Sunday, September 30, 2007

Authors, Celebrities, Attitudes and Interviews

There are times I’m struck by the contrasts between authors and ‘celebrities’. And then, there are times I’m struck by the similarities.

For example, the Toronto Star features has one of the funniest things I’ve read in a long time mocking the lives of the rich and famous. It’s the biting sarcasm that works for me. “This week in taking boring to new and heretofore unimagined heights.” Oh, hell, yeah. And people pay money for those magazines.

However, before we authors too quickly pat ourselves on the back and applaud our industry as being filled with normal, level-headed, wonderful people, Jeri Westerson continues her thorough summaries of Bouchercon, with a day four wrap-up that serves as a cautionary tale on two levels.

First: Check your attitude at the door. In paragraph two Jeri recounts tales about author escorts, and what gets said on the gossip chain, and you better believe your behaviour will be noted.

It’s hard for many people to think about authors with bad attitudes, engaging in bad behaviour, and yet I think most of us have our stories. Perhaps it’s simply true that with some people, the reason they’ve done well is, in part, because they remained gracious.

For example, the other day I was skimming an interview with Ian Rankin. Yeah, yeah, you say. Except I don’t often read the interviews anymore… largely because the questions I want answers to never get asked and most of the material in the interviews is stuff I already know. But I was helping someone with a bit of background, so I checked this article out.

It touches on how Rankin’s train had been several hours late. Quoting from the article in the Sydney Morning Herald:

The train that brought him from his home in Edinburgh was several hours late ("it was like travelling on a f---ing stagecoach") and he has arrived in a London brought to a snail's pace by a Tube strike. But, as ever, Rankin remains the perfect interviewee. Surely, on a day when everything goes wrong, he must want to renounce the publicity hoopla that surrounds each book? Even if he is contracted to do it ...
"Oh, I'm not contracted to do this," he says. "I'm always happy to do interviews; it's certainly better than being ignored. For the first four or five Rebus novels, hardly anyone took any notice. I would have died for attention. An interview in a newspaper? Something you just dreamt about. And the memories are vivid enough not to take anything for granted."

It’s the second paragraph that caught my attention, and almost tempts me to consider asking for a proper interview some day. You see, the angst over interviews isn’t something I’m the only person who feels. You have to consider that, when we started Spinetingler, I didn’t know anyone. Well, okay, I had met Val McDermid, though ‘know’ is a bit subjective there. I knew her a bit from her forum. I didn’t have a blog or read them.

And despite what many people think of me, I can be painfully shy. It’s probably a major reason I was doomed to failure in journalism. I have to switch to a different side of my personality to go at people in the midst of grief for the sake of a story. If anything, I presume things into people in an overly sensitive fashion. Until I feel comfortable with someone I assume I’m bothering them when I’m contacting them. I’m well behind on e-mails myself right now (and the longer the issue, more intricate the question the longer it will take people to hear from me at the moment, what with book 2 in the final stages and a Spinetingler issue to finish) and yet I love getting e-mails from people. I’m still horrid for assuming if people don’t write back they’re mad at me.

When we started Spinetingler I always felt like I was imposing on people, asking them for interviews. I always felt… guilty. So if someone didn’t respond to a request, they went on my little list… Don’t bother them again. I actually really don’t like bugging people and would rather be told to get lost than just tolerated. At least then, you don’t have to wonder where you stand.

Over time, though, my attitude about the interviews has shifted a bit. I’ve watched someone else go through this… the complete nerves about making the requests, the excitement when people they ask say yes…

And then there are the people who don’t even have the courtesy to say no.

For me, I’m going to bear Rankin’s words in mind when I’m asked for an interview. I know I’ve spoken to some people about doing an interview and followed up by e-mail – as they told me to do - only to get no reply from them whatsoever. And it’s a funny thing, because I’ve noted before that reviewers talk, and interviewers talk as well. I notice the same types of stories come up about the same people.

It’s a word to the wise. We aren’t celebrities, and attitude is important. I don’t ever want the marketing to come at the expense of the writing, and I’m not a mega-marketer by any stretch. But a bit of common courtesy goes a long way.

The other thing Jeri touched on was the distribution issues. This is, again, something for authors to be mindful of, and I feel it’s worth pointing people in that direction… yes, even readers. Why? Because it is the authors who are on the front lines, when many things are out of our control.

I realize we always assume publishers are actually interested in selling books, so it does make one wonder why distribution is such a prevalent problem. In fact, over on Tess Gerritsen’s blog she’s touched on the issue of co-op compliance. You know, in most other industries if you paid for promotional space and didn’t get it, the companies would be going after you.

Simply put, I think the publishers are trying to stay afloat with less and less as book sales decline. That’s a whole other issue I won’t even touch here, but it does tie back to the beginning. This is a tough business, and there are constantly new challenges and issues arising.

And if not even Ian Rankin considers himself beyond the interviews and still appreciates the opportunity for exposure, it’s worth pointing out to everyone to never take it for granted. You might be riding high today, and tomorrow be wishing for the interviews you blew off.

Things to think about. I have three interviews planned for the Winter issue – Tess Gerritsen, Ray Banks and Christa Faust. I need to do reading prep for all of them, which will take hours of my time, and I look forward to it. After that? Currently, nothing scheduled.

And to be honest, I dread the thought of asking. It isn’t something I’ve ever gotten completely comfortable with.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Mindrape: The Internet, Access, Accuracy and Abuse

Intellectual property theft isn’t just an author issue: Today I learned a site is abusing individuals by posting their comments without permission.

I’ve been grappling with my feelings about this all day, and will come full circle. The question of how we use the internet, and how seriously we take what’s posted on it, was raised in my mind recently. The trigger was a discussion on Crimespace, in which an ITW press release was posted on the forum and someone pointed out an inaccuracy in the release.

Later I saw other people posting the press release on their blogs. I found myself wondering how many people notice the inaccuracy and if they do, how many care?

The reason I mention this actually has nothing to do with the ITW or anyone involved. The reason is because I have more than a passing interest in communication theory. In Neil Postman’s brilliant book, Amusing Ourselves To Death he relates a scenario in which a university student included a note in his thesis referencing a lecture. To quote:

This citation drew the attention of no fewer than four of the five oral examiners, all of whom observed that it was hardly suitable as a form of documentation and that it ought to be replaced by a citation from a book or article. “You are not a journalist,” one professor remarked. “You are supposed to be a scholar.” Perhaps because the candidate knew of no published statement of what he was told… he defended himself rigorously on the grounds that there were witnesses to what he was told, and that the form in which an idea is conveyed is irrelevant to its truth. Carried away on the wings of his eloquence, the candidate argued further that there were more than three hundred references to published works in his thesis and that it was extremely unlikely that any of them would be checked for accuracy by the examiners, by which he meant to raise the question, Why do you assume the accuracy of a print-referenced citation but not a speech-referenced one?

The answer he received took the following line: You are mistaken in believing that the form in which an idea is conveyed is irrelevant to its truth. In the academic world, the published word is invested with greater prestige and authenticity than the spoken word. What people say is assumed to be more casually uttered than what they write. The written word is assumed to have been reflected upon and revised by its authors, reviewed by authorities and editors.
(page 20-21)

“What people say is assumed to be more casually uttered than what they write.”

With the internet, with the growth of e-mails, blogs and forums as a means for discourse, this has become more and more of an issue. Today we can read about an e-mail at CTV that discussed confidential staff issues and was sent to multiple employees that shouldn’t have received it: as a result, the act of sending the e-mail is now news and the content of the e-mail is being discussed in the media. In essence, everyone in the world with a computer, the internet and a working knowledge of English knows, not just the employees who received the e-mail by mistake.

I have been guilty myself of treating my blog as more casual speech. I rarely edit posts. They are often raw thought, my expression of whatever is on my mind at that time.

And I am also guilty of categorizing acceptable behaviour based on the nature of the medium used for communication.

For example, if this was an industry blog, I would consider it inappropriate to post much of what I post here. I consider the purpose of an industry blog to be to report news, and make commentary about news. In the same way that I do not expect the editor of the Calgary Herald to post a front-page photo of their child on the day they start kindergarten and make that the lead story, I don’t expect industry blogs to post excessively about personal friends or situations.

I have from time to time blogged about issues that were raised on various discussion lists. Is that abuse of intellectual property? I don’t think so, depending on how it’s done. Earlier I referenced a discussion on Crimespace. I don’t take issue with that. Crimespace is an open forum. You do not need to be a member to read it. In the same way that I do not prevent anyone from reading this blog, nobody is prevented from reading anything stated over there. Full public access. If someone takes something I’ve posted on my blog and refers to it on their blog, as long as they cite the source it’s fair game. I consider open access blogs to work the same way.

I also think that sometimes when people discuss issues on their blogs that have been raised on lists, the reason it’s okay for them to say, “Some people have been discussing this on a list, and I want to share my thoughts on it here” is because it doesn’t draw attention to an individual. If I say “Some people seem to think…X” and then address that, it stays to topic and isn’t personal.

I had to think about this long and hard, because of what came up this morning. This morning, I learned that someone is taking the posts on a discussion list I participate on, and posting them all on the web. And I had to think about why what I’ve done myself above isn’t (in my opinion) intellectual theft, and why what this person who’s harvesting these posts has done is (in my opinion) unethical.

The main issue in this case has to do with consent. When a person joins Crimespace and posts there, or when a person comes here and comments on my blog, they know that their comments are online, for all the world to see. When a person joins a discussion list like DorothyL or Rara-Avis or 4MA or Inspector Rebus or Short Mystery Fiction Society, they assume their comments are limited to the membership of those lists.

And, to be honest, if I post on a topic on one of those lists and explain my philosophy on violence in fiction (for example) and someone wants to quote that as part of a discussion about violence in fiction, I don’t have a problem with it.

But learning that every post made to a discussion list I do participate on is being copied and posted online where non-members can read it felt to me like mindrape. It bothered me on multiple levels, because some lists I participate on have a family atmosphere in which I feel more comfortable expressing myself than I do elsewhere. This means sometimes what I divulge may be more personal. Since I can look through the membership list and in that sense know who I’m talking to, I consider it fair for me to post according to my comfort level. Believe me, there are individuals who could join that discussion list who would affect my posting. A lot of what we say in different venues is not just about the facts of our statements but our personal relationship dynamics with the people we’re talking to.

I mean, there are some people I swear at routinely, and others I am nothing but polite with. Every relationship we have is governed by dynamics that are established based on the individuals involved. There are people who could e-mail me and start off with, “Yo bitch” and I’d laugh and throw something equally irreverent back at them. And there are other people I’d take offense to if they addressed me like that in an e-mail.

Today, I’m regarding all of this seriously. In the same way that I don’t repost e-mails I receive on my blog without permission, I think it’s highly questionable that someone would repost all the posts made on a discussion list, without adding any commentary to them to even expand the discussion. Some of these posts are (admittedly) off topic and not relevant to the discussion of the focal topic of the discussion list.

And there are also advertisements on this site. I find myself wondering if the purpose of copying posts from various discussion lists and posting them is partially for profit, and that by copying straight messages it maximized their potential draw off google searches.

Now, why the detour to post at length about the credibility and seriousness given to print quotes over verbal statements? Because many people chat casually on lists, aware that most interpret it casually, and do not take all comments as literal hard facts. But when someone takes those comments and posts them elsewhere on the internet, for all the world to see, they have been taken out of their original context, and the context of a statement does have bearing on the interpretation of the statement.

It’s easier for people to retract or amend what they say, as opposed to what they write. I have viewed posting on my blog as the beginning of a discussion, and if I feel something is incorrect, I can amend it with notation, expand in the comments, even remove it. But when someone else takes statements you made in a semi-private capacity and posts them without your consent, you can’t easily take them back or amend them.

The nature of this internet source that’s abusing list posts in this capacity makes it actually tricky to follow discussions. Posts from several discussion lists – about a dozen that I’ve counted in my quick scan – are being harvested. This makes it very easy for someone to come along and read a post and, without the benefit of the context, to misconstrue the meaning.

It’s a bit like being a teenager and knowing the boy next door is watching you change at night. If only he knows, is it okay? Now, how does that change if you know he’s watching you, and you’re okay with that? How does it change again if someone else is hiding in the bushes behind your house with binoculars, watching you?

Issues of rights and privacy are tricky. Issues such as this aren’t going away. They will only increase over time. Perhaps someone will write the new book on public discourse that picks up where Neil Postman’s fantastic work leaves off (having been written in the 80s) but I doubt anyone can match the intelligence he brought to the topic or his level of insight.

Meanwhile, we can debate how we use the internet, or how it should be used, but one thing is certain: You can’t assume anything is private anymore. And for the record, I think that means those who do post industry-related items (which I do from time to time as well) will have to take care in the future to make sure that their posts are accurate, or clearly marked as opinion. The internet is at risk of becoming the biggest game of ‘telephone’ ever, with forum after forum, blog after blog, distorting the facts or misrepresenting the truth.

** Edited to add: There are actually at least two lists I post on being harvested on this site, not just one.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Survivor, and the Evolving State of Book Reviews

Last night, I did something I don’t normally do. I watched Survivor. I’d watched it last week, catching the debut, and found it easy to spot which tribe was going to lose the immunity challenge. And within that tribe, I knew three members who were in trouble. One, I wanted to see go, but a different one lost out.

This week, that was rectified. The same tribe lost both a reward challenge and immunity, and the person I wanted to see booted last week was voted off in an amazing 6-1 vote.

Why do I say ‘amazing’? Because a few people on the team actually seemed to be good friends with her, and seemed to be genuinely frustrated with the only other person who received a vote against him. I was a good enough judge of human behaviour to spot the team in trouble, from the get-go. (And truly, this was what kept me watching last week. I was drinking in the China scenery, admittedly unimpressed by the Christian radio host walking out of the welcome ceremony - despite the fact they’d been clearly told it was not a worship ceremony – and about to turn it off when I saw the one tribe interact. I was convinced they were in serious trouble, and then had to stick around to know if I was right.)

But where I fell short was in reading deception. I swear, I honestly thought Jamie and Sherea (I think those are their names) were voting against Dave. Sherea was actually wiping away tears as Ashley went to have her torch extinguished. And then I watched the vote.


I guess the moral of the story is, never underestimate human behaviour. Never underestimate the willingness of people to use you when it suits them, and stab you in the back when that’s to their advantage. Honestly, last week I’d thought the reasons some had voted against Chicken were nuts. At least he worked around the tribe. That’s why I didn’t think Dave was safe. Yes, the man worked his ass off, but he was annoying.

Anyway, I don’t know if I’ll stick with it week to week, but it is a fascinating look at human behaviour, from a certain point of view. I haven’t watched Survivor since… Australia. I hadn’t realized how many of these shows they’d had.

What does this have to do with reviews?

We’ve been bombarded with stories about declining review coverage of books. Recently, author Steven Torres lamented the lack of reviews for his latest book, which is titled The Concrete Maze and was published by Dorchester. Since we have the same publisher, I read his comments with interest.

Then, last night, I read Jeri Westerson’s B’con day 2 recap in which she detailed information from the reviewing panel.

What are writers doing wrong that earn them either a negative review or none at all? Stupid protags and amateur sleuths who have no business getting involved; inaccuracies (authors who obviously never visited the cities they write about; inaccurate science, etc.); formula plotting; can tell who the killer is right away; alcoholic/pill-popping cops; illogical plot; plot going through the motions (author just repeating himself book after book); stupid endings; anything that takes the reader out of the story.
When asked how to get one's book to reviewers, Leslie Doran suggested pitching to reviewers as you would pitch to agents or editors: make sure the reviewers review your genre and SEND THE BOOK. The panel couldn't understand when publishers don't bother sending to them (if there is anything I have been learning lately, is to take your own publicity into your own hands!) They don't want the whole publicity package for several reasons. One, they don't want to read the reviews of others, two, they don't want to get hung up on the publicity department's blurbs (which they say is sometimes inaccurate!) and three, they want to come to it fresh.

There are a few things I read in Jeri’s notes that rang clear bells for me:

1. They couldn’t understand publishers not sending the books to reviewers.
Oh, yeah. Uh huh. Let me put it to you this way: I almost never ask publishers for review copies. Now, I have publicists who give me catalogues, and then sometimes I ID books we’re interested in, but I rarely approach an author or publisher and ask if I can have a review copy of a specific book.

And in my experience, when I’ve asked (once because of interview prep), they still haven’t sent them. I’ve delayed profiles and interviews so that I could wait to buy the latest off the shelves… and guess what? 99/9% of reviewers aren’t going to do that.

2. They don’t want the whole publicity package because they want to come at it fresh.
Exactly. I could launch a whole tirade on the subject, but won’t.

Here’s one other thing I’ll add, though. I don’t know why I’d need to hire a publicist. Some of them are not only so gracious as to email press releases that I can’t use in any capacity, but they display all the email addresses instead of bcc’ing the release. Beautiful! Free of charge I now have a list of contacts compiled by publicists I happen to know people pay big bucks for. And having read their press releases, I also know that it wouldn’t be hard for me to write my own.


Truth is, getting reviews has become a bit like competing on Survivor. For one thing, right now, there are two tribes, and so individual effort alone will not save you. I’m going back to point #1 – if the publishers don’t send out the review copies you can’t get reviews.

There is a real issue in this industry of relying on word of mouth. It may be that word of mouth spreads faster than it used to, courtesy of the internet, but people still need to hear about books in order to buy them, and read them, and not everyone is a gung-ho enthusiast who’ll post reader reviews or mention the book on forums and discussion lists. Not everyone will start an ezine or volunteer to review on online reviewing sites.

Meanwhile, more authors are on the chopping block, earlier and earlier, struggling to stay alive in a competitive marketplace. If you’ve got a big publisher who does the basic mail-outs, you’re automatically ahead of all the small publishers that aren’t doing any book promotion. And so, there is something of perception, where people think that because they’re seeing a lot of reviews for a book by a certain author it must be a hot one. Frankly, I hardly read the reviews, and this goes back to Jeri’s point #2 – I like to keep my mind clear if the book might be on my reviewing schedule. But I certainly know what books are being reviewed, over and over and over again.

I read Steve Torres’s comments with some sympathy for his frustration, but I do actually think his conclusion isn’t looking at the whole picture. This is not about unwillingness to review mass market paperback originals. Okay, there are some with that attitude. Forget Kirkus. (Unless you want to pay for one of their purchased reviews, a whole other subject we won't even touch...)

However, I’ve seen reviews for the latest PJ Parrish (and it’s a book most deserving of praise). I’ve also seen plenty of reviews for the new Rick Mofina – again, a great read that came out in mmpb.

Sometimes, it’s about timing. It’s about the reviewers knowing when the book is coming out. It’s about them not getting the book so early they forget about it, and not getting it so late it’s already out there. There are places – Midwest book review – that prefer to review after a book is released so they review from the final copy instead of ARC.

And in the very latest twist on reviews, what do I receive in my inbox this morning? An email from Hachette Book Group. The subject line:

Reader Reviews of Alice Sebold's THE ALMOST MOON

And they’ve used half a dozen reader blurbs before putting “official” review quotes there, after a blurb about the book.

Look, simply put, it’s time to get creative. I’ve seen authors ponder how they can use reader endorsements: Hachette has taken it to the next level.

It’s a new playing field. Unfortunately, that means I’m setting rules to block email from people who spam me constantly, and blatantly ignoring pushy emails from people who seem to think I’m their publicist.

But it also means that people who actually listen to what reviewers want, form contacts appropriately and take matters into their own hands are going to have a distinct advantage. None of this is a news flash. I just couldn't help thinking that the rules of Survivor will become what determines who stays in the game - not necessarily who writes the best. You can have the best writing in the world, and if nobody reads it, you'll still be dropped by your publisher. I know award-winners who've had to look for new homes, so I just don't buy it. Not that I'm sitting here advocating certain behaviour, but I am going to say that if you want reviews, you have to take some initiative, follow up, make sure the books are sent at least. I just can't tell you how many times we're contacted and the publisher doesn't send the books, and there are a few publishers I just won't agree to take books from anymore. Why? Because it isn't one email about the book. It's four or five as the author follows up, then follows up again, then we still haven't received the book... As an author I completely sympathize. As a reviewer, I just don't have time to chase all that down.

And if any of you are watching Survivor and have bets on, I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

Meanwhile, I send my congratulations to the winners of the Barry Awards.

Best Novel - The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos

Best First Novel - Still Life by Louise Penny

Best British Mystery Novel - Priest by Ken Bruen

Best Thriller - The Messenger by Daniel Silva

Best Paperback Original - The Cleanup by Sean Doolittle

Best Short Story - "The Right Call" by Brendan DuBois

(You know what I still find funny? The prevalence of people who say they aren’t influenced by reviews when purchasing books. If that’s really true, why is it we’re so concerned about declining review coverage? Because it infers books are no longer culturally significant to merit the interest of media.

And this as Canadian newspapers launch a $10 million campaign, fighting negative views about the industry sparked by falling circulation south of the border.

“Beginning on "International Right to Know Day," this Friday, advertisements celebrating the role of newspapers as champions of the public interest will run in most of Canada's dailies.”

I’m snickering at the concept of ‘preaching to the converted’ – sure, run your ads in print newspapers so that the people who do read them can feel warm and fuzzy.

Baffled that they think the way to solve an image problem that’s been created in a different country is with advertising. And left to wonder, if they’re really the champions of public interest, why it is I don’t even see local authors getting reviewed in our papers.)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Yes, We're Weird

Come on. How many people are there who write letters to coroners and say they’d like to watch an autopsy? I mean, think about what you’re asking! “Yes, I’d like to see you cut some stranger’s body up. Oh, and it would be great if they’d been stabbed. Actually, I’d really like to understand how you determine the type of blade used when someone’s stabbed to death…”

Oh yeah. Like you aren’t automatically going into the “freak” file.

And just imagine calling up a police officer: “Yes, I was wondering if my four-year-old son was beaten to death in a park, if police would have grounds to search my house even if I wasn’t with him at the time?” My recommendation is a disposable phone that can’t be traced if you’re going to ask that one.

I’m telling you, the research for this particular novel has been nothing short of a nightmare. No wonder people like writing from the criminal point of view or about insubordinate cops who do whatever the hell they want – there are no rules for them to follow.

This is reason #257 that authors drink.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Space In My Head

The creative process can be hard to explain at times, and for me, nothing is trickier than the apple cart that is writing a book. I was reading the comments over on Linda L Richards’ blog, and she said I'm currently working on the second Kitty Pangborn novel and it's taking up most of the space in my head.

I relate to that. When it comes to actually writing a book, I’m not good at multi-tasking. I have friends, such as Ken Bruen, who can write two books at the same time, and stand in awe of the mental discipline that takes. As it is, I get so wrapped up thinking about the book, replaying scenes in my head, thinking over the actions and reactions that sometimes I think I’ve typed out a scenario and I’ve completely forgotten to. I just thought about it so much it seemed so real to me, but I left it off the page.

I’m obsessive, and I know it. The good part of that is it usually takes me about eight weeks to draft a manuscript. The bad part is that I eat, sleep, dream the story, and it’s hell on family life, never mind a social life. I think that’s why, until now, I’ve gone with the story screaming in my head the loudest as the next project. It’s one way of making the voices stop (sounds like I’m completely off my rocker, doesn’t it?) so that I can actually think and process new information.

The big problem with that philosophy is, now I’m actually under contract to work on certain material. I always thought it would be a real boost to motivation, but I’m actually usually pretty self motivated. Now I’m mostly just freaking out about whether or not my editor will like the new book.

In case you haven’t put two and two together, with everything going on with the new deal, and now that I’m in the home stretch on the second book in that deal, I’ve been a bit too distracted to deal with everything for Spinetingler. I expect we’ll have the new issue up around Thanksgiving. Uh, that would be Canadian Thanksgiving.

But don’t panic! Jack Getze had the guest editor gig for the Winter Issue, and the man is already done! Now, for me to do those interviews…

And while I’m working, there are other places to be. Angie has a new In For Questioning podcast live, with Allan Guthrie. I’m hoping he elaborates on the peanut butter and Duane Swierczynski. (Oh, and in a moment of total self-absorption, how cool was it to see a German deal for Duane in the same Publishers Lunch Deluxe weekly as my deal announcement? Very cool.)

Also, The Toronto Star has a write-up on the latest from Linwood Barclay and Peter Robinson.

While we’re on the subject of Peter Robinson, he’ll be at Wordfest this year, so if you’re in the Calgary area you can hear him Wednesday October 10 and Saturday October 13. I’ve never met Peter Robinson, and if I had guts I’d try to link up and interview him, but I’m not sure Wordfest is in the cards this year. (I know some might find it inconceivable, but I hate going to stuff like that alone.)

One last thing. After a discussion about the partially illegible inscription by a Scottish author in a book, I suggested to a friend of mine (who happens to be Scottish) it must have been the whiskey. This led to a discussion about whether I was suggesting Scots drink a lot. My Scottish friend took offense to the suggestion he'd even dare enter a bar.

Seems he always forgets the evidence.

Friday, September 21, 2007

This One's For Russel

I have to thank him for reminding me of this. This was out when I was spending my days in Ireland and England, actually, and I'd forgotten it.

For anyone wondering what to watch this weekend.

And sticking with the spiritual theme...

Keep the faith, Russel. ;)

(And if you'd like to see what Russel has to say...

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Making It Official*

*(Or As Seen In Publishers Marketplace, which is the title Evil Kev preferred.)

Normally, what happens in the book world is that someone writes a manuscript. They then try to find an agent, which is usually a lengthy process. Send out queries. Some politely tell you basketweaving might still be an option, or something of that nature. Maybe some invite you to submit more, and you do. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the average search time for an agent is six months. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out it’s more like nine to twelve.

And if you do find an agent with that first work, the next phase will depend on the agent. Either they’ll expect it to be letter perfect and ready to sell before they consider signing it, or they’ll give you their own editing notes. You’ll need to write a pitch, possibly build up your resume with other publishing credits, etc. It all depends. Then comes the shopping phase. And this is not the kind of shopping women are said to love. It’s the kind that will make you pull your hair out. You’ll get the polite rejections. Perhaps some not-so-polite rejections. Possibly some requests for full manuscripts. And it all takes time. I wouldn’t even hazard a guess at the average length of the shopping phase, although my suspicion is that it’s comparable to the agent search. It really depends on a lot of things: luck and timing. Crossing the right editor’s desk at the right time…

This is why the rule is, write the book, get it out there, and get on with the next one. Believe me, every writer soon understands hurry up and wait. It’s the way the business is.

And once you do get signed, it’s not uncommon for it to be as much as two years before your book will actually see print.

That’s about normal.

Of course, we all know there’s not much that’s normal about me.

After some communication with an agent, he asked to read my latest ms. Four days later he offered representation. Six weeks later, the manuscript had been polished by me and I’d edited it again with notes from him. And then began one of the most nerve-wracking stages of my writing career as I waited for updates.

Let me tell you something. No matter how much you know that you’ll drive yourself mad doing that, you still end up doing it, and you really do go mad.

One week later I heard the first publisher had requested a full.

It wasn’t long before another publisher had asked for more… and by then I was starting to receive the rejection letters as well.

After a few months I was a nervous wreck. I knew by then at least one publisher was seriously looking at the book, and my nerves were shot from the agony over every email. Would this one bring news of an offer? Or was this the one where they’d send me packing?

I don’t think I’ll ever forget how it felt to get the news about the offer. Of course, you’re doing the polite professional thing, all That’s wonderful, and what are the details, blah blah blah when you’re alternating between wanting to scream and feeling as though you’ll pass out.

Imagine all that nervous energy building up in your body for a few months, the cord pulled as tight as it can go and then someone lets go of the other end. Knees like jelly.

It was nice that the deal offer came, in the grand scheme of things, quickly. A year ago I didn’t have an agent. Hell, just a bit more than seven months ago I didn’t even have an agent.

And now, I can go on the record that I have a new book deal.

Now, this is just more proof of how unusual this is. I know people who’ve had book deals who haven’t been able to go public for five months, waiting for the deal to be finalized and for everything to be official. Most authors will tell you that the announcement is delayed gratification, sometimes several months after the deal is done. That thing you were excited about that you weren’t allowed to talk about is finally public, and you’re no longer excited because you’re freaking out about your edits.

And people wonder why authors drink.

Well, in keeping with how unusual things have been, I’ve known about this for almost two months, but even that’s a relatively short window of time for this phase. However, because (as we’ve established) nothing is normal for me, my book is not coming out in 2009. It’s not even coming out in late 2008. No. Seven months ago I was still trying to figure out what to call this book, and now I can tell you that What Burns Within will be out in May, from Dorchester.

What this means is, one of the first things I was asked was whether or not I had ideas for the cover. The next thing I had to do was ask around for blurbs, because the cover design had to be finalized right away. The second book in the deal is due in October, which meant I had to finish writing it, and then there are the WBW edits…

But I am excited about finally being able to update my blog, and my website.

Some of you were commenting yesterday on the new look, and I must admit, it was a bit of a pain to get in place. I wanted my blog to be as similar to my website as possible, without being hard to read. The photo used is one I took of downtown Vancouver, from Stanley Park. Now, the blog fits more with the new series, which is a police procedural series set in the Greater Vancouver Area, and as regular readers here know, there’s no shortage of material to work with when it comes to BC’s lower mainland.

What else can I tell you? Well… there are a few people who’ve already had a chance to read What Burns Within and this is what a few of them have to say:

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

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

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

You know, it’s the simple things that get me most in all of this. An email from a fan of the work, saying they loved SC. Writers I admire putting their stamp of approval on my book. Just getting the chance to put words on a page.

And now being able to actually tell the people who’ve been asking when my next book will be out that WBW will be out next year. Yeah… that feels pretty damn good.

Monday, September 17, 2007

In For Questioning Returns

In the second episode of In For Questioning Angie Johnson-Schmit talks to Edgar-nominated author Cornelia Read about how to kill someone with a laundry basket.

Which means for people like me, listening wouldn't be an indulgence, it would be educational. I'd just have to figure out what a laundry basket is...

Elsewhere in the blogosphere, Russel muses about his inability to speak intelligibly in the presence of leading crime fiction authors. (In this case, Ian Rankin.) And I always thought it took Simon Kernick and multiple beverages to reduce Russel to such a state. Apparently not.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Publicity Stunt?

That's what I'm left wondering as ads referencing a Nazi gas chamber are pulled from circulation. Part of me doesn't want to say anything and give the company the press, and part of me is left in disbelief. There is no way I believe for a second that nobody screened these ads before they entered the public domain. Someone signed off on them, and they're responsible.

I suspect the news articles just significantly increased the pr mileage they got out of this ad. And while I want to insist that they publicly apologize in some meaningful way to the Jewish people, I'm just jaded enough to think that that too would be milked for publicity.

Have the people behind this been fired? Words are pretty hollow without actions to back them. There's nothing amusing about standing next to mass graves and contemplating the horrors people endured at concentration camps. This is why history is important - we have to learn from the mistakes of the past in order to keep ourselves from repeating them in the future. Clearly, something the people behind this ad don't understand.

Me, I'm just vindictive enough to have added a cell phone company to my list of businesses I never want to deal with.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Angst of Self Examination

I have a confession to make. I feel sorry for Britney Spears. Now, I don’t particularly like her, I’m not interested in her. But I do feel sorry for her. The media has a fascinating tendency to build up people as heroes or idols, and then tear them apart.

When I was 18 in a manner of speaking I ran away. At the time, I thought I was leaving all my problems behind me, as though they could be compartmentalized, boxed off and but away forever. It took a long time, a lot of countries to realize that you can’t run away from yourself. We all have things that shape our lives, that have contributed to making us the person we are, for better or worse. And over time we either succumb to those influences – the abused child becomes an abuser, the child of an alcoholic becomes an alcoholic themselves, for example – or we spend a lifetime trying to break the chains… or we actually succeed in ending the cycle. I learned that you can’t undo the past, that as much as you try to run away from it it can always catch up to you, and by trying to suppress it you give it power in your life.

This is why, on some levels, I understand suicide. I’m not saying I condone it. I’ve lost a brother-in-law, a cousin, and dealt with the aftermath of suicide attempts by close family members. What I understand is the overwhelming feeling of hopelessness that closes in on you and threatens to crush you, the feeling that you can’t breathe, where everything in life has just become such a mess you feel you can’t find your way out of it.

I guess I’m what some call tough. (Others use the word bitch.) If only they knew the truth. But as much as possible, I’ve tried to avoid mind games. I think what’s fair is to make your position on things known, so that people can avoid making mistakes with you. For example, I hate spam. This is no secret to most people who know me. And I’ve said something about it on lists and forums and whatnot whenever an issue of an author spamming people has come up. The result is, I’m not too popular with authors. By criticizing it I’m “against” them. An attempt to be completely fair – nobody has any excuse for not knowing of my hatred for spam – results in criticism. I went off lists where my email address was being harvested for spam purposes by other authors when nothing was done about it. Should I feel guilty? Not for a second. I have the right to my feelings. Now, I just set a rule on my email. Once an author spams me, they will find future emails go straight to the trash. Good luck to them when they send review copy requests. It isn’t like I haven’t warned people how I feel…

But I’m the bad guy. Okay, fine. I’m the bad guy. One of the things I’ve learned navigating lists and forums over the past few years is that a lot of people put on a nice, smiley public persona and keep their real feelings or opinions locked away. They become an illusion, a mask, a presentation of what’s acceptable. And it works. You need to look no further than Britney Spears for proof that the public image will be completely favourable until you’re proven to be a human being, flawed like everyone else on the planet, and then you’ll be torn apart.

We’ve seen it happen over the past year, even in the crime fiction community. Ian Rankin can recover from the misrepresentation of his remarks and intent from one interview, and all the people who’ve denounced him as a woman-hater and anti-gay as a result. He’s had enough presence, been around long enough for most to give him the benefit of the doubt, and there are enough people that love his books who’ll read them no matter what. And so the industry will not shun him, because he’s still a bestseller and award-winning author.

For others, though, the same cannot be said. Honesty isn’t welcome. You’ll find yourself judged and convicted by people operating off of rumours alone, unsubstantiated.

That’s been the last year of my life, anyway. There have been rumours of affairs I’m allegedly having. Rumours by people I’ve never even met (but I’ve seen the emails). Considering I live in a village in Canada and don’t see people in the industry for months at a time and have never had an affair in my life, I’m amazed at how I apparently get around.

I’m even more amazed that anyone is so pathetic they don’t have something better to talk about. I guess I’m of the opinion I’m really not that interesting. Believe me, the reality is nowhere near as spicy as the rumours.

I always thought the best thing, the fair thing, was to be as straight with people as possible. Not that I’m perfect, and there are times I hold back saying things because I don’t know how a person will take it, maybe don’t feel I know them well enough to speak freely, but at least I thought people could respect the fact that I try to be straight with people. Me, I don’t even need to like you to read your books. Or interview you. On some level, I think I assumed that people would at least be civil and give you a chance instead of writing you off based on what others say alone. I thought I was done with high school. Sure, I have my impressions of people, but have been pleasantly surprised on many occasions to find some who intimidated me to be delightful. I admit it (and he knows it) – I was completely intimidated by Mark Billingham for ages. There was just no rationale to that. It goes down to me, I guess, and my own weaknesses and insecurities.

Maybe it’s just my own peculiar delicate balance that’s brought me to this point, and maybe because of the damage I’ve seen from lies and pretense over the years, but I never wanted to feel like a fraud as a person. I can handle being thought of as tough if people also think I’m fair. What I can’t handle is being thought of as a flag, following the winds of popularity instead of having my own direction based on reason, tastes, integrity.

The problem is, once you’re in the public domain, you can and will be judged by those who are predisposed to dislike you, even if they base their opinion 100% on rumour and lies.

Something else I’ve experienced this past year.

I’m good enough myself at looking in the mirror and being critical about what I see. Most days I think of myself as pretty happy, and as having dealt with most of my demons. And then something comes up and all those insecurities and fears are right back.

But I’m not really supposed to admit this. I’m supposed to go to the next con and kiss some ass so that the industry people like me, and I’m supposed to be supremely self confident and pretend I’m perfect, so of course you should love my books because I’m a wonderful person and a fantastic writer.

You know, being a wonderful person and a fantastic writer has nothing to do with being perfect. Rather, it’s usually in exploring our own weaknesses and fears that we translate on the page what is of most meaning to the reader, because no matter what country we live in, the colour of our skin, our sexual orientation or our gender, we all know what it is to be human. We have hopes and dreams, and we face times of grief and loss. These are the things that bind us together. I guess that’s why I wanted to call this ms The Frailty of Flesh. The theme at the core is all about human weakness.

The one conclusion I’ve come to? I doubt I’ll ever feel as though I belong anywhere. And as long as I don’t base my own self worth on being accepted by a person or a community that will be okay.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Crime Fiction News & Contest

TRUE PULP MURDER debuts on television today. The show "marries true crime stories with graphic novel styling and commentary by crime writers," co-producer Larissa Andrews explains. The show airs on MYSTERY TV September 13 at 9:00 AM and repeats at 1:00 PM Central time, and again on Sunday. It goes 'into rotation' on Thursdays and Sundays starting September 13.

Ever wanted to be immortalized in a fictional story by a bestselling thriller author? Rick Mofina has a new contest running via SHOTS that gives you a shot at immortality in his forthcoming thriller, SIX SECONDS, due out in 2009. You want the countdown clock for all the details.

Rick is also one of the authors scheduled to appear on TRUE PULP MURDER.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Putting Limits on Sex and Violence in Writing: Missing The Point

A high-speed car chase.

Black Hummer veers off the road.

A spray of gunfire.

Two local schools put on lockdown as police descend on the scene.

Sounds like the opening of the latest action film, right? Well, that was the scene yesterday in Langley, BC.

Think shootings in Canada are rare? Not even in BC’s lower mainland. ”It was the second gang-related shooting in a public place in Metro Vancouver in the past four days.
Two people were shot at an upscale Kitsilano restaurant, Quattro on Fourth, late Saturday by a pair of masked men who fired shots through the plate glass windows.”

A few days ago there were two sexual assaults at York University. Yesterday a sixteen-year-old was stabbed to death near a high school in Scarborough. We’ve got perverts, accessories to murder and produce people who blow people up.

Call me jaded, but I think we live in a pretty violent world. When we have people stating on forums I'm horrified to admit it, but part of me was disappointed that the death toll in the Minnesota bridge collapse wasn't higher. I also had the same feeling during the early stages of the Tsunami disaster a while ago. Only in that case, my bloodlust was satisfied by a record death count I think it’s a pretty damning indictment on just how much violence we are exposed to, on a daily basis, even if only through the media. Reports on bombings in Iraq barely register unless the death toll hits at least three figures, or the journalists have to report that women and children were mutilated in order to get people to give it a moment’s thought.

The other night I was watching Blood Diamond and found myself thinking that anyone who criticizes crime fiction for being filled with blood and gore hasn’t clued in to the fact that the average crime book has nothing on these international thrillerish films. But there was a line that stayed with me, when Solomon said to the reporter that she’d write about this and then her country would come and help them.

And the reporter said, “Probably not.”

It’s the truth, isn’t it? It takes something truly shocking to get us motivated. The tsunami in Indonesia today hasn’t killed enough people to be much of a news story. Move on, and hope for a higher body count.

In the midst of all this, we have writers debating where the lines are in crime fiction. People argue that they feel they have an obligation to realistically portray violence. Others say they exploit violence in the books to shock. In another forum discussion, Barbara Fister asked Why is that stories about profilers and serial killers who torture women have become our master narrative, a folk tale that can be retold endless times? - a question that hints at the reality: There are a lot of books about serial killers, where body after body must fall, each in more gruesome fashion than the one before it, to keep the suspense. Meanwhile, Pari Noskin Taichert asked Do you have taboo subjects, ones that are just too close or too horrible to pen or read?

I walked away feeling as I often do, as though I slip through the cracks and just don’t fit in any camp. When I sat down to write my first manuscript I had a few rules in mind: no sex, for one thing. Minimal swearing for another. I didn’t want to write it. And while the characters rang true for that, and the tone of the book supported that position, I learned later that the limits I had placed on myself inhibited my growth as a writer.

This is not about what you choose to write. It’s about your willingness to write what is necessary to tell the story you’re telling without pulling your punches. If you have things you absolutely will not touch, then you may sell yourself short as a writer and sell your audience short by holding back with your story. I will not drop a body just to artificially inflate the tension of the book. In my opinion, that’s what weak writers do. Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying all books with multiple victims are written by bad writers, but I’m saying that if the reason you drop a body is because you don’t know how else to maintain the suspense in your work, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons and it’s an indication that you rely on action to maintain the narrative… It’s probably a big hint that your characterization is weak.

When I drafted What Burns Within I knew what the story was from the outset. Someone abducting young girls. A series of arson fires. A serial rapist. The young girls start to turn up, murdered. But I can say with complete confidence myself that this is not your typical serial killer/slasher book. Profiling isn’t a factor in the story, actually. The reason for three big investigations of this nature? It has to do with the root of the story – unhealthy attitudes towards sex, as well as the pressures police are under when multiple high-profile cases collide and the public is demanding action. People make mistakes…

I can look at that book and know for myself that I never dropped one body that was unnecessary, nor did I glamorize the violence in any way, or even exploit it. I don’t show everything that happens to people: I show how what happens to people affects them.

And that is the critical difference. For me, what separates the wheat from the chaff is a story that, at its heart, is about how the things people experience change their lives. If the theme of a story I’m telling requires three victims, there will be three victims. If it requires one, there will be one.

I’m about ¾ of the way through the new manuscript, and there has only been one murder within this timeline. Perhaps there will be another one before the end, I can’t say for sure right now. But this is what I’ve learned writing it. It’s easier to raise tension by adding another rape/assault/murder. It’s much more difficult to build the suspense by forcing characters to address their doubts and confront them with their deepest fears.

If I need to drop another body in this book, I will. If I don’t, I won’t. The point is about a level of artistic integrity that means I’ll put on the page what I believe is necessary for the story that I’m telling. Not what’s comfortable for me to write, not what’s easiest. What’s necessary and valid for that story.

Sure, there are things I doubt you’ll ever see from me. I’m sure I could write torture scenes, but I certainly wouldn’t enjoy it. At this point in time I see no reason that’s necessary in my work. I don’t particularly want to write about pedophiles and rapists… but I’ve written what I believed in my heart was necessary to tell the story being told.

I think that what matters is not whether or not an author addresses violence or sensitive crimes, but the sensitivity they use in tackling such issues and handling them in a way that is respectful, instead of exploitive.

I’d like to think that most intelligent readers will pick up my work and know the difference. That said, I look at books like Carol Anne Davis’s Sob Story and am awed by the level of tension built without portraying rape after rape or murder after murder. True skill in writing is not with how many you can kill, but in how much you can make the reader care about what’s happening.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Congratulations In Order

The Quill Awards have been announced, and for mystery/suspense/thriller the winner is Laura Lippman for What The Dead Know. Congratulations to Laura.

You know, I never get tired of hearing good news for Laura Lippman. A fantastic author and a wonderful person.

Out Damn Thought, Out

I had a dream last night that the Jordans sent Sean down the river, and he couldn't swim. Sarah blogged about it, and in the bizarre ways that dreams make sense even when they don't, somehow, this was the ending to Sean's second book, with Ray being swept away in the current, unable to swim, and the Jordans feeling horribly guilty.

Now if someone would just like to analyze that for me and tell me what it means...

Meanwhile, I'm just glad I didn't dream about this.

Or this, though it's extremely well done.

In other news, I'm told the Scottish equivalent to Newfies is... Aberdonians. But I notice such revelations come via email, rather than blog comment.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Getting an Earful

I have been hinting about something exciting in development for days, and can finally spread the news and make it official. Today marks the evolution of In For Questioning, from industry blog to radio show and podcast, thanks to the efforts of Spinetingler editor and writer Angie Johnson-Schmit.

Angie marks the show's debut with an interview with Daniel Hatadi, discussing how he started Crimespace, his own writing projects, and giving us a sample of Daniel's music. I must confess I had a sneak preview the other night and thoroughly enjoyed it. Not only was the story behind Dead Rubber Chicken particularly entertaining, but it was wonderful to put voices to two well-known names from the crime fiction cybercommunity.

And I can tell you that Angie has an incredible list of guests already signed up for the coming weeks, including Cornelia Read, Ken Bruen, Mark Billingham and more.

Do You Assume The Police Usually Get It Right?

The Madeleine McCann case has turned investigating a crime on its head. I actually try to reserve judgment on a lot of things. The war in Iraq was one of them. What made me suspicious was that Bush kept saying there was proof of a threat, but not providing it. He wanted us to commit to a war based on his word alone… That wasn’t good enough for me. And when the US went to war and Canada did not, I felt uneasy, because it was significant. There was an underlying message: We don’t quite trust you. But my unease had more to do with our relationship with our nearest neighbours than the decision my own government made. I will take those decisions one at a time: I support Afghanistan.

Today, Madeleine’s parents have returned home, after being named as suspects in the case. This case has bothered me from the beginning. I read a lot of international news. I may not be aware of everything, but I’m certainly not hiding from the world.

But today, the fact that Kate and Gerry McCann have gone home is the top story even on Canadian news websites. Yesterday, their suspicion was front page in the Calgary Herald, the Calgary Sun and The Globe and Mail. It was a leading story for The Toronto Star.

Why? Today, particularly, why is this story more important than the fact that two police officers were killed in Texas and two of our soldiers were wounded in Afghanistan and two women were sexually assaulted on the York University campus last night?

I mean, the Cedrika Provencher case, which is happening in this country, has been knocked way down to the bottom of the main page.

Cedrika’s a cute little girl. Maybe the reason the world doesn’t care about her is because it’s Canada, or she’s French-Canadian, or it isn’t such a complete mystery: We pretty much know this guy pretending to look for a lost dog took her.

I’ll admit to being a cynic: There has been something off about the Madeleine case from the very beginning. The first thing that I wondered about was the parents, leaving their three children, all under the age of four, at a rental alone while they had dinner. Without seeing the layout and actual distance between the house and the restaurant, there’s room for doubt, but if that had happened here there would be a social services investigation of the parents, no matter what happened to their daughter. There are laws about how old children have to be before they can be left home alone.

But assuming the abduction to be true, it was a few days before the absence of leads sent my mind in other directions. Perhaps it’s because of what I write that my mind often disengages from the real case and starts running scenarios. This happened in the Algarve – come on, this girl is in the water and if they haven’t found her by now they likely never will. Cynical Sandra thought #1. Cynical Sandra thought #2: Why haven’t they taken a hard look at the parents as suspects? Common police practice is to look hard at the people who last saw the victim…

Then my confusion over the case grew. It was understandable that it made headlines, even around the world, initially. But it stayed in the headlines. The likes of JK Rowling and others were putting up major cash to help find this little girl. Why this little girl? The McCann’s, both doctors. Is it because of their social status? I wonder what Michael Dunahee’s mother thinks of that, glad that they’ve had so much attention or wondering why the world cares about some missing children and not others?

It isn’t that I don’t care. It’s easy to look at Madeleine’s pictures and get a lump in your throat. She actually doesn’t look that different from my own friend’s daughter, who turned four in July, and is named Madeleine. Honey blonde hair and big brown eyes.

It isn’t even the amount of media attention to this case that bothers me – it’s the nature of the media attention. The traveling, the releasing balloons to get another media moment, meeting with the Pope… I don’t know. Call me skeptical, but when you’re waiting to find out what’s happened to your child most people don’t seem to have the presence of mind to launch a media campaign and actually spearhead it themselves.

Even now, I’m looking at the media reports from the last few days and left wondering. The McCann’s may be 100% honest, or they may just be very savvy, to suggest the police are trying to frame them.

I don’t know. And ultimately, it has little to do with me. But what it has made me think about is how much faith I have in the legal system. Although just recently here Steven Truscott, who was almost executed for a murder conviction was acquitted of the murder he was originally convicted of and sentenced to hang for in 1959. It’s hard not to know who David Milgaard is if you live in this country. Most certainly, there have been times that things have gone wrong.

But I do have an underlying faith in the justice system. I believe more often than not, the police and the courts get it right. There are occasions I follow a trial and hear the verdict and am still left with a niggling doubt, but I don’t feel the police pursue many cases without reasonable evidence. I’m not saying the minute someone’s charged I assume they’re guilty. What I am saying is that if the police name someone as a suspect and investigate them, my normal view is that they are doing their jobs and following every lead, regardless of who it implicates.

I will say that I feel the scenario the police presented (accidentally killed her and hid her body) is plausible. I’m not going to explain my psychological assessment of the options and why it would make sense to do this. The bottom line is that nobody knows what they’d do themselves in a moment like that until they’re there, and it doesn’t matter what I think. Logic isn’t often part of the equation in moments like that.

But I am left thinking I'm the only one who's cynical about this case.

All that matters is that this young girl is gone. And she’s probably never coming home. With the high profile media machine in motion I’m sure we’ll hear 10 years from now how Madeleine’s siblings are getting on. For others, the jury may be out on whether or not it was a good idea for the family to use the media so extensively. I’m leaning toward it being a bad idea. The celebrity of the family that has resulted from the case makes me as uncomfortable as anything else, and I can’t be that sympathetic now that opinions are mixed. The media doesn’t embrace you on your terms. They will be played out in the press now, as possible villains, and should one of their other children so much as sport a bruise from any of a million different legitimate accidents, there will be those who’ll raise eyebrows.

The certainty here is that whatever happened the night Madeleine disappeared, it changed Kate and Gerry McCann’s lives forever. This will become a case others will write about and talk about for years to come. There is only one thing I’m left hoping – that people will keep an open mind as the police do their jobs. I’m desperately hoping that the police are being thorough and following legitimate leads, and that if and when they do make an arrest real, legitimate evidence will outweigh public opinion in determining the outcome.

I might suggest the McCann’s do something very un-British, and hire a PI, though. If they really believe the police are running out of money for the case, if they really believe the police are trying to frame them, they should use the money raised to find their daughter to hire their own investigator.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Characters and Cliches

Inspired by a post on Mark Billingham’s talk zone, I got thinking about this topic last night. There is a fine line with clichés, and crime fiction authors are often dangerously close to crossing it, for a variety of legitimate reasons. However, in many cases, I think that throwing out the ‘cliché’ classification is unfair.

What are some of the common traits of police officers in crime fiction? Bad at relationships. Unusual car/music/residence. Lone Wolf Syndrome – disregards authority and prefers to work alone, or with one standard sidekick. Constantly breaks the rules.

Consider real life. The current standard is that approximately 50% of all marriages here end in divorce. Which means 50% of society is bad with relationships. In fact, more than 50%. Many people stay in unhealthy marriages who should leave. A broken marriage is not the only indication of relationship issues.

It’s commonly known that cycles are repeated. Children from homes where there’s been a divorce are more likely to have a marriage end in divorce, just like children who grow up with abuse are more likely to become abusers.

Move on to cars, music and home. In my opinion, in this era of cookie cutter houses people are looking for things to distinguish themselves more and more. I’m honestly not sure what constitutes unusual musical taste – opera? Looking at my CD collection I have everything from Blue Rodeo to Il Divo, Harry Connick Jr to Barenaked Ladies, INXS to U2 to Jackie Leven to Tom Waits to Oscar Lopez. Madeleine Peyroux. Leahy. The Rankin Family. Deric Ruttan. Count me as odd, I guess.

It’s actually incredibly challenging to write stories where coworkers get along. Insubordination adds another level of tension to the story, adds a ‘race against time’ factor to police procedurals, because the reader knows that sooner or later the boss will figure out what the cop is up to and put a stop to it. But not if our intrepid sleuth cracks the case first.

Equally problematic is having extremely bizarre characters. Face it: We’ve probably all done the interests surveys that tell us what careers would be most suited to our personality type at one time or another. I always knew I could never be a nurse because I have a very weak stomach. I handle it better than before, but day in and day out I couldn’t do it. I can freak out just watching someone inject someone on TV. I don’t know that I could do that to people.

The point is simple – certain personalities are suited to certain jobs, and then the person has to be able to meet the job requirements. If you’re writing about cops, it’s going to depend on how seriously you take making the book believable. The more believable you try to make it, the more limited you are with the personality types.

I was determined not to follow stereotypes in my own writing. Perhaps a bit too much so. However, a positive working relationship between my detective and his supervisor was central to Suspicious Circumstances. When I wrote What Burns Within (which I did not write immediately after SC –there were several projects in between, some children’s, and other full length manuscripts) there were both types of relationships at play. For the most part, I’ve tried to work within what I consider a more typical reality. Frankly, senior officers aren’t going to keep rogue cops in their division if they can help it. Cops like team players, because lives depend on it, and when you work murders you won’t be cut as much slack. The higher profile the department, the more scrutiny.

However, you’ve effectively eliminated one whole avenue of developing suspense in the storyline by having a positive working environment, and the truth is, there will always be tensions in any working environment. I’ve been focusing more on how people can let good relationships get in the way of the work, and instead of going over the top to create artificial tension to use realistic situations and dynamics to add layers to the story.

Now that I’m writing the sequel to What Burns Within I’ve had to deal with a major staff change within the team. And this has impacted all the other working dynamics. What I’ve found that’s far more interesting (to me anyway) to play with is the delicate balance of trust. It can take a lifetime to regain the trust you lose in a split second, and trust between partners is imperative.

That’s been my approach, but I can see the issues with crossing the line and becoming a cliché. Worse, though, I can see the danger of boring the reader. Should we not have relationship issues just to make sure we don’t fall into a stereotype? 99.9% of couples have relationship issues of some kind. It would actually be extremely unrealistic for there not to be relationship issues that came up for characters.

Then we get into defining character. One of the best ways to identify the character in our minds is through their interests, tastes and values, and the relationship dynamics in their lives. Possessions and music become the standards for interests – after all, how often do cops have time to sit and watch TV? Music can be listened to while driving, making it a more accessible and realistic form of entertainment to reference. I’ve been told to give characters unusual ticks, a limp, speech impediment to make them stand out from others, but that drives me up the wall as a reader and writer as well. It seems gimmicky if that’s the only reason you do it. I want the reader to come away feeling that This could be the person next door or, if not next door, Across town. I want there to be a sense the person is real. And I don’t want to give my character scoliosis just because I have it and having a slight limp physically distinguishes them. Face it, cops actually have physical requirements and must be able to meet certain standards to perform their duties. This was something Evil Kev and I laughed over, when someone complained why all these firefighters were written holding a hose the same way. Because there’s a proper way to hold one and lives depend on it! Equipment doesn’t always work if it’s mishandled.

In my opinion, if you want to knock writers for anything, knock them for the greatest sin, which is producing an absolutely forgettable book. Okay, I do prefer books that have some originality. There is a certain amount of pulp I’ll brush off because it feels as though someone’s made a checklist of necessary ingredients and put them together, but somehow, it lacks the spark. There are plenty of people who’ve written published books that in my own mind I would refer to as writers. The reason I’m distinguishing is that their work feels just like the pulp I described – necessary ingredients put together but lacking spark.

The best authors breathe the breath of life into their characters. They’re real enough to step off the page. They capture the reader in such a way that the reader wants to spend more time with them. Likeable or unlikable, they intrigue and captivate. It is not in our happiest moments of our lives that we come to grips with powerful truths, but in the moments we face loss, face our deepest fears or doubts about ourselves and others. It is when we’re confronted with the possibility of loss that we begin to assign value to those relationships, people, careers, possessions. This is why the finest hour for a great work of crime fiction is often the protagonist’s darkest. This is, for me, what sets Rebus, Jack Taylor, Dennis Milne, Tom Thorne, Brant, Pearce, Tess Monaghan, Joe Frye, and other favourites of mine apart. And the series books I stick with are the ones that keep showing me more of that character, taking me deeper. In doing so, these authors not only entertain, but teach me a thing or two about life. I’m left feeling my understanding of what it is to be human has been broadened by having spent a bit of time in their company, and that’s what I consider to be time well spent.

“The trouble with too many contemporary novels is that they are full of people not worth knowing. The 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

Thursday, September 06, 2007

So, Have You Heard About The Newfie Terrorist Who Tried To Blow Up A Bus?*

In my efforts to broaden my cultural understanding, I asked a Scottish friend yesterday what the deal with Fife is, if it was like us with the Newfies. Since the response was, “And what’s a newfie?” I was suitably shamed by my failure to properly educate regular readers of this blog about this important segment of our population. After all, every country has a whipping boy or a designated punching bag and for Canada, well, we’ll make fun of anyone in the country, but the old standby is… Newfies.

I found a great blog in my quest for Newfie jokes. They have the one about the Englishman, Irishman and Newfie that go hunting and a touching nod to the attempts of the foretellers of doom to include the Newfies:

A Toronto man with long, unkempt hair and beard,
wearing a long white robe and sandals, carries a sign
which reads, "The world will end at midnight."

Then he turns to reveal the back of the sign, which
reads, "12:30 in Newfoundland."

There’s also a survival guide at the bottom of the main page that made me smile.

Of course, over on Newfie Rednecks they don’t worry with being so polite:

What's black and blue and floats in the bay?
A mainlander telling a Newfie joke

Personally, I like the little shot at the top: “Newfoundland was the last province to join Confederation in 1949. They had the choice of either becoming part of Canada or part of the US. They decided to join Canada, and became our national joke. No, seriously, Albertans are a national joke, but that's another story...”

(Of course, I’m not an Albertan, so I can laugh at everyone. Stick around for the full education and you’ll see people don’t make fun of Ontario – just Toronto, which gets me off the hook.)

There are more Newfie jokes here, along with an intro that made me smile.

Now, sometimes, our national comedy shows get a bit carried away.

They do address the age-old question, Is it okay to use the N word?

Okay, those are a bit... Cruel. You see why I groan when people do the, "Canadians are so nice" thing. We can be just as nasty as anyone else. But if you’d like a sample of that “unintelligible brogue” the one site referred to, check this out. I haven’t a clue what the woman’s saying half the time, though with my luck, Fifers will be able to understand perfectly. (And please note, the comments about sexual orientation here are more of a shot at Albertans than anything else. Conservative stronghold of Canada.)

But just to prove we’re equal opportunity offenders….

Really, can you take a country seriously when we have to try to persuade our citizens that sex is better than curling?

And it wouldn’t be Canada without weather jokes.

So, the Newfies are who we poke fun at, when we aren’t making fun of blondes or Bush.

Now, if you'd like to see what we do to Americans... (Told you we really aren't that nice.)

(Bonus points to those who know what's wrong from this video.)

* He burned his lips on the exhaust pipe.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Mired In the Same Flawed Thinking

There’s been a lot to worry about in the book business lately, if you believe every doom and gloom headline you see. Polls on reading are spun to emphasize the negative, discussions about the decline of review space go on and on and on and on. Add in criticisms on covers and lack of proper editing, and you can have a daily diet of negativity.

Now, some of this is very legitimate discussion, and sometimes, in order to get a handle on what’s going on, you have to process it all. My own philosophy is that you have to learn the business you’re in, to some degree. If I’d understood more about the inner workings of the publishing world sooner, I would have made some different choices along the way.

Of course, it reaches a point where it’s no longer educational or helpful. It’s just complaining, and that isn’t good for anyone.

Everyone will hit that point at a different time. I’m caught on two sides of this. One problem I have is being prone to negativity already. The glass isn’t just half empty – what remains is laced with cyanide.

So, I started this conversation on Crimespace about how negative things have been lately, and how my response had been to do something positive, and I was hoping people might have positive ideas to exchange, things we could do to counter all the negative crap.

I’m not going to get into an assessment of the responses, because there were quite a few that actually had interesting ideas, thoughts, comments to make. But I’m really not interested in feeding the negativity, and if people don’t want to do anything that’s certainly their right… Just don’t try to burst my balloons because you don’t want to carry your own.

In fact, the whole thread reaffirms to me the root of the problem to begin with. In the past 100 years a lot has changed in the world. One of the main points clear to me from article after article on the decline of review space is how desperate some are to cling to what is, instead of willingness to let something go and move on to the next thing.

We could do an assessment over history. Flash back to the 50’s with diners and drive-ins and waitresses on rollerskates. Man, I can’t remember the last time I was at a drive-in. I imagine there must be one around here somewhere, but the only one I know of was in Ontario. I don’t know if it’s still there.

Yet those used to be incredibly popular. Now, pretty much a relic or a novelty.

We used to have general stores, that carried some of pretty much everything. Then specialty stores came along. Now, we’re not exactly going back to general stores, but we’re going towards the mega stores, the Superstores and Wal-Marts that have everything crammed under one roof for our shopping convenience.

There are trends, cycles, ups and downs to everything.

Am I happy review space is in decline in newspapers? No. As an author, that’s not good news, and particularly as a newer author it’s not good news.

However, as Evil Kev pointed out to me, twenty years ago we didn’t have forums, lists, blogs, and internet communities. I can counter that by saying we also didn’t have spam, but I have to concede the point.

Yes, it appears to be true that authors have fewer kicks at the can to catch on, that while publishers used to grow someone through 8 or 9 books and give them a chance to break through, now it’s more like 2 or 3 books. While word of mouth has been one of the old standbys for getting people interested in books (many of my friends just ask for lists of what they should read this year – these are ones who aren’t active online for the most part) that does depend on getting passionate readers who are the type to rant and rave. Heck, a growing number of authors won’t even cite their favourite reads for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. It’s not like I want to upset people, but damn, is that ever flawed thinking. I’ve picked up so many books because of a referral from an author I trusted. (And there’s the whole ‘do unto others’ philosophy – personally, I’ll never get my head around people who want blurbs and reviews and refuse to blurb others. You pay it forward when people support you in your career, pure and simple. That doesn’t mean I’ll blurb the people who blurbed me, it just means that if I’m in a position to help someone out and I like their work, I don’t get on my self-righteous high horse and pontificate about my philosophy on blurbs… I do it, and be glad I can help.)

For all my awareness of the constant cries that the sky is falling on the publishing industry, I think it’s being overdone. I read publishers lunch. Publishers are not going out of business left, right and sideways.

Where I feel a better investment of time will be is in finding new methods of reaching an audience. I have this image in my head of running around like chickens with our heads cut off, frantically going after review after review after review or interview or running through bookstores moving our books to prominent locations (okay, I admit it, I move books I like, sometimes turn them face out). But if everyone is doing the same thing, it doesn’t stand out, it’s more of the same.

Being a negative person, I’ve had to turn off the lists to clear my head. No Rara-Avis. Dear God, no SMFS anymore. No DL. There comes a point where for me, it’s poop or get off the pot. Sure, I’ve signed some of the petitions to try to save review space – I’m not going to knock those efforts.

But I think the way forward is going to be through different mediums, different venues, different ways of reaching people.

While I have some thoughts about what forms those different options might come in (and can at least say there is something new coming soon from a friend of mine that I’m very excited about) I’m not ready to put them all in the public domain just yet. What I’ve learned is that if you want to do something, do it yourself. Teamwork by and large doesn’t exist. People will always be willing to latch on to something already going and successful because it’s a sure thing, but if you want to be really innovative, you’ll need to be prepared to carry the load.

So, it may take a while before I can put these ideas into action, but I am taking some consolation from the fact that if I can see that there are untapped possibilities out there, undoubtedly others see them as well. And perhaps they’ll be in a position to implement the ideas with better resources than I can muster and do a better job.

In the mean time, I’m open to all serious suggestions.

And keeping with traditions, I guess it’s time to mention some of the books I’m most looking forward to reading this fall. No doubt I may forget some, but these are the ones I know I’ll be buying.

Kevin Wignall, Who Is Conrad Hirst? Okay, I’ve read it, my review will run next Spinetingler, but I’m looking forward to hearing reactions from others who read it.

Mark Billingham, Death Message The new Thorne novel, which will be out here later this month, apparently. It may be November before I actually can read it, but I’m still looking forward to it. Mark read some last October when he was here and that was just cruel. I was instantly hooked.

Carla Banks, Strangers Finally got it, now just have to find the time to read it…

Megan Abbott, Queenpin Megan’s on my ‘some day, I must interview her’ list.

Laura Lippman, What the Dead Know Yeah, yeah, shush. I’ve heard most of it on audio CD, but I still want to read it.

Nick Stone, Mr. Clarinet Much praise about this book, and I look forward to reading it myself.

Tess Gerritsen, The Bone Garden Tess isn’t just on my list to interview some day, she already said yes. Poor her, lucky me.

Charlie Huston. I don’t care what, I just need to read him.

Denise Mina. Same deal as Charlie.

Ian Rankin, Exit Music A friend is going to attempt to get me a signed copy and ship it over from Scotland, so it may be a while before I get it. Then again, with the whole stupid delayed release thing happening here, I may have it before it’s in local stores anyway.

That’s off the top of my head. There are probably a bunch I'll feel bad for forgetting, or not even knowing about. Anyone else got books they’re really looking forward to reading?

** See, I already thought of another one. Craig McDonald, Head Games. Proof I shouldn't start lists...

Monday, September 03, 2007

Mishaps, Mismanagement & Mischief


So much for window shopping at this Calgary store. And to think people still call Calgary Cowtown. Looks like the deer are staking a claim (not to mention the growing bear problem).


And I don’t know how many times it has to happen, but this highway has been a death trap for years. At what point does the cost of scraping up bodies off the road and doing an accident investigation become greater than fixing the damn roads? I realize some of it is negligence from drivers, but anyone who knows the 169 knows that’s not all it is.


From Chelbel, we have a new version of an old song by Phil Collins. It made me smile.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

And people wonder why I want to write about Canada.

Former Journalist to Open Brothel

VICTORIA (CP) – “She's run a newsroom at a daily newspaper but now she wants to build a co-op brothel, run by and for prostitutes…. Paterson, who also wrote a regular column for the the Victoria Times-Colonist, admits many of the stories she wrote, especially ones about sex trade workers, touched her personally - a journalistic no-no, where reporters seek the heart of stories but attempt to keep the emotion from sinking into their own skin.”

Awwww. And who says the press never focuses on any heartwarming stories? This is challenging my assumptions. I always thought they lined up lawyers and journalists and surgically removed their hearts as soon as they were hired.

Okay, I am joking. At least about the reporters. ; )

Now, I could say something, and it would probably be the dirtiest thing I’ve ever said, so I’ll keep it to myself and keep my pristine image in tact. But I will say that the potential mileage from something like this is sky high.

Journalist starts brothel, fellow journalist gets a camera and catalogues the clientele. Entrapment for slow news days. Okay, seriously, no matter what anyone says attitudes won’t change overnight. I personally feel that the day we’ll have really made progress is the day we don’t see a headline like First Gay Couple Marry in Iowa. The real sign of equality will be when we consider this so normal it isn’t newsworthy. Of course, the recent sex scandal involving a US senator doesn’t help. Society still hasn’t caught up to the law in terms of how it feels about homosexuality. Proof to me we’re slow to change, and society has been frowning on prostitution since the days of Cain.

Oddly enough, I do tend to forget this and put my own mindset on things. It never even occurred to me a few days ago, when I posted the Maid Marian video, that people would think of it as anti-gay. I seriously thought, “Oh my word, look what’s on Youtube” and if I’d thought for a second my friend, who’s in the video, would have been upset by it I wouldn’t have posted it. After all, if a person who was in it doesn’t have a problem, should anyone else? (No doubt some of you are wondering who is in the video, as I never did say, and don't plan to. It really is just proof some people have too much time on their hands, that once you're in the public domain anything's possible, and what about copyright anyway? How does YouTube get away with all the tv show clippings? File that under things that make you go hmmm.)

And then part of me wonders if the reason some people got their knickers in a twist over it is because they actually are a bit homophobic. My brother-in-law is gay. In my experience, a lot of gay people have a better sense of humour about their sexuality than straight people do – they’re too busy trying to be politically correct so that it doesn’t seem like they have a problem with homosexuality.

Getting back to the topic at hand, though, I could do a whole side discussion about the fact they’re trying this in Victoria as well. I must admit to being intrigued, and wondering what would happen if a reporter tried this in such a high-profile capacity in the GVA. They’ve been having a hell of a time over their safe injection sites, something I pay attention to because my Cdn series is set in the Greater Vancouver Area.

But there’s pretty handy access from the US to Victoria, and I find myself musing the possibilities for cross border sex trips… Musings like this are how books are born.

And since we're on the subject of sex, here's a joke for you:

The only way to pull off a Sunday afternoon "quickie" with their 8-year old son in the apartment was to send him out on the balcony with a popsicle and tell him to report on all the neighborhood activities.

He began his commentary as his parents put their plan into operation:

"There's a car being towed from the parking lot," he shouted. "An ambulance just drove by!"

"Looks like the Andersons have company," he called out. "Matt's riding a new bike!"

"Looks like the Sanders are moving!"

"Jason is on his skate board...."

After a few moments he announced, "The Coopers are having sex!!"

Startled, his mother and dad shot up in bed. Dad cautiously called out, "How do you know they are having sex?"

"Jimmy Cooper is standing on his balcony with a Popsicle."