Saturday, May 19, 2018

And a Good Time was Had by All

By Vicki Delany

As Donis posted a picture of me with her and Ann Parker in Scottsdale on Thursday, let me follow up with my .02.
The Vicki Delany shelf at the Poisoned Pen

I was in Arizona last week for CozyCon at the Poisoned Pen bookstore. It was an afternoon of nine authors, not all of whom are cozy writers, but most were. As usual in a PP appearance we talked books, books and more books, with each other, with our moderator Barbara Peters and with those kind enough people to come out and hear us.

In short, it was great.

Kate Carlisle, Paige Shelton, C.S. Harris, Jenn McKinlay, Vicki Delany

The following day, Donis, Ann Parker and I went to the Tempe Public Library, where we did much the same.

Again, a fun appearance.

I do these sort of things now so I can hang out with my friends.  The day before CozyCon I had lunch with Donis, I shared a hotel room for one night with Kate Carlisle. Kate, Jenn McKinlay, Paige Sheldon, C.S. Harris, Ann, and I hung out at the hotel bar (some hanging for longer than others).  On Sunday Ann, Donis and I had brunch before our library visit.

The only reason I know all these people and I consider them to be my friends is because I did the slog of conferences and book signings earlier in my career.  Now, don’t get me wrong. Generally, I like bookstores and conferences, but they are work.  A lot of work. And you’re paying your own way most of the time.

It’s the networking that counts, in my opinion.

And the networking counts in the long run. Maybe not in book sales, but certainly in fun.

Speaking of book sales: THE SPOOK IN THE STACKS, the 4th Lighthouse Library book by me as Eva Gates comes out on June 12. I am particularly pleased about this, because that series was cancelled by Penguin Random House after the third book. It was then picked up by Crooked Lane Books. YEAH! If you know anything about the book biz, you'll know that it's very unusual for a new publisher to continue an existing series, unless the books are in the mega-bestseller range. Mine are not, but I am thrilled to have it back.  A lot of credit goes to the Facebook group SAVE OUR COZIES. 

Speaking of Facebook, with the new book about to come out, I'll be running more contests for ARCs or earlier books in the series, so pop over and like my page.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Sunset Boulevard

This post will be short because it's end of semester and I'm in the midst of grading. I still have a pile of papers to read between now and Monday evening 11:59 when grades are due to the Registrar's Office. In between, this Saturday and Sunday, I will be joining fellow faculty members as we send our graduates out into the world -- to their joy.

But I want to speak in praise of the TCM project that brings classic films to movie theaters. The movies are in theaters for only two days. This month the movie was Sunset Boulevard.
On Wednesday, knowing the 2 o'clock matinee would be my only chance to see it, I jumped up from my desk and headed for the multiplex in the mall.

I arrived too late to hear the narrator -- face-down in the swimming pool -- identify himself as the person who was about to tell us how he ended up there. What can I say? I was counting on ten minutes of coming attractions, and I stopped for popcorn. But I was there when the flashback began.

The longer I watched, the more I regretted missing the swimming pool scene. Seeing this classic black and white film on the big screen was a revelation. As many times as I had seen the movie, there were some things that simply didn't register until I was completely focused, sitting there in the dark, both watching and listening.

Joe Gillis (William Holden), the narrator and the dead man in the pool, is an unsuccessful writer. I knew that, but somehow I had never really listened closely to what he says about that in the opening scenes of the movie. The conversation he has with his agent before he dumps him. The look on his face as he listens to a studio reader (Nancy Olson) rip the movie script he is pitching apart -- unaware that he is the person who wrote it. The decision that he should give up, admit defeat, and go back to the newspaper in his hometown where he will be greeted by smirks. Maybe the first time I saw the movie, I was not yet writing. Maybe after I became a writer, I simply nodded and stopped listening. But on the big screen, Joe Gillis trying to evade the repo men who are trying to take his car was  a reminder about the benefits of having a "day job".

If he hadn't been broke, Joe Gillis would never have taken a job as a script doctor for Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), the silent movie queen. He wouldn't have become her reluctant live-in lover while escaping in the evening to collaborate with the studio reader (who knows he is capable of much better work than the script he pitched). There is so much in this movie about being a writer that I'm sure I will use a clip the next time I'm asked to speak about the writing life.

There is also a marvelous scene when Gloria Swanson takes her live-in script doctor shopping for new clothes. And the scene when they visit the studio where she once reigned. And the scene that anyone who has seen the movie remembers when Swanson comes down the stairs with newsreel  cameras rolling. What I hadn't noticed on the small screen was the expressions on the faces of the reporters who clear a path for her.

Watching this movie in a theater as it was intended makes me wonder if: (a) I should mortgage my house and build a home theater, and (b) what it would be like to see my own characters come to life on the big screen. Not that I wouldn't be happy with a made-for-television movie. I think. Maybe not. Sunset Boulevard also offers some thought-provoking commentary about movies and movie-making.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Putting Yourself Out There

Staying connected

Very interesting posts this week on the joys of being a writer. John wondered about the effectiveness of social media, Sybil pondered the usefulness of going to conferences. When it comes to promotion, what one writer is willing and able to do may be quite different from another. I enjoy conferences and think they're very useful for making connections. But I don't go to many, one or two a year if family health and finances permit. I'm not a particularly shy person, and I'm not at all bothered about speaking before a group. But I'm slow to warm up in a social situation, at least until I feel I have a handle on whomever I'm talking to. I told a friend once that I think I was born to be an observer in this life. This is a great quality to have if you're a writer, but not as useful if you need to work the room. I actually do make the rounds at every conference I attend and talk to as many people as I can, but I'll never be as effective at it as someone as outgoing and naturally talented as, say, Louise Penny. However, I'm guessing I'm a much better schmoozer than J.D. Salinger, who could buy and sell me. So as effective as that technique is, it must not be the end-all and be-all.

I've been doing this author thing for years, and I keep trying a little of this and a little of that, and attempting to judge what promotional activity works best for me. Other writers have been extraordinarily helpful to me, but I can't afford to go to as many conferences as I'd like in order to make those connections. I'm much less promiscuous with bookstore signings than I was when I started out. After sitting in lonely solitude behind a table a few times, I now choose my bookstores and signing times with great care, and do everything I can to publicize the event beforehand. For every other bookstore I come across, I find it much more effective to talk to the booksellers.

I'm very lucky to live within driving distance of Poisoned Pen Bookstore, which is owned by my editor (whose husband happens to be my publisher). Whether I can travel or not, most mystery authors eventually find their way to Poisoned Pen for an event. This a a wonderful way for me to keep in touch with the many author friends I've made over the years. Witness the above photo of Yours Truly, Ann Parker, and our own Vicki Delany, having lunch after their event in Scottsdale this month. Then we did a library panel together, below, looking much more proper, and as we know, looks can be deceiving.

Ann Parker, Vicki Delany, Donis Casey

I find that the more I speak to groups, the more I'm asked to speak. I get a lot of library business. I was a librarian for 20 years, so I know a lot of library types all over the country. Book clubs are good. If you can find a non-book group to talk to that has some sort of connection to what you write about, that can be fabulous for your sales. History groups are good for me. I know another writer who used to sell her books at an annual zoo event and cleans up. (Makes money. Though I think she does actually volunteer to muck out cages.)

My husband, however, would rather stand on his head in a mud puddle while poking himself in the eye than speak in front of a group. I understand that most people are terrified of public speaking, so my publicity plan, such as it is would be torture for them.

The internet is a godsend, if you know how to work it, though less so for us Luddites. I try to do something on Facebook, author page or personal page, every day. I don't tweet. This may be a big mistake, but the very idea makes me tired. It would be hard for me to host an internet radio program, because I simply don't have the technical skills--or the interest. My webmaster, who is also my brother, told me that my website should be "all Donis, all the time", and not concentrate solely on my books. This gives you leeway to change your focus, if you decide to do something other than what you have been doing. Change genres, for instance, or become a playwright, or an actor. Do working actively on blogs and Facebook and Goodreads and BookBub increase my readership? I don't know, to tell the truth. But I'm a writer, damn it, and more writing is always better than less. On my own site, I've more or less kept a public diary of my experiences as a novelist, and whether it's instructive to others or not, after a dozen years I have written enough material for a book.

This writing game is tough. And when it comes to selling yourself, you just have to put your head down and go. What works for one may not work for you, so you try everything you can manage and do the best you can. The really important thing, though, is to do the best you can without making yourself miserable. Life is too short.

p.s. and aside: This has nothing to do with the price of tea in China, but I tend to write short. Or, more accurately, I write long manuscripts and end up whittling them down to the nub. I want to get to the point.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Loving Babel

Barbara here.  This will be a short, possibly rather incoherent, post because I am on holiday in Portugal, and all thoughts of writing are far away  So is my laptop, which I left at home in favour of my lightweight mini iPad. Portugal has been around as a country since the 12th century and although its language is romance in origin, it has evolved as a unique language distinct from its Spanish neighbour. The rugged mountain range to the east and the country’s affinity to the ocean to the west have also helped to maintain the uniqueness of Portuguese language and culture.

But things have certainly changed since I last visited continental Europe nearly 50 years ago. The European Union, free movement of citizens and commerce, and fifty years of peace have created a wonderful sense of diversity and coexistence. Walking down the streets of Lisbon, sitting in restaurants, and riding the bus, I am surrounded by a sea of languages.  Portuguese, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Dutch, and every variety of English. Plus Chinese and Japanese.  Snatches of language, all expressing the same sentiments; awe at a stunning vista or intricate cathedral, delight at a succulent shrimp dish. All sharing the landscape together. And even more importantly, switching back and forth between languages depending on the need.

One sunny afternoon at a sidewalk cafe, we were listening to our waiter switching effortlessly from English (us) to French (next table)to German (table across). We asked him how many languages he spoke. Five, he said matter of factly. Proudly.

Multiple languages abound on signs and menus as well. Being from Quebec and living now in Ottawa, I am used to bilingual signs and chatter (not to mention the many New Canadians and visitors). But this effortless, unselfish-conscious intermingling, this eagerness to embrace whatever word works, is so refreshiing. Stripped of political subtext and social stratification, words help us share our commonalities. They open up our world.

Now off to bed. 

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Long and the Short of It.

Like many of you, I was interested  in my guest Christine Poulson's post about 'long or short' when it comes to book length.

Like her, I think I have a natural length.  I don't decide ahead of time what it's to be and my editor doesn't impose constraints on me one way or another, but my books mostly come in around the 120,00 + mark.  I definitely write long.

I write crime novels rather than thrillers.  I suspect most of us tend to write what we like to read; above all as our plot unfolds we're telling ourselves a story along with the reader.

 I like reading big crime novels that allow time for the characters and their backgrounds fully to emerge; I like descriptions that let me see the characters' surroundings and give space for the setting to develop its status as a character in the novel.  I like slow-burn tension, where the screw is gently tightened and tightened and the pace is inexorable rather that helter-skelter. I like PD James, Sophie Hannah, Louise Penny.  I feel their books are rich and satisfying and time spent with them is time well spent.

Of course, we're not all Jameses and Hannahs and Pennys.  The traps for a long book are wordiness and padding, or the sagging middle when the book seems mired in a slough of detail and not going anywhere.  You have to work harder at persuading the reader to stick with you to the end and you certainly need to have a scalpel handy when you start revising.  

The other big drawback to writing long is  that it takes a long time.  I'm always awed by people who turn out two books a year, though I suppose that's only a little over half the number of words I write.

There are 'short' authors I love too, of course - Andrea Camilleri is a great favourite and there's nothing to beat the old 'gumshoe' stories.

So the long and the short of it is, 'We're all different' - and isn't that a lucky thing!

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Price of Tea in China

Certified International Indigold 36 Oz. Teapot In Blue
When I was a child and people began veering off from the main point of a story they were telling, someone would bring them up short with the phrase "That has nothing to do with the price of tea in China."

It took me a number of years to figure that one out. And I might add that people don't tell stories much anymore. Great storytellers were once prized. They were good for an evenings entertainment. Good storytellers always built to a suspenseful climax. My father and my Uncle Clarence were two of the best. Cousin Frankie came close. In fact, on some occasions, he could top anyone. 

A number of these stories have stayed with me forever. When Frankie became a lawyer he defended a man who insisted his murdered victim was going to turn himself into a snake and bite him. (True, this one) Frankie went to the reservation and asked a medicine man if by any chance his client honestly believed that. "No," the shaman replied solemnly. "Everyone knows it take three days to turn yourself into a snake." 

My father's recitation of the "Biggest Liar in Kincaid" was one of the funniest stories I've ever heard and like most, it was grounded in truth. Sort of. These stories relied on a keen and benign awareness of human nature. 

But woe to the would be storyteller who lacked timing and pacing. Woe be to the person slapped down with "that has nothing to do with the price of tea in China."

The phrase means a segment is absolutely pointless. Not only does it not add to the story, it's aggravating as hell. 

Exhausting passages that have nothing to do with the prince of tea in China are one of the most common mistakes made by beginning novelists. They are usually inserted to beef up an author's credentials, but have more to do with the author's ego, not the story. It's so tempting to show off one's mastery of the history of a period. Especially when the story is shaped by setting and the environment of the everyday world. 

All historical details should be integrated in such a way that they advance the plot. For my historical novel, Come Spring, I read a whole book about fitting horse collars properly. I really, really wanted to show off my knowledge of horse collars, but knew it would bore readers stiff. I ended up with a scene where my hero, Daniel, padded the horse collar with a piece of precious calico, infuriating his wife, Aura Lee, who had planned to use the fabric in a quilt. 

There's extra tension when descriptive details are so crucial to a scene that the elements stick with readers forever. The account of the Count of Monte Cristo's stay in the dungeon would not be the same without the slimy walls, the moldy food, the crushing deprivation. 

Integration into plot is the best way, but if a writer must use narrative passages, I like Jack Bickham's book, Scene and Structure. Bickham offers an excellent explanation about sequels to a scene and how they set the stage for action to come. Of particular interest is the emphasis on a character's reaction--often brooding--to tension generated and his decision to do something.

Sequels are also a very convenient place to slip in critical observations while the mumbling hero is talking to himself: passing beggars, stumbling over the sick, etc. It's a chance to slip in political opinions. All sorts of stuff. 

I could add many examples of passages that have nothing to do with the price of tea in China, but I'm sure every reader could point to books where they abandoned them half way through for this every reason

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Word-of-Mouth Sales?

This week, I ran out and got Alex Marwood’s THE DARKEST SECRET. I’ve started reading and am enjoying it. I heard about it via word of mouth.

Well, kind of.

You see, I saw the following tweet by Stephen King: Rereading THE DARKEST SECRET, by Alex Marwood. If there has been a better mystery-suspense story written in this decade, I can’t think of it. Maybe THE PAYING GUESTS, by Sarah Waters. Both transcend the genre.

The book is living up to Mr. King’s praise. All of which has me wondering about the role of social media on book sales. How many times have I bought a book because a friend recommended it? Often times, this comes in the form of an author friend: Reed Farrell Coleman suggested Megan Abbott; SJ Rozan suggested Naomi Hirahara.

Maybe this is all a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same. People have, after all, been swapping and recommending books forever. Goodreads has 65 million members and was born of this long-standing tradition.

Yet Goodreads, even with its seemingly large membership, is designed for –– and serves –– book lovers. But does success on Goodreads (strong reviews, etc) lead to sales? The data indicates this can be hit or miss, while NPR radio mentions and reviews in large-scale mainstream publications will produce noticeable results. One interesting item: 84% of Twitter users say they use the platform to look for deals, especially during the holidays.

So where does Stephen King’s twitter praise rank? Certainly, he’s not your typical word-of-mouth promoter. (I follow him mostly because his Donald Trump tweets make me laugh. And think.) I have no way of knowing how many sales it generated for Alex Marwood, but she was sure to tweet back.

Oh, thanks so much!

So I’m assuming King’s praise didn’t hurt.