Saturday, January 31, 2009

Blind Spots

Chris Roerden (Guest Blogger)

I'm puzzled by the way some writers misinterpret a less-than-enthusiastic acceptance of their submissions. Okay, I'll call it what it is — rejection — but it's not the I'd-rather-swallow-a-snake form of rejection.

Some years ago I met a writer who worked for a successful producer of online games. Lynn's first attempt at a novel and her first rejection letter brought her to me. "They hated my work," she wailed. "This—this agent simply hated it." I read the letter. It began, "I like your writing style—"
"She lies," Lynn said. "If she liked my writing, she wouldn't have rejected it." Blind Spot #1: equating a compliment or encouragement with a willingness to make a financial investment in every book that's likable.

The letter continued. "Though this novel isn't for us, I hope you'll let me see your next one." Despite my translating what "isn't for us" means in publishing, Lynn was unconvinced. Even my pointing out the rare invitation to send the agent her next manuscript didn't overcome Blind Spot #2: a crippling determination to feel rejected, no matter what.

To the writers reading this, let me know what you make of all this. Maybe Lynn's reaction was related to something editor Anne Mini reported: More than half of agent invitations to revise and resubmit are not acted on. Yet these invitations are for manuscripts already inside the door, if the writer chooses to step through it. So I'm not sure of the reason for Blind Spot #3: not following up on a request to revise and resubmit. Does the revision suggested by the agent seem too difficult, too much work? Is that why my silent auction donations to edit the first 10 pages of a mystery, good for a year, remain unredeemed by three-quarters of those who've paid a dozen conferences for their winning bids?

What I do understand is the reaction of an author to being edited. I'm not talking about those heavy-handed copy editors who change dialogue for characters they don't relate to, or perversely swap the punctuation of every "it's" with "its" — and vice versa — as happened with a manuscript I'd edited between the time I sent it to the publisher and got it back for proofreading.

No, I'm talking about a thorough developmental and line edit. One's baby, red slashed across its face, would overwhelm anyone. (Which is why I use pencil.) Then comes anger: that stupid, evil editor! "Murderer!" Eventually, professionalism prevails and the author recognizes the validity of perhaps 75 to 98 percent of editorial suggestions.

I doubt that this understandable reaction is related to Blind Spot #4: a conviction held by some that their work is perfect as is. Here's but one of many stories I can tell you. (I've quite a few.) A New Jersey radiation oncologist who planned to self-publish had the perfect reason: she could market her nonfiction book directly to cancer patients.

She had her manuscript expensively typeset and composed, with dozens of medical photos, and took the finished page proofs to a top-level publicity outfit. They read the work, said they would not accept it unless the doctor had it professionally edited, and referred her to me. I was still editing full-time then and willing to postpone a mystery manuscript to take on a technical edit.

I requested a sample and received the autobiographical chapter. Impressive credentials, well-written. So I asked for my deadline, half the fee, and the pre-typeset, pre-composed manuscript files. The writing was dreadful. I edited and rewrote 1,500 sentences, inputting all of it to the e-file. For hundreds of ambiguously described medical procedures, too muddled to guess at, I queried. And I met my deadline.

Her complaint? Too much editing. "It took me 12 solid days to get through the edited manuscript and make the changes you suggested. You made me miss my deadline." Surely the doctor found merit in my queries since she chose to address them instead of meeting her deadline (self-imposed).

What's too much editing for a book intended to make cancer patients better informed, less fearful? I could reveal this New Jersey radiation oncologist's name, since my legal judgment against her for nonpayment of the balance is a matter of public record. But I don't need to. My point is the blind spot. Only some writers have it, along with some inventors, musicians, and artists. Not editors, though. You think?
Chris Roerden is the author of DON'T SABOTAGE YOUR SUBMISSION, the all-genre version of DON'T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY, winner of the Agatha Award and nominee for the Anthony and Macavity awards. Authors she's edited in her long career are published by St. Martin's, Berkley Prime Crime, Midnight Ink, Viking, Rodale, and many others. Visit for more information.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Here we go again . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

DAY 1: First Winter Storm of '09:
Though my day to post is Friday, today it's Monday, January 26th. and the weather stations are predicting several inches of ice this evening. A huge winter storm is headed straight for us. Hubby is on his way to the grocery store to stock us up. Since we depend on a well with an electric pump for all our water, I'll have to fill one of the bath tubs in order for us to have enough water for the, um, toilets. Drinking water we keep in stock for just such emergencies. I'm writing and scheduling my post today in case I don't have Internet access for the rest of the week. By the time this posts, we could still be covered in ice, or we could be thawed out. In the mid-West, one never knows.

We had a similar storm last year, and we all learned our lessons well. Ice bends all the trees, even the strongest, and the bent trees take out power lines, leaving large areas without power for days at a time. So the locals stock up on food. Dress warm in case the heat goes out. (We have a gas fireplace, so we will at least have heat. And we have a gas grill to cook on.) And we prepare to be isolated from other humans.

Last year I had to heat my tea water on our gas fireplace logs because the gas grill was out of gas. This year we made sure we had plenty of gas to cook with. Our flashlights have good batteries, oil lamps have oil. Incidentally, how Abraham Lincoln managed to read and do his school work by said lamps beats me, but we keep them for power outages. At least they light up the house at night, but reading is difficult. We don't own a generator but it's high on my wish list.

Sooo, what would you do if you were trapped in your own home by thick ice and no electricity for several days, meaning no television (or radio unless you have a battery operated version) no computer or Internet, no phone unless you were smart enough to buy at least one that isn't cordless, no stove unless you have a gas version, no running water, and um, well you get the picture. Do you have enough books to read? Enough sewing or other craft work to keep your hands busy? And a way to heat tea or coffee or hot chocolate? Are all the knives, guns, and other possible weapons securely locked up so you and your loving spouse can't kill each other? Not to mention your bored children. That alone gives me the shivers . . . bored children. Thankfully ours are grown.

So that's how we've prepared for the coming ice storm. Snow would be welcome, bringing the neighbors over to sled on our huge hill and hot chocolate to warm us after. Ice storm? Not so much.

Oh, and to make things even better, my daughter-in-law just called to inform me that there are two escapees running from a nearby prison. The doors and windows are securely locked, but I'll be more at ease when hubby returns. And these two prisoners may wish they'd waited to escape until spring arrives, given the weather predictions. My daughter-in-law said they're both wearing bright red jump suits and orange hats, so in snow/ice they should be fairly easy to spot. Sigh. Life is rarely dull, even in our rural area. Hot chocolate, anyone?

Day 2: First Winter Storm of '09
Everything in sight is covered in ice. Thankfully we still have power . . . for now. The lines outside are sagging. Some homes in Paducah are without power, and a major highway is closed due to a downed power line. The Brookport Bridge, aka the Blue Bridge or the Irvin Cobb Bridge, take your pick, which connects Paducah, KY to Brookport, IL and has been around since the early 1900's is closed.

FYI, a couple of decades or so ago, some bright soul had the idea to rip out the bridge's asphalt decking, which had worked fine for about seventy decades, and replace it with metal decking created with holes just large enough to drop a Coke can through, the main theory being if Coke cans would go through, snowflakes/ice crystals would also go through and the bridge would be totally fine during our frequent snow/ice storms. Well, Coke cans do drop through, (my then teenaged sons tested this part of the theory out with the help of their obliging father. Did I mention cars are not allowed to stop on the bridge for any reason, including droping Coke cans through the holes?) However, no one mentioned it to the snow/ice. The bridge freezes with the first flake and often has to be closed. That creates double traffic on the I-24 Bridge, the only other way Southern Illinoians can reach Paducah, where many work. Where was I?

This morning Hubby offered to cook bacon, eggs, and pancakes for breakfast, and given that my momma didn't raise any dummies, I humbly accepted. He divided his morning between chasing off the blackbirds (who are hogging the feeders and running off the smaller birds) and flipping flapjacks. Let's just say his flapjack flipping abilities trump his bird chasing abilities and leave it at that.

No word on the erstwhile escapees yet. IF they have any sense, they turned themselves in by now. The freezy stuff is still coming down. We have about a half to an inch of ice and more on the way. Hubby says the ice on the front porch gave under his weight the first time out but now is frozen solid. Not good.

If no reports follow, you'll know we're in the dark.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Reunion redux: Drama, closure, and mystery plots

Elizabeth Zelvin

Back in the fall, I wrote a post I called The Joys of Reunion, describing how my junior high school class from Queens rediscovered one another 51 years after graduation. It ain’t over, far from it, and I can’t resist writing a follow-up.

We’ve had several get-togethers in addition to the continued barrage of emails that have us what some classmates are calling “addicted” or “hooked.” One was a poetry reading in New York at a progressive bookstore—did you know there are still people out there talking about “the Revolution”? Another was a party at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, which I remember back in the Fifties as being so snooty that Jews (like most of us in the class) were not welcome, and the first African-American to win the national women’s singles title (Althea Gibson in 1957, the year we graduated) was not allowed to shower in the clubhouse. (I hasten to add the place has changed a lot!) We had an all-girls dinner at which, as I’d expected, the conversation became even more intimate than in the mixed group, ranging from first menses to widowhood.

Musical aptitude brought us together in “the orchestra class,” and the teacher we all adored was our music teacher, the father of one of our classmates. He helped us all choose instruments: I wanted to play the flute, but couldn’t coax so much as a squeak out of it, so I ended up as a cellist. He made sure we joined the All-City Orchestra, even though we were younger and less skilled than the other members, because he wanted us to have the experience of playing onstage at Carnegie Hall. That performance remains a vivid memory for those of us who participated. He also charmed us by talking to us in a forthright manner that most adults didn’t in the Fifties. For example, I remember being deliciously shocked and skeptical when he explained the Oedipus complex. I’d never heard of before, my mother the lawyer not being a believer in the unconscious.

Apparently it is rare for a junior high school group to have a reunion, though, as everyone knows, it’s common among high school and college classes. It’s not only the time span that's remarkable, although we’ve certainly seen enormous changes in the half century between then and now. These are the people who knew me, and I them, when we were eleven and twelve years old, that crucial moment on the brink of puberty. One thing that’s changed a lot is the frankness between men and women. So I got to tell the cutest boy in the class how cute I thought he was. That was fun! And I learned he not only thought I was the smartest girl, but he thought I was attractive back then. Man, I wish I’d known that fifty years ago, but it was good news even so belatedly. In fact, it was healing.

One of my most painful memories of junior high was the fiasco of the ninth grade prom. The prom back then, especially in junior high, was not the wedding-level gala proms have become. There was a dance in a hotel ballroom, somebody’s father drove you and your date to and from the event, and if you were lucky you got a chaste peck on the cheek or perhaps the lips (depending on whose father was waiting in the car) at the end of the evening. Most of the invitations were issued at my thirteenth birthday party, which happened to fall in mid-April. For the girls, there was great cachet in being asked to the prom, especially by one of the boys we considered cute. As the evening wore on, everybody but the birthday girl paired off, and I felt worse and worse. Finally, a boy invited me. He was rather a sullen kid, whom I didn’t know well, but I was relieved and grateful I had a date—until he marched up to me in class the next day and rescinded the invitation. (All ended well when someone else invited me—a very nice guy whose path since then has included coming out.)

When we started sleuthing on the Internet to find our long lost classmates, we had trouble locating the boy who’d uninvited me to the prom. And as more people remembered what had happened, the emails included a certain amount of joking about whether we should punish him by not trying to find him. I dealt with the painful memory the way any mystery writer would: I wrote a revenge-fantasy short story. (I changed the circumstances: in the story, the girl gets stood up at the last minute.) Well, it’s a good thing I wrote it fast, because we’ve found the guy. And you know what? He apologized handsomely. The way he remembered it, he hadn’t rejected me because of some flaw in me (and do you know any thirteen-year-old girl in the world who wouldn’t take it that way?)—he’d “chickened out.” What a healing revelation that was. He admitted without prompting that he was “not a well behaved boy” at that time and assured me he’d become “more of a gentleman” in the fifty years since. My heart melted. My first thought was, “How incredibly sweet!” My second: “Thank God I’ve already written the story!”

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sara Rosett, Writer on the Move

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Sara Rosett is the author of the Mom Zone mysteries featuring Air Force wife and professional organizer Ellie Avery, whose life mirrors the author’s in many respects. Since marrying an Air Force pilot, Sara has regularly packed up her family for moves to California, Texas (where she grew up), Washington state, Alabama, Oklahoma, Georgia, Maryland, and Virginia, where she lives now. Although she admits to being less organized than her heroine, she has found time to write four series novels – Moving Is Murder, Staying Home Is a Killer, Getting Away Is Deadly, and the upcoming Magnolias, Moonlight and Murder (April from Kensington).

Sara’s nonfiction writing has been published in Chicken Soup for the Military Wife’s Soul, Simple Pleasures of Friendship, Simple Pleasures of the Kitchen, Romantic Times, Mystery Scene, Mystery Readers Journal, The Writer, and Georgia Magazine. For more information, visit and

Q. Tell us about your current book, Getting Away is Deadly.

A. Air Force wife and professional organizer Ellie Avery goes to Washington, D.C., expecting some r&r while her pilot husband attends classes—but it’s Ellie who gets a deadly lesson when the getaway turns out to be murder.

Q. Would you categorize the Mom Zone books as cozies? Does the term bother you, or do you find it useful for targeting an audience?

A. Some people categorize the books as cozy and the designation doesn’t bother me. For me, when you say a “cozy book” it brings to mind a book that makes you want to curl up in an overstuffed chair with a cup of tea on a cold day. Who wouldn’t want that? On the other hand, if the word “cozy” is used as a derogatory term with sneer firmly in place, well, that’s different. Many readers who I talk with aren’t familiar with the term cozy. I describe my books as “whodunits” in the tradition of Agatha Christie.

Q. What was the inspiration for Getting Away Is Deadly?

A. I accompanied my husband, who is military pilot, when he went to Washington, D.C. for two training classes and those trips inspired the book. I didn’t witness a fatal accident in a Metro station, but I couldn’t help thinking what dangerous places they were. And then I made the typical mystery writer leap—what if someone fell into the path of an incoming train? It would be a great place for a murder since there aren’t any guardrails to prevent someone from falling into a train’s path. I also saw the tourist sights and included some in Getting Away is De
adly, including the Lincoln Memorial, the Museum of Natural History and the Air and Space Museum.

Q. You’ve moved around a lot because of your husband’s military career. Does the frequent change of scene disrupt your writing – does it take you a while to settle in and get back to writing – or does it energize and inspire you?

A. Oh, it disrupts my routine all right! It takes about a month or two to get ready for the move, make the actual move, and then get everything unpacked again, so my word count does suffer. The upside is every place we live gives me new material and new ideas for books, so once we get through the actual transition it’s great.

Q. Are you as organized as Ellie is?

A. I wish! One look in my closet or kitchen cabinets and you’d know I’m nowhere near Ellie’s level of organization. I do a lot of research for the organizing aspect of the books. I’ve interviewed professional organizers and keep up with organizing and storage trends. Ellie is super organized and I had a lot of fun writing the book that will be out in April (Magnolias, Moonlight, and Murder) when Ellie’s home and family life prevent her from being as organized as she’d like.

Q. Do you get plot and character ideas from the places you live and the people you meet there, or do you steer away from using anything (or anyone) drawn from real life? If you use a real place, do you wait until after you leave to write about it?

A. Except for Getting Away is Deadly, which is set in Washington D.C., the rest of the locations, including military bases, are fictionalized. I didn’t want to write about a real military base and then have it closed down when the book came out. Base closures happen every few years and I didn’t want readers pulled out of the story, if they happened to be familiar with real military bases. The first two books in the series are set in eastern Washington state and anyone who’s lived in the area will recognize Spokane and Fairchild AFB. The next book takes place in middle Georgia. The plot ideas are hard to pin down, but several ideas have come from news stories. I’m a voracious newspaper reader and always find something interesting in the local paper. I don’t write about people I know. Sometimes I’ll start with a characteristic or personality from someone I know, but once I begin writing the character morphs and changes into something new.

Q. When did you start writing with the goal of publication? Was selling the first book easier than you expected, or harder?

A. I’ve always written. Even as I kid I wrote stories and wanted to be a published author. I didn’t seriously attempt to write a novel until nine years ago. I did quite a bit of research on the publishing industry while I was writing, so I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy journey. It took me two years to write the first book (Moving is Murder) and another year to find an agent, then it took her awhile to sell it. By the time the book actually came out it had been about five years.

Q. What do you know about publishing now that you wish someone had told you before you sold your first book?

A. Promote the book, but don’t kill yourself. I’ve realized that I can only do so much to make the books and the series a success. I’ve seen other authors do everything right—aggressively and effectively promote their books, have their books sell well, and they still get dropped by their publisher. My philosophy now is: do what I can for promotion and then get back to writing.

Q. Do you work with a critique group or individual friends who give you feedback on your manuscripts, or do you go it alone? Have you been able to find writing friends in all the places you’ve lived?

A. I usually go it alone. I tried to find writing friends, but the frequent moves have made it difficult.

Q. What is your writing routine? How do you fit it in when you’re also working at a job outside the home?

A. Finding time is always a challenge. I used to write in the afternoon when my kids were napping. Now that they’re in school, I write in the morning. I’m not currently working outside the home, but I did last year and it was extremely difficult. My hat is off to the people who are able to do it!

Q. What is your writing process like? Do you outline before you write? If so, do you follow the outline faithfully, or do your characters do things you didn’t expect and change the direction of the story?

A. I start with an idea and map it out on a large piece of butcher paper, making a graphic organizer with my ideas for the different plot lines. I’m not an outliner—I can’t put things down in a list, but I can scribble all over the paper and draw lines and arrows. I transfer the thoughts to index cards, with each card representing a scene. I usually have a pretty good idea where the first third of the book is going when I start to write. I have to get into the draft and as I write, certain details for the middle and end of the book begin to come together. I write through to the end and then revise.

Q. What do you believe are your greatest strengths as a writer? What aspects of craft are you still trying to master?

A. I think I’ve finally figured out how to plot. Several reviewers have commented on the intricate plots, which is a good thing, I think! I’m still learning how to craft arcs that carry from book to book. I’m fascinated with television shows and how they carry an underlying story throughout a season or from season to season.

Q. Do you ever have writer’s block? How do you get through it?

A. There have been times when I was stuck, but I kept plowing on and eventually got something that I could revise. For me, the trick is to keep going and not critique the first draft as I write. It took me years to learn to keep going and revise later.

Q. What writers have inspired you and taught you by example? Whose books are must-reads for you?

A. Oh, I’m sure I’ll leave someone out, but here goes…Writers who inspired me: Mary Stewart, Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt, Sue Grafton, and Carolyn Hart.

Current must reads: Carolyn Hart, Margaret Maron, Veronica Heley, Diana Killian, Denise Swanson, Heather Webber, Rett Macpherson, Sarah Stewart Taylor, and many more, but I’ll stop there. That’s a taste of my favorites.

Q. What’s in the future for you? Will you continue writing the Mom Zone series indefinitely, or would you like to move on to something new?

A. I love writing about Ellie and as long as Kensington is interested in the books, I’ll keep writing them. Since the stories revolve around a family and families are always changing and growing I’m sure I’ll be able to find more stories to tell. I have other ideas and if I can, I’ll work on those as well, but right now one book a year with the promotion that goes along with it is all I can handle.

Q. In parting, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

A. Read as much as you can in the genre you want to be published in and go to writer’s conferences. I found several in my local area when I began writing. I entered samples of my book in their contests and got feedback from published authors, which was really helpful to me. Don’t give up. You have to be persistent and patient.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Look Both Ways

Sharon Wildwind

In 1983, all my friends were ga-ga over personal computers.

Keep in mind that I come from a tribe of more-than-a-little-geeky, Star-Trek-watching, science-fiction-reading fen. Fen is, of course, the plural for fan. I took physics in high school, and double chemistry. I could—at a time so far in the past that it is an infinitesimal memory point—use a slide rule.

I said to myself, “I have to get a computer, or I’m going to be left behind.” What I actually said, accompanied by what Andrew M. Greeley’s Bishop Blackie calls, “a west Ireland sigh,” was that I was so far behind the computer curve I’d probably never catch up.

In reality, I only thought I was so far behind.

In 1983, an operating system called DOS (developed by a couple of IBM whiz kids named Paul Allen and Bill Gates) was barely on the market. Most computers were still being programmed in BASIC, FORTRAN, COBAL, and Pascal.

Atari games were three years old. In 1982, Disney Studios had released a movie, Tron, where some of the drawing and special effects was actually done on a computer! Word Perfect was one-year old. Apple had sold a remarkable $1 billion dollars worth of personal computers, and ARPANET had just standardized TCP/IP. If that last one isn’t exactly crystal clear, think of it as the world had just discovered it was pregnant with the Internet.

In any case, I bought a second-hand, cassette-tape-fed Radio Shack computer and fell down the rabbit hole into computer land. The point being, I could buy a computer. It wasn’t just a money thing, but that computer—as primitive as it was—was available to me in a small Canadian town far away from other small towns.

Things have changed.

Today, If I wanted to buy a Kindle, I couldn’t do it. I live in the wrong country. Even if someone I knew in the United States bought one for me, I couldn’t download a lot of material, which is available in the states. Vendors have the ability to backtrack an ISP address and, if that address tracks to outside of the U.S., no sale. Same thing with the iPhone a couple of years back. It took a while to get here, and when it did the service contract was severely limited and on and on. Same thing with sites that offer downloads of old television series, but only if you live in certain countries. I’ve used friends in the states as shipping addresses because many on-line vendors have a ship-to-U. S.-addresses-only policy.

The PEW Internet & American Life Project tracks a lot of Internet stats. According to their May 2008 survey, 73% of Americans surveyed, 18 and older, use the Internet. This goes to 90% in the age group 18 to 29 and drops to 35% for people over 65. If you’re white or English-speaking Hispanic, you’re more likely to be using the Internet than if you are black. If you live in the city or suburbs, you have more of a chance than if you have a rural address. If your household makes over $75,000 a year, the odds are almost double that you would use the Internet than if that income were less than $30,000. The more education you have, the more you use the Internet.

I saw quoted last year in a discussion about technology that last year—2008—was the tipping year for DSL access. For the first time, more than 50% of U.S. computer users were able to have access to cable service rather than use dial-up modems. It wasn’t that more people don’t want to use cable, it was that the cost is prohibitive to bring cable to many rural addresses and small towns.

I know elderly people who can no longer look up phone numbers. They have trouble making ten-digit local calls. They can not contend with the “If you are calling about a bill, press 1,” ad infinitum lists of push-this-button automated services. They can no longer check their bank or credit card balances, inquire about their tax return, order from a catalogue, or in some cases, reach the correct a health care provider at a large hospital. They are getting tired of being told, “No, I’m sorry we don’t have anyone here who can give you that information, but everything you need to know is available on our web site.”

So the question isn’t is technology here to stay, but who is going to control access? Who gets to decide that if a person lives in a certain place they can or can’t get the latest device and the hook-ups to use it? And, what do we do about all of those people who don’t want to or can’t go electronic? What are some decent, humane ways of providing those people with basic customer services? Or is that even our responsibility as a society? Should we simply adopt an attitude of join the technological revolution or be ignored?

We all need to spend some time thinking about what life is like for the less technologically fortunate.


Quote for the week:

You should always know when you’re shifting gears in life. You should leave your era; it should never leave you.
~Leontyne Price, singer

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Celebration of Genius

by Julia Buckley

This week marks the literary birthdays of Virginia Woolf (January 25) and Lewis Carroll (January 27). These two British icons shared the gifts of creativity and perceptiveness. I thought I'd share some of their more memorable quotes.

--"A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."

--"Fiction is like a spider's web, attached ever so slightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible."

--"I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don't have complete emotions about the present, only about the past."

--"If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people."

-- all of the above by Virginia Woolf (source is here)

--"Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop."

--"If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there."

--"One of the secrets of life is that all that is really worth the doing is what we do for others."

--"Sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

--Lewis Carroll

That last quote is my favorite, and surely an inspiration to any writer. If we could all believe in impossible things we could surely create worlds of wonder for our readers, as Carroll did again and again.

Does anyone have a favorite work by either author?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

100 Greatest Books?

Some time ago, TIME Magazine put forth a list of what they determined were the 100 Best Books from 1923 to the Present.

This is an awfully difficult thing to narrow down and a super-ambitious timespan, but of course it's fun to look at the list and determine what one would add or delete.

So . . . how many of the books on TIME's list have you read?


Friday, January 23, 2009

These Changing times . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

Everything around us seems to be changing, and I doubt we've even seen the tip of the iceberg yet. A new President for our country, other new law makers, the economy is in very serious trouble, job loss is at an all time high . . . change is truly everywhere. A lot of it not good. I, along with every author I know, am wondering how this will affect writing and publishing.

Books are as necessary to those of us who love to read as food and medicine and the other basics of life. But if push comes to shove, buying food and medicine will have to trump buying new books. Libraries and used book stores will get more of the buyers business, book stores online or brick and mortar will get less. Many independent book stores have already closed, many more likely will. Which will, of course, reduce resources for authors and publishers.

This will obviously trickle down to how author's promote their work. Book signings are becoming less and less popular with book stores. Conferences authors attend will see fewer attendees this year, and some conferences have already cancelled their annual meetings. I fear there will be more in the next year or two.

Fans love meeting authors at signings or conferences, getting signed copies of their favorite books. And authors love meeting their readers, getting to know them, getting feedback, along with meeting with other authors for support. These kinds of losses will cripple the industry as a whole.

The major option currently left to authors, publishers, book sellers, and buyers will be the Internet. Not as much fun as authors and readers meeting in person, or an author being able to meet face to face with her/his publisher, but still a great option. That's assuming we can all afford to stay subscribed to the Internet.

I've already had to cut back on the number of books I can afford to buy in a year. I took a hard look at the books I bought last year, read, and decided not to keep, and realized I need to hone my buying skills quite a bit. I asked for gift certificates for Christmas so I could buy a Kindle. That way I can purchase books a bit cheaper, read them on the Kindle, and delete them when done. Or keep them, should I want to, as it holds 200 books. But at the end of the year I shouldn't have a tote bag full of books to dispose of and there should be at least one tree still standing that wasn't cut down to provide me with new books. I'll still order books by my have-to-have authors, at least as long as I can afford to.

It will be interesting to see just how far the economy does affect the writing/publishing business this year and the coming years. One HOPES publishers will stop giving those huge advances to writers with big names and small talents and focus more on what the reader really wants . . . new works by new writers, writers that hold our attention. Well, we can at least hope.

I belong to several author discussion lists online and I can't help noticing how many newbie authors who used to be energetic and enthusiastic on these lists have slowly drifted away, no longer producing new books, no longer updating websites. A sad loss for those of us who love to read new works.

One hopes readers will keep reading, keeping writers writing. If you have any thoughts on this subject, feel free to post in the comments.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Seminal and Exemplary Mysteries

Elizabeth Zelvin

I recently heard that a gentleman with an encyclopedic knowledge of the mystery genre will soon be revealing the seven mysteries he considers “the” books all mystery writers must read. I don’t know his list, but if I’m allowed to guess, I believe he will probably choose works by Edgar Allan Poe, A. Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, and Rex Stout. (If I may hedge my bets, I’ll nominate Sheridan LeFanu, Mickey Spillane, and Erle Stanley Gardner as alternates.) As it happens, I won’t get to hear his talk. But before I realized I had a schedule conflict, I had already compiled an alternative list of works that, if not the seven progenitors of the mystery heritage, are a lot more relevant to my heritage as a mystery writer. My feminist dander is up, and I’m ready to charge to the defense of the traditional and especially the character-driven mystery, as well as the matrilineage of mysteries by women. I hasten to add that none of these have been attacked in any way. This is purely speculation on my part. But I had a lot of fun selecting my seven candidates. So here they are.

Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Dame Agatha is perhaps the most likely to appear on a male mystery historian’s list. After all, she is the mother not only of the cozy, but also of the puzzle in which the murderer turns out to be the least likely suspect. Her plots, highly original in their time although they have become clichés through imitation, are widely admired. Having to pick one book, I chose Roger Ackroyd, although it’s not my favorite, but as the exemplar of the unreliable narrator.

Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night
The presiding genius of the Detective Club during the Golden Age of mystery in the 1930s, Sayers reached her peak in this mystery without a murder that is also a richly textured novel, which I believe earned her the right to be considered the mother of the character-driven mystery. I’ve posted this opinion elsewhere, but it bears saying again. The key passage is one in which Harriet Vane asks Lord Peter Wimsey for advice about her novel.

"'Well,' said Harriet...."I admit that Wilfrid is the world's worst goop. But if he doesn't conceal the handkerchief, where's my plot?'
[Peter suggests a way to define Wilfrid's character that would give him motivation for concealing the handkerchief.] ....'He'd still be a goop, and a pathological goop, but he would be a bit more consistent.'
'Yes--he'd be interesting. But if I give Wilfrid all those violent and lifelike feelings, he'll throw the whole book out of balance.'
'You would have to abandon the jig-saw kind of story and write a book about human beings for a change.'
....'It would hurt like hell.'
'What would that matter, if it made a good book?'"

I suspect that Sayers and her muse had precisely this conversation in her head, and Gaudy Night was the result. The creation of Harriet and Sayers’s increasingly three-dimensional portrayal of her both in relation to Lord Peter and grappling with her own dilemmas regarding her work and what kind of life to choose ushered in the transition of the traditional mystery from primarily a puzzle to a puzzle embedded in a character-driven novel.

Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time
Tey’s work falls in the period between the Golden Age and what I’d like to call the age of Sisters in Crime, analogous to the Second Wave of feminism in the 1970s and 1980s. My favorite among Tey’s books is Brat Farrar, a character-driven novel that is both endearing and enduring. But The Daughter of Time stretches the boundaries of the genre by applying modern detection, by a temporarily bedridden British police detective, to a famous historical puzzle, the character of King Richard III and the fate of the Little Princes in the Tower.

Sara Paretsky, Indemnity Only
Paretsky was not only chief among the founding goddesses of Sisters in Crime, but also the mother of the American woman private eye novel, along with Sue Grafton and Marcia Muller. Paretsky’s protagonist is not only physically tough but also finds most of her cases in the “man’s world” of business, politics, and finance. Indemnity Only was the first outing of V.I. Warshawski, and it revolutionized the depiction of women in mysteries.

P.D. James, An Unsuitable Job for A Woman
All of the highly acclaimed P.D. James’s novels are works of literature as well as British police procedurals in the Adam Dalgleish series and P.I. novels in the works featuring Cordelia Gray, of which this is the first. James is one of those writers who is always being said to transcend the mystery genre, to the annoyance of mystery writers. I was dismayed to find, among the blurbs of the most recent Wexford novel by Ruth Rendell, her closest rival, a statement by James herself that Rendell “has transcended her genre.” Let us say, rather, that both these writers have set the bar high for the rest of us in our chosen form of literature.

Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice
King is another superb literary stylist who earned her place on this list by stretching the boundaries of the canon of one of the progenitors and masters of mystery fiction, by giving Sherlock Holmes an apprentice and mate who is not only female, young, and feminist, but just as smart as he is: a worthy partner.

Elizabeth Peters, Crocodile on the Sandbank
A male mystery historian might find this a frivolous choice, but the first Amelia Peabody mystery by Egyptologist Peters (or Barbara Mertz, to use her real name) has it all. It’s an exemplar of the historical mystery, informed by legitimate scholarship and a shovelful of literary license, in a context of romantic suspense. Its protagonist is one of mystery’s memorable characters. And it’s tremendously funny, a welcome and crucial element in the genre.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Susan Froetschel and the Princess of Wales

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Susan Froetschel is the author of three mystery novels – Alaska Gray, Interruptions, and the recently released Royal Escape, which Publishers Weekly called a “beguiling what-if.” She is assistant editor for Yale Global Online and has written for the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Business Journal, Hartford Business Journal, House Beautiful, Alaska Magazine and other publications. She was a reporter for five years with the Daily Sentinel in Sitka, Alaska. Susan now lives with her family in Maryland and is a member of the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime.

Q. Tell us about Royal Escape.

A. The story is about a Princess of Wales who worries about the constraints that the monarchy system and instant celebrity impose on her children. Elena would like to work within the system and give her children more opportunities for an ordinary life, but discovers that the traditions are too rigid. As she presses for change, she becomes an enemy to those who depend on such traditions.

Q. What inspired you to re-imagine the story of Princess Diana? What was it about her life that captured your interest?

A. What intrigued me most was her status as a global celebrity, which is v
ery different from local or national celebrity. Global celebrity is rare. Often, that level of celebrity hinges on the individual bucking sentiments in his or her home nation, and those contradictions fascinate me.

Q. Did you have to do a lot of research into the lives of royalty?

A. I did not do a lot of research. My books often center on personal family relationships. This book emerged at a time when many of my friends were pursuing divorces, even as they were raising young sons, and we watched our children grappling with a celebrity and consumer culture.

Q. One of your speaking topics for public appearances is the influence of celebrities on the lives of ordinary people, especially young people. Why do you think people get so wrapped up in the lives and loves of celebrities they’ve never met? Do you think the phenomenon of modern media-driven celebrity (or notoriety) is generally unhealthy, or can it sometimes be used in beneficial ways?

A. People are naturally curious and look for stories everywhere in their lives – at work, in our entertainment and neighborhoods. Stories teach lessons on how to enjoy life and avoid mistakes. The modern version of celebrity driven by the availability of instant information is not unhealthy as long as consumers, both young and old, are aware of their ability to sort through the messages, assessing and selecting celebrities worthy of attention.

Parents can use these public stories as examples for discussing the process of making good or bad decisions with their children. In fact, I think it would be a mistake for parents to avoid talking about these public stories. But I also think it’s sad that so many parents put their children’s lives on display at younger ages. But the rest of us can benefit, especially if our children realize there’s more to life than pursuing fame.

Q. You’ve spent most of your professional life in various branches of journalism. When did you start writing fiction with the goal of publication – and why were you attracted to mystery?

A. Like many members of Sisters in Crime, I fell in love with Nancy Drew as a young reader. I loved how she took control, asking questions and solving problems. Nancy Drew inspired me to be a journalist and a mystery writer. I began writing fiction – short stories – with the goal of publication while I was in college. I attempted my first book when I was 28, when I was working as a reporter for a daily newspaper in Alaska, and put the first 100 pages to the side a few months later. My first book was accepted for publication when I was 37, while living in Boston. As a journalist, I’m naturally attracted to suspense and mystery.

Q. Was selling the first book easier than you expected, or harder?

A. Selling my first book, Alaska Gray, was easier than I had expected. I anticipated years of rejection, but St. Martin’s was the third publisher that read the manuscript. Of course, the editor expected a thorough rewrite, but that was fine and I enjoy the process of revision immensely, playing with words and new scenarios.

Q. What do you know now about the life of a novelist that you wish someone had told you before you sold your first book?

A. I have new respect for marketing and sales professionals. I had no idea that the author is responsible for so much promotion. Good promotion mixes luck, skill and psychology – timing book topics with the public interest, catching reviewers or bookstore owners on the right day, selecting the clever phrase to explain one’s book, assessing and responding to the many reactions to a novel. It’s just as well that I was so unaware, otherwise that part of the process could have deterred me from writing the first book!

Q. How do you fit writing and promoting into a schedule that includes a day job and family? What is your writing routine like?

A. My schedule was more routine when my son was young. My husband worked at a hospital during the evening shift and I put my son to bed early and then wrote all evening long. Now I try to write early in the morning, but end up jotting down ideas or pages even while waiting in offices or other spare moments when I forgot to carry a book to read. Unfortunately, I am not good at shifting from writing mode to promotion mode and find it best to emphasize either one or the other.

Q. Tell us about your writing process. Do you outline before you write? Do you do a full first draft before revising, or rewrite as you go? Do your characters do unexpected things that take the story in a direction you hadn’t planned?

A. I always start with detailing the crime and then build the story from there. That crime is not necessarily the start of the book. I like to get a full draft or at least an outline in hand before I engage in much rewriting. My outlines are not extensive, sometimes a list of phrases or a few sentences. As I write and rewrite, I search for conflicts, small and large, that add to the suspense. The conversation comes naturally, just spills out, and I often must use a heavy hand to cut the dialogue. And as the story unfolds, the characters can surprise even me with what they say and do. Once I get to know them, their reactions just pop into my head.

Q. Do you work with a critique group or rely on one or more readers for feedback as you write?

A. I met with a critique group while writing my first book – and collected some wonderful advice from the sole published author who attended. But she was impatient with most members of the group, which immediately disbanded. I made one close friend from that encounter though – who is a master of humor. Unfortunately this talented woman never found the time to complete a novel. I keep waiting and hoping though.

Q. What do you believe are your greatest strengths as a writer? What aspects of craft are you still trying to master?

A. I think my plots stand out from many mysteries, in that I tackle social issues. I enjoy weaving setting and all its symbolism into any story. I wish I could get my characters to be less chatty and preachy.

Q. What’s hardest for you to write, the beginning of a book, the middle, or the end? Why?

A. The beginning is by far the easiest. Writing the end is the most difficult, because with my plots, I must tie up many loose ends and want to do that in a way that’s not so obvious. And because I write stand-alones, it’s hard to say good-bye to the characters. I try to leave my readers satisfied by relaying the main character’s life philosophy and motivation for taking particular actions, but also expressing doubt and recognition that others may not agree.

Q. Do you ever have writer’s block?

A. I can honestly say that I never get writer’s block. But I do get topic block, which could well be a bigger obstacle for writers. I never tire of writing as a journalist, but the topics change daily. For a novel, a writer must sustain discipline and tone. For me, completing a novel is impossible without being passionate about the topic.

Q. What writers have inspired you and taught you by example? Whose books are must-reads for you?

A. My favorite book is Bound for the Promised Land by Richard Marius. The book never fails to amaze me. But in truth, I learn so much about the craft of writing, with every book I read. I often reread passages to study a writer’s strategy.

Q. What’s in the future for you? Will you continue writing stand-alone novels, or can you see yourself beginning a mystery series at some point?

A. I lack the discipline for a series and prefer to go where whimsy takes me.

Q. In parting, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

A. Write a page every day, become just as passionate about rewriting, and never give up.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Canada Calling: Bloody Words

Bloody Words IX

It’s an Ottawa hat trick.

Bloody Words IX, Canada’s only national mystery conference, happens June 5 to 7, 2009, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

Ottawa is, of course, the capital of Canada. A hat trick is usually three goals scored by the same player in a single hockey game, but it’s become slang for three of anything. The hat trick happening in Ottawa is an opportunity to meet with an agent, have your manuscript critiqued, and possibly win a prize.

First, the Bloody Words is offering mystery writers a chance to pitch ideas to an agent and discuss representation. This is a free, fifteen-minute with an agent, and available slots fill up quickly, so get your request form in early. The form and details can be found here.

Second, you can opt for a manuscript review by and a meeting with a published mystery writer or editor. Length of work critiqued will be of the first 30 pages of a novel-length work or up to 30 pages of a short story. The fee is $35 Canadian, and the manuscript must be postmarked and in the mail April 1, 2009. Entry guidelines, formatting and entry form are here.

To complete the hat trick is the Bony Pete short story contest. Entries have a 5,000 word limit, must be crime fiction or mystery, and Ottawa (in any time period) must figure in the story somehow. Entry must be post-marked by April 15, 2009. Winner receives a “Bony” which is a small statue of a skeleton, and $100. Information and submission guidelines are all here.

Now that the kicker for all of these is that you have to be eligible, you must be registered to attend the Bloody Words convention. In addition being able to meet with an agent, have a critique, or win a prize, here’s what else is going on at Bloody Words this year.

Guest of Honor:
Louise Penny, author of the fabulous Chief Inspector Gamache series. Her first book, Still Life, won the UK Dagger, the Canadian Arthur Ellis, as well as the US Anthony, Barry and Dilys awards. Her second book, Dead Cold, won the Agatha Award for Best Novel, the first Canadian writer to win that award. Her third, The Cruellest Month, was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis for Best Novel and debuted at #1 on the US Independent Mystery Booksellers Association bestseller lists. Her latest novel is The Murder Stone.

International Guest of Honor
Denise Mina, from Scotland. Her first novel Garnethill won the Crime Writers' Association John Creasey Dagger for the best first crime novel and was the start of a trilogy completed by Exile and Resolution. A fourth novel followed, a stand alone, named Sanctum in the UK and 'Deception' in the US. In 2005 The Field of Blood was published, the first of a series of five books following the career and life of journalist Paddy Meehan from the newsrooms of the early 1980s, through the momentous events of the nineteen nineties. The second in the series, The Dead Hour, was published in 2006.

Then there’s the charming and funny Mary Jane Maffani as Master of Ceremonies for the banquet, the Arthur Ellis awards, The Mystery Café with 12 or so authors from across Canada and beyond reading from and discussing their books; panels and workshops, schmoozing with great mystery talent, and of course, Ottawa itself.

You’ll be about a month late for the tulip festival, but there’s still exploring the Rideau Canal (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which runs through downtown Ottawa) by canoe or paddle boat, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the Canadian War Museum, the National Gallery, the National Arts Centre, tons of smaller museums and galleries, and haunted walks tours, which show the darker side of Canada’s national capital.

The only thing I haven’t figured out is if Canada is a metric country, why is crime afoot in Ottawa? Shouldn’t it be crime is a.0348meters in Ottawa? Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
Quote for the week:

The thing you have to be prepared for is that other people don't always dream your dream.
~Linda Ronstadt, musician

To which I would add, the nice thing about mystery conventions is that they are filled with people who also dream your dream.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Black Holes, Eiffel-Tower Magnets and The Mystery of Dark Matter

by Julia Buckley
My son used to be a very anxious little person. He'd ask me, even at four, serious things like whether he would die in his sleep or if a tornado would come and carry us away. I am convinced it was a biological inheritance rather than an emotional one--in my family we all tended to be obsessive little people, and that, doctors say, has a fear component.

I'm happy to say he's mostly grown out of it. He's fourteen, and prefers to spend his time either ignoring me or making really annoying sounds right next to my ear drum. But yesterday, while I did dishes, he appeared next to me and said, "So have you heard about this giant particle accelerator that they're building in Switzerland?"

I hadn't heard too much about it, which I confessed to him. Just that it existed.

"But, I mean--if they try to re-create the Big Bang, are we all going to die?" he asked, showing me those big earnest eyes that hadn't changed much since he was little and fearful of funnel clouds.

"Of course not," I assured him. "But let's do some research." This is my answer to everything, and it's served me well.

The giant particle accelerator is located in an underground labrynth 300 feet beneath pastoral Switzerland. More than 2000 physicists are working on this eight billion dollar project launched by a company called CERN. An NPR reporter who witnessed the placement of a 2000 ton electromagnet into a subterranean chamber put this weight into perspective: it is "the weight of five jumbo jets, or one-third of the weight of the Eiffel tower." Ironically, according to the NPR story, this giant electromagnet is a baby compared to a larger one that waits in the wings: a seven story behemoth that they have named ATLAS.

The goal of creating the jumbo accelerator is, of course, to help solve some mysteries of the universe and infinite space. How? Apparently by smashing things together to see what sort of new particles are created--perhaps things that have only been theorized about, but never found, on earth. The machine may in fact create dark matter, so called because scientists know it exists, but don't know what it is.

Another goal of the accelerator is to create mini black holes. This is a long shot, scientists say, but all 2000 of the CERN scientists and many scientists throughout the world seem to be quite excited at the prospect. (Not that some aren't protesting this giant accelerator--scientists included). They know that this is probably not going to happen, and yet it is a theoretical possibility. With this giant science experiment, they hope to take it beyond theory.

According to another source, when "the Large Hadron Collider gets going, it will begin blasting protons - one of the building blocks of atoms - almost at the speed of light, generating temperatures of over one trillion degrees centigrade."

This humongous creation is meant to study the tiniest of matter--a paradox of science which, hundreds of years in the future, might seem like a primitive quest for knowledge.

For now, though, it's the biggest thing on our scientific frontier.

To answer my son's question: is it safe? Are we in danger from these potential black holes? According to David Kestenbaum, questioned in the NPR interview, "No, they wouldn't live long. Estimates are a thousandth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second."

So they labor to create a giant in the hopes that in less than the blink of an eye they might find an answer to the creation of the world.

And that is the most fascinating mystery there is.

NPR link here
photo link here

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Happy birthday, dear Eddie...from your Deadly Daughters

**WINNER! Congratulations to Caryn in St. Louis, winner of our anniversary giveaway. Caryn, please send me your mailing address (darlene at and I'll get your copy of Poe in the mail. Thanks to everyone who commented.**

As Edgar Allan Poe's birthday, January 19, rolls around again, Poe's Deadly Daughters enters its third year of blogging. It's a big year for Poe: his ghost will be blowing out 200 virtual candles, while Mystery Writers of America is bestowing its 2009 Raven awards on the Edgar Allan Poe Society and the Poe House in Baltimore, whose curator, Jeff Jerome, endearingly refers to the father of the detective story as "Eddie."

To celebrate we have a copy of Poe, edited by Ellen Datlow, to give away. Published to coincide with the anniversary of Poe's birth, the anthology features 19 stories inspired by the master's writing. Authors include Sharyn McCrumb, Melanie Tem, Gregory Frost, and John Langan. In comments tell us what the highlights of the past year were for you, or just say "Hello" and you'll be entered in a drawing for the book. Check back here Sunday night to find out who the winner is. Good luck!

Here are some of the highlights for each of us in the past year. Thanks for sharing the joys and challenges of the mystery writer's life with us!

Elizabeth Zelvin (Liz)
I celebrated my 64th birthday with the publication of my debut mystery, Death Will Get You Sober, launching the book with a memorable party at The Mysterious Bookshop in New York and fulfilling a lifelong dream. In January, I planned my nationwide book tour; in February, I planned my virtual tour through mystery cyberspace; the virtual tour, guest blogs and interviews on many wonderful mystery blogs, took place in March; the launch in April; a tour that took me to libraries and bookstores in twenty states in May and June; and then I got to bite my nails for a few months, till St. Martin's offered me a contract for the sequel, Death Will Help You Leave Him. It'll be out this fall, and in the meantime, I've had a short story accepted by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and have been writing and sending out additional stories, some about my series characters and others breaking new ground for me, including historical and paranormal mysteries and a revenge fantasy.

Lonnie Cruse
2008 was a year of big numbers for me. I turned sixty-five, we celebrated our forty-fifth wedding anniversary, our youngest son turned forty, and our grandson became a teenager. Along with those numbers, my first book in my new Kitty Bloodworth/'57 Chevy series came out right at the end of '07, so promotion, signings, and sales (some very important numbers) all took place last year. I'm thankful to my readers and all the numerous libraries that bought copies, as the book sold very well. I hope to continue the series with Five Star publishing it. And I hope to keep blogging here with my lovely Poe sisters. Poe's writing had a huge influence on me as a reader, and I'll never forget reading his work for the first time. I do hope he has some help with those 200 candles!

Julia Buckley
What a fun year it's been! I think this year will be most auspicious, because, if I continue Lonnie's "numbers" theme--I just turned 44 and my other favorite literary great, William Shakespeare, is 444 years old. I feel there is some psychic connection here--not to mention the connection with Edgar Allan. The other day my family was playing a trivia game called "Name Chase," and the question in the air began with "An American writer and poet." With the first clue we got neither gender nor time period, and yet my ten-year-old son and teammate said, "Edgar Allan Poe!" Even more shocking: he was right! Apparently he's been reading "The Raven" in school and has really taken to Poe and his complex rhythms and rhymes. It helped us win the round, and convinces me that our literary greats are always watching over us. :)

May you all have an equally auspicious year!

Sharon Wildwind
Well, the terrible twos weren't so terrible after all. Unlike toddlers, we on the Poe Team didn't have any difficulty making decisions, though several times we came close to losing it because there were so many choices for us, so many wonderful mystery folk out there to share the blog space with, that we had trouble deciding who would come next. Greedy little two-years that we were, we wanted it all! All the writers. All the readers. All the friends. All the books. Thanks for coming along for the ride. Come back, bring your friends. Maybe by next year we'll have figured out how to distribute virtual cake to everyone. Enjoy.

And this just in . . .
Did you know Edgar Allen Poe made a significant contribution to the science of cosmology? From Scientific American
Looking for Background Noise: The Cosmic Reality Check A puzzle, known as Olber’s paradox, was solved in 1848 by Edgar Allan Poe. In his prose poem Eureka, he argued that the stars must not have had enough time to fill the universe with light. The darkness of the night sky, then, tells us that the universe has not existed forever. Not only has that hypothesis stood the test of time, it eventually proved crucial to formulating the big bang theory. Who knew?

Darlene Ryan
I spent a big chunk of 2008 off my feet in a cast and as mushy as it sounds, learned that the writing community really is more like a small town than a sprawling metropolis. My writing friends and colleagues kept me up on everything that was happening in publishing and surrounded by stacks of books. My blog sisters were full of encouragement and good for more than one very needed laugh. And I discovered how many friends I'd made here. (There's nothing like animated barnyard animals singing a get well wish to pull you out of a pity party.)

Thanks for sharing our love of books, cheering our successes and ignoring the times we goofed.

Sandra Parshall
For me, the greatest pleasure of blogging has always been the chance to interview other writers and ask a lot of nosy questions. My thanks to all who submitted to my interrogation during the past year. I promise lots more in the coming year.

A major highlight of 2008 was my visit to the Poe House in Baltimore. In this tiny house, shared with his aunt and cousin (soon to be wife) Virginia, Poe produced some of the most astonishing and memorable writing the world has ever seen. The poverty in which he lived is obvious, and it's also clear that he worked on the margins of American culture, achieving only meager success in his lifetime. Two hundred years after his birth, I hope he is somehow aware of the great esteem in which he is now held, and the enduring popularity of his work. The honors heaped on him this year are well-deserved and too long in coming.

Happy birthday, Eddie.

Above: Poe's tiny bedroom, where he wrote

Friday, January 16, 2009

Falling in love with Raymond Chandler . . . wait, isn't he, um, dead?

By Lonnie Cruse

As a reader, I love mysteries best of all, followed loosely by science fiction, followed slowly by romance, depending on the romance. And I read a lot of non-fic, but this is about fiction.

There are authors I only buy in hardback, regardless of the room they take up on my book shelves. There are authors I buy only in paperback, and I'm willing to part with some of them when I'm done. Others I keep. Sadly, sometimes my fave author's latest work only come in paperback, sigh. Hardbacks are so nice to hold. But I digress.

I buy mostly new mysteries, but I'll by vintage versions if I come across an interesting looking one at an antique shop or hear about it online. (Tip: IF you are looking for an old book you read years ago or heard about, try an Internet search. Much quicker than antique stores.)

The biggest problem with vintage mysteries is how much tastes have changed over the decades, so some are difficult to read, for several reasons. Political correctness is probably the biggest change. Things that could be said or terms that could be used in the thirties and forties certainly can not be said/used in modern-day writing. And often the talent is lacking, except for the legends like Chandler, Hammett, and Agatha Christie. Well, okay, that's still true today, sometimes talent is lacking, sometimes it's so powerful it blows the reader away. Still buying/reading a vintage book can be chancy. Which brings me back to Raymond Chandler.

I've loved the movie THE BIG SLEEP since I first watched it, and I pull it out at least once a year. Bogart/Bacall. Who can beat that combo? Add to the mix one Peggy Knudsen who plays the part of Eddie Mars' blonde wife and who gives me four degrees of separation from Bogart/Bacall. Stick with me here. Bogart/Bacall play the leads, Knudsen plays a minor part, her mother, Mrs. Knudsen (mercifully I can't remember her first name, IF I was every allowed to know it) taught seventh grade at Fifth Street Elementary School in Las Vegas, Nevada in the 1950's, and I, sadly was not her favorite student. Not even close. Still, four degrees of separation, no? And I think we heard about "my daughter, the movie actress" at least once a day either before math or after spelling. But again, I digress. I'm good at that.

Recently I read a discussion of Raymond Chandler's works on the DorothyL mystery discussion list. Intrigued, I broke down and searched the Net for his books. Lucked onto THE RAYMOND CHANDLER OMNIBUS, published in 1964. It includes The Big Sleep, (1939) Farewell, My Lovely, ( 1940) The High Window, (1942) The Lady In The Lake (1943.)

I started reading with Lady In The Lake, at the back of the book, because it's been made into a rather a silly movie with Robert Young and Audrey Totter, but it's set at Christmas. I'd been warned that the actual book was set in warm weather and the movie very loosely followed it. Chandler's writing immediately engrossed me. And, yes, the book was far better than the movie.

From there I moved to reading The Big Sleep. Ahhh, how the man can turn a phrase. I particularly love Chandler's descriptions. Rarely does he simply describe a character's clothing. Generally he says what it is, then compares it to something surprising, creating a wonderful word picture not only of the clothing but of the character who wore it. Below are two of my favorites:

After describing his own wardrobe choice for the morning, powder-blue suit, blue shirt, blue tie, etc. Marlow says: I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. (Chapter 1 para 1) That got a laugh out of me.

In chapter 11 para 1 Marlow describes the clothing of Vivian Regan. The last sentence of the paragraph reads: Her black hair was glossy under a brown Robin Hood hat that might have cost fifty dollars and looked as if you could have made it with one hand out of a desk blotter. One hand? A desk blotter? Wahahahah!

Okay, maybe I'm easy to please, but the descriptions the man used blow me away. Often better than in books written this decade.

I don't know about Chandler's day but in this day and time, newbie authors are taught pretty quickly the do's and don'ts of writing. Don't use words ending in "ly", don't start a sentence like this: Crossing the room, she saw . . . . Punctuation rules, argh, some have changed over time, and what hasn't changed I forgot before Mrs. Knudson ever turned me loose on the unsuspecting reading world. Vintage mysteries often break these rules, mostly because the rules didn't exist back then. Writers like Chandler do it, get away with it, and make you like it. Their writing is timeless, wonderful in the thirties and forties, still wonderful seven decades or so later.

IF you've not read anything by Raymond Chandler, or IF you think you know his writing from the movies, don't kid yourself and don't cheat yourself out of a wonderful read. Get a copy of one of his books (or luck onto an omnibus, ABE books online carries them and they are nice ones) and start reading. You won't be sorry.

Thankfully, I still have two more in the omnibus to read, along with THE PENGUIN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH by Donna Andrews, among other reads. Sigh, so much time, so many books.

And I hope you, dear reader, are not one of those people who was taught to clean your plate and read every page in a book, whether you like the book or not. Life is too short. If you hate the book, skip to the end, IF you have to know the end, then put it down and pick up something you know you'll enjoy. IF your to-be-read (TBR) pile begins to shrink, there is bound to be a new book somewhere by one of your favorite authors to read. Personally, I'm three and a half books behind on reading Donna Andrews, at least one by Bill Crider, and I daren't even look at my Anne Perry or Dorothy Cannell list. Sigh.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Homonym Aphasia and Other Signs of Age

Elizabeth Zelvin

Fellow mystery writer Cheryl Solimini and I, along with at least a handful of others I’ve located on the e-lists DorothyL and Murder Must Advertise, share a mysterious malady. Each of us, when the symptoms first appeared, thought we were the only one. And now Cheryl has given it a name: homonym aphasia. When it strikes, formerly perfect spellers and error-free keyboarders start thinking one homonym but typing another. We who prided ourselves on never needing Spell Check or proofreading suddenly render “two” for “too,” “wear” for “where,” and “their” for “they’re.” In addition to perfect homonyms, we screw up dissimilar words that share a syllable or even just a letter or two: “restaurant” for “residence,” “will” for “with.” This neurological stumble began for me when I turned sixty. One day, I hadn’t misspelled a word since 1955, when I flubbed a word in the New York City round of the National Spelling Bee. Blow out enough candles to set off a smoke alarm, and all of a sudden I have to double check everything that flies off my fingers onto the screen.

Those who don’t have it don’t understand. “I never could keep those little words straight,” they say. “I do that all the time.” That’s not it at all. Among the diagnostic criteria for homonym aphasia is a history of impeccable spelling and grammar and crackerjack typing. Like me, Cheryl was a spelling champ and has been a professional editor. If you always screwed up “its” and “it’s,” you’re not one of us. If you never did, but now you do and it embarrasses the hell out of you, you are.

Cheryl has proposed an organization to offer support and seek funding for a cure. She calls it the World Homonym Aphasia Treatment Society for Incomprehensible Spelling, or WHATSIS. Sign me up; I’m proud to be a chapter mental—uh, I mean a charter member.

Analogous to homonym aphasia is that far more widespread ailment of the aging, failing memory retrieval. Once again, the diagnostic criteria include not having had a lousy memory in the first place. Does anybody remember (no wordplay intended) the Fifties TV game show Name That Tune? I’ve always had an ear for music, and until my early forties, my completely reliable memory could always come up with a work and composer in the case of classical music or a song title and performer for popular music. That changed in my early forties. My first conscious experience of what many call CRS (for “can’t remember s**t”) occurred during a period when I listened to a country music radio station as I drove to work every day. They had a contest in which they’d plan (see? homonym aphasia: I meant “play”) a miniscule snatch of a song—just a couple of notes—and listeners had to name the song and artist. I recognized the songs all right. But I couldn’t recall the names.

Experts on aging often seem to believe that age-related memory loss is a delusion of the middle aged. They claim that if I keep my mind active and reduce my stress, my memory will be just find (did it again! I meant “fine”). These folks—who are probably under forty themselves—make me grind my teeth. Have I kept my mind active? Let’s see: in the past ten years I have gone from computer-illiterate online technophobe to online therapist and trainer of clinicians in online practice skills, written at least four novels and hundreds of articles if you include blog posts, stayed afloat in a society in which maintenance tasks like paying the bills and organizing one’s calendar have become increasingly complex and time-consuming—need I go on? And what was the rest of the prescription? Reduce stress? I run three miles a day. I sometimes meditate. I have a happy marriage, supportive friends, and delightful grandchildren. I eat healthy. I regularly leave the city for the peaceful country. I have terrific conflict resolution skills. I don't hold grudges. If stress reduction were completely within my power, I’d be blissfully stress-free.

Not that I think the mental acuity I used to have would bounce back if I could zap all my stress. I think it’s neurological. Besides, the source of stress today is not primarily within the individual. Oh, I can tell you how to get rid of it. One, fix the economy....

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Inauguration Fever

Sandra Parshall

I’m very happy – well, ecstatic, if you must know – that Barack Obama will be our next president, but his inauguration day is starting to sound downright scary. I’ve lived in Washington and its suburbs since Nixon was president, and I've never seen anything quite like the inaugural fever that has seized the area this time around.

Washingtonians are used to street closings for World Bank meetings, the Marine Corps Marathon, bomb scares, demonstrations and parades. Security checks and hideous concrete barriers and perimeter fencing are so common as to be barely noticeable. And we know that going to and from the Mall by Metro for any big event means getting back home very late. Crowds? Washington always has crowds.

But one to three million people pressed together on the Mall like playing cards in an unopened deck? The thought of that many humans occupying 300 acres boggles the mind. Even more worrisome is the news that the crowd will have to share a mere 5,000 portable toilets. Do the math. I don’t mean to be indelicate, but if you’re planning to be there, you might want to skip your morning coffee.

Of course, you have to get there before the facilities become a concern. The officials involved are using aversion therapy to discourage all but the hardiest souls – the list of things you can’t do and can’t bring with you is truly daunting, and additional warnings are issued daily. Hauling small children along is strongly discouraged, for good reason. If you feel you must bring a little kid to stand out in the freezing cold in a huge, boisterous crowd for hours on end, be prepared for misery, because you can’t use a stroller or bring a backpack or hamper filled with goodies to keep the children happy. If you stay for the parade, you’ll have to pass up lunch because you can’t bring it with you. You may bring a camera but no camera bag. You can’t bring much of anything, in fact, except your own body.

Northern Virginians are crying foul because all the bridges between Virginia and the District will be closed to personal vehicles. Walking across is allowed, but only one bridge will be turned over completely to pedestrians. On the others, buses and emergency vehicles will claim the roads and pedestrians must stay on the walkways, which are just about wide enough for two people side by side. If tens of thousands decide to walk across, things could get a little crowded, but let’s hope no one will end up in the Potomac on a January day. Many Virginians are resentful that no driving restrictions will be imposed on Marylanders. But it’s not as if anyone can drive right up to the Capitol and park a car. Parking spaces for miles around the inaugural site will be closed to vehicles other than the expected 10,000 chartered buses. People who have to work that day, particularly the staffs of several large hospitals and the city’s restaurants and bars, are also trying to figure out how to get in and how to get out.

Let’s assume, though, that most people who want to be there will overcome the obstacles and will be present when the new president is sworn in. Only the 240,000 with tickets to sit or stand on the Capitol grounds will be close enough to witness the inauguration ceremonies with the naked eye. Those standing on the Mall will be too far away to see much. So big video screens will be hoisted aloft here and there to broadcast the entire ceremony to the crowd. In other words, a gigantic throng will make the long, slow trek to claim standing space on the Mall in winter weather so they can watch the inauguration... on TV.

When the ceremony and parade are over, all those people will have to get back where they came from, whether it’s a hotel room or home. If, say, a million people want to ride Metro at the same time, and Metro can move 170,000 bodies per hour, max... again, do the math. And bring a book to read while you wait.

It sounds like a uniquely Washington kind of mess is shaping up, but so what? This is an event unlike any we have ever witnessed. Whether they voted for Obama or not, everyone realizes that our nation has achieved an extraordinary milestone that we never expected to see in our lifetimes. Furthermore, the country is in such desperate straits right now that only an idiot would wish failure on the new administration. Just being there in the crowd when the son of a white American woman and a black Kenyan man becomes President of the United States will be thrilling enough for many, even if they can’t see much of anything.

Personally, I wouldn’t miss a second of it. I will watch it all, from the best seat in the house – the sofa in our family room, in front of our HDTV.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Dangling, Squinting, and Straining

Sharon Wildwind

Have you seen that TV commercial where a person hits herself on the forehead when she realizes that she could have chosen something better to drink? That’s what I felt like last week. I was reading through my work in progress, and I found too many examples of modifiers that I’d misplaced, dangled, or squinted at. In other words, they had no business being where they were in sentences.

As in real estate, location matters in grammar. The basic noun/modifier rule is that the modifier sticks like a magnet to the noun or pronoun closest to it. Move the modifier, and you change the meaning of the sentence.

Only, he was my cousin.
[So I didn’t want to do the bozo a favor, but family is family, right?”]

He only was my cousin.
[There were three men over there. One was my cousin.]

He was only my cousin.
[Like, I mean it wasn’t as if he were a brother or someone important.] This one is tricky. Only is half way between He and cousin, but in the grammar game nouns are stronger magnets than pronouns, so cousin wins the use of the modifier.

He was my only cousin.
[I have loads of aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, etc., but only one cousin.]

Some modifiers dangle, or are asked to do six impossible things before breakfast. This happens because they’ve failed to practice safe grammar. There’s something missing in the sentence.

A balloon tied to her wrist kept track of Judy at the party. [Hmm, I wonder how much the balloon charges an hour for baby-sitting?]

Who tied the balloon to Judy’s wrist? Her grandmother? Put Gram in the sentence: Judy’s grandmother tied a balloon to her wrist so we could keep track of her at the party.

Wait a minute, who are we keeping track of here, Judy or her grandmother? This is what’s known as a squinting modifier. Squint at the sentence one way an it means one thing; squint at it from another direction and the meaning can be very different.

Let’s have another go at it:
Gram tied a balloon to Judy’s wrist so we could keep track of the child during the party.

How about this one? Being worth five thousand dollars, the insurance company demanded a premium that would put me on peanut butter and generic canned goods a couple of days a month. [Would you do business with an insurance company worth only five thousand dollars?]

What is worth five thousand dollars? A necklace? Okay, the necklace belongs in the sentence.
The necklace was worth five thousand dollars; the insurance company demanded a premium that would put me on peanut butter and generic canned goods a couple of days a month. In the end, I walked out of the office with a policy.

We’ve cleared up the dangling modifier, but we’ve got another problem in the last sentence. Around our house it’s known as a Vonda.

Years ago, a student is supposed to have read a work in progress in a class taught by the science fiction writer Vonda N. McIntyre. In that reading was the sentence, “She strained her eyes through the view screen.” To which Ms. McIntyre is reported to have replied, “Yuck!”

The trend hasn’t died out. Just last week, I read in a book where a reputable, well-published, award-winning writer wrote, “I would have rolled my eyes at him, but they were glued to the map in front of me.”

I really, really hope the writer did that intentionally as humor, because if she did, it was rolling-on-the-floor funny. If it wasn’t intentional—well, even Homer nodded—and it was still funny.

Eyes do not sweep a room or fall to the floor or get glued to maps: gazes do.

Someone doesn’t hear feet behind them in a dark alley: he hears footsteps.

A person does not walk out of an insurance office with a policy, unless we want to imagine a folded legal document going out the door hand-in-hand with the insured: In the end I walked out of the office with a policy in my hand [or purse, or pocket, or some other method of conveying the piece of paper.]

This is one of those do as I say, not do as I do moments. Excuse me while I get back to my WIP and see what else I can find wrong with it.

Writing quote for the week:

Not only does the English Language borrow words from other languages, it sometimes chases them down dark alleys, hits them over the head, and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.
~This quote is attributed to a man named Eddy Peters, but no one seems to have a clue who he is or was

Monday, January 12, 2009

Alas, Poor Christmas Tree--I Knew Him . . .

I felt particularly guilty when I undecorated our tree this year. We had bought a new tree, a hearty pine which was still most gloriously alive on the 9th of January, and whose fragrance still graced our house like a memory of good cheer. I hadn't done enough research about re-planting a tree, although I realize that many people advocate this idea--here's one example. We also don't have much room in our little yard, and a pine tree, given its druthers, would grow taller, right up into the ugly wires that extend from our telephone pole.

So I, like Gary Cooper in High Noon, sought help with the Christmas Tree and found only tumbleweeds and a far-away whistling sound, accompanied by the distant slamming of doors. Alone, I dragged the poor spruce outside like a rejected Old Yeller of a pine, all the way to our compost heap. In a final protest, the tree left needle marks in the newfallen snow.

"Sorry," I told it as it stood, graceful and tall, against the fence, emitting its beautiful scent. "But the birds need you." To prove this point, my sons and I made some little packages for the birds and left them inside the tree. We'd recently been slammed with about two feet of snow, and the birds were having a rough time finding victuals. My sons spread peanut butter on some biodegradable coffee filters, then sprinkled bird seed on top of this. My nature-loving friends tell me that peanut butter and bird seed is a most indulgent treat for birds. We also filled a little lid with more birdseed and left it sitting on a branch.

This way, I told myself, nature was giving back to nature, and I wouldn't have to lose sleep over putting out a tree that was mainly still alive.

But next year--next year I'll dig that hole in advance. I'll have the location all picked out, and I won't have to worry about the frozen ground. I'll let the tree have its Christmas adornments, and then I'll send it back to nature in a new location and be able to enjoy its beauty for the rest of our lives--the tree's and mine. :)