Feb 022014
 

My writer friend Bruce Bentzman recently published a three-part essay about being burgled in the online magazine Snakeskin (part 1, part 2, part 3). I thought Dead Guy readers might be interested in some of the real-life procedural details of the case.

Bentzman left his apartment unlocked for about fifteen minutes while he did some outside work. When he returned, he discovered his laptop and a few other things had been stolen. Bentzman and his “more significant other,” Ms. Keogh, called the police. Meanwhile, they soon learned, the burglar had already begun using the credit card to purchase gift cards from local shops.

Pen1Bentzman was especially upset about the less-monetarily-valuable thefts: his mail, his journal, and three beloved fountain pens including a Sailor Bamboo Susutake similar to the one pictured at right. (I occasionally receive handwritten letters from Bentzman; it’s clear from looking at them that he cares deeply about ink and penmanship.) He followed the credit card trail of the burglar, hoping to recover whatever he could from nearby trash bins. He says:

In the trash at the Rite Aid in Yardley, I found three envelopes that were not mine. It appeared that someone had paid bills and thinking they were mailing them, inadvertently tossed them into the blue recycle bin mistaking it for the blue mailbox that was only a few feet further. I picked them out, noted the return address, mailed them correctly, and called Mr. N. of Yardley to reveal the error. Mr. N., who sounded like a dear man, 92-years-old, was thoroughly astonished and grateful. So was I. I felt I had been afforded the chance to restore some goodness into the world, countering the damage caused by the shithead burglar or burglars, only I never found my mail.

Bentzman soon learned that two women, likely the burglars, were under arrest for other crimes in the neighborhood. He filled out a form requesting to see the crime report for his burglary:

A week later, I received a letter from the Township Manager informing me that my request has been denied pursuant to the Pennsylvania Right to Know Law Section 708 (b)(16). 708 (b) are the exceptions. (16) has many parts. Which parts are pertinent to me? One that stood out was, “(iii) A record that includes the identity of a confidential source or the identity of a suspect who has not been charged with an offense to whom confidentiality has been promised.” But maybe more pertinent was, “(v) Victim information, including any information that would jeopardize the safety of the victim.”

Then there was (vi), which is subdivided into five parts. “(A) Reveal the institution, progress or result of a criminal investigation, except the filing of criminal charges. (B) Deprive a person of the right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication. (C) Impair the ability to locate a defendant or codefendant. (D) Hinder an agency’s ability to secure an arrest, prosecution or conviction. (E) Endanger the life or physical safety of an individual.” That last one, would my inquiries place me in danger?

Bentzman found out as much as he could about the accused women. The more he learned, the less likely it seemed he would ever recover his pens or his journal (and indeed, as of this writing, he hasn’t gotten them back). He learned that the two women were heroin addicts and repeat offenders, and that he would be in attendance at the hearing for Anne Bambino, the woman who had used Ms. Keogh’s credit card. What was it like to see her up close?

The courthouse was unimpressive, a one-story white stucco building. It looked insignificant, as if the law did not merit any special honor, held no particular virtue. When Ms. Keogh entered the stark lobby of the building, I pointed to the window in the wall where she needed to sign in. We then sat together and waited, wondering if we would recognize Ms. Bambino when she arrived.

I expected to recognize her. After all, I had seen her photograph. I had seen the pictures taken by surveillance cameras. I had seen her mug shots. There are several as she has been arrested multiple times. I had seen her Facebook portrait. She would not have recognized me or Ms. Keogh. Whether it was she or her associate who rifled our apartment, we had no photographs of ourselves on the walls. And there she was. She was easy to recognize. She arrived under guard and in chains.

She wore a maroon prison suit under a winter jacket. A chain dragged between her ankles. Her wrists were also chained and it extended to a steel loop on a thick leather belt. Even in this sad state, she was more attractive than I expected. It was disconcerting to see this small, pleasant appearing woman in such determined restraints.

Ms. Keogh and I took a seat in the last row of the small courtroom. I looked at Magisterial District Court Judge John J. Kelly, Jr. I knew him! Was I to call the kid I wrestled back in our Neshaminy High School gym class “Your Honor”?

It hardly mattered that we came to the hearing. There was no confrontation. We were not called to speak. Ms Bambino was offered to sign a waiver. It wasn’t that she was pleading guilty, but she was not contesting the charges and was having the case combined with other charges that would involve other courtrooms.

They placed the waiver on the judge’s bench for her to sign. It was too high for the small Ms. Bambino, only 5’3” and her arms restricted by chains. She rose on her tip toes to sign. One of the officers of the court said she was looking well. It caused a charming smile to arise across her face and I heard her pleasant voice. As I made it out, she was admitting that despite prison life she felt she was doing well. Then it was over and they led her away.

We left the courtroom and Detective Nicastro discussed the matter with us. He told us about Ms Bambino. She had been married, but it wasn’t known if she was separated or divorced. I asked if she had any children, but he didn’t know. I asked about my stolen pens. Detective Nicastro said that when the burglars realized they were just some pens in those little sacks, they probably threw them out.

It was hard to be indifferent to whatever happened to Ms. Bambino. I was angry with her, but with all the years she will be incarcerated, it would be terrible enough; I could not bring myself to wish her more. What is the value of my pens compared to several years of her life wasted in prison? That day at the hearing, seeing this meek blonde incongruously shackled and fettered, I felt sorry for Ms. Bambino. I am relieved the decision isn't mine to make.

Jan 162014
 
Guest post by Jim Winter

A few years back, I read an interesting theory about The Great Gatsby that suggested Jay Gatsby might have been black trying to “pass” in the more racially rigid 1920’s. It was an interesting theory, but I wish I’d read the novel before the article as it changed my perceptions of the story. Then again, there also was nothing in the book suggesting Gatsby resembled Robert Redford, so my perceptions were already altered by Hollywood. 

However, that idea played into a story I wrote for Spinetingler a few years later. “Profiled” told the tale of an undercover cop born in Tehran. In the post-9/11 era, if Gatsby were black, he would not have had to pass himself off as white. If anything, he would get called out for fostering the same prejudice that would have made his charade more acceptable in the twenties. It’s easier to call people out on racial bias, and these days, gays are finding it much easier to be open about themselves. But are there some groups that, no matter what, are going to draw suspicioin? In “Profiled,” Eddie Soroya tackles this very issue.

When we meet him, he’s sitting on a commuter train in a Midwest city posing as a homeless man while watching for trouble in our terror-panicked world. When a woman calls him a “raghead,” Soroya swears at her in Spanish. In a city with a large Mexican population, the perceived insult would warrant a harsher response. As he rides from the city’s lakefront to the airport, watching a suspicious duffle bag, we find out he is actually from the Middle East, that speaking Spanish becomes a defense that not even a badge can give him. People – black, white, Hispanic – are paranoid since those planes crashed in 2001. Unfortunately, that means people are automatically suspicious of entire groups.

When dealing with people’s biases, you have to walk a thin line. Despite what some of the more hysterical pundits on 24-hour news like to tell us, we aren’t quite in 1930’s Germany. But you hear the slurs, the misconceptions, and the outright hatred that seems to have found a new outlet.

In a way, though, Soroya is between a rock and a hard place. We also live in a nation wary of illegal immigration, so posing as a Mexican to keep people from flagging the nearest TSA worker or FBI agent is a double-edged sword. Without a badge, he’s still likely to get pulled over. He faces a different kind of harassment from what he would get if he were open about his Iranian origins. Granted, it’s easier to fight by simply sliding into his normal accent, a Rust Belt twang I myself have not been able to get rid of after 22 years, but it’s still more than most people have to deal with in this day and age.

It goes back to a conversation I once had (and was part of the impetus for “Profiled”). A friend and I were discussing, of all things, the bias against obesity. At one point, I said, “You know, most of the bullshit you have to deal with everyday stares back at you from the mirror in the morning.” And it’s true. Race, gender, weight, age, physical imperfections, and even disabilities all come back at us when we look in the mirror. Things like sexual preference, religion (or lack thereof), and politics (a stupid bias since that one causes most wars) are all internal aspects of who we are. We can hide those. We can act straight or gay. We can keep our religion and politics to ourselves. But the things that define us physically to other people are there in the mirror, which means they’re out there for all the world to see. Being a straight white male is, as John Scalzi puts it, playing life on the lowest difficulty setting. That’s not to say life is easy for anyone. We still have to deal with our personalities, and we still need to have a strong sense of self. We also need to be aware that, over time, it’s how we react to the world around us that ultimately determines how we get by in the world.  The question “Profiled” asks, and leaves hanging, is whether Eddie Soroya made the right choice about it.

---

Born near Cleveland in 1966, Jim Winter had a vivid imagination – maybe too vivid for his own good – that he spun into a career as a writer. He is the author of Northcoast Shakedown, a tale of sex, lies, and insurance fraud – and Road Rules, an absurd heist story involving a stolen holy relic. Jim now lives in Cincinnati with his wife Nita and stepson AJ. To keep the lights on, he is a web developer and network administrator by day. Visit him at http://www.jamesrwinter.net , like Jim Winter Fiction on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter @authorjimwinter.

Pick up some Jim Winter right here.
Dec 312013
 

Josh Getzler

 

So we’re on vacation in Florida, and my son Joe, who’s pinch hit for me before, told me as we took a walk that he’d like to write the year-end post. Since I really had written my Last-of-year post last week, I figured it would be OK. So this is where my always-unique freshman son is on December 31. I hope we all succeed in our hopes and dreams for 2014, and that our expectations are realistic. Happy New Year, everyone!

-

Josh

  DadJoeDec13

On the Cusp of the New Year

By Joe Newman-Getzler

Well, folks, in mere hours 2013 can be officially known as “last year” and 2014 will be upon us. I have to say, 2013 was a very mixed year, and at times like this I like to look back at the old year and think of the positive things in my life. After all, I’m an optimist, and who likes thinking of the lowlights when we can celebrate the highlights? In the previous year, I:

  • Starred in 2 school plays
  • Discovered the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book, which utterly changed my life
  • Watched Citizen Kane for the first time (lived up to the hype)
  • Fully developed a complete cast of characters and a plot to a cartoon series I’m working on
  • Went to Columbia
  • And finally saw one episode of Dr. Who (“City of Death,” which wasn’t bad)

So, you might be wondering: what are you going to resolve for the new year, and, for that matter, what am I going to resolve? Here’s the thing: I don’t believe in making huge, lifestyle-changing resolutions for the new year. I fear that too often I’ll forget them and resort to old habits. For instance: you can’t just go out and say, “I’ll never argue with my sisters again.” You could never live up to that. It’s easier to say, “I’ll try harder not to argue with my sisters.” And don’t set huge goals like, “As soon I can, I’ll lose 50 pounds!” Start with 5, then 10, then 15, and move up. It’s easier to receive gradual gratification than immediate. So my new year’s resolutions are relatively small. They aren’t huge lifestyle changes, just little things I’d like to do or improve on.

  • Read and watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy
  • Finish the first episode of my series
  • Work on my novel, Ham City
  • See The Lion King on Broadway (heck, I liked the movie...)
  • Learn how to read music for the spring musical
  • And watch a Simpsons episode at last (I hear “Marge vs. The Monorail” is a good one)

You see? All of these goals aren’t impossible to reach. No, I can’t do them all at once, but that’s what so many people don’t understand about new year’s resolutions. They think the moment the clock strikes midnight, their goals must be set into action and they can never go back. This isn’t realistic! It will make them feel pressured to meet the expectations immediately, and when they forget or change their minds, they’ll feel immensely unsatisfied and guilty. Be gradual, and set realistic expectations. Good things come to those who wait.

In closing, let me wish everyone, on behalf of my dad and the folks here at Hey, There’s a Dead Guy in the Living Room, a happy and safe new year. Let’s hope you all set good goals and achieve all of them. Bonan Novjaron!

(See Joe’s own blog at http://livetonerd.blogspot.com/, his YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/user/SuperJNG18, and artwork at http://herodeablazingcarpet.deviantart.com/)

Dec 222013
 
Guest Post by Clayton Lindemuth

Paint the Picture, Not the Conclusion

Imagine you’re the commander and your platoon is under attack. You learn a private observed an enemy formation a short while before the mortars started falling. You’ll probably want to know several things, but the most urgent will be how many enemy did the private see, what equipment did they have, and what were they doing? Was it enemy, or the enemy that is attacking us?
To arrive at a clear understanding, you’ll want both the details the private remembers and the conclusions he drew. You’ll want the information delivered concisely. You may not agree with his conclusions, but they are integral to his report because they include information that contributed to his understanding. For example, the private might not know the hand signals given by the point man, but his interpretation that they were about to attack is relevant. You may not accept his deductions—as commander, your understanding of context might point you to a different belief. However, you will still value his insights because they tell you how he understood what he saw. As the commander, you want all of the information, and you’ll sort out its relevance.
Storytellers have different goals, however, and consuming a novel is a lot different than demanding a private report on a sighting of the enemy.
Is your reader like the commander?

First, lets consider the commander’s objectives. What does he want? To more fully understand his environment so he can take action that improves the odds of defeating the enemy. The commander is looking for survival and victory. Given these motivations, how likely is the following dialogue?
Mortars are falling. The ground shakes. You—as commander—and the private are hunkered in a hole. You say, “Sergeant Storm said you observed activity outside the perimeter a short while ago. What did you see, private?”
“Men.”
“How many?”
“Roughly fourteen.”
“What sort of men?”
“They appeared to be wearing camouflage.”
“Like ours or like the enemy’s?”
“Like our enemy wears.”
“What equipment did they have?”
“They had rifles, I think.”
“Did you see any other equipment?”
“Yes.”
“Well, dammit?”
“There appeared to be two men with giant tubes on their backs, and two others with sizable heavy obelisks.”
“You mean, like mortar crews?”
“Yes, exactly.”
“What were they doing?”
“They were walking slowly, slightly bent forward.”
“Where?”
“They were spread out over that hillside.”
“What direction were they moving?”
“Toward us.”
Can you hear the commander growing frustrated? In fact, can you imagine a scene like that playing out at all? It’s difficult to conceive of a private responding this way unless he is the token low-IQ guy in every Hollywood war movie. Given average intelligence, and that mortars are falling and bullets zipping, he’s more likely to say, “I saw an enemy patrol, fourteen men with rifles—maybe more—including two mortar teams. They were on the hill over there, and looked like they were preparing for an assault.”
Herein lies the difference between communicating as authors versus communicating in real life. Our goal is not to communicate. It is to create the desire to understand.
The storyteller has different objectives

The storyteller wants her readers to feel compelled to turn pages.
In real life and in fiction, we provide information to others so they can arrive at conclusions. The manner we provide the information affects the other person’s ability to draw a conclusion, thus is of prime importance to a storyteller. If the author fails her  primary objective of creating reader engagement, no other objective may be satisfied.
In real life we want answers. In fiction, we demand puzzles.
Although the private would not have spoken in the drawn-out manner of the dialogue above, it was nearly effective as fictional dialogue because it allows the reader to assemble information into a context and then guess about the relevance of the context. As authors, the more opportunities we create for our readers to draw their own conclusions, the more engaged they become.
Although the private never in the dialogue says the words patrol or attack, you—as a reader—had no problem making that leap, and as you assembled the information into a context, part of your engagement was based on creating and testing possible explanations that account for the facts, and eliminating the flawed ones.
We deliver information differently in story than real life.

As an example, imagine decades have passed. You’re sitting beside your grandfather, and unlike most who saw war, your grandfather is a storyteller. Instead of being his commander, you’re now his grandchild.
“So I was shaving out of my canteen cup with a broken piece of mirror, when my eye caught movement on the hill, way off.”
“What did you see, Grandpa?”
“Well it was the derntootinest thing. There were a bunch of them, walking slow, like this, kind of bent forward, had their rifles like this… spread out… all across the hill…”
“Who were they, Grandpa?”
“Well, they had on enemy uniforms…”
Obviously, Grandpa’s telling a story. The manner is piecemeal, not too unlike the dialogue with his commander from above, except that in the context of storytelling it makes sense to deliver facts slowly, allowing tension to build, and providing time for the audience to test hypotheses. Because the danger is long past, the goal is not to survive, but to keep the kids on the edge of their seats so they can feel the power of a story, and learn from it as if they were there. Grandpa gives enough information to provoke a question that furthers understanding, and judges the effectiveness of the story not by whether he is concise and clear, but by whether the kids remain deeply engaged.
Be like Grandpa.
To keep readers engaged, let them draw their own conclusions.
Clarity in fiction doesn’t come from telling readers what to think. It comes from drawing pictures so clear their conclusions eventually become inescapable. From this, a simple rule: Don’t avoid creating a clear picture by explaining the relevance of an obscure one. Meaning, if you collapse relevant action into a summary or a conclusion drawn by your protagonist, there’s a big chance you’re missing an opportunity to draw your reader into the story.
Instead, explore the text. Is there something you could show the reader to help her arrive at the conclusion on her own? What’s more powerful?
“She looked upset.”
or
“She threw the steak knife at me.”
What are your thoughts? Let’s unpack it more in the comments area.

--

Clayton Lindemuth’s debut novel Cold Quiet Country earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly and inclusion on the Indie Next List. His short story Simple was included in Needle, and his follow up novels Nothing Save the Bones Inside Her and My Brother’s Destroyer, both released in December of 2013, follow the same “thrilling, visceral, and unsparing” rural noir tradition, and are now available on Amazon. Follow Clayton on twitter @claylindemuth.


Dec 152013
 

Dw

Darryl Wimberley has five novels with St. Martin's Press in the Barrett Raines mystery series: A Rock and a Hard Place (1999), Dead Man's Bay (2000), Strawman's Hammock (2001), Pepperfish Keys (2007) and Devil's Slew (2011). A separate, literary work, A Tinker's Damn, was published in 2000 by MacMurray and Beck; another literary novel, The King of Colored Town, was published in 2007 by The Toby Press, and was awarded the Willie Morris Prize for Southern Fiction. His script Kaleidoscope was Grand Prize Winner for Fade In: Magazine's 1998 competition. He and my husband, author and editor Ross Gresham, are former colleagues.

RG: You’ve written award-winning literary fiction, and you’ve also done a long genre series. Is it a different experience to write?

DW: If you have a dead body in your story and you are Dostoevsky, you are operating with a very different purpose in mind than if you have a dead body in your narrative and you are John Grisham or Scott Turow or Stephen King. To oversimplify-- How far would you get in a genre series if your protagonist couldn't figure out who the murderer was? And how far would your series run if your protagonist was killed in the first book? 

Purpose matters, not just for the subject undertaken, but as a determining factor in every other aesthetic decision. 

That does not mean that any given literary work has more merit than any given work of sci-fi, noir, fantasy, etc. It does mean that good literary fiction and good genre fiction develop narratives informed at their outset by parameters and purposes that are narratively distinct, and so ready comparisons can't be made. Both Daisy Miller and "The Turn of the Screw" are great fiction. But Henry James, self-consciously, knew that these works were not directly comparable.

Another over-simplification in this argument would be to say that works can always be neatly binned as genre or literary. That clearly is not true. I'd argue that a lot of Elmore Leonard's work deserves merit both as genre, and as literary fiction, and of course Tolkien is rightly cited in every convention of fantasy-lovers as an example of literary work.

On the other hand many novels that I read (or perhaps read badly), especially when touted as examples of post-modern purpose/construction, are for me simply tiresome. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is, for me, mostly unbearable. I don't have much patience with authors who disdain basic story-telling; I suspect them of being lazy because, from my own experience, developing a coherent plot is not just hard, hard work but intellectually challenging. It can't be an accident that works enduring for readers, whether the Iliad or To Kill A Mockingbird, observe the basics of story-craft -- a narrative that makes sense, a voice that is unexpected, characters whose actions are not entirely predictable, and, I would add, a concern for a world unrelated to meta-fiction. Anyone looking for a model for genre fiction or literature might profitably sit down for a season of Breaking Bad.

RG: You’ve also worked as a screenwriter. What did that teach you?

DW: It taught me how to forge a damned good plot-line. People now often joke about Syd Field's nonfiction book. The first edition is best, titled simply The Screenplay. Most of the book is derivative. Even so, the chapter relegated to "The Plot Point" is something novelists need to read along with screenwriters. It is hard to come up with a plot that will sustain seventy thousand words.

It's not an accident that most writing schools virtually ignore the business of story-boarding. Most students in those arenas write short stories—pretty hard to write a novel in a 15 week semester. But short-narrative writing can screw up folks wanting to move on to multi-hour series, feature scripts—or novels. Understanding the narrative structure that repeats and underpins well-written films and dramatic series is part of a craft that can be learned and applied to works of prose.

RG: Setting is important to a lot of thriller series, and of all the places you’ve lived, you chose northern Florida? What’s the flavor you were after?

DW: The importance and influence of setting in any well-written fiction is hard to overstate, but setting has no necessary relationship to "reality". As I Lay Dying and "A Good Man is Hard to Find" derive much of their power from an authentic evocation of an actually-extant time and place, but The Lord of the Rings and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are equally powerful narratives set in settings that are almost wholly imagined.

Setting is the lens, real or fabricated. through which the stuff of writing is refracted. All settings get filtered through the author's consciousness. A writer, whether James Lee Burke or Bill Kennedy, has to know his story's period and place inside and out to be effective. A story's setting includes details of its period as well as its place, so for example when I set my novels in northern Florida, I can't take for granted that the region familiar to me from childhood was the same place in 1925 or 1965 as it is in 2013. The "flavor" changes, necessarily, with any particular place or time. I grant myself no special provenance or expertise in my setting, but I do know enough to mine that region to create those authentic encounters essential to any fiction. 

RG: You’ve been in the game a while. What’s changed in the publishing world?

DW: Technology has somewhat paradoxically created a choke-point between new writers and agents.  Anyone submitting manuscripts to agents sees the "Submission Guidelines" that populate almost any literary agency's website. Most of these sites require an electronic submission which is much easier for newbies to manage than in previous years where a hard-copy of the manuscript, or some sample of the text, would accompany the obligatory SASE.

 So much easier to send. But is this a good thing? I asked a New York agent recently if her agency even looked at submissions submitted over the internet and she freely admitted that they did not.  In the first place, easy submissions mean that agents get many more manuscripts, most of them bad, flooding into their hard-drives. And there is another factor at play. Recreating the agent's response to my question roughly— “Our offices are small. Space comes at a premium. In the old days, when manuscripts came in shoeboxes or whatever, we'd stack 'em up around the office and eventually they'd get in the way, and we'd sit down every month or so and weed 'em out, just to get some room to move around.  You'd read the first twenty pages of each submission and maybe halfway through the stack you'd find something meriting more attention. But with the computer? There's no mess. There are no boxes under your feet or stacking up the wall, so there is no incentive to actually start reading the hundred or so submissions that we get DAILY." So who gets agents now? Several contests offer a publication or meeting with an agent as incentive to submit. Those can be worthwhile. Other manqués get recommendations from writing schools whose profs often are published themselves with ongoing relationships at many agencies, or with editors. OR (new info for me) folks with manuscripts have to shell out coin to get personal sit-downs at conferences where agents pay to meet aspiring writers.  Ten minutes to make your pitch.

A lot like Hollywood, come to think of it.

In the old days.

Oct 212013
 

2011 author photo

Julia Spencer-Fleming, filling in for Jeff

I have a new book coming out November 5th. I want to get that out there up front, because let's face it; that's the purpose of the Blog Tour. You pester your friends for a spot on Monday (or Wednesday, or Friday) and attempt to write three to five hundred words so charming, so compelling, that the reader is seized with an irresistable urge to abandon their reading (and Tweeting and the work on that file the boss wants by noon) in order to whip out the old credit card and order the book right now!

How am I doing so far? Any of you reaching for your wallet?

In the category of Things the Author Does to Sell Books, however, the blog tour isn't even close to the dreaded Book Tour. Dear readers, a caveat here: when I say "Book Tour Terror," I'm not talking about you. Meeting readers is actually energizing and delightful. It's all the other stuff that can make the book tour feel like a person who thought she was signing up for a 5K fun walk and discovers instead she's enrolled in an ultramarathon. Some of the highlights:

Most business travellers go from point A to B and back again. The author on tour, however, goes from point A to B to C to D, back to A and then out to F two days later. The TSA finds this string of one-way tickets intensely interesting, and the author will become very familiar with "assuming the position." Don't pack anything embarassing in your carry-on luggage.

Speaking of which, don't think about checking your bag. I once flew into a conference wearing comfy clothes of the "who cares what I look like?" variety. Of course, the airline lost my luggage. I had to do two days of panels and teaching wearing stretched out leggings and a leopard-print sweatshirt. Never again.

It doesn't matter how well-known you think you are, or how many New York Times bestsellers you have under your belt, at some point you will be stymied by a sales clerk who has never heard of you. You will stand there as he (they always seem to be very young men in this scenario) slolwly sounds out your name. "I don't think we've got any of your books," he'll say. Since your publisher has cut a deal with the head office and all 300 stores are supposed to have you on the New Fiction aisle, this is very bad. You go to the New Fiction aisle, and indeed, you are not there. "I have to go check with my manager." The author will be left standing around, trying to look nonchalant while wondering if her entire print run is in a box beneath the table in the breakroom. 

The author will get significant numbers of people at some events. This is to put you off your guard. Rest assured, at some point in the tour, you will show up at a bookstore that has sent out newsletters, emails, postcards, and run a story about your appearance in the local paper. Three people will show up, and one of them will be the guy who comes to every author talk for the free wine and cheese cubes. Another will be the bookstore owner's mother.

The author on tour goes to beautiful, historic, interesting places: LA, Denver, Nashville, Chicago. While there, the author will see the airport, five bookstores, a library and the hotel.  When you come home, your spouse asks, "Did you try some [delicious local must-try specialty]?" No, the author had room service chicken caesar every night and ate it while staring mindlessly at Say Yes to the Dress.

Through evil days third cover

The author will take Airborne, eat vitamins, guzzle water, and squirt hand sanitizer throughout the tour. She will still come down with a miserable cold as soon as she's gotten home and unpacked.

Obviously, you should all come out to see me when I'm on book tour, unless,of course, the blog tour has convinced you to rush out and order THROUGH THE EVIL DAYS, in which case you can just stay in your comfortable, germ-free home and have a nice evening's read. Remember, there are other mysteries coming out on November 5th from authors whose first name begins with 'J', so double check to make sure you're getting the right one.

Julia Spencer-Fleming's New York Times bestselling books have won multiple awards, including the Anthony and Agatha, and have been Edgar and RT Reader's Choice nominees.  The next Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne novel, Through the Evil Days, comes out on November 5th. You can find Julia at her website, her readerSpace, on Facebook and on Twitter as @jspencerfleming. She also blogs with the Jungle Red Writers.

 

Jun 122013
 

(NOTE FROM JOSH: I was sitting down to write this evening when the Boy, two days done with Middle School but not yet a Freshman, tells me to step aside. “You’re tired,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about something.”

Clearly he has been. And he’s not shy about discussing it. I hope I miss the train to Weenieville.

JG)

Classics, Inc.

By Joe Newman-Getzler

                What is a “classic”? Depending on whom you ask the answers could vary wildly. For some, a classic could be a book like Murder on the Orient Express, a movie like Casablanca, or a song like “Let It Be”. To others, a classic could be a book like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a movie like Johnny Dangerously, or a song like “Boom! Shake the Room." This need not only apply to books. The term “classic” can also be applied to anything from a good joke to a memorable sports play. But what, indeed, is a classic? And how does it unify these many different things?

                To most people, a classic is merely a thing that stays in their head for a long time, usually for a positive reason. But to some, the name goes much deeper than that. A classic means a piece of cultural significance, something considered a great thing that all should love and cherish for its greatness. Typically, there is a predetermined set of “classics” for any kind of genre or type. For example, if you want a “classic” book, the names that’ll probably come up would be books like Animal Farm, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, or Gone with the Wind. A “classic” movie? You’d probably see names like Citizen Kane, Some Like it Hot, or Singin’ in the Rain. But should we have our classics defined for us? Or should we form our own opinions on what is classic and what’s not?

                This is a question that has been troubling me for a while now: what’s a classic and what’s not? The reason this has been rumbling through my mind is because lately I have been trying to give myself a “classical” film and literary experience. Summer’s just begun, and now that I have gobs upon gobs of time to spend, I want to fill them with great books and great movies. For the former, my family has been supplying me with tons of great books like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye. And yes, they are great. But I will admit, my standards for classics are pretty low. The whole school year was peppered with classic books in my English class, like The Woman Warrior, The Chosen, Animal Farm, you name it. But my ideas of classics are Dave Barry is Not Making This Up, Bugs Bunny: 50 Years and Only One Gray Hare, and There Is No Dog. And yet, Mom and Dad say not to read those over and over. Read The Hobbit. Come on! It’s only 500 pages long, you wuss!

                Movies are another area of “classics” that drive me crazy, though for a different reason. While I would consider myself a rather decent film lover, there are still so many movies I haven’t seen that I feel pressured by myself to watch. Seriously?, I ask myself. You haven’t seen Citizen Kane? Jaws? The Dark Knight? You, sir, are on the train straight to Weenieville. And even my gym teacher’s let into me about my lack of film exposure: he spent 10 minutes telling me how I simply must watch The Empire Strikes Back in order to truly deem myself a Star Wars fan (BTW, I’ve only seen A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. That fact led to not only the aforementioned monologue, but another about how I should watch the prequels because, yeah, they suck, but I MUST have the complete Star Wars experience.) And yet, I also feel that there are a great many films that I truly love and yet many don’t even think of in the same league as “classics.” Seriously, does nobody but me consider UHF a classic? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory better than the Gene Wilder one? I feel so lonely.

                It’s times like this when I start to think about how subjective a term “classic” is. Can only what has been previously called a classic be a classic? Can others come up with their own “classic” films to share with the world? That is my hope. While, naturally, classic books and movies are to be revered and respected, they aren’t the only good books and movies out there! I wish more people would realize that. And YES, I am going to watch The Empire Strikes Back this summer. But the prequels? Hmm. Maybe. But for now…keep on readin’.                                                                                                    
Apr 242013
 

Meriel Patrick, guest blogging on behalf of Lynne

Some time ago, I started reading a crime novel that had been on my to-read list for quite a while. Within a few pages, it became obvious that the first victim was a small child, and my heart sank. In fact, I still haven't finished the novel.

Now, on the face of it, there's nothing particularly odd about this. Child murder is a horrendous thing. But then, any murder in real life is a horrendous thing, and I quite happily read fictional accounts of all sorts of people meeting untimely ends - is fictional child murder really so much worse than the adult version?

As I pondered on this, I remembered something I heard at a crime fiction conference a few years ago: as a crime writer, you can bump off as many people as you like, and your readers will cheer and ask for more. But kill a cat - or worse still, a dog - and the chances are you'll get angry letters.

So what's going on here? Why are normal, law-abiding citizens happy to read about grisly deaths of fellow humans, but are shocked and outraged if the victim is a pet?

It struck me that in my case at least, my reactions to animal deaths and child victims in crime novels are very closely allied. It's partly that they're both helpless casualties of events beyond their control, but it's not wholly that.

The main reason I don't like these kinds of deaths in crime novels is that the victims aren't involved in the story in the right kind of way. They generally just happened to get in the way, or (particularly with animal deaths) were killed as a warning to someone else. You can't hope to solve the crime by finding out about the victim.

This all finally clunked into place in my head when I encountered the term 'malice domestic', used to describe a particular sub-genre of crime fiction. This is an umbrella term used of works where the crime is, in the broadest sense, domestic - where the victim(s) and killer know each other, and the key to the puzzle lies in figuring out the relationships between them.

This, I've realized, is a large part of the essence of what makes something a good crime novel for me: a delicate balance of a nice chewy intellectual mystery to solve, and some well-developed characters whose lives I can be drawn into. If those key relationships aren't there - if the central murders are in some way impersonal - there isn't the right kind of tension to keep me really interested. I may admire a high-octane thriller or a well-crafted serial killer novel, but the chances are it won't suck me in in the same way.

Given that there are plenty of people who do like thrillers and serial-killer novels, this is clearly at least partly a matter of personal taste. But I don't think I'm alone. That perfect blend of characters to love and puzzle to solve is a heady mixture!

Mar 202013
 

Note from Josh: My son Joe is off from eighth grade this week for Spring Break. He saw me sitting down to write the blog this evening, and asked if he could do it for me. He said he’d been thinking about character, and wanted to explore it. He shooed me off my computer, patted me on the head, and yelled a bit later that he was done and could I have a look. I tell you—sometimes good advice comes through experience and deep, thought-provoking examples. And sometimes it’s through Loony Tunes, Enjoy.

 

Guest Post by Joe Newman-Getzler  

                What’s the first thing that draws your attention to something? Color? Size? Overall flashiness? Whatever the case, these first impressions help leave an important mark, whether positive or negative. When you write a book, however, these cannot help you. Unless you’re writing a picture book, you must rely on your own writing to draw peoples’ attention to something—give an image in peoples’ minds about what this thing looks like. In terms of characters, you must look to personality, which can be incredibly difficult for many writers.

                You see, whether the character is good or villainous, something about him/her must rope you in. Some key facet must intrigue you or interest you. At best, these characters transcend the written word; knowing how they feel or what they’re doing is a major matter of importance to you, and you want to see what happens next. In the hero/heroine’s case, you want to see them defeat the bad guy and escape safely without dying (which, leave us be frank, is rare for literary characters these days). In the villain’s case, you want to see how they meet their doom, or how they are put off until the next encounter. If a character is poorly written, you couldn’t care less about what they do or what happens to them. They strike you as having no personality whatsoever.

                A prime example of personality lifting a character to superstardom is that of Bugs Bunny. Not a literary character, I know, but bear with me. The rabbit we know and love actually began life as a screwy bunny known unofficially as “Happy Rabbit”. Even his creators admitted that he was little more than Daffy Duck in a rabbit suit, with some elements of Goofy and Woody Woodpecker for good measure. Viewers couldn’t care less what happened to this irritating screwball; some may have preferred to see the rabbit hastily shot. Basically, he had no personality. He was all cartoon and no character. But, through revisions, directors began changing the bunny. Director Tex Avery completely revised Bugs, and even after that, directors added more, and within less than ten years, Bugs Bunny, as we know him and love him, reached complete fruition. And why did they not simply abandon him after his early failures? As some directors put it, while they were drawing Bugs’ misadventures, they became Bugs. If something happened to Bugs, it de facto happened to them, and they needed to be as clever as the character they drew to get out of it.

                This is an important key to giving a character a personality: you need to care about the character yourself before you get everyone else to. If a writer gets completely roped into the story-where he or she, as said before, experiences what the character experiences through their writing—they put the emotions of the character right onto the paper. You can imagine some writers catching their breath after writing a swordfight, or sighing with happiness after writing a happier scene. And this literary form of method acting pays: you care, your readers care, and the book is a success.

                Sherlock Holmes, Dorothy Gale, Peter Pan, Atticus Finch: if you’ve read the books these characters have starred in, you basically have been them for all the time you’ve read the book. They grip you and instill a bit of themselves in you. The best writers do this effortlessly, but no fear: the more trying, the better you get, even if you’re an established author. And always remember: there is no such thing as too much personality. Even a little makes a huge difference.

Mar 122013
 

PD Martin introduces guest blogger - Lindy Cameron

Today I'd like to welcome fellow Aussie author Lindy Cameron to Murderati. I met Lindy through the fantastic Victorian chapter of Sisters in Crime. A great woman who's moved from author to author/publisher I thought it would be interesting to hear her story. Why did she start her own publishing company?  Over to Lindy...

 

There are many things in the life of this author that try my patience. And the fact that I can actually do that, to myself, is somewhat ridiculous.

I am the Queen of Procrastination. And I say that like I am the only author who can say that, which is also ridiculous, because all writers mainline Avoidance like it’s a drug.

In fact, if you don’t find everything else to do but write, then you’re not really a writer.

Got a book deadline? Time to try out a new laksa recipe. Hmm, might have to wait until the zucchinis finish growing. Write another chapter while the stock is doing its thing – done. Oh look – the dog wants to go out; come back in; go out; eat the kitty litter. Finish chapter 10. Clean up the shredded six-pack of toilet paper. Start Chapter 11. Do a load of washing. Rewrite Chapter 11. Research just how that particular bullet will react with that metal after it’s gone through Bad Guy No 4.  Oh look – that Facebook meme about how to write is hilarious. No I really, really don’t want to change my power company, young man. Just because I answered the front door because, yes, I am AT home doesn’t mean I’m not working AT home. I’m a writer – damn it!

It is totally beyond me how I’ve managed to write five crime novels and co-write two true crime books, plus blah-blah-blah, in the last decade or so. And that always seems like a lot, until I realise I know some authors – like actually know them – who write one or two (egad!) crime novels a year.

And then I remember my biggest, weirdest and – as many people (including my partner and me) have suggested – craziest avoidance technique of all.

I started a publishing company.

I did this (in 2010) for a number of reasons. Mostly because I realised I had all the necessary skills to do something so utterly wackadoo – and in the middle of what everyone else was calling the GFC (whatever the hell that was).

I did it because I discovered there were two or 20 authors out there – apart from me – who were a little dissatisfied (understatement much?) with the Way of Big Publishers.

I also did it because I was lucky enough to snaffle some of those very same authors. Yes, I talked them into my fold, enticed them into my web, convinced them I wasn’t a complete loon, and welcomed them into my Clan.

I managed this, in some cases, because I wanted to publish certain books – by those established authors, I mean – that their existing Big Publisher didn’t want to touch because they might confuse the author’s existing readership.

[Ooh, can’t possibly ruin our crime writer’s rep by letting them go all paranormal, or write a historical novel, or something with a pirate in it!]

As an Independent Publisher, I also set about finding new Australian crime and thriller writers; publishing the back lists of existing thriller writers; republishing out-of-print crime and historical fiction; mentoring debut authors; and seeking out sf, f, duf, h, c, tc, and all the other fabulous letters that go with being a ‘capital G’ Genre publisher.

Crime and thrillers are my first love – they are what I write, after all; when I do write, I mean; you know, when I’m not publishing; really, you need to go out again? Get off the cat! What?...

But in the third year of my little company, Clan Destine Press, I’ve also discovered I needed to add r, rr & e (romance, rural romance & erotica) to the list. 

Why?

Because I can!

And there are also ‘trends’ which, as a publisher, one needs to be aware of.

One of the joys of being an Independent Publisher in the 21st Century is that we are not confined to paper.

Most of our books are paperbacks; but they are also eBooks.

And this year, more and more of our books will be eBooks first – to test the waters, to launch new careers, to get more voices out there sooner, to bring the world more fantasy, spec fic, science fiction, erotic adventures, historical fiction, and best of all: more crime and thrillers and thrilling crime and…

Now Chapter 12, where was I?

 

Phillipa (PD) here again...if you've got any questions or comments for Lindy, go for it! Lindy and I will be dropping by!

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