enough to nurture it, but who would kick my ass whenever necessary. A great editor does not tell you everything is flawless, but hones in on your weaknesses and pushes you to do better.

Don’t settle for less, because when your book comes out the reviewers won’t slam your publisher, or your agent, or your editor. It’s your work on the line.

Surviving in the publishing business requires the patience of Job. If you decide to take unconventional routes to publication I urge you to do your homework, enter no legal agreement without consulting a lawyer, never pay anything to be published, and wherever possible talk to authors who’ve been published by the press you’re considering. Whatever decision you make, have your eyes wide open.

It’ll save you a lot of heartache on the other side.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Pink vs Blue

I have admitted a great number of curiosities about what motivates people to write what they do. For the record, I think we all know now of certain characteristics it isn’t okay to wonder about, but limiting writers (and readers) to the influence of their gender, apparently, is just fine.

As much as I respect Ali, I found myself thinking that ”Clash of the Scottish Titans” was just keeping what should have by then been a dead issue alive. So I was glad I actually read the comments (which I often don't do, because my blood starts to boil), where he explains it was the discrimination against female writers he wanted to address, although my fear is that was sidetracked by all of the other stuff contained.

However, in the comments Ali posted a link to an old article, and a quick scroll down will bring you to the discussion of Tart Noir. As Ali quotes in the comments, this is a sample of the exchange between himself, Martina Cole and Stella Duffy:

Martina : I can tell you, that one of my readers (a man) actually puts a Stephen King cover on my books as he reads them on the train to work? Surely something's wrong?

Ali : That is a very sad indictment I must admit.

Stella : In fact what we really need to do is to encourage men to read more widely, and not women to change their writing style. Look everyone's talking about the lack of literacy in young men, so any encouragement in getting men to read more widely would certainly help. Look around you here (Stella points to the framed posters that adorn Waterstone's events room), there are 25 posters on these walls and only three and half of which are by women.

But that isn’t the reason I’m declaring gender fair game for discussion when it comes to what influences a writer. Rather, in the midst of an interesting piece Sarah Weinman wrote about Marilyn Stassio’s career there are comments that have their root with Stassio, but open the door to the smoldering topic of gender bias in the crime fiction community. (This quote is sourced via Sarah Weinman’s post on Stassio, and I’ll leave it as such so that anyone interested gets the benefit of her full post.) Check this out:

The publishing industry at this point is skeptical about the broader appeal of these women who are detectives and private investigators. Those in the industry hold that most readers of hard-boiled fiction are men, and the trade does not see them racing to buy books written by and featuring women. They are not so sure that women want to read them either.
''As a rule, women seem not to be as fascinated as men by the overtly violent action of such novels,'' says Joan Kahn, an editor at St. Martin's Press with 30 years' experience acquiring mystery fiction. ''The behavior in these books is too crude and simplistic for most women. 'I punched him, I shot him, I killed him, I dragged his body away.' I am sure that women could write that kind of bloodthirsty prose if they really wanted to. I'm just not convinced that they like to read it.''

Sound familiar? But that’s from 1985.

I have no doubt that there are very real prejudices women find themselves up against in this industry, but I have to say that I find some of the comments about what women prefer to read and write to be just as bad. We still clinging to the idea that women don’t have casual sex either? Man, I’ve known a few people I could fantasize about kicking, punching, shooting and dragging into an alley…

Maybe the reason I’m finding Joan Kahn’s comments harder to take than anything else is because they’re from a woman? Maybe I expect more? Maybe I feel like she's maintaining the gender conditioning and perpetuating that, saying what women are and are not interested in? Or maybe I just feel excluded because, eternal Tomboy that I am, as a child the books I was reading were Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and The Great Brain series and Gordon Korman’s Bruno and Boots books… and I never did read Anne of Green Gables. God, girls were so boring! The guys were out there, exploring the world, having adventures, doing things… That’s what I thought when I was a just a stupid little kid. (And rather hypocritical that I preferred to have my nose stuck in a book than actually go do something myself.)

But I can look back and see a certain amount of gender conditioning at play. I still remember begging to take karate, and being told that was for boys. (What I don’t remember is if my reason was because I was tired of getting beaten up – by girls! – at school. When I was assaulted when I was 14 it was by a group of girls, who incidentally had a reputation for starting street fights.)

What was that quote again? About the punching, kicking? Because it may be as simple for some of us to prefer a certain amount of realism in our fiction (another subject of debate we could have endlessly) and an understanding of the fact that people are violent.

Maybe the real reason I’m not a big fan of cozies is that the avoidance of physical pain and suffering seems so… girly?

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I don’t call myself a feminist. I’m a humanist. I believe in every person having the opportunity to do whatever they’re capable of, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, eye color or anything else. I’m not interested in putting men above women or women above men. (And I’m not saying all feminists do, it’s just that some do. In the same way that all rights movements run the risk of not being about equality and starting to be about superiority at some point, there are definitely anti-male feminists out there. I just like to distinguish myself from that.)

However, I’ve also made no secret of the fact that I’ve had a tendency to read more books written by men. To, uh, be honest with you, I find guys fascinating. And part of the reason was that I’d tried some books by women that really didn’t work for me. It took a while for me to come up with a system to find the female authors that would appeal to me.

I have been thinking about gender issues a lot lately, in part because what I’m working on has three protagonists – two men and a woman. And while the catalyst character was a guy, the woman runs the risk of overshadowing both of the guys at times. I find her a fascinating character to write. Well, I enjoy writing them all, but as a cop, with Ashlyn I find myself walking the gender lines more. She is, in many respects, harder to write because I want her to have credit for her strengths as a person, while also being a woman.

I think part of the problem with discussing these issues is that it makes it seem like this is pervasive. As though this is ongoing discrimination that women come up against at every single turn. Now, that may be. I’m not saying that isn’t the case. What I am saying is I don’t know if that’s the case. One or two old comments come up, tacked on to a fresh one, and suddenly it’s as though women are getting letters from publishers telling them to stay home and get a new apron. Martina Cole is one of the top sellers in the UK, as is Val McDermid. Despite whatever prejudices women are coming up against, women are still succeeding in this business. And maybe – with problems getting reviews and with purchasers who won’t read books by women in the equation – that means we have to be twice as good as the guys to get there.

I think there are serious, legitimate issues that have to be addressed. Apparently, that’s why Sisters in Crime was started. Perhaps we need to sweep aside the other attention-getting aspects of recent “arguments” and get to the point where we focus on what’s really important here. An analysis of how the industry has (or has not) changed with regards to its attitude to women could be very interesting.

I’m certainly in the camp of lobbying for a change in attitude about what women like to read, though. Shania Twain’s Any Man of Mine is enough to send me over the edge – I hate that kind of attitude, and for some reason that editor’s comments have the same impact on me. In order for women to be fully accepted as equals we can’t have our own double standards, and that’s what it is about Twain’s song that pisses me off.

And that one line in bold sums up Ashlyn’s philosophy to a T.

But there are things I find myself wondering. Lately, I was having a terrible time, dealing with requesting something from other writers. I realized that, in the few times I’ve had to do this, the only people to completely ignore me were all women. I can look back at the blurbs for SC and see that men outnumber the women in terms of the five cover blurbs, and also I had more reviews from men than women… It would be horrendously unfair of me to go on a tirade about women not getting reviews, based on my own experience anyway.

Maybe instead of complaining that we’re discriminated against in the business we need to start putting our money where our mouth is, and showing more support for other women in the industry?

Maybe what we need to do is open a forum of discussion about the very real issues women are currently facing, at every level of the industry. And maybe instead of just talking we need to start finding our own solutions. The worst thing of all about this is that it seems as though, in twenty years, little has changed.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Not to make light of it...

But there are things worse than death.

Abstinence (thanks Norby)

Baby Got Book (thanks Brian)

For those who need their thoughts cleansed, I've posted videos below.

American Fast Food

It just cracks me up that you can see the strings. And I'm surprised they didn't get sued.

Steve Taylor - Lifeboat

Not your usual Christian fare and he offended many people during his career... but I loved him. And how many church guys do you see dressing up as women in videos?

Innocence Lost

You can almost always tell when I’m upset. I blog. Or I stop talking to everyone. Depends on which side of my personality is pulling the strings, I guess.

One of the things I absolutely hate is the feeling of being locked inside yourself. The feeling that you can’t talk about what’s bothering you. It’s the feeling you get when hope is lost in a relationship, the issues way beyond talking through. It’s the feeling victims of abuse often have, locked in a prison of silence and isolation.

And it’s a feeling that you can get when you care about a friendship or a person more than they care about you or your friendship. To speak may be to lose what little you have… and you have to decide if you’d rather have the person in your life to some small degree or not at all.

The end of a relationship shares similarities to facing death. Often, what people grieve for is more what might have been than what was. This is why many take the death of a child harder - they had their whole life in front of them. Endless possibilities. What you mourn isn’t just the child that was but all of the unknowns. Who they might have married, the children they might have had themselves, the career, the way their life may have touched others.

But there’s also something devastating about facing a loss and for it to come in twilight, after a lifetime has been spent, if you realize that what’s hurting most is the hope you carried, that things might be different between yourself and that person… and now that will never happen. You lived in a limbo, tolerating what was but always hoping for that moment when you could somehow reverse a decision, switch tracks, make things better than they are. Sometimes you’re left to carry the guilt of what you said and did. And sometimes, what’s tearing you apart is all the things you didn’t say.

It’s being caught between life and death that is the worst. When you can see that a friendship/relationship/person/career is on life support. The prognosis isn’t good. You know it’s inevitable. You might even know, on one level, that it’s time. And maybe sometimes you know it’s for the best, that the suffering is too great.

And you feel guilt for even thinking that, for thinking that it would be better to take away one single second of life prematurely. You play the ‘what if’ game. You know the one. The one where you ask, What if they find a cure? or What if they change their mind and want to start fresh?

What I’ve learned lately is that it’s more convenient to stand for nothing than to care, that defending a person, organization or decision is not only thankless, it’s heartwrenching, but that there’s a mourning that comes with giving up on people, and it’s the kind that rips your heart out and tears it into shreds because it’s the kind of pain you can feel over and over again, every time you have to face their choices. You wish to God you didn't care, but you do, and the greatest form of agony is the fact that as much as you want to, you can't find a way to stop.

And yes, my mood is affecting my writing today. No sunshine and lollipops.

Friday, August 17, 2007

It Cuts Both Ways

Months ago I talked about how the press has a tendency to misrepresent statements, and provided my own examples about how easy it is to do that. I referred to that earlier this week, and I hope this is the last time I find myself thinking about this for a long time. (This does get beyond the arguments, btw.)

When I posted yesterday the only name I mentioned was Ian Rankin’s. The reason was deliberate. Sure, it was the recent uproar in the press that brought up the topic, but it ties to other things I’ve talked about – the radio debate between David Roberts and Mark Billingham, for one, the recent online attack on Ken Bruen for another. And that’s why I said And there are a lot of people out there who have nothing to do with the other side of the writing community, left feeling uncomfortable over the comments made, feeling as though there's active hostility (which may or may not be true, depending on the argument and the people) and feeling as though they don't want to be around any of those people. It wasn’t just about Rankin. Certainly not just about Rankin and Val McDermid. Val was just one of the people who spoke out months ago when a comment Rankin made in an interview resulted in wide-scale criticism on him, with some alleging he was anti-lesbian, etc.

I think the broader issue to consider is one that Olen Steinhauer raised earlier this week when he asked, Can Novelists Just Be People?

The short answer? No. Whatever you say in an interview, at a public event, on a panel, on radio… all of it can come back to haunt you later. This is hardly a news flash.

At this point in their careers, I guess I’m stunned Val or Ian would be surprised by anything they see from the press and the public when they make comments in interviews or at public events. I was pretty quick to point my fingers in a different direction last fall, at the journalist who conducted the interview, and at the number of people who just took what was reported verbatim without even questioning it.

Today, Val McDermid has been reported as being upset for the way her own comments were represented in the press this week. Speaking to McDermid yesterday though, her anger wasn't directed at Rankin - but at the way the story has been reported. "Ian and I Instant Messaged each other when this story broke and were very amicable," she tells me. "We are still friends - he danced at my wedding, for Christ's sake!"

As we chat, McDermid is scanning reports of the incident on the internet, becoming increasingly incensed. "Why was only my sexuality mentioned?" she asks. "I was on stage with Denise Mina, who supported and expanded on what I said, but because she is, inconveniently, a self-confessed heterosexual, the only remarks reported on were mine.

"I did not even mention Ian's name," she adds. "Not because I was frightened to, but because I wanted to have a wider discussion about the issues. The way it has been reported makes me sound like a mad, paranoid lesbian." It's easy to see her point. Yesterday morning the page three headline in the Times read: "Revenge of the bloodthirsty lesbians."

McDermid is appalled at being referred to as "bloodthirsty" (although she is thinking very seriously about having a T-shirt made up with that headline). "It's preposterous nonsense," she says. "It makes me sound as if I'm some kind of ghastly bloodsucking demon, who shouldn't be allowed near small children. It doesn't help when the media uses such headlines, making me appear as if I have my meat cleaver ready to chop Rankin's gonads off.

"It couldn't be further from the truth," she quips. "I take my cooking seriously."

One thing I’ve learned from this is that, no matter how many news stories you read about something, you can’t be absolutely certain about the facts. I’ll take one report that’s questionable with a grain of salt. But when I see the same thing from a number of different sources it’s always seemed fair to conclude it’s been properly sourced and that things aren’t being blown too far out of proportion (assuming these aren’t wire stories).

The truth of this whole issue has been mired in misrepresentation from day 1, and nothing’s changed.

It’s a good interview, one that demonstrates we have yet another example of how things get twisted in the press. For all the reasons I argued vehemently last fall for people to not jump to conclusions over Rankin’s reported remarks (and the widely inferred meaning attached to them by people on blogs and forums) I should not have assumed there was any intention to dredge up an old argument yesterday, and I apologize if I gave anyone that impression.

Now that I’ve had an opportunity to read Val’s comments in the interview, I think I can (perhaps) finally understand why the issue was raised again. (I still wish it hadn’t been. No matter what the intention it’s come off badly, as evidenced by the strings of biting comments on all the news articles, as well as comments on author forums.) It really is a shame that that one topic overshadowed far more critical topics, such as purchasing managers for major chains not reading books by women.

The interview is good for other reasons. It reminds me of all the reasons I have so much admiration for Val’s work.

In one of the previous books in the series, The Last Temptation (2002), Jordan was brutally raped while working undercover to expose a people trafficker. Unlike most of the characters in male crime writers' novels, however, Jordan lived on to fight another case. McDermid writes about sexual violence in a way that humanises the victim, and believes in portraying the reality of such crimes and their effects. "I wanted Carol not to be a victim," she explains, "so women who also did not want to be a victim could aspire to her."

I’ve always had an appreciation for Val’s willingness to go at tough issues in her fiction, delving into things that aren’t easy to write about. And she doesn’t sugarcoat it either, which is good, because there’s nothing more insulting to people who’ve experience violence than to have people dismiss it and the way it can impact their lives.

I also think that it may be that many women write about violence because they’re more often the victims of sexual violence. (I’d add men that can be deterred from writing about rape because people start assuming they have rape fantasies. I’ve heard male authors state on panels and in interviews that they’re reluctant to write about pedophiles and rape.)

Whether men or women write the more violent crime fiction is a question nobody is likely to ever try to tackle directly, at least, not any time soon. I certainly know a number of male authors who write violence.

Putting my own 2 cents on the subject, I think women who are lesbians experience more discrimination, despite changes in society. I think about how everything I write can be interpreted, and even as a woman I worried about one thing I wrote some time ago (not published). After being raped a woman eventually begins a relationship with another woman. I worried a lot about that, about people assuming I was inferring that the reason women are lesbians is because they’ve experienced abuse. I don’t think that for a second. I think abuse can affect a person’s decision about who they’d like to have a relationship with, but it’s certainly not the reason someone’s gay, straight or otherwise. The character was, in part, inspired by a real situation I went through, when a woman talked to me about all the abuse she’d experienced from the father of her children and how she’d finally experienced a loving, nurturing relationship. And then she broke down and cried because the relationship was with a woman.

She felt so conflicted herself, there was nothing I could really say to her. Just listen. And think about how sad it is that so many people have terrible, unhealthy relationships. It seems so simple to just want to love and be loved, but it gets twisted and complicated and then people meddle, tell you who you are and are not allowed to be involved with, tell you what is and is not acceptable.

Me, I’ve never had a problem getting along with guys. On any given day about 70% of the emails I get from friends are from guys. There’s no universal truth that abuse or the absence of abuse will influence a person’s sexuality. That’s simplistic thinking.

But I still worry that if that character ever sees the light of day I may be forced to defend her existence. (Actually, this reminds me of an email I had from Al Guthrie the other day, but I can’t talk about that, or I’d have to kill everyone who read it.)

It goes back to what started this whole thing to begin with. People make assumptions, and judge, without all the facts.

Maybe it says more about us when we do that than anyone else.

I hated to think that there may be a real conflict between Ian and Val. It certainly came off as though there was a spat this week. I’m glad to be proven wrong about that. I am also aware of one... contrived publicity stunt in which authors agreed to publicly argue, within the past year, to raise their profile. When I touched on that the other day I wasn't thinking about Val and Ian, and I want to be clear on that point. I wish people wouldn't create and exaggerate arguments in public for publicity, because it's tense for everyone. There's enough to argue about already, without trying to create false drama. Believe me, if I express anger with someone, you can bet I'm seriously annoyed, but the majority of my real conflicts have actually been kept out of the public domain.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Exit Music

Via cellphone and email comes word that's the title of the forthcoming Rebus book, due out in September.

Explosive Elements

Arguments may get you headlines, but they’ll also get you a lot of heartache.

Last night, I was having trouble sleeping because of an argument. Not the shout-it-out-be-angry-and-be-done-with-it kind, either. The worst kind. The kind that simmers and festers and spreads over time and touches on other people.* And then, when I got up and came to my computer I was drawn back to an argument ten months old, one I hashed out more than enough about here, which didn’t help the sleep situation.

Recently at The Outfit Barbara D’Amato asked, “Why can’t we all get along?” Barbara was talking about hostile reviews, the kind that tear a book apart not because it’s been assessed on its own merits and found wanting, but the kind that attack a book just because it isn’t a genre the reviewer likes, the very existence of the book considered an offense. She said attacks don’t usually come from writers. Writers, “know how hard it is to write a book, and they are appreciative of others who do it, even the book isn’t what they like to read.”

I had to admit to being aware of several times writers have attacked other writers, and what they’ve done. That’s part of the reason I was so offended by the “blood-soaked corrosive rubbish” comments in the radio discussion I blogged about recently. It was a carte blanche attack not only on what I write but also on what I read. And nobody should presume to tell anyone else why they read and what’s acceptable and not acceptable. (And it isn’t even like it’s an original discussion point, which about sums up my thoughts today.)

And that wasn’t even the most recent attack I blogged about.

These are but two examples.
I could dredge up a very
old argument,
one that has been done to death already, but is now making headlines.

In all honesty, I don’t even like posting the links. But there are other links too, ones that will be familiar to some of you, where I have already said more than enough on the subject.

I was still upset when I saw the headlines. In fact, this whole bloody discussion deeply affected me last fall, when the issue first came up. The reason it bothered me was the number of people who just jumped on a bandwagon and went on attack over it, including many people who have candidly talked on their own blogs about being misquoted in the press. But boy oh boy, when it’s one of the top sellers in the crime fiction community there isn’t a moment’s hesitation in taking out the clubs and striking the blows. We’d all hope if it was us, with the meaning of a remark in an interview being twisted and interpreted, that people would give us the benefit of the doubt, wouldn’t we? But when it’s IR he doesn’t even get a moment’s hesitation before some sharpen the claws. Some wonderful, caring, supportive community spirit there. Let’s all gather round the fire, join hands, sing Kumbaya and pat ourselves on the back for how wonderful we are.


So, I’m left wondering why ten months later, here we are, again. Stir up an old argument. Rip open wounds, go on the attack.

It’s good for headlines but it’s also good for a lot of heartache. You know, it may even be that the authors behind some of these arguments have complete agreement about using them as a marketing strategy for all I know…

All I can say to that possibility is that if it’s true, what a shame. It would mean we now draw our audience through attacks, have to resort to scandal in order to drum up interest in what we’re doing. How very Hollywood.

And there are a lot of people out there who have nothing to do with the other side of the writing community, left feeling uncomfortable over the comments made, feeling as though there's active hostility (which may or may not be true, depending on the argument and the people) and feeling as though they don't want to be around any of those people.

A wise person once told me, in regards to this business, that if anyone says “What knocks?” they’re lying. Ironic, that as I was searching for the old links, I came across one of my favourite (word dripped in sarcasm) people attacking me. Yawn. All I can say is, I’m like a field mouse at a fox hunt – I mean, if you think it’s worth wasting your time attacking me, really how sad for you that you don’t have something better to do with your time. Bottom line is, if you have to build your career by stepping on the backs of others it’s a sad thing. We’ve gotten pretty far from writing being what wins out.

Another thing someone said to me: A person’s friends will know the truth about them, and you have to trust that your friends will stand behind you instead of assuming the worst.

Indeed. That’s why at the lowest moments in our lives we often find out who our real friends are, and are not. I have never believed the inferred meaning (and this I stress, because his words have been twisted to infer he was attacking lesbians, which has me wondering who even read the original interview, with all the narrative added in by the interviewer) from the comment Ian made, from the very beginning. It contradicts everything I’ve ever read about him and things he’s said to me himself. In the end, all this did was show who’s quick to judge and form conclusions, without even all the facts.

Chalk it up as a real stellar moment in the crime fiction world, another reason for us to be proud and look down our noses at others. Next person who says it’s the romance writers who are brutal to each other will prove one thing to me – they live with their head stuck in the sand. It might be easier to pretend nobody’s slinging mud that way, but you still get dirty.

*The argument in question has nothing to do with the writing world at all.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Job Hazards: Crime Author Charged With Murder...

...after police read his perfect plot.

This is rather a fascinating case, because it opens up all sorts of interesting questions. There is undoubtedly a risk when authors draw inspiration from real crimes. They risk offending family of the victim(s) and they also risk coming off as an opportunist, cashing in on the suffering of others.

However, I doubt many have found themselves on trial for murder.

Although the case sounds mostly circumstantial, "the book contained intimate details of the murder that could be known only to police — or the killer. Further investigations revealed that the victim was an acquaintance of Mr Bala’s estranged wife." If the police can prove that, they may just get a conviction. Since people have been convicted of murder without a body ever being found, physical evidence isn't always the clincher, or essential.

Whatever the outcome, this is food for thought for crime fiction authors. On the one hand, being charged with murder is one way to get free publicity and press coverage...

For myself, I do draw from real cases, in so much as they inspire me to think about certain issues. I have never taken an actual case and literally translated it into a story. I see there as being a huge difference. One exploits. The other is what I consider to be crime fiction at its best, using the forum to address current social issues. It can be a fine line between the two, but the reason I appreciate crime fiction with social relevance is that it actually has meaning and significance for the reader, and goes beyond mere entertainment value. Some people like their sitcoms and some people like their intense dramas and some like their news shows. I'm somewhere between the last two. If crime fiction didn't address issues, I wouldn't be reading it.

One thing's certain, though. If Mr. Bala gets off, I bet he'll be more careful about how exactly he replicates a real crime in his fiction in the future.

(My thanks to my good friend Steve from Edinburgh for the link to the story.)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

What To Do When I'm Not Here

Read Brian's insightful piece on CROSS, the latest Jack Taylor offering from Ken Bruen. I haven't had time to properly digest it all myself... but it just figures Brian would come up with something must-read (and easily discussable) as I try to begin my hibernation cycle.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

In Flux

Things are a bit chaotic at the moment. I have, regrettably, cancelled Bouchercon. After canceling Murder in the Grove for health and personal reasons, I had really hoped to make it to B’con (and I absolutely love Alaska). But too much has come up lately, and there’s no way I can juggle my schedule and make the trip. However, I have confirmed that both Evil Kev and I will be attending NoirCon in Philadelphia in April. And I’m already looking forward to the panel Evil Kev will be moderating, which is filled with an impressive list of people I really respect, including at least one who’s published some of my work. We’re also planning to tack on some travel, including our first visit to NYC. I’ve never been to that part of the US. I think my only regret is it won’t be fall, so we can’t rent a car and drive north for the fall colors. I would love to see Baltimore and Boston, but I don’t think I’ll be able to spare the time then.

Following the same path, I’m taking another blog holiday for a little while. Anything on here will be sporadic, at best, for at least a month, and that includes forums and lists as well. I know people don’t think I have them, but I’m in one of my more reclusive modes at the moment, and I have a staggering pile of work to do in the next two months. That’s where my focus needs to be. Don’t take it personally if you email and don’t hear back from me for a few days – that’s pretty much par for the course.

Meanwhile, Chris Holm has fantastic news, and it looks like I have more ammunition for the planned music debate Peter and I will be having later this year.

I won’t even need to re-read Ian’s books to prepare myself for this one, which means perhaps I can keep my series re-read to stick to my study of Rebus’s spirituality. The things I do for my own entertainment…

I must say, I’m glad some good things are happening to great people. Three friends have signed with agents lately, and I’m optimistic that it’s just a matter of time before there are book deals for them to celebrate.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Sex, Personality and Book Sales

As with most things, it’s all Kevin Wignall’s fault. Or perhaps I should call him Kuddly Kev, as he’s been labeled elsewhere… (Not by me! And not by Alex Barclay either, from what I hear.)

I may live to regret this, because anyone astute, with too much time on their hands and a pressing desire to find my assessments of some male crime fiction writers could eventually find a bit of running commentary from me on the subject of World’s Sexiest Writer 2007. (No, not on that thread.) But since I can’t talk about the only other thing on my mind this morning, sexy writers it is.

Vincent has not only started the topic of World’s Sexiest Writer over on Crimespace, where Daniel will be setting up a poll soon, Vincent is also assessing the merits of his photos on a dating site.

And proving that I occasionally not only have tact but employ it, I’m saying nothing on that one.

I’m proving myself a Gemini on this one, because I am completely of two minds when it comes to discussing sexy writers. I think Vincent’s post is hilarious and can’t wait to see how the poll shapes up. But I think it’s terribly shallow that people would be influenced to by a book based on what an author looks like, unless they’re selling a book on beauty tips or bodybuilding.

I think one of the very best lines at Bouchercon last year was when Oline Cogdil said she’d praised raging assholes and panned very nice people. And such is your lot when you’re a reviewer. As an individual, I’m far more swayed by personality. That will entice me to try a book. If I think a person is an idiot I’m not likely to want to read what they write, because I expect the writing to reflect that. And if I think a person is sharp, intelligent, witty, then I want to check out their work. That connection makes sense to me.

But even authors who are jerks can write great books. And yes, authors who are very nice people sometimes write stinkers.

Why is it I feel like I’m digging myself into a hole here? And now, everyone will wonder who I think is an idiot, or a jerk….

Truth is, it doesn’t matter. There are exceptionally few authors I have issues with on any level, in the grand scheme of things. Sometimes, it seems like a lot when I’m sorting spam for Spinetingler, or dealing with what happened over our last issue that prompted us to remove a story after the author started swearing at me in emails. We paid him and took the story down. At the time I was extremely pissed off, but the percentage of problem people is pretty low, though, all things considered.

While it’s definitely true that if someone is rude to my face they will not entice me to pick up their book at that moment (and in some cases when people have been ignorant I’ve moved their review copies to the bottom of the pile so that I can get the bad taste out of my mouth and be objective when I do get there) whether or not I like someone or agree with them has precious little to do with my endorsements either. Of course, I always like it when I discover an author I admire is a really good person – bonus. And I’m one of those people who doesn’t need to agree with someone about everything to like them.

But that’s me. I realize it isn’t the same for everyone else. I once had this na├»ve notion, that you’d just write stories and work from home and be an author and not have to worry about your appearance and all of that stuff. Of course, things have changed since I first thought about being an author when I was a kid.

So, part of me hates the idea of ranking authors based on their appearance. But the other side of me is curious to see who’ll make the list… and whether or not it will generate any interest in their books.

And I’ll confess this much. Brown eyes. My favourite feature on a person. Evil Kev and I both have hazel eyes – mine of the blue/green variety, his of the brown/green variety.

Anyone else going to confess who they’ll put on the sexiest writer list, or why? (You know, this is a stellar topic today. I won’t get any comments at all.)

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Song Says It Best

My current ms is hell to write. This story has been simmering in my brain for months, so this isn’t a surprise. After thinking I’d finally settled on a title that’s now up for debate… and I suck at titles. So, there’s that.

Then, there’s the issue of the actual subject matter. We won’t go there. It’s bad enough I have to write about it in the story. I’m not going to repeat myself here.

But every now and again a piece from a larger puzzle comes into focus, and I can see the moment perfectly, which is important, because this story isn’t about external action as much as it’s about internal turmoil.

This piece came about because of the title debate. For some bizarre reason, looking at my itunes playlists, I was drawn to Tom Cochrane’s 1986 album, although I hadn’t listened to it in ages. Funny that later this year I’ll be debating with Peter over the use of musical references in crime fiction. I’m just handing him ammunition here, admitting this, but I was convinced I’d find something on Cochrane’s album. And this is doubly strange because when I’m looking for musical inspiration I usually listen to Bruce Cockburn…

My favourite song by Cochrane is from Mad Mad World. It’s a cheery little song about love lost:

God I hate your needles and

Your dirty little vial of pills

I guess I love the sweat you put me through

I know I love your body

Like I used to love your mind

But now your soul's a slave

To all the things you use

I put you in the tub babe

With five big pounds of ice

If you don't get back up

I don't know what I'll do

I've walked around the room

Here nearly 37 Times

Can you hear me now

And am I getting through

That wouldn’t really fit this book. My instincts were correct, though. I may just have found a new title option because of this song, but that pales by comparison to the moment of clarity that some of the other tracks provided.
So, although this ms is proving to be torture, I at least now have music to go with the misery. And the song is just ambiguous enough to not really give any clues to even the three people other than my agent who have read What Burns Within. Much of it isn’t a direct correlation – it’s the sentiments that are more precise – but there’s one line in there of raw truth that connects to the story that it just guts me.

With that, I’m off to find Kleenex.

Another place in another time

I'd know that face anywhere

Without a trace and without a sign

Anytime you could come to me

In the night

When you thought

No one should have known

With your hard luck little girl look

And the trouble that you'd own

You'd come like the wind

When the night got so cold

And leave with the light

Like you didn't even know you'd

Come at all


One more time

You could walk back in

One more time

It's the same south highway again

One less chance and then one less mistake

Some old habits are hard to break

Like you

If a heart could ever learn to say goodbye

And not let time take the best away

Still I Learn

Look down and I'd ask knowing why

Still this time is the destiny

I'd wait while you climb your golden stair

Hard luck then little girl

I know it's nowhere

Still you feel

They beat on you like a drum

If you get tired, torn and wasted

You know I'd never be one


So many times

When it gets hard to

See the truth

When you got to survive you

Tow the line and you compromise

Until you live a lie
Another place in another time

I'd know that face anywhere and I

Without a trace and without a sign

I still remember

Monday, August 06, 2007

Don't Spoil Wignall

As I was scrolling through the headlines from The Toronto Star, I saw something that’s become rather familiar:

A fine Potter farewell
WARNING: If you haven't finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, you may want to skip the third and fourth paragraphs of this story.

I am sick to death of everyone treating that book like it’s something special with regards to spoilers. You admit, “Yes, I read one of the leaked spoiler articles” and all of a sudden everyone’s jumping all over you saying, “Well don’t tell me!” Like, did I? Have I ever randomly posted spoilers all over the place? Do I make a habit of showing up on your blog and telling you how the book you’re reading allegedly ends? So why the hell do people assume I’d suddenly do this now?

That’s what pisses me off about it. Okay, from time to time I’ve posted a link to a review/article and didn’t realize the spoilers contained in it… In part because I haven’t been following the series so I don’t realize the significance of some things said. In light of a recent discussion about a specific book I posted a link to a write-up about the book and said some might find it interesting. It was posted in the context of a conversation about the book by people who’d read it (though I hadn’t read it myself) and someone went ballistic because the article had some spoilers. Be an adult – if you’re reading something and paragraph 2 of 12 it gives something away chances are there’ll be more spoilers before the end. So stop reading! (And why were you reading the book discussion to begin with if you didn't want spoilers?)

As much as I try to avoid spoilers or giving away too much of the plot in reviews, I do have a bit of a concern that some others might not be so diligent when it comes time to review the new Kevin Wignall book, Who Is Conrad Hirst? I have decided that since so many people just assumed I’d become a spoiler-loving witch over Harry Potter I’m actually going to defend a book that matters against spoilers – I’ll send my uncensored evil thoughts against anyone who gives away plot for Who is Conrad Hirst? for a whole day. Buy it. Read it. Keep the secret and just tell others to buy it and read it. What better way could there be to entice people to buy a book? You have to buy it and read it to be part of the club of those who know.

It’s actually a royal pain in the backside, because this is one of the most delicate reviews I’ve ever had to try to write. I thought Christa Faust’s Money Shot was tricky, because of the layers to the book that I didn’t want to give away, but WICH is proving trickier still.

The nice thing about going back and catching up on an author is discovering their work. This is one of the reasons I enjoy interviewing authors – motivation to read through their backlist. (Sometimes, the backlist is to big to do that, but I do read some of the books.) I recently tracked down a copy of For The Dogs and spent some quality time reading. I wouldn’t want to give anything about that book away either, but… well… what a story.

Read it. You won’t regret it. Unless you give away the story. In which case, I’ll hunt you down.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Being An Idiot

** With an important update! **

If bookstores are any indication, the average person must be an idiot. Shelves are lined with “How To” books, self-improvement books, formulas for uncovering the secrets to life…

Problems in bed? Check out The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Amazing Sex. Can’t get your cupboards suitably organized? Try The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Organizing Your Life. I must admit Evil Kev paled considerably when he saw that one, and began muttering the mantra he’s developed over the past eight years (‘No more storage. No more storage.’)

That meant he was actually tempted by The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Managing Stress. And who wouldn’t be tempted by The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Rich? (Notice that it’s the books about getting rich and amazing sex that are in their third edition? Guess not as many people have issues with organization and stress. Of course, some say sex is a stress reliever, so perhaps the stress book is limited to sales to the celibate.)

The list goes on. Idiot guides to the Bible, to leadership, to English literature…

And we haven’t even touched on the ‘For Dummies’ books.

Who buys all these books? And what do you do with them when you have them? Bookshelves are either meant to be used for the books you read, or for stacking up volumes of books you want people to think you’re sophisticated enough to read. None of which matters in my case because I don’t let people in my house, but I have a hard time picturing all these idiotic guides lining the shelves. Take a date back to your place and shamelessly flaunt the fact that you need a complete idiot’s guide to tell you how to have better sex? Talk about proving the point of being an idiot – after all, I must get three hundred emails a day that tell me how to solve all my sexual needs… and I don’t have to pay for those.

I’ll actually admit to owning a few, though. We have one on sailing, because Evil Kev thinks he’s going to get a boat some day and sail the world. He’s waiting until he finds a girlfriend who’ll go with him, though.

I have one on criminal investigation and Forensics For Dummies, both of which prove CSI really doesn’t have a research department. But they have good make-up.

You know, I’m amazed by two things. One is the willingness of some people to let anyone tell them how to live their life. The other is the fact that everything has been reduced to a formula.

Seriously. What’s prompted my little tirade of the day is seeing a blog outline the simple steps to success. I shake my head at the idiocy of anyone who thinks you can get a book deal, become a movie star, make a million dollars or marry rich by following six easy steps. (And why do so many people readily take advice from people who aren’t successful? You think if some guy you’ve never heard of before knows the secret to wealth and success he’d take time off his yacht to tell you at a $399 luncheon? Be serious! Perhaps you need The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Recognizing a Scam.) But I almost have to have a grudging respect for the people writing these books, because they’re making money off the fact that people don’t know how to think for themselves anymore.

Now, it sounds like I’m specifically picking on the Idiot’s Guide books, but I really don’t mean to. It isn’t even that there are self help books out there… It’s the volume of them. I got thinking of this yesterday, after reading a blog where someone asked a stranger “What do I do now?” It wasn’t a life-and-death situation, wasn’t to do with grieving over the loss of a loved one, or coping with an illness. They were waiting to hear back about a job they’d applied for.

Goodness. Can’t anyone think for themselves anymore?

Guess it’s a good thing you can buy Think For Yourself! And while you’re at it you can Think Yourself Thin and Think Yourself Rich and Think Yourself To Health, Wealth and Happiness.

They’ll have me hook, line and sinker if they come out with Willing Your House To Clean Itself.

** When I put a title in italics in this post, it was a made-up title. Or at least, I thought it was a made-up title. I most sincerely apologize to the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Frauds, Scams and Cons for getting the title wrong. Perhaps I need to re-think my plans to attend NoirCon in Philadelphia next year... Or I should hope that nobody's written The Complete Idiot's Guide To Hiring A Hitman yet.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Knowing When To Walk Away

This week, an absolutely horrid thing happened to a friend of mine. In reality, that’s no different than almost any other week. What has stood out in my mind more than anything else this year is the ongoing spats between people over trivial issues, or in some cases out of pure spite and jealousy. In those cases, we tend to see what we saw happen to my friend: a completely unprovoked attack.

And I was uncharacteristically silent.

As I’ve said before, I don’t do particularly well when friends are attacked. I also don’t do particularly well with conflict. Evil Kev says I love to fight, but he’s mistaken. I love to fight with him. There’s a distinct difference. Fighting is part of the spousal job description.

But no matter how sincere the intention to keep issues to issues and the personal to personal, the lines tend to get blurred. And in the most recent example I’m thinking of, there was no effort to keep it objective. It was a blatant personal attack, the accuser hiding behind the veil of anonymity.

Big surprise. One by one I’ve left forums, lists and even some blogs because of that type of behaviour. Also, because I’m aware of my own weakness when it comes to standing up for someone I feel is being unfairly pushed around. But the emotional cost is high. On the one hand, I feel horrid for not standing up for people when they’re attacked. To be blunt, I think that’s pretty shitty. If you call yourself a friend, there are certain things you do, and standing with friends is one of them.

Unfortunately, that often means standing against someone, and there’s a cost there as well.

Whenever a person takes a stand, they’re going to have people who dislike them for it. People will disagree. And the more honest a person is about their opinions, the greater the chances they’ll ruffle some feathers. I doubt there’s a person reading this who doesn’t know of at least one conflict I’ve been in in the public domain.

Part of me wishes I could just be a smile. You know what I mean. The person who smiles and stays silent when the mudslinging starts. But then, I never feel comfortable with most of those people. They conceal all their opinions. In order to maintain an amiable public image they stand for nothing and nobody and even if a person’s attacked unjustly they’ll keep their nose clean. I never know what those people stand for, other than themselves.

There are people I disagree with about almost everything who I have more respect for, because at least they put their name behind their views and are passionate enough to express them.

But this week… this week I started seeing things differently. I got thinking about hiding. Just walking away for a while. Taking a break, being invisible. I go through this every few months (believe it or not) and sometimes it lasts a day and sometimes a few. This time, it’s been about a week.

Seeing a friend get hurt didn’t help. I felt so much rage I couldn’t see straight. And then there was the sense of powerlessness. There was nothing I could do that would fix things for my friend.

Why is it the path to hate, to division, to judgment and mudslinging is so much easier than the path to camaraderie, friendship, happiness?

Much of the time, I wonder what I’m doing here. I’m not a particularly funny person, so my blog lacks that entertainment value. There are others who whine better, others who report better, and others who do a better job dishing their opinions.

Plus, my life is actually pretty boring.

When I get in one of these modes, what I really start to think is that the only thing I’m doing here is being an idiot, because I’m opening myself up for personal attack from people who don’t like my opinions or decide they don’t like me.

When you put yourself out there, in any capacity, you can be subjected to criticism. There are people who will like your books. There are others who won’t. Some will appreciate the short stories. Others, well, not for them. Some people will like you. And others won’t. Industries being what they are you can be ‘in’ today and ‘out’ tomorrow.

I don’t particularly like that level of vulnerability. And after seeing the spats, the attacks and feeling my own anger and frustration at some things said, I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to insulate myself.

And then I remember that a big part of the reason I started this blog was for my own discipline, to write something on a regular basis, and to try to stick to one cohesive train of thought (which is a challenge for me). And part of the reason I’ve kept on with it is for the readers who email and tell me how much they (for whatever reason) enjoy the blog.

There have actually been so many spats and squabbles within our community this year that I’ve had to remember that those we see on the internet are but a small section of the community at large. Most of my emails come from people who’ve never commented here, but read in relative silence. Most of the people who read books don’t participate on lists or forums. And only a fraction of the authors in the genre are active online.

It’s the one bit of truth expressed in a cruel, cold attack. Blogs aren’t life. The internet isn’t life. But I also don’t think anyone here believes it is. This is just a way to keep up with people, to stay in touch, know what’s going on. Most of the blogs I read these days are written by friends – Angie, Amra, Vincent, James, Stuart, Mindy, Anne, Patti, etc. etc. etc. I want to know how they’re doing more than anything else.

And I think when reading stuff online gets me to the point where I’m angry, it’s as good a time as any to pull the plug and just stop reading those sources. Sometimes I have to get it out of my system here, but it is true that most of these ‘arguments’ can’t be won. People aren’t interested in genuine discussion – they’re interested in propping up their hobby horses.

Well, I suppose I have to give them the credit due for actually standing for something. But I’ve come to the point where I have a new respect for the silent smilers I was criticizing earlier. Sure, some may be only about their image and be the type who hoists a flag and follows the winds of popularity on any given day…

But some are people who are smart enough to know that most of these disagreements can't be resolved. And the cost is time, sanity and emotional energy that’s better invested elsewhere.

As much as I've been saddened by some who've stopped blogging (and been annoyed at others who've bullied people until they quit) what matters most is that my friends are comfortable with their decision. They'll have my love and support, even if I miss seeing them here.

The Death of the Series?

With some stories, it’s like taking the vegetables and throwing them in a pan of hot oil. You can’t walk away and leave them for ten minutes – you’ve got to start stirring them to keep them from burning. With other stories, it’s like taking those vegetables and putting them in hot broth. You’re going to give that some time to simmer.

The problem is, not all stories are the same, and even within a series some stories will be told in a different fashion.

I was discussing this with my friend Marsha last night, because she was uniquely placed to comment on my first book. She’d read it ages ago, a full two years before it was published, in its original form. Before a few massive rewrites. And now, she’d read the published version and she loved it and remembered much of it from before, but then she told me what she wanted to see more of from me in the future.

More description, and more time in the heads of the characters. And then she reminded me that the original had more of both. She understood that I’d probably had to cut some to meet length requirements…

This prompted a huge discussion about balance. I wasn’t surprised by her comment at all. Truth is, the person who cut up the book in the critiquing process could be said to have used a sword, not a scalpel, except that might suggest they just chopped away without reason. In fact, after cutting all I was told to cut, I went back and added in just over 3000 words that I’d taken out. I thought 15000 words was enough, 18000 drastic.

This is, for me anyway, one of the toughest things about writing. Well, after coming up with titles and settling on character names and writing synopses and queries… When it comes to the actual manuscript, this is what I find hard to balance. One book I read in the last five months, I really enjoyed. Great story. Had me hooked. I really only had one complaint with the story, and that was why the pov character had to think the same things over four or five times. And by that, I mean literally it was what they’d already thought about and didn’t add anything new to the equation. An otherwise brilliant book brought down just a touch because it was repetitive. Sometimes, an author will go so far into the detail, belaboring the story, I start thinking, Enough already. Frankly, if at any point in the story I’m tempted to start skipping bits it’s a mark against it, and if it’s a series book that’s when I start to wonder if it’s past due.

But then, there are other times where every single second in the story is perfection. Then there are times you truly don’t get deep enough. When Marsha and I were talking we discussed an author we both like, who we both feel needs to take us a bit deeper, and I said I didn’t know if they did it by accident or if it was intentional to leave us wanting more. But at some point, I think if we both feel we don’t get in just a bit deeper to understand the protagonist, maybe we’ll lose interest. Hard to say.

As I said, it’s a real balancing act.

Now, as Marsha knows, SC was intended as the start of a series, and I had drafted a sequel, so for her SC would have been perfect if the sequel had followed… because the sequel did go deeper. And that’s really what she wants in a series – to feel like you get to know more of the characters every book out. Me too. In the first book of a series I want to get a taste. Second book I want to know more. This is really the risk of not following through on a series. If you’ve said everything there is to say in the first book there’s no need for a follow-up, and if you’ve left things to cover then the first book is not entirely satisfying on its own, as far as characters go.

When I wrote What Burns Within it was go-go-go from the get-go. There’s a ticking clock and the emphasis is on procedure, not the personal. I tried to tell only as much about the characters as you needed to know for this story, with just a hint of some things that might be addressed down the road. In fact, one of the rejection letters I go said it was clear that the three protagonists knew each other before this case and they wanted to read that book. Yeah, well, that’s the plan. It was pitched as a series...

Working on book 2, it’s very different. WBW is repeatedly getting smacked in the head. Book 2 is like having someone stick a knife in your gut, slowly, and then twist it. The second book goes much deeper into the characters… WBW has the character reveals through the action of the story, but book 2 is far more personal. Marsha says that’s perfect… if it’s a series.

This is something I’ve been wondering about. I’m a huge fan of series. Give me Rebus and Jack Taylor, Thorne and Milne, McRae and Rourke, Tony & Carol… I love series books. I love getting back to characters I’m interested in and reading a book where the circumstances the characters face reveal more about them. And in general, I’m not in as much of a rush to read stand-alones, Laura Lippman being the most noteworthy exception. Stand-alones lack that sense of urgency for me that series books have.

However, times being what they are, more and more authors (especially unproven new authors) are getting signed to one book deals. And that does make it very hard to develop a series.

And then, as Marsha and I were talking I confessed to her what no author in my position ever wants to hear – I said I usually (usually!) don’t pay much attention to authors until they have three or four books out. I know, I know… But if the books are stand-alones it’s even harder to tempt me.

The real thing is, I want authors to fall in love with. I want to like a character to the point where I want to spend more time with them. And then I want to be able to do that. It’s very hard if an author puts out a book and then disappears. Or if book 2 is a real disappointment because the author spent 10 years polishing book 1 and could hardly function under a deadline for a second book.

It used to be that publishers could invest a few books to grow an author and build a readership. Now, market realities are changing that, and as a reader I’m getting nervous. Rebus will be off the force this year. Jack Taylor has a few books left. My understanding is the new Thorne book ties up a lot of loose ends and the next Billingham will be a stand-alone. No word on whether or not it’s back to Thorne after that…

I’m starting to wonder who will be the next great series characters that will fill the void. The reader in me feels that the relationship between reader and author is unique. People feel personally let down if they start to warm to an author and their characters and can’t get more. I understand series have to end, and would rather see them end strong than hang around whimpering long past the interest of the author. But when it comes to being tempted to try new writers, I hope for more than one or two books.

This is also making me rethink my approach with new material. Yes, I’m also working on a stand-alone, because as much as I find it heartbreaking as a reader to not be able to continue reading a series I’ve started to enjoy, I find it gutwrenching as an author to not be able to develop the characters intended for a series. And I'm wondering what it means if a self-professed series junkie is working on a stand-alone. Seems like a really bad sign.

Anyone reading book 2 or 3 of a series that they feel is one they’d recommend?