I find short stories much harder to write than novels. For me, a short story takes discipline, to stay focused and not stray into the subplots and tangents. You can’t explore the character – you have to stick to the essentials to tell that one story, which is usually just a snapshot of someone’s life.
But I do like writing them. And the one thing I like even better than writing them is seeing them published.
My latest is in Out of the Gutter, a collection featuring some down ‘n’ dirty criminals.
If you like hardboiled, noir, seedy, unpredictable crime fiction, you’ll find a bunch of stories in this issue from the likes of Victor Gishler, JA Konrath, Charlie Stella…
Great thing about this story is that I wrote four endings, so for a while I really didn’t know how things would turn out. I hope that means that it will keep the reader guessing to the end as well.
It’s available to order online and in select bookstores.
New Year’s is a pessimist’s nightmare. Everyone’s still reeling with that festive good cheer and happy holidays tra-la-la-ing.
It’s enough to make any real noir writer nauseous. We’ll all be happier a month from now, when the diet resolutions have been broken a thousand times over, the exercise routine that we had all the best intentions of keeping has fallen by the wayside and yes, we are still drinking as much if not more and the new wardrobe we promised ourselves is coming in a size bigger than last year’s.
Life, as it should be.
As I thought about putting up the first post of the new year on this blog, it seemed too appropriate to talk about new beginnings, about hopes and dreams and all the things to look forward to in 2007. You know, like starting the diet, the exercise program, trying to drink less, write more letters, having the book come out, reading more, not calling the fire department on the neighbour’s when they have their burn pit too close to my trees, which would be the reason for target practice and the purchase of a BB gun, celebrating a few book releases…
Thing is, I don’t typically make resolutions. It’s like setting yourself up for failure. Although I suppose that’s a way of feeding a pessimist’s soul – provide yourself with endless opportunities to remind yourself that life hasn’t measured up to hope.
I know this isn’t what people expect to read over here today. It should be all enthusiasm for the forthcoming releases and the fact that finally – yes, finally – 2007 is here. After all, it is what the Killer Year crew have been dreaming of and waiting for for so long.
And I expect you’ll see that from my comrades. But for me, I’m one of these people that hates beginnings. I know a beginning is supposed to be a blank slate with endless possibilities – I read that in a Hallmark card once.
But a beginning is also scary. By the simple fact that things are new and you don’t know what to anticipate.
The past two months have ranged between gut-wrenching and happy – an emotion I do on very odd occasions. These days when I open mail or answer the phone I expect bad news. I couldn’t count the number of friends & family touched by cancer this year on my fingers. How, exactly, do you respond after hearing that and then being asked, “What’s new with you?”
“Oh, my first book is about to come out. Getting some good reviews…”
Yeah, right. It all seems pretty trivial when you’re hearing of another diagnosis, and things don’t look good.
So, the first book is coming out. Yes, I’m looking forward to it. I’ll finally get to hold the finished copy in my hands.
And then life will move on.
There are things that happen in your life that are signs. They tell you if you’re headed in the right direction, or if you need to switch course. Getting a book deal is usually a pretty good sign. Getting good reviews are nice signs too. Getting fan mail is even better, because people are taking the initiative to tell you they like your work.
I’ll be grateful for all those good signs. But I won’t stand still and worship any of them.
As exciting as it is to have a book coming out, it’s onward and upward from here. I already have other manuscripts drafted, some unsold. I have edits to do, and then decisions to make about how to proceed.
I’m working on the early stages of another new book.
I have anthologies to contribute to, a magazine to run, people to interview, a panel to moderate at Left Coast Crime…
While this is a positive time for me, and the achievement of a lifelong dream, recent events have made me mindful of the fact that time doesn’t stand still. There were people who always thought they’d be here to see this day, and now they aren’t. Puts it in perspective for me.
This is just a big step in my journey. A journey that isn’t anywhere near finished. Not if I have anything to say about it.
Speaking of beginnings, today is the birthday of an incredible author, who also happens to be one of the greatest people I’ve ever known. I’d say it in Irish if I knew how, but I don’t. So feliz cumpleaños my dear friend and many many more happy returns.
See, I can do positive! Occasionally… And on that note, America Reads ushered in the new year with my page 69 test, so if you want a bit of sneak peek into the book, you can check it out. My thanks to Marshal for the invitation – he does a fantastic job with that blog, and this is the only place online where you can sneak a peek.
I also want to mention a fantastic post Kevin Wignall has up over at contemporary nomad. Each of you who read those BSP posts I did back in the summer, about what turns readers off and what marketing approaches work, will find Kevin’s post on how far you’re willing to go to promote yourself very interesting. A must read for any debut author as they wrestle with promotional issues.
Author of Suspicious Circumstances
Filed under: Sandra Ruttan
An author recently sent me an email, telling me that the weeks following the release of their first book were extremely depressing. All the build-up, all the anticipation… And it was over. The book was out there. Most of the reviews had already come in, so the only question was whether or not readers were buying the book, and if they liked it.
We live in a society that almost demands instant gratification. It’s both the blessing and the curse of the virtual world. Letters no longer need to pass through physical hands and be transported across the miles. Data can be sent through the internet instead, in the blink of an eye. We expect our fast food in five minutes or less. We even have drive-through banking.
The funny thing is, a lot of the process of being published involves waiting. Waiting to get and sign contracts. Waiting to hear from your editor. Waiting to see the final cover design. Waiting for the review copies to be ready. Waiting for the reviews to start coming in…
I hate waiting. I’m not good at it, but that isn’t the only reason. It robs me of a full appreciation for where I am, because the waiting mentality, that niggling part of me that wants to see the next thing happen, keeps part of my focus on the future instead of letting me completely enjoy the present.
I thought about this after Harrogate, back in July. I thought about it after Bouchercon.
I got thinking about it again, yesterday, and this time I decided to turn to some friends. Some debut authors from 2006, other authors more years of experience behind them, and ask about their memorable moments and what they’ve learned through their experiences.
If there was an author moment that you could harness like a ship in a bottle, what would it be? What’s the moment you’d like to preserve and be able to relive forever, or a pivotal moment that made a huge difference for you?
I rank this as one of the best days of my life. My wedding and the birth of my daughter are numbers one and two, but number three is the publication party for Beneath A Panamanian Moon. The invitation read, “12 years, 5 major rewrites, 3 agents, 2 titles and 1 hell of a good reason to party.” Twelve years I’d been working, dreaming of the day I could hold my novel in my hand.
We threw the party at The Blue Bayou in Hillsborough. The bar owner donated food. The Monarchs played for free. Friends brought their instruments and jammed. People came from up and down the coast to raise a glass with me. My daughter sang “At Last” and blew the room away. There were so many people there to help me celebrate that I told my wife it was like being at my own funeral, without having to wear a suit. I’d never felt so rich in all the things that matter.
If I ever publish a second book, I know the party will be great because I’ve made so many writer friends this year and I expect they’ll mix well with the musicians. But I also know it won’t be anything like that first party. It was a day I’ll remember until the day lay me out, suit and all.
The moment of my debut year that I would want preserved – the most exciting moment… was actually pre-debut. It was at ThrillerFest, and the amazing fact that writing and getting my first novel published qualified me to sing in the Killer Thriller Band. I guess I’m just a communal kind of girl, but being able to sing and dance in a band of that caliber with authors who have been my idols for years… that was coming home, in a way I’ll never forget.
Well, and also that thing in the stairwell with — (all right, never mind that…)
Author of The Harrowing
The best part of last year for me was the book launch party. I live in a fairly tight-knit neighbourhood in a big city and I know a lot of the people around here. Mostly I know the other people in the schoolyard where I drop off and pick up my kids everyday. They all knew I had a book coming out for a long time – I sold it more than a year before it was published – and were all really supportive. I don’t know if it’s typical, but in my schoolyard there are almost as many stay-at-home Dads as Moms. I’d been asking the other parents questions for years, all kinds of stuff from women’s fashions to money transfer laws and they were remarkably helpful.
So, the night of the book launch, a great spring evening, was a chance for a lot of us to get together at a nice place – without our kids (that’s very important) – and let loose. Usually we all see each other in the schoolyard and are pretty rushed getting our kids home for lunch and back and to all kinds of lessons after school, but at the party we got to just sit around and chat. And eat the free food the publisher supplied.
But what was really great for me was the terrific reception all these people gave me when I got up to read a little and thank them all. They all seemed so happy for me. And for my wife. I mean, for years these people wondered who was married to the weird guy asking the questions. It was a great party.
It was also good to get pretty positive reviews in the Globe and Mail and the National Post on the same day and in the Toronto Star a couple weeks later, and it’s a great feeling the first time you see your book. And the first time you see it in a bookstore.
Author of Dirty Sweet
Coming in 2007: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
I don’t know if this counts as the most exciting moment, but I think the moment that I was most nervous about that turned out okay was during my first joint signing with Lee Child.
We were at the Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale, which I had heard so many great things about that just being there was intimidating, much less to be sitting up on a barstool holding a microphone in one hand and a bottle of water in the other in front of a couple of hundred people who were there to see Lee.
He gave me the kindest introduction I could ever have imagined, and was of course totally witty and charming and articulate, and then it was my turn to say something.
I remember thinking, “okay, I now have to open my mouth, so I just hope it’s not to throw up AND that I don’t make him look totally nuts for having invited me to do this.”
I had no idea what I was going to say, and I don’t actually remember anything I DID say (something about Lawrence Welk and Jell-O salad?), but the people in the room laughed, and after that I knew it was going to be okay.
That was an amazing day. I still don’t quite believe it actually happened.
Of course, the next day at the sublime Murder by the Book in Houston I actually *did* throw up—right before we started the gig there–but luckily it wasn’t in front of anyone. Lee especially.
Author of A Field of Darkness
My best moments this year were the moments that I spent at Bouchercon and at The Midwest Literary Festival, because I had so many e-mail relationships that came to fruition when I was able to meet those people: my editor, fellow writers, fellow bloggers, DorothyL friends. Knowing some people not only helps me feel like I’m not alone as a newcomer, but it gives me a sense that I am part of a wonderful industry. And then writing is that much less lonely.
Author of The Dark Backward
One day in March I opened the front door and there stood the UPS guy with a handcart loaded down with boxes from my publisher, Poisoned Pen Press. I cut open the boxes and there they were: copy after copy after copy of THE HEAT OF THE MOON. Until that moment, some part of me had persisted in believing that the whole sale-and-publication thing was an elaborate practical joke that some unknown enemy was staging. But that day, it became real.
Author of The Heat of the Moon
Moments after I hit store number 500 on my Rusty Nail tour this summer, I drove up the street to a restaurant, bellied up to the bar, and ordered a shot of Jack Daniels. It was the single best drink I’ve ever had, and probably ever will have.
My novel, 47 RULES OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE BANK ROBBERS, debuted this year. The moment I’d like to replay was when I was in the midst of a grueling 47 city tour to promote my book. Right when I was dog tired, I think between my third and fourth bookstore signing one day, I got emails from both a film company wanting to buy the rights to my book, and a big NY publisher wanting to do my next book. It felt like a Cinderella story.
Author of 47 Rules For Highly Effective Bank Robbers
The highlight of my debut year was seeing my first reviews come in, and receiving kind words of encouragement from people who read a LOT of mysteries.
Author of Philippine Fever
May Day came out in March 2006, and here is the moment I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world: that first fan email, the absolute stranger from Massachusetts or England or Montana who says they loved your book so much that they just had to let you know and they’ve never contacted an author before but jeez was it a fun read.
Moments I couldn’t sell for a penny: every single signing I did at any Barnes & Noble. Humiliation writ large. I think I sold three books at one. The rest were all about me trying not to act like the chick with greasy hair that no one wants to dance with.
Author of May Day
For me the crucial moment was the one when I understood at last that if I listened to that small interior voice and wrote what I wanted to write in the way I wanted to write it, instead of following other people’s instructions, the work would be much better. I only wish I’d come to this realisation many years earlier!
Author of Gagged and Bound
Natasha’s new website (www.natashacooper.co.uk) is coming soon.
My friend, a New Yorker, runs the big bookstore here… His sister hangs with the Hell’s Angels in California and he sent them my novels.
God forgive me, I didn’t know The Angels read. They loved the books and gave a blurb, which said:
“Read Bruen or die muttahfuckahs.”
Point being, you put the books out there, you just never know who they’ll reach.
Author of American Skin
What was the most important thing you learned?
I’m still learning, and the stuff I’ll carry with me are: don’t do booksignings unless invited or you have a built-in fan base; your time is much better spent giving presentations at libraries or other venues where you can sell your books afterward. Don’t blog (sorry, but it almost killed me). Send out review copies all over the world; it’s expensive but rewarding. Carry a “guest book” with you wherever you go so you can get the addresses and emails of people interested in your books. If you’re going to buy postcards advertising your book, invest in an address list of libraries; they’re the best audience for those. Don’t spend a lot of money on promo items unless they’re truly unique (I invest in Nut Goodies). Get involved in MWA and other writer’s organization; connecting with other writers is one of the great treats of the business.
And here’s something I JUST learned that has nothing to do with writing. My conservative college students don’t know Stephen Colbert is a liberal. Yes. Chew on the implications of that, and best of luck with your writing!
Jess Lourey, author of May Day
p.s. June Bug comes out March 2007.
p.s.s. Sandra Ruttan is a lost virgin and she rocks.
Jess tells me her website http://www.jesslourey.com is down until mid-December, but will be back big, bionic and graphically amazing. The ‘lost virgin’ comment will be explained in a forthcoming interview…
I think the most important lesson I learned was that promotion is something you need to spend a LOT of time doing. Or you can’t be in the right place at the right time for a bit of luck to fall your way. If you want to know more about 47 Rules, the movie deal, or my tour, visit http://www.troycook.net for more info.
Author of 47 Rules For Highly Effective Bank Robbers
That novels are IT, for me. It’s bloody fucking hard, but when I write a novel, at least creatively I’m not responsible for anyone’s inadequacies but my own, and that’s a world of difference from Hollywood. The intimacy between author and reader is priceless. Your primary responsibility as an author is to tell your story to your readers in the most perfect way you’re capable of – and, staggeringly, publishing people actually GET and support that. It’s a miracle.
Author of The Harrowing
Two lessons, really. One: Stay calm, because things will inevitably go wrong occasionally, but that doesn’t mean the world is coming to an end. Two: Sad to say, there are nasty people in the world who enjoy trying to bring others down, and it’s best to be on guard against them.
On my web site I have a piece in the Writing section called “The Perils of Publication” in which I distilled the lessons of my first months as a published writer. I hope it will help somebody else avoid the mistakes I made.
My second book, DISTURBING THE DEAD, will be out from Poisoned Pen in March 2007. I know I’ll be just as thrilled to get my boxes of DTD as I was when the copies of THOTM arrived, but I hope the rest of the process will be smoother the second time around.
Author of The Heat of the Moon
What did I learn? It’s just a book. Enjoy it and get back to work.
Author of Dirty Sweet
Coming in 2007: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
My thanks to all who chimed in, knowing I’m in galley edit hell and didn’t have time to finish the original post I started for today.
My question to you is, what have been your moments, the ones that you wish you could harness and hold forever?
We’ve all heard the insults, the things you never want to read in a review of your book. Cardboard characters. I’ve seen it all before, nothing original here.
I got thinking about this yesterday when I stumbled across a column on stereotypes. Now, bear in mind this is written by a columnist, upon what seems to be a startling discovery:
It has come to my attention that a majority of the population believes that we, the truth-telling, straight-shooting, product-placing media, are partially responsible for the perpetuation of stereotypes. (Cue Sabrina gasping dramatically. A single tear runs down her cheek. “Desperado” plays softly in the background for the duration of this paragraph.) Upon hearing this bit of news, I made a vow to dedicate my life to delivering honesty.
Wow. Talk about nailing my stereotype of the oblivious journalist who actually needs to be reminded that they’re supposed to report the truth.
I rarely read columns. I find blogs more interesting, but the writer in me wanted to take a look at this one. I felt it was pretty thin. Talk to a few people the columnist has judged and labeled – thug, goth, geek – and then after talking to 1-3 people in a category, determine how accurately she assessed them.
In other words, an exercise in proving she doesn’t know how to read people. This isn’t really about stereotypes. It’s about snap judgments and whether or not you can look past your shallow assessment of a person based on how they carry themselves.
It got me thinking, though, because I remember an author talking about a review of their book a few years ago. The review said the book was filled with clichéd characters, like the prostitute with the heart of gold.
Taking what the columnist said about stereotypes, if you wrote about the hardened thug you’d be writing a stereotype. But if you write about the hooker who actually cares about people, you’ve got a cliché. How exactly do you avoid simply moving from one bad label to another?
Now, labels are something that have been on my mind lately. I never could figure out how to classify Suspicious Circumstances and even to this day every comment that comes back on it ranges from calling it a straight up thriller to psychological thriller, suspense novel, or procedural. I couldn’t pitch the book successfully because I couldn’t figure out what compartment it belonged in. I maintained that if anyone actually read it, it would get published, and that’s what happened, but in this cutthroat era of agents and publishers pressed for time authors need the thirty-second sound bites. Aspiring authors aren’t taking courses in grammar, they’re learning how to hone their elevator sales pitch. This is actually something I touched on in my panel at Bouchercon.
On the weekend, Sarah Weinman made a post about changing the way crime fiction is categorized, asking aloud if we would see the day when ‘A mystery novel is either category or single title’ instead of cozy, hardboiled, noir, etc. It’s a fascinating perspective that, if you haven’t already read, you should.
Part of me is instinctively for dropping the labels. But in thinking about doing away with the subgenre classifications, I can see why it likely won’t happen. What would happen is that everything coming in under the label of ‘mystery’ would get sorted. “Mushy-gushy” would go in one pile. “Down and dirty” in another. Eventually, terms like “romantic suspense” and “hardboiled” would take hold and become accepted as the industry standards, and we’d be right back to where we are.
Let’s face it. It’s a human tendency to categorize things. I rely on those labels to guide me to the fiction that I will enjoy. And as an author, submitting material to publishers, how will I know whether they want my ‘brand’ of fiction unless there is some specific classification system, such as hardboiled, cozy, noir, etc? And don’t tell me that it’s always possible to identify the type based on the book cover. Since it’s written by a guy, I could probably safely assume The Blonde isn’t chick lit, but you never know. As a rule, I don’t tend to thumb pages and read a bit before I buy a book either. I rely on word of mouth and back cover descriptions.
You read blurbs that start off saying, ‘A completely original voice’ and end with a comparison to Michael Connelly. No matter how much we try to avoid it, almost all of us fall victim to it sooner or later. Through word of mouth you hear a lot of comparisons. They may be lazy but we rely on them to summarize in a few words the style and substance of a book, sometimes to the author’s detriment. Just ask any Scottish author who’s been compared to Ian Rankin and found wanting instead of rated on their own merits.
I like Ian and I like Stuart too, thank you very much. To be honest, they have very different styles. They’re Scottish, they’re guys and they’re both older than me. But they write differently and thank God for that. Nothing duller than everyone trying to imitate someone else instead of being themselves.
Maybe what there needs to be is not a disbanding of the labels, but a mechanism that allows books to transcend the labels. Why can’t a book be a procedural thriller? I just read Rick Mofina’s Every Fear and I would say that definitely could be labeled as a procedural thriller. Rick’s cop and reporter are very different from my cop and reporter, and the case is completely different and unfolds hundreds of miles away, but we could both share that dual label. Would we have less appeal to thriller readers or would we entice both thriller readers and procedural junkies to give us a try? I would hope for the latter.
I’ll be honest. One of the things I’ve been worried about the most with Suspicious Circumstances is whether or not I can pass off the idea of an honest reporter. Face it. So many books and tv shows these days portray everyone in the media as corrupt, political, completely self-absorbed and willing to jeopardize an investigation in order to get a scoop. The prevalence of such stereotypical characters jeopardizes the believability of a protagonist that is considerably different.
It occurs to me that the problem is not necessarily if your character is a prostitute with a good heart, but if you rely on that cliché to establish the character instead of developing them in the story.
Similarly, maybe the problem with the labeling of books is not the subgenre categories, but relying on them to narrowly define and even limit what a book is. To be honest, every time my book has gone out, I’ve looked forward to hearing how the person will categorize it. Instead of having me tell them what it is, they read it and decide for themselves.
They’re interpreting the book on its own merits, instead of grading it against pre-established expectations, and I think that’s very cool.
When Ken Bruen takes the stage with Alafair Burke, Laura Lippman, Cornelia Read and Zoe Sharp, you know your stomach muscles will ache by the time you leave the room.
The panel was called Ken Bruen and Four Kickass Writers and as Ken said right off the top, “I have a feeling I know whose ass will be kicked the most!”
Word was, Lee Child would have happily stepped in, but Ken was having too much fun. As he said himself, reading To The Power of Three, “You learn a lot about teenage girls and at my age you kind of like that.”
The entire panel was comprised of witty women who knew how to throw the lines out there. Ken was treading into dangerous territory when he asked why women write the better sex scenes. Alafair Burke said, “Write what you know.”
Alafair then explained, “I can’t write a lot of sex in my books because my dad reads them and he thinks I’m a virgin.”
Zoe pointed out the benefits of research. She maintained her role on the panel was to “lower the tone” and did a fantastic job of it too.
Laura Lippman said she doesn’t like writing sex scenes, but has a friend named Sujata Massey who loves them and looks forward to them.
Ken’s eyes lit up at that and he asked, “Is she here?”
“We shared a room all weekend,” Laura responded without missing a beat.
I have to say I’d be happy to have Ken kick my ass on a panel any time. The man is phenomenal.
But I must also admit that in general, the authors that really impressed me at this Bouchercon were the women.
I have photos on my blog but what I’m going to do here is recount some of my experiences with some of the wonderful women I met.
Cornelia Read is my mentor through the ITW. She brought me a gift I’m calling The Holy Grail, a silver cup that belonged to her grandmother and is part of a set. I’ve been given a piece of the family legacy.
Honestly, it’s just such a privilege to have a friend like Cornelia, someone I can share my fears and insecurities with, as well as sit on the floor in the back of a coat room and swap stories about childhood fantasies with, that I already felt blessed to know her. Her gift put a lump in my throat.
Denise Mina is sensational. It was such a treat to sit with her in the bar and hang out. She has to be one of the funniest people I’ve met – on her panel about villains she was asked if there were acts of villainy in her past and she replied, “The 80s were a crime fashion-wise.” Denise lives in Glasgow, a city I’ve spent some time in and happen to think is beautiful and if you haven’t read her work yet, what’s wrong with you? Get to it! She was up against incredible authors such as Mark Billingham and Simon Kernick, amongst others, and won the Barry for best British novel.
But the author I was most nervous about meeting was Laura Lippman. I’ve known Laura in an online/email capacity for almost a year now. She’s one of those people with a brain I want to dissect. I know that sounds weird, but her approach to her books fascinates me and there are good reasons she’s won pretty much every award out there. She’s amazing. One of my favourite “passing moments” of the whole convention was standing outside, talking to Mark Billingham and Laura on Saturday night.
Of all the people in this business, I’ve actually known Val McDermid longer than anyone. Just getting a chance to catch up with Val – even in passing at a convention – is a treat and reason enough right there to go, and when it comes to the books Val really kicks ass. She’s one of the authors I’ll just block off two days for when a new book comes out. It isn’t just that I’m a slow reader – it’s that great books should be approached like great sex – something to be savoured and enjoyed.
There were two other ladies I was thrilled to meet. One was Julia Buckley. The other, Anne Frasier. Julia has a laugh that’s contagious and a sharp wit and a big heart. She is a treasure. Anne is someone I’ve connected with online and is also one of the Killer Year mentors, and she’s the kind of person you want to have a quiet dinner with. Like me, she’s at her best one on one.
Gayle Lynds is delightful. And so is Louise Ure. And Jan Burke, and fellow Canadian Alex Brett. I wanted to corner all of them and have them to myself for long chats, but everyone who’s been to Bouchercon knows how hard it is to do that! Impossible, really.
There were a lot of things I could have referenced in this post. Bill already did an amazing job yesterday, and I didn’t want to cover the same ground although I share his feelings about the experience.
I mentioned on my own blog that Marcus had asked me what my highlight of the weekend was and I wasn’t sure if it was Denise Mina or Ken Bruen. Both would be worthy highlights, but as I took more time to process the experience of Bouchercon, I realized my highlights were less specific.
This may sound a bit hypocritical, because I’ve maintained in the past that for me, men have been my favourite writers, but in processing why that was I realized that the reason was just that I had a harder time finding the women who wrote in the style I love – a spectrum of the genre that men tend to excel in.
Truth is, women write across a broader spectrum, so you have to know who’s writing romantic suspense, chick lit, pseudo shopping therapy novels etc. to steer clear of them if that isn’t your thing. With men, I could pick up the books and have a high satisfaction rate. With women, it took longer to find the authors that got me excited.
But it seems to me, when a panel with four female authors at 10:30 on a Sunday morning is packed with people, we’re seeing things change. We’re working towards the days when women are openly praised as masters of the genre.
And I have to say Zoe Sharp, Laura Lippman, Alafair Burke, Cornelia Read, Denise Mina and Val McDermid deserve to be counted amongst the best writers in this business.
I really wanted a woman to mentor me. While I agree with Bill that being at Bouchercon I was with my “tribe” I do think that women face different challenges in this business than men do, and other than my “siblings” JB Thompson and JT Ellison, I’ve found it harder to connect with female writers.
Bouchercon changed that. I don’t just feel I have a long list of big brothers, including Mark Billingham, Stuart MacBride and all the Killer Year boys, who look out for me. I have some big sisters too, and that’s very cool. My highlights? Seeing the women show why they’re every bit as great as the men, and feeling like I’d become part of the family.
Now, it’s been a few days, and hundreds of people are posting about Bouchercon. This is my sixth post, and I haven’t scratched the surface. I haven’t even mentioned half of the people I’ve met, but I have seen some of the comments about me. I’ve been referred to as a potential alternate source of fuel and as something that needs to be experienced to be fully appreciated. I’ve also been called an evil leprechaun but consider the source. Some guy from Dundee, of all places. What does he know?
The thing about conferences is that you mentally prepare yourself going in. You turn on the social charm and prepare for a lack of sleep, a poor diet and a lot of alcohol consumption. You expect to have a sore throat by Sunday morning if you’re lucky – Saturday morning is entirely feasible.
You just push everything out and live the experience until you get home and then you spend a few days teary-eyed because you’re so overwhelmed and you finally stop to wonder if you looked like an idiot when you went and got a stool so you could kiss Lee Child.
And what lingers most is the amazing spirit of generosity in this community. I don’t know why anyone would want to write anything else – the most amazing people in the world are reading and writing crime, and they support the new talent coming in.
One big family that I am honoured to be a part of.
Now if I could just get Tribe to stop snapping my bra strap…
** All pictures are posted on my blog today, along with numerous other photos that have been posted over the past few days.
The Wee Naughty Scot
We (think we) Can Kick Your Ass John Connolly
A Wee Wobbly at Bouchercon
Drinking At Bouchercon 101
On the first official day of Bouchercon
It’s almost Monday, and we’ll be back.
With some very big news.
46 hours and counting…
Yes, there’s been general insanity in the Killer Year circles lately. A wedding, a baby. A lot of us are on deadlines at the moment, or recovering from deadlines.
There’s also exciting news. You can find Killer Year founding member JT Ellison in the debut issue of Mouth Full of Bullets. And JT will also be in the next issue of Spinetingler Magazine, which will be out September 15.
So, don’t worry. We’re taking a breather, but we’ll be back with a new format for the blog, the most exciting news about Killer Year and you’ll still find some of us on our own blogs until then.
How many of us have had that horrid moment, when we’re saying something we might not mean, exactly, but we’re venting our frustration? Suddenly, we have the feeling the person our annoyance is directed at is standing right behind us.
I have. And the shoe has been on the other foot from time to time. I’ve overheard people talking about me. One of the best was when someone sent out an email trashing me, and included me on the cc list. Best thing was, I could see the email had been sent to a bunch of people I didn’t know, and this was a long time ago, before the blog, the book deal or the time when Spinetingler really took off.
Sometimes when things like that happen I want to go cry, and other times I want to kick someone’s ass.
Since I’m airing dirty laundry, I may as well come clean about the fact that I used to work at a residential Bible school, a lifetime ago. And, as anyone who visits my blog knows, a lot of four-letter words ago. ☺ A hell of a fucking lot of four-letter words ago. Back then, I lived where I worked and I had a conduct clause in my contract, to uphold specific values and live a certain kind of life.
One of the things I learned there – one of the reasons I don’t have anything to do with formal religion in any manner now – was that the worst things about a person can’t be changed by a conduct clause. Someone can externally follow a list of ‘rules’ and still be spiteful, manipulative and hurtful. They can actually be evil. Façades don’t make you good or bad – it’s what’s in your heart that counts.
I always have difficulty when personal and professional lines blur. In the writing business, this has probably been most evident for me when it comes to blurbs. God, I hate asking people for blurbs. I have some people I know so incredibly well, they could laugh in my face at such a request and I wouldn’t take it personally. Those are the people I ask. They know I’ll still be their friend, even if they say no, because I’m not just being nice to so that I can get something – I actually like them. And there are those I really like, but just don’t have that comfort level with. The ones I’m still afraid have the ‘deer in the headlights’ reaction. They aren’t quite sure if I’m just talking to them because they can do me a favour. I would never ask those people, no matter how famous.
I know some people have said to me, “You know X and you know Y, you interviewed Z last year… Why don’t you ask them for blurbs?” They can’t understand how I feel, which partly goes back to the three years I spent working at that Bible school, when there were no boundaries between my personal and professional lives.
People used to attend conferences or the school program, and come to me (or others on staff) with all their problems. After all, we were supposed to have it together – we worked there – but I didn’t have it all together. And some of the things I knew and lived with made me sick, things that if I put here even now I could be slapped with a lawsuit for saying.
Until this year, I still had friends working there, people I do love. I would go back to visit them, my 66-year-old ‘adopted’ mother, who’s been a constant in my life for 14 years. She told me once that one of the staff said that it was nice to see I didn’t hate the place anymore.
I never did tell her that they were mistaken. It wasn’t the place, it was what it represented. Really, it was the people I hated. Oh, not everyone. I save that kind of energy for those who really deserve it.
As a result of that experience I loathe hypocrisy… but I’m a hypocrite. I got a message the other day from someone, mentioning they’d read about me in a publication, and then they carried on with the email. I’d never heard of the publication. I didn’t know what it said. I thought, How unfair. People are talking about me – in print – and I don’t know what they’re saying. Know how it feels to walk into a room and have everyone stop talking? I felt vulnerable.
Can I get upset about it? Not really, for a few reasons. I blog about people all the time. I gently teased Mark Billingham in my first post on this blog. I didn’t feel guilty, because I was referencing a news article he’d been interviewed for. It wasn’t as though I divulged personal information about him. And Mark knows I adore him (surely he knows everything I said was with sincere affection because he’s a friend?) and he can read it here if he wants to, so it isn’t like I’m whispering behind his back.
Yet I always feel a bit odd when people are mentioning my name on blogs. Sometimes, it’s nice. Sometimes it’s just strange. And when the shoe was on the other foot, when it was my name in print somewhere, I was startled and wanted to know what was said. When I couldn’t find out, I told myself not to be upset…
That it wasn’t like what I went through, all those years ago, on that island. Or all the things I’ve heard said about me by people there, in the years since I left.
The other day I screwed up. It wasn’t the first time, it won’t be the last. No, I’m not going to tell you what I said but it got me thinking about the different aspects of my new ‘public’ life and how it could affect me personally.
I understand people are going to talk about me. And that isn’t even necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, it’s a great thing. When you have a career that relies – in large part – on word of mouth and referrals, it’s imperative that people talk about you.
I just really realized that my personal life will never be 100% my own, ever again. Not as long as I’m in this business. My words, my behaviour… It’s all subject to scrutiny and people may even report on it.
I maintain that I’m a fairly open person. Just visit my blog. Uncensored thought – and language – on whatever I feel like discussing. I’ve shared about being estranged from my parents, about my mother’s sudden reappearance in my life this year, about abuse and some of my deepest fears and insecurities.
Yet I have to admit, it’s a bit of a façade. I talk about what I’m comfortable talking about. I choose when I’ll put the information out, and how. If I don’t want to answer a question, I don’t have to. The reality is, I tell people about the darkest parts of my life because it lessens the value of that knowledge. Nobody can pull it out and rub my nose in it – if someone showed up on my blog who thought they could spill secrets I’d be able to point to a post where I already told the world about whatever that fact was. It isn’t really because I’m open – it’s because I’m protecting myself by defusing the bombs people could potentially throw. Sounds paranoid, right? Yet I remember the day my former ex got engaged to someone else, when I was still working at that Bible school. Yes, we’d been planning to get married. Obviously, things didn’t work out. But the day he got engaged to someone else, people who never had the time of day for me or spoke to me suddenly felt the need to beat a path to the office where I worked. They just all felt the need to talk to me that day, and were almost giddy with the anticipation of the moment when someone would break the news so they could see how I’d take it.
In the first few chapters of Suspicious Circumstances one of the critical elements of the story is that neither protagonist is certain of how much the other knows about them. Farraday overhears a conversation Lara has with a colleague. She suspects he heard, but can’t be sure. It’s all about doubt and trust and how hard it is to know if what you’re seeing is the real person or just a front.
I’ve had fronts of my own I’ve been hiding behind, for better or worse. I don’t like talking about the years I spent working at that Bible school, but I don’t know of any better way to explain why I struggle so much with feeling hypocritical for having public and personal lives.
Thinking all this through, I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t important if people talk about you or not. It’s only their motives that matter. Is it to stab you in the back or to report on something newsworthy about your career? Is the person drawing attention to you and your work or trying to make you look like a jackass?
This is part of the reason I find electronic communication easier than face to face when I’m getting to know someone. If a person emails you, they took the time to respond to you and chose to communicate. If you approach them at an event, what if they get that ‘deer in the headlights’ look that tells you they’d rather be anywhere but right there, stuck talking to you? For me, I live on the assumption that anyone who doesn’t want to talk to me via email wouldn’t want to talk to me in person. It’s another defense mechanism, I suppose.
And I suppose part of the reason that I focused on trust and distrust in Suspicious Circumstances was because I was still struggling with that.
Now I find myself wondering at what point it’s dishonest to stay silent. We can all pull out the big examples – those who didn’t oppose the Nazi’s, for example – and praise those who did stand up for their convictions. But how does that translate over when you’re trying to make sense of what part of your life has to become public, and what part it’s okay – or even wise – to hold back?
The reality is, in any given month I get dozens of requests for things from Spinetingler. Reviews, interviews profiles… I’ve had my share of people who’ve approached me only to see what they can get from me, and then move on to the next publication. And I see that it’s made me guarded and a bit suspicious, already, when I’m just a baby in this business.
It’s frustrating that I have to worry that my honesty about an issue might be misinterpreted or held against me. It’s discouraging that so many appear to be looking over their shoulder, checking for an escape route, in case you’re one of those people who just want to use them.
I can’t blame anyone. This isn’t about anyone’s life but my own. I’ve been maintaining all along that I’m a person first and that I shouldn’t lose myself along the way, but I’m starting to see how that can happen.
I just find it sad. Perhaps it’s inevitable. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in the ‘how being published will change your life’* memo that came with my contract.
*Am I the only one who thinks there should be one of these?
I wonder if I should label this RW for Rant Warning?
It might be considered a very human need to put everything in compartments, groupings, stick it with an appropriate label and feel better for having categorized it. What kind of writer are you? Oh, a genre writer. Oh, the mystery genre.
Like now our relative merits can be established. Oh, you write that? How quaint.
Recently, writer Bill Blume commented about The Quill Awards, I’m not without a certain passionate gripe. The Quill Awards offer some specific categories such as Children’s Illustrated Book, Poetry and Romance… but then we’re given ridiculously broad categories such as Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror and Mystery/Suspense/Thriller. For those of us who love genre fiction, we once again feel like we’re getting the shaft. (If you visit Bill’s post, he has the link to go vote for the books nominated in each category, narrowly defined, or so generic and broad as to be meaningless, as they are.)
It was Bill’s post that really got me thinking about something. I’d mentioned to him that I had a hard time placing The Butcher initially, because it was borderline horror (written in the vein of What Every Guy Wants) and publishers kept telling me it needed a sci fi angle to it. A WTF? I just didn’t get that. Why couldn’t my nice little mindfuck stand on its own? Ultimately it did, in the July/August issue of Crimespree Magazine.
This is why I’m happy we’d decided to make Spinetingler non genre. Okay, we make it clear we don’t like mushy gushy romance or erotica. We don’t publish poetry, typically. But beyond that, we’ve published a wide range of stories. Some we call chillers, some thrillers, some sci fi, some fantasy, some stuff of life.
To be honest, I’m proud to be counted amongst crime writers. I think crime is the current social commentary that’s lacking from most so-called literature. There are books I read – Anne Frasier’s Pale Immortal springs to mind – that are more about the effect of crime, guilt, fear, suspicion on the living, than the actual crime itself. That book has a wonderful blend of suspense, tension, drama, woven into a tapestry that touches on issues like abandonment, abuse and manipulation. It’s a book that I know I will read again.
About a year ago, I told someone I would aspire to write a book like Laura Lippman’s To The Power of Three, another book that I still think about, months after reading it.
How can a genre that produces works that linger with me long after the final page has been read, that make me empathize with the victims of crime, with those who must delve into the darkest parts of the human heart and mind to solve the most depraved crimes, be second-class?
The truth of the matter is, it isn’t a second-class genre. It’s first rate. I had to smile the other day, when Brett Battles said that Cornelia Read’s debut novel was a literary novel disguised as a mystery. The truth is, there are lot of books that might be considered ‘literature’ if they didn’t have such a strong plot.
I’ve thought about this a lot lately, in part because the panel I’m on at Bouchercon (The New Wave) will be looking at whether or not there really is anything new under the banner of crime fiction, or if we’re just producing more of the same old, same old.
I’ve also thought about this because of the tendency to further reduce books within crime fiction into subgenre categories. I looked at the list a long time ago and got a headache just thinking about it. I’ve explained here before why Suspicious Circumstances isn’t a procedural. Oh, it’s been called a procedural. And suspense. When it long listed in the Opening Pages competition last year, they called it a thriller. I don’t blame people for using those terms and have actually been quite curious to see what label sticks, though there is a part of me that finds the practice unfortunate.
While I can appreciate that some people like a very specific type of novel, I can’t help feeling that by paring everything down and putting it in very narrowly defined compartments, we may be limiting what the genre can produce, and even keeping ourselves from finding new work that we might really love. As Bill said to me, he was glad for Spinetingler, because the story he’d submitted to us months ago (which will run in the next issue in a few weeks) was very hard to define.
Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where the only labels that mattered were ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Where a story could be appreciated for its own merits, or criticized for its own shortcomings, not compared and rendered with or without value for what it was like or for what it was not?
All I really want to do is write a damn good story. And I’ll tell you something else. When my second book comes out, I want people to say it’s different from the first book. I never want to be one that relies on a formula or a pattern and keeps producing more of the same. I just want to write whatever is in my heart to write, the story that’s gnawing at me to be told, and do the best damn job I can, regardless of which subgenre that fits into.
If I had only looked at the labeling of Pale Immortal as paranormal mystery, I might not have been motivated to read the book. It isn’t my usual thing. And I would have missed out on Anne Frasier’s keen insights about isolation, prejudice, judgment, appearances and how we treat those we don’t understand. The underlying root of fear…
A perfect example that the only limits to your work might be the labels other people put on it. And, possibly, the prejudices people have that are based on nothing more than presumption.
There is an issue that has come up a number of places – discussion groups, convention panels, blogs, and it’s one that’s been really bugging me lately, and it’s about a very specific label.
The gay label.
One of the things that enrages me about that label is the inference that sex must be pivotal to the story. I mean, if there are ‘gay’ mysteries, shouldn’t it stand to reason that there are ‘hetero’ mysteries and ‘bi’ mysteries as well, and maybe even a whole ‘celibate’ series out there? I wonder if I should come out and admit to being straight? Does it really matter?
Look, I’m not saying that people don’t have the right to decide they don’t want to read certain sex scenes. I don’t even like reading heterosexual sex scenes.
But I am saying that this is a label that is abused to, in my opinion, reduce authors to being lumped into a category where they are evaluated on the sexual orientation of the characters before the quality of the writing or the strength of the story.
I’m a huge fan of Val McDermid’s work. You give me anything by her and I don’t care – I know I’m in for a good book. Sure, her Lindsay Gordon series has a different feel to it than that Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series, but not because of Lindsay’s orientation. Because one is amateur sleuth, one is gritty thrillers. The sexual orientation of the characters doesn’t impinge on great storytelling, which is as it should be.
I mean, would we really think someone was any less of a doctor or a teacher or a reporter or cop if they were a virgin? So why does the sexual orientation matter so much?
For some reason, this seems to be one of the prejudices it’s still okay for people to harbor. And the point of saying all this isn’t to say that people who don’t want to read ‘gay’ mysteries should be forced to read them, any more than people who love psychological thrillers should be forced to read cozies if they don’t want to.
But I can’t help wondering if, by accepting the use of this particular label, we’re fueling a prejudice that might otherwise die sooner. I worry about the potential push to rate books based on sexual content, graphic violence, disturbing themes. I wonder if tolerating this label will lead to other labels, allowing books to be more narrowly constrained by the limits people put on them in their minds, when the only difference between one book and another may be whether or not the main character is attracted to men or to women, and it has no further bearing on the story, than perhaps that the seductress can’t work her charms on the gay cop, for example.
When this was being discussed on DorothyL a few months ago, someone raised the labeling question then. They asked what you’d call a book written by a straight author who just happened to have some gay characters in their book, even if they weren’t the protagonists. And that’s the problem. By allowing books to be narrowly defined and, in this case, categorized by sexual orientation, we are potentially limited the scope of the stories we can tell.
I’ve got to be honest here. Two years ago, I couldn’t name three mystery subgenres to save my life. When I wrote Suspicious Circumstances and my second book I only thought about one thing: whether or not the story should center exclusively on cops.
The writer side of me says that’s as it should be. I wrote the stories the way they were meant to be told, not with the fear that they might be lumped into a controversial subgenre and relegated to obscurity as a result.
In saying all this, I might be coming off as a hopeless hypocrite. In the main bookstores here authors like MJ Rose, PJ Parrish, Tess Gerritsen, John Rickards – you’ll find them all in ‘fiction and literature’. Not the mystery section. And it baffles me to no end, because if you’re going to group books according to genre, I would think their books should be over with all the other mysteries and thrillers. People like me seldom leave that section – why would we? I don’t have much time for pleasure reading and I tend to use the time I have to catch up on backlists of authors I’ve somehow missed over the years, to know the work of my peers and to discover more about the genre.
But I think the more narrowly constrained labels can possibly be stifling, can make it potentially difficult for fresh new work to emerge.
Perhaps it’s a sad truth that it might be easier to sell your work if you know exactly how to brand it. Or perhaps I’m just sensitive on the topic, because I never could figure out where Suspicious Circumstances belonged.
* And since this does tie in to my panel topic at Bouchercon, thoughts are most welcome.
* PS: I’ve got a labeling joke up on my own blog, On Life and Other Inconveniences, today. It’s a naughty joke, so if you like those, you might want to read it. But I wouldn’t want to offend anyone…
Author of Suspicious Circumstances which for today, we’ll call a suspense novel
There’s more than one kind of crime fiction reader, and I’m the right kind.
Not just because I actually buy books, although that’s good news for the authors I read. What I mean by ‘the right kind’ of reader is that one of the critical elements in crime fiction, for me, is that I’m invested in justice. I want to see the guilty pay.
Sometimes, I think we can dance all around a topic, a philosophy, but then in one simple moment we put our finger on exactly what it is we think and we have clarity. We understand.
I’ve stated on numerous occasions that I’m a bit of a police procedural junkie. And curiously, British police procedurals have dominated my bookshelves. I never understood those who griped about the dominance of police procedurals in the UK market. To me, this just meant more great books to love. Whenever people groaned about another British police procedural, I’d feel my spine stiffen. I felt threatened, like they wanted to put an end to the books I loved. I took the griping personally.
But I never really processed why I loved police procedurals, until last week. I was reading views on a topic on The Billingham Talk Zone and it was only as I read through the various opinions that it finally clicked for me.
I want to know there’s someone else out there, somebody who sees the evils of the world and wants to stop the bad guys. That doesn’t mean I need to see every fictional criminal locked up in every book I read – it isn’t necessarily about succeeding. It’s about connecting, to a character who believes in justice, goes after it, tries to right wrongs.
Now, that doesn’t even mean the book has to be about cops. It’s just that you tend to find that aspect of the story in police procedurals. There are amateur sleuth/PI books that do the same: Cornelia Read’s debut, A Field of Darkness. Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan books. John Rickards, in both Winter’s End and The Touch of Ghosts. And I’m curiously invested in Simon Kernick’s character, Dennis Milne. Flawed, yes, but not without redemption. And in some ways, a man more able to deliver justice than the average cop.
Now, you might be surprised at me, saying I’ve only realized this recently. Sandra, you’re writing police procedurals, aren’t you?
Pairing a cop and a reporter as the two protagonists wasn’t something any author I was reading was doing when I started Suspicious Circumstances. Oh, I’m sure other authors were, but it certainly wasn’t about copying or being influenced by someone’s example.
What it was about was going into territory I felt confident with. I could step into the reporter’s shoes. Dealing with police procedure, for me, would be trickier.
But it didn’t really matter for this story, because corruption within the police department is such a key element that most of the time, Lara and Farraday are working well outside of standard procedure. Hell, a cop and a reporter, forced to work together after she’s attacked and they discover a body… Rewind and stop at the cop and reporter working together – this isn’t anything remotely like standard procedure.
Which brings me to another characteristic of the common popular cop. One who ignores their superiors and puts justice and truth ahead of politics and protocol. Why are these characters – Rebus, Thorne, McRae –so popular with readers? Precisely because they’re invested in justice. They say to hell with the politics and do what needs to be done, despite the risks to their career.
I know on the surface, people can look at those behaviours and say they’re reckless and self-destructive, but I think one of the reasons these fictional cops have such a wide appeal is because they put truth above a promotion. Not some ass-kissing political schmoozer who will change position in the blink of an eye. Someone with integrity, even if it’s just to their own moral code.
To me, this is why the police procedural will never die. There are a lot of readers out there who, like me, want to believe that when we’re the victims of a crime, some cop is going to put justice for us ahead of everything else, a cop we can trust, who won’t just go through the motions. We want to believe they’ll actually care.
For me, this is the appeal of reading about cops and writing about cops. Oh, obviously I don’t believe all cops are perfect. Rewind back to what I said about Suspicious Circumstances – corruption within the police department is such a key element that most of the time, Lara and Farraday are working well outside of standard procedure. The underlying themes of justice and trust are the critical elements to the story. As Julia Buckley said after reading it, Everyone in the book suspects somebody of something, not just the cops and reporters, but family members, kids, adults, townspeople. It creates a lot of tension.
Which was the whole idea. ☺ And, I hope, makes the reader that much more invested in seeing the bad guys brought down.
Because when you can’t trust your partner on the police force, standing up for the truth could cost you your life.
Welcome to Farraday’s world.
Are you the ‘right’ kind of reader? Or writer? What is it about crime fiction that appeals to you?
Author of Suspicious Circumstances
On Life and Other Inconveniences
PS: If it’s an average day, I’ll cross the 23,000 visitor mark on my blog today. Thanks to all who read my ramblings. I promise a rant tomorrow like you haven’t seen from me in at least five days…