Thursday, October 23, 2014

Happy Samhain

I miss the way Halloween used to be. When I was trick-or-treat age, back in the Middle Ages, as soon as darkness fell on Oct 31, the streets of my suburban neighborhood filled with seas of little hobos and pirates and witches. It was literally a mob scene.

And the treats! No store-bought mini-Snickers for us mid-century ragamuffins. Sadly, it’s not a good idea to give out homemade treats any more, unless both the giver and receiver have undergone a background check. I’d be loathe to let my kid eat a stranger’s cookie. But in those halcyon days, my sisters and I always came home with a pillow case full of little bags of cookies and brownies, apples and packs of Juicy Fruit gum, dimes and nickels, licorice whips, Slo-Pokes, Hershey Bars, and my very favorite treat of all time, popcorn balls! No homemade treats these days. Maybe not even door-to-door trick-or-treating. But then again, Halloween didn't used to be all about candy, either.

In one of my past working incarnations, I owned a Celtic gift shop. I imported gift items from Scotland, Ireland, and Wales - all the Celtic countries, in fact, which include Man, Brittany, and Galicia. This time of year is a very big deal for Celtic peoples, for midnight on Oct. 31 is the turning of the year - Samhain, or Celtic New Year, and the origin of our Halloween. This is the time when the veil between this world and the next is at it's thinnest, and those with eyes to see are able to see right through to the other side, where the dead live. Some Celtic people would light bonfires on Samhain eve to guide the souls of loved ones, and make lanterns out of hollowed out turnips to lead the dead home for their annual visit.

My husband remembers that every Halloween, his father would dig a pit in back of the house, line it with bricks, fill it with wood, and light what they called a "bonfire", though it was more like a good sized campfire. The family would sit around it and roast wieners and marshmallows on sticks and stretched-out hangars. He has no idea where the family tradition came from, but I'm guessing it was passed down through the family from the misty past, for such traditions are remarkably enduring. So, if you live in the country or don't worry about being fined for building an open fire in your back yard, stretch out those hangars and get yourself a bag of marshmallows, and take a trip into the past with some campfire s'mores.

Put a slab of Hershey bar on top of a Graham cracker, put a melty-hot roasted marshmallow on the chocolate, top with another Graham cracker, and enjoy.

By the way, Samhain is pronounced "SHAW-win." In Gaelic, that mh makes a "w" sound in the middle of a word.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A letter to readers

Barbara here. This past Saturday, October 18, marked the official release date of my tenth Inspector Green novel, NONE SO BLIND. Soon I will be putting Rick's terrific tips for successful book signings to good use. I have signings lined up in both Toronto and Ottawa, as well as several book club guest appearances.

But today, in order to celebrate the book's release, and to give people a hint of what inspired me to write it, I would like to share this letter I wrote last spring when the ARCs were being prepared.

Dear Readers,

NONE SO BLIND is the tenth Inspector Green novel, marking a milestone of sorts. Each of the nine previous novels revolved around an issue of social or moral justice that inspired or troubled me, and in Michael Green I created a character who, although flawed, was relentless and unwavering in his commitment to justice. He always saw himself as a voice for the marginalized and victimized in society. His career and reputation were built on that belief.

I’m very proud of the success and respect the series has garnered, and I want the series and the characters to grow richer over time. In this tenth novel, I have given Green his greatest challenge yet. Not a physical one, as in THE WHISPER OF LEGENDS, but a challenge to his very belief in himself as a champion for justice.

In NONE SO BLIND, Green is forced to re-examine the case upon which his career and reputation were built. As a rookie detective twenty years earlier, he had gone against the advice of senior investigators to track down a college professor responsible for the death of a young co-ed. Green was widely praised, but the professor continued to protest his innocence through letters to Green from prison. Shortly after his parole, he is found dead of apparent suicide, a fitting end as far as most people are concerned. However, as Green investigates the suicide, he uncovers evidence that forces him to reconsider the original case.

NONE SO BLIND examines justice itself, not in the abstract, but with all the flaws, biases, doubts, and best efforts of those who strive to carry it out. I hope it proves as worthy a challenge for readers as it did for Inspector Green and me.

Thank you,
Barbara Fradkin

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Blechta’s book signing manual

So I’ve got a new book out. It needs promoting, and like so many other authors, I’m expected to do a lot to help with that promotion. Fine. Actually, I don’t mind it, even though balancing the book’s promotional needs with my regular working day, as well as the general stresses and strains of daily life makes it a pretty tough load to carry at times.

I’ve gone through this for each of my books, so this is the tenth occasion I’ve hit the road to do signings in bookstores. I’ve learned a lot, refined my approach, changed tools, figured out what works and what doesn’t. In short, I’m now pretty good at it. Given reasonable traffic in a store, I can move 20+ books in a three-hour “author event”, even though most people wandering by have never heard of me or my books.

Today, I’d like to share my formula with you, so you don’t have to go out and invent it yourself.

First of all, there are things you must have with you when you leave the house. They will be essential tools to help you find success. 

Here’s the list:

Your patter well worked out beforehand: You need something to say to people. My go-to line is generally, “Do you like mysteries?” Another one that often works is “May I tell you about my new novel?” Find something that works for you, your book and for that particular store/event/crowd. If they seem inclined to want to hear more, you have to be able to set your hook in under 30 seconds max. Don’t tell them what your book is about. Think of a movie trailer. Sell them the sizzle, not the steak. Do all of this at home where you can practise it until it flows smoothly. The worst thing is to stumble through something like this. Even if you need to say the same thing every time to get through it, that’s not such a bad thing. If a publisher sat you down and said, “Convince me why your book is worth publishing,” what would you say? Make your last line a shameless cliffhanger. I’m currently telling people things that happened before the opening of the book. It is mysterious, intriguing and I give it frisson of danger (which is not a stretching of the truth), then finish off with “And that’s where the novel begins.” It’s working about 25% of the time, so if I talk to 80 people during the course of a signing, I’m doing pretty well at the end of the day.

Bookmarks: Have a good-looking one to hand people. Most people will take it. They will probably wind up using it in some other book, but the bookmark will remind them of you. I think it’s very important to have a good teaser line on it, along with the required cover image. My current one reads, “Soprano Marta Hendriks has a devoted fan who sends her beautiful bouquets of roses... but what does he really want and where will he stop?” Even better was my previous novel’s teaser (and not my idea): “Only one thing is standing in the way of Marta Hendriks’s opera career... her dead husband.” If someone does by your book, I always tell them “And today only you get the matching bookmark absolutely free!” Why do I want them to have a bookmark at all costs? Because on the back, I have my other books and the address of my website. If you don’t have a double-sided bookmark, you’re missing a great opportunity.

Another sort of handout: Sometimes I do up a double-sided newsletter, the purpose of which is to introduce myself and my new book, but also to talk about previous books and, of course, any reviews your current book has received and maybe a few older ones. Establish your literary bona fides with this piece. This time out, I’ve produced a smaller piece called a tear sheet to see how that works. It’s smaller and easier to carry while someone browses in another section of the store. Once Roses gets a newspaper or magazine review, I’ll put an excerpt from it at the bottom where the blue copy is now.

A poster of your book’s cover: You need something to stop traffic, grab people’s attention. I had my go-to firm for large output do up a 20" x 32" poster and then mount it on foamcore. The finishing touch is some slid on metal framing to protect the edges. Total cost was $110 — and it was money very well spent. Trust me, it stops traffic, and that’s what you want. When it catches their eye, you can spring on shoppers with your come-on line. This time out, I purchased an inexpensive metal easel that puts the poster near eye level (it also holds the poster securely and breaks down easily, storing in a small cloth pouch). I put the poster and easel right next to the signing table on the outside where passersby will be sure to see it.

Book stands (in case the venue doesn’t have any): Get your book standing securely upright. Most stores have these, but this past Sunday they didn’t give me any. I just whipped out two that I always carry in my bag.

A pop-up with a printout of any reviews your book has received: This is one of those plastic sleeve-like things into which you can slide a sheet of paper. Copy out any reviews your book has received (or any blurbs). I find this especially useful when you’re talking to one person and another one stops. Hand them the pop-up and tell them you’ll be right with them. If they put that down, hand them a copy of the book. Hopefully they’ll stick around.

Water: You’re hearing this from someone who taught band every period of every school day, plus before school, during lunch, and after school. Trust me, you need to keep your throat and especially your vocal cords irrigated. I always bring a big thermos of water and take a swig every now and then. It makes a huge difference.

A toothbrush and toothpaste: I was offered a muffin at my signing on Saturday. Am I glad I had a toothbrush with me! I would have spent the afternoon with a piece of raisin glued to one of my front teeth. Not a happy thought...

A big smile: If you want to attract people, you have to look happy and upbeat — even if you’re not. Always be cheerful and look welcoming. I’d say at least half the people I reach out to with my come-on walk right by with a negative answer or no answer at all. That’s their right. Don’t take it personally. If someone does stop, listens to your patter, and then walks on, just shrug and carry on. You did nothing wrong — and neither did they. They’re just not interested. If someone tells you they’re not interested, then just drop it with a pleasant, “Well, thank you for stopping by” or something similar. Even if you loathe doing signings or are having a horrible day, you don’t need to burden potential readers with that.

I’d like to close with this thought: Signings are a necessary evil for all authors. If you’re a beginning author or even a mid-list one, they can do a lot of good. If you’re shy and don’t do well in public, you need to think of this as a “performance”. Anyone will tell you I’m a glib bastard (sometimes they neglect the word “glib”), but you’re not, then practise being glib and approachable. After all, you just lied your way through your novel, didn’t you? You must appear confident, friendly, and prepared to do what’s needed. Be pleasant to the staff in the store, even when they have screwed up. Make a good (and professional) impression on everyone. It really helps.

Oh, and a final tip: Bring along printouts of all correspondence you’ve had with the venue to set up the event. That way when you show up at a store and someone looks at you blankly with an “I have no idea who you are,” you can shove the confirmation email into their hand and tell them, “Obviously, someone has slipped up. How can I help so we can get started selling books?”

Monday, October 20, 2014

Imaginary Friends

I loved Rick's recent postings with the cartoons, particularly the one that said, 'Writer's Block: when your imaginary friends won't talk to you.' I'd never thought of it that way before, but it's an excellent definition.

Just recently when David Nicholls' latest book, Us, was published he described the agonies he went through after the huge success of One Day. It paralysed him to the point where he wasn't writing anything and subscribed to Write or Die, a programme that starts eating the words you've already typed if you don't write at a certainly rate or stop  for any appreciable length of time. (Terrifying, or what?)

The result, he said, was that he managed with the traditional blood, sweat and tears to produce 35,000 words of the new book which he then showed to his agent and a trusted friend, both of whom went very quiet and then suggested he put it aside for a bit and start something else. It was only later that he realised that what was wrong was the Point of View, and it transformed the whole thing.

I  write in the third person but more often than not I will be looking at the scene through the eyes of one of the characters and if I find myself struggling, writing against the grain and getting nowhere, the problem almost invariably isn't the material but the wrong PoV. Change that, and the whole thing will  suddenly start flowing again. I'm then usually kicking myself over all the time I wasted battling with it before I realized this was what was wrong.

At the time I started writing I heard a lecture from someone with the glorious name of Diane Doubtfire ((her real married name) when she told us that we should never allow ourselves to be inside the head of more than one character in a scene, that if it isn't your viewpoint character you can't know what another person is thinking unless an observable action would make it obvious. She said that otherwise, it was like watching a tennis match where your head keeps turning to watch the ball go back and forwards over the net – thoroughly distracting to the reader..

I was very impressed at the time and it's become an ingrained habit. And the advantage of that is that if one of your imaginary friends isn't talking to you, there's a good chance that another will!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Split personalities by Linda... I mean Erika

Today's guest at Type M is Ottawa's Linda Wiken, who needs no introduction to the Canadian crime writing community as she was the owner for many years of Prime Crime Bookstore. Although, maybe she does need an introduction, as you will see.

And — there's a trick question at the end!

I’ve done it. I've now moved into the writer of multiple mysteries category. With one signature on the dotted line, I’ve doubled my output and now have two cosy mystery series on the go. And, two author names.

The first in the Ashton Corners Book Club Mysteries written by Erika Chase, A Killer Read, hit the shelves in spring, 2012 and much to my astonishment and delight, was nominated for an Agatha Award from Malice Domestic for Best First Mystery. The fourth one, Book Fair and Foul, was released in Aug. and I’ve just submitted the fifth in the series.

Now for a break, of sorts. The new series, for the same publisher, Berkley Prime Crime (part of the Penguin group), is called the Culinary Capers Mysteries and I’ll be writing as myself. No more split personality until it’s time to return to the land of Ashton Corners, AL.

Now, this blog isn’t really one about BSP, although I appreciate the opportunity to do just that, but I’ve been thinking about just what it means to be coming up with a complete new cast of characters, an entirely different set of premises, in a setting that’s so not Southern U.S. In fact, it’s set near Burlington, Vermont.

I've stuck with the group plan – my book club has now morphed into a supper club, with a monthly dinner hosted by a different member each month. I like the idea of the protagonist having a number of sidekicks who brainstorm the identity of the killer and can also be useful to the sleuth, such as bailing her out of jail if necessary.

As before, my main character is a single feisty female. She has to be both single and feisty to permit me to get her involved to such a large extent in murder investigations. So that’s the problem. How to make them the same but different. One obvious difference is that one of them, Lizzie Turner is Southern, with that certain demeanor that Southern implies. Kat Myers, on the other hand, is not. She’s turning out to be the more assertive and direct of the personalities, a distinction that will get her far in her crime fighting career.

So, how to get this across in the writing. It starts with getting into each head as deeply as possible when writing. Every writer knows what a difference this can make, infusing life into a page of words. This will affect everything she does and everyone she comes into contact with. This will make the two series distinct, one from the other. This is my hope although it is early days. The setting is an obvious difference and although most cosy mysteries are set in smaller cities or towns to help promote that community feeling, each place has its own personality which should come across in the writing.

What’s next? The crime, of course and tied into that, the motive. I think every author would like to think they've come up with the perfect crime, in that the reader won’t be able to guess whodunit until the very end. However, crimes are also based on the cast of characters and settings. What works in New York may be entirely inappropriate for an Ashton Corners small town. But being small town, there’s the problem of killing off the community. There has to be someone left in town to provide for a cast of suspects. This, of course, is providing the series continues to please the publisher’s sales demands for many years running. And in coming up with a crime, it’s always wise to remember that some that happen in real life, when transferred to the pages of a fictional mystery, would immediately be labelled as being too unreal to happen. You know I’m right. You’ve heard about it before.

That’s a lot of challenges for someone writing a mystery series, and as I've mentioned, double the concerns with two series. But it can be done. We have a lot of fabulous Canadian mystery authors who have managed this with great skill and managed to carry their readers along with them to everything they write. I won’t name them because you know that will get me in trouble, as I know I’ll forget some obvious names.  Vicki Delany and Mary Jane Maffini come to mind immediately, though. Can you name their pseudonyms?

I have great admiration for anyone in this business who puts fingers to keyboard most days. It is a love and at times, a curse. It is fulfilment and anguish. It is a whole lot of fun. As long as that split personality knows its boundaries.

Linda Wiken, writing as Erika Chase, authors the Ashton Corners Book Club Mysteries.  She’s been nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Novel and an Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Story. She’s a member of the Ladies’ Killing Circle and a former mystery bookstore owner in Ottawa.  Currently, she's writing a second series for Berkley Prime Crime, the Culinary Capers Mysteries.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Gentle Reviewer

I don't give nasty reviews. But I don't lie either. This philosophy puts me in some rather delicate situations.

First of all, I'm deeply aware that it's much easier to find what's wrong with a book than what is good about it. In fact, looking for what's right instead of what's wrong is not a bad approach for assessing human beings. When it comes to evaluating a book, I always keep in mind that writing a book is hard. Even if the book stinks, it's hard.

Commenting on a book I love is easy. Descriptive words come easily. It's a joy to urge readers to run down to their local bookstore and add the title to their collection. If I'm really crazy about it, I'll foist it off on all my friends. "You gotta read this. Just gotta."

Next down the list are books that I don't really like but recognize their merit. These are mysteriously painful reads that I simply don't care for. I simply soldier on and do my best to expand on themes and or point out some special strength.

Next are books that are competent, but mediocre. The plotting is predictable, the characters trite, and the writing lazy. I simply come up with a completely objective plot summary, with no praise whatsoever. It goes something like this: "John Doe's historical novel, Blue Against the Grey,  is set during the Civil War. Doe follows the story of two families caught up in the Late Rebellion." I don't recommend these books, but don't make negative comments either.

And then there are the books I simply refuse to read beyond the first five pages. When that happens, I turn them back to the editor with the comment that I don't feel like I could do a good job reviewing this book. Find someone else!

An author I met at Bouchercon last year told me about a situation she was in and asked my advice in handling it. Although it had never happened to me, I knew what I would do. A lady who was very aggressive asked her to review an ebook and post the comments on-line. Blatant Self Promotion was the lady's middle name. She was shameless in pursuing people to offer their opinions.

My new friend finally agreed to give her a review. She herself wrote  hardcore ebooks, but when she reached the lady's second page, she knew it was the most depraved book she had ever read. What should she do? She loathed the book, but the lady was quite influential. She knew a lot a people.

I told her to nevertheless to refuse to have anything to do with the book. Refuse immediately and firmly. Use polite wording if you can in this kind of situation.  Something like "Your writing is completely different than mine. A recommendation from me wouldn't help your book. Find someone who supports your genre."

In fact, not only would I ditch the book, I would ditch the person. There's something blackmailish about someone throbbing with a veiled threat of "Give me a good review or I'll ruin your career."

Keep your distance from mean people.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Random Musings: Dostoyevsky to Audible

I have fallen in love. Again. But this time it's different.

Those are words you don't want to hear from your teenage daughter.

But, here, it's true. It happens every time I read a book I just can't get enough of.

The great thing about teaching English is that it's sort of a job requirement to constantly read things you haven't read before. The great part about teaching high schoolers is that they are open to everything. Therefore, I read Crime and Punishment in July, and I'm rereading it with the students Frankie Bailey visited last month. I could read the novel over and over again for the next five years and not reach saturation. I've set up guest lectures from members of the history department to put the text into cultural and historical contexts, which adds even more enjoyment.

This isn't a book report or a sales pitch, but if you're reading this post, you either love mysteries or writing (hopefully, both). So all I can say is get a copy and check it out. You'll find that most of your contemporary authors (crime and mainstream) are deriving themes from Dostoyevsky.

On another front, I promised to keep you posted regarding my foray into the audiobook realm, and I have two updates, both regarding Audible. First, using my backlist (the Jack Austin PGA Tour mysteries), I'm taking advantage of Audible's Audiobook Creation Exchange program, where an author, who owns rights to his work, can post a novel for auditions, select a narrator, and then share royalty profits with the selected narrator (each taking a 25% slice), roughly $5 a book, I'm told. The process has been slower for me than the writer who recommended the program. (I'm on my second narrator.) But I have nothing to lose, so I'm riding it out and still recommend the program. Second, I'm joining Audible via a more traditional route: my agent recently fielded a three-book offer for Bitter Crossing, the sequel Fallen Sparrow, and the third in the series, which I'm working on currently. It will be interesting to go through these two audiobook experiences with Audible simultaneously and see which I prefer.
I have two events in New England this weekend and would love to meet anyone who reads Type M. The first is Saturday, Oct. 18, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Barnes and Noble in Portsmouth, NH; and the second is Sunday,Oct. 19, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., at Barnes and Noble in Augusta, Maine.