Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Pain of Arriving at “It’s Just Not for Me”

For the second year in a row, I’m a mentor for Brenda Drake’s Pitch Wars contest. Last time, I gave a pretty comprehensive behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like trying to pan for gold in a huge writing contest.

This time around, I thought I’d talk a little more in depth on the very worst part of the contest: Seeing great work and then having to say no.

It’s particularly painful because most writers know what it feels like to put their best work out there and then to be told no—sometimes for a vague reason. Or for a reason that seems so minor that you just want to throw your hands up and say, “Why is that a no? That’s an easy fix.” Or you just get the dreaded “I just didn’t connect with this manuscript.”

I’ve been there on all of those and totally understand how frustrating rejections like that can be to receive. But thanks to this contest I also know how frustrating the flip side can be.

This year, there were more than 1,200 entries—double last year’s totals. Each entrant could pick up to four of the 75 mentors to submit to, using posted wish lists and preferences to figure out who might like what.

Though none of us are agents or acquisition editors, the whole aspect of the “hunt and peck” method of trying to match your manuscript with someone who might love it is very similar to trying to find the right match “for real.”

And sometimes that leads to the same annoying answers as above.

I narrowed my wish list this year and got 78 submissions, most of which were adult mysteries and thrillers, as requested.

Out of those 78, I was required to pick two writers to mentor—one will be my main mentee and the other will be an alternate.

Which means I have to say no to 76 manuscripts.

Not an easy thing—not only as a fellow writer but because approximately 90 percent of those manuscripts are something I could say yes to.

Going through the entries, I ended up with a huge “maybe” pile. Very few pitches ended up in the “no” pile right away and most of those were because the word count was hugely off (below 50,000 or above 120,000). Probably eight or so were flagged right off the query as having mentee potential. That number grew as I sifted through the maybes, looking at both the pitch (for a second time) and the submitted pages (one chapter).

So, what separated the maybes from the “check out more pages” from the two people I choose after eventually reading requested pages?

The same bit of “it” that seems to separate a “yes” from a “it’s just not right for me.”

As to what that X factor is, I still don’t know, and I’ve felt it 90-plus times recently.

Which makes me a little bit more understanding of those vague responses we all know and hate.

Because sometimes the reason is vague. Sometimes the idea and/or the writing is there, but it really isn’t just for you. Or it’s all there, and it’s for you but there’s something that puts you on the fence.

Obviously, because of the parameters of the contest, I was in a frame of mind where I really did just have to pick two writers. Agents and editors can sign however many writers they feel comfortable adding within a certain amount of time. They aren’t limited. But, that said, they still can’t take on every manuscript and writer that they like.

On Twitter, I likened this phenomenon to the classic children’s book Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag. In that story, a little old man goes out to find a feline companion to bring back to his wife. He stumbles upon a veritable kitty sea and can’t decide which one to bring back, so he brings back ALL of them—“hundreds and thousands and millions and billions and trillions” of cats.

As you can imagine, this ended badly: With all the cats (save one) eating each other when he asked them to decide among themselves who was the prettiest cat. The surviving cat didn’t even compete. That’s how it lived.

Just imagine if we asked writers to do that when gunning for a shot at a mentor/agent/editor.

So, that mentor/agent/editor has to use his or her best own judgment—even when something isn’t actually wrong.

How do you deal with the vague subjectivity of the literary world?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

SinC Anthologies--LA Chapter

Most of the authors at Writers Who Kill write short stories as well as novels. Last summer, WWK blogger Paula Benson interviewed short stories writers. This summer, we want to canvas editors and publishers of anthologies to promote short stories and to point our readers in the direction of some great reads. This week we’re focusing on the Los Angeles Chapter’s anthology, LADIES’ NIGHT.
Please welcome Diane Vallere, the chapter’s president.                    E. B. Davis
What prompted you to create an anthology?
The Los Angeles chapter has published an anthology every other year for the past several years. We provide a chance for our members to receive a traditional publication credit (which is eligible for awards), and also to encourage new writers to become more involved in the chapter. A few authors received their first publication credit in one of our chapter anthologies. Stories from previous anthologies have received award nominations and wins, which is a nice boost for any writer’s résumé.
Royalties from the sale of the anthology go to the chapter, but we have found that the value lies much more in the opportunity that we provide for our members than in any incoming monies.
How did you develop a theme for your anthology?
Each of our anthologies has to do with Los Angeles in some manner. The past 3 anthologies have included the letters “LA” in the title: LANDMARKED FOR MURDER, MURDER IN LA-LA LAND, and LAST EXIT TO MURDER. LADIES’ NIGHT continues that trend.
Do you develop a “local” theme to entice readers in your area?
Yes. LAST EXIT TO MURDER, our 2013 publication, dealt with the car culture of Los Angeles. LANDMARKED FOR MURDER featured some of the city’s more notable landmarks.
Our announcement for LADIES NIGHT is:
From Valley Girls to Valley of the Dolls, the L.A. Woman has captured our imagination and redefined the fairer sex. CJ Parker is our lifeguard, Lucy Arnaz, our studio executive, Angelyne, our reality star, and the Black Dahlia, our murder victim. L.A. neighborhoods have spawned the Beverly Hills housewife, the Hollywood starlet, the Van Nuys dominatrix, the Santa Monica Surf Betty and the Manson girls, to name a few.
LADIES' NIGHT, the upcoming anthology by Sisters in Crime Los Angeles, will be composed of stories that dish out these women in a broad range of Southland flavors, each served on a rich bed of crime, of course.
How long did you give your writers to submit stories?
Our initial submission window is three months long. During that time we hold a workshop on short stories.
Did you adhere to the guidelines set up for anthologies by SinC?
What was the response to your query for stories among your writers?
Since we opened for submissions in July, stories have been trickling in. In the past, stories have come in at the end of the submission window. We encourage people to submit early, so there isn’t an onslaught of entries on the judges, but people like to tweak until the very end.
What were the criteria for selection?
We have three judges who will read each of the stories and deliberate until they’ve reached a decision on the ones to be included. Stories must be less than 7,000 words.
Were the stories judged blind? How did you obtain judges?
The judges don’t know the identity of the authors during the judging process. Each of our judges is a successful author member of our chapter and was approached to be involved in the process
Did you hire an editor?
Our judges will also serve as editors of the anthology.
Was any thought given as to the order of the stories in the anthology?
The judges will be responsible for arranging the stories in the order they see fit.
How did you find a publisher, and who published your anthology?
LAST EXIT TO MURDER was published by Down and Out Books. Both they and we have been happy with the partnership, and they’ve expressed interest in publishing LADIES’ NIGHT.
Were you given a choice of covers?
For LAST EXIT TO MURDER, Down and Out listened to our cover input, and we worked with them on a few revisions to their original cover. I anticipate the same process for LADIES’ NIGHT.
How are you promoting your anthology and do you have a budget to do so?
We hold book launch parties for the new anthology, where each author is introduced and interviewed with one or two questions about their story. The anthologies are available for sale at our monthly chapter events and at book festivals where the authors are present. Press releases and social media blasts are also part of our promotion. We discuss the cost of any promotion and vote on the monies needed prior to spending.
Do you think that there is a resurgence of interest in short stories?
Short stories have always been a great way for readers to sample authors, and many writers show a flair for the short format. I am always impressed at how much someone can pack into a few thousand words!
Have any of your anthology’s stories been nominated for awards?
Two of the stories from LAST EXIT TO MURDER were nominated for Derringers.

Are you planning other anthologies?
LADIES’ NIGHT is planned for a 2015 release. It will be up to the incoming 2016-2017 board to decide whether they’d like to do another anthology.

Friday, August 29, 2014

400 Things; A book review

400 THINGS COPS KNOW by Adam Plantinga is another book from Quill Driver Books that will join Books, Crooks and Counselors by Leslie Budewitz and others in my personal reference library.  Plantinga spent thirteen years as a patrol officer, which he boiled down to observations about life as a street cop, which are practical and blunt when they aren’t funny, heart-rending or chilling. 
As a writer, my next manuscript with a police officer as character will be checked against this book to see if I have avoided the errors that pop us so frequently when the uninformed try to write about the uniformed.  Do you know how Columbine changed the responses of police departments all over the United States?  I do because I read this book and it is just the sort of detail that a cop might drop into conversation with a citizen.  It is also the sort of detail that adds a sense of authenticity to a piece of writing. 
About the importance of teamwork the author writes, “…if some citizen feels the need to challenge you on why it took seven officers to take the lone suspect into custody the answer is because eight weren’t available.”  I remember a news conference in which a police spokesperson was asked why so many shots (Sorry, I don’t remember the exact number.) were fired by a group of officers at a gunman who first opened fire on a police unit.  The spokesperson answered in effect — eventually you run out of bullets. 
Why do cops toss their cups of coffee out the windows of their squad car when they get a high priority call?  Can a car with a powerful engine outrun a cop car?  (You may notice I ask questions but I don’t provide answers.) 400 THINGS COPS KNOW provides answers as well as giving hints about how an experienced officer might answer question since an experienced officer wrote the book.  I highly recommend this book.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Writer's Insecurities

Writing is something I need to do because I have all these ideas for plots, characters or poetry in my head. When I put them down on paper I reread what I’ve written and tweak it until I’m satisfied – or at least for a while. I tend to revise a lot as time goes on. I’m not insecure about my writing when my critique partners, blogging partners, or beta reader reads what I’ve written because they edit what they see needs changing; typos, word choices, etc. which only makes what I’ve written better. Where the insecurities happen is when others read what I’ve written. Do they like it? Hate it? Think it’s poorly written? It wasn’t just the agents or publishers I used to query that gave me these anxieties, although they certainly added to my insecurity about my writing. It even happens with my published books or the poetry I’ve written. Recently, I had two poems place first and four get honorable mentions in Ohio Poetry Day Contests I submitted to. I should now feel I’m a pretty darn good poet, right? Wrong. I was thrilled, but there’s still that feeling of being a second rate or even third or fourth rate poet.

Maybe I have these insecurities about my books because I’m indie published. There is still that stigma out there even though we are becoming more and more visible and even accepted more and more in the literary world. Every time I get positive reviews or comments from readers about my books I get such a warm feeling of happiness because my creation, my baby, my book, was enjoyed by someone. I’ve had enough of these comments that I should feel quite confident that I’ve written a darn good book. Well, I don’t. Of course, I know that everyone has different tastes in books and in poetry. What one person likes another doesn’t and it doesn’t have much to do with the writer in question.

Recently I finished a Pat Conroy book, The Death of Santini. It’s the first of his books I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. I enjoyed the story he told and his style of writing although at my book club, more people didn’t like how he used what he called his messed up family. They wondered if he’d exaggerated many things, and some of his early memories could be false. Everyone agreed they liked his writing and those who had read his books of fiction said they were very good and worth reading.

 One of the things he wrote resonated with me. He wrote that his “insecurities and incapacitating doubt are those that every writer brings to the writing table.” In his early writing of The Water is Wide he recognized his own voice, a voice he used for the next fifty years. He trained it to be a strong voice, but still longed for laughter and beauty in his prose. He also trained himself to be unafraid of critics and held them in high contempt since his earliest days. He said, “I made the decision to never write a critical dismissal of the works of another brother or sister writer, and I’ve lived up to that promise to myself. No writer has suffered over morning coffee because of savagery to my reviews of his or her latest book, and no one ever will.”

That passage made me think how lucky I am to belong to Sisters in Crime and their Guppy chapter. In the years I’ve belonged I’ve never heard any denigrating words about another sister or fellow guppy. Maybe in private conversations someone might mention they didn’t care for a certain book, etc. but never publicly has anyone criticized any other member’s book. The same is true when I’ve attended Malice Domestic and a few other mystery conventions. Maybe mystery writers get rid of their animosities, frustrations and anger through murdering people on the page and don’t feel a need to savage writers through reviews. Just a thought.

What are your insecurities as a writer? How do you deal with them?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Janet Cantrell (aka Kaye George) Interview

When she’s not dreaming up irresistible dessert bars for her Minneapolis treatery,
Bar None, Charity “Chase” Oliver is running after her cat, Quincy—a tubby
tabby with a gift for sniffing out edibles. But what happens when this cat
burglar leads Chase to the scene of a real crime?

Book Jacket
Janet Cantrell

I got a numb bum reading Janet Cantrell’s Fat Cat At Large in my beach chair because the book was an enjoyable fast read. Published and recently released by Berkley Prime Crime, the book is the first in the Fat Cat series. Janet Cantrell is a pseudonym for Kaye George, known for her Agatha nominations. Although the book is written in third person through main character, Chase, I didn’t expect to hear another voice report Quincy’s movements!

I wanted to ask Janet about the book and about her contract with Berkley. Please welcome Janet (Kaye) back to WWK.
                                                                                    E. B. Davis

Would you give our readers a short synopsis of your plot?
Quincy is so clever that, when his diet is restricted, he’s able to get out of wherever he is and seek food. Unfortunately, the first food he finds after the imposition of his diet is in a kitchen where a newly stabbed dead man lies on the floor. As Chase discovers both Quincy and the dead man, Gabe, whom she has recently threatened in front of a crowd at her shop, the Bar None, a stranger walks in, summons the police, and declares that Chase killed Gabe.

Throughout the book, Quincy escapes and causes trouble, but also finds clues.

(This is stated in a much cuter way on the cover copy!)

Do you have cats? I was unfamiliar with the term nictitating eyelid. What is it?

I am catless at the moment, but this is unusual for me. I’ve had cats since I was a little girl. The nictitating membrane is what I’ve always called the third eyelid. One of my cats, Megan, was a real scrapper and would come home with that creepy-looking thing exposed. It looks like a gray film on their eyes. I’ve heard vets call it by its actual name, so Dr. Ramos did, too.

It’s very scary. The first time I saw it, I thought my cat was half dead. She was injured, to be sure, but not as badly as the third eyelid made it look.

I’ll mention that many of Quincy’s antics are taken from my own cats, especially a black rescued feral named Agamemnon. He was so smart! I like to think of him as living on in Quincy.

I assume Dinkytown, the story’s setting, is a real place. Could you describe it to our readers?
It’s a neighborhood near the University of Minnesota. It’s a self-contained area of just a few blocks, mostly little shops with a few residences. It was given the name Dinkytown in derision because it’s a small area with small shops, but Dinkytown is also a cute nickname for a cute little place, and it stuck.

Chase has many problems throughout the book. First, hunky veterinarian Mike Ramos claims Quincy is fat! Why does Chase take it so personally, and how did she get Quincy?
Who disses my cat disses me! Chase takes criticism of her cat’s weight as criticism of her care. She had a tough time when she was living in Chicago, and wanted an animal to comfort her. She fell in love with Quincy at the pound. His litter had been rescued from the beach on Lake Michigan, where they’d been dumped. He was a scrawny little thing, so her goal was always to fatten him up and make him healthy!

Although Chase doesn’t suffer from obesity, has your research shown that the great American obesity problem has been passed from owner to pet?
I, personally, think this is a separate issue. Most housepet cats don’t get enough exercise. This is especially true of inside-only cats. Think about it. A wild cat works hard to get fed. Stalking, chasing, killing, and even eating his prey takes a lot of energy. A modern housecat walks to the bowl and chows down. Most owners, including me, feed their cats as much food as they want to eat. I always left the food out all the time. Some of my cats were over their ideal weight, some weren’t. But even my overweight cats weren’t highly obese, and neither is Quincy. He just needs to slim down some to be ideal.

Anna keeps slipping Quincy dessert bars to Chase’s exasperation. Is Anna passive-aggressive undermining Chase’s authority? Is it a control issue within the business?
It’s a mothering issue! Mothers and grandmothers feed people, especially those who open dessert bar shops.

 Chase sings show tunes to herself while pondering. Do you sing show tunes to yourself at odd times?
What do you consider an odd time? Right now I’m humming something. I can’t even tell you what it is, just a little ditty that sprang up. But I always have background music playing in my head. I wanted Chase to be more specific with her music, so I chose show tunes. This is also a connection between her and Anna because Anna loves operettas and used to take Chase to summer shows when she was a child.

Almond Cherry Bars, Pineapple Walnut Cream Bars, Hula Bars, Cherry/Strawberry/Margarita Cheesecake Dream Bars, Raspberry Chiffon Bars, Oatmeal Raspberry Jam Bars/ Peanut Butter Fudge Bars, Toffee Bars, Lemon (with and without coconut) Bars! I assume you did a lot of recipe research. But how will you come up with new dessert bar recipes with each book?
Good question! I did a lot of research, bought a lot of cookbooks (and downloaded recipes from the internet), and did a lot of baking! As my deadlines approach, I bring a different version to church choir rehearsal every Wednesday night. They’re very good about telling me which ones they like best. I’m about to start giving them the dessert bars for the third book, since the second book is being turned in in a few days.

Chase and Anna are partners in Bar None, but they both have secrets, which complicate their business problems. Do those conflicts change their relationship?
They do, at least temporarily. Chase, as the much younger partner, will continue to feel like a junior partner, but wants to feel like an equal partner—which is the source of some of the conflict. The trust issues in the first book are, I hope, resolved with that story.

I loved secondary character Hilda Bjorn. Aside from also slipping Quincy treats, why does Hilda exasperate Chase?
Probably because part of Hilda is modeled after my own mother. She has part of my grandmother’s name, though. My mother’s mother was born Hilda Matilda Swenson. I’ve always loved that name. I loved my mother, too, very much, but we were mother and daughter, after all. Mom always wanted to write novels, and I hope I’m doing her proud. She told me one of her plots once but never got anything written.

Did you propose the premise of this series to Berkley or did they?
No, this series is written on the basis of ideas from Berkley. I was given a few characters, the victim, and a bit of the beginning scenario. I filled in a bunch of characters, the killer, and the motive, plus most of the other suspects.

How did they chose you to author this series? Did you submit an outline before you wrote?
At what point in the process did they want to read the script?
I had just secured Kim Lionetti (BookEnds) as my agent when this idea was put out by Berkley. It was given to Kim at first and she gave it to me, so I was lucky in that I got first crack at it.

I had to come up with a proposal, which consists of the first three chapters and a detailed synopsis of the whole plot. Kim helped me with that, making some suggestions that I took (such as changing the killer). She turned in my proposal and BPS accepted it! I couldn’t believe it, really! I had submitted many, many proposals to BookEnds and all had been turned down. I was even the chosen candidate for a BookEnds agent (who is no longer there) for a project. I assumed, since the agent loved my treatment, that I would get the job. That was a big lesson about eggs and baskets and counting.

I will add that, although I had submitted many proposals, trying to get an agent at BookEnds, the submission that got me signed up was Choke. I sent them a copy. Even though it’s not a cozy, they liked my voice and gave me a chance on FAT CAT.

Even though Quincy lost a fight, he doesn’t consider himself out of shape. Will Quincy lose the
weight and get buff?
He loses a bit, but usually gains it back. I think we’d have to change the name of the series if he got too thin.

What’s Chase’s and Quincy’s next adventure?
The second book, nearing completion, is called FAT CAT SPREADS OUT. Anna and Chase rent a booth at the county fair and Quincy has to come with them on some of the days. One of the big events at the fair is the butter sculpture contest. When one of the butter sculptors is found lying dead next to his sculpture, Dr. Ramos is also found there, retrieving Quincy who is chowing down on the butter. This time Chase wants to help clear his name and find the killer.

You can learn more about Janet Cantrell at:!bio/c1ktj or Kaye George at: Pick up your copy of Fat Cat At Large before heading to the beach. Happy reading and bon appetit!


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Muddle in the Middle

Last Tuesday, Paula Gail Benson blogged about how plotting was the most difficult part of her writing journey. I have to admit that one of my least favorite parts of plotting a story is the middle. I enjoy writing the beginning and the end, but the middle (slowly shakes head) can be slow and agonizing. It’s where I get stuck, consider ditching the story, and starting a new one. (Okay, I’ve actually tossed a few stories.)

Here’s what I understood about the middle:

·         There are a series of tests and challenges your main character(s) must go through.

·         The challenges increase in difficulty.
·         Something dramatic and life-changing is supposed to happen to the main character(s) at the midpoint that changes the outcome.

Kind of vague, right?

Recently, I read James Scott Bell’s short (93 pages) book, Write Your Novel From the Middle. He maintains that pansters, plotters, and those in between can write from the middle. I hesitated to buy it because I’m skeptical about something that is portrayed as helpful to everyone.

However, I was surprised and do believe that different types of writers can use this approach.

Briefly, Bell considers a story to be a triangle where the bottom left is pre-story psychology or world, the bottom right is post-transformation, and the top of the triangle is what he calls the mirror moment.

This moment, located halfway into your story, is where the main character looks in the mirror and takes stock of herself and the conflict. If it is a character driven story, the character will determine how she needs to change in order to fight successfully.
In a plot driven story, the character will determine the odds against her, not necessarily how she needs to change. At this point it seems that the character faces certain death. Bell points out that some stories have both kinds of mirror moments.

Bell believes that the mirror moment is what the story is really about. (An epiphany!)

Also, “It’s not a scene, but a moment within a scene.” (Wow) This may not be a new concept for you, but it was new to me. I always thought the midpoint was a scene where something needed to be done instead of an internal moment.

He makes the point that while the character can decide what she needs to change during the mirror moment, the writer must show actions proving the character changed.

Another concept that intrigued me was that the main character should be in danger of dying and that there are three kinds of death:

·         physical

·         professional (if a novel revolves around a character’s calling)

·         psychological (key to romances)

There can be more than one type of death in a story. Bell says that it’s crucial to know the death stakes in order to write from the middle.

Currently, I’m in the process of plotting a short story writing from the middle. I’m finding that I need to take some time and really think about my character to understand her mirror moment and how it fits with the beginning and ending I had envisioned. I’m hopeful that this time I won’t have such a huge muddle in the middle to sort out.

There's more good information and some writing tips in James Scott Bell's book. You can read the description or order it on Amazon.
Is the middle of the story easy or difficult for you to write?
If you’ve read Write Your Novel From the Middle, did you find this approach helpful?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Existing While Brown or Black in America

Copyright Mary Engelbreit

In all the turmoil around #Ferguson, Missouri, right now, I notice the inevitable outcries from parts of the white community that the police wouldn’t shoot and kill Michael Brown for nothing, that he must have brought it on himself in some way by his own lawless behavior. Perhaps. We haven’t had a real investigation yet, and only when a stringent, trustworthy investigation has been made will we know all the facts of the situation. From the facts we do know, however, it looks unlikely that Brown did anything so major that it would have warranted taking his life. But to many white, middle-class people who are never hassled and threatened by police as they move through daily life, it seems that surely Brown and all these other unarmed African American, Latino, and Native men killed by police every year must have brought it on themselves through some fault of their own.

So allow me to tell a little story from my own life. In Kansas City, Missouri, where I live, the police used to be as undisciplined and out of control as the Ferguson and St. Louis police. A crisis finally forced the city to crack down, bring in a strong police chief to rebuild the force, and reorganize the police force around the motto of “Protect and Serve.” It’s not a perfect police force now, of course, but it’s plagued by less racial profiling and unnecessary civilian deaths than most urban forces today.

Back when Kansas City’s force was like the Ferguson and St. Louis departments we’re seeing on the news right now, pointing loaded rifles and screaming obscenities and death threats at unarmed demonstrators and reporters, I lived with my late first husband, Michael Rodriguez. Mike was a decorated veteran of Vietnam, married to me with two little kids, working a white-collar, full-time job as manager of a printing supply company branch, going to college at night, and the most non-violent and non-criminal person anyone could imagine. A fire station stood on the corner of the block where his company offices were, and several of the firefighters who were also Vietnam veterans had made friends with him since this was when no one in this country wanted to hear what these guys had gone through. This fact later saved his life.

One evening in winter when twilight came early, Mike was the last one out of his office, as usual, since he locked up at night and opened up in the mornings. He found his car’s battery had died and called a cab to come take him home. While he stood outside his own offices, dressed in a business suit, waiting for his cab to arrive, two policemen pulled up, got out of their police cruiser, and started harassing him. They shoved him back and forth between them, called him racial slurs, searched him, and found nothing but his wallet, keys, and a tube of prescription ointment for psoriasis in his pockets. One then told the other, “We could shoot this motherfucker and say we thought that was a gun.” Kansas City police had just shot a fourteen-year-old African American boy three days before, claiming they thought the comb in his pocket was a gun—and they got away with it.

Mike thought he would die on that spot, leaving me a young widow with a baby and a toddler and no way for his kids or anyone to know that he had never done anything to deserve it. His firefighter friends had seen what was happening, however, and came out calling his name and asking what was going on and if he needed help. The cops told them to go away, but the firefighter veterans stood there watching until Mike’s cab came, and he got safely away.

If you talk with people of color, you will hear story after story like this. A friend of mine who is a well-known white mystery writer married to an African American (extremely successful) artist just went out and bought all new dress business suits for her husband who, like most artists, normally wears jeans and T-shirts to work in, in the hopes that this will keep the New York City police from stopping and harassing him as he must travel through her city from home to his workplace and back. He must dress up for the commute, only to change into jeans and T-shirt at work, and then reverse the process to go home. White people don’t face this kind of treatment by law enforcement in their own lives, and it sounds so crazy and unreal to them that they assume people of color are exaggerating or making it up out of whole cloth, understandably, but this kind of harassment, threat, and fear is a part of daily life in communities of color all over this country.

Racism is a fixture of American life, but if allowed to flourish openly and unchecked, it won’t stop with communities of color. With the rising militarization of the police forces of large cities and small towns, I would caution my white friends to learn from our experiences. If this kind of behavior is allowed to continue and grow, it will eventually overflow into the white communities, beginning with poor and working-class communities and eventually moving up the socioeconomic ladder. It’s a matter of power and control, even beyond the matter of race and ethnicity.

Whether we know it or not, all of us in the United States have a vested interest in the Ferguson situation. Americans need to have a thorough, unbiased investigation of the Brown killing first, but then we need a reorganization of the Ferguson and St. Louis police forces and other similar departments, such as New York City, like the one Kansas City went through, and we also need a national discussion of the growing militarization of our police departments, large and small, and what we as citizens want to do about this growing threat.

ADDENDUM: After I wrote this, Kansas City had an educational forum in my neighborhood this weekend. The topic was "Stopped by Police: What Do I Do?" with the following topics of discussion--what to do if stopped by police, what to do if harassed by police, what are your rights, and Missouri gun and stand-your-ground laws. The police department, state legislators, civil rights attorneys, and community leaders were panelists and speakers. This is the kind of pro-active, community-oriented meetings that need to take place in Ferguson and elsewhere. I hope it starts a trend.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Chosen and the Wannabes

I’ve recently read three books by bestselling mystery authors. If I had written any one of them, they would not have been published by a big five publisher. Sour grapes? I don’t think so; I think it reflects the reality of the hoops a wannabe author has to go through today to be published by the Big Five.

One of the bestsellers started with a bang and then proceeded to give not one, not two, not three, but four solid pages of backstory. In order for me to win a Big Five publishing contract, I first need to have an agent agree to represent me. I can (almost) guarantee that no agent would ask for the full manuscript if I presented them with a terrific page and a half followed by four pages of backstory.

Anyone disagree?

Oh, by the way, it was a decent story once we finally got to it. However, the only reason I could see for forcing the backstory down my throat in one huge chunk was laziness. It would have taken more time and effort to break it into smaller chunks and provide it as/when needed. I kept reading because I was committed to reading the book and taking notes on what this author did well (and there were a number of things).

The second bestseller drove me crazy with mid-scene POV shifts. No white space between character A’s POV and character B’s POV. One paragraph it was A, the next it was B. Most were clearly intentional, illustrating a style I find often in literary works, but less frequently in the mystery genre.

Okay, I thought, when you’re rich and famous, you can push the envelope. I’m good with that—until I came to several POV hops: a quick intraparagraph POV shift from A to B to A. If intentional, I wondered why. If not, I wondered where the editors were.

And yet, those POV switches didn’t faze Jan a bit when she read the book, which she liked. When I pointed out the “errors,” she acknowledged she had read through them because she was into the story. Fair enough, I thought. I’m too critical because I write to avoid those types of POV shifts, and so they jar me when I do read them.

However, I do think agents would pitch my submission into the reject pile as illustrative of poor writing technique.

Number three had me going from page one. It continued strong through the middle and kept me reading one night much later than I had intended. Really good stuff. The ending was a total disappointment. It felt to me as though the author hit his word count target, added one final chapter so there was some conclusion, and wrote THE END.

The beginning sure sold the story. The ending convinced me not to read the next one, which I doubt was either the author’s or publisher’s intention. I am of the “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” camp. There are too many good stories to waste time if I can afford it, so this author is off my preferred list.

Which is what agents say as they go through their submission piles. I’ve come to the conclusion that wannabes must write well. Bestselling authors must write quickly. The best of the best can do both.

I was at the Mystery One bookstore in Milwaukee earlier this year speaking with the owner, who said something to the effect that, “The best writing today is being done by midlist authors.” To which I might add, and some of the wannabes.

~ Jim