Friday, August 31, 2007

Inverview with author Judy Clemens

Today's interview is with author Judy Clemens. Hope you enjoy getting to know her better.

PDD: Tell us a bit about your books. And how you managed to sign with Poisoned Pen Press.

JC: My books, hmmm. They don’t really fit into any “mystery” category. They’re amateur sleuth, yes, but not really cozy or traditional. Stella Crown, my protagonist is an independent, prickly, tattooed dairy farmer and Harley-Davidson enthusiast. How’s that for weird and un-cozy? And as for traditional, one of the books doesn’t even have a fresh corpse in it, but I’m told the mystery element is strong. The books are a lot about tolerance and looking farther than skin deep to find the good in people.

As far as Poisoned Pen, I had spent almost two years looking for an agent, finding a bad one, losing that one (which was good), and beginning to look again. I knew of Poisoned Pen, and when I found out they accepted unagented submissions, I wrote to them. Their submissions guy, who has the fabulous name of Monty Montee, thought Stella sounded feisty. He loved her, and it went from there. I love being with PPP. They’re wonderful folks.

PDD: Do you write other things besides this mystery series?

JC: I’ve published a couple of plays, some non-fiction articles, some children’s stories, and have just had a mainstream novel called Lost Sons accepted for publication. It’s so recent that I’m not even sure when the expected pub date is.

PDD: What is a typical writing day like for you, assuming you ever have one?

JC: Up to this point, my “writing day” has been whenever I’ve had time. I’ve been a stay-at-home mom for the past almost eight years, and this fall my daughter will be going to kindergarten. I had a couple of hours a couple of times a week the past two years while she was at pre-school, but once school starts this year it will be my first taste of having full days to write. I hope I don’t blow it.

PDD: I teach researching in my writing workshop and I often use you as an example of "hand's on" (milking cows?) so please tell us how you research your books.

JC: Ha! Definitely hands on. For the cows, I got to go to a friend’s dairy farm and do all the milking and mucking out I could, plus was able to drive the bobcat and climb to the top of a silo. Then I traveled with a vet for a day and got to participate in all sorts of things, including the C-section of a cow. (which became the first chapter of Till the Cows Come Home) For other books I’ve visited tattoo parlors, talked to outlaw bikers, had tons of conversations with police detectives, researched in archives, and done my own bit of motorcycle riding.

PDD: What do you see for your future in writing?

JC: Well, I have Lost Sons coming out, which is a combination of a real historical event and a fictional contemporary story, plus I sold a new series to Poisoned Pen, which will begin in 2009. The Stella Crown series will be finished next year with book #5. And, as most writers, I have a whole list of books I want to write! All kinds – women’s fiction, Y/A mysteries, and possibly a series of real historical/fictional contemporary novels to follow up Lost Sons.

PDD: Are you still a biker? Tell us a bit about that.

JC: I still have my license endorsement for riding, but my husband and I made the choice seven years ago (almost eight) to have children instead of bikes. Once our son was born and our Harley was just sitting in the garage, we realized that was too much money to not be used very often. My husband is getting the itch again, though…

PDD: What inspires you, sends you running to the keyboard?

JC: I never know what’s going to hit me. It could be a conference I attend, a character that comes to mind, or just an impending deadline! I often get ideas while out on walks or driving by myself, so I take a Dictaphone with me. I’ve also been known to get out of bed and write in the middle of the night when something strikes me.

PDD: Do you work with an agent or on your own in the publishing business?

JC: I got an agent for books 3, 4, and 5 of Stella, but she has retired, so I’m looking for a new one. I’m not desperate about it, though, as I’ve already sold the new series to PPP, and also the mainstream, on my own.

PDD: What of all your dreams would you like to see come true?

JC: At the risk of sounding like a goof, my main dream is that my children grow into joyful, compassionate adults. But as far as writing? It would be nice to be able to make a stable living at it.

PDD: Anything else you'd like our readers to know about you or your books?

JC: Well, I’ve been told the books are a lot of fun. I hope new readers will think so, too!

PDD: Thanks, Judy! Hope all of you will check out Judy's books and her website at:

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Aunt Hilda: Still Kicking at 95

Elizabeth Zelvin

This is my Aunt Hilda at her 95th birthday party—in fact, her second party. The first took place a couple of days after her actual birthday at her son’s home in Seattle. On the big day itself, she played tennis and went dancing with her boyfriend. Two months later, she flew across the country to celebrate with East Coast friends and family at her other son’s in New Jersey, where a cousin took this picture.

My dentist always says, “Don’t count on your genes.” (Subtext: You still have to floss.) But how can I help it? I’ve got such terrific genes. My father’s teeth, which I’ve inherited, lasted him just fine till 91. I’ve also got his skin, as I explain to anyone who asks why I don’t use makeup. “My father didn’t use makeup,” I say, “and he had skin like a baby’s till the day he died.” The indomitability, though—the sheer indestructible joie de vivre—come from my mother’s side. My grandmother lived to 92, still went swimming in her 80s, and played the piano till a few weeks before her death. My mother still went swimming in the ocean till 90 and in the bay till 95. And at 96, she was pretty pissed off about not being able to go in. She never quite stopped dickering with her publisher about the possibility of a new edition of her encyclopedia of real estate appraisal, which brought in royalties for decades. She studied a couple of computer languages in the 80s—her 80s—and regretted that the Internet came along just a little too late for her to master it.

Aunt Hilda was the youngest of four daughters, the only one born in America. She represented the one last try for a boy, and in later years, she admitted to having felt her parents’ disappointment. My mother, who came through Ellis Island at the age of four and went to law school at 1921, had trouble getting a job as a lawyer—as did all the women, a small band, in her law school sorority—and finally made a place for herself in a publishing company. She found Hilda a job with the same publisher, and was then horrified when Hilda got in trouble for union organizing. She thought her little sister was reckless, while Hilda thought my mother lacked social conscience.

Fast forward many years. Both Hilda and my mom had happy marriages. Both had children. But while my parents grew old together, Uncle Bud, who was an unqualified sweetheart, died of cancer when Hilda was still in her 60s. That’s when Hilda learned to play tennis, as a way of getting herself out into the world and connecting with people. She used to say she had to work at it. But her determination paid off. She still has friends—old friends now—from those days. She also went back to school, as did my mother, some time before “lifelong learning” and career changes became common for women in their 60s. Hilda got a master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation and worked in that field for a number of years. My mother got a doctorate in political science and taught Constitutional law.

A lifelong New Yorker, Hilda moved to Seattle in her late 80s to be near her older son. But she didn’t move in with him. In a retirement home that she describes as “like the kind of hotel we couldn’t afford,” she made friends, explored the city, found activities and tennis partners, and eventually, at the age of 92, fell in love with a younger man, a widower of 83. They have a thoroughly modern relationship, going about their business every day, meeting for dinner, and spending evenings together. They’ve considered moving in together but rejected the idea. This works just fine.

Seventeenth-century French author, saloniste, and courtesan Ninon de l’Enclos is remembered for still having lovers at the age of 70. (How’s that for 300-year-old gossip?) In my family, that fails to impress. I once pointed out Betty Friedan to my mother in a restaurant, shortly after Friedan wrote The Fountain of Age, her book about the golden years after menopause. “How old is she?” my mother asked. “About 70,” I said. “Oh, 70!” said my mother dismissively. Aunt Hilda might say the same about Ninon de l’Enclos. And Ninon didn’t even play tennis.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Alison Gaylin Gets Trashed!

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Alison Gaylin’s first novel, a paperback original titled Hide Your Eyes, was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel. After publishing a second PBO, You Kill Me, Alison moves to hardcover with the early September release of Trashed from NAL’s new Obsidian mystery imprint. A journalist covering arts and
entertainment, Alison lives in upstate New York with her husband, young daughter and old dog.

Your first two books featured the same main character, but your third book, Trashed, introduces a new lead. Did you feel any trepidation about striking out in a new direction so soon?

A little, but at the same time, I felt like Samantha could use a rest. As my father-in-law said to me, "How much trouble can one poor pre-school teacher possibly get into?" Being an entertainment writer, I've also wanted to do a Hollywood story for a while, and that didn't work for Samantha.

Will Trashed be the start of a new series? Do you plan to return to Samantha?

No, Trashed is a standalone. I definitely would like to get back to Samantha. She's not in the book I'm working on now, but I have an interesting idea for her I'd hopefully like to use after that.

How did you research the Hollywood tabloid world you portray so convincingly? Did you receive help from anyone who works for a tabloid?

Believe it or not, I used my own experience! After I graduated from college and before I went to graduate school, I worked as a reporter for The Star for a little less than a year. This was before Star went glossy, and we did it all -- garbage stealing, infiltrating weddings, funerals, movie sets.... It was quite the adventure, and I always wanted to write about it. My current day job helped me as well. I'm an articles editor at In Touch Weekly. It's definitely classier than The Asteroid (the fictitious tabloid in Trashed). But I still hear all the current gossip, and there are some former tabloid people there with great stories.

Do you think the Edgar nomination has benefited your career?

Definitely. Not many paperback originals are nominated for best first novel, and I'm thinking my publisher was probably just as surprised as me when we heard the news. I think it probably had a lot to do with their moving me to hardcover. I couldn't be more grateful for that nomination.

What drew you to writing crime fiction? How old were you when you decided you wanted to write about murder?

Probably about the fifth grade. I used to love to write humorous short stories with a big twist at the end, usually involving someone getting killed. I wrote plays in college, and murder always found its way into those as well. There's just something about killing people in fiction -- kind of the opposite of a vicarious thrill, if that makes any sense. You write it, and you think, "Yes! Thank God it's only fiction!"

What drew me to writing crime fiction was a fiction workshop I took in New York City about fifteen years ago. I wrote a short story involving a body discovered in an ice chest and my teacher suggested I turn it into a full-length mystery novel. I wrote and rewrote and rewrote for years and finally, it became Hide Your Eyes.

How do people who have known you all your life react to your choice of subject matter?

My mom makes a point of going to my readings and telling everyone that Samantha's mother is not based on her (which is true--she's not). Some of my friends have read my books and sort of raised their eyebrows at me. I guess they didn't know I had it in me. One friend's husband told me he'd never look at me the same way again.

What aspects of your writing have you consciously worked to improve? What aspects give you the most satisfaction?

I work harder on plotting now. I used to write characters, and see where they would take me, and as a result my plots weren't all that compelling. Since I've gotten published, I realize how important a good plot structure is, so I outline and re-outline and re-outline until I think I get it right. The thing that gives me the most satisfaction, though, is still character. There's that point in writing a book when you're spending more time with your characters than you are with most people, and they become real -- your companions. You know things about them that never make it to the page. Someone will say something, and you'll think, "Oh, that sounds like something Simone would say." I really love that.

Do you have critiquers who read and comment on your work before you turn it in to your editor?

If my husband has time, I like him to read it. He's a former screenwriter and amazing with structure. But my editor is really excellent. She's a great person to brainstorm with. Her criticism can be strong, but it's pretty much always right.

How do you divide your time among research, promotion, and writing? Do you attend any mystery conferences? And where does family/personal time fit into all this?

I'm very behind on promoting myself. My website is pathetically outdated, but I'm fixing that as we speak. I don't attend as many of the conferences as I probably should. I try to make it to Bouchercon (though I won't be at Anchorage--it's too expensive) and I'll do almost any appearance I'm asked to do. But I have a day job and a six-year-old daughter and tight deadlines for my books, so any moment I can get for myself is usually spent writing. I like to do research as well, but I have to squeeze it in. For Trashed I went to L.A., and talked to a lot of people (including a homicide detective and a Hollywood club manager with some unbelievable stories...) and spent hours and hours just driving and taking pictures. But that was all done within a three-day period. Then I had to get home and write.

What do you read for pleasure?

It used to be true crime. I've read every Ann Rule book that's ever come out except maybe one or two of the compilations. But now, I'm a true crime judge for the Edgars, so it isn't really "pleasure reading" any more. I like memoirs, literary fiction. Abigail Thomas's book A Three Dog Life comes to mind as a recent memoir that I read and just loved.

Do you study the novels you read to learn how the writers achieved certain effects? What writers have you learned from?

Pretty much everybody. Every crime book I read, I take something valuable from, whether it's Poe, Dostoyevsky, James Cain or somebody new. But probably the ones I've learned the most from are the real page-turners. When I was first figuring out how to plot, I read a lot of Sidney Sheldon. There's something about his pacing that's really addictive.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on another standalone called, appropriately, Next. It takes place partly in New York and partly in a small town in Mexico and features soap stars, dark secrets, and grisly, ritualistic murders.

Visit the author’s web site at

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

There’s No Such Thing

Sharon Wildwind

As Opening A Small Can of Worms . . .but here goes anyway.

If you follow DorothyL, or Murder Must Advertise, or any of the Sisters in Crime lists (and probably several others), you know that there has been a raging debate the past few weeks about whether booksellers and fan conventions are using this list or that, these requirements or those, to decide what is sold or who can have full participation in a variety of mystery-related activities.

I’m not even going to attempt to summarize or explain the arguments. If you’re interested, go to those sites and wade through the postings yourself. What I’d like to do is pull back to give a long-range view of some very basic changes that are taking place in the mystery publishing field. To get a manageable view, we need to pull way back, maybe to Mars. Maybe Alpha Centauri would be a good idea.

There are three bottom lines:
1. There are too many books chasing too few readers.
2. Traditional publishing, marketing, and distribution systems are coming unglued.
3. New technologies are creating opportunities and problems that multiply, not linearly, but exponentially.

From safe inside the fortress we inhabit as readers and writers, it’s hard to imagine that the barbarians are really at the gate, but ladies and gentlemen, they are. Literacy is down. Book buying is down, though used book sales are up. (See below for a couple of quotes related to that.) Reading for pleasure is down. Even in those hard-core reading bastions like libraries or chain bookstores, the majority of people who enter the doors are there for magazines, CDs and DVDs, greeting cards, gifts, to use the computer, or to buy a cup of coffee.

At the same time, technology is making it easier for smaller and smaller companies to go into the publishing business. Whether or not those same companies are getting into distribution is another question. Tony Burton (June 23, 2007) and Katheryn Wall (June 13, 2007) have both written excellent blogs on the current state of book distribution, and I refer you to them for more information.

There are six major mystery publishers in North America: Berkeley Prime Crime, Avon Crime, Hyperion, St. Martins/Minotaur, Penguin Pocket, and Warner. A few years ago, Penguin was reported to be on it’s last legs; as of this month Avon is rumored to be out of business. As recently as two years ago, those six accounted for roughly 50% of all mystery titles published in North America. That isn't going to last much longer.

Coming up behind the big presses, to fill the gaps as they get into trouble, are thousands of medium-size presses and hundreds of thousands of small presses. Two years ago, the Book Industry Study group estimated that, in North American, there were close to 600,000 small presses, with an average income of $5,000 per company per year. No one knows how long the average small press lasts—you can’t pay your bills and live for long on only $5,000 per year— but Publishers Weekly reported in 2005 that 7,000 new small presses come into being each year. Hope springs eternal.

Not only are the number of publshers staggering, but like railroads in the early part of the 19th century, each company runs on a different gauge track. It’s impossible to go from one publisher to another without a lot of hassle and, sometimes, you get lost on the journey.

Because the publishing and distribution systems are so difficult to even comprehend, much less survive in, many authors are taking matters into their own hands, and they are using technology to do it. Five years ago, the jury was out on web pages. Did an author REALLY need a web site? Now, it’s widely accepted that the average author needs not only a web site, but a blog, an electronic newsletter, a virtual book tour, an audio book contract, pod casts, CD-trailers, and DVDs of related material.

There is, in all of this, even from our distant Martian vantage point, one other bottom line. Fortunately, this one is positive. It’s the one thing that keeps us writers from going completely bananas.

Story is everything.

Spinning out a yarn, holding that reader spellbound, making fiction, is our reason for existing. And like the North Star, I hope we keep focused on that bottom line while the rest of the universe swirls around us.

Writing quotes for the week. Since these related to used books, I’m giving you a two-for-one. Such a deal I’ve got for you.

Estimates are that the used book industry is a 300 million dollar plus industry. That’s more than 10% of the entire industry. Ten years ago it was barely a blip. ~Melisse J. Rose, writer and writing teacher

“Used books will someday make up 15%-20% of the market. How soon will depend on changing consumer behavior—not on the buying side, but on the selling side.”~Marty Manley, president, CEO and founder of Alibris.

What Mr. Manley was commenting on was the changing willingness of book buyers to let go of their favorite books. In the past, people who bought books would have a pile of “keepers,” which went on their shelves, and a second pile of lesser valued works to take to the second-hand store. What’s changing is that the keeper pile is getting smaller. Manley contends that almost all books are now disposable: read once and get rid of them. Really hot books are now hitting the second-hand stores within days of their release date. And customers are checking the second-hand stores, whether in person or on line, first rather than going to traditional book stores.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Krakatoa and the Mysteries of Nature

by Julia Buckley

In a stunning reminder not only that the most deeply affecting mysteries are often the mysteries of Nature and when it will show its wrath, On This Day tells me that this is the 124th anniversary of the eruption of Krakatoa; the tidal waves which resulted claimed more than 36,000 lives on the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra. The Tsunami's recent devastation is what we remember, but these long-ago tragedies are a good reminder that Nature is timeless in its power for destruction.

We have learned that on a smaller but sometimes frightening scale here in Chicagoland this week. The storms have been relentless and wrathful, and they put me in mind of Greek mythology and the vengeance of angry gods. Our town is still cleaning up giant tree branches (and, in many cases, entire trees) and fixing downed traffic lights. I'm relieved to say we kept the one tree we have and our roof remains intact, but many of my friends are still without electrical power. No matter how modern we think we are, Nature will inevitably reduce us to the elemental, at least for a time.

So, when pondering life's mysteries, I have realized once again that Nature holds the trump card, and all we can really do is appreciate the raw loveliness of even the wildest storm. Sometimes even destruction can be beautiful, and its advent will always be a mystery.

(Image can be found here).

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Guest Blogger Don Bruns

One in four adults read no books last year. It's a lead story in newspapers today. According to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Tuesday, of those who did read, women and seniors were most avid and religious works and pop fiction were the top choices. The typical person read four books in the last year. Half read more and half read fewer. Excluding those who hadn't read any, the usual number read was seven.

Analyists attribute the listlessness to competition from the Internet and other media, the unsteady economy, and a well-established industry with limited opportunities for expansion.

If pasta dishes were overtaking beef dishes in popularity, the Beef Industry would band together and have a national campaign, and maybe do commecials that said something like "BEEF, IT'S WHAT'S FOR DINNER!"

Or if the milk industry was experiencing flat sales, the Dairy Industry would probably come up with a campaign that said "GOT MILK?"

Instead, the publishing industry keeps pushing top tiered authors, and their own books to try and capture the seven books per reader.

There's nothing wrong with that, but I wonder why the major publishers can't band together for a campaign that doesn't sell individual books. A campaign that promotes the excitement of reading. A series of billboards, television ads, print pieces, that show someone reading...on a an easy chair, on the train, on a plane, in a restaurant, in a library...and the catch phrase could be "A good book can go anywhere!" Or pictures of exotic locations, with the slogan "A book can take you anywhere." Or just a series of print ads that say..."Caught you reading. Read a good book lately?" Or maybe a campaign that shows a parent reading, and a little kid next to the parent with a book. The slogan could be "Kids learn good habits by example. Read a book!"

It seems to me that the publishing industry could help put some excitement back into reading. And if we could just get each reader in America to read one more book a year...just one, it might be mine. Or yours.

Don Bruns is a mystery writer with a new release Sept. 2007.
Stuff To Die For is not only a book, but a short movie. You can learn more about both at

Friday, August 24, 2007

Killer Nashville '07

This picture was taken at Barnes and Noble in Franklin, TN. From left to right, Beth Terrel-Hicks, Honora Finklestein (seated) me in the back, Maggie Tousaint, and Susan Smiley (seated.)

I spent last weekend in Franklin, TN at the Killer Nashville conference. I had a great time, put faces to names of people I'd emailed back and forth with, and learned a lot. I also got some volunteers who agreed to be interviewed for my posts on Poe's Deadly Daughters. I'll surprise you with those at future dates.

One of the most fun things was seeing my books in the Barnes and Noble window. I've done signings at their stores in various cities but never had a book in the window. So of course I jumped in the air and made the CRM, Robbie Bryan laugh. Then I took a picture. Okay, so I'm easily entertained.

I sold several books, got some promo ideas from other authors, and bought a few books as well. I appeared on a panel about stand-alones vs series, moderated by Daniel Hale, and attended workshops given by Chris Roerden and Hallie Ephron. I already owned Chris's book on writing, and I bought Hallie's.

The picture on the right is me signing a book for my friend, Michael. Not my time to sign? NOooo problem!

Conferences always pump me up and make me want to get busy on my writing or editing. I've been struggling with both of my WIP's, knowing they need to be "beefed up" here and there. Now I'm ready to get back to work.
Well, as soon as I post this.
If you are a newbie writer, (or an oldbie) I suggest you attend any conference you can within your budget and driving distance, meet other authors, and do some networking. It's fun, you learn a lot, and you might even find your books in a bookstore window.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Talent, Persistence, and Luck: How to get your book published

Elizabeth Zelvin

Even though my first mystery isn’t out yet, I periodically get requests from friends and colleagues to allow someone who is writing a book or wants to write a book to contact me. I know what they want to know: "Can you help me get my book published?" I can tell them what it takes: the proverbial talent, persistence, and luck--in most cases, including mine, a drop of luck in a sea of persistence. But can I help them? Not quite the way they hope. Why me? Either it’s because I live in New York, or the aspiring author is a fellow mental health professional, or, simply, I’ve written a mystery and miraculously found a publisher. I have been tremendously grateful for every speck of encouragement, support, and generosity I’ve gotten from established mystery writers along the way. I’m glad to respond to an email and give what tips I can. But the truth is that there are no short cuts. I thought it might be helpful to put what I can say in one place (ie the archives of Poe’s Deadly Daughters) where I can refer people to it rather than reinvent the wheel each time. So here it is. If you want to publish a book, here’s what you have to do:

1. Write the book. The whole book. That’s true for the first novel, whether it’s literary, genre, or mainstream fiction. It doesn’t matter if you’ve published in other fields. If you haven’t published any kind of novel, you’re an unpublished writer as far as the fiction world is concerned. I had two books of poetry and a book on gender and addictions. It didn’t matter.

1a. If you’re, say, an academic or professional who’s published in scholarly journals and with professional presses, and you want to write nonfiction for the popular market, you’re still an unpublished writer as far as trade publishing is concerned. You don’t have to write the whole book. You do have to write a complete outline and sample chapters. There are books that can tell you how to do this correctly. You also need a platform: an audience or market or public visibility that will sell your book. Being an experienced professional with an interesting career is not a platform. The ideal platform? You’re already Oprah when you decide to write a book.

2. Get critique. Revise. Kill your darlings. A first draft can always be improved upon, and considering how tough the market is, you need every advantage you can get. I learned this slowly and the hard way. But if you know you can’t tolerate criticism or rejection, reconsider your dream of getting published.

3. Research agents. There are no short cuts. I queried 125 agents—including two who took me on and gave up too quickly, as well as maybe 40% who liked my query letter well enough to read a full or partial manuscript—before I sold Death Will Get You Sober. Some good places to research agents, all updated annually (or more frequently if online):
. LMP (Literary Market Place). THE reference—read it in the library.
. Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents.
. I subscribed to the online service for $30/year, didn’t bother with the book. It’s updated constantly. Most helpful feature for the newbie: it gives the percentage of new and unpublished authors each agent represents. You can then use that as a hook in your query letter: “I understand you are receptive to new authors…”
There are others, but these will give you plenty to work with. Oh, and check each agent’s website before you send your query. They may include submission criteria and biases (not in a bad way) that don’t appear in the guides and directories.

4. Write a killer query letter. Keep it on one page, and don’t try to squeeze in more with no margins and smaller fonts. They’ll know.
Paragraph one: Your hook and what kind of book you’ve written. If you can say “So-and-so suggested I ask if you would consider…” that’s great. But if you don’t have a contact, the hook can be that you know they represent the kind of book you’ve written or that they do take on new authors. If you met them at a conference or even at a party, that’s great too.
Paragraph two: A concise description of the book. Make it sparkle.
Paragraph three: Who you are, ie what’s interesting about you and why you’re qualified to write this particular book.

5. Write a synopsis. Expand the paragraph describing the book in your query letter into a one-page synopsis. Be prepared to parlay it into 300 words, 500 words, and three pages as needed.

6. Get a support network—local or online or both. If you’re a woman writing a mystery, join Sisters in Crime, and then join the Guppies, which is the online chapter for prepublished writers. They’ll hook you up with a critique group, help you polish your query and synopsis, share the scoop on agents they’ve contacted, eat virtual chocolate in commiseration when you get rejection letters, and drink virtual champagne when you find an agent or a publisher. If you’re a guy writing a mystery, ask yourself: do you have the guts to be a male Sister? There really is nothing quite like Guppies for men. Your local chapter of Sisters in Crime may be supportive and helpful too. So may your local chapter of Mystery Writers of America. Online, mystery lovers (not just writers) hang out at and crime fiction lovers (all part of the spectrum) at Folks on these lists and sites will point you toward others. Many will be helpful. I don’t know if anything like the good will of the mystery community exists in other genres. We are lucky!

7. Start sending out those query letters. Include a stamped self-addressed envelope with your query. Don't email queries unless the directory and/or the agent says they accept them. Follow submission guidelines on the agent's website. Your support network will help you not take those form rejections too personally and share your elation and despair when you get what we call a “rave rejection.”
7a. Keep sending out.


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Forty Words for "Looked"

Sandra Parshall

People who keep track of such things report that the English language has almost one million words. Why, then, do I have so much trouble coming up with another way to say looked?

Every writer will know what I’m talking about. It’s that broken-record thing your mind does without your conscious awareness. I can write a complete first draft without realizing that I’ve used a vocabulary of 200 words, tops. When I shift into rewrite mode, my inner editor is aghast to discover the same verb two dozen times -- in every chapter. She looked. He looked. They both looked. Again and again and again.

[Pause to bang head on desk.]

Out comes my copy of the Rodale Synonym Finder. Peered? A specialty word to be used sparingly, but great in certain contexts. Peeked? How many adults ever peek? Glanced and stared are easy to abuse, and like looked, they can multiply faster in a manuscript than hangers in a closet.

When I begin a manuscript with the intention of avoiding looked, some other word invariably moves in and takes over. Glared is one of my worst rough draft habits. My characters, always a high-strung lot, glare at each other, at traffic, at stormy skies, at pets and inanimate objects, all the way through the first draft. I never realize I’m doing this while I’m doing it.

[Pause for more head-banging.]

My only remedy is to read through the first draft and make a list of overused words so I can replace them next time around. I’m always dismayed how little this list varies from one manuscript to the next. [Do you ever learn? Apparently not.]

English sometimes feels like a blunt-force weapon to me, lacking the delicate calibration of other languages. We don’t have marvelous words like Weltschmerz and Schadenfreude and hikikomori to convey complex emotional states. To say the same thing, writers and speakers of English have to string several words into a phrase or an entire sentence. Even angst and macho are borrowed from other languages.

Alaskan Native Americans have forty words for snow, to denote its many states and textures. I have three: snow, the generic white stuff; slush, what the generic white stuff becomes when it lands on warm pavement; and snirt, the dirty mounds of once-white stuff that are created by plows and always seem to last into May.

English may not have forty words for snow, but it has plenty of alternatives to said, and enthusiastic writers try to use all of them. I am no exception. Ironically, though, said is one word that should be allowed to stand in most cases, because our characters become ridiculous when they’re constantly exclaiming, shouting, pleading, crying, whispering, expostulating, etc. Said is believed to be invisible to the reader, regardless of how many times the writer uses it -- unlike, say, looked and glared. So I often find myself striking some of the alternatives and upping my said total in later drafts.

I confess that I feel a mean little spark of glee when I realize that a well-known writer has failed to tame a bad word habit. One bestselling author, for example, is addicted to the word coursed. Adrenaline coursed through him. Anger coursed through her. Panic coursed through her. Joy coursed through her. And, of course, desire coursed through him. The author’s books are popular all over the world, which indicates that little or no irritation has coursed through her fans.

Are writers the only people who notice these things? Do they matter at all to readers who are not writers themselves? Maybe not. Maybe a book with incessantly glaring characters would go over well with readers. But as long as my overused words make me want to bang my head on my desk, I’ll continue to keep my list and spend days finding alternatives before I declare a manuscript finished.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Sharon Wildwind

When I was a teen-ager, you couldn’t have a party without Onion Soup Dip. One large package of cream cheese plus one package of dry onion soup mix mashed together with a fork, and thinned, if needed, with mayonnaise. Served with either those new-fangled ribbed potato chips or with corn chips, which made dandy scoops. Excuse me, I have to go calm my quivering arteries.

Life changed. A party dish that came along long after I reached adulthood was the many-layered dip. It’s especially pretty served in a glass bowl, so that guests can see the stratigraphy of hard work, the careful layering of beans, avocado—did you know that the word avocado refers to male anatomy?—tomato, cheese, olives, green peppers, and sour cream. Hey, it’s got vegetables in it, and beans, so it has to be good for you. I mean, what’s a little cheese and sour cream between friends?

Layered dip starts out so pretty, so pristine. All those colors. That smooth topping of sour cream, often swirled into delicate patterns. The anticipation of tastes to come by dipping down, down through the different flavors and textures. So much promise. By the end of the party what’s left—if there is anything left—is a swirl of brownish-green muck with soggy bits of tortilla chips imbedded in it like standing stones in a miniature Stonehenge. So much for promise.

I suspect my current plot is heading in the same direction as the layered dip. Honestly, I started with pristine layers. So-and-so did this, another character did that, the killer had clear motivation, and I’d tuck in a surprise or two at the end. So much promise.

Something wonderful happened on the way to the beans at the bottom of the bowl. It sounds a pretentious as hell to say, but I matured as a writer. Not for the first time, not—I really, really hope—for the last time, but for this time and this story. Different layers started to blend together in unexpected ways. I could see possibilities I never imagined before.

I changed the way one character died because it suddenly became clear how much more bizarre and useful a different death would be. Another character told me, in passing, that he’d done something I had no inkling had come to pass. My first response was, “Please, please, please tell me you are joking, because, if you’re not, there goes Chapters 3, 4, and probably part of 16.”

He wasn’t joking.

This feeling of flow, of having a story gel in an unexpected way, is as close as I can get to describing the heart of writing. It’s the reason many of us stick with the craft in spite of the chaos of publishing, and the loneliness of the long-distance writer.

This leap of faith, the vision of new possibilities, is not a conscious thing. You can’t will it to happen. You can’t predict when it will happen. You can’t even predict if it will happen, because it’s not given to every book. Some books are work-a-day good, and you’re proud of them for that, and maybe you gained some technical skill, but you’re still pretty much the same writer at the end of the book that you were when you wrote page one.

Other time, it’s different. As the French say, Viva la difference!

Writing quote for the week:
Layers don’t come from subplots, but from additional problems in the protagonist’s life.
~Donald Maass, editor and agent

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Wisdom of Holmes

Here are some inspirational words from that great father of mystery, Arthur Conan Doyle, and from his creation, S. Holmes (although the TRUE father of mystery is our namesake, Edgar Allan Poe). Sherlock tends to be more popular than Auguste Dupin, although the two share much in common. Still, here are some memorable words from the British master:

"The first thing is to get your idea. Having got that key idea one's next task is to conceal it and lay emphasis on everything which can make for a different explanation."

--Arthur Conan Doyle, Memories and Adventures (A Memoir)

And from Sherlock Holmes himself:

"To a great mind, nothing is little."
(Holmes to Watson, A Study in Scarlet)

"Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth."
(Holmes to Watson, The Sign of Four)

"I never guess. It is a shocking habit--destructive to the logical faculty."
(Holmes to Watson, ibid.)

"Women are never to be entirely trusted--not the best of them."
(Holmes to Watson, ibid).

"Crime is common. Logic is rare. Therefore it is on logic rather than on crime that you should dwell."
(Holmes to Watson, "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches")


Saturday, August 18, 2007

Canada Calling: Louise Penny (guest interview)

Louise Penny's first novel in her Armand Gamache series, Still Life won the New Blood Dagger in Britain and the 2007 Arthur Ellis Award in Canada for best first crime novel. As well as the Dilys award for the book the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association most enjoyed selling in 2006. Still Life was also named one of the Kirkus Reviews Top Ten mysteries of 2006.

Your bilingual detective, Armand Gamache, has a French name, lives in Outremont in Montreal, yet he studied at Christ's Church, Oxford, and speaks English with a British accent. Why did you make those choices when you developed his character?

Armand Gamache is very loosely based on a few people. One is my husband's tailor, Jean Gamache. I was hoping he'd give us free clothes but so far nothing. Am considering upgrading to an Inspector Armani for a subsequent book. But Gamache is also based upon Michael, my husband. Who, as luck would have it, went to Christ's College, Cambridge. It's a small shout-out to our pasts. And I wanted to make it clear that in French Quebec there are people (and Gamache is far from unique) who speak both languages beautifully and have a genuine affection for different cultures. There is also quite an amusing contradiction in Quebec where one of the fiercest and most articulate leaders in the separatist movement (he became our premier for many years) is Jacques Parizeau, who learned his English at Oxford and loves all things English. He simply loves Quebec more.

I've heard two opinions on using Canadian settings: one that a Canadian setting guarantees that a book won't sell and the other that people consider Canada an exotic location, which sells books. You're dealing not only with the Canadian question, but the Quebec question as well, something even most Canadians have trouble understanding. How do the "two solitudes" affect your stories?

Great question. I certainly heard from uninterested publishers that no one would want to read a mystery set in Canada. Ironically enough that comment came exclusively from Canadian publishers. The UK and British publishers don't seem to care. In fact, they seem delighted with the setting. My theory is two-fold. First and most important is that I think if a book is good it doesn't matter where it's set. Look at the deserved success of Giles Blunt, whose books are mostly set in North Bay. I could set a stinker in Florence, Italy and it would still smell. The other, smaller, issue is that I think I got lucky in living in Quebec. I naturally chose the place I live for the books and Quebec is exotic enough to be interesting, but close enough to not turn people off. I think readers are quite surprised to read how different Quebec is - especially non-Canadian readers. I think some North Americans never really appreciated that Quebec really is French. There are also, of course, the linguistic tensions that come with Quebec. The French/English struggles that some feel more than others. It's allows me to explore what happens when everyone in a community feels, in some ways, like a minority and slightly threatened.

You use multiple points of view, going from one character's head to another. How does this help you tell a story and are there any drawbacks in using that technique?

The only drawback I find is making sure each character gets his or her moment on the stage, without slowing the pacing down or making it feel forced. The challenge is getting inside the murderers head without the reader realizing it's the killer, but still being honest with the reader.

The fun is that I get to 'see ourselves as others see us', as Robbie Burns said. I just love trying to crawl inside the perceptions and emotions of others. To see the mis-perceptions. To see how hurt begins, often with a word not heard right or a look intercepted that is taken personally. These mis-understandings blossom, and corrupt, and stew, and grow. Into murder. My books are never about the huge events, they're about the tiny things that pile up and get to us. And in the mind of someone not quite well, those things can lead to a terrible place. As Emily Dickenson wrote, 'Not with a club the heart is broken/Nor with a stone/But with a whip so small you can barely see it.' That's what these books are about, the tiny whip. And the omniscient viewpoint allows me to explore that. Not just in the murderer but in many of the characters, because we're all hurt at times. But who among us takes that hurt and lashes back?

You say you suffered from writers' block for many years. How did you go from being blocked to writing award-winning books?

I ate gummy bears and watched Oprah and lied. Then we moved to the country and became surrounded by artistic people who had the courage to put their work out there. Art, film, poetry, books. And I saw that rejection didn't kill them. It's just part of the process. An expected and natural part.

I also surrounded myself with kind and thoughtful people. People who wouldn't, with a smile, cut down my literary baby.

And I stopped taking myself so seriously and decided to just write a book I'd love to read. That's it. Not for a millions of readers. Not for money. Not for accolades. Just quietly, for myself.

I've come to realize there's nothing special about me. It's a great comfort. What others feel, I feel. What appeals to others, appeals to me. So I kinda thought maybe if this book, with this setting and these characters, appealed to me, well maybe others were yearning for the same thing.

I realized too that writing a whole book was freaking me out. Seemed impossible. And while I love to believe I'm a free spirit, I'm not. I need structure. Without it I eat gummy bears and watch Oprah all day. So I set up a structure. Each day I write my 1,000 words. I'm not really writing a book, I'm just writing my 1,000 words. It's doable. Writing is hard enough, scary enough,I really try not to handicap myself. I only talk about it with people I know are enthusiastic and supportive. And I really consciously try to remember what a blessing this is. How very fortunate I am. This is hard, but it isn't a burden

You're a literacy advocate and the Patron for the Yamaska Literacy Council in the Brome-Missisquoi region of Quebec. How can writers, and readers, become more involved in literacy advocacy?

Thank you for this question. You can find out if there's a literacy council or group near you. You can volunteer your services. Some people have the vocation and time to be tutors, others prefer to raise money and awareness. You can offer yourself to schools and libraries and talk about how important the written word is in your life. There are after school programs for kids. You can just read to them, if you like.

For writers, well, I'm not sure writers appreciate how inspiring they can be, how exciting it is to meet a published author. I still remember the first one I met, when he came to my school. I was awe struck.

I can't tell you how crucial literacy is. There's a direct link between not being able to read and write effectively and crime, addictions, abuse, poverty, health crises. This isn't a vague, possible, link. There's a direct cause and effect. Being able to read and write won't guarantee a good job, happiness, health. But not being able to sure makes life a whole lot harder.

Thank you so much for inviting me to be a part of this forum. It's a great pleasure.

You can learn more about Louise, her books, and her passion for literacy at
In September, Canada Calling visits short-story writer Dennis Murphy.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Writer's envy...

By Lonnie Cruse

Ever read a book by an author you admire and wish you could write like that? Wish you had the same way with words? Wish you could make readers laugh or cry that easily? Remember a scene you wrote years later? Me, too. Sigh.

All authors have different “voices.” And no matter that the book jacket says, “Writes like Shakespeare,” or “Will put you in mind of Hemingway,” we’re all different. All unique. Nobody really writes like anyone else, even when covering the same subject. But there are ways to develop our talent, polish our prose, and improve our writing, taking it to a much higher level. Maybe as good or better than our favorite authors? Maybe.

One way to improve our writing is by taking classes, either online or by attending workshops in person. Another is to read what other writers have to say on the subject, and there are dozens of how-to books on writing, editing, pitching, selling, and getting a manuscript published. Working with other writers in a critique group situation is also an excellent learning tool.

But possibly one of the best ways to improve our craft is to study the fiction of the writers we admire. What is it in their books that makes us laugh, or cry, or remember a particular scene forever? How does the author present a setting or a character? Has the author done his/her homework about real life facts? Are there any “speed bumps” that pulled us out of the story, and if so, how would we avoid writing them?

Studying how a favorite author pulls us into their story and keeps us there until we reach the last page, probably slightly worn out from the ride and definitely wanting more, will help us learn how to do the same in our own writing.

War and Peace, anyone?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Women of Mystery: Peek Under the Writer's Veil

Elizabeth Zelvin

On August 7, I participated in a panel at the Mid-Manhattan Branch of the New York Public Library, moderated by Jane Cleland, president of the New York Chapter of Mystery Writers of America and Agatha-nominated author of Consigned to Death. About 75 mystery lovers turned out to hear a lively discussion and ask questions. The other panelists were Robin Hathaway, Mary Jane Clark, and Mary Anne Kelly. I had prepared answers to Jane’s questions, and while what I wrote was not exactly what I said in the give and take of the panel, I thought the dialogue between Jane and me might be of interest.

Cleland: Are you a feminist? What does the term mean to you?
Zelvin: Absolutely. I think women are wonderful. I don’t believe they are inferior to men or incapable of achieving as much, though they’re different in some ways, and I don’t think their main purpose is to serve and support men.

Cleland: Are your characters feminists? How is that relevant to the writing?
Zelvin: Yes, they are, both men and women. Even though gender is a factor in who they are as individuals, the characters and the narrative itself takes different things for granted than you’d find in an old-fashioned nonfeminist book. For example, the male characters don’t comment about the length of the women’s legs or fall in love with them for being able to eat like a truckdriver without gaining a pound. Nobody makes jokes about women drivers or women liking shopping. There are a lot of subtle putdowns in unconsciously sexist books that you won’t find in mine—even though the male characters occasionally say, “Women!” and the female characters occasionally say, “Men!”

Cleland: If we peeked under your veil, what would we find? What's something about you that leads you to write as you do? What does your unique voice derive from?
Zelvin: Age and experience! I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was 7, and I expected to publish my first novel about 40 years earlier than I actually will. But I have a number of earlier manuscripts in the drawer, including three mysteries, and in retrospect, there’s no way I could have written Death Will Get You Sober, which I’m very proud of, without every moment of my journey up to this point. I’ve been saying for years that my vision of maturity includes a couple of archetypes that I aspire to: the Wise Woman and the Outrageous Older Woman. I think my voice shows the influence of both of those aspects of who I am today.

Cleland: Do women kill for different motives than men do?
Zelvin: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. While I’m reluctant to generalize, I’d say the type of anger behind some murders is affected by gender. Some women kill out of frustration and feelings of powerlessness—we’ve all seen them in the headlines--while some men kill out of impulsive, aggressive rage.

Cleland: Do women detect using different skill sets or strategies?
Zelvin: The temptation is to say yes, that men use reason and women use intuition, but I think it’s a dangerous generalization, and I haven’t set up that dichotomy with my male and female sleuths. From the perspective of feminist psychology, women’s emotional development does take place through connection and relationships, while men’s is a process of separation, so that women do tend to be more expressive—use relational skills--and men more instrumental—use more cognitive skills. But of course not every individual fits completely into that or any model.

Cleland: Is it hard writing male characters? What about writing strong women?
Zelvin: I ended up with a male protagonist by accident. I started out with two alternating first-person voices. I was very proud of my male protagonist’s voice because he was nothing like me. I think the autobiographical first novel is like the starter marriage—if you reach a certain age without doing it, you can skip right over it. Yet I couldn’t make my female voice too much like me, so I tried to take her over the top, and she turned out funny but a little too preachy, which is why she ended up a sidekick. I think my protagonist Bruce’s voice owes as much to his being a recovering alcoholic in early sobriety as it does to his being a guy, although he’s definitely a guy’s guy in some ways. What he’s not is a superhero or man of action, the way many male characters in crime fiction are. The men I know in real life don't punch anyone in the jaw either.

Cleland: Can you describe your writing process?
Zelvin: I have to be alone—I could never write in Starbucks like some writers I know. It works best when I can get up and go straight to the computer, start writing without talking to my husband or anyone else or even checking my email. I can’t always do this, but that’s when the work gets done. I’ve been out in the country most of the summer working on my new manuscript. Some days I can do it, and other days I have to put something else first—my husband, my granddaughters, my clients, or some other task with a deadline. Or pain in the neck maintenance tasks, like paying bills or straightening out some screwup with the bank or a plumbing or electrical crisis or going to the dentist. I have a few mantras: “I’ll write for an hour if it takes all day” is one of them. SJ Rozan says do two pages a day every day no matter what, so I tell myself I can do two pages. But I don’t really feel as if I’ve had a real writing day unless I hit 1000 words, which is four or five pages since I write a lot of dialogue. Diana Gabaldon writes 1000 words a day, and her historical time-travel series, the Outlander books, are big, fat, wonderful books, much longer than most mysteries.

Cleland: What's the most difficult part of writing? What's the most fun?
Zelvin: Oh, how I hate the first draft. My mantra is “just keep telling the story,” but until I’ve done it, I’m always afraid I won’t be able to make it to the end with everything all wound up. I’ve been very encouraged by hearing some highly successful writers say it’s the same for them, including Carolyn Hart, Nancy Pickard, and Rhys Bowen, all of whom I've interviewed for Poe's Deadly Daughters. The most fun? Having written! And okay, those moments when I’m really cooking, when it’s just coming through me. Writers in past centuries used to call it the Muse, and the spiritual expression for the same thing is “being a channel.” And when I write something clever or funny, that’s fun too.

Cleland: Under that veil--what do you think of promoting your work? Are you good at it? Do you like that responsibility?
Zelvin: I used to be very shy, and I’ve always hated sales. I had a brief but nightmarish career selling life insurance back in 1980. But so far I’m really enjoying promoting my book, because it’s all different kinds of networking. Feminist psychology says women are relational, and I love spinning a web of connections both online and face to face. I have a friend who defines schmoozing as “networking shamelessly,” and I do love to schmooze. It’s in my New York Jewish daughter-of-two-lawyers genes.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Whose Book Is It, Anyway?

Sandra Parshall

Writers hear a lot about their “contract with the reader” -- the obligation to deliver a good story and to follow through on the expectations they’ve created.

For mystery writers, that unwritten contract requires that we obey the conventions of the various subgenres. Readers of humorous cozies would feel betrayed and angry if their favorite writers shoved their noses into the realistic gore of murder, or stuck in a sizzling, graphic sex scene, or (heaven forbid) killed a cat. Thriller writers, on the other hand, have to keep up a brisk pace, slosh the blood around liberally, and ratchet up the suspense to nail-biting levels. Writers of noir can even get away with killing the cat.

There’s one thing, though, that readers in all subgenres are guaranteed to howl about: the murder of a beloved series character. When Dana Stabenow let the bad guys kill off a popular character, a lot of fans swore they would never buy her books again. When Elizabeth George did it, the shock rippled through online mystery discussion groups. Now another of my favorite writers has killed a major character in her latest book -- don’t worry; I won’t name the writer, the book, or the character and spoil it for you -- and I’m curious about the way her fans will react.

As a reader, I was upset with Stabenow for doing in a character I liked. George’s deceased character was one I’d detested from the start, and I was happy to see her go, but reading about it was still a jolt because of the anguish it caused other characters to whom I’m more attached. The latest character death feels like a personal loss. The murder is particularly brutal and horrifying, and I’m stunned that the author made this choice. As a writer, I’m eager to see what direction the series will take now that its fictional world has been so drastically altered, but I expect the next book to be painful to read.

The relationships that readers form with fictional characters, especially series characters, are fascinating and more than a little weird. Look at the mania over Harry Potter and the general horror among readers when they feared that Harry would be killed in the final book. This kid isn’t a real person. He doesn’t exist. Yet millions of readers worldwide would have been more distressed by his fictional death than by the deaths of most flesh-and-blood people they know. Plenty of crime fiction readers feel equally protective of their favorite characters.

In one way, it’s great news for the author when this intense bond between reader and character develops. It means the character is so real and enduring that readers can’t wait to find out what he or she will do next. The flip side of that devotion is the readers’ desire to decide the character’s fate. We think only editors and agents have the right to interfere with the direction of our stories, but some readers feel they gain that right by buying and loving a series. And many readers won’t hesitate to deliver their instructions directly to the author.

With only two books of my own in print so far, I haven’t had time to disappoint anyone in a major way, but I’ve already had a little taste of what it’s like when readers want to dictate what happens to characters they like. It’s strangely enjoyable, but also unnerving. For writers like Stabenow and George, who receive an avalanche of complaints when they upset readers, it’s probably maddening.

Some authors say they’ll write what they damned well please, and readers can take it or leave it. However, if too many readers decide to leave it, the life of the series itself could be endangered. Stabenow and George, whose books are on the dark side, don’t seem to have suffered in the long term for killing their characters, but for writers less comfortably established, it might not be a wise career choice. And many cozy writers say they would never, ever dare to harm an animal -- especially not a cat -- in a story.

So whose book is it, anyway? Should the author write every novel, every scene, with the readers’ preferences in mind? Does a long-running series gradually become a collaboration between writer and readers?

I’m relatively new at this, and I don’t know what the answer is. I hope I’ll be in print long enough to find out!

Monday, August 13, 2007

What Mystery Writers Can Learn From Alfred Hitchcock

by Julia Buckley
Today is the birthday of the legendary Alfred Hitchcock, who was born in 1899 (he died in 1980). I used to watch reruns of Alfred Hitchcock Presents on television when I was a kid. Remember the music at the beginning of his show, and the famous silhouette that we saw until Hitchcock turned and faced the audience? As a child I was rather horrified by him; I couldn't understand his British accent, further complicated by several chins.

It was only as an adult that I came to appreciate Hitchcock through his films: Rear Window, Rebecca, North by Northwest are three of my favorites, although my husband prefers the more horror-based flicks like Psycho, The Birds, Vertigo. You can see a bio and filmography here.

Hitchcock popularized and utilized the term "MacGuffin" in his direction. The MacGuffin was the plot device that drew the attention of the viewers, and many of the characters, but was often entirely unimportant to the plot. Hitchcock clarified in a lecture in 1939: "It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is most always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers." The MacGuffin was a wonderful way to use misdirection, and Hitchcock experimented with this in all of his suspense films.

When I was about ten, my dad rented an old reel to reel projector and a big screen, and he took out the Hitchcock movie Suspicion on his library card and showed it in our living room. It was amazing, having our house transformed into a little theatre long before there were VCRs or DVD players. The sound of that old projector, too--something I really miss--made it somehow more suspenseful, and Cary Grant had never looked more ambiguous to me in those black and white images. Was he evil or was he not?

That was the genius of Hitchcock--he always had me asking questions, and I was too often distracted by just what he wanted to distract me with.

In his New York Times Obituary,Hitchcock is quoted as saying, "Some films are slices of life; mine are slices of cake." Anyone who's enjoyed a Hitchcock film would understand that assessment.

People are still trying to re-invent Hitchcock. Rear Window was Hitch's take on the Cornell Woolrich story; this summer's Disturbia is a re-telling of that tale, taking a stab at Hitchcock-like suspense.

It's nice to think that Hitchcock and other great suspensers that we love will continue to inspire the writers and directors of the future; certainly any mystery writer having a dry spell should plug in a Hitchcock movie and just soak in the atmosphere.

I recommend Rebecca.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

A Night at the Fillmore

Peggy Ehrhart (Guest Blogger)

I moved to the Haight-Ashbury in January of 1967.
I had applied to the creative writing program at San Francisco State College and came to San Francisco half a year early because I had just broken up with a boyfriend. My apartment, for which I paid seventy-five dollars a month, was three blocks up the hill from Haight Street and one block over from Ashbury.

Shortly after I moved in, my neighbor, a Stanford dropout with a blond Afro, invited me to a concert at the Fillmore Auditorium.

Everyone by now is familiar with the poster art that grew out of Bill Graham’s Fillmore concerts. On these posters, swirling designs melt into undulating figures seemingly inspired by Hieronymous Bosch or the pre-Raphaelites, all rendered in eye-popping colors. And if you can actually make out the lettering--difficult because it too swirls and undulates--you realize that at one time or another, almost every significant blues, rock, or jazz musician played at the Fillmore--and often several on the same night.

The Fillmore experience itself was as mind-altering as the posters implied it would be. I realized immediately on stepping into the lobby that I had not dressed suitably for the occasion. I was wearing a navy-blue suit with broad white stripes, double-breasted, mini-skirted, and very Mod. I would have fit right in on the King’s Road in London. But this wasn’t London.

All around me--well, not literally around me because I was standing and they were lounging on the floor smoking marijuana--were people who looked like beings from another universe. Everyone had long hair, men and women, and most of the men had beards. None of the women wore makeup. If you recall the look of the early sixties--big hair, lots of eyeliner, even false eyelashes, you’ll realize how revolutionary a bare-scrubbed face and free-flowing hair would appear.

None of the clothing looked like anything you’d find at that time in a conventional store. Many women wore long skirts; both sexes wore wide-legged pants made of gauzy fabrics or velour, or jeans that looked like they’d seen years of hard living. A fringed leather vest might top off a ruffled shirt with long, funnel-shaped sleeves. A nearly transparent tunic might reveal that the wearer had sworn off bras. The color combinations were similar to those on the concert posters: orange, purple, chartreuse, swirling paisley designs, or Indian-inspired prints. And, yes, there were beads, strands and strands of them, all colors and shapes, on both sexes. Other smells competed with the smell of marijuana: incense--and patchouli oil, a flowery, spicy scent that eventually came to perfume nearly the entire city of San Francisco.

Beyond the lobby, the auditorium itself was dark, except for a few lights illuminating the band, and a remarkable phenomenon that I had never seen before or even imagined: a light show. A huge screen filled one wall, and on the screen blobs of color--red, yellow, blue, orange--separated and coalesced like giant amoebas. Light shows were in their infancy then, but somehow the light show, with shapes throbbing in time to the hypnotic rhythms produced by the band, seemed the perfect visual accompaniment to the music.

The music was like nothing I had ever heard before--songs that merged into one another with no beginning or end, riffs repeated again and again until they became wordless mantras, a dense, fuzzy guitar tone that seemed to reach into the soul. I eventually became quite familiar with the style during my time in San Francisco. It was acid rock, pioneered by Eric Clapton’s band Cream, but accessible to any group with electric guitars and big enough amps.

Writhing forms moved in the dark room. There might have been seats around the edges of the auditorium, but Fillmore concerts were actually dances, though people didn’t dance as couples. Anyone who wanted could launch him- or herself into the crowd and move as the spirit dictated, people do-si-doing as if engaged in a crazy psychedelic square dance. There was one distinctive style, though, that evoked a kind of Dionysian frolic: arms were thrust in the air, where they undulated like strands of seaweed in the ocean’s current, while hips swayed in one direction, upper body in the other.

I’m not sure most concert-goers showed up because of any particular band on the program. The experience itself was the attraction. In fact, I can’t remember who was playing that first night--or on any of my subsequent visits.

Peggy Ehrhart's memories of life in the Haight-Ashbury in the mid-sixties, especially the music, were inspired by the Summer of Love exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Peggy’s blues mystery, Sweet Man Is Gone, is due out from Five Star in 2008.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Dreaded Writer's Block...

By Lonnie Cruse

I can’t speak for all writers, but for me, when the so-called "writer’s block" hits it’s nearly always caused by . . . me. By my own insecurities. But why?

Well, to begin with, I’m part “outliner” (using 3 X 5 index cards to plot out the story line) and part “fly by the seat of my jammies” writer, writing whatever comes to me. If/when I leave the index cards and take off into unplotted territory, I often hit a wall, wondering where to go next with the story. When that happens, instead of sitting down with my character, trying to figure out what he or she would do next, I often avoid writing all together, suddenly getting very busy with household chores or letting outside influences drag me away from the computer. I’ve let days go by without touching my work-in-progress because I was afraid I couldn’t think of anything to write, if I sat down to try. Which, of course, makes the problem worse.

Sometimes it’s a confidence problem, as in, can I really write and finish another mystery manuscript? Will anyone want to read it? What if I can’t write it? That shuts me down as well.

Or, worse yet, I sense a problem with the manuscript (or my critique group does) and I’m not sure I can fix it. So I avoid writing all together.

One advice seasoned writers give to the rest of us in the writing world is to write something every single day. Even if it’s just a few words. Write something. (No, e-mail and grocery lists don’t count.) But write a few words, even if they stink. Even if you have to delete them later on or re-write them. Just write it. When you go back, you might even discover that it’s pretty good!

For me, the most important lesson I’ve learned is not to let myself avoid the computer for a whole day if at all possible or get too caught up in other things to write. So I’m learning to do the “little bit of writing every day” thing. I’m setting the clock and getting up earlier (before the world can interfere) and writing a few pages. That way, if life does interfere, so what? I’m already done writing for the day. And I don’t get caught up surfing the Internet, researching future books, or promoting those already in print, or answering e-mail first. (Which seems to suck the life out of my writing, because I’m tired when I’m done with those jobs.)

Next, I’ve given myself permission to write chapters that really stink, not trying to “fix” them right then, but making notes toward that end in the re-write. And I’m taking it a page at a time, not panicking at the first sign of lack of direction. Asking myself what could I do with my character, IF I had the courage. Then doing it.

But for me, the “writing a little bit every day, no matter what,” is key. And it really doesn’t have to be on the computer. Pen (or pencil) and paper is fine. Or dictating into a small recorder. Whatever works. Point is, IF you’re blocked, don’t run away from it, sit down with your computer and your character and work it out. Figure out what’s stopping you, what scares you. Then tackle it. And good luck!

Thursday, August 9, 2007

The Great American Novel

Elizabeth Zelvin

Do young writers still talk about writing the Great American Novel? I suspect it’s one of those concepts that persists even after it’s already happened. I think we’ve already got more than enough contenders. When I was a kid, boys (not girls, in those prehistoric times) dreamed of being the first man on the moon. Once Neil Armstrong took that one small step in 1969, the dream became superfluous. Boys, again, used to talk about growing up to be President of the United States. That’s a dream that’s still available but has surely lost a great deal of its luster.

I knew I could find the origin of the term Great American Novel, and the Internet did not let me down. According to Wikipedia, “the phrase derives from the title of an essay by American Civil War novelist John William DeForest, published in The Nation on January 9, 1868.” As an old English major, I know that much of American literature looked to English literature for its models and heroes. Henry James is probably the best example of an American novelist inspired by Europe. His settings, his vision of society, and his leisurely, tortuous sentences evoked the Old World, not the vigorous frontier. I confess I enjoyed and even studied Henry James without having a clue what his stories were about until, decades later, I saw them as movies.

The Great American Novel has to be set in America as seen by Americans, not through the filter of British or European attitudes. Its American characters have to demonstrate American values: individualism, social and economic mobility, a robust egalitarianism. They have to tell stories that could only happen in America in some version of the American language.

Gosh, I do sound like an old English major, don’t I! Let me just give you my candidates:

1. Moby Dick by Herman Melville. The unreadable Great American Novel. It's the mighty story of man against whale, in a ponderous poetry that some people might still tackle for pleasure, but tough going for most modern readers. I had to laugh when someone on DorothyL complained about mysteries that bore us by telling more than we want to know about fishing. Melville devoted hundreds of pages to how to catch, cut up, and cook the whale. He also gave us the ultimate vision of the New England whaler.

2. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. The still delightfully readable Great American Novel. Set in the heartland, with the Mississippi River as its central metaphor, it’s a great example of the always popular coming of age novel. It tackles the core American issues of freedom vs slavery and independence vs conformity. Furthermore, Mark Twain made brilliant use of the American language—more than most modern readers realize—by rendering the subtleties of local dialect at each point along the river as Huck’s raft floated down it. I read the book aloud to my son when he was 8, and it held up marvelously as a masterpiece of storytelling with suspense, compassion, and humor.

3. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Another great book that made a great movie (with Gregory Peck, who also starred as Ahab in Moby Dick), this seems to be practically everybody’s 20th century favorite, from literate DorothyLers (who of course point out it’s a mystery) to MySpacers who admit they hardly read anything. It’s about secrets and justice and childhood (a girl’s, this time, though a sturdy tomboy of a girl) and race relations and small town life—American as apple pie.

4. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. The unsung Great American Novel, my personal pick and the only one on my list that Wikipedia doesn’t mention as a candidate. I believe it’s disregarded because it’s for and about and read by girls and women. Yet the language is as fresh and everyday today as it was in 1868. It’s probably never been out of print, it’s been adapted many times for stage and screen, and I’m one of many thousands, perhaps millions, of women who know this beloved book practically by heart, who return to it time and again for another visit with the March girls, who still cry when Beth dies, and whom Jo inspired to become writers.

So how about the Great American Mystery? I admit the traditional mystery has English origins. My blog sisters and I are Poe’s Deadly Daughters because Edgar Allan Poe, an American, invented the detective story, but it could be argued that as literature, Poe's work was as European as that of Henry James. We’re also daughters of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, both quintessentially English writers. But how about their New World heirs? What could be more American than Laura Lippman’s Baltimore, Margaret Maron’s North Carolina, Dana Stabenow’s Alaska, or Nevada Barr’s National Parks? And few dispute that the private eye novel is an American form of the genre, from its roots in the work of Hammett and Chandler to its many modern practitioners, both male and female.

So what’s your pick for Great American Mystery? The Maltese Falcon? The Bootlegger’s Daughter? The polls are open! Click on Comments to name your candidate.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Editors: Underpaid and Overworked

Sandra Parshall

Do you think of publishing as a glamorous business, with book editors reigning supreme? Do you imagine editors lingering over lunch at fabulous restaurants, going home at night to gorgeous highrise apartments in New York City and escaping on the weekend to their spacious second homes on the shore?

The reality doesn’t quite match that fantasy.

Every year, the Publishers Weekly survey of salaries in the book business produces the same conclusions: editors, the most important people in the process of bringing books to the public, make the lowest salaries; and women earn far less on average than men. These two facts go hand in hand, because the great majority of editorial employees are female.

According to PW’s figures for 2006, the average salary for men in all aspects of publishing was $99,442, compared to $63,747 for women. Men received average pay increases of 4.6% last year, and women averaged 4.4%.

The biggest salaries go to management, operations, and sales/marketing personnel, and the larger the publisher, the higher the salaries. Trade publishers pay median salaries of $118,400 to management personnel and $45,750 to editors. This striking difference extends beyond straight salary to bonuses. In 2006, 31% of editorial employees received bonuses, and the median amount was $3,000, while 53% of management personnel received additional compensation, the median amount being $20,000.

Most publishing salaries are low by comparison to other businesses, so it’s not surprising that money is the main source of job dissatisfaction, followed by increased workloads, lack of recognition, management problems, and long hours. Only 49% of the people surveyed said they were extremely or very satisfied with their jobs. Almost half, 48%, said they either expect to be working elsewhere two years from now or were unsure about their futures. If they stay in publishing, editorial employees who started out earning $30,100 per year might work their way up to a $71,000 paycheck after 10 years. Management is better paid from the start -- an average of $62,500 in the first three years, rising to $149,000 for those with 10 years or more on the job.

Where’s the real money in publishing? At the very top, of course. For example, the president and CEO of John Wiley earned total compensation of $2,024,613 in the fiscal year ending April 30, 2006. The chairman of Penguin made $2,519,400.

What drives
editors, the people at the low end of the pay scale, to work long hours for little recognition? I suspect it might be the same thing that drives writers to write even though they may never become famous or get rich from it: a simple love of books and the written word. When publishing no longer attracts people like that, we'll all be in trouble.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Paper Tear

Sharon Wildwind

I’m on a paper tear. Wait a minute, that didn’t come out right, or maybe it did. Remember that paperless office we were promised? Has it happened for you? It certainly hasn’t for me.

But, every year, I get a bit closer. I thought I might share some questions I’ve asked myself, and my answers that led me to get rid of loads of paper. As they say in the car ads, your mileage may differ.

How many pieces of paper did I have that someone else had a copy of? Out went old agendas, minutes, event copy, background papers, and outdated newsletters. There were some things that I WAS the other copy for. I bundled up loads of originals related to offices I’d once held and shipped them to the people who had those offices now. Let the stuff sit in their basements for a while.

What could the Internet replace? What was the likelihood that if I got really desperate for the price of miniature marbles, a new and exotic dessert recipe, the directions for a Hong Kong seam binding, or a list of dates related to the Arcadian derangement that I couldn’t find it on the Internet? Out went stray pieces of paper with odd factoids on them, catalogues, and back copies of magazines, which I’d hoarded for a single recipe or a sewing tip.

I did keep a one-page list of Morse code because I still intend to learn the entire alphabet one day. It’s a project I started in high school, when I was taking physics and was a member of the amateur radio club. That was in 1964. So far, I’ve learned 18 out of 26 letters, but hope does spring eternal. Only 8 more letters to go, and some of them, like X and Z are hardly ever used in Morse code messages. Oh yeah, then I have to learn numbers. Bummer.

How many outdated calendars did I need? What was the likelihood that, when a year finally came around again that matched 1995 I’d know where my 1995 calendar was, so I could use it again? Okay, so some of the pictures were really, really pretty and those I put in my paper crafting file, to use in making cards.

Then came the hard part. How much of my previous writing did I need to keep for posterity? What was the chance that I was going to become so totally famous as a writer that university libraries and literary scholars would fight for my accumulated papers? Pigs with wings came to mind.

What was the chance that I’d actually refer to this mess to find out a character’s eye color or that snappy line of dialog one character said to another 15 drafts ago? The memorable lines, I remember.

This is what I decided to keep:
• Unborn short stories. Their time may still come.
• Character development, often because somewhere in there were complicated family charts or timelines that I do use for reference.
• A final copy of each finished book. For the books that have been published, it’s my final hard copy that I marked up while proofreading before I sent the delivered manuscript to the publisher. For the unpublished books, it’s the last completed draft.

Yes, it was hard to let all of the other stuff go to the shredder. Yes, I have electronic back-ups of just about every bit of writing I discarded. No, I haven’t missed them one bit. What I’ve gained in exchange is a neater and more peaceful writing space. I am no longer irritated first thing in the morning when I see the piles of paper spilling out of filing boxes and covering my desk six inches thick. Somehow the energy flows better now that I’ve gotten rid of the paper log jam.

And I can use some of my now-free space for my new paper love, handmade cards and boxes. The photo at the right is my 2007 collection of New Years cards.

- o-/- o-/oo-o --- o-o/-o ooo o--

Writing quote for the week:

Until the age of fifty, it is perfectly all right to toss aside a book you don’t like after reading fifty pages. For each year over fifty, decrease the number of required pages by one.~Nancy Pearl, Seattle's famous librarian and inspiration for the librarian action figure

Learn more about Nancy at and go from there to Book Lust, a community for people who love books.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Why Helen MacInnes Should Be Ludlum's Movie Successor

by Julia Buckley
I saw The Bourne Ultimatum today, and it was great. I was contemplating the whole Bourne trilogy--a fantastic cinematic experience based on the exciting Robert Ludlum novels. While the movies are only loosely tied to the books, both the original Ludlum mysteries and the movies were huge successes, and made Jason Bourne a name to be remembered. (All twenty-one of Ludlum's novels were New York Times bestsellers).

I'm wondering, then, how long it can be before some young Hollywood babe--male or female--will be snatched up to star in a flick based on a novel by Helen MacInnes. As far as I'm concerned, MacInnes hasn't gotten the credit she deserves for her contributions to the world of literature in general and mystery in particular. Officially her genre is "suspense" or perhaps sometimes she falls into the category of "espionage," but wherever you slot her, MacInnes is a great read.

I should note that four of MacInnes' novels WERE made into films, but not since the sixties. Her books adapted for films were: Above Suspicion, Assignment in Brittany, The Venetian Affair, and The Salzburg Connection. They even sound a bit like Ludlum titles, don't they? But MacInnes, who began writing in 1939, pre-dates Ludlum, who only began publishing his books in 1971 with The Scarlatti Inheritance.

MacInnes was born in Glasgow in 1907 and educated there, but eventually moved to New York with her husband Gilbert Highet, and she died there in 1985. She had degrees in French and German, but was working as a librarian when she met Highet.

Like the Bourne stories, MacInnes' tales bring the reader along with a character who is smart, tough, but always in jeopardy. Also like Ludlum's books, MacInnes' take her reader all over the world at a sometimes dizzying pace, and it's a terrific ride.

I started reading MacInnes when I was a teenager, and I had soon moved through all of her titles, my favorites being The Salzburg Connection, Neither Five Nor Three, The Venetian Affair, Decision at Delphi, Double Image, Snare of the Hunter. You can't really go wrong when picking up a Helen MacInnes. She is required reading in this field, and were she writing today, she would be as much of a franchise as Ludlum's books have become.
As evidence of her great plots, here's some flyleaf copy for The Venetian Affair that I found on "New York drama critic Bill Fenner arrives in Paris, only to discover that his coat has accidentally been switched with another---and that he is therefore now $100,000 richer. But when the American Embassy refers him to NATO and the CIA, what started as a simple mistake becomes something far more complicated and deadly. For when Fenner hears of a Communist plot to assassinate DeGaulle, he is also informed that the key to stopping it lies in his own past..."(© Fawcett Crest)

Isn't that great? Doesn't that sound very Bourne-like? It certainly makes me wonder if Ms. MacInnes at any point influenced the great Robert Ludlum.

I would just like to have my own moment of hubris here and say that when the inevitable MacInnes movie comes out, I predicted it here--Julia Buckley, 2007. And if anyone out there making the movie is looking for extras, sign me up. :)

P.S. Happy Birthday to my mother, who introduced me to Helen MacInnes and many other great writers.