Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Amazon's Long Reach

by Sandra Parshall


I knew Amazon had its fingers in a lot of different pies, but I didn’t realize how long its reach is until I read the interview with Jeff Bezos in the December issue of Wired magazine. Amazon is not only the biggest bookseller in the U.S. and a media powerhouse; it is also the power behind a huge chunk of the internet. Even if you’ve never held an e-reader in your hands or ordered a print book from Amazon, the company has probably affected your life in some way.

What writers and publishers obsess about, of course, is Amazon’s hold on bookselling. Even with publishers resisting its steep discounts, the company has surged ahead of brick-and-mortar stores to become the number one source of books for American consumers. With a little piece of hardware called the Kindle, coupled with its offering of digital content, Amazon quickly accomplished what Sony and other companies had failed to do: it made e-books wildly popular. Now, through its Kindle Direct Publishing program, it’s making self-publishing respectable, as everyone from unknowns to bestselling authors rushes to make previously unpublished and out-of-print work available in digital format. 

Some people cling to the memory of what the book world was like before November 2007, when the Kindle first appeared, but those days are beginning to feel like ancient history.

Now Amazon is a publisher, and fully intends to shake up publishing the same way it has shaken up bookselling. Bezos believes $9.99 is “really the highest price that’s reasonable for customers to pay” for a book. He also believes writers should get a bigger chunk of the income from their work. He cautions the publishing industry that others – such as Amazon – will eagerly move into the vacuum if traditionalists continue “leaning backward” instead of adapting to the changing market.

Amazon is getting into the movie business too, working in partnership with Warner Bros. Pictures. Bezos describes this project as, what else, a “completely new” way of making movies. We’ll no doubt be hearing more about Amazon films before long.

These are the visible ventures, the Amazon activities everybody knows about. Behind the scenes, the company provides an internet base for a broad array of businesses and institutions, attracted by Amazon’s low fees and obsession with giving flawless service.

Here are some of Amazon’s web services customers, as listed in Wired: Foursquare (10 million users worldwide, three million check-ins a day); Harvard Medical School’s vast database for developing genome-analysis models; NASA’s processing of hi-res satellite images to guide its robots; Netflix, a video-streaming service that accounts for 25% of U.S. internet traffic; Newsweek/The Daily Beast (one million page views every hour of every day); PBS (more than one petabyte of streaming video per month); SmugMug’s storage for 70 million photos; the USDA’s geographic information system for food stamp recipients; Virgin Atlantic’s crowd-sourced travel review service; Yelp’s storage for 22 million-plus reviews.

Most of us know Amazon as a store that will sell us anything, including a lot of stuff we can’t find elsewhere. I’ve even used Amazon to locate a particular flavor of feline hairball remedy that nobody seemed to be selling anymore. If it exists, Amazon can find it for you. But beyond the mundane merchandising transactions, Amazon connects us to the rest of the world in many ways every day.

Oh, and did I mention that Bezos owns a company called Blue Origin? It’s a space exploration program. Bezos thinks access to space costs too much, and he’s going to use Blue Origin to bring down the price.

As I said: Wow.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Play’s the Thing

Sharon Wildwind

Which if it’s not catching this writer’s conscious, has very much caught her interest.

A couple of years ago, with the help of the Alberta Playwrights’ Network I set out to discover the differences between writing a play and a novel. I just finished my third workshop with APN and here’s what I’ve learned.

Contrary to what is portrayed in movies, often for laughs, playwrights, actors, and directors like one another. They’re more likely to explain to a playwright why something isn’t working than they are to go off in a flamboyant huff. All of them want a good play to succeed.

Yes, there are demarcations. The playwright’s bailiwick is words. I can add all the stage directions and settings I want to a script, but why bother? If it’s crucial to my story that there is a blue bowl on the table, then I have to make that blue bowl so integral, so essential to the characters’ conflicts that the director is left with no choice but to put a blue bowl on the table. Even at that, the props person or the set designer might decide to use a blue glass bowl, or a blue-and-white Chinese porcelain bowl, or a blue ceramic bowl. I still get my blue bowl.

On the other side of the coin, I can get away with simple directions such as Ashley enters. Not Ashley enters, stage left. or Ashley enters, hesitantly, clutching the folds of a worn-out winter coat around her shoulders. The actors—common usage seems to be to use actor for both genders—the director, and the costumer will take care of all of that for me. All I have to do is be sure that Ashley has a compelling reason for entering or leaving the stage at a certain point. That is such a relief from having to micromanage everything in a novel.

It is an incredibly energetic experience to be in a room of theater people. There is always an energy buzz , all the more amazing considering what else most people have going on besides attending classes. Yes, most of us have day jobs, but we’re not working in one play, rehearsing a second play, auditioning for a third, and coming to class all in the same week. I don’t know when some of them slept.

How are novels and plays the same?
A strong story, with high stakes, is absolutely essential. If you don’t have that, what you’re writing won’t go anywhere.

Plot is different from story. Story is the raw ingredients; plot is how those elements are arranged. Chicken, potatoes, vegetables, and spices are the story. Whether they become baked chicken, pie, stew, soup, or croquettes is the plot.

A writer’s role is to create both engagement and ambiguity.

How are novels and plays different?
A playwright works with what can be spoken and what can be seen. Period. Yes, a monologue could show what a character is thinking, but it’s probably better not to go that route. Let the action speak for what’s going on inside the character.

The audience is the most important character in any play. Unlike a novel, where several years may elapse between a novel being finished and the first reader reading it, audiences connects with the play as soon as they walk into the theater. They begin to do the math, which means they begin to try to figure out what the play is all about. What is that set all about? Why is that column in the middle of the stage painted purple? Why is jazz playing? Who is that woman who just walked on stage? The playwright has to leave enough room for the audience to participate.

And guess what, the best way to be a playwright is to write plays. All the way to the end. Over and over. Just like novels. It’s not nearly as scary an idea as I thought it would be, so with the help of all the wonderful people I've met in these workshops, I’m off to write a few plays and see what develops.

I wonder how long it will take me to get to my first opening night?

Quote for the week

I believe in things that move people, if the audience isn't deeply caught up and moved to either laughter or tears then I don't think it is theater.
~Estelle Parsons, American theatre, film and television actress and occasional theatrical director.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Disturbing Trend, or The Status Quo?

by Julia Buckley

On so-called "Black Friday" this year the media reported several incidents of violence, including one in which a woman pepper-sprayed a crowd waiting for deals at a California Wal-Mart. It is not yet clear why the woman did it, although the assumption at the time was that she wanted "an advantage" in getting a cheap X-box.

Certainly one could look at these store skirmishes and read them as morality tales. At the very least, they suggest something about our society. Yes, we are materialistic; I suppose that's always been an offshoot of our capitalism. But were we always this selfish? Have there always been crazy stories like this, or are we watching a growing trend in self-absorption?

If you vote for B, then you can probably see an example of culture perpetuating culture in the influences all around us. Some of the most popular television icons for young people (the pepper-spraying woman was in her 30s) are the narcissistic Kardashians and the amoral inebriates of Jersey Shore. A recent study by The Girl Scouts of America found that shows like these have a measured negative impact on the behavior of young women (and, I assume, young men), especially in terms of bad language, sexual promiscuity, and a lack of respect for others.
"Everyone surveyed thought reality shows promote bad behavior: 86 percent felt the shows often set people against one another to increase the dramatic value; 73 percent thought reality shows depict fighting as a normal part of a romantic relationship; and 70 percent believed that reality TV leads people to believe it acceptable to mistreat each other."

Another troubling offshoot of the study, according to the Bozell blog link above, was that the young women assumed that all of this "reality tv" was actually REAL and unscripted. Their imitation of it, then, is thought to be organic when in fact it is orchestrated. One of my students admitted to being manipulated by reality tv, but assured me that she wanted to one day be "A mob wife" anyway, because she was simply "obsessed with the show about mob wives." When I suggested that their lives were immoral, she laughed and said that she would be rich. She was, I think, only partly kidding.

In addition, one in four of the survey takers expected to eventually be famous. But in today's world, the distinctions between "fame" and "notoriety" seem less and less clear to young people who might not appreciate the ironies behind nuanced definitions. Fame is fame, and the media panders to those who want their fifteen minutes of it. Talent is obviously not in the equation.

As adults, should we be concerned that our young people are immersed in a media culture of narcissism at a time when they feel particularly narcissistic? Can we blame young people for increasingly gross feats of selfishness when thinking adults make the choices about what goes on the airwaves?

Culture perpetuates culture, they say, and our popular television culture offers little in the way of inspiration and a whole lot in terms of a damaging world view.

However, I may have the short-sightedness of one person looking from only one window of time. Has it always been this way? Am I just taking the curmudgeon's role of castigating youth culture, or is there something destructive at work?

Photo link here.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Touring: Worth the Price?

Since my newest book, TROUBLED BONES, came out in mid October, I’ve been on the road touring. And I think if I never saw another airport it couldn’t be too soon.

My husband actually looks forward to the early part of the tour that I do in Arizona, because this becomes a long weekend for us both, driving from our home in southern California to cross the deserts and slip over the Colorado River into Arizona. A weekend of sitting around pools with the occasional stint at a bookstore or library doesn't sound too bad.

This year, I asked my publicist at St. Martin’s to set me up on a multi-state tour. They are happy to do that for me. Of course, they don’t actually pay for any of it, they just make the phone calls and set it up. It’s up to me to get there.

Is it worth the time and expense for an author? In this age of social media, can one get away with simply tapping away on the computer to get attention? In order to sell books, an author has to get their name out there. And even with all the Facebooking and Twittering one can do, I believe there comes a time when you still have to step out of your front door and go out into the world, meeting people personally and connecting with librarians and booksellers.

I do events all year. I’m lucky to live in southern California where there seems to be lots of avenues for me to get myself out into the public eye, from the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books to smaller but no less high profile literary gatherings like Literary Orange and luncheons sponsored by various women’s professional organizations, as well as library appearances. And once the word gets out that you’re halfway entertaining, you get recommended all over the place. That’s how I roll these days, through recommendations, through the speaker’s bureau at my Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime, and through my publicist with my publisher.

But that only gets me connected in California. I wanted far more coverage than that and this year, I pulled out the stops—and my credit card—to hit the road. (You can see pictures of my adventures at

Before any official book tour, I began the year in January with a couple of panels at the ALA Midwinter Conference in San Diego. And then I got invited to Murder on the Menu, a grand panel of authors sponsored by the Cerritos Library in southern California. So far so good. I could drive to these and they required no overnight stay.

In February, I was invited to Birmingham, Alabama for their weekend of author panels and events in Murder in the Magic City. Now I needed to shell out airfare and hotel. They managed the ferrying around and the meals so that helped. Also in February, I flew up to San Francisco for the day to the Oakland Library to participate on a panel with other mystery authors. Airfare only, as one of my critique partners, Ana Brazil, who lives in the area, offered to drive me around (when I came off the plane she was holding up one of those signs with my name on it, as if she were a limo driver. Funny!)

In April, I hit Literary Orange on a panel with fellow author (and personal idol) Barbara Hambly, and made all sorts of connections with librarians, scoring more gigs for later in the year. There were no fees accrued there and I got a free lunch, too boot. Also in April, San Antonio College invited me to speak as part of their writer’s week (they heard about me through acquaintance with another mystery author). They paid me to be there. That's what I'm talkin' about! At the end of April, I skipped the free LA Times Festival of Books to attend mystery fan convention Malice Domestic in Bethesda, Maryland, where I hosted a banquet table with fans and fans-to-be and also sat on a panel. I paid a conference fee, airfare, hotel, and meals, as well as dosh for giveaways to my tablemates.

I taught a workshop on researching the historical novel at the California Crime Writer’s Conference in Pasadena, for which I only shelled out for the hotel room (which I really got free with my points from Best Western).

In June, I attended and was empaneled at the Historical Novel Society Conference in San Diego (I paid a conference fee, which they cut in half since I was a speaker, hotel expenses, and gas to get there. Meals were included.)

In September, I went to Bouchercon in St. Louis, moderated one panel, sat on another, was snuck into the Library Breakfast by my publisher, and attended an outside event under my pen name at a local bookstore. In October I was on a panel at the West Hollywood Book Fair as my alter ego, and then began my medieval mystery book tour with my book launch in Pasadena (hotel, meals, and party expenses for the launch, including sword-fighting knights, who don't come cheap!)

The following weekend, my husband and I headed out for the Arizona leg of the tour, which was driveable (gas, food, lodging). But the weekend after that I was flying out to Texas to hit a bookstore each in Houston and Austin. The next weekend I was in North Carolina hitting two libraries and two bookstores, and this last weekend wrapped things up in Wisconsin having been invited to Murder and Mayhem in Muskego, another weekend full of panels with fourteen other mystery authors.

But this last one in Wisconsin was the only event I attended all year where all expenses were paid for by the sponsors (except that my flight out of Milwaukee was delayed and I missed my connecting flight to California which ended up in an overnight stay in Chicago, which I paid for). Otherwise, I was all in for conference registration fees, hotels, car rentals, gas, airfare, and meals. And let me tell you, all told for the year, that is a very, VERY BIG bill for a midlist author with only four books released (six if you count the others under my pen name). If you think it's glamorous being an author, let me show you my credit card bills.

So, Jeri, are you just going to complain about it or has it been worthwhile? On a human level, it was very worthwhile. Going to meet the readers personally, giving readers face time--and connecting in person to all those Facebook friends--leads to even more loyalty and to talking me up to other readers. Same thing at the bookstores. Sure, I sell a few right then and there, but now you’ve got the bookstore owner on your side, hand selling when a curious and eager reader shows up and just has no idea what to read next.

But how does one quantify it? Do I have to sell X number of books on my tour to pay for it? Does it even work that way? Can it?

The answer, I believe, is not really. It’s truly impossible to quantify how many books I will eventually sell by these out-of-pocket efforts.

Touring is not for everyone. And because of the expense involved, I doubt I will be doing much traveling at all next year (see me and Crispin on Facebook!). But I’m glad I gave it a push this time around. And, as many of the librarians and new fans told me, “You weren’t on my radar before, but you are now!” Maybe that says it all.

(Pictures, from top: Jeri and the Giant Peach outside of Birmingham, AL; the costume parade at the Historical Novel Society Conference; the town called Hope in Arizona I passed through.)

Friday, November 25, 2011

Listening to Language

by Sheila Connolly

Earlier this week I activated (for the first time ever) the "speech-to-text" function on my computer. I've known it existed for a long time. In fact, I considered setting up something like that for my late father, whose handwriting started out illegible and grew worse with age. He had long been aware of that shortcoming and resorted to typing for most communication (this was in the distant pre-computer days), using a pen only to sign cards and letters. But he's been gone for a decade, and I never saw any use for the function myself.

Then my husband decided to try it out. He needed to put together a talk for someone else to present at a conference, and he was concerned about timing, since the conference assigned a fixed slot. There is a learning curve, for both the user and the computer—you have to accustom the computer to your voice, or conversely, manage your voice so that the computer will recognize what you're saying. (Forgive me if you've been writing this way for years—I'm a little behind the curve.) I'm not sure it did my husband much good, because he had to speak more slowly than usual, not to mention give the computer a few commands along the way. It would have been quicker for him to just sit down and type it out.

But once he'd demonstrated how easy the process was, and shown me where to find the program (very well hidden in Windows), I had to give it a try. I played by the rules and read slowly and clearly, and chose texts that were fairly basic. The computer performed as well if not better than I expected. Then, since it and I were both warmed up, I decided to give it a real test and read a list of Irish place names. I was impressed at how well it handled what I said. While it managed to identify few of the names precisely, its interpretation of the phonetics of the words was more than adequate.

I can see that it could work. However, for personal use, I think I'd find the need to insert command for punctuation and formatting would interrupt the creative flow, so for now I'm going to stick to typing or keyboarding or whatever it's called this week. (Note: I have not tried text-to-speech yet. Will I like it?)

Yesteryear's Richard Pickering
But at the other end of the spectrum, this past weekend I attended an event where the speaker was Richard Pickering, one of the reenactors at Plimoth Plantation. He's been representing various Pilgrims for over twenty years now (since the time frame of the place is set at 1627 in perpetuity, as he has aged he has moved on to age-appropriate colonists). He is well-informed about his task, and strives for authenticity in all things, from clothing to accent. It was the accent that I found intriguing, because he makes an effort to speak English as it would have been spoken in the early seventeenth century. (I didn't have time to ask him for all the details of his sources—how do you recreate vocal sounds that you have never heard?—but he assured me that there is a scholarly basis.)

Today's Richard Pickering
In his colonial English persona he can be easily understood. Yet it doesn't sound like stage English either (you know, what you hear on all those lovely PBS series). What I found most interesting is that almost all of the letters in a word were pronounced then. For example, "known" was said with a hard K at the front. In any word ending with "ion" you would say both the I and the O. So in effect, we speakers of English have misplaced a lot of letters over the past four centuries, not just in this country, but in England as well. Where did they go? And why? It makes me wish I'd taken a Linguistics course.

This doesn't take into account many local dialects, even within England, which is far smaller than our country (and don't get me started on the variety of dialects in Ireland, which is the size of New Jersey). There are still places in both countries that adhere more closely to earlier pronunciations and speech patterns. Yet we all manage to understand each other somehow, and even the computer is able to interpret our words from spoken English. (I wonder what it would make of Richard Pickering?)

Capturing the differences in writing is a more complicated process: if we write what we hear, it looks wrong on a page—and becomes the bane of copyeditors. But what came home to me quite vividly this week is that language is a living thing—familiar yet constantly changing and evolving.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving: What the Deadly Daughters are thankful for this year


Elizabeth Zelvin

When I was a kid, Thanksgiving was more or less about the food. But as I’ve gotten older,
I’ve come to enjoy taking stock of all the things I’m thankful for. Here are three that are particular to this year for me:

1. The Internet, for making it so much easier to keep in touch with my friends, who live on almost every continent and span many religions, races, and ethnic groups. We’ve shared baby pictures (and prenatal sonograms!) and grandchild videos across thousands of miles and been able to give and receive emotional support through all the ups and downs, including wars and natural disasters.

2. My beautiful city, New York, still brimming with life and spirit(you may call it “attitude”) ten years after 911.

3. The gift of music and the magic of a good collaboration: this year I spent hundreds of happy and harmonious (in every sense) hours co-producing a CD of my songs with an old friend in his recording studio, a lifelong dream come true. I’d say I can’t wait for the finished product, except that I’m enjoying the process so much I’ll be sorry when it ends.

Jeri Westerson 

1. I know it's corny, but I am ever thankful for my husband, the long-suffering one, the most understanding one in the world without whom I would not have slogged through the years and years of rejections and finally made my goal of being a published author.

2. Havin
g inside me somewhere the ability to weave interesting stories out of whole cloth, a whispered word, or a picture of something in a book. Where does the Muse come from? Who cares! Just keep it coming.

3. I, to
o, appreciate the internet and the bounty it has to offer. Research is a snap because you can find the book and the library or archive its in, contact that archive, and connect with great people half a world away. It's a miracle!

4. And I love our Thanksgiving holiday camping and cooking the "man turkey" on a huge spit over
the fire.

Julia Buckley

The older I get, the more thankful I feel; perhaps that's just the natural way of things. I find myself feeling grateful for my legs every time I take a walk, and for other things I might once have taken for granted, like the ability to breathe deeply and the chance to see the autumn colors.

I'm grateful for my intellect and for the ability to communicate my thoughts both verbally and in writing (and I feel this every time I watch my mother struggle with her aphasia).

I'm grateful for my sons and the fact that they've grown up to be intelligent and independent--and of course this gratitude becomes greater each day because I know that they will not always live here with me.

I'm grateful for my job and for my students, and for the sense of humor I inherited from my family. Like Jeri, I'm grateful for my husband, and for the memories we've made together.

I could go on all day, but here's one last one: I'm grateful for books and the wonderful stories that people tell, and for my ability to access them and read them!

Sheila Connolly

It's been one strange year, hasn't it?  And it's not even over yet.  For me it's been a kind of half-full/half-empty experience.

I broke my ankle in Ireland early in the year--but I'm grateful for the unexpected insights the event gave me into "real" Irish life, which I can use in a book.  I'm also grateful that the ankle healed well and is back to 99% normal (and I can even dance!).

I'm grateful that my readers like my work enough to convince my publisher to both extend contracts and offer a new one, so that I can continue to do what I love and even get paid for it.

I'm grateful to be part of what promises to be a revolution in the publishing world, as both writers and publishers struggle to make the transition from print books to ebooks.  It may be a while until the dust settles, but I continue to believe that what matters is that we get our words out there for people to enjoy, no matter what the format.

I'm grateful that our daughter is still living with us and working fulltime (at a bookstore!).  While of course I hope that she will move on and create a life of her own, filled with work that satisfies her and people whose company she enjoys, I'm happy to have her around now.  I'm also glad that somehow we managed to instill a solid work ethic in her (she's even saving money!).

Like Julia, I'm thrilled that my favorite writers continue to produce new books that bring joy to me and their other fans.  And thanks to the Internet, we can access publications that have long since fallen out of print and out of sight. 

Sandra Parshall

For more than a year, I've been profoundly grateful for the hunk of steel and plastic that now serves as my right knee. It's a nuisance at airport screening stations, but getting a full security pat-down in view of hundreds of other travelers is a small price to pay for the absence of pain.

Given the turmoil in publishing, I'm grateful that I still have a print publisher and an editor who appreciates my writing. I'm always grateful when a reader takes the time and trouble to let me know she or he enjoyed one of my books.

On a larger scale, I'm grateful that at least some of our troops are coming home from a war zone without the threat of a quick redeployment hanging over them.

Happy Thanksgiving to all our readers from Poe's Deadly Daughters!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

99 is the magic number

Sandra Parshall

Why would a writer offer the product of a year’s work for a mere 99 cents?

Some people are appalled to see authors “giving away” their work, but many who have self-published their new and out-of-print novels as e-books are tapping into the magical allure of the 99 cent price tag. 
Savvy marketers know they can sell almost anything for that
price. To the buyer, it’s a bargain, whatever “it” is, because it costs mere pennies. Move the price up to $1 and the sale will become harder to make. Sure, it’s all in our heads, a perceived difference rather than a real one, but moving the price down from dollars to cents is guaranteed to increase sales.

Steve Jobs, never a slouch in business matters, recognized the attraction of the 99 cent price. When Apple launched the iTunes Store in 2003 (following the crackdown on internet music piracy), Jobs decreed that each single music track sold would cost 99 cents. Even consumers who had grown used to getting music for free (illegally) were willing to pay mere pennies for songs. The prices have since gone up – new singles are now $1.29 – but the phenomenal success of iTunes was built on the 99 cent price tag.

Even when a product costs considerably more than pennies, merchants still draw on the attraction of the 99 cent price by attaching it to the dollar amount. A new refrigerator won’t be advertised for $900. It will be sold for $899.99, which somehow seems like a lot less. A variation, 95 cents, is used in the prices of printed books, clothing, and a few other types of merchandise. We seldom see a tag bearing a rounded-off dollar amount.

E-book authors know what they’re doing when they offer new work or have a limited-time special sale of older work for 99 cents. Readers will buy a lot of books at that price. It’s such a small amount of money that the buyer won’t feel cheated if she doesn’t like a book and deletes it from her reader without finishing it. If she loves it, she’ll be back for more by that writer – at higher prices. (Those higher prices, too, will usually be a dollar amount with .99 at the end.) Writers like C.J. Lyons, J.A. Konrath, and Debbi Mack have quickly built large e-book readerships by using one of the oldest marketing tactics known to American commerce.

Everybody loves a bargain, even when it’s something intangible like a chunk of text that exists only in electronic form. Which proves, once again, that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Like the author…but

Sharon Wildwind

Two years ago I met a writer-hopeful through mutual friends. The person had a strong background in technical writing and hoped to branch out into fiction. We kept in touch with occasional, “Hi, how’s it going?” e-mails. I found the person charming and witty.

Last week I had a chance to read their first book. Reading it was a classic case of like the author, couldn’t make it through the book. In a word, boring.

I am such a coward. Right now I have anonymity because they don’t know I’ve read the book, but I cringe at the thought of another, “Hi, how’s it going?” message, or even worse a “Will you review my book?” message.

I hate the cop-out of I have this, that, and the other thing going on, so I can’t review your book. I mean, how much time does a book review take?

When I was younger, I wished for the acerbic wit of the humorist who wrote in a recommendation, “If you can get this person to work for you, you will be truly fortunate.”

Now I know that a person’s feelings are far too important for off-the-cuff humor. I wish there was a kind and generous way to say, “You’re a terrific person; the book sucks.”

So far, I haven’t found it.
Quote for the week
It is a great thing to know the season for speech and the season for silence.
~Seneca, Roman philosopher, statesman, dramatist

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Worthwhile Trip to Mysteries Past

by Julia Buckley
Do you love watching an old movie now and then? Something in black and white, filled with a dancing Fred Astaire or a whimsical Doris Day? I love the occasional indulgence in an old film; in the same way, I love to revisit mysteries from another era.

Here are the beginnings of three of my favorites--see if they make you want to read on. If they do, you're guaranteed some great reading for the holiday weekend.

1. "Carmel Lacy is the silliest woman I know, which is saying a good deal. The only reason that I was having tea with her in Harrod's on that wet Thursday afternoon was that when she rang me up she had been so insistent that it had been impossible to get out of; and besides, I was so depressed anyway that even tea with Carmel Lacy was still preferable to sitting alone at home in a room that still seemed to be echoing with that last quarrel with Louis. That I had been entirely in the right, and that Louis had been insufferably, immovably, furiously in the wrong was no particular satisfaction, since he was now in Stockholm, and I was still here in London, when by rights we should have been lying on a beach together in the Italian sunshine, enjoying the first summer holiday we had been able to plan together since our honeymoon two years ago. The fact that it had rained almost without ceasing ever since he had gone hadn't done anything to mitigate his offense; and when looking up "other people's weather" in The Guardian each morning, I found Stockholm enjoying a permanent state of sunshine, and temperatures somewhere in the seventies, I was easily able to ignore the reports of a wet, thundery August in southern Italy and concentrate steadily on Louis's sins and my own grievances."

Mary Stewart

2. "The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open becuase Terry Lennox's left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one. He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and no other.

There was a girl beside him. Her hair was a lovely shade of dark red and she had a distant smile on her lips and over her shoulders she had a blue mink that almost made the Rolls Royce look like just another automobile. It didn't quite. Nothing can.

The attendant was the usual half-tough character in a white coat with the name of the restaurant stitched across the front of it in red. He was getting fed up.

"Look, mister," he said with an edge to his voice, "would you mind a whole lot pulling your leg in the car so I can kind of shut the door? Or should I open it all the way so you can fall out?"

The girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back. It didn't bother him enough to give him the shakes. At The Dancers they get the sort of people that disillusion you about what a lot of golfing money can do for the personality.

A low-swung foreign speedster with no top drifted into the parking lot and a man got out of it and used the dash lighter on a long cigarette. He was wearing a pullover check shirt, yellow slacks, and riding boots. He strode off trailing clouds of incense, not even bothering to look toward the Rolls Royce. He probably thought it was corny. At the foot of the steps up to the terrace he paused to put a monocle in his eye.

The girl said with a nice burst of charm: "I have a wonderful idea, darling. Why don't we just take a cab to your place and get your convertible out? It's such a wonderful night for a run up the coast to Montecito. I know some people there who are throwing a dance around the pool.

The white-haired lad said politely: "Awfully sorry, but I don't have it any more. I was compelled to sell it." From his voice and articulation you wouldn't have known he had anything stronger than an orange juice to drink.

"Sold it, darling? How do you mean?" She slid away from him on the seat, but her voice slid away a lot farther than that.

"I mean I had to. For eating money."

"Oh, I see." A slice of spumoni wouldn't have melted on her now. . . . "
Raymond Chandler (1953)

3. "The lake was cold, black, evil, nor more than five hundred yards in length, scarely two hundred in breadth, a crooked stretch of glassy calm shadowed by the mountainsides that slipped steeply into its dark waters and went plunging down. There were no roads, no marked paths around it; only a few tracks, narrow ribbons, wound crazily along its high sides, sometimes climbing up and around the rough crags, sometimes dropping to the sparse clumps of fir at its water line. The eastern tip of the lake was closed off by a ridge of precipices. The one approach was by its western end. Here, the land eased away into gentler folds, forming a stretch of fine alpine grass strewn with pitted boulders and groups of more firs. This was where the trail, branching up from the rough road that linked villages and farms on the lower hills, ended in a bang and a whimper: a view of the forbidding grandeur and a rough wooden table with two benches where the summer visitor could eat his hard-boiled eggs and caraway-sprinkled ham sandwiches."

And so begins Helen MacInnes' great thriller, The Salzburg Connection, which gives The Bourne Identity a run for its money.

Anyone who hasn't tried MacInnes might be pleasantly surprised to find she has many exciting books, and in fact the mid-twentieth century has an endless array of wonderful mysteries that are fun to return to. This was just a taste.

What's your favorite old mystery?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Canada Calling: Sheila Kindellan-Sheehan

Why Mysteries Continue to Attract

Sheila Kindellan-Sheehan is a Canadian writer. ‘If you like John Grisham or are a fan of TV’s Law & Order, you won’t be able to put one of her books down.’ ~Brenda O’Farrell, The Gazette

Mortality isn’t a choice or an option. That’s good news for mystery writers. Today, every form of print is overshadowed by the accelerating run of technology with innovations like the iPod, iPhone, iPad, Kindle and Kobo. Large publishing houses and independents are shrinking or closing. Booksellers like Borders in the U.S. who fell behind the electronic pace, closed, or are reducing their book space and turning themselves into boutiques like Chapters in Canada. The mystery genre has not only survived these dramatic changes but has become the most popular form of fiction today. Any good agent will tell you the competition in the genre is fierce.

The question is “how”?

Mysteries had to earn their way into the print world. Although the genre is very old and heavily rooted in religious texts, Arabic, Chinese and English literature, it was the poor cousin of mainstream fiction and a guilty, almost secretive pleasure. When such notables as D.H. Lawrence and W.H Auden stepped forward, followed by a host of others, the genre exploded onto the literary scene and has even picked the pace. Today, mystery writers are respected for their distinctive voices and their prose as well as their stories.

A second question might well be “why”?

Why do we take up fiction that explores the underbelly of the chaos all around us, in particular, murder most foul? Mortality is the answer. Nobody gets out alive. Death is our common bond, fascinating and frightening. Humans are drawn to death, because we want to know what it’s all about. Like the brain, there are tones of information about its working, but nobody understands it. Mystery readers can watch and judge the journey of crime from the fatal blow to the carnage to the day of reckoning, all from the safe distance of a page without spilling a drop of blood.

We read to see how a certain individual played a part in his own demise, and we take a lesson from his errors. We judge, we track the path of death and evaluate the loss. We see the collateral damage of a single death, all as silent observers. In our mysteries we find a moral order. When goodness and evil collide, we know that goodness most often prevails. There are no logic holes in mysteries. There is an assuring catharsis in that knowledge. We find comfort in the ‘complete’ story this genre offers up. In our fiction, justice and law are bonded.

The advantage for the reader is that while he is in the thick of death and feels its reverberations, he can close his book and walk away unscathed. After all, it’s only a story. Satisfied, the reader can turn to other things. Looking for justice in life often leaves us in despair and dismay. Life, unfortunately, serves up pieces of its puzzle, saving the key for last.

Death may be our fate but that doesn’t stop us from learning as much as we can to stave off the inevitable. The mystery genre is a good teacher for that deception. We learn afresh that clich├ęs still apply. When you find yourself in serious trouble, silence is golden. Self-incrimination is like a pothole - you might be in it before you see it. We know that interrogation rooms are purposely claustrophobic with little mics above us, eye-level and under the table. Investigators are never on our side and they can lie to us to get at the truth. Don’t give yourself away with body language because another investigator is in the next room video-taping your every move. Most important, we know about our rights, we know about judges and juries. The irony, of course, is most mystery readers will never find themselves in an interrogation room, but if they ever did, well, they are forewarned and ready!

Ironically, John Updike composed his own eulogy. He wrote, ‘For life’s a shabby subterfuge,/ And death is real, and dark and huge.’

In the end, mysteries are all about death. No one can deny the fact that every mystery has a dead body and that’s the reason we buy the books. The setting, the characters and the plot, no matter how much we praise them, all support the ‘body.’ Way back, nobody believed guys read Playboy for the articles. The fact is, death attracts us.

Perhaps mysteries, rather than acting as escapes from reality and interesting puzzles, are really preparatory meetings with death, softening the blow, helping us to feel less frightened, providing us with an aura of power while familiarizing us with the truth of our demise. In this genre, the shock of a single death demands attention and justice and sympathy. It has an audience. For a time we can forget that Updike was probably right when he said that death was real and dark and huge and mattered only to the one who died.

That might be the reason why mysteries have formed a bond with their readers that is almost pedestrian. Since there has been no news about a change in the status of our mortality, we’ll continue to buy our mysteries and stay up till two in the morning reading them because we can’t put them down. In the meantime, if some techie uploads and solves the death problem, I’ll definitely make some changes to my blog.

For more information about Sheila and her books visit her website and find her on Facebook.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Making It Look Easy

by Sheila Connolly

It takes a lot of work to make something look effortless.

The New England Crime Bake conference was held this past weekend. I was Co-Chair of the event for the first and most likely last time, and I learned a lot from the experience.

Over twenty committee members—most with day jobs, many with active writing careers—came together to deal with the nuts and bolts of the conference. Some have been doing this since the conference's first year (2001); for others, this was their first time. Some elements have not changed significantly—like recruiting New England authors. Others represented significant change—like the implementation of a new automated registration system. Everything worked. Lesson #1: Pick good people and let them do what they do best.

Since this is an ongoing conference, we on the committee don't often step back and ask, why are we doing this? Who are we doing it for? And who is best qualified to make it all happen? The more specific questions about how big we want the event to be, and where we want to hold it, are more often debated, but we're happy with the size (250 attendees plus panelists) and location (outside of Boston, in a hotel that we effectively take over for the weekend).

Why do we do it? To celebrate New England authors (there are many!), and to give New England writers and fans a chance to meet the authors and hear what they have to offer. We do collect and study statistics, which shows that 40% of attendees have come before—which means that the other 60% are newcomers, while at the same time, a surprising 17 people have attended all ten Crime Bakes. Most attendees belong to one or another writers' organization. Lesson #2: Figure out what people want and give it to them.

How do you manage to serve the needs of such a diverse group? By offering classes and panels on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from the craft of writing and forensic details, through creativity and how to use real-world events and craft a story from them.

We have always had an outstanding guest of honor; this year, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the event, we had two—Barry Eisler and Nancy Pickard. It was an interesting choice, because they write in divergent styles, and they did not know each other. We threw them together for the keynote speech at the Saturday luncheon and let them have their heads, and the results were great. It was a pleasure to watch the pros shape a dialogue in a way that was fair and balanced, and yet which brought out much in information about how they write. Lesson #3: Quality shows.

So much for the mechanics. More important, there are still moments of magic that can surprise you. A few examples:

--at breakfast, on the Saturday of the conference, I was standing at the podium, waiting to read a list of mundane announcements—like which room assignments have been switched and please don't eat a vegetarian box lunch unless you signed up for one—when I took a moment to just listen. The energy and excitement in the room was thick enough to cut with a knife. It was wonderful.

--As I said before, the dialogue between the guests of honor was delightful. They were courteous and fair to each other, yet each conveyed his or her passion about what and how they were writing and publishing. It could have gone on far past the allotted hour.

--At one of the final panels offered, on Sunday afternoon when many people are usually running on fumes, Nancy Pickard moderated a panel called "I've Got a Secret". Now, people who moderate have many different styles, from those moderators who hog the microphone to talk about themselves or banter with their good buddies on the panel, to those who toss out vague questions and then say "Anybody want to take that one?"

Nancy Pickard did none of these. Certainly the panelists had known the stated subject of their panel before they arrived, but the way in which Nancy defined the question she put to them inspired an "aha!" moment from all of them—you could see it. She made each of those multi-published writers (not to mention the rest of us in the audience) look at their own work in a different light.

That's what makes putting together these events so rewarding, no matter how much work it is or how the many little details will threaten to push you over the edge in the final week. It's worth it when you experience that crystalline moment when you know you've heard something important—something that will color your appreciation of other writers' work, and may even help you with your own.

I am grateful for the efforts of all the committee members, who made the event flow seamlessly, and I'm proud to have been a part of Crime Bake 2011.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Men Who Don’t Brawl, Cheat, or Smack Women Around

Elizabeth Zelvin

A few weeks ago I found myself trying to explain to a group of feminists how come my series protagonists are male. The occasion was a reception at a conference on activism in academia that also celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the Barnard Center for Research on Women. I was there with a friend. The official conference T-shirt said, “Dare to say the F word—Feminist.” Suzanne Vega, who’s a Barnard grad, sang a set, including her hit song about domestic violence. And the topic came up.

This issue is not new. Plenty of writers and other publishing-biz folks have wondered why I don’t write about a strong female protagonist, since it’s obvious that I’m a woman who dares to say the F word all the time. The writer answer is that it happened by accident. In my first manuscript, I had two protagonists: recovering alcoholic Bruce and world-class codependent Barbara alternated first-person chapters. Many revisions and rejections later, a big-press editor, male, encouraged me to rewrite it with Bruce as protagonist and Barbara as sidekick, and a legendary editor, female, at the same press accepted it. My friend at the conference, who’s a kick-ass activist academic as well as a writer who loves my work, says, “Barbara’s a strong female character.” She is, in spite of her occasional ditsiness and chronic backsliding into codependency. I’ve even given her a more-than-equal share in the mayhem that ensues when she and Bruce confront the murderer in each book in the series. But she’s still just a sidekick.

As I discovered in this conversation with the feminists, there’s another layer of explanation for my willingness to champion a guy in print. And my inner therapist has figured out that it comes not from the writer-wanna-get-published side of me, but from my personal history and psychological truth. The men I know best—my father, my husband, and my adult son—do not and never have brawled, cheated, or smacked women around. Nor are they relentlessly seductive, and neither are most of the men I’ve known. So to me, men are not the enemy. I’ve had male friends my whole life—well, from age 11 in junior high, some of whom are still my friends today—through high school (where I didn’t know any mean girls either) to my various professional lives—mystery writer, mental health professional, poet, singer/songwriter—who have been just that: friends.

So in a sense I’m baffled by the hardboiled PI who’s quick with his fists and can take out a bad guy with a karate kick. They don’t match my experience. I don’t even get the suburban divorcee who’s kissing the detective on the case before they’ve figured out whodunit. I’ve met, even worked with quite a few cops, and not one of them has so much as patted my fanny. Okay, I get it. If fiction were more like life, it would be boring. There are certain conventions, and suspending disbelief to accommodate them is part of our contract as readers. We don’t have to have met any murderers to enjoy reading mysteries, much less killed anyone ourselves. But it’s important to acknowledge that the world is full of guys who have never given another guy a bloody nose, are comfortable being faithful to their wives or partners, and wouldn’t hit a woman in a million years.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Yes, you can earn a living by writing

Sandra Parshall

A lot of novelists couldn’t live on their book royalties, but according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Commerce, the class of writers and authors as a whole earns more money than the average American.

That’s one intriguing finding from a study by the National Endowment for the Arts of data in the American Community Survey (2005-2009). The study found 197,768 people who identified writing as the occupation in which they worked the most hours in any given week. People who write for a living made up almost 10% of the nation’s 2.1 million artist workforce. Their median income was $44,792, compared to $39,280 for the general population of workers. The NEA suggests this may be due to the higher than average education level among writers – 84% had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 32% of the overall workforce.

One especially gratifying finding: Among writers and authors, women earned nearly the same amount as men. Women also outnumbered men: about 57% of writers were female, compared to 47% of the overall workforce.

Where do writers work? About 44% were self-employed, compared to 10% of the total workforce. The highest concentration, 32.8%, was in the “performing arts, spectator sports, and independent artists” category; 17% earned their living by providing professional services; and 20.4% worked in information industries such as films, video, broadcasting, newspapers, books, or directories. About 9% worked for the government, the highest percentage of any group of people in the arts.

Where do writers live? New York and California had the highest number, but writers were also numerous in Oregon and Vermont. However, the state that has the most book publishing jobs is Minnesota, and the concentration of book publishing employment in Minneapolis is eight times the national average. New York comes in second, followed by Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Some other intriguing findings: only 13% of writers and authors were nonwhite or Hispanic, compared to 32% of the general workforce, and only 7% were foreign-born, compared to 15% of all workers.

Do any of these figures surprise you?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Isabella Bird on the Internet

Sharon Wildwind

Does the name Isabella Bird ring a bell? In 1854, at age 23, she travelled, unaccompanied, from Britain to America to visit relatives. The next year she toured Canada and Scotland. Before her death at age 73, she had travelled through and written about Australia, Hawaii, Japan, China, Viet Nam, Singapore, Malaysia, India, Tibet, Korea, Morocco, Persia, Kurdistan, and Turkey. She rode horseback 800 miles across the U. S. Rocky Mountains and was courted by a mountain man. She eventually married an Edinburgh doctor. After his death, she took up the study of medicine at age 55, and went to India as a medical missionary at the age of 60. In 1892, she was the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographic Society. If there was ever a woman for whom the phrase “good stout skirt” was coined, it was Isabella.

About a year ago September, I started on my own journey, albeit one that took less packing and was probably a lot more physically comfortable than what Isabella undertook. Pith helmet firmly on my head—yes, I own a pith helmet. It’s a long story.—I went in search of the Internet.

I knew exactly where the Internet was: at my fingertips. However, once I got in there I was as lost as Isabella must have been listening to Anu speakers in Japan. I had a Facebook fan page. I went there once in a while and stared at it, thinking, “Yes, this is my Facebook page.” I tweeted — about as often as a full lunar eclipse happened. I even went as far as bookmarking half a dozen blogs that had caught my eye. Once a week I’d visit them, discovered that there had been either no new entries or so many new entries that reading them seemed an impossible task, so I’d close the folder and quietly go away without reading anything.

What I did know well, and what I saw slipping away was the ten Internet groups that I’d been a part of for a decade. Back in the distant past of 2000-2001, they were fountains of information, full of spirited discussion, helpful information, and camaraderie that led me gently—okay, sometimes pulled me kicking and screaming—into being a published writer. What had happened to all of them collectively was a slow, inexorable slide into, in my humble opinion, useless places for people to brag, commiserate, and offer blatant self-promotion.

Yes, this was my tribe. Yes, I had emotional reactions to people having a happy publishing event, facing health crises, having bad things happen to significant others, and having life dissolve around them. If I had a relationship with an individual outside of the group, I’d send them an e-mail or e-card or maybe rarely mail them a real card with a stamp and everything. If I had a less distant relationship, I would add them to my good thoughts list.

I grew so tired of endless messages essentially saying, “I’m thinking about you,” in which the poster a) repeated in their entirety the stream of previous messages that led to them posting and/or b) recounted far more details about their own brushes with illness, divorce, or publishers than I thought should be shared in public. From my point of view, private lives are private and celebration, support, and commiseration should stay private as well.

I also became a survivor of FAQ Syndrome. It was fine with me the same Frequently Asked Questions came from people new to the list, or new to a particular situation. Asking questions—and reading archives—are how people learn. What I objected to was instead of giving a thoughtful and accurate answer/opinion, too many people responded with. “What a good question. I blogged about this topic. Visit my blog to find the answer.”

I did a little private and unscientific tracking. In the past two years, those ten groups to which I belonged, universally reached a level of personal congratulatory/commiseration and go read my blog messages being 85%-90%, and helpful information being 10%-15%. Truthfully, for the past year I’ve used them most as an obituary early warning system because the thing they continued to do well was report who in the mystery community died, often before any death notice hit the media.

So if I gave up on those groups, where was I to go as an alternative?

Fortunately, at the same time that spent less time on groups, I spent more time somewhere besides the Big Internet Four (Facebook, Twitter, Google, Yahoo). I’d dug into Digg, looked at LinkedIn, braved Bloglines, and had a nodding acquaintance with Ning. My question was, “What can this site do to help me immerse myself in the mystery community?” Sometimes the answer was nothing. Other times, I’d have a faint hint of a goat trail leading through the underbrush to some place interesting.

Enlightenment arrived on one of those goat trails one day in the shape of a square orange button with white arcs. I’d discovered RSS feeds.

RSS = Really Simple Syndication. In plain English that means that the computer knew when a blog had a new entry and added a number to the folder on my web browser to tell me I might want to check it out.

If a blogger didn’t publish for a month, fine with me. The day she did publish, I’d know about it. If a blogger published three times a day, fine with me, too. I got to set my own limits of how many new entries I’d allow to collect before I checked that blog.

I decided to see how many blogs I could collect and started right here with the Daughters site, copying-and-pasting all the blog links on the left side of the blog into a file. As I visited those blogs, I’d copy down link lists that they had. When I’d collected A LOT of blog names, I sorted them, removed duplicates, and set aside one morning to visit all of them.

My criteria for “a keeper blog” were
1) Written in English
2) Had a high percentages of intelligent, well written blogs related to mysteries and mystery writing
3) Had RSS feed capabilities

The last one almost drove me crazy. That wonderful orange square is only one dozens of RSS feed services, though I do believe it was the grandmother of all of them. People put them in the most ungodly places on their blog pages, included hidden three pages into the blog.

One breakthrough came when I discovered that if I was having trouble finding the feed button, I should scroll to the bottom of all of the posts. There just might be a line at the very bottom that said Subscribe to: Post Comments (Atom). Clicking on Subscribe to Posts got me just the messages; Subscribe to Comments got me comments to the posts. In each case I opted for Posts only.

A second breakthrough came when I discovered that, even if there wasn’t an RSS button visible, if I clicked to bookmark it, there might be an RSS button in the bookmark window.

Result to date? 26 blog sites feeding from the U.S. or Canada; 19 blog sites feeding from other countries, from which I’ve chosen mostly English, Irish, Northern Ireland, Australian, and Scandinavian bloggers. This means that I now follow 45 mystery blogs on a regular basis.

So how much time does following all of those blogs take me? Less than 20 minutes a day. It’s like scanning the headlines in a newspaper. I open up the blog, see what the new topics are and decide if it’s something I want to skip, read now, or read later. Even if I decide to skip it, at least I know it’s out there and I’ve had really good success going back several days later and finding a blog that I’d skipped.

Comments? Maybe occasionally. If I really have something to day, I can click on "Read more" at the end of the RSS blurb. That takes me directly to the blog and to the comments. But mostly I lurk, read, sometimes send private e-mail to the poster.

All the while I'm thanking my lucky stars that this turned out to be so much easier than riding horseback across the Rocky Mountains.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Focus and Be Happy: What Concentration Does for the Mind (And the Soul)

by Julia Buckley

People spend almost fifty percent of their time thinking about something other than what they're doing, according to this article in Science Daily. In addition, the magazine reports that the less people focus on the tasks at hand, the less happy they are. The study's conclusion: a wandering mind is not a happy one.

How might this experiment be skewed by a group of writers? Their minds undoubtedly wander a great deal of the time, but those minds are immersed in the act of creation. Is that the same thing as daydreaming or lacking concentration?

The study suggests that the only act which receives a person's full attention is the act of making love (although don't many people say that they enjoy fantasizing during sex?)

The notion that we would be happier if we focused on our tasks is an interesting one. It backs up Camus' existential idea that one need only embrace immediate needs and desires because nothing else ultimately matters.

In an age of multitasking, we have apparently trained ourselves to do our many tasks without giving them much thought. Perhaps by reclaiming our thoughts we can improve the quality of our thinking--but this is where science meets philosophy.