Thursday, January 31, 2013

One more step into the digital age

Elizabeth Zelvin

I got an iPad for Xmas, and as a result I’ve finally signed up for Netflix. That puts me, what, five years? ten years? behind everybody else. I haven’t been in a hurry for a couple of reasons. One, we have a lousy television. Do you know what a large percentage of most movies is filmed at night? I notice, because unlike your high-definition flat screen, ours shows a blank black screen during those scenes. My husband, who watches a lot more TV than I do, keeps saying he’s going to get us a good one. But like the Arkansas Traveler, who couldn’t fix the roof on a rainy day and couldn’t fix it when it wasn’t raining either, he’s too busy watching football to go shopping. And once the football season is over, his interest in staring at the tube will wane.

Two, I’ve been watching Movies on Demand, which comes with my HBO. At least, I think it does. I originally signed us up because I wanted to see True Blood. Like many in the mystery community, I take a lot of vicarious pride in Charlaine Harris’s success. My husband and I, big Aaron Sorkin fans since West Wing, loved the first season of The Newsroom, also on HBO, and are eagerly waiting for the next. But except for a few carefully selected shows, I really like movies much better than TV. It cost a lot less to see a movie a few months later on TV than in the theater: $4.99 for both of us vs $27.50 for two tickets (one adult, one senior) at any of our neighborhood theaters in Manhattan.

This holiday season, we spent the money for some movies that cried out for 3D and the big screen, sometimes the IMAX screen ($36.50, even with the senior discount), such as The Hobbit and Life of Pi, as well as some that served as holiday entertainment and preparation for the Oscars. We even saw some art movies that may not make it to the small screen, notably The Sessions and The Intouchables, both wonderful films and both, oddly, about paralyzed men and their uninhibited caregivers.

But then I got the iPad. And it’s football season. So I got my Netflix, and I’ve having a helluva good time watching some of the shows I’ve been hearing DorothyLers talk about. So far, my favorites are Inspector Lewis and Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch. To my disappointment, I haven’t been able to get Inspector Morse on Netflix. I was looking forward to revisiting the episodes (about half) I don’t have on VHS (which I’ll no longer be able to view once we get that spiffy new TV). But Morse’s former sergeant and his new partner are equally clever and engaging, and Oxford, brilliantly photographed, is even more beautiful in HD on the iPad screen. As for Sherlock, with Martin Freeman as an able and engaging Watson, he’s my favorite post-Conan Doyle Holmes ever, along with Mary Russell’s husband in Laurie R. King’s great series, and the most convincing onscreen since Basil Rathbone. (It’s okay if you don’t agree.)

A bonus: I’d heard about Benedict Cumberbatch, but I didn’t realize until I watched the first episode that his Watson was the guy who plays the Hobbit. Now I want to see the movie again to see how that knowledge affects my feelings about Bilbo Baggins. To tell the truth, even as the good doctor, Martin Freeman is rather hobbitlike in appearance: on the small side with fairly large and pointy ears. There was a barefoot scene in Episode 6, and I thought his feet were fairly big too. That’s okay. I’m having a grand time with my iPad, and my husband can watch all the football he wants.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Enough about me. Why do YOU adore me?

by Sandra Parshall

Bear with me. This isn’t just another blog about social media, although it may start out sounding that way.

Recently I “unliked” someone’s author page on Facebook. This person hasn’t done anything to me personally, but I’d had enough of the “look at how many people love my book and look at all the wonderful things that are happening to me and just look at all the praise that’s being heaped on me” posts emanating from that page. It’s a fan page, and I assume the author’s non-writer fans eat up that stuff. I will happily leave it to them. I haven’t checked the number of “likes” the page has, but I’m sure it’s staggering.

My own author page on Facebook (Sandra Parshall Books) had a grand total of 222 “likes” the last time I checked. I accumulated that many by, basically, begging, but that got old fast and I quit doing it. Although my personal page has 4,803 “friends” (and I keep the number below the 5,000 cutoff mark by frequently culling people I don’t want to have any further contact with), I assume the 222 are the only people on Facebook who are interested in my books.

I should probably post more often for those 222 fans. Maybe I should push myself to boast nonstop, although I’d probably have to do some real digging to find all that much to boast about. I’ve quoted from reviews and promoted interviews and blogs. But the truth is, I don’t care for the one thing above all that writers are supposed to do, the one thing that seems even more important than writing good books: relentless self-promotion. Which often amounts to boasting. Bragging. I hate having to do it, and I am turned off when others do it.

Oddly, the least offensive boasters, to me, are the ones who just put it out there: I worked damned hard on this book, and I’m glad to say it’s getting the praise it deserves. That's annoying enough, but it's so much less obnoxious than fluttery, breathless, gushy false modesty. I try to observe the latter and regard it as material for characterization in my books. And I try to stop listening/reading before I’m tempted to say something I’ll regret or do something, like brandishing a gag, that could get me arrested for assault.

I have stopped reading certain authors' books after enduring too much of their boasting, whether it’s the outright bragging type or the “oh my goodness, I am so humbly honored that the whole wide world adores little old me” type. Sometimes a book is easier to enjoy if I don’t know too much about the writer.

Authors aren’t the only ones, of course, who are so impressed with themselves that they can’t keep quiet about their wonderfulness for a second. However, in the internet age we do seem to be the only ones who are loudly public about it, day after day. Singers promote themselves by singing, not talking or posting about singing. Maybe I’m not looking in the right places, but I don’t think many lawyers and doctors are on Facebook daily gushing over  the latest praise their work has drawn. Actors, who tend to be an obvious and rather endearing mixture of ego and self-doubt, have to be careful because every piece of work they do is an ensemble project, and their careers depend on being widely liked and/or respected as professionals. They learn to be team players or they learn, as Charlie Sheen did, that they can be replaced.

Writers work alone. We don’t have daily contact with our editors, who are our partners in the publishing enterprise. When we break out of our solitude long enough to promote our work, I guess it’s not surprising that some of us don’t know where to draw the line between effective and obnoxious. Some go way overboard, and other authors begin describing them, sneeringly, as relentless self-promoters. Some writers, like myself, loathe the whole self-promotion thing to the point that we cringe when we do it at all.

How do you feel about this? How much boasting turns you off? Has an author's intense self-promotion ever made you decide against reading that person's work?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

How to Strengthen a Critique Group

When they are good, they are very good. When they are bad, they are horrible.

I’m talking about critique groups. Having been a member of many groups over the years, here are some things I’ve seen strengthen groups.

Critique groups are cyclical
Sometimes members come to a group not realizing how much work is involved. Life and other commitments happen. People need breaks and they need an opportunity to pull out of the group gracefully. People who want to join the group after it has started do better if they enter at certain point in the cycle. A schedule that frequently works is to meet mid-September to November. Skip December. Meet mid-January to late May or possibly early June. Skip the summer. Bring in new members in either September or January. Allow people who aren’t happy with the group to fade away during the breaks.

Start by having the participants establish guidelines
Write these down and give everyone a copy. Each time the group comes back after a break, do a quick check to see if the group wants to revise the guidelines. This happens frequently as groups mature or as membership changes.
  • Write Murder, Write Now is open to mystery writers who have completed at least 50 pages of a mystery. The group’s goal is to help each other move toward publication.
  • All types of mysteries will be critiqued. If a submission contains excessive gore, graphic violence, torture, or rape, the author is to indicate this on the first page. Members have the option of not critiquing material they find disturbing.
  • Group size is 6, with 2 people being critiqued each week.
  • Participants are expected to submit between 20 and 40 pages (small variations allowed) every three weeks.
  • The group meets on Wednesdays. The two people being critiqued on the upcoming Wednesday submit their material by the previous Sunday afternoon. Earlier submissions are welcome.
  • Submissions are to be sent as an e-mail attachment in Word (.doc) format.
  • Please provide written comments and come prepared to discuss your comments at the meeting. Either provide the author with a hard copy, including your comments, at the meeting, or send them the submission, including comments, as an e-mail attachment.
  • Critiques should focus on plot, character development, point of view, continuity, mystery elements, and the reader’s reaction to the material. Misspellings, punctuation and grammar errors, typographical mistakes, etc. are to be marked in the text, but will not be discussed at the meeting. It is assumed that the writer would clean these things up in her/his final draft.
  • Material submitted for critique is private. Members must not share it with anyone outside of the group or post it anywhere on-line, other than the e-mail exchanges between group members described above.
The Golden Rule applies
Be polite. No personal attacks are allowed, even in fun.
  • Everyone, no matter what their writing level now, has the potential to develop and that no one has a right to do anything to diminish that development or to discourage a person from being a writer.
  • If you can’t say it gently, don’t say it at all. If it’s a difficult call, state it in the form of a question because a question is a lot less confrontational than a negative comment. “How much of your villain’s internal monolog does the reader need?” spares more feelings than “These were the three most boring pages I’ve ever read in my life.”
  • React as a reader. Be sure to include why something worked when you read it as well as why something else didn’t work. Focus on “I” messages that are reactions to what you read, not personal platforms. “I hate books where the victim is a young mother” is a personal platform. “When I read your description of the young mother’s hopes before she was killed, I was too upset to keep reading” tells the writer why she may need to rewrite.
  • Do not reword, unless the other person asks you for this. Words are a writer’s personal stock. We don’t go into a shoe store and pitch the stock into the dumpster because we only like purple shoes. We don’t trash another writer’s stock, either.
  • Learn from the positive, too. Let’s say you read a piece by a person who writes dialog to die for. Or suspense that makes you quiver because you can’t wait to read the entire book. Wonderful! Ask that writer “How do you make your dialogue so realistic?” Or “Why do you shorten your sentences as the action picks up? Or “How did you decide to include only one paragraph of back story?”
Quote for the week:

Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.
~ Barbara Kingsolver, American novelist, essayist and poet

Monday, January 28, 2013

Need Affirmation?

by Julia Buckley

It's a New Year, and we're all striving to be better people via our recent resolutions.  Right?  Do people's resolutions last through January, or do they tend to fall by the wayside?  My own resolutions are what I'd describe as "floundering, but not dead."

Sometimes, when I'm feeling sort of depressed about a goal that didn't come to fruition, I seek affirmation from an outside source.  Thanks to the glorious Internet, I can find this support all day long (if I had all day).

Maybe I'd check into the only 100 Affirmations I'll Ever Need, by Life Coach Farnoosh Brock.

Or perhaps I want to venture to YouTube for a video with 500 affirmations, read to me in a mellow voice by  some New Age guy named David McGraw.

It might be that I need to learn to Think Like a Millionaire in order to be successful. This one is pretty compelling, with beautiful nature images and some mysterious whispery sounds that are apparently sharing some universal secrets with me.

Maybe I need to study the WikiHow page about How to Be Confident about myself and my goals.

Or maybe I should go to motivational speaker Les Brown, who can help me Unwrap My Infinite Greatness. (I do love Les Brown).

Jennifer Fisher tells me, via her YouTube video, that I just need to Dare to Believe in Myself!

Maybe I just need to be inspired by someone from a television commercial.

Do you ever need affirmation from the world?  How do you find it?  How do you use it?  And how are those resolutions coming along, anyway?  :)

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Publishing; The New Paradigm

I'm getting so sick of new paradigms. I mean, I haven't even figured out the old paradigm yet. But new it is. As a matter of fact, by the time you get to the end of this blog post, I'm sure it will have all changed again.

Maybe new authors have it better than "established" authors. Maybe because new authors aren't stuck with the old models and can easily move forward without the old prejudices. I've had to rethink, re-do, and reinvent so often I'm a bit confused these days.

This is my roundabout way of saying that the publishing world is still evolving and welcome to my merry-go-round!

Once upon a time, there was the vanity press, where authors whose work wasn't good enough to be published by big New York publishers could publish it themselves. If you signed with a vanity press, you essentially paid to be published. And it doubly sucked because not only did you pay this money thinking that they would take care of it and you'd start selling like mad, but you didn't sell anything because bookstores certainly wouldn't look twice at you, and you could forget about reviews. There was no such thing as ebooks and Amazon yet.

Then Amazon took the book world by storm, and pretty much opened the door to ebooks (because they had this Kindle Kontraption to sell and needed content) and suddenly it didn't really cost you anything to get published. Except it cost the rest of us, because there was still the problem of lousy books getting "published" that wouldn't ordinarily have seen the light of day. And a LOT of them. Some 250,000 self-pubbed ebooks published each year now. But then more changes happened. Print on demand or POD technology became a viable way for authors to also get print copies of their work out there. (Because POD is just what it says. No need to warehouse books when you just wait for orders to come in and print them when...well, demanded.) And authors with a following, with an established record of publishing with big and small publishers, started to self-publish their out-of-print backlist as ebooks and then print books. Suddenly, it wasn't such a bad thing to self-publish, a formerly dirty word.

But as always, promotion is the bugaboo. A big publisher will at least have your book in their catalog from which libraries and bookstores could order. They'd send your books to reviewers. They'd get you your ISBNs and offer a way for bookstores to connect with distributors. They'd edit, proofread, and design your book, at no small expense. Of course that was all they'd do. No tours, no ads, no placement in endcaps or on tables in the bookstores. Not even a freakin' bookmark. Not for Ms. Midlist, anyway.

And if this last year has taught me anything, it's where promotion is good and where it is lacking.

It wasn't too long ago that if you couldn't get placement in a bookstore, couldn't get your book noticed there, then at least Amazon was another spot where sales could rise. After all, you simply went to your social media "Friends" and asked them to review your book or even "Like" it. Those mysterious algorithms on Amazon would catch those reviews and likes and creep your title up the chain of "if you liked this, then you'll like this" right into the faces of prospective buyers. But then the floor fell out from under all that with the emergence of the "Sock Puppet." A sock puppet is when an author not only pays people/companies to write glowing reviews of their own books, but to write scathing reviews for that of their rivals, whatever that means. (Authors don't really have rivals, not like, say, detergent companies have rivals. When a reader gets done with the latest medieval mystery, for instance, they don't just sit on their hands, feeling loyal to one writer and doggedly waiting a whole year until the next one comes out, forsaking the efforts of all other medieval mystery authors. No, they just go to the next author and buy theirs, and buy the next. And when that first author releases a new book the next year then of course there the reader is buying the latest. And the cycle goes on.)

Amazon got wind of these sock puppets and started deleting "suspect" reviews. Mostly by other authors. The problem was they weren't sock puppets. Authors do read books, you know, and are actually fans of other authors. I know I am. But that didn't matter. And so now the whole paradigm of getting lots of reviews doesn't seem to work anymore. So now what?

I've discovered over the years that tours really aren't worth it either. There is the meeting of bookstore owners and librarians, and those are worth a lot to establish those relationships, because a bookstore seller will hand sell the book of a writer they like, and similarly, so will a librarian when a customer doesn't know what to read next. But it's too expensive to run a hit and miss tour for oneself. After all, I'm the one footing the bill.

GoodReads? I find it hard to get the word out about my books there. Twitter? Some swear by it. Facebook? I found that social media might be a bit deceptive as to how popular you might actually be. The number of "Friends" doesn't necessarily reflect the number of people who will buy your books. And as some of you may know, I am now shopping for a new publisher once the latest Crispin Guest book comes out in the fall of 2013 (SHADOW OF THE ALCHEMIST). I'm not done telling Crispin's story but my publisher is. Besides signing with a smaller publisher, my first and most favored option, I do have another option, one that my agent wouldn't be too happy about. That is--dramatic pause--self-publishing them.

Why, after all my disparaging remarks over the years about self-publishing would I even think about the possibility? Sure, Barry Eisler turned down a rumored $500,000 advance from my very publisher (by the way, my advances are not only far from that ballpark, they aren't even in the same state!) in order to self-publish his next thriller, which he did. And he did just fine. I mean, he could afford to hire a publicist, a decent editor, a book designer and cover artist. And he already had a huge following. Self-publishers get a much bigger margin of profit from their ebooks than you'd see from a traditional publisher, something that publishers barely even cared about in their contracts five short years ago.

But I'm not Barry Eisler. And didn't he just sign with a publisher again? Yeah, it's easier with one than without.

Self-publishing wouldn't be free. You do have to hire an editor/proofreader. A decent cover artist. The book must be professionally turned out. Your readers would expect nothing less. But will it be worth the outlay? It's possible I could still get them into bookstores with the POD print editions (in paperback only. They be more expensive because the bookstore needs to make a profit, I need to make a profit, and the book printer/distributor needs to make a profit). It's possible with a little extra marketing on my part, I could get them into some libraries. It's even possible that I might be able to finagle a print review or two. But it seems that I would make a lot less than I'm getting now. Or would I? Is the higher percentage of royalty worth it? Might it turn out being about the same money? I'm already doing the lionshare of promotion myself, but there is more going on behind the scenes that a publisher can do that I can't (like this article in Publisher's Weekly that my St. Martin's publicist placed last year). What are the odds of my doing better? And as a writer, is it better to simply drop a series and write a new one, one that a publisher will want to publish? Is that how writers should roll these days?

The paradigm has shifted yet again and there are no answers.             

Friday, January 25, 2013

Social Networking

by Sheila Connolly

We're all very connected electronically these days, almost to the point of obsession.  Well, at least a lot of us are.  My sister hasn't quite caught the bug, but at least she has a new computer now, and I keep promising her that she'll hear from me a lot more often by email than she ever has by phone.

But we writers are online all the time—not only emails, but blogs (see, you're looking at one), loops, lists, Facebook, Twitter, and more.  Walk down any street anywhere these days and you find half the people staring at their cell phone, texting someone.  As a dinosaur, I keep wondering what is so important that it can't wait a few minutes, but apparently I'm in the minority.

But all this has started me thinking about how people did it in the Olden Days.  You know, pre-electricity.  Pre-post office.  How did people communicate?

As I may have mentioned, I've done a lot of genealogy over the past couple of decades, so I can point to a couple of noteworthy examples.

Take, for instance, an event that most Americans are probably familiar with:  the battle of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, that served as a catalyst for the Revolutionary War.  I've spent a lot of time in the area, and I know where those towns lie in relation to Boston, where the Redcoats began their march, and also their relation to the Massachusetts towns that mustered their militias to head for the battle. 

We've all heard of Paul Revere's ride, triggered by the signal in the tower of the Old North Church, as described by the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  You know, "one if by land, and two if by sea"?  When Revere saw the signal, he rowed across the Charles River, and, according to Longfellow, reached Medford at midnight, Lexington by one, and Concord by two. The distance between Medford and Lexington is maybe nine miles, between Lexington and Concord, another seven.  The redcoats arrived at Lexington at sunrise. The word spread surprisingly fast: the alarm went out late on April 18th (Patriots' Day, a Massachusetts state holiday), and the colonial militias were in place, armed and ready to fight, on the morning of the 19th.

It was a network that accomplished this: as Revere rode along, avoiding British patrols, he alerted other riders who fanned out to tell other towns. Longfellow kind of skips over the part where Revere and his colleagues William Dawes and Samuel Prescott were stopped by one of those patrols in Lincoln, on the way to Concord—and took Revere's horse, so he walked back to Lexington. But in any case, my point is that there was a system in place for spreading the word, and it worked.  Who needs Twitter?

I can cite another case of early communications from one of my ancestors:  Phineas Pratt, who arrived in the colonies in 1622 and settled in Wessagusset (now Weymouth, Massachusetts).  Phineas is perhaps best known for his account of rescuing the Plymouth Colony from an Indian attack—which he wrote himself (which might account for a few of the heroic details).  The document survives and was summarized by William Bradford (Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647, published by Samuel Eliot Morrison in 1952).

According to Bradford, "In ye meane time, came one of them [that would be Phineas] from ye Massachucts with a small pack at his back, and though he knew not a foot of ye way yet he got safe hither, but lost his way, which was well for him for he was pursued, and so was mist. He could them hear, how all things stood amongst them, and that he durst stay no longer, he apprehended they would be all knokt in ye head shortly."

In other words, Phineas overheard some Indians plotting against the Plymouth settlement, and set out to warn them.  He left about three o'clock in the afternoon, running through unfamiliar woods, in the snow, chased by wolves.  He stopped after dark and built a fire, then resumed the next morning and arrived in Plymouth in time to warn the settlers there (who immediately headed north to attack the Indians at Wessagussett).  Distance between modern day Weymouth and Plymouth? About 30 miles. He may not have taken the most direct route:  as Bradford points out, Phineas got lost along the way, which is why the Indians didn't stop him.

The Plymouth Colony survived because one man overheard something and took it upon himself to tell the colonists.  If he hadn't done that, things could have ended quite differently for our colonial settlements. How do we compare this with our obsession with communicating to hundreds of "friends" every tiny detail of our lives? Does the important stuff get lost in the blizzard of posts and tweets?  Or is that important stuff still communicated face to face? And can we tell the difference?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The five most, um, unhelpful things people say to writers

Elizabeth Zelvin

Why don’t you write a book about... Writing a book is an intense and time-consuming process. There are only a couple of reasons I would commit to this herculean task. (1) I have something to say and feel passionate about saying it. In my mystery series, starting with Death Will Get You Sober, I had something to say about recovery from alcoholism: It’s a transformative process that can be miraculous and awe-inspiring. Further, I said something that I don’t think anyone, at least any mystery novelist, had said before: Sobriety can be fun. (2) A character wells up in my unconscious and starts to talk in a distinctive voice, beating on the inside of my head and demanding to be let out. (I suspect this is what writers throughout history have meant by “inspiration” and “the Muse”.) This happened with Diego, the young marrano sailor with Columbus who appeared in my two stories in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and a still unpublished novel. If your why-don’t-you is an idle comment off the top of your head, believe me, it won’t inspire me. If, on the other hand, it’s something you feel passionate about, write the book yourself.

I have a great idea for you. There are several variants of this one. One old friend was very insistent about the value of her idea: “I can tell you the whole plot and everything.” A beloved elderly relative called me up long-distance, she was so excited about the idea that I could rework my mother’s 1967 doctoral thesis about wiretapping, published just before the digital age took off. “I bet it would be a bestseller,” she said, demonstrating profound ignorance of the nature of bestsellers. I’ve also been asked to write someone else’s book for pay. Now, some writers are real pros at this and do it well. Donald Bain, for one, has had a brilliant career as a ghostwriter and co-author. Better him than me. I was once contacted as someone who knew West Africa (I spent two years there in the Peace Corps in the Sixties) and might be able to help a lady who’d been there—as a missionary? a diplomatic wife? I can’t remember—and come away indignant about polygamy. As a favor to the contact person, I took a look at her voluminous notes—a mass of incoherent thought that you couldn’t have paid me a fortune to dig into and try to organize into a literate manuscript.

I’d write one if I had the time. Who has time? I did much of my professional writing while working a full time job and maintaining a private practice as a therapist. My mystery writing (three published novels, two novellas, a dozen short stories) and the massive work of marketing it to agents and publishers and promoting it to readers coexists with my online therapy practice, being a wife, mother, and doting grandma, keeping up my end of two blogs, aka unpaid journalism, the 400 hours I put into recording the CD of my music that came out last year, the increasing attention my health and fitness needs as I get older, and all the maintenance chores of a complex, high-tech 21st century life. Nobody gets a garret with a desk and a view of Paris or complete freedom from the dust bunnies, the laundry, the supermarket, and waiting for the plumber and the cable guy.

I'll get it from the library. This would be okay if those who say it would ask their local library to order the book and actually check it out when it arrives. But all too often, it’s code for, “I won’t spend the money for your book.” Authors whose books don’t sell become authors without publishers, authors whose later works will not be found on the shelves at Barnes & Noble.

Why don’t you self-publish online? Gee, why didn’t I think of that? I certainly know writers who have taken that route and made it work for them. My own experience is that I would have to do the same amount of aggressive self-promotion, or more, if I published my own work as e-books, as I did with a Big Six publisher, a medium-sized publisher, and and two reputable and experienced e-publishers. The print publishers, however, spared me the expense of producing the books and marketing them to retailers and libraries, while the e-publishers provided me with final editing, formatting for online retailers, commissioning a cover, and finding the best ways to manipulate the Amazon algorithms (or appeasing the Anaconda, as my latest publisher calls it). In my youth, I made the mistake of thinking working as an editor for a publishing company would lead to being a writer. I’m a lot older and, I hope, wiser now. If I wanted to be a publisher, I’d invest my energy in publishing. But I don’t.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Staring at that empty ballot

by Sandra Parshall

I go through this every year when I receive my Agatha Awards nomination ballot prior to the Malice Domestic mystery convention. What should I put on it? Short stories are easy enough to choose, but I’m always bewildered about the kind of books that do and don’t fit the Agatha Award criteria.

The task became more difficult last year when historical mysteries were placed in a separate category. So: if I think a historical mystery was one of the best books of the year, will it be removed from my ballot if I place it in the Best Novel category instead of Best Historical?

Decisions, decisions. The completed ballot is due no later than Saturday.

I could fill up the ballot with books by friends. Some of my friends write some of the books I consider best. But not all are that good. I want to nominate books I genuinely believe rose above the competition. Without having read everything that was published during the year, I can only choose from those I did read, and that always makes me wonder what marvelous work I've missed.

I have three sure candidates for the nonfiction category. First is The Grand Tour: Around the World with the Queen of Mystery, a collection of Agatha Christie’s travel letters edited by her grandson, Mathew Prichard. Second is More Forensics and Fiction: Crime Writers' Morbidly Curious Questions Expertly Answered by D.P. Lyle, MD. The third is Books to Die For: The World's Greatest Mystery Writers on the World's Greatest Mystery Novels, edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke. (The latter two books were nominated for Edgar Awards. The Christie book, inexplicably, was not, and it will be an outright crime if Christie's own words don't earn an Agatha nomination.) Those are the only nonfiction crime-related books from 2012 that I am both familiar with and consider award-worthy, so I will only list the three on my ballot.

The novel nominations are the ones that drive me a little batty, not only because I know so many talented authors but also because the Agatha guidelines don’t explain what a “traditional” mystery is, beyond specifying that it is best exemplified by Agatha Christie’s books and has no explicit sex or excessive violence. However, some books that have been nominated – and won – have borne little resemblance to Christie mysteries. I don’t think my first novel, The Heat of the Moon, is anything like a Christie book, and it has a sex scene, but no, I won’t give back my teapot. 

I always consider Margaret Maron’s latest book, whatever it is, one of the best mysteries of the year, so The Buzzard Table from 2012 is guaranteed a spot on my ballot. I don’t read many cozies, but I read Written in Stone by Ellery Adams and loved it, and it's a strong candidate for my Best Novel nominations list. Another is Racing from Death by Sasscer Hill, who received some nominations (including the Agatha) for her first novel, Full Mortality, but still isn't getting the attention she deserves. And I mustn't forget G.M. Malliet’s A Fatal Winter, an English village mystery in the Christie mold that is more beautifully written than anything Christie herself ever produced. I’ll put my own 2012 book, Bleeding Through, on my ballot because, after all, doesn’t every author write in his or her own title? I’m guaranteed at least one mention.  

I haven’t read many historical mysteries lately, and most I've read have been gritty and violent, so I don’t have a lot to choose from. Joanna Campbell Slan’s Jane Eyre novel Death of a Schoolgirl is a shoo-in, though. Jeri Westerson’s books featuring a disgraced knight as a private detective are billed as “medieval noir,” but last year her 2011 book, Troubled Bones, received an Agatha nomination, so I guess it’s permissible to put Blood Lance from 2012 on my ballot. Anatomy of Murder by Imogen Robertson and The Anatomist’s Wife by Anna Lee Huber are already on it. But I hesitate over including The Orphan Master by Jean Zimmerman, however highly I regard it, because a foray into cannibalism might push the Agatha boundaries.

Best First Novel? Oy. Here’s where I feel a strong impulse to simply write in the titles of five friends’ books – whether I’ve read them yet or not. I’ll try to resist, but I won’t tell you what my ultimate choices are.

Children’s and Young Adult mysteries are foreign territory for me, and I’ll leave that category blank. This is a category where I suspect a small number of voters determine the nominees and winner.

Deserving of a teapot!

Three of my favorite 2012 crime novels are Criminal by Karin Slaughter, Dare Me by Megan Abbott, and The Gods of Gotham (historical) by Lyndsay Faye. But I’ll save them for my Anthony Award nomination ballot when it arrives. I don’t think they fit the Agatha Award definition of traditional mysteries.

I may be wrong.

And I am not the only one who doesn’t know exactly what a traditional mystery is. Ask a dozen people for a definition and you’ll get some interestingly varied answers. Some people think "cozy" and "traditional" are interchangeable terms. Some think all traditional mysteries take place in small towns, or have amateur sleuths.

As I said, if Christie’s books provide the form, some novels that deviate from it have been nominated and have won. If explicit sex and excessive violence are the only forbidden elements, a lot of suspense novels and thrillers could be relabeled traditional mysteries, but if a publishing house is putting a lot of effort and advertising money into branding a book a thriller, I won't argue with the labeling.

Maybe you don’t care about awards, but if you do, you want to know which books are eligible for which honors. Do you think we need a clearer definition, for award purposes, of the traditional mystery?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Have discussion groups died?

Two mistakes writers make:
 Marketing to other mystery writers.
 Marketing to the same group too often.
 ~Jeffrey Marks, mystery writer and marketer

Jeffrey wrote that quote maybe ten or eleven years ago, about the time I was learning to market at all, so marketing to other mystery writers seemed a safe and comfortable way to start, like a bike with training wheels. I figured my fellow mystery writers, having themselves been where I was, would cut me some slack.

One of my havens was discussion groups. I belonged to half a dozen. In case you don’t go back that far, or have forgotten, discussion groups were text-only e-mails, something like the call-and-response of some African and Indian songs. One person would post a question or a comment and other people would comment on it.

The rules were simple, and by today’s standards, archaic.

No images; no attachments.

No politics; no causes; no religion.

Play nice.

Stick to the subject, which was usually writing. Occasionally the group diverted into recipes, childhood memories, or television programs. After a couple of days the moderator announced that, as of midnight, she would pull the plug on the off-the-topic discussion, so if we had anything we were desperate to get out of our systems, please do so by the end of today.

No marketing. A little self-promotion was permitted, but it had to be discrete and preferably identified by BSP—blatant self-promotion—in the message’s subject line.

Over time, the rules crumbled. Promo lines attached to signatures worked their way in; ditto links attached to signatures. Then links in the messages themselves. Then, “I know I’m not supposed to post this, so I’ll just do it really quickly. My daughter is walking for a good cause and if you could support her, that would be terrific.”

The catastrophic downslide began with the phrase, “Read my blog…” What had been lively centralized discussions fractured into exclusive enclaves, with participants essentially saying, “I have something great to discuss, but I’m not sharing with anybody who doesn’t come play at my house.”

The other thing that happened to discussion groups was an explosion of personal messages. I met and grew to care about a lot of terrific people through these discussion groups. I wanted to know when they had health issues, when someone close to them had died, when they had been affected by a natural disaster or, conversely, when they sold a book, won an award, or got a movie offer.

But did the responses have to be public? What’s wrong with sending a private e-mail? Especially when the responder included the entire original message and add “I’m sorry to hear this.” or “Congratulations,” only to have the next responder pick up the message and add their sentiment, on and on sometimes through a dozen well-wishers, until the message became unreadably long.

I still belong to a few discussion groups, but honestly, I mostly look at the subject lines to see if anyone has died, and I rarely post anything myself. Yet, I’m really on the fence whether I should pull out or stay. I can’t decide if it’s long-term loyalty or I keep hoping they will magically get better. What I know for certain is that the noise-to-useful-information ratio in every discussion group has degenerated to an intolerable level.

 I’m curious to know if this same thing has happened to anyone else? Did you ever participate in discussion groups? Do you still find them useful? If you’ve never participated or have gone on to something else, what’s your current favorite way to keep up with what’s happening in your profession, and with others who do the same thing you do?
Quote for the week

Things work well when a group of people know each other, and things break down when it’s a bunch of random people interacting.
~ Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia

Monday, January 21, 2013

In Praise of King's Intellect and Wisdom

This day acknowledges a man who was not only a minister and a leader, but a thinker and a writer. Here is an excerpt from Martin Luther King's writing while he was incarcerated in the early 1960's. He is honored today for many things, and among them should be the fine intellect, evidenced in his writings, which allowed him to be a leader in an era that cried out for wise leadership.

" . . . It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather "nonviolently" in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia, but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: "The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason."

I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: "My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest." They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience' sake.

One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Never before have I written so long a letter. I'm afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers? . . ."

 --from Martin Luther King's Letter from the Birmingham Jail April 1963 (
(photo link:

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Does Guilt Really Matter

Guest Blogger: James Sheehan

Jack Tobin is the main character in the three novels I have written. He represents people who are accused of crimes and even people who have been convicted of murder and are on death row, but he’s not a criminal defense lawyer.

Wait a minute, you say, he’s a lawyer. He represents people accused of crimes and people convicted of crimes, but he’s not a criminal defense lawyer? How can that be? Well, I make that statement based on my definition of a criminal defense lawyer.

Let me tell you a true story. Many years ago, maybe as many as twenty years ago, a friend asked me to try a case for him. He’d gotten in over his head, he thought he could settle the case, and he couldn’t. So he asked me to try it. Normally, this is something I would never do, but, against my better judgment, I agreed to take the case.

It was a false arrest case. Four years earlier, a bank had accused my client of passing bad checks and had her arrested. The state charged her criminally based on the bank’s representations and she had to go to trial to establish her innocence. I called my client’s criminal lawyer to testify in the civil case and, because I got into the case so late, I never spoke to him before he took the stand. He was a good witness and he testified in great detail about the criminal case and about the client and what she went through emotionally, but as he was testifying I thought: The criminal case was four years ago. He probably had hundreds of clients in the interim. How did he remember this woman?  I was sure the jury would be thinking the same thing, but asking that question would violate the lawyer’s golden rule--never ask a question you don’t know the answer to. I had to take the risk.

I never forgot his answer: “I remember her very well because she was innocent. Most of my clients are guilty.”

That’s my definition of a criminal defense lawyer: a person who makes his or her living representing people who are accused of crimes, most of whom are guilty. You might ask and I have been asked this many, many times even though I, like Jack, am not a criminal lawyer--How can you do that? How can you as a person, never mind that you are a lawyer, represent somebody that you know is guilty?

It’s complicated. And there are many good people who become criminal defense lawyers. Why? Well, you have to start with the constitutional concept that everyone accused of a crime is entitled to a lawyer. So there is a need. But, if it’s a lawyer’s ethical obligation to tell the truth--to never put on a false case--how can he or she represent people who are guilty? Right about now, the skeptics out there are laughing out loud. “Lawyers telling the truth! Lawyers’ ethical obligations! Who are you kidding?”

Although I have to agree that there are some lawyers out there who are in it for the money and who will do anything to get their clients off, most abide by the rules. How do you do that? Well, first and foremost, the State has the burden to prove somebody is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. A criminal lawyer can successfully defend his client without putting a witness on the stand, without offering any evidence at all--by simply attacking and poking holes in the State’s case. Second, a criminal defense lawyer does not ask his or her client if he or she is innocent or guilty. The only thing he or she wants to know is whether there is any evidence, like an alibi, exculpating the client from the crime.

So, in general, those are the parameters in which a criminal lawyer operates. Are there grey areas? Absolutely. It’s within those dark, dingy grey areas of ambiguity where writers like me operate. In my next book, The Alligator Man, which comes out in October, 2013, one of my main characters. Kevin Wylie, is working as a criminal lawyer for a very disreputable man who had stepped over the line between the lawyer and the criminal many years before. It’s an easy step to take and, if you’re representing criminals all the time, why not? When he learns the truth about his boss, Kevin has a dilemma. We shall see if he chooses the right path.

That has never been a problem for Jack Tobin. He has always known the right path. Jack’s angst is a little more complicated. I said at the beginning of this piece that Jack was not a criminal lawyer and I made that statement because Jack, up to now, only represented people who he believed were innocent. In The Mayor of Lexington Avenue, he represented Rudy Kelly, an intellectually challenged beautiful young man who was clearly innocent. In The Law of Second Chances, he represented Henry Wilson, a career criminal, who Jack believed  was innocent of the crime of murder for which he had spent seventeen years on death row.

In my new book, The Lawyer’s Lawyer, Jack is sure that Thomas Felton was framed for the two murders for which he was convicted, but he is not sure that Felton is a serial killer as everyone else involved in the case believes. He agrees to represent Felton not because he believes in him but because he knows the State made up evidence to win the case. This is new territory for Jack. And that brings us to the other perilous cliff for criminal defense lawyers: When a lawyer takes a case, he or she has an ethical obligation to do the best job he or she can do for the client. What happens when you represent a murderer and you are successful, but the person might actually be guilty? How do you live with that? And what happens when that person is possibly a serial killer? Does Jack have to deal with something that devastating?

You’ll have to read the book to find out.  

James Sheehan was a trial lawyer for over thirty years. Presently, he is a visiting Professor of Law and the Director of the Tampa Law Center at Stetson University College of Law. To learn more about him you can visit his website on Facebook at James Sheehan, Author, or on Twitter @James_Sheehan_. He is published by Center Street, a division of The Hachette Book Group.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Rapturous Research

by Sheila Connolly

Recently I read an op-ed piece in the New York Times written by Sean Pidgeon, a writer as well as a reference publisher for John Wiley & Sons.  Given his day job, it should be no surprise that he is much invested in literary research, but he was surprised to find that it had a formal name:  research rapture.  He did some online digging and formulated this definition:

…the delightful but dangerous condition of becoming repeatedly sidetracked in following intriguing threads of information, or constantly searching for one more elusive fact.

Sound familiar, writers? Pidgeon was talking primarily about writers of historical fiction, but I'm convinced it applies to any fiction, or at least to those writers of fiction who have a fondness for facts rather than pure invention.  I'm one of them.  Yes, I confess:  I am a research addict.

The Internet makes it far too easy—all those links, like breadcrumbs forming a trail to that one perfect fact that you really, really need for your work in progress. 

I'm still in the midst of writing the second book in my County Cork Mysteries. In it there's a murder at a manor (I swear I wrote the original version of this long before Downton Abbey premiered).  I'm writing about a real town, and I've seen the local manor—from the outside.  Now, this is not historical fiction, nor do I have to stick to "only the facts" about the place.  I don't expect to see the interior; I could, but currently it's a Catholic retreat house, and I daresay the interior in its current state would not fit well with my story.

It has not been difficult to find the history of the family that owned the place when they first enter into my story, in which the last descendant is still living there (not true in reality:  the last descendant died in 1983), going back to the 17th century.  This I derived from multiple websites, starting with that of the retreat house, and then wandering through sites that discuss Irish social history and others focused on architecture.

One of the most intriguing and relevant tidbits came from the Census of 1901 (also available online), which shows the details of the house that year.  For example, this was clearly the Big House of that townland:  where most residences in that townland had two windows in the front (a basis for valuation in those days), the Manor House had 17.  Where the other houses had mainly between six and 11 rooms, the Manor House had 25.

Equally interesting are the individuals listed in the Big House as of the census date.  There were three family members living there in 1901:  the widowed mother (the nominal Head of House) and her son and daughter, both unmarried.  All three belonged to the Church of Ireland (Protestant).  This family of three was attended by four staff:  a cook, a housemaid, a parlor maid, and a kitchen maid; all were Catholic. The cook and the kitchen maid spoke both Irish and English.  There was also a "Visitor" below stairs—a retired nurse from America. So there you have the sociological make-up of a family that belonged to "the gentry" of the day.  And that's the snapshot I needed for my book.

I went off on other tangents, of course.  For example:

--laws pertaining to ownership and registration of firearms in Ireland (strict)
--European Union regulations for establishments serving food (lots of forms to fill out)
--Laws pertaining to serving alcohol
--The number of surviving nunneries in County Cork (more than you might think).

Many of these diversion may result in no more than a line or two in the finished book—something like, "What about opening a restaurant?" "Forget it—too much paperwork." Others lead to questions that can best be directed to human beings rather than the Internet—things like, "how strict are you really about opening and closing hours?" (I asked—there's a lot of flexibility.)

Can readers tell if we can back up those throwaway comments with fact, or if we're just making it up as we go?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Louisa May Alcott: More than a Little Woman

Elizabeth Zelvin

I keep going back to Louisa May Alcott, and not only to reread my favorite books, including Little Women and its sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys, and Eight Cousins and its sequel, Rose in Bloom (we used to call it “the Jewish Alcott book”).
I am convinced that Little Women is tied with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn for the title of Great American Novel, or would be if not for the persistent and longstanding bias against books by women and books that attract mostly women readers. But beyond the work, Alcott remains one of American history’s most fascinating and admirable women. I’d include her in any what-historical-figure-would-you-invite-to dinner list, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

One of four daughters of Bronson Alcott, an impractical and controversial Transcendental philosopher and friend of Emerson and Thoreau, Louisa was born in 1832 and grew up in Boston and Concord, MA. In addition to becoming a successful writer after years of struggle and poverty, she served as a nurse during the Civil War. She never married and died in 1888.

An online bio from the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association says:

Confronting a society that offered little opportunity to women seeking employment, Louisa determined, "... I will make a battering-ram of my head and make my way through this rough and tumble world." Whether as a teacher, seamstress, governess, or household servant, for many years Louisa did any work she could find....

"Jo March" was the first American juvenile heroine to act from her own individuality --a living, breathing person rather than the idealized stereotype then prevalent in children’s fiction.

Available at:

Thanks to the proliferation of e-books, I’ve now been able to read all Alcott’s minor works, including the Civil War nursing memoir, Hospital Sketches and some of those lurid Gothic tales that the fictional Jo stops writing because Professor Bhaer disapproves of their sensationalism. It was fascinating to explore the building blocks of the world of Little Women, in which I’ve been a frequent visitor since childhood. I learned that Louisa’s nursing career in a Washington, DC hospital filled with the detritus of battle—wounded, sick, and dying soldiers—lasted only a month: an intense and exhausting month in which a keen observer gathered ample material. She only quit because she got sick, and she certainly wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty.

Like Jo’s sister Amy, Louisa apparently spent a year in Europe. There’s a delightful travel memoir about her adventures with a couple of women friends that could have been written well into the 20th century (not later only because pockets of unspoiled traditional cultures have more or less disappeared).

The feminist and post-sexual-revolution revision of Louisa’s life has put a few myths into circulation. One is that Louisa despised her children’s books and longed to write for grownups about passion. After reading her whole body of work, I think that’s misleading. Nobody could moralize quite so much if she didn’t believe the morality, even if it was the fashion of the time. I discovered that the Fifties hardcover copy of Jo’s Boys that I’ve had for decades cut out a chapter about Jo and a group of virtuous young women protegees spending a womanly afternoon sewing together. Her stories about doomed and passionate love seem absurd to the modern reader—possibly because as an unmarried woman, she couldn’t impart a hint of sexuality to the love relationships in her fiction.

I also learned the truth about the Polish youth who is supposed to have been the inspiration for Laurie in Little Women, the young man who loves Jo and eventually marries Amy. The way I’d heard it, this was Louisa’s near approach to love. From her own account, it was not quite like that. She did become close friends with this young man. Yes, she was very, very fond of him. But he spent an awful lot of time telling her about his fiancĂ©e back in Poland. And as she points out, they could go about together unchaperoned and remain respectable because she was twelve years older than he. Some of today’s admirers make her sound like a cougar. I don’t think so. And that’s okay--there are more kinds of love in the world than some people think.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

What bestsellers tell us about the book world

by Sandra Parshall

If you’re at all interested in the wild ride that is modern publishing, the bestseller lists make up a fascinating map of the book world. It’s all there in the listed titles: the e-book revolution, the self-publishing revolution, the scramble to keep traditional publishing afloat by any and all means, including embracing e-books and self-published successes.

If you look at the ten bestselling print books of 2012, you might think traditional publishing is doing okay. But the first three slots were occupied by the three Fifty Shades books by E.L. James, and coming in at #9 was the boxed set of the trilogy – books that started life as self-published projects. Together, the four print versions sold around 15 million copies in 2012. Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed also dominated the e-book bestseller list last year, and they’re still selling at a steady clip, rubbing elbows with the likes of John Grisham’s The Racketeer, Gillian Flynn’s phenomenal Gone Girl, and Nicholas Sparks’s Safe Haven.

We’ve become accustomed to announcements about major publishers acquiring print rights to e-book bestsellers in the hope that they can cash in on an enterprising author’s self-generated success. E.L. James is the prime example of how joining forces with a print publisher can – if everybody concerned is lucky and readers are willing – add another fat layer of sales and wealth that might not have been possible in the self-publishing world.

Some self-published writers, though, are holding on to their independence and reaping big rewards. The #3 title on the January 13 New York Times combined print and e-book bestseller list is a self-published young adult romance called The Coincidence of Callie and Kayden by Jessica Sorensen. It’s #2 on the e-book fiction list, sitting between Safe Haven at #1 and Gone Girl at #3. At the beginning of this week, Sorensen’s book (one of several she released in 2012) was #7 on the Kindle paid list and #5 on Amazon’s print literature and fiction bestseller list, in an Amazon Digital edition.

The #5 title on the Times combined print and e-book bestseller list for January 13 is a self-published book called Hopeless by Colleen Hoover. It’s #4 on the e-book bestseller list. Hoover released her debut novel, Slammed, in January 2012 and the follow-up, , in February. Both books were, and still are, bestsellers and have been optioned for film. Hoover’s books, printed in trade paperback using Createspace, occupy the top three slots on Amazon’s paperback bestseller list, with prices ranging from $8.88 for the first two books to $12.98 for Hopeless – the same prices people pay for trade paperbacks from major traditional publishers.

Yes, traditionally published novels still take most of the bestseller slots, for e-books as well as print. But when four of the top ten sellers for the past year were originally self-published, and the big imprints are offering multi-million-dollar contracts to independent authors, you know the ground under the publishing business has shifted and the industry will never be the same again. E.L. James, Colleen Hoover, and Jessica Sorensen are in the second wave of change, after Amanda Hocking and a couple of others led the way.

One thing hasn’t changed: Nobody knows exactly why one book succeeds wildly while others fail or register middling sales. It’s tempting for authors to think that if they self-publish they might parlay an e-book hit into huge multi-platform success. But good sales, let alone bestsellerdom, are no easier to achieve than they ever were, and self-published writers are starting with several strikes against them (lack of a bookstore presence being one). The writer still needs the elusive magic, the indefinable something that will ignite the interest of a vast readership.

I’m still looking for that magic myself. I can hope, can’t I? Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the constantly shifting landscape of publishing, as traditional imprints court writers they previously rejected, as friends who have been dropped by their publishers move on to independent mode, and still others shun the traditional path altogether and jump straight into self-publishing. I wish all of us well as we explore the options for getting our stories into the hands of readers.
The bestselling books (print and electronic) of 2012:

1. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
2. Fifty Shades Darker by E.L. James
3. Fifty Shades Freed by E.L. James
4. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
5. Bared to You by Sylvia Day
6. Reflected in You by Sylvia Day
7. The Racketeer by John Grisham
8. The Lucky One by Nicholas Sparks
9. Fifty Shades Trilogy by E.L. James
10. A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

What to do when your left brain lags

Sharon Wildwind

For decades I had a job that required tons of left-brain thinking. In addition, coming from a family that specialized in crisis mode, I was the designated adult. I suspect that I designated myself, but heck, someone had to do it.

Back in 1979, when I first read Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, I estimated 85% of my thinking came from my left brain hemisphere and only 15% from the right.

A lot has changed. My current estimate is 65% right and 45% left. Some really good weeks, I manage to stay in right-brain mode most of the time. Therein lies the problem.

My left-brain to-do list grows daily. I simply can not get my head around the letters I need to write, the accounting I need to update, the filing overflowing from the desk to the floor. My left-brain refuses to cooperate, even though I don’t find these tasks onerous, or even boring.

For a while I wondered if, at birth, we’re issued left- and right-brain ration books. Perhaps I’d clipped all my left-brain coupons and had none left to spend. On closer examination I realized the problem was in the process of switching sides. My turn-on-left-brain switch seems to be stuck in a permanent off position.

I went down my health checklist. I’m doing great about preventive maintenance. I even added regular meditation and breathing exercises a few weeks ago.

I went to the Internet to see if anyone had tips on how to unstick the switch. One site suggested doing practice left-brain activities, like crossword puzzles, before doing real left-brain activities, like balancing your checkbook. This struck me as less than helpful, because if I could get into gear for doing left-brain activities, the problem would solve itself.

I’d never given much thought to the switching process. I imagined it as turning out one light when I left a room; turning on another light as I entered the next room. What I didn’t know was, was it an immediate on-off switch like light switches, or a slope with one side powering up as the other side powers down, or an off-pause-on sequence, like that interval walking down the hall after leaving the kitchen, but before entering the living room.

I did find one useful bit of research, which suggested, under controlled laboratory conditions, the test subjects, on average, switched from one side of the brain to the other 4-6 times in every 30 second test period. Musicians and dances made more frequent switches. Buddhist monks, people with bi-polar disorder, and mathematicians make fewer switches. In general, the left brain requires more precise conditions to turn on; the right brain requires (or at least tolerates) more loosey-goosey conditions. 

As I stared at that on-line article, I had a blinding connection. Anyone else see it? A few weeks ago I started meditation; Buddhist monks take much longer than average to switch from one side of the brain to the other. Buddhist monks meditate several times a day.

No way am I in the monk category. It’s a victory if I can get two focused minutes at a time. But maybe meditation really is that powerful. Maybe I’m especially susceptible to whatever good chemical things meditation does in the brain. Maybe this is absolute co-incidence and I don’t have enough information to know what the heck is going on. But it was quite a shock to think that small change was having a noticeable effect so soon after I made it.

Am I going to give up meditation? Heck, no. But I think I’m going to balance it out with some dancing as well. Maybe my brain will sort itself out if I give it some change brain sides faster encouragement in addition to the change brain sides slower encouragement.

In the mean time, can you leave me any suggestions you have for switching over to left-brain activities? I’d appreciate it.
Quote for the week
Any active sportsman has to be very focused; you’ve got to be in the right frame of mind. If your energy is diverted in various directions, you do not achieve the results. I need to know when to switch on and switch off: and the rest of the things happen around that. Cricket is in the foreground, the rest is in the background.
~ Sachin Tendulkar, Indian cricketer