Friday, April 29, 2011

Book Review and Question

"From the hilltop I can see rolling green hills and a clear unlimited horizon. The prairie flowers have erupted into crimson, yellow, orange and blue. They sweeten the air. I smell smoke from the fire and the sweat of horses."

Murder Manhattan Style Reviewed by Sarah Hilary available at:

A great friend of mine, playwright and Hollywood screenwriter, was fond of giving this advice to aspiring writers: "Keep the mythic distance!" By which it was generally assumed that he meant never allow the viewer or reader to get close enough, to screen or page, to spy processes or flaws which might show up the finished product as anything less than epic.

Warren Bull is happy to show us these processes (and occasionally flaws) between thought and page, first draft and last, unpublished and published prose. At the end of each story in his collection, he footnotes how it came about, or what its fate was at the hands of a precarious small press publishing industry (one story was accepted for an anthology that was subsequently "scrapped due to finances"). I was torn between admiring his candour and wishing he’d not revealed so much of his craft. I wanted to believe in the storyteller’s magic by which he recreates scenes from 1850s mid-America, with its cowboys and Indians, or New York in the 1930s.

There are stories here that transport the reader, perhaps because Bull is a psychologist and effortlessly taps into the minds and voices of his characters. More than one story is written convincingly from the perspective of a young girl. In A Lady of Quality, the heroine is African-American, called from the cotton fields to work as a servant in a white household. Bull writes her voice so authentically that it’s almost a pity there aren’t more stories told by this narrator in the collection.

Diversity is another of his talents. Bull takes us from "Bleeding Kansas" in 1858 to a modern day Manhattan ghetto where justice is dealt out with equal brutality. There are upbeat, funny stories. There are downbeat, noir stories. Don’t be fooled by the shlocky cover (not the first time a short story collection will be ill-served by its publisher’s cover choice, and probably not the last), these stories cover distances and time, and mood, without losing a beat.

One or two stories suffer from odd pacing, ending too abruptly or moving too fast during sections which should unravel more intricately. Locard’s Principle feels as if it’s an exploratory outline for a novel, rather than a short story. But Bull is a master at the opening paragraph; there isn’t one here that doesn’t grab you by the throat. Acknowledging Funeral Games as darker than his average story, Bull fails to point out it’s also one of his very best, opening with a corpse and progressing as smoothly as a Raymond Chandler tale, through a sequence of excellent surprises to a satisfying denouement. Heidegger’s Cat is another example of Bull at his best, its political subtext as interesting as its pin-sharp, real-time action.

While it was interesting, in one sense, to read Bull’s footnotes to the stories, I’d suggest he drops them from any future collection; they seem amateurish, while the stories themselves are anything but. Keep the mythic distance, Warren!

Susan Hilary won the Sense Creative Award in 2010, and the Fish Criminally Short Histories Prize in 2008. He fiction appears in The Fish Anthology, Smokelong Quarterly, The Best of Every Day Fiction I, II and III, and in the Crime Writers; Association anthology. MO Crimes of Practice. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2009 and Highly Commended in the Sean O’Faolain short story competition 2010. Sarah is currently working on a novel. He agent is Jane Gregory.

I would like to thank The Short Review and Sarah Hillary for this thoughtful review. It’s flattering and humbling for one of my stories to be compared to Raymond Chandler’s work. It’s also wonderful to hear praise about voice, diversity and the opening paragraphs.

Now, I like the “shlocky” cover. It was designed by Ginnie E. L. Fenton, known as Gin Elf, whose work is seen at Mysterial-E and on many book covers. I made decisions during its development and approved the final cover art. So my publisher is hereby officially off the hook and I am squarely wriggling on it.

The reviewer made a major point of advising me to “keep the mythic distance…never allow the viewer or reader to get close enough to screen or page to spy processes or flaws which might show up the finished product as anything less than epic.”

This was a new concept to me. I explored the idea with others and concluded that I clearly chose to write a personal book including intimate details about myself and my craft. I can understand a reader’s desire to imagine whatever he or she wants to imagine about the writer who created the stories. No doubt many readers imagine someone much more magical or mysterious than the actual author. When I attend a magic show I want to be amazed. I don’t want the magician to step to center stage after the finale and explain how misdirection, hours of practice and physics created the illusions.

Given the particulars of this book I feel a closeness to many of the people I went out of the way to mention. I don’t know that wanted the usual distance between author and reader. However, Hillary did me a favor in pointing out how different the footnotes were from the stories. I will think carefully about what choices to make in the future.

Which do you prefer as a reader and/or a writer mythic distance or more intimacy?

Thursday, April 28, 2011


I’m sorry I didn’t plan to participate in more than one conference this year. I’ve always enjoyed the conferences and long workshops I attended.

Several years ago, I took the bus that runs between Boston’s Chinatown and New York’s Chinatown to attend a MWA Edgar Symposium. The fare was only ten dollars but these buses have been known to crash and burn, and I couldn’t park near the bus terminals. I stayed in an unpretentious New York hotel with rooms the size of dog crates and showers designed for the underweight. The food at the autobusexpensive Symposium banquet was boring and ended with a chocolate dessert guaranteed to send a diabetic into an instant coma. I carried heavy bags of free books on the New York subway, onto the bus, and for the mile walk from the station nearest my home. Nevertheless, I had fun at the Symposium and learned much.

Michael Connolly described how, after his first book was published, he thought he’d been invited to the party and all he had to do was stand around with his drink in his hand. Soon, he realized he had to do much more to make a career from his writing.

Lisa Scottoline decided to give up being a lawyer and try to make it as a writer. She and her small daughter had to live on credit cards. Since these cards were not accepted by McDonalds at that time, she and her daughter had to eat at more formal restaurants. When Lisa finally had enough money to take her daughter to McDonalds, the child didn’t understand the menu and wanted to know what the appetizers were.

On different occasions, Robert Parker and Lee Child were guests of honor at the Crimebake Conference. The first agent to receive the first manuscript Robert Parker submitted for publication took him on as a client. Lee Child strives not to revise but to get it right first time. He amended this statement to say he reviews what he wrote the previous day before he continues. He worked for a TV production company and had to fit scenes to the second into time slots. Although he left that job, he still has an acute sense of time.

Harlan Coben mentioned that he’d never known a successful author who’d put others down to further his/her own career. All the authors whose ideas I noted discussed much more and I don’t know anyone who was bored by their discussions of their writing process.

The workshop I attended wasn’t mystery specific but I believe literary writers are just as interested in craft as genre writers. Also, no one objected to me writing mysteries. The workshop was on Cape Cod but I didn’t have time for beach walking because students had a daily assignment. Writers shared space and time with artists and sculptors. The experience stretched the mind.

I hesitated to attend conferences a thousand or more miles away from where I live. However, I note members of Sisters in Crime arrange to meet up with other members at these conferences. Hopefully, I wouldn’t have to spend time alone in a hotel room.

I avoid workshops where sharing bedroom and bathroom is part of the socializing experience. As a kid, at boarding school, in my first apartment, and as a wife and mother, I shared bedroom and bathroom. Now I want my own space.

There are still plenty of conferences and workshops to enjoy and next year I plan to attend more than one. Do you have a favorite conference?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Interview with Douglas Corleone

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I am a 35-year-old former New York City criminal defense attorney, who now lives with his wife Jill and 18-month-old son Jack in Hawaii. I enjoy swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, and anything else that involves being in the ocean.

Can you tell us about your writing?

My debut novel One Man's Paradise won the 2009 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award. Night On Fire, which will be released on April 26, 2011, is the second novel in the Kevin Corvelli crime series.

Do you want to give us a brief description about your latest book?

In Night On Fire, hotshot Honolulu defense attorney Kevin Corvelli narrowly escapes a deadly arson fire at a popular Hawaiian beach resort, only to land the prime suspect - a stunning but troubled young newlywed - as a client.

You have an impressive webpage and book trailer. Has that increased interest in your books? Is there some way to measure its effectiveness?

It's difficult to know what works in terms of promotion. Having a website these days is essential, and I'm fortunate in that I've received significant positive feedback from the readers of One Man's Paradise through my site. That goes a long way in boosting a writer's confidence.

If I can get some free legal advice here, if I write a book set in Hawaii can I get tax deductions for travel, food and lodging? (And If not can I stay at your house?):)

I'm not a tax lawyer, but I believe to some extent you can. Save your receipts and if the IRS comes knocking, blame your accountant. (I'm just kidding.) But of course, you can stay at my long as you don't mind sharing a room with a toddler.

You maintained a steady pace throughout the book (no middle chapter sag) how did you manage to keep the energy flowing so well?

I attempt to write the second act of my novels with the same energy of my first. I don't like to read novels that sag in the middle, so I do everything possible to avoid writing them. In Night On Fire, part 2 marks the beginning of Kevin Corvelli's own investigation into the fire and there's a lot going on - a visit to the devastated crime scene, the gathering of witness statements, the searching for suspects - so maintaining the energy wasn't as difficult a task as it might have been if I'd written a different kind of story.

How does your background as a defense attorney help you with your writing?

My background as a defense attorney helps considerably in writing the Kevin Corvelli legal thrillers. I still need to research the laws and procedures of Hawaii since I never practiced in this state, but my training and experience aids me in getting that research done efficiently. And, of course, I have many memories from my days in the courtrooms of New York City from which to draw.

The link to the Amazon product page for NOF is

The link to the trailer on YouTube is

The link to my website is

Thanks Douglas, (I hope my snoring will not bother your toddler.)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Ideal writing space and dress

Would dressing nice while writing make you a better writer?

I just read this article that says how you dress can affect your writing. That means I’m doomed.
My idea for dressing while I’m writing is either be in PJ’s, shorts, t-shirts and jeans. Imagine sitting 
in your home office dressed in a slinky dress and high heels. Or wearing a boa while typing. If you’re a 
male, would you sit all day long in a suit and tie—gads how do men stand those ties?

In comes your dog. He jumps at you and rips your pantyhose. Does anyone even wear them anymore? 
Or worse yet, your cat rubs against your navy blue pants and you stand up looking like you’re wearing 
a pair of fur pants.

I used to watch those shows like Ozzie and Harriet where the wife always dressed up and wore heels 
around the house. I have to admit, I wondered how she mopped the floors in those heels without falling on
her behind.

So okay, I can understand when you are meeting the public, an editor or agent, you may want to dress
properly. You’ll want to impress them. But why bother impressing the animals?

The next article is about work space. Do you need to have a neat office? If so, does that make you write 
in an orderly fashion? Maybe that’s what’s wrong with me. I’m looking around at my desk. I swear I
clean it off at least once every two weeks. Or is that months? But I know where everything is. Most 
of the time. 

I’m sure my characters are probably neater than I am. And they file correctly. I doubt they throw stuff in 
the wrong files and then can’t find it later, like for the next year or so.

Hmmm. Do I really want to transform my writing space? Does my space make me want to put in a load 
of laundry? Sometimes it does. After all I can hear the washer and dryer running in my office. Mostly I
tune them out.

Do you know our mood depends on the light we have in our room? Well, that’s good. I sit beside a 
window and can watch those nasty squirrels walk on my window screen. Of course it’s fun to scare them
off. Last year they took up eating my screens. I would've thought that would've killed them. It didn't. 
I simply have big holes covered by bricks on my screened in porch.

This article says you shouldn’t look at your neighbor’s brick wall. Imagine walking over to Harold and 
asking him to take it down so it doesn’t interfere with your muse. 

Looking at something pretty can trigger an endorphin high which will make you more creative. Or if 
you’re sick, it’ll make you heal faster.

Well, it’s time to put my muse to bed. It’s dark outside, the blinds are closed and my endorphin 
dumped for the night.

Tell me, what is your office like? Neat? Messy?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Warning: BSP or How I Know I've "Made It"

Once published, authors face the dilemma of promoting their work. Where do they do this and how? Most use the Internet and its places of social networking like Twitter and Facebook, but they also use discussion groups, usually composed of other writers because “word of mouth” sells books.

Blatant self-promotion (BSP) is a hard task for writers, who, like me, generally spend their time alone writing. Being a “ham” just doesn’t come naturally because many writers are introverts and, after years of criticism, they stumble when speaking too loudly about their work, knowing the standards are high. Self-promotion is even more daunting when there are complaints on discussion groups about too much BSP. If even your compatriots don’t want to hear it, why would anyone else?

Grandma's job leads to murder in my
short "Lucky in Death."
I try to be shameless. It isn’t easy after being raised in an environment where promoting yourself was considered conceit. But I’ve also learned that if you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will. (Except, perhaps for your family and friends, if you’re fortunate) The SinC Chesapeake Chapter recently informed me that it had accepted one of my short stories, “Lucky in Death” for publication. The anthology, Chesapeake Crimes: This Job is Murder, will be published in 2012.

As a blogger, I read other blogs. One writer discussed various ways in which he knew that he had “made it” as a writer. I don’t hit the bull’s eye of high standards every time. But after seeing the other authors included in the Chesapeake Chapter’s anthology, I knew that “Lucky in Death” hit the bull’s eye. I had “made it.” Why?

Some of my fellow authors in the anthology are:
Donna Andrews, who has won the Agatha, Anthony, and Lefty awards as well as being nominated for the Macavity and Dilys awards
• Comedic mystery writer Karen Cantwell;
Barb Goffman, an Agatha contender this year
• Agatha nominated Harriette Sackler is also the Malice Grants Chair
Art Taylor, a frequent contributor to Ellery Queen Magazine, won the Derringer Award this year for “Rearview Mirror,” one of his novelettes, and
• Mystery novelist, Cathy Wiley.

I don’t know the other seven writers in the volume. But I do know that twenty-eight talented writers competed for fourteen spots in this anthology. Three judges, all popular published authors, agreed on those stories included. I’m proud to have a story in this anthology amongst such illustrious authors. Every now and then, I pull the brass ring. I’m savoring this honor so that when rejections arrive for other projects, I’ll remember.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Writing with my Father, Bronze Star

Writing with my Father part 3; On Winning a Bronze Star

Note: I’ve written before about helping my father write his memoirs. You can read

more in this blog on 18/08/10 and 11/12/10.

From my father:

One day we went out in the field to shoot at an embedded foxhole. We shot from across a railroad embankment. I was one of the better shots in the company with a rifle grenade so I think that’s why I got the assignment. I don’t know if we did any damage.

When we started to return somebody said, “ Hey, look. We’re in a mine field.” I looked and there were little wires sticking up. The mines were called, “Bouncing Betties.” When set off, they would jump up two or three feet and then explode. The idea was to kill or wound as many men as possible. In our minds we could feel the mines exploding into our private parts. We were already scared but I said, “Follow me.” I walked very slowly and carefully. The squad members were content to stay behind me. One man was wounded by a mine when he stepped out of line. Later he died. When we got back to my company they made a big deal out of me getting the men out of the minefield. I was regarded as a hero, but I should have been criticized for taking them in, in the first place.

About a week later a fellow from headquarters showed up and said, “I’ve got a bronze star for you.” I said, “Thank you. What is it for?” He told me it was for getting the men out of the minefield. There was no way I could refuse, but I knew I didn’t really deserve it. I think the company had medals to give out and were looking for any excuse to award one to somebody. They should have given me criticism for getting the men into the minefield in the first place. That’s what the bronze star amounted to.

Note from Warren

For this part of the memoir, I did a few line edits and got out of the way of my father telling his story. I’ve witnessed his attitude about earning a medal and being considered a hero in other members of his Division. When called a hero the universal answer is, “I am not a hero. The real heroes never came home.” He maintained the many outstanding acts of bravery were not witnessed and that getting a medal was based on someone seeing the act and pushing the paperwork.

On November 11, 2010, I watched a segment of the television show 60 Minutes about Staff Sergeant Sal Giunta, who became the first living soldier to receive a Medal of Honor since the war in Viet Nam. He seemed embarrassed to be in his words, “singled out” when so many people were doing so much. He described himself as an “Average” and a “Mediocre” soldier who did only “What anyone else would have done.” He said that members of his unit who died were the only people,

“who gave their all for their country.” He credited his medal to somebody else filling out forms and talking to other people, not to his own actions. His award was for repeatedly charging into enemy fire to save other solders despite being shot twice. He was considered extremely brave in the face of almost certain death.

The Staff Sergeant maintained that he was never in a firefight without others in his unit supporting him. He said he accepted the medal on behalf of all who have served their country.

What does “heroism” mean to you?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

So Much to Learn

Around 3 a.m., my brain urged me to rise and continue research. Writing is learning. There’s the knowledge that comes from tapping into the right side of the brain. I believe the pleasure a reader experiences from reading a fine piece of writing comes from an author’s successful capture in words of right brain information.

I’m grateful to the authors who share that information. I’ve seen a similar knowledge in individuals who spend their whole lives in one place, growing up, raising a family, and accepting the changes of aging. Even if these individuals never write a word about what they’ve learned, their relationships and interactions with others show that their learning has been profound.

A writer needs to work hard to capture these multi-faceted characters. So many techniques, so little time. The generous sharing of authors at workshops and conferences convinces me I’ll never catch up with all I need to know.

Besides techniques, mystery writers might seek to understand serial killers, terrorists, hit men, and impulse killers. What about means, modes, and motivations? How does a corpse deteriorate over time? Now, I’m focusing on the police, their techniques and language. Every profession and trade has its own language. That’s certainly true of medicine and nursing. I believe a writer must capture the flavor of such language.

So much to learn and I despair of catching up. I have to set limits. The law doesn’t interest me. I enjoy books by John Grisham and Lisa Scottoline but I don’t want to spend time looking into the law. Bertrand Russell said that even if a person was an atheist, in the West that person would need to live in accordance with Judaic-Christian beliefs. Once individuals reach adulthood, I think they have a sixth sense about what’s illegal. Unless they intend to embark on a life of crime and, even then, their motivation could be defiance of what they know to be legal.

Writers might be drawn to history or cultures and ethnic groups different from their own. Learning a new culture enables a person to ask questions about her first culture. I spent my earliest years in the UK. Why did Queen Elizabeth I play off one suitor against another? She’s not around to ask but possibly her strategy didn’t stem from elizabeth_i_002awomen’s liberation. By not choosing a husband from among the Spanish royal suitor, the French royal suitor, or powerful men at her court, she gained time for England to gather strength to defend itself against a Spanish or French invasion or against powerful home politicians who wanted to be king. It isn’t easy to develop a power base. It requires patience and self-sacrifice. Or her motivation could have been more personal. Her father beheaded her mother, and slashed and burned his way through six wives, not a happy model for marriage and motherhood.

When I lived in Boston, Massachusetts, I met people from a variety of backgrounds. I’m grateful to co-workers and neighbors who shared their goals and memories with me. Recent wars have focused kh10843attention on non-western cultures. Contrasts and similarities to our own might increase our understanding of American history and of why people in America today do what they do.

So much to learn, so little time. I need to focus on writing techniques and the language of law enforcement. Tomorrow, I might want to follow the life of a mill worker or a farmer.

Where has your writing taken you, to what place and time?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

White Space or thoughts

Have you ever noticed how your friends and family glaze over when your excitement about your
novel gets you talking too much about your story? They may say, “Hazel who?” And we have to
explain she’s a character in our novel. Then they look at us like, “Good heavens. She must think 
her characters are her real friends.”

But if you talk about Myrtle Sue, Clyde, George, or Hazel to your writer friends, they know who
you’re talking about. They know you’ve been working with these folks for gone on a year, 
sometimes more. And the fun thing is we can make these folks to our liking or have revenge on 
someone we’ve met in real life by making them a character no one will like.

When speaking to other writers I have learned many of them were shy in their youth, weren’t in
touch with the “in” group in high school, and tend to be selective as to who their friends are. They 
have said they feel more comfortable with other writers who understand what they go through, 
the pain of getting rejections, the thrill of a sale or struggling with a manuscript. 

Writing can be a lonely job, but it helps when you look at your computer screen and see your 
characters with all their flaws and know they enjoy spending time with you—on the screen. Take 
Myrtle Sue. She has a family who can drive her to despair. I’m sure she enjoys knowing I, too, 
have a family that could drive a saint crazy. Well, she would if she could speak back to me. Right?

And what about that crazy Hazel who thinks she’s still young and the men should take her on dates.
Poor thing. Hmmm. Wonder if Uncle Freddy would enjoy her company. Oh, wait, he’s for real.

I had lunch with some writer friends yesterday. We talked about having to mix our real lives with 
our writing life. Some of us have to get up at 5 or 6 a.m. and head off to work. We come home tired. 
But we have to write or those characters in our books will turn ugly with you for making for them 
sit alone for so long. Geez, I better get back to writing now that my computer is once more up and 
running so I don’t find rotten tomatoes being tossed at me through the computer screen. 

I like to think of us as still having the child in us, no matter what age we are. Remember when you
were a kid and had an imaginary friend, or you talked to your toys, dog or cat? Wait, I still do talk 
to my dogs. And I guess with all those folks running through my head, I still have imaginary friends.

I find it strange when people tell me they have nothing going through their heads. How can you just
have white space in your head? And they don’t dream. I have thoughts running around in my head 
all the time. And I dream a lot. 

I wonder what went through the minds of those who wrote fairy tales. Some are rather—well, 
really strange. How about the one where the king is counting his money, the maid is in the garden 
and a black bird snaps off her nose. He must’ve had really weird dreams. Or the lullaby where 
the branch breaks and the baby falls. Did the baby crying in their house drive them insane until 
they wrote that song to get rid of their stress? After all, they didn’t have computers so they could 
share their thoughts all over the world.

So tell me, do you have white space in your head or thoughts always running around up there
in that skull?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Pacing and Timing

A call from my college-attending and bummed-out daughter reminds me of how timing plays in life. She found herself odd woman out at a party. While all of those college students around her coupled, in a crowd, she stood alone. I passed on words of wisdom to her, my own mother’s words resounding in my head, to make her feel better. “Timing is important in life.” Space and time are connected. If your timing is off, you’re in the wrong place, probably doing the wrong thing. Put your focus somewhere else and do something else to see if your timing changes—hopefully for the better. We can’t change time, but we can alter where we are and how we use that time. That’s also good advice in writing novels. If your timing is off, change the setting or the action—timing adjusts.

Timing also changes with a writer’s choice of POV. I often write in third person because I want to show simultaneous events, which I can do by heading a new chapter with a different character’s voice. When the characters finally do meet up in time and space, the reader knows how each of them got to that point in the plot. The characters’ separate fractions add up to a whole, which I think is realistic, given that individuals focus on one aspect, following their own logic and interest. First person POV limits time to that of the main character.

Tension mounts as our protagonist delves deeper into the plot. When the bad guys jeopardize his life, our heroes, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, ride in at the last possible moment and save him. Lassie, another hero, saves Timmy with split-second timing. From the sound of her bark, the bad guys don’t know of her sweet nature as we do. Miss Marple, Holmes, Colombo, Spenser and Hawk, Nancy Drew, and Monk (to name a few) always reveal the murderer, a great way to end a TV show or a book. The formula for Romance books, historically the bestselling category now usurped by mystery, is “Happily Ever After (HEA).” In mystery, Justice Prevails (JP-my newly created acronym) is the usual formula. (Have we given up on love, settling for justice?)

In mystery, the reader anticipates that justice will prevail while watching or reading. That feeling of anticipation, produced by the writer, is what defines pacing. The main character’s (s’) interaction in the plot and its culmination defines timing—in many TV shows and books that karmic split-second timing. HEA or JP is a great way to finish. But like a TV show or in a book series, the formula becomes anticlimactic. For a writer, this is a double-edged sword. We want our readers to believe in our hero and champion our protagonist. But isn’t it all so predictable and boring to write the same ending repetitively?

I suspect that although anticlimactic, this is one aspect of books or TV shows that audiences like, and is probably the reason that romance and mystery are popular. Those HEA and JP endings reassure those whose lives are less than predictable. And really, doesn’t that include everyone? They’re what readers want, and what a writer needs to give to them for marketability. So how does a writer pace a novel with mounting tension and create a HEA or JP endings without writing a formula novel?

Consider Spencer Quinn’s main character, Chet, the dog partner of PI Bernie. Chet relies on his senses eventually helping Bernie get the bad guy. But Chet can’t put one and one together well or too soon, so Quinn creates diversions to pace the action. Chet sees the knife, he smells the blood, smells traces of the perp on the knife, he knows that a big revelation is about to occur in his brain, one the reader has already figured out—but, out of the corner of his nose he smells—a Slim Jim! All logic goes out of his head until later in the book when the smells come to him again, when the plot thickens, tension mounts, no diversions are evident, and he helps Bernie wrap up the case. Quinn’s diversion, as simple as a Slim Jim, prolongs the action, spreads out the pacing for a timely finish.

Marilyn Alt’s main character Maggie, in her Bewitching Series, breaks her ankle. The broken ankle has become a plot device she uses, so far, in two books, lengthening her pace, as we hobble along. What does it accomplish? Rather than rely on her body, Maggie develops more of her witchy powers, forces her to rely on a newly formed love relationship, and depends on friendships pulling secondary characters into the plot. Maggie also finds that although she thought her timing was horrible, it’s not. Alt brings the idea of timing full circle.

In Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson uses snow as a character, which paces the book like silent and steadily falling snow, masking truth as it covers the ground. While the main character remembers and reveals the truth, the snow melts. “Real” elements of geographic coordinates, winds and tides become the “timing,” upon which the main character solves the murder. The author’s literal use of timing becomes figurative.

My book, TOASTING FEAR, relies on split-second timing at the end. But I won’t reveal why this timing will dismay my characters, even when they do solve the murder. Sometimes great timing isn’t all it’s cracked-up to be.

How have you paced your books? Does timing play a factor in how you structure your novel? Have you chosen your POV utilizing what each has to offer in the pace and timing of your plot? Do you use devices to change pace?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Gazing Into My Occluded Ball (Cont.)

Last week’s post discussed the pressures on the publication industry that have and will continue to cause massive dislocations in the traditional model. This week provides my sense of what the future will bring.

The objective of the publishing industry in its entirety is to provide consumers (those who read) with words they want to read in a form they want to read it. Although I expect paper and ink books will continue to represent significant revenue, digital sales will explode. Eventually physical books will be to digital books as horse and buggies are to automobiles: a niche market. The music industry is already heading this way with revenue from digital sales expected to surpass revenue from CDs in 2012.

To try to understand the future publishing world, let’s temporarily stipulate that all sales must be electronic; paper and ink are gone.

So: no bookstores, no presses, no warehouses, no book returns, no shipping costs, no waiting for the mail, no wrapped presents with pretty bows under the Christmas tree.

This does not necessarily mean the elimination of all publishers. Between the author’s “final” draft and what the consumer reads we will still need editors, copy editors, layout, conversion to required electronic formats if a single platform does not arise, and “cover” design (a picture to help electronically sell the book). Traditional publishers have the resources to do all this work, but an author need not choose a publisher.

Alternatives? An author could hire each provider separately for a fixed fee. Genre boutiques providing bundled services could form, specializing in, say, mysteries or steam punk. Such boutiques would not need to be in a single physical location since they share work electronically. Perhaps literary agencies will contract or provide those services for their authors—forcing changes in Association of Author’s Representatives acceptable practices.

How will consumers learn about new books? I’ll coin a new term here: friend-perts. Historically, we relied on expert reviewers in newspapers or weekly periodicals to make recommendations, or we used the physical bookstore with knowledgeable salespeople. We are now moving into the social media arena of friend-perts. Amazon already does this with its if-you-like-this-you-might-like-that recommendations, and its people-who-bought-this-also-bought-that. Amazon allows people to post lists with their recommendations. Facebook, Twitter and similar social networking mechanisms will offer close encounters of the electronic kind for your friend-perts to share information. Already websites that sell just about everything post ubiquitous “reviews” of their products and provide the ability for other users to rate how useful the review was.

Many of these friend-perts are amateurs; others are paid shills. It is difficult for consumers to tell which is which, but over time “trusted” voices will emerge. Consider the effect Oprah had whenever she recommended a book.

I don’t want to diminish all the things literary agents can do to help authors and their careers, but from an unpublished author’s perspective, literary agents are first line gate-keepers for the publishers. When internet booking of travel became prevalent, travel agents did not go out of business, but they no longer had much business just booking a flight from X to Y. They needed to switch to value added services; so too will literary agents. If there are no publishers, literary agents will need to turn into career counselors to justify payment—and that probably should be fee based rather than percentage of revenue based.

All this brings us back to the creator of content, the author. Three items are still critical to authors. They must write. They must find a way to entice readers to read their words. They must be paid for their efforts.

In the conversation between Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler, Joe told Barry he would need to write more. I think Joe is right. To make money, authors will need to have works available and the 80/20 “rule” in business will probably come into play. That rule suggests that 80% of your profits will come from 20% of your customers. But to do that, you must have multiple products a customer can buy. You must write a lot.

Writing time conflicts with objective number two, enticing readers to read your words rather than someone else’s. Somehow authors will need to become known so friend-perts can recommend them. For nonfiction this is called having a platform. With the demise of publishers, fiction authors will need to develop their own platform. Many people have written on this subject, so I will only add that this trend is not a pendulum authors can wait out until the trend reverses. Self-promotion is here to stay.

All of which leaves the subject of the author being paid—the reason why Barry Eisler turned down the half million bucks St. Martin’s Press offered. Most authors have funded their own R&D and will continue to. From an author’s economics perspective all revenue from the author’s content should go to the author, less the expenses of getting product to the consumer. Those who provide services along the way to publication should be appropriately compensated including a profit margin commensurate to their risk.

If the author takes control of her product, she retains all the risk. Editors, copy editors, Amazon, etc. all must be compensated for their time, selling platforms, etc. but have very little risk. Editors should charge by the hour or by the project. Amazon can make a good living on a per transaction charge. Authors can set the retail price to maximize profits. (Right now, many electronic books are priced too high to maximize electronic profits because publishers are trying not to undercut the price of print books.)

If an author chooses to shed some of his financial risk, he can enter into agreements to sell off shares of a book (or even shares of himself) – that is essentially what the author does in a traditional publishing contract.

Will the cream rise to the top in this brave new world? That depends on what you call cream. People will buy what they like. Was Shakespeare the best playwright of his time? I have no idea because by the time I got to high school he was the only one left standing as far as my teachers were concerned, and although I might have sworn differently, none of them had direct experience with Elizabethan playwrights either. Did you know Shakespeare and his players physically helped build the Globe? Whether or not Shakespeare was the best playwright of his time, I suspect he was the best entrepreneurial playwright of his time.

Of course we still have physical books, and publishers and thriving literary agencies. Following the old ways when the rules are all changing may work for a bit; but much sooner than later, those who figure out the new paradigm are the ones who will succeed.

~ Jim

Friday, April 15, 2011

My Books Are Having More Fun Than I Am

My Books Are Having More Fun Than I Am

As an author I admit that I live through my characters. They kill people who annoy them (or me.) They make snappy retorts that I can rarely come up with in a time to put someone in his or her place. They are sexier and more dangerous than I have ever been.

Okay I can live with that. I tried writing about myself and became so bored that I fell asleep over the keyboard, well…almost.

But where is it written that my books should have a better time than I am?

Item one: A new copy of my out of print novel, Abraham Lincoln for the Defense is on sale from a used bookseller for more than a hundred dollars. I don’t get paid that much per page. Why should a bookseller who didn’t scribble a word or take a risk in publishing an unknown author get that much money?

Item two: Fish Tales: The Guppy Anthology has been in the top 25 selling books of its type according to which has developed a formula designed to drive authors insane. It is based in part in recent sales, tide charts and fillet of a fenny snake. I was the bestselling author in Green Valley, Arizona for one day when my mom called in favors from all her friends in her retirement community. My sales among the over seventy-five crowd were stellar. With that sole exception my books are more popular than I am.

Item three: A used copy of Murder Manhattan Style was on sale in Exeter, England and I’ve never even been there. Why should my books get to travel more than I do? I have envied my characters before. Now I envy my books

Note: A shameless plug for Murder Manhattan Style follows: Buy it at

So, if you could get away scot free, what has one of your characters done that you would really love to do?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Trends in Reading

Many, many years ago, when I was young, when hot spots were places in the South and I could walk through space without being bombarded by radio waves, I’d find a small corner and dive into my favorite book. In that faraway time, the problem wasn’t to make kids exercise but to make them stay still. No one bothered the kid who could be seen but not heard.MB900389102

Even though some books I read had as many as eight hundred pages, I was still sorry when the story ended and I had to leave the imaginary world. I heard some adults say reading fiction was a waste of time and filled a young person’s head with silly ideas. Luckily, my parents were happy that I was easily and cheaply entertained. I borrowed most of my books from the library. At least twice a week, I’d walk the three miles there and back for my stories and to pick up my grandma’s “love stories.” That was what she called romances. Not only did I exercise but the weight of the books developed upper body strength. MH900439510

I didn’t read short stories until I was in high school. Unusual characters and dramatic endings intrigued me but I felt cheated that my retreat from the real world was so short. Later, I came to appreciate the short story and joined a critique group to practice this art form. It was a challenge and I was amazed at the variety of characters and situations members of the critique group produced each week.

Then I heard the underground message that short stories were going out of vogue. Magazines no longer wanted to publish them. Only writers who produced novels could expect to develop a readership. Despite the negative publicity, the short story didn’t die. Now, anthologies and e-zines provide outlets for all kinds of short fiction. More and more Guppies are BSPing the publication of a short work.

I’ve read short story collections by Kaye George and Warren, each story a fresh experience. Level Best Books publishes a collection of short stories every year by New England authors or stories set in New England and I look forward to buying my copy at New England Crimebake. Every year, I purchase The Best American Mystery Stories. Lee Child was the editor in 2010.

Short stories suit the pace of life today. I don’t see many of the eight hundred pagers I used to read but I still enjoy the anticipation of starting a novel. Sometimes I simply prefer a gourmet snack to a three course meal.

Do you have the titles of any especially good stories to share?