For writers, and especially readers, there is a sea of books out there. Oceans of words, plots, characters, all vying for our attention. Sometimes I feel like the deck is stacked against us as writers, that, to mix metaphors, our little boat will sink without a trace. Sometimes as a reader I feel callous and capricious, picking one book over another based on flimsy evidence, a gut feeling, a blurb, a review, a friend’s recommendation. Sometimes I feel like a complete contrarian with my so-called “rules” like ‘I don’t read bestsellers’ or ‘I don’t read [a genre].’ I’m often wrong if I will just give a book a chance. But as I get older my reading time seems so precious. I want to read what I want to read.
So the question for writers becomes ‘Who do I write for’? And its corollary: ‘Who am I?’
I grew up reading mysteries like Nancy Drew, devouring the entire library collection the summer I was eleven. But I moved away after that and didn’t rediscover the genre until my thirties when women began writing great mysteries, women like Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, and Sara Paretsky, transforming what had been in America a frequently dark and hard man’s world. My first novel wasn’t a mystery but a 1920s western set in Wyoming. I enjoyed writing the sections that dealt with a traumatic/dramatic event in the past, and went on to write my first mystery.
Something happened though, and it was September 11, 2001. I couldn’t write about violent death for a long time after, and I stopped reading anything remotely gory. Death was on the news and in my heart. I needed my reading to comfort me, to provide escape as always but to provide a respite from the awful present. Twelve years on, that really hasn’t changed. Yes, I read mysteries again but I have come to terms with my sensibilities and accept them. And my writing has changed too.
My books written since 9/11 (my last series mystery came out in 2002) are different, and I think, better for facing the horrors of that day. Not necessarily better written, but closer to the person I am. Although I can rubberneck at car crashes with the best of them I’m not really interested in violent death. I don’t want to read about serial killers or psychos or hit men. I am interested in the drama that can come out of violent events, as before, but now I like things like family dynamics, the drama of growing up, of dealing with difficult people, the way people relate to each other. That, to me, is the essence of fiction, what I love the best. I’m not discounting all the other wonderful aspects of fiction that you may like to write or read. Absolutely not. I am just trying to focus on what it means to me. Because fiction writing is one of the most intimate communications in the world. As a writer I am asking you to spend days with me, follow me on a chaotic journey, imagine the story I imagined, to like the people I concoct, to care about them and what happens to them.
In a recent review of my latest book, a thriller with explosions and other violent stuff (okay, I’m not entirely reformed), the reviewer wrote this line at the end, intending I assume to provide a balanced report: “The mystery and intrigue are engaging, the changing landscapes are described subtly but artfully. By the conclusion, everything else seems almost a backdrop for McClendon’s tale of her protagonist’s own self-discovery.” Did that cost me a star? I can live with that. My character’s self-discovery is what all my stories are about, pure and simple. The events that happen, the actions taken, the drama and trauma done, serve one purpose: defining the protagonist’s true inner story.
Not everyone cares about that. There are readers who will never look twice at my books, never read the description, never glance at the blurbs. And that’s okay. I don’t write for them. I write for people who have my sensibilities. It’s all I can do. I would rather give those readers a deep, satisfying experience if at all possible. I write for people who want to examine their own lives along side my character’s, who enjoy a little introspection, who marvel at the way people can hurt and love each other, who feel the strange and wonderful ties to family.
That’s who I am, and that’s why you should read a book of mine. For pleasure, for comfort, for a puzzle, for a secret (I admit: I love a good secret identity), for some laughs, and for at least one sentimental moment. But if you don’t want that in a story, I understand.
I’ve given up murder (mostly) so you don’t need to worry.
Lise McClendon’s new novel (now under construction) will take the reader back to France and the Bennett sisters of Blackbird Fly. For a sneak peek click here.
The subtitle says it all: “A Forty-Year Quest to Solve the Appalachian Cold-Case Murder of Nancy Morgan.”
When Mark Pinsky first heard of the death of a young VISTA volunteer in the mountains of western North Carolina, he was just out of college, aiming at a journalism career with a decided political bent. She seemed like a lot of people he knew who had ideas about how to make a better world, and when time passed and her murder remained unsolved, it bothered him.
It continued to bother him over decades to come, as he covered murder trials (Jeffrey MacDonald, Ted Bundy, and others with more political agendas) as both a freelancer and a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. Periodically he returned to the North Carolina mountains, looking into the death of a young woman he never knew who had been long forgotten. He swung from covering murder trials to covering religion, then moved to the Orlando Sentinel and published such books as The Gospel According to the Simpsons and The Gospel According to Disney.
Pinsky’s visits to the North Carolina mountains became a regular fall event, as he interviewed witnesses (many now deceased) and followed leads that often went nowhere. It wasn’t the kind of obsession that ruins a life, which by now included a wife and two children, but it was the kind that meant one day his son came home from middle school and found a couple of agents from the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation sitting at the kitchen table, looking through Dad’s files. With Dad’s blessing.
The journalist had become inextricably intertwined with the investigation. Had in fact become the heart of the investigation.
According to the State of North Carolina, the murder of Nancy Morgan remains unsolved. But as far as I’m concerned, Pinsky has solved it, and that is remarkable in itself. True crime is not a genre where the journalist solves the crime, except on television. And there hasn’t exactly been a continuing clamor for justice. Hardly anybody is still around who knew the victim, or misses her.
I’ve known Mark Pinsky since we were both at Duke, and read this book in manuscript a few years ago. I found it fascinating, but worried that the ending was so ambiguous—true crime demands a resolution, or at least an outrage. This concern also bothered his agent and a lot of publishers. But he kept on revising, hiring editors and soliciting opinions from respected colleagues, trying to find a way to bring this book to the world.
And here is where the story moves into fairy tale territory. A small publisher decided to take a chance, and has treated it well. Publisher’s Weekly made it a Pick of the Week.
Every writer who has anguished that since four agents didn’t like his book he’ll have to publish it himself, or who is certain that the first draft or the second or the third is perfect, or who decides a topic is just too much trouble should be required to read this book. I was also going to say that anybody who aspires to print journalism should as well, but considering the state of print journalism, it’s difficult to imagine people entering the field with that level of persistence.
Because persistence can indeed move mountains, including the one where Nancy Morgan died in 1971.
Some, and I would put myself in this category, have argued we are in a new Golden Age of television. That particularly series offered on cable, pay and basic, have elevated the form. As an example, much has been written about The Wire, the five-year crime show that began simply enough, cops trying to catch dope sellers in Baltimore. But the show wasn’t the typical procedural of quirky cops and odd villains – though it certainly had its share of those types of characters – from detective Bunk Moreland a homeboy, to the thinking man’s gangster, Stringer Bell.
David Simon, the show’s co-creator, along with ex-Baltimore cop Ed Burns wrote of two competing myths in America in an introduction to The Wire: Truth be Told,, a book of essays about the show. He stated in part, “…if you were smarter, shrewder or frugal or visionary, the first with the best idea, given the process of the free market, you will succeed beyond your wildest imagination. Conversely, if you don’t posses those qualities, if you’re not slick or cunning, but willing to work hard, be a citizen and devoted to your family, why there was something for you too.”
He went on to note that Baltimore (and by extension other urban areas) with its brown fields, rotting piers and rusting factories, is testament that the economy shifted then shifted again, rendering obsolete generations of union-wage workers and workers’ families. The Wire then was a story wedged between these two competing American myths.
The Wire had a socio-political context and that context shaped the way it told its stories. The Sopranos didn’t have a socio-political context, but nonetheless gave us a compelling story played out about an anxiety-prone New Jersey mob boss. We’ve always had a fascination with the characters for whom the normal rules of behavior don’t apply. Fantômas and Donald Westlake’s Parker were clever thieves and killers, who presented us a world from their decidedly bent points-of-view. So too did Tony Soprano. A family man in both senses of that phrase who endured the psychological torment of his manipulative mother to murdering a snitch he happened to encounter while escorting his daughter on a trip to visit a potential college she might attend.
From Mad Men’s Don Draper, a hard drinking, Korean War deserter who beds any good-looking woman with a pulse; Amy Jellicoe’s battle with her demons in a journey to inner peace while she took it to the Man in Enlightened; cops of varying degrees of badness and doomed fates in The Shield; an arms dealing motorcycle gang controlling a small town while imploding from within in Sons of Anarchy; Luther’s John Luther, a London plainclothes cop whose girlfriend was a brilliant psychopath and who despite trying to play it straight, found himself on a crooked path, to the crooked pols of Tammany Hall in 1865’s New York City Five Points where matters of race, corruption and capers were played out in Copper, the villain, the antihero and the flawed hero have dominated this new Golden Age..
And then there was Walter White. He was he middle-aged, cancer wracked high school chem teacher turned meth kingpin Heisenberg in Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad. The inventor of the much in demand blue meth who Lost writer Damon Lindelof wrote on the Vulture site comparing Walter to Bruce Wayne as Batman that, “Both men are characters who are shaped by a defining event in their lives. For Wayne, it’s witnessing the murder of his parents in Crime Alley. For White, it’s learning he has cancer and realizing that he may very well die and leave his family with little money to take care of themselves.” Further he noted their outsized personas were already inside them, lying dormant until that one critical incident released their phoenixes. But as Walter finally admits to his estranged wife Skyler in the series finale, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really – I was alive.” Walter did love his family, did want to provide for them.
But just as in the first episode, when these teen punks are making fun of his son, Walt Jr., “Flynn” as he liked to be called, because he has mild cerebral palsy and he faces them down, Walt was not a milktoast meanderer leading a life of quiet desperation. Like tackling a knotty formula, he analyzed a situation, took stock of the hurdles, and figured out how to solve the problem. Bad guys from Crazy 8, Walt’s first kill if you will to neo-Nazi Uncle Jack found that out the hard way.
For as Walter White once told Skyler, “You clearly don’t know who you’re talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks!”
Categories: there are tons of them in fiction. In the crime genre there is hard-boiled, soft-boiled, amateur sleuth, noir, cozy, police procedural, serial killer, private eye, and on. Same with romance novels: historical, regency, steamy, cowboy, time travel. More genres: sci fi, fantasy, horror. We all like to read different things, and write them, so categories help us find something in our favored niche. Categories serve their purpose.
But for writers like me, the category, the slot, the genre feels like vise grips sometimes, constricting and inflexible. Is it necessary? Is it a marketing gimmick? Can’t I just write the damn book and let the readers decide? Well, no, actually. You have to put a label on most everything. It’s called marketing — even though we may call it @#!@#$.
The same goes with writing a mystery series v. the stand-alone novel. The mystery series has been popular since Sherlock Holmes started his serial adventures, and will probably never die. Readers love following a sleuth from book to book. I know I do. Sue Grafton is almost finished with the alphabet after publishing ‘A is for Alibi’ over 30 years ago. (I had to look that up — 1982! Now that’s a run.) How difficult would it be for me to write 20+ books in the same world, with the same character!? Answer: really hard. Her heroine Kinsey Millhone is stuck in the ’80s too, making her cell phone and internet use nonexistent. Great books by a great writer, in my opinion. Lovely person, Sue Grafton. But I couldn’t do it. All my hair would be gone. Sue’s looks gorgeous.
So after two mystery series I started writing stand-alones. They are harder to sell ( and #*@&! market) without those built-in audiences clamoring for the next installment in a series. And somewhat harder to write because you have to build the world — and the characters — all over again each time. Author Laurie R. King says this about the standalone:
While a series permits a writer to develop a set of characters over a period of time, a standalone novel represents the only opportunity these people have to live and breathe and tell their stories. Even if some of them reappear (and my standalones do have the occasional link and overlap), their book must have a sense of completeness, must contain an entire universe within its pages.
Tamera’s series books are considered “stand-alone” novels, meaning they can be read out of order. However, if you’re planning to read all of the books in a series, you should read them in order for the most fulfilling story experience.
Cross genre writing can be a slog, yet Rory Tate succeeds at crossing multiple genre boundaries. Plan X accomplishes all its goals: From boy meets girl to girl comes into her own and unravels both police-work and personal dilemmas inside a complex and satisfying plot structure.
Kate Flora, amazed that suddenly it is late August and there is already an unwanted nip in morning air. As I’m sinking into a new
book, and feeling like I need a tune-up, I’ve been trying to do some of the exercises I assign to my students to tune up their awareness of the world around them. While we all have many senses to choose from, in August, it is the scents that capture my imagination and send me back through decades of Maine summers.
Recently, I was in Union, Maine, picking berries in the blueberry field my husband gave me for my 55th birthday. I’ve been picking berries beside that field probably since I was old enough to walk, and bending down to grab some berries, I was assailed by the blended scents of drying plants, crushed vegetation, and the hot, sweet ferment of berries cooked by the sun. August plants have a rich, slightly tired smell, making themselves known before the sun finishes cooking them or the cold weather comes to put them to bed for another year.
If you don’t think August has its own set of smells, take yourself to three or four different familiar places, close your eyes, and inhale. Don’t rush things. Take your time to notice what is coming at you, what the wind currents bring. What your moving feet disturbs. Sage. Beach roses. Hot seaweed baking in the sun. Go to a farmer’s market and don’t just take in the visuals. There are stargazer lilies and cinnamon bread, the first early scents of apples. Close up, the enticements of ripe melon and the almost irresistible sweetness of ripe peaches. The nip of fresh, young onions.
The other day, driving through the city of Portland, Maine, the air was suddenly thick with the happy grease smell of fried clams. Years ago, I was behind a man who filled the entire front seat of his car, and the whole vehicle dipped on the driver’s side. He wore a white chef’s jacket and had a bumper sticker: Warning: I Brake for Food. When I caught a whiff of that fried clam smell, I would have braked, too, if I’d only known where to go.
I grew up on a lake, and so my water memory is of the vegetative smell of lake water and the slight tannins of decaying leaves. Twelve years ago, when we got a place on the ocean, I acquired a new set of Maine smells. Walking down the steps to the cottage, I would take deep lungfuls of briny air and feel like I’d been given a tonic. Mackerel Cove is a working lobster harbor and so yes, there is also sometimes the smell of lobster bait.
At night, as a child, I would swing under the old apple tree in the back yard, watching the sun setting behind the hills, while a cacophony of insects screamed out their night songs and, spooky in the growing darkness, the demented sound of the loons echoed around the pond. Now, on Bailey Island, I can hear the changing of the tide by the way the waves suck around the rocks, and the new metal ramp on the dock creaks and groans like a giant trying to throw off its chains. Around sunrise, the lobster boats start chugging out of the cove. Overhead, the osprey give their childlike cries and the crows announce the world belongs to them.
When I forget to be attentive, my characters will remind me. While I’m working on a new Thea Kozak mystery, Death Warmed Over, right now, I spent many months earlier this year with Joe Burgess on a book called And Grant You Peace. Something I have to remember, and focus on, when I’m living in Joe’s head instead of Thea’s, is how observant he is, particularly about the natural world. He may be what a Portland detective once referred to as “a bricks and mortar” cop, but his mother taught him to look and listen, just as mine did, and I need to be attuned to how he sees the world. Burgess will notice the family of skunks beside the road, the bright tail of a disappearing fox, the way the salt marsh changes through the seasons.
Baba Ram Das tells us to “be here now.” In Beyond Your Doorstep, the nature writer Hal Borland talks about encountering the natural world, starting “…in a country dooryard and working out from there, down the road, into the meadow, up into the woods, down along the riverbank and beside the swamp.”
In August, in particular, I am reminded to be here now, and smell, and hear, and see the wonders of the world around me.
You know how some friends teach you to be a better friend? They somehow know that being a friend is a skill and they want you to be happy and friend-full. These people, extroverts probably, are experts in friend-making from preschool on. Others, the introverts, the socially awkward, and, yes, many writers, must learn how to give, how to listen, how to share, how to celebrate the successes of others, and all the things that make a person a good friend. It doesn’t matter if you’re a natural or you have to work at it. Just fulfilling that need for friends is where it’s at. One of the joys of my life is figuring this friend thing out, and the incredible friends I’ve made over the years.
Characters in novels need friends too. They may not think they do because they are Shane-like, the solitary hero who wanders into town and makes everything right. But scratch the surface of any good protagonist and you’ll find deep relationships. Maybe they aren’t strictly in the friend category; maybe they’re co-workers, husbands or ex-wives, dead brothers or high school teammates. But no one is truly alone. And when building a character and her past it’s important to remember that while she may go on her quest alone, she brings with her all her friends, at least in her head. Because a person, and a character, is the sum of all their experiences, and their relationships, good and bad, are a key element in that. Along the way she may make new friends, mentors and guides in Quest-speak, and even enemies can become helpers and friends.
The ultimate friend in fiction is the sidekick. The second man, the understudy. Their number is legendary, from Sherlock’s Dr. Watson and Crusoe’s Friday, to Don Quixote’s Sancho Panza and Tom Sawyer’s Huck Finn. Where would Harry Potter be without Ron and Hermione, or Spenser without Hawk? How could Dorothy have gotten home from Oz without her three sidekicks?
The sidekick is a powerful figure in stories because he has so many vital roles. He contrasts with the protagonist, playing up the good qualities of the hero. The two of them can banter, discuss, and give information to the reader. The sidekick can be wilder, more carefree, rule-breaking or even criminal, moving the plot in ways that the hero in his goodness and single-mindedness can’t. But most importantly the sidekick makes the hero or heroine seem more human. The protagonist can appear bigger than life, a person without flaws, possessing superhuman strength or intelligence or both. The friend is the person who calls them on their shit, who brings them back to Earth, who reminds the reader that if the hero can have one loyal friend they are maybe, just a little, like you and me.
Even if you don’t give your hero a true sidekick try to interject a friend somewhere. It makes your character more alive, more human, more connected to their world. In PLAN X, my new thriller (written as Rory Tate) my heroine, Cody Byrne, is a cop with a little PTSD problem she’s hiding from everyone. Everyone, that is, except her best friend. Her friend makes one small appearance in the novel but Cody thinks about her often. It was important that somebody would know her so well that she can’t keep secrets from them. Cody’s family is spread around the globe, her brother was killed in Afghanistan, and she’s both attracted to and afraid of relationships with men. So her friend’s loyalty and insight is one bright spot in her psyche. Cody ends up in London, tracking down the identity of the Shakespeare professor who’s blown up in Chapter One. There she meets her real sidekick, friend, and helper, the legal attaché at the US Embassy. But that’s halfway through the novel. Back home she needs a connection with somebody: a friend. Because we all need friends.
Friends keep it real, both in life and in fiction. Let’s be friends! Follow our blog to find out what goes on in the cryptic brains of fiction writers. The button is up on the top.
This piece first appeared on the blog Auntie M Writes.
by Taffy Cannon
We found it purely by chance, tucked into a mid-block covered pathway leading from one downtown street to another in Ketchikan, an Inside Passage waterfront town so remote from both the rest of Alaska and the continental US that it might be on another planet. It had never occurred to me that I would encounter a taxidermy store here—in the middle of the largest North American rain forest in a town that prides itself on excessive rainfall, a lengthy association with the salmon industry and a very nice totem pole museum.
But here we were.
Pelts from all manner of animals were displayed in piles, in bins, hanging on racks. Some were large enough to require folding.
Jackets and moccasins and intricate butter-soft wedding dresses of fringed and beaded leather. Thick fur caps displayed on deer antlers near stern signs forbidding try-ons for photo purposes. All manner of fish in dramatic mounts hanging on a wall above displays of intricately designed and crafted mittens and mukluks.
Oh, and a whole lot of dead animals, brought back to a form of faux-life through loving taxidermy. The animals stood, crouched, clutched captured prey in their mouths and hung on walls, sometimes clear down to the midsection as if bursting in from the wild.
We arrived with other tourists newly disembarked from a couple of large cruise ships docked nearby. A man and woman behind the counter rang up sales, answered questions and took care of business. It was all too much. We left, walked around town in light persistent rain and found the soggy totem pole museum and the salmon ladder and the former whorehouse on Creek Street.
All the while, those animals kept marching around in my mind. Or, actually, standing perfectly still in my mind.
So we went back.
For the first time I recognized the depth as well as the breadth of this collection. It seemed to feature nearly every creature that had ever walked or swum in Alaska. Birds were underrepresented, usually appearing only in the mouth of a predator. I learned that the man we’d seen earlier was the taxidermist, father of the woman at the counter. He had gone off to continue taxiderming, an intriguing notion all by itself. What was he working on now?
Some of his handiwork reminded me of whimsical expressions I’d seen on deer in a game room at Shelburne Farms in Vermont while researching Fall Into Death. Around the same time, I’d learned as much as I really wanted to know about taxidermy from a former student, including the art of expressioning the deceased, and it was enough to make me appreciate that this guy was pretty darned good.
Or maybe he wasn’t.
How would I know, after all? I’d never been in a taxidermy shop before, had only seen TAXIDERMY signs on nondescript buildings in small towns, places where you dropped off the remains of your butchered buck in the back. That was a service for hunters; this was a specialty shop for tourists, offering shipping anywhere.
I should explain that I grew up in the brutal winters of Chicago and now live in a climate where winter wear is not an issue. I own only two fur items: a bunch of scraps of something dark brown that looks expensive from a church rummage sale, and a black Persian lamb scarf from the estate sale of Gloria Winters, the actress who played Sky King’s niece Penny. (Yes, really.)
This time, alone in the store, we could see the incredible detail and range of what the place had to offer, from a standing bear to a bin of deer antler chunks for sale at nine bucks apiece: “Great for carving, knife handles, even dog chews!”
I also noticed details I’d missed earlier, as well as an omission or two. I have long been fascinated by the notion of animals who put on a white winter coat to elude predators in the frozen north, and was relieved to confirm that there were no full or partial polar bears on the premises. I was also nonplussed that a white Arctic fox had been marked down to $995 from $1400, and fascinated by a group of virtually identical white Arctic weasel pelts at $25 apiece. I’d never heard of Arctic weasels, but it later turned out I knew them by their haut couture name, ermine. It was appalling to consider how many of these tough little critters with the super-soft white fur would be necessary to make a single ermine coat.
As I looked at piles of pelts from everything from beavers to otters to musk oxen, I began to fully appreciate the role of fur-trapping and the fur trade when Europeans were opening the North American continent and inventing Manifest Destiny. I could also see that back in those days before central heat and Polartec it would be mighty useful to have winter garments of fur if you lived in a place that got really cold in winter and stayed that way for months on end. You’d also want some pretty heavy furs as laprobes if you were riding in a vehicle drawn by horses or dogs. And maybe something to drape over your shoulders if you happened to be riding the horse.
The other things I took away from this array of pelts were a renewed appreciation for the size and scope of Alaska, and a reassessment of what I had previously regarded as an unseemly disregard for preserving its natural wonders. While I might not agree with the philosophy, I could better understand some of the Alaskan attitude toward the environment and regulation from afar: get out of my face, my business, and my life.
Its natural wonders (wildlife included) now seemed as vast as the state itself, the size of which can only be fully appreciated on a globe. It is, after all, a place where most spots are accessible only by small plane and where small planes crash and/or disappear with some regularity. (Cf. Will Rogers, Wiley Post, and House Majority Leader Hale Boggs.)
I wanted something from this place, wanted to support it without participating too actively in the death of an Alaskan creature, but I kept drawing the line. Did I really need fur-lined moccasins for winter in Southern California? How could I buy that sad but beautiful Arctic weasel, knowing that another would be hunted to replace it for the next customer? About the most neutral items in my price range were the deer antler pieces, but I didn’t want one and didn’t have a dog anyway.
Then I saw my answer on the counter. Earrings, my default souvenir from almost anywhere, crafted into darker-than-amber miniature rosettes from thin sheets of cedar bark by a Ketchikan native.
And so I left with flowers, not fur.
The recent dust up over J.K. Rowling being outed as Robert Galbraith the writer of a mystery novel, the Cuckoo’s Calling, says a lot about the power of branding as Don Draper might envy. There was a made up bio of Galbraith on his website which used to read, “After several years with the Royal Military Police, Robert Galbraith was attached to the SIB (Special Investigative Branch), the plain-clothes branch of the RMP. He left the military in 2003 and has been working since then in the civilian security industry. The idea for Cormoran Strike grew directly out of his own experiences and those of his military friends who returned to the civilian world. ‘Robert Galbraith’ is a pseudonym.” The site has been adjusted as Roger Sterling would say to reflect the reality.
When Mulholland first published the book in April, about the pulpishly named, one-legged Afghan war vet PI Cormoran Strike (who like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher is a big cat and an ex Military Policeman) investigating the suspicious suicide of a super model Lula Landry, generally received good reviews and sold around 1,500 copies on this side of the pond. That’s pretty much par for the course for a debut novel from an unknown, despite solid reviews. There wasn’t much buzz building for the Cuckoo’s Calling. But once it was leaked in July that the book was by Rowling, the next day the volume was temporarily out of stock on both the Barnes and Noble and Amazon sites. An additional 300,000 copies were rushed into print a husky voiced Joan Harris would convey.
Names are power or at least they like the black bird in the Maltese Falcon, are something that we attach great weight to depending on the context. Some years ago to demonstrate the capricious nature of the movie business, Chuck Ross sent the re-typed screenplay of Casablanca around to more than 200 agents as a sample of “his work” to see what the reactions would be.
As he made not of on the Open Mic site in November ‘012, reprinting his article about this endeavor of 30 years ago, “Eighty-five agencies did read the screenplay, submitted under my favorite pseudonym, Erik Demos. Instead of calling it “Casablanca,” I used the title of the original (unproduced) play it was based on: “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” I made only one alteration (in the script): Instead of calling Rick’s sidekick Sam, in the script I named him Dooley, after the actor who played the part, Dooley Wilson.”
Ross stated 33 of the agencies recognized the script. Other agencies didn’t recognize the story and commented such as, “What I didn’t like about the screenplay, as I recall, is that it started out with almost a documentary feel…. I think the dialogue could have been sharper and I think the plot had a tendency to ramble.”
“I gave you five pages to grab me — didn’t do it.” “Too much dialogue, not enough exposition, the story line was weak, and in general didn’t hold my interest.” “Story line is thin. Too much dialogue for amount of action.” “I regret to say that we will not be able to help you with your script. I strongly recommend that you leaf through a book called “Screenplay” by Syd Field, especially the section pertaining to dialogue.”
Also back then, in the 1970s, Ross retyped the acclaimed novel Steps by Jerzy Kosinski which had won the National Book Award in 1969, and sent that around to 14 book publishers, including the house that had published Steps. All 14 turned the book down. He also sent the manuscript to 13 agents who all turned the book down too.
Arguably tastes change so the idea that the ancient by Hollywood standards script of Casablanca getting knocked, as no screenplay is critique proof, in 1982 is not so outrageous. But the business with Kosinski’s book which occurred more recent to the actually book being published, does support the idea that who the writer is would have made a difference at some of the houses. That if it were a new manuscript by Kosinski, even though an editor might have suggestions for making it better, it certainly would get a different reception that from an unknown.
Maybe it will be revealed that J.K. Rowling has been the beard for Chuck Ross all this time. That he remains a wizened, gnarled hermit pounding out his next book on his manual Underwood typewriter, a team up of Harry Potter and Cormoran Strike, The Unearthly Calling.
I can’t wait.
by J.D. Rhoades
Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, they’re part of any working writer’s life. Back when I was in dead-tree publishing, the joy of seeing a new book released was always tempered at least a little with the dread of opening the Publisher’s Weekly or Kirkus website and praying they didn’t savage it too badly. I even left a perfectly good beach house on a lovely sunny day to drive into town and find a café with WiFi (smartphones with ‘net access weren’t everywhere in those days) and check out the PW review for Breaking Cover that was coming out that day.
To my relief, it was a good review, and the majority of mine in various publications have been generally positive, although the aforementioned Kirkus did always seem to find a way to kick me in the teeth, even in a “good” review.
Like everything else in this business, the review landscape has changed with bewildering swiftness over the last few years. One newspaper after another dropped their review section. Kirkus folded, then was bought and resurrected with a “pay for reviews” model, swearing all the time that you weren’t necessarily paying for a good review. Professional book reviewers became more and more rare, even as website after blog after tumblr sprang up, offering the opinions of everyday readers. And, of course, people turned to the Amazon reviews on a book’s pageand to sites like Goodreads.
So is this a good thing? Well, as with so many things, the answer is, “it depends.” I’m a great believer in the idea that the more voices get heard, the better. On the other hand, not all voices are created equal. Most amateur reviewers are thoughtful readers who can clearly and cogently express what they find good or bad about a particular book in such a way that the reader of the review can make up their mind about whether to try it. Some reviewers, particularly anonymous ones, seem to be in a contest to see who can be the meanest or most cutting. And some are just batshit insane. That’s the Internet for you.
In addition, it soon became obvious that it was childishly easy to game the Amazon review system. In 2012, a furor erupted when investigative work revealed that thriller writer R.J. Ellory had been using “sock-puppet” accounts—false names and internet personas—to not only give his own work glowing reviews, but to attack the works of others. Fellow Brit Stephen Leather asserted defiantly that not only had he used sock-puppet accounts to promote his own work, but that it was “common practice.” A backlash ensued during which authors (including myself) signed a pledge not to use such tactics, followed by a counter-backlash by writers like Barry Eisler, who, even though he’d also signed the pledge himself, wrote that upon reflection, it was “disproportionate,” and that the document itself was “devoid of evidence and argument, relying instead only on an unsupported conclusion that purchased reviews and sock puppet reviews are ‘damaging to publishing at large.’” It should be noted that Eisler was not himself promoting sock-puppetry, he just had a problem with how it was being addressed in this instance. Meanwhile, Amazon went on a frenzy, deleting thousands of reviews that seemed to be from friends or family members of the authors or even ones from fellow writers. They did not, however, delete reviews from people who had clearly not read the book, stating that “We do not require people to have experienced the product in order to review.” Well, then. Glad to see they care about the integrity of the review process.
Wait, it gets worse. Now, social science researchers are confirming that people’s evaluation of a work is inevitably influenced by evaluations they see before it. In one experiment, researchers “allowed people to download various songs and randomly assigned people to see the opinions of others who had downloaded these songs. Sometimes a particular song was shown to be well-liked by the masses, and in other versions of the study, that same song was shown to be disliked. Regardless of quality, people evaluated the songs they believed to be well-liked positively and the songs they believed to be disliked negatively.” In another, the researchers went to a website, like Reddit, where certain comments could be “up-voted” or “down-voted” by clicking a button. They up-voted some and down-voted others at random, and discovered what they called “significant bias in rating behavior and a tendency toward ratings bubbles.” In plain English, up-votes tended to create more up-votes, and down-votes more down-votes. Interestingly, “people also ‘corrected’ the down-voted comments by up-voting them more than baseline levels, but even this correction never spurred them to the level of positivity that artificially up-voted comments attained.”
So what do we make of all this? In a world where self-publishing is exploding, Sturgeon’s Law (“95% of everything is crud”) applies, and professional reviewers are being supplanted by talented amateurs mixed in with some trolls, lunatics, and sock-puppets, who do you trust? In a market flooded with material that desperately needs curation, how do you make decisions when any stranger can be a curator? I have some thoughts of my own, but let’s hear from the Thalians…
My favorite Adele song is called “Who Wants To Be Right As Rain?” The song begins with two lines that pretty much describe decades of my life:
Who wants to be right as rain, it’s better when something is wrong.
You get excitement in your bones and everything you do is a game.
It’s not that I thrive on being unhappy. On the contrary, I have been described at various times in my life as “maniacally cheerful” and “insanely optimistic.” But I was raised in a large family that included more than a handful of actors and after years of living in such a high-pitched environment, anything short of high drama often comes off feeling flat and boring. It has taken me a long time to realize that some of the nicest moments in life sneak up on you and are very quiet while they are happening. But even with that realization, I have never quite managed to quench the thrill I get when things are wrong and I feel excitement in my bones. I am aware enough of this legacy to keep a sharp eye out for those times when I might sabotage my happiness just for a fix. But, like a lot of things we discover about ourselves and can only change so much, I have also looked for ways to turn this drama gene into a strength, rather than seeing it solely as a weakness. One of the ways I think it has helped me most has been in my writing.
You see, I love the architecture of a book — creating the characters and the plots, layering the scenes on top of those bare bones, building a story paragraph-by-paragraph, inch-by-inch. But you can do all those things right and still end up with a book that lacks emotional richness. And when you do all those things without being emotionally involved on some personal level, you also walk away from the magic that happens when an author’s subconscious is driving the choices he or she makes as they write the book. Because the truth is, whether we know it or not, we authors use writing to work out all sorts of subconscious dilemmas and to indulge lifetimes of emotional currents. Especially crime fiction authors.