Thursday, October 30, 2008
Abandoning a platform that would have sold him in this political and economic climate, McCain piled upon mistake after mistake. He capitulated to the hard right's demands that he pick an uber conservative running mate whose only claim to fame is that she negotiated an oil pipeline deal. That's it. By doing so, McCain alienated many of the middle of the road Republicans, and as the campaign moved forward, despite all her efforts (and I think she's pretty smart or at least as charismatic as hell), her inexperience trumped her charm.
But his biggest mistake (and the mistake of the ugly, mud-slinging conservatives like Limbaugh and now DeLay--moral arbitrator that HE is) is that the usual tactics that the Republicans have been using to win elections--mud-slinging--are not working. They don't get that. They keep trying to pile on the crap--he's a Marxist, he's a socialist--and it's not sticking because you look at Barack Obama and you see someone completely invested in the system. A subtle undercurrent of his message is that, yes, he wants change, but what he wants is to turn BACK to the way it was. When corporations didn't rack in obscene profits (Exxon's profit reported in today's paper exceeded its previous record profit), when someone didn't have to choose between paying the mortgage and paying the heating bill.
The Republicans don't get this. That people are DESPERATE. They don't want to hear about Obama is pals with terrorists (because, for one thing, it's ludicrous), they want to hear what the Republicans plan on doing about this mess. And they aren't saying squat. Perhaps they don't know. Perhaps Obama doesn't really know, and given this is an untested situation, I'm sure a lot of his plan is theory that sounds good. When you have Alan Greenspan shaking his head and admitting he was wrong, then I'm pretty worried, even while acknowledging that Obama is one smart guy.
But the point I'm making is that mud-slinging tactics can work when the economy is doing okay. It does NOT work when you have cities filled with foreclosed homes (Tracy, an hour's drive from me, is, literally, a city of foreclosed homes). People want to hear solutions. It does nothing for the Republican party (which is why they are failing across the Nation) to trash Obama. McCain's biggest failure is that he didn't come up with a big vision. You might not agree with Obama's vision, but you have to agree that he's THOUGHT about this.
Obama isn't running a completely clean campaign. He takes swipes at McCain. But these are largely offensive maneuvers against the trash talk. What sort of campaign he IS running is one full of ideas and solutions. You get that from him. You don't get that from McCain. I think that if McCain wants to have ANY hope in hell of winning this election (at least not getting slammed) it would be to STOP TALKING ABOUT OBAMA and start talking about what his administration has on tap. I can only think that because he spends so much of his time attacking Obama that he really doesn't have a plan. Which, of course, plays right into Obama's hands because it seems like he will continue with a Bush-oriented fiscal policy. McCain can say, I'm not George Bush, but he has yet to say, I'm not George Bush because I'm going to do this and it's a 180 from what he did. If McCain needs to attack anyone, it's GEORGE BUSH. By attacking Bush he will reinstate his position as a maverick. He will still be stuck with that albatross Palin, but at least he will be running on his own ticket, not on the coattails of Bush's failed presidency.
So the title of this post. For the first time in a long time I am seeing trash politics fail. I am seeing the political machinations of people like Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich fail. The lying, deceit, out and out vicious whatever it takes to win concept is failing. On it's ass. People do not want to hear it. They want a message of hope and a plan to realize that hope. I am hoping that the standard M.O. of evil bastards like Cheney and Rove that has dominated politics for the last twenty years has come to an end.
This has been an especially ugly eight years. And as much as I was a Hillary supporter, Barack Obama has won me over completely. Just like he's done with the rest of the country. Every time I see him on television, I am heartened by his message. Not because he and I are politically aligned, because, um, no, he's too conservative for me, but because he's NOT an ideologue. He will support legislation that I don't agree with. He will veto measures that I support, no doubt. But he will THINK about what he is doing and if he had to make a case for his decision, I believe that I could disagree with him and yet still say, yeah, I see your point.
Yeah, so the cynicism is very much on hold these days.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Yes, I am at the work-related conference. And I suppose that all sorts of wonderful goodness is coming from all the networking that is going on, but all I can think about is the fact that this frigging hotel has NO FOOD. Let me back up. I did not actually register for the conference, but my employer put down a shitload of money for a eight foot by eight foot booth. I thought something was strange when I did not get the normal registration packet that I saw everyone else carrying. I was sent off to some hinterland to receive a worthless satchel with a program in it, but most importantly, NO MEAL TICKETS. I didn't realize the significance attached to the desk clerk's admonition that I was only allowed to eat at breakfast. Fine, there seemed to be a few restaurants in this bizarre hotel, no worries. HAH!
Except that one restaurant is closed for repairs. And the other restaurant, where I was lucky enough to get lunch yesterday, shoos away customers when it gets filled up. Literally, some very polite woman escorts you down the hall AWAY from the restaurant. You are not allowed to wait for a table. Tonight, I went there early, right after conference table duty, so that I would get a table, and it's closed until 9 o'clock at night. I had cookies for dinner tonight. Yes, that's right, a package of cookies. That's after a lunch consisting of a banana that I'd squirreled away from the breakfast buffet.
I'm beginning to hate this hotel.
This is the strangest place for a conference. We are in the middle of nowhere. It originally was (and remains) a small amusement park with spa amenities, probably in a former lifetime it was some hide away for communist party bosses. It is staffed by kids. Literally, the average age of everyone working here is around twenty-one. They are all very polite, but the English is very limited, and you get the feeling that they say yes to all questions.
And what really fries me is that being in Beijing, there is, naturally, a heavy contingent of Chinese companies that have booths, and THEY are getting food from somewhere. I see them eating from nice little take-away stryrofoam containers, while the rest of us starve in our booths. SOMEONE in the hotel is providing them with food, but not relaying this to the Westerners. It's REALLY beginning to piss me off.
I go to the Great Wall on Friday. My one day of sightseeing.
Friday, October 3, 2008
Biden did much better than I thought he would. He reined in the snide, had complete command over his answers. I have to agree with David Gergen on this. They both won in that Biden showed his command of the issues and she didn't blow it.
I will also say one thing that I find extremely irritating to the point of reaching for sharp pointed objects and wanting to impale my television. WHY IN THE HELL do Republicans constantly trot out this "faux" hatred of government? This goes hand and hand with their hatred of Washington. Then why in the holy fuck are they so eager to get there! This was a running mantra in George Bush's first campaign, and Sarah Palin rolled this out again. This mistrust of government, this hatred of it. It's inherently evil.
You know what? It paves my streets, puts cops on my street corner, and educates my children. I LOVE GOVERNMENT. I LOVE DEMOCRACY. And it fries me to no end to hear this constant snide against government by politicians. Is all government good? Well, no, it is not. And this last administration is an excellent example of that. That's why we have a system where you vote people in and out. But government itself is NOT bad. And if you think it's bad, then please go home. Because I want people there who believe in the system. It is clear that George Bush's coven of trolls HATES government, because it got in their way. Gee, we can't wire tap citizens without congressional approval? Gee, water-boarding is torture? Gee, we're holding prisoners of war (oh, we can't call them that, oops) without due process? Gee, we can't FIRE federal prosecutors because they're not voting the way we want them to vote?
Stand on notice! I WANT people who love this system to be in Washington. I am sick of all this bullshit talk about how I love this great land, blahblahblah, and then do they do their damndest to undermine it. You want to change things? Great. It's all there, a system of checks and balances (Governor Palin, brush up on your Civics 101 so that you know exactly WHAT the Vice President is supposed to do) so that no one entity is in a position to abuse the other. Cheney did his level best to completely undermine the Constitution, and I hope that the next government restores the safeguards that he so callously whittled away over the last eight years.
You know another thing that bugs the shit out of me? This concept that if you've been in Washington for a while, you're an insider. You're tainted. I don't know how John McCain squares this with his long years of service in the Senate. You know what? I WANT someone with experience there. I want someone who knows how to get the bills out of committee and on to the floor and put up for votes. In short, I want people who know what in the hell they are doing! It absolutely boggles my mind. If there was a job description for the Vice Presidential office and Joe Biden applied for the job and Sarah Palin applied for the job, who do you think, just based on their relative experience levels, would get the job? Just based on experience and not political party. Hands down it would be Biden. And yet those years of experience are seen as a negative by the Republican faithful (although they certainly don't have a problem with John McCain's years of service).
She's young! She's fresh! Uh yeah, but she has the experience of governing a state with less than a million people and 75% of those people are white! Will people get a brain! Sarah Palin might be one of the most brilliant POTENIAL vice presidents to come down the pipe. But not yet. Give her something, like Secretary of the Interior, with a tad more exposure to what is the reality in national governance. Get her involved in negotiating with other states. But someone who does not even KNOW what a Vice President does is not qualified. Call me picky!
I want experienced people there. It's like going to a doctor with a serious problem and you're given a choice of the guy whose had twenty years of experience operating on this sort of thing, OR you can have the intern who has gloved up three times--all in the last week. Again, I WANT someone who is experienced and knows a thing or twenty about how the Senate works. Because they are presiding over the Senate
But most of all, I want people who believe in government to be there representing me.
Anyway, am continuing this breakneck pace by flying out to Baltimore to attend Bouchercon, the BIG mystery conference. My wonderful editor, Barbara Peters, and publisher, Rob Rosenwald, are being honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award this go around, so there will be a lot of Poisoned Pen authors there. It will be great to reconnect with them.
I've got a primo slot, 1:30-2:30 in the INTERNATIONAL E. The title of my panel is "APPLES, PEACHES, PUMPKIN PIE--Do our eating habits reflect our reading habits?" Claudia Bishop is our moderator, and I'm "paneling" with Judy Balzo, JoAnna Carl, Don Bruns, and Julie Hyzy.
After that I'm flying to Bejing--notice how she just tosses that off--for a work-related conference. Am getting all my plot ducks lined up for the next Mary Ryan and as I'm spending a ton of time in airports and on planes over the next two weeks, I expect I'll make a good dent in number 3.
See you in Baltimore!
Friday, September 19, 2008
Friday, September 12, 2008
On a more serious note, this is not about Dem versus Republican. Do I agree with John McCain's general philosophy? No, I don't. Will I vote for him. No, I won't. Do I think he is qualified to be President. Actually, yes, I do. His many years as a Senator DO qualify him to be president. I do not want him to be president, but I certainly do not quibble with his qualifications. He certainly trumps the current Commander in Chief, whose only qualifications for the job was mismanaging a bunch of oil companies and his father's political juice.
Governor Palin is not qualified. In fact, her very confidence completely disqualifies her. And I do not understand what in the hell the Republican party is doing fronting this woman as a Vice Presidential candidate. They are bus loads of people who are more qualified, who, um, actually have some experience of NATIONAL GOVERNANCE, and yet who have been passed over. What in the hell are you thinking, John?
Monday, August 18, 2008
Been a while, friends. This summer has been something of a whirlwind. There have been several bookish sort of events, intersperced in between family events, which have made for something of a scheduling nightmare. Unfortunately, the writing always end up on the backburner when push comes to shove. In between several graduations, a surgery, the dog's pneumonia (my husband calls her the disease magnet), a trip to Disneyland, the annual camping trip to the Redwoods, and birthdays galore, it's been a sad summer for writing.
But I now have an idea. A good idea!
Thursday, July 3, 2008
When it got paved over and an upscale supermarket was put in its place, I mourned it of course, but by that time I was so inured to that sort of thing that it was just another blip in the corporatization of American society. There is a small ACE hardware in town, but they hire a lot of high-school kids who exude bored 'tude with every snap of their gum and the stock is limited and, well, it isn't Simons.
Lo and behold, I just read in the paper that an ACE hardware is going into the suburban enclave next door, not two blocks away from where the old Simons used to be. I know it's ridiculous to expect that it will be similar to Simons, with people who know their stuff and don't have that hungry, worn-out look on their faces that is the hallmark of every single Home Depot employee I've ever laid eyes on, but here's hoping.
Sunday, June 29, 2008
Saturday, June 14, 2008
Essentially, top selling authors are being pressured to churn out a book a year, because more and more it's becoming about putting all your publishing eggs in one basket. Many publishers are dropping authors that they don't believe can produce the mega-seller, resulting in publishers throwing all their resources at those who are proven best sellers. Which is nice if you're one of the chosen few, but it means cranking those suckers out. I should say that several authors go on record that this isn't a problem for them, while others feel that it seriously compromises the quality of their writing.
Coming at this from a reader's POV, I can see the difference. I'm reading authors that I've loved for many years and encountering plot busts and errors that are NOT characteristic of these authors. I think it would be one thing if most publishers were pushing their authors and then offering them the support vis a vis Herculean vetting of their manuscripts. But that's not happening either. True, being an author I have a built-in radar for plot busts, but my husband isn't an author, and he and I regularly discuss what we see as disconnects and out and out eyebrow-raising plot machinations to get from Point A to Point D. If an author had six months more, I think a lot of authors would have an opportunity to "clean-up" these glitches.
I also should state that my publisher is a breath of sanity in this strange new world. They believe in publishing books, not widgets. The love of words is still out there, but it's getting harder and harder to find amidst the hard sell: of widgets that happen to have words.
This article also has stats in the decline of book sales, and I wonder if it ever occurs to large publishers that maybe their sales are declining because the quality and diversity of their selection is declining. Hmmm? Possible connection? Inquiring minds want to know!
I know that I now think twice about shelling out $25.00 for a book when the previous book in this series had a serious plot bust and a tired feel to it. As in, it READS like the author had only a year to produce it.
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
My favorite mystery author is James Lee Burke. There is a lyricism, a poetry, about his writing that is unusual in crime fiction. On the negative side, his women tend to be one-dimensional (except for the prostitutes and lowlifes), and he also has one plot: one man (with a little help from his friends) fighting internal and external demons. But I never let that stop me. Burke has a tremendous amount to say about institutionalized racism in the south, corruption so widespread it's almost genetic, the raping of the environment. His latest book, "The Tin Roof Blow Down," another in the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Detective Dave Robicheaux series, deals with the corruption and destruction in the wake of Katrina; it is a stunning read, a love letter to Louisiana and its citizens.
My favorite book of his has kind of a woo-woo factor. I don't know how well it sold, but I imagine it's probably not one of his best sellers because of the ghost aspect to it. His publishers probably pulled him aside and said, "Jim, cut the supernatural shit." I recommend it highly: "In the Electric Mist of the Confederate Dead." If you're an American reading this, it says so much about the Civil War, the people who fought it, the guilt of the survivors (us), the honorable men who fought an dishonorable war, the stupidity, and the slaughter.
Writer envy meter: five stars
Saturday, May 17, 2008
Had a great evening at Janet Ruldoph's house. She is the editor of Mystery Readers Journal. She hosts author soirees (don't you love that word?) at her house for authors and readers to get together and discuss, what else, mysteries. The current issue is devoted to historical mysteries, and the next issue is set in San Francisco. I've been asked to write a snippet, so I might have to reread Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon" and revisit the restaurants in that book. I know John's Grill features prominently, but what else? Hmmm.
I shared the evening with Jane Cleland, who is just out with her latest Josie Prescott Antiques mystery, "Deadly Appraisal." It was fun to connect again with Randal Brandt, who has compiled a bibliography that contains over 1,500 titles of mystery, detective, and crime fiction with the action, or significant parts of the action, set in San Francisco and the Bay Area. Check it out: Golden Gate Mysteries. Yours truly is included.
It's truly been a whirlwind couple of weeks. Had a WONDERFUL signing at Mrs. Dalloway's on College Avenue in Berkeley. Friends and family arrived en masse and bought lots of books. It's the sort of store that has been particularly vulnerable to the chain store onslaught, but Marion assures me they are doing well. There were several books on gardening that I was salivating over and a healthy fiction section. Drop in the next time you're on College Avenue in Berkeley and buy something!
It's stores like this and M is for Mystery that host relatively small authors like me. Please, support your independent bookseller!
When my husband and I were in college at U.C., we used to walk from our grungy college digs to Botts ice cream for gigantic ice cream cones. We'd walk through the Elmwood district, ogling all the wonderful craftsmen bungalows and wood-shingled two-stories, so endemic to that neighborhood. Without shame, we'd peep into lighted living rooms and dining rooms, hoping that one day we'd have a home in this fabulous neighborhood. Having been in exile in suburbia for a number of years, living in nothing more than a rectangle, we still haven't given up this dream, and are now plotting our final and last move back to Berkeley once the kidlets are done with high school.
My next event is on June 3rd at the San Bruno Library with the wonderful Cornelia Read, whose latest book "The Crazy School" is a great read. Then we've got high school graduations and middle school graduations and someone to get on a plane to Ireland, and like, whoa. Life is busy.
Oh yeah, that next book to write. Got to get cracking on that as well.
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
So, attended Malice, had my little panel. Met fellow PPP authors Beverle Myers and Aileen Baron. Waved and said "hi" to Judy Clemens. Con Lehane was on my panel, so we got to chat for a little beforehand. Exchanged puzzled WTFs with Penny Warner, whose Nancy Drew Handbook is a must buy (I bought one for my daughter for Christmas and she loves it), because Penny was not on the Nancy Drew panel. Hadn't seen Marcia Talley in years so we chatted a wee bit. Meant to way lay Sujata Massey but that never happened. It was a nice Malice, although attendance seemed down to my (admittedly inexpert) eye. All in all, lots of fun, although am rethinking this free ticket Southwest thing. Sunday's trip home I was in the air or parking my butt in an airport chair for close to ten hours. FYI: Midway in Chicago does not have free WiFi, Albuquerque does.
Usually I buy a ton of books at these events, but I'm really trying to watch my spending so only bought one book. And it's great. And I'm passing on the title to you because I think it has some truly marvelous advice. Although it's geared to the mystery writer, I think the advice in this book is applicable to anyone who writes.
"Don't Murder Your Mystery," by Chris Roerden, Bella Rosa Books.
It won the 2006 Agatha Award for best Non-Fiction. I think this is a great book. It's marketed toward writers who are trying to get their submissions from getting thrown into the slush pile, but ignore that shtick. It had some damn fine advice about starting and ending chapters with a hook, how to effectively include backstory, etc. Lots and lots of shiny advice. She uses examples from mysteries so that you can see what she is talking about. Recommended. It's in paperback so it's relatively cheap.
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
During my ten years as a pastry chef, I found myself returning again and again to very simple recipes that didn't require a million steps or weren't constructed with caramel cages or chocolate doodads. In my opinion, these little pastries are what baking is all about. There are no fancy ingredients; it doesn't get more basic than butter, eggs, flour, and jam. And if strawberries are out of season, they are pretty darn delicious with just the whipped cream. These tartlets are best accompanied by a big mug of really strong, sweet tea.
The "Katie" in this recipe is the name of a good friend's Irish grandmother, who won her grandson's heart by making these lovely little tartlets for him.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees
Equipment: Twenty-two 2½-wide, ¾-inch tall tartlet pans.
2 cups all purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 Tbl sugar (I use C&H superfine baking sugar)
8 Tbls cold butter (1 stick)
6 Tbls cold shortening
5-6 Tbls ice water
Combine the flour, salt, and sugar together in a large bowl with a whip. Cut the butter and shortening into the flour mixture until the butter/shortening chunks are pea size. You can also do this in a Cuisinart, just don't over mix it or you will rile up the proteins in the flour, and you will end up rolling out flour cement. Bring the mixture together with your hands and on a floured board, knead into a ball. Let rest in the refrigerator for at least an hour.
On a floured board, roll out dough until 1/8-inch thick. Using a 3-inch round cutter, cut out 22 rounds. Fit into tartlet pans and return these to the refrigerator to chill (and relax) while making the filling.
7 Tbls all-purpose flour
½ tsp baking powder
6 Tbls soft, room temperature butter
7 Tbls sugar (I use C&H superfine baking sugar)
Combine the flour and baking power. Set aside. Lightly whip the eggs. Set aside.
Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Incorporate the eggs slowly until the mixture comes together. Fold in the flour mixture by hand with a whip.
Remove the tartlets from the refrigerator and fill the bottom of each one with ¼ teaspoon of strawberry jam. Then top the jam with a very rounded teaspoon of filling.
Place in the oven and bake for 25 minutes or until the tops are golden brown.
Assembling Tip Tops
¼ cup whipping cream
1 Tbl sugar (superfine please)
1 basket strawberries
Whip the cream and sugar together to soft peak. Place the whipping cream in a pastry bag and pipe a rosette on top of each tartlet, cover the top of the tartlet. Alternatively, with a spoon, dollop on a healthy mound. Slice the strawberries into quarters and place two pieces on top of each tartlets, sort of like wings.
These are truly delicious.
Thursday, April 10, 2008
Anyway, I think people need to stop thinking of someone's comments on what doesn't work for them in your material as a critique. You need to stop thinking of it as someone saying, this isn't good. What you need to do is completely rewire those circuits. Because what they are saying is not, this is crap, what they are saying is, I don't understand. Yes, it's that simple. I don't understand what you're trying to say. That's what this is all about. It's about communicating what's in your brain to a piece of paper so that you can tell a whole bunch of people what you think. That's it. Writing is about communicating. It's the laptop and printer equivalent of sitting around a campfire and telling stories.
Why is a raven like a writing desk? Because writing is a frustrating and lonely process. You've got an idea that makes you squeak with joy. It's always more fun to squeak with joy with others than to squeak with joy by yourself (trust me on this one), so you want to share the squeaking and joy part. But since it's your idea, you want to maximum the squeak factor, so you write it down in a way will, hopefully, encourage as much collective squeak as possible.
If I were satisfied with only me squeaking and no one else, then I'd probably write something without pronouns and a lot of misspellings and every other word would be fuck. So, um, no, that's NOT a plan. Plus, again, squeaking with joy by yourself sucks. Back to the drawing board. Let's put down what will get us the maximum amount of collective squeak and don't forget the joy.
That's what writing is. It's about taking this lonely little idea that you have, in your brain alone, with all your baggage that you've collected over the years, the hang-up you have because you are really short-waisted (the fact that every woman in your family is similarly short-waisted doesn't mitigate the woe), the father abandonment issues, the growing up being the daughter of immigrants so you don't feel American OR European, um, where was I? Oh yeah, not that those are MY issues you understand, cough, cough, but we cart around those SORTS of issues and they affect how we tell stories. So our minds are full of this baggage and other people have baggage too (which makes it nice because baggage-less people often don't get those of us with baggage). Baggage usually differs, but the ACT of carrying baggage is the same. Storytelling is ALL about letting that dirty laundry fall out of your suitcase and having people help you pick it up and discovering, hey, I have a pair of socks JUST like that.
How I want to say what I want to say is unique to me, so unique to me that it's called voice in writing parlance. And when voice works it's marvelous, because the writer is speaking to you and I mean speaking full throttle. But when your voice doesn't connect with as many people as you want it to? Then it's just a question of learning how to communicate more effectively. That's it! Nothing more. It doesn't mean that you don't have great ideas, or that you don't have the most profound insight into the working mind of your protagonist. What it means is that you need to improve your communication skills.
That is what it boils down to: learning to speak a more universal language so that your angst, your humor, your insight, your *dream* becomes the reader's angst, humor, insight, and dream.
When I send something out for critique, I want full and complete honesty. Because for me, it's all about taking what's up here (visual, am poking at head) and putting it down here (visual, pointing at laptop screen) so that you and I can have a meaningful chat. And, hopefully, some collective squeaking with joy.
Communication skills. That's what it's about plain and simple. If your writing doesn't get a lot of wows, it doesn't mean you're a *bad* writer. I HATE IT when people denigrate their writing skills. Absolutely truth. Swear to God. I worked on this for years. I started seriously writing around my thirty-ninth birthday, and I'm looking at turning 52 this year. And my initial efforts (um, we are talking the first five years) were really pretty sad. But then I was learning how to "talk," yeah? So think of legitimate criticism as someone saying to you, I don't understand. It's that simple. Go back to the laptop and think, how can I say this so that people will understand what I'm trying to say.
Talk to me.
Thursday, March 13, 2008
My very talented and wonderful sister has revamped my website to reflect new book and upcoming appearances. Please note that I will be in the D.C. area 4/25-4/27 to attend Malice Domestic and in the Baltimore area 10/09-10/12 to attend Bouchercon. Locally, I will be having signings at the following venues:
M is for Mystery in San Mateo: Saturday, May 3 @ 2:00 pm
Mrs. Dalloway's in Berkeley, May 8 @ 7:30 pm
Book Passage in San Francisco (@ the Ferry Building!), July 22 @ 6:00 pm
Stacey's in San Francisco, July 23 @ 12:30 pm
I am hoping to shoehorn in a couple of more local events and will keep you posted.
Monday, February 25, 2008
This is the press for authors to write as much as is humanly possible, or in other words, churn out another book on that assembly line of words. This results in books with good (or even great) premises, but the authors were not given the time to actually write it. Writing takes time; it takes thinking about. If you're pressed to write a book a year, well, that's not much time to hammer out an idea to its logical fruition. Anyway, I'm not going to trash my fellow mystery authors, but one book that I think that suffered from that in a big way is the last Harry Potter book. I work as a professional editor, whoo boy!, did that book need editing. It was a first draft. Bloated, unwieldy, confusing, repetitive, and abysmal pacing are just a few of the problems with that book. But you know, I bet Ms. Rowling was under enormous pressure (not to mention contractual agreements) to pop out that book to coincide with the movie release last summer. It had the bones of a great book, which were never realized.
Anyway, the point of this is that I have recently read five books that I very much adored, and since they stand out in a sea of mediocre books, I'd like to mention them so that you can enjoy them too.
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan: This man can write no wrong. In Saturday, he took one day and made a novel out of it. Here, he takes a lifetime and does so, in what I'm guessing, is 50,000 words max. A beautiful book, I can't recommend it more highly.
Stalin's Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith. Another Arkady Renko novel. I love this series with a passion. It is spare, down-to-the-bones sort of writing. He is one of the few writers I know who continues to write a series that has not become stale. There are, what, six Renko novels, and every one of them is great; and not repetitive and not tired. I write a series so I appreciate how difficult that is. I admire him enormously.
And now two love stores:
Feast of Love by Charles Baxter. Changes in POV are hard to pull off. You've engaged your audience, the reader, and all of a sudden you yank them from one head and plonk them down in another. This book tells a story from multiple POVs, and man, it works. Only an author who really knows what he's doing can pull this off. Truly, it's a structural masterpiece. I loved this book. It has a character death, the disintegration of several relationships, and yet it's hopeful.
This is perhaps my favorite book of all. About Alice by Calvin Trillin. It's about how much he loved his wife, who recently died. That's it. Why he loved her. How much he loved her. By the end of the book you are in love with Alice too. You think, you lucky son of a gun.
Thursday, February 14, 2008
All positive reviews are savored, naturally, but this book was hell to write. My characters stopped speaking to me, and I got sick (like WAY sick). Life was incredibly difficult. In fact, I would say that the three years after the publication of Beat Until Stiff were the worst three years of my life. I got halfway through writing this book and just stopped. I knew where the book was going to go, the ending (I always know the ending), but writing is more than just putting down words. It's giving your imagination a room to play in, and mine had checked out. I think this is especially difficult if you write in first-person POV. When your own "I" is taking a beating, your written "I" takes a back seat. Anyway, the point is that this star is so much more than just a star to me. It's like someone saying, "It's okay, kiddo. It's okay. You haven't lost it. You just mislaid it. And then found it. So let's celebrate. Piece of chocolate cake?" It's like that.
So, the PW review for Roux Morgue. Publication date? April 2008
"The growing rift between the “dinosaurs” and the “young brats” on the teaching staff at San Francisco’s École d’Epicure fuels the highly amusing action in Johnson’s superior second cozy to feature funky pastry chef Mary Ryan (after 2002’s Beat Until Stiff). Mary is unpleasantly surprised when Inspector O’Connor of SFPD homicide shows up as a student claiming he’s on stress leave. Although the cop is her ex-husband’s married best friend, Ryan and the sexy O’Connor have obvious chemistry. Tension among École’s chefs escalates with public insults, a petition to fire one of the classically trained dinosaurs and a water fight in the school’s prestigious restaurant. When one chef dies after an allergic shellfish reaction with no shellfish on the menu, and another is strangled at home, Ryan suspects something more sinister than differences of culinary theory. In one of many farcical scenes, Ryan enlists the aid of a hostile friend-of-a-friend to hack into École’s computer system to dig for answers. This enjoyable romp should gain Johnson new fans."
Friday, February 8, 2008
This should worry all of us. When I go to a mystery function, other than the kids of the person talking, the audience is OLD. I'm 51, and I'd say I'm probably on par with a lot of people. Forty is young in these venues. This demographic nightmare might account for why book sales are dropping across the board. The publishing industry isn't attracting new readers with the same commitment to the written page.
Having two teenagers, I will tell you how they spend their time. They go to a ton of movies. They text their friends endlessly. They listen to their ipods. More movies. My daughter I would classify as a reader, but she doesn't read like *I* read at her age. But then I didn't have movies specifically geared to ME, clamoring for my dollars and time. Nor did I have clothing stores specifically geared to ME, clamoring for my dollars. I went to Capwells and bought my clothes in the young teen section, which was right next to the "women's" section where my mother bought her clothes. Then the Summer of Love hit, and I'd take the bus to Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley to buy my clothes. I didn't have Gap, Forever 21, H&M, Nordstrom, etc. , waging ad campaigns to the tune of millions of dollars to get my money. Just that bearded hippie who drove a VW van down to Mexico to buy $1.00 shirts and who then sold them for $25.00. Capitalism at work.
My son: ipod and gaming. He spends an enormous amount of time in front of a computer screen playing basketball and football, and when he isn't doing it with a mouse, he's doing it outside. He enjoys reading if we threaten to cut his legs off if he doesn't read a book within the next couple of days, but it's not a natural yen. And we have NEVER had an X-box OR a Gameboy in the house. He complains he's deprived, but given how much time he spends as it is on generic computer games, I can't feel too sorry for him.
In short, my kids are probably a normal demographic (except for depriving son of a Gameboy), and their time (and money) is eaten up with all these possibilities, and reading is NOT at the top of their list.
As my reading population ages and then dies (let's be realistic), who is going to buy my books?
Thursday, February 7, 2008
I'm appearing at "M Is for Mystery" in San Mateo on 3rd Street on May 3rd at 2:00 pm. Ed Kaufman's store is a wonderful place in and of itself. You got favorite crime fiction authors? He's got 'em stocked, in addition to having a fine collection of signed first editions for you collectors out there. Anyway, I'll be there reading from new book, Roux Morgue, and (here's the important part), if I have time, I plan to rustle up some baked goods. A tart here, a chocolate cake there. Mosey on down.
I'll be at Malice this year. I was a Malice Grant Winner and also was nominated for an Agatha for Best First for Beat Until Stiff, so Malice has a special place in my heart. That's the weekend of April 25. I'll let you know if I have a panel; I've requested one. Here's hoping.
I'm also going to be at Bouchercon this year: October 9-12 in Baltimore. Barbara Peters and Robert Rosenwald, the publishers of Poisoned Pen Press (my publisher), are being honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award. I'll be there cheering with the rest of the PPP possee, and, also, I hope, to have a panel there.
That's it for now, am going to keep working the speaking angle, should have update soon.
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
In the genre that I write and heavily invest in, the potential for movie and television deals is always a good shot because, hey, the who-done-it is pretty much is a sale. I know several people who have had their books nabbed for at least "treatments" because the media are desperate for material and what's $10,000 to them? I wish they'd send a little of that desperation my way, but hey.
Which means that since books sales are not great in general, across the board, people are writing for the movies. I can see it in nearly ALL the big name crime fiction authors. There's definitely been a shift. Lot less internal monologue and description. LOTS OF ACTION. In fact, the last book I read by one of the biggest names in the crime fiction world read like a screenplay. All that was missing were the character tags. It was so sparse that I expect he will have to do nothing to it for a screen treatment other than hand over the book with a, "Here."
I'm not saying action isn't good. Action is great. Descriptions of physical action move the story along both physically and mentally. A well-written action scene is worth its weight in gold. However, a screenplay is NOT a novel and a novel is not a screenplay. There is not (or shouldn't be) a seamless transition between one and the other. When an author writes a pseudo-book, what gets cut out is the characterization.
Plot becomes ALL. The motivation and the characterization are more or less sacrificed. In fact, I suspect that the author feels it might get in the way of a sale if you have too much characterization. What you are presenting is almost a blank page so that the director and screenwriter can fill in THEIR characterization. Which is nothing more than what hot hunk or bimbo of the week can we slide in here. If it's too defined, then the generic male/female actor won't work. Or it will be harder to make it work.
The last five books I've read are clearly written with movie or television deals in mind. I've been following certain authors for years and a comparison between their earlier crime fiction novels and ones written in the last two years? It's all about the movies.
If I wanted to read a screenplay, I'd buy one. You know?
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Being an extremely practical person at heart, I never really understood the concept of art as a form of self-flagellation until I started writing. Because I'd always been in the world of the concrete. As a pastry chef, you can completely quantify whether this is a good apple pie or a bad apple pie. Really, there's no contest. I can make an apple pie that's better than sex. I wish I had that sort of confidence with my writing.
As I said today to friend, art (and for me that means writing) is more or less about putting a gigantic bulls-eye on your back. Because art is not a one-way street. The reader brings their baggage. You bring your baggage. And pretty soon we need an entire contingent of Sky Caps to cart this shit around. When it works, your baggage (as the writer) meshes nicely with the reader's baggage so that you're basically opening up your suitcases and laughing hysterically and tossing all your shit that goes bump in your night into the air so that it co-mingles with their shit that goes bump in the night. And it's sort of the same color. Lots of scarves. Heavy on the red.
But how to ensure the contents of the suitcases match? You can't. You just HOPE that they have lots of red scarves because you've done your best and you can't say it any other way. Writing is based a lot on hope.
When you don't connect with your reader, then there is the opening of suitcases and they haul out suits with matching spectator pumps and you haul out jeans with a humongous rip in the right knee and tee shirts foisted on you for your generous donations to your local blood bank. And although they are both technically defined as clothes, the similarity ends there. Book is shut, author is consigned to the resale pile, sale is resented. You have not connected and you will never connect because we are literally casting pearls before swine. Or, more to the point, casting words before those who think you are swine.
The point I'm making is that as artists, whether it's with words or pen, we are so vulnerable. I'd like to think that what makes my writing appealing is that I share with you, the reader, my inner secrets. Okay, I'm not about to blab that Ive got some closet fetish for pink underwear covered with garish hearts (I do not), but in the book that's about to come out, I have my protagonist admit that she'd rather write checks than admit to car mechanics that she's stupid. THAT'S ME! I'd rather write a check (fortunately, my husband understands cars so this isn't my reality) than admit I'm stupid about cars. I am profoundly stupid about cars. Machinery is the anti-christ as far as I am concerned. I am a complete and total Luddite. That I happen to be profoundlly smart about a lot of other things sort of balances out this disability, but I couldn't help but put that silly, stupid tidbit about me down in words. Because I recognize that it's stupid, but it's profoundly human as well.
The best writing is the bravest writing. When you do sort of silently bleed on the page. But then you have this sharing of baggage that happens between the writer and the reader and if the contents of the suitcases don't work? You've just bared your soul as an idiot who would rather write checks than admit to stupidity to someone who took four years of auto-shop.
It's a gamble. One that I obviously make. But I cringe at the thought that someone's lining up the arrow and positioning the bow. And then letting go.
Monday, January 28, 2008
Aside from the general all-purpose squeal of delight that this elicited, this is yet another instance where you (or I mean me) suffer from complete whiplash. The really egotistical side of you (or me, rather) says, "Well, of course, your book was picked, it's a decent book," and then the naysayer, the snarky voice of fail, sneers, "Why your book?" Why indeed.
Most of the writers I know suffer from varying degrees of this narcissistic lack of self-esteem or this self-denying narcissism. You enter a book store and look in one direction, and sniff, your book is certainly as good as that lot there, but hey! A glance down the opposite aisle and All THOSE books are so much better than yours. It's a seesaw, one that I try not to ride, because of all the deadly sins, envy is the one I'm easily guilty of, and it's the most self-destructive emotion I know. It paralyzes me every time. I can't help but compare my writing to others, and while I might actually have the chutzpah to believe that I'm better than 80% of the general writing population (okay, maybe 70% on a good day), that doesn't matter. It's the 30% who are better than me that make me want to hit the delete button.
In my search for that perfect book that will make me a perfect writer, I stumbled across one book that might not keep those mean reds at bay, but it certainly explains why I get them. It's called The Midnight Disease. It's a nonfiction book about the brain and writing, and it's written by a neurologist who is also a writer (who has possibly one of the most engaging non-fiction styles I've come across in a long time). Anyway, it has lots of interesting bits about writers and ego and writer's block and just some damn fine insight into this crazy compulsion to put bits of our soul down on paper for the world to praise or deride. The wonderful thing about this book is the realization that your neurotic and obsessive compulsive traits are not unusual, and, in fact, pretty much ho hum and are shared by quite a few writers. Which somehow that made me feel a whole hell of a lot better. Safety in neurotic numbers.
(1) You should never stop writing because you think your writing is full of shit. The first draft of Beat Until Stiff was absolutely horrible. I had several people tell me this and they were right. It was AWFUL. Did I stop writing? No, I licked my wounds, and because I am rather a pugnacious and stubborn person, I said to myself, "Okay, make it better." And I did. The second draft was only sort of awful. I kept at it. Is it a great book? No. It's an okay book. It does what it set out to do, and I learned a hell of a lot about the process of writing from rewriting it, oh, say, six times. I re-wrote the first chapter 30 times. I am not making that up. And it took me five years to sell it. I was lucky, yes, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time (after going through wrong place and wrong time on numerous occasions).
(2) Keep writing. You'll get better. Half the game of writing is learning who you are as a writer. Your voice. How your brain works with the English language. This takes TIME. I mean years, not weeks, not months. So your first few attempts weren't great. Keep at it. Part of this process is voodoo. You keep on writing and gradually it will come to you that, hey, this is the way I put words together. It will feel like the shoe fits. That doesn't mean that you'll be able to write flawless prose, it just means that you now *know* what your characters are supposed to sound like. And when you've found your voice and then you can't find your voice for a specific idea, it is hell on earth.
(3) Learn basic grammar. Yeah, I mean this. Because a misplaced comma can change the ENTIRE mood of a piece, and, no, I can't be arsed to put up an example. But punctuation can make a BIG difference. And lack of it. Punctuation is the conductor of your words. It has the baton, and it gives your writing the beat. Trust me on this one. You'll find yourself debating comma choices before you know it. That doesn't mean that you let grammar strangle you. Some of it depends on your voice. I have a colloquial style and my current series is written in first person. I can get away with a lot of grammar no-nos because my narrative sounds like a person talking to you. It's one of the strengths of this series. Having said that, I need to watch it because I have a tendency to overdo it. Grammar really is the drumbeat of your writing, so don't neglect it. Make it work for you.
(3) The grammar subset. If you don't learn basic grammar and you start sending off query letters with big errors in them, then what it says to the person reading the letters is that you're not taking this very seriously. You need to start thinking of yourself as a professional, and part of that is presenting yourself as someone who knows the value of a comma.
(4) This is probably the second most important thing I am going to say. There are other writers who are better than you. For the rest of their goddamn lives they will write rings around you. Perhaps they work REALLY hard at their writing and you have kids and a job and a dog and two cats (not that I'm describing me, you understand) and you cram your writing in when the kids are asleep...okay, this is bullshit. Some people are just better writers. I can think of several people I know personally (coughcough Ann Parker for one coughcough) that make me green with envy. I am no slouch, but you know, they are just better writers. Okay. Deal with it. I can deal with it, and I have an ego the size of Montana. Take pleasure in what *you* write. How you put it together. How you want it say it YOUR way, which is unlike anyone else's way. Do I get pleasure out of reading superior fic? Sure. I also get *tons* of pleasure out of other writers who may not be Nobel Prize in Literature contenders. IT'S STILL GOOD WRITING. It scratches an itch. It might not be the best put together story, but the writer is fresh and is striving to get an idea across and does a damn fine job of it. IT'S GOOD. I LIKE IT. I WANT TO READ IT. ALL OF IT.Does this mean you can be lazy and just slop down what ever comes to mind. NO! I abhor lazy writers. There is no excuse for this. Each project should be a little better. Haven't you picked up a book and thought that the author just phoned it in? They probably just cut and pasted their previous book and changed the names and the verbs. I will NOT read people who are lazy. It shows. You can't hide it. Think about what you're writing.
(5) So you've come to the horrible realization that you're not as good as author (A). And, sob, you'll never be as good as author (A). This is my reality. I don't mean to put up ANY roadblocks because the strides I've made in my writing over the last five years have been phenomenal. Basically from being unable to get a job writing fortune cookies to getting a book published. But still. Like I said, I'm pretty smart, but I can name names who are obviously JUST smarter than I am and are better writers to boot and do we curse them? We do not. WE LEARN FROM THEM. Take an author you admire and PICK APART her/his novel. See how the tension rises and falls, study the voice of the piece, how the characterization is done. A great writer chooses every word with care. EVERY WORD. Nothing is superfluous. IT ALL MATTERS. Whatever is there is there for a reason. Find out what makes this story work. I do this with every piece of fiction and non-fiction I read. Writing fiction has almost destroyed my love of reading because I CANNOT turn off the internal editor. Good writers either (a) just won that mental lottery and can write; (b) work their asses off to craft a story; or (c) both. You can learn from them. They are laying out their craft for you to enjoy and learn. See the bones of the story for what it's worth.
(6) Don't wallow in your mediocrity or flog yourself. I do this all the time, and it is self-destructive with a capital "S." Do not do this. This relates to No. 4 above but takes it one step further. PUSH yourself to be a better writer. Take classes. Buy books. "Bird by Bird" by Anne Lamott is highly recommended. Don't let your talent go to waste. Do you have talent? Yes, you do.
(7) Eliminate the verb "to feel" from your vocabulary. Yes, I do use it, but I shouldn't.
(8) And the most important thing I'll say. You get to say it your way. Relish this. This is what it is all about. You get to have a little contract with your readers that says, "I'm going to entertain you. I am the magician here." You might not have the audience of writer (A), but hey. That's the breaks. I did a signing at a mystery conference, and I got sat next to Mary Higgins Clark. Her line went out the door, and my line was, well, five people and two of them were just gawking at MHC. But my three people were fantastic and really liked my book and were so grateful that I was actually talking to them and was interested in what I had to say about mystery fiction and it was all good. Do I want 200 people at my book signing? Hell yes, but realize that your story is speaking to someone and that someone deserves your attention. They gave you theirs.
(9) Yes, your story is speaking to someone. And sad to say, it won't speak to everyone. There will be people who will not like your book. They just won't. You cannot please everyone. There will be people out there who think you're a mediocre writer, and they might be rude enough to tell you. Or they will trash cooking mystery fiction when you're in the audience (and yes that has happened to me). Of course, thirteen other people said they loved it. Focus on the thirteen that took the time to tell you how much they enjoyed it. You're doing something right.
(10) Listen to criticism. Sifting through feedback and determining what is valid for you and what is not is also an art and takes time to develop that skill. If three people say something isn't working, listen to them. You're not keeping your end of the contract to weave that magic, however, see above. At some point, you will have to make a judgment call. Or sometimes it's just, "I like this and I'm keeping it in," because, after all...
(11) You're writing for you. Write what makes you happy. This should be fun, and if it's not fun, there's something wrong. You should be your most avid fan (and harshest critic). Write what you're passionate about. The passion will come through, believe me, and will hide a lot of faults. If I were given the choice of reading a book by someone whose writing might not be uber polished versus someone who can string a sentence together like whoa but doesn't give a flying fig about what they're writing about, I'll pick-up the passionate newbie every time. The words don't lie. You can't hide. The voodoo is all powerful. So, yeah, write what you love. That love comes through as well as the ennui.
I'll be posting material here time to time on events, musings, thoughts about writing, your general all-purpose writing blahblahblah.First things first: my website is http://www.rouxmorgue.com/. I hope to keep it updated, but I'm pants at that stuff, so please come here first to see what's shaking.
What's shaking, you ask?
NEW BOOK, THAT'S WHAT!!!!!
Roux Morgue, by me
Yeah, finally, I'm getting around to publishing the latest in the Mary Ryan, Pastry Chef series. The last three years have not been kind: father died and lots of health issues. Suffice it to say, I'm here, although missing several organs, but am doing great. In a fit of "OH MY GOD, I'M ALIVE," I finished the second book in something like three months.
Fortunately, my dear publisher, Poisoned Pen Press (PPP), had not forgotten me (I wouldn't have blamed them if they'd said, "Claire, who?"). Anyway, April 2008 publication date. Coinciding with the publication of Roux Morgue, PPP will be reissuing Beat Until Stiff in trade paperback. Huzzah!Mary returns to her alma mater, Ecole d'Epicure (which does not, in any way, shape, or form, resemble my old alma mater, the California Culinary Academy) to teach pastry. And much to her surprise (but not ours), people start dying. O'Connor reappears in all his sexy glory, Thom reappears, and I've added a couple of new characters.I'm definitely going to Malice Domestic at the end of April, and Boucheron in October, where my publishers will be getting a Lifetime Achievement Award. I plan on scheduling other author events, so stayed tuned.
Glad I'm back.