Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Bad Writing Day and a Good Review

I had a good writing day yesterday. Today, not so much. To begin with, I awoke to an infestation of ants in my kitchen. There are very few things more disgusting that finding ants all over everything in your sparkling clean kitchen. It’s a little bit cooler today*, and overcast, so I’m thinking the ants are taking advantage of the fact that they can emerge from their den in the daytime and not be instantly crisp fried.

So I spent half an hour or so moving all my utensils and spraying the little buggers with fruit wash, which is lemony and kills them dead while making my kitchen smell lovely and not poisoning me at the same time. Then I have fifteen minutes of cleaning up the carnage with disinfecting wipes, after which the toaster oven, can opener, and their friends go back into their places. The fruit wash is used up, so I’m off to the store to buy more, and for good measure, some ant traps for the window sill.

I have two blog entries due over the next two days, so after fixing a bit of lunch for my better half and myself, I spent an hour on the computer writing up one post, followed by finally checking my email and social media and responding to everyone who needs a response. By this time I have become stiff and sore from standing in one place (not to be left off the latest health fad bandwagon, I’ve been writing standing up). I took some time to pay bills, and noticed that one long-standing bill has gone up for some reason not explained. Like an idiot, I called the billing department to find out why.

Forty-five minutes later, I am informed that this is an across-the-board rate hike for everyone in Arizona, and she’s so sorry that I didn’t receive a notification.

It is now 4:30 p.m. I still have to finish this entry before Don gets home and supper needs to be made. I’m almost done! I may have an hour to get some work done on the WIP!



So, to end on a high note, I’m appending an excerpt of the first review of my November release, All Men Fear Me, from the August edition of Kirkus Reviews. It was a very good review, much to my pleasure and satisfaction. I hope this is a harbinger of things to come.

“When the U.S. enters World War I, hate and suspicion triumph over rational thought…Naturally, Alafair is worried about her sons being drafted, but she never suspects that a visit from her brother, Rob Gunn, will cause problems with people she’s known for years. Rob is a union organizer who’s lying low after his release from an internment camp for his involvement in an Arizona miners’ strike. While everyone waits to hear whose number has come up in the draft, strife breaks out between the pro-war patriots, who think anyone with a foreign-sounding name is a spy, and the anti-war socialists, some of whom want to march on Washington and take over the government… Casey’s skill at making you care about the injustices of a time and place not often covered in history books is second to none. The admirable mystery is the cherry on top.” Kirkus Reviews, August 17, 2015

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*“Cooler” is 102ยบ. I live in Arizona.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Reflections on an author tour

Barbara here, recently returned from the British Columbia mini-tour that I blogged about two weeks ago. What a wonderful adventure it was! Some of the greatest, unexpected, perks of being an author are the adventures you have and the people you meet in the pursuit of your career. You may be out of pocket or at best clear mere pennies once you have factored in the cost of travelling, conference fees, promo, etc., but the sheer fun of the constantly changing experiences makes it all worthwhile. The tax deductions aren't bad either.

The trip began with the usual cramped, frustrating plane trip across the country. Air Canada had chosen to assign me middle seats for the two legs of my journey (despite my stated seat preference), and it was only by alert attention to detail that I detected this early enough to change to the aisle. So far so good. In Vancouver, after waiting ages in the ticket line, I navigated the city's fancy new Sky Train and found my way to my Airb&b, which provided reasonable accommodation near the downtown that didn't break my budget.


The Airb&b had a great location within walking distance of the Book Warehouse and the coffee shops on Main St., and I had dinner at a local noodle place with some old friends before the reading. The Book Warehouse on Main Street has a wonderful, flexible space that allows shelves to be moved and chairs set up for readings. Not only did I share the stage with two of my favourite Vancouver authors, Sam Wiebe and ER Brown, but I also met another terrific local author Janie Chang, who came to the readings and joined us afterwards for drinks at the pub across the street (by which time it was two in the morning for my eastern body). I bought her book, THREE SOULS, which I am currently enjoying thoroughly. Connecting with new author friends from all over the world is another unexpected perk of this author business.

The next morning my Sunshine Coast Festival adventure began with a 1955 DeHaviland Beaver float plane, which seats six people including the pilot. I got to ride shotgun. What a thrill! We took off out of Vancouver's downtown harbour and soared over the sunlit coastal mountains and twisting coastline to the Sunshine Coast peninsula. There I was met by Shelley, who drove me in her green Mazda Miata convertible to the inn. What an introduction to the next four days! The Driftwood Inn is an old-fashioned, unpretentious motor inn with a spectacular location right on the ocean front. Its dining room has a wall of windows overlooking the ocean. After lunching there, I walked along the ocean and took two swims in the warm, gentle surf. Being used to the wild, frigid breakers of the North Atlantic, this was a special treat.


That evening, the formal festivities began with a reception followed by a presentation by Anne-Marie MacDonald. The festival is unlike any other I have been to, and under the special stewardship of festival organizer Jane Davidson, it is an author's delight. Attendance at the festival as a whole is in the thousands, and each author is given a full hour on the stage to shine. Most of us combined talk and reading throughout our hour, and every presentation I attended was heartfelt and riveting. As a crime writer, I most frequently meet other crime writers at events and festivals, so it was a treat to meet authors from all across the spectrum, from Camilla Gibb to Waubgeshig Rice to Craig Davidson, Michael Christie and Cathie Borrie. Everyone used words in unique and moving ways. This is another unexpected perk to the writer's life– the chance to broaden and inspire our own writing.

Many festival attendees come year after year and often stay for the full three and a half days, giving a warm welcome to new authors and old favourites alike. Most sessions were full. Where else can an author get an enthusiastic and appreciative audience of 450 people on a Sunday morning? After each session the bookseller, the wonderful Bev Shaw of Talewind Books, did a brisk business. Mindful of my flight limit, I resisted the urge to buy books by each of the other authors.

Photo by Cathie Roy

My four days at Sechelt ended, fittingly, with a devilish moonlight swim in the ocean and then an early morning float plane back to Vancouver and a ferry ride to Victoria. I wandered the streets and pathways of that charming city for a day before my final event at Chronicles of Crime,  one of the few mystery bookstores left on the continent, and well worth the trip. Owner Frances Thorsen, along with Orca Books, had organized a panel with myself and local authors Kay Stewart, Linda Richards and Brian Harvey. What a lively and interesting exchange it proved to be, with the discussion ranging over morality, justice, mystery conventions, and the death of cats. The audience pitched right in and I think everyone enjoyed themselves.


I staggered into my taxi at 6:00 am the next morning to begin the flight home, bearing a suitcase of lovely memories, new books, new friendships, and fresh inspiration to explore new heights in my own writing.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Why the best font is the one you don’t “see”

by Rick Blechta

Not a typeface I'd want to use EVER!
If you read Aline’s post yesterday, you probably guessed this was coming — or you should have!

I’ve always loved typefaces. Being a graphic designer, I also need to have some knowledge about how they work, an understanding as to why that is, and what to use where for the best effect. My collection of typefaces was in the hundreds before I got into graphic design. It now numbers in the thousands — and I still always have my eye out for something new and distinctive.

I don’t think anyone out there wants a treatise on typography, but I will share a few important things I’ve learned along the way. This is not just aimed at writers (whether published or not), but at anyone who’s reading this post.

Not all typefaces are created equal
Every computer comes with a generous compliment of free fonts. Some are really good, some poor, and many of them overused.

Just because a font is overused doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it. An example: you’re sending out a digital form of your ms to an agent or publisher. This is not the time to exercise creativity in your font choices. You want to know what your deathless prose is going to look like on the receiver’s computer monitor. If you choose something that’s not generally available on everyone’s computer, the software will choose the font for you, and it might not end well. My suggestion: in cases like this, use Times New Roman for running copy and something like Arial or Helvetica for chapter headings, your name on each page, the book’s title, etc. Probably every computer on Planet Earth will be able to display your work in the same way.

Now, if you’re submitting a printed ms, that’s a different matter. Here, it doesn’t matter, so go for something that looks good and reads well. Two very popular (and for a good reason) fonts for book copy are Sabon and Bembo. Your computer probably doesn’t have these, but they are not expensive to purchase. A large proportion of the world’s books use these two (or variations of them). Why? Because they’re very readable.

They also aren’t Times New Roman. Those in publishing see mountains of material in TNR and receiving a printed ms in something else is going to be welcome to them. It’s also distinctive and that can score you a few brownie points.

But more importantly, none of these fonts draw attention to themselves. There’s a saying among typographers: “Good typography is invisible.” Aline already said something like this in her post yesterday. A typeface that draws attention to itself in any way is not a good one. It can be as damaging as poor prose or an impossible plot point. It can draw the reader out of the story. Don’t want that, do we?

If you’re writing business correspondence, I’d also recommend Garamond (a favourite of mine), Caslon, or Minion (another favourite). They’re distinctive and eminently readable.

Above all, every font I’ve mentioned are generally very well designed. That means they’ll go on the page (digital or paper) smoothly, without awkward spaces (called kerning) and they’ll be reliable since most have been around for many years — centuries, in fact, in some cases.

To finish up, may I share a pet peeve? To set it up, there are two types of fonts: monospace and variable.

Monospace fonts were primarily designed to work with typewriters. Every character is the same width. Whether it’s an ‘m’ or an ‘i’, the distance taken up between it and other characters will be the same. The result is an ‘i’ (or other narrow character will have a ton of space around it. The classic monospace is Courier (but there are many others). That’s why (to those of a certain age) if you learned to type on a typewriter, you were always told to put a double space after a period, question mark or exclamation. It showed clearly that you were at the end of a sentence.

Variable space type actually has been around for centuries, way longer than monospace. Each character has a different width, so thin or thick, the space between characters will look “right”. So because of this, you do not need to put a double space at the end of a sentence. In fact, it looks downright wrong.

So if you’re one of those “double-spacers” and you’re not using a monospace font, please refrain from following bad habits. It will make your prose look more elegant, and that’s always a good thing.

Monday, August 24, 2015

What's in a Font?

I have a confession to make. I've never really taken any interest in fonts.

Perhaps it stems from the fact that I'm sadly not artistic. I would love to be able to draw or paint but since I'm no good at it (Grandchild: 'Draw me a pussycat, Granny.'  Me: 'Er...') I have taken the 'Oh well, suit yourself,' position and have sulkily stopped bothering about stylistic detail.

I use good old Times Roman professionally, but it does look a bit formal. For my personal emails, I looked at a bewildering number of alternatives and chose Lucida Sans, I think because it was the first one I came across that looked less stiff but still sort of normal and not obtrusive.

Having said that, though, when it comes to the print in a book l'm like many philistines: I don't know much about it, but I do know what I like.

I hate it when the letters draw attention away from the words I want to read. I dislike it when to differentiate between two fictional voices, one's story is printed in italics, or even worse, in handwriting. When I'm racing along, enjoying the narrative, a solid slab of italics makes me feel as if I've fallen on to my nose. I've even been known to abandon the book in disgust.  And a flashy or jokey font in an email induces in me the same dark suspicions as a handwritten letter in green ink.

What I don't notice, I suppose, is good practice – the simple, elegant fonts that don't draw the eye. Certainly I would never have thought that these would make any difference to the way I read.

But the research Amazon did before introducing 'Bookerley,' a new font used for some best-sellers that that will soon be rolled out more widely, was fascinating. Some styles actually fatigue the eye (See above, italics and handwriting) but by making curves and serifs thicker and thinner in strategic places, the eye is led forward and reading, they claim, will be 2% faster and much less tiring.

It would never occur to me to have a discussion with a publisher about the principles on which fonts are chosen, but perhaps it should. We're all trying to write easy, flowing prose that draws our readers on, and we need any help we can get.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Guest Author Lois Winston



I am so pleased to host the inimitable Lois Winston at Type M today. Lois is a USA Today bestselling and award-winning author who writes mystery, romance, romantic suspense, chick lit, women’s fiction, children’s chapter books, and non-fiction under her own name and her Emma Carlyle pen name. Kirkus Reviews dubbed her critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series, “North Jersey’s more mature answer to Stephanie Plum.” In addition, Lois is an award-winning craft and needlework designer who often draws much of her source material for both her characters and plots from her experiences in the crafts industry. See the links to Lois' wonderful crafting and writing blogs below.

Characters Who Think Like Their Authors

Assault With a Deadly Glue Gun, the first book in my Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series, was published in January 2011. Four additional full-length novels and three mini-mysteries have followed over the last four-and-a-half years. The timeframe for each book spans anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Thus, less than a year has passed in the life of Anastasia and her family. Assault With a Deadly Glue Gun takes place in February. A Stitch to Die For, my newest release, takes place the last week in October and the first two days of November.

In this book for the first time Anastasia is confronted with a murder in her own neighborhood. Halloween also plays a role in setting the stage for A Stitch to Die For.

Like most authors, I’m often asked how much of me went into creating my protagonist. Anastasia and I have many things in common, including a communist mother-in-law, but we’re also different in many ways. Luckily, I don’t have a Dead Louse of a Spouse who gambled away all our money and left me up to my eyeballs in debt. However, in A Stitch to Die For Anastasia and I have something else in common—my hatred of Halloween.

I was a very shy child. Having to dress up in a cheap plastic costume and go door-to-door begging for candy was something I dreaded each year. From a very young age I was pushed out of the house to walk the neighborhood on my own, ringing strangers’ doorbells. If I didn’t come back with a full bag of candy, I was sent back out. Add to that the multiple times I was the victim of egg-hurling, marauding teenagers, and you can understand why I’m not a fan of the holiday.

I tamped down this hatred when my own kids were young, even making their costumes. I also accompanied them as they went trick or treating and never allowed them to approach homes where I didn’t know the residents. As a result, my kids have a much different attitude toward Halloween than I do.

Writing about Anastasia having the same feelings I have about Halloween was a bit of a cathartic experience for me. I still hate Halloween, though, not only for the memories it stirs up but also for other reasons, ones which Anastasia gives voice to at one point in A Stitch to Die For:

“Everything okay?” asked Zack as he unloaded the contents of our cart onto the conveyor belt.

I frowned at the bags of Halloween candy he grabbed next, wondering how many of the kids who rang my doorbell Monday night would offer a thank-you. Most of them didn’t even live in the neighborhood and few bothered with costumes—another reason I hated Halloween. “Hardly.”
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A Stitch to Die For
The adventures of reluctant amateur sleuth Anastasia Pollack continue in A Stitch to Die For, the 5th book in the Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series by USA Today bestselling author Lois Winston.

Ever since her husband died and left her in debt equal to the gross national product of Uzbekistan, magazine crafts editor and reluctant amateur sleuth Anastasia Pollack has stumbled across one dead body after another—but always in work-related settings. When a killer targets the elderly nasty neighbor who lives across the street from her, murder strikes too close to home. Couple that with a series of unsettling events days before Halloween, and Anastasia begins to wonder if someone is sending her a deadly message.

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Visit Lois/Emma at www.loiswinston.com and Anastasia at the Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers blog, www.anastasiapollack.blogspot.com. Follow everyone on Tsu at www.tsu.co/loiswinston, on Pinterest at www.pinterest.com/anasleuth, and onTwitter @anasleuth. Sign up for her newsletter by clicking here.
Her books are available in paperback, on Kindle Nook, iTunes, Kobo, and Google Play

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Rangers Lead The Way

All the talk recently about the first two women to graduate from the US Army Ranger School made me reminisce about my time in Ranger school, 37 years ago. Where to begin. Well, it was hard. Historically the graduation rate is around 50 percent, and most quit within the first few days, which surprised me. To apply for Ranger school you have to be recommended by your cadre or your commander, plus you have to surpass the prerequisites for physical fitness and military skills. Basically, you have to convince everyone that you're the kind of demented, hard-headed kook who could make it through the nine weeks of anguish. Before you left for the school, you are briefed by recent graduates about what to expect. I remember listening to their litany of misery and asking, "Didn't you do anything fun?" The two Rangers looked at me like I'd grown an extra head. I did spend the month before I was to report for the school toughing myself up. Besides my usual routine of gym work and running, I'd take long hikes through the desert in the middle of the day with a cinder block in my backpack. I wasn't kidding about being a demented, hard-headed kook. The first days of school were what I expected. O-dark-thirty wake ups, lots of running, crawling through the mud of the infamous Worm Pit, obstacle courses, sergeants yelling, being tired all the goddamn time. When a student decided to quit, the RIs (Ranger Instructors) would pounce on the hapless soul and torment him relentlessly for the rest of the day. I didn't understand how someone could show up to the school and not realize what they were getting into.


The Ranger chow line. Even honed Ninja-killers have to eat.

Despite all the hype of "elite" training, most of what we practiced were tried-and-true infantry tactics. Except that we did them for days and nights at a stretch. As motivated as we were, because of the strain it proved tempting to slack off when we could. One embarrassing episode happened to me after we had forded a deep stream. At first opportunity we were supposed to field strip our weapons and wipe them dry. I got lazy and only toweled off the outside of my M-16 and the bolt. Later that day, an RI at random asked to see my rifle. Upon field-stripping it he discovered water dripping from the firing pin. He shamed me mercilessly in front of my Ranger buddies but thankfully didn't write me up.
 
The press loves photos of Ranger students rock climbing and rappelling during the Mountain Phase because it makes for good copy. I had some mountaineering experience so I didn't think that particular training was so strenuous. What did kick my ass were the mountain patrols. Those Georgia hills might not be as tall as the Rocky Mountains but they're more than impressive enough and go on and on and on. Plus they're covered with mountain laurel that would snag our rucksacks and radio antennas, whip the back of our heads, and stab us in the face. To test our daredevil mettle, my platoon parachuted twice into tiny drop zones surrounded by menacing pines, once at night. Between phases we'd get a break lasting eight to twelve hours. After hustling rides into nearby Columbus, Georgia, we would drop off our dirty uniforms at a laundry, visit a steakhouse and shovel food down our throats, pick up our clothes, and rush to the barracks for some lusted-for rack time. Mother Nature cut us slack during the notorious Swamp Phase as Florida that summer suffered a prolonged drought. The swamps and creeks had dried to trickles, forcing the alligators to vamoose for wetter terrain and leaving us plenty of dry ground to tramp over. But the Yellow River had grown so shallow that we had to drag our rubber rafts as often as we rode in them. And yet, every afternoon like clockwork, a thunderstorm would pound the area. To avoid lighting strikes--which have killed Rangers--we'd pile our gear in a heap, lay at a distance in groups of one, and get soaked as we waited for the storm to pass. The RIs advised us to not wear underwear so as to prevent crotch rot; we were going commando during commando training--how meta is that! When on patrol we'd get one C-ration per day (a normal daily ration is three) and would consume everything in that little box. We'd chew the instant coffee to stay awake (didn't work) and ate the creamer because we convinced ourselves it tasted like cotton candy. The big trial was getting a passing grade on the patrols, basically a small-unit operation--a raid, an ambush, a reconnaissance--which is what Ranger school is fundamentally about. If you got lost, you failed the patrol. If you misplaced equipment, you failed. If your team missed the rally points, you failed. If you didn't orchestrate a proper mission, you failed. Fail half of your patrols in any given phase and you'd be recycled or dropped. Keeping track of all these details was challenging enough in ideal conditions. Compound that with sleep deprivation and nutrition deficits and we turned into hallucinating physical wrecks. Sometimes the trance would fall over you in mid-sentence. You dreamed about food, I mean you fantasized about it like sex. Even though we had showed up for school lean and mean, we each lost 20-30 pounds. Finally, after nine weeks, my buddies and I were standing in formation to get Ranger tabs pinned to our shoulders.

So what's the big deal with Ranger school considering few of us would ever engage in small-unit operations? I guess it showed that we were willing to go the extra mile. As for women, barring them from attending Ranger school was a reminder that they are still regarded as second-class soldiers, as less than fully able to perform in any capacity, that they are judged on appearance and stereotypes instead of merit. Consider women athletes, particularly gymnasts, and they certainly have the strength and drive to make the cut. In the military we already have women fighter pilots, astronauts, submariners, divers (now that is tough training!), and combat nurses. The irony of not letting women attend special operations training is that women are deployed anyway with SEALs, Special Forces, Rangers, Marines, and Air Force special operations. Several have been killed on those missions. They have to do the job but not get all the training. So to the Army's newest Rangers, Cpt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt Shaye Haver, I say congratulations and it's been long overdue.


Friday, August 21, 2015

Cold Hard Truth

A friend emailed me recently who was worried about a young man she knew who was not doing too well. He had never held a "real" job. He wants to become a writer and she wanted to know what I thought of his ability.

In fact, I think he is quite talented. That said, it's very, very hard to assess the merit of a work in a genre you don't regularly read. But talent is not the problem here. The problem is reality.

Only a very few writers make really big bucks. They are very talented and have something quite special going for them. Never mind that this one or that one is not your own personal cup of tea. When they first started out, each person on the best seller list time after time brought something new to the marketplace. These are the born naturals. The cream of the crop. They cannot stop. Case in point is J.K. Rawlings. The lady doesn't need the money but she keeps on anyway. She can't help herself.

 And then we move on to another wealthy tier of writers. They are really good, usually genre specific, but things can get a little weird down the line. Books are outlined and someone else does the actually writing. Names are licensed. Writing becomes harder. Trips beckon. Time with family. A cocktail at sunset. They make a terrific living. Have a sweet life.

But the cold hard truth is that most writers need a day job. Seldom does one's writing alone provide enough to support a family, generate income for research trips, or enable one to attend the endless round of conferences that compete for time and bucks.

So what kind of day job? How many hours a day? I find it puzzling that some of the people with the most demanding jobs produce phenomenal books year after year. As to the type of job? When I taught a course in writing at Fort Hays State University one spring, I found myself worrying about the students' stories, instead of my own writing. It was like trying to water two fields from the same well. Yet, Joyce Carol Oates, who is incredibly gifted has taught writing at Columbia for decades. Our own Frankie Bailey is a professor in the department of justice.

Some writers find that working in a trade or doing something involved with physical labor is just the right contrast. That makes sense to me.

I like bookkeeping and accounting. It's comforting to do non-creative work that is exacting and precise. It's black and white. Right or wrong. Writing is a very messy occupation, but it's so exhilarating! I would rather be a writer than anything else, nevertheless sometimes I think how nice a regular paycheck would be. Sometimes I hate the fog that is a part of creativity.

So my question for the young man would be "How do you intend to support yourself?" The cold hard truth is that if you plan to become a writer you must figure something out.