Friday, November 26, 2010

The Dining Problem

My husband and I have entered a period in our lives where we are transitioning into true adulthood. By that I mean it's obvious that we should no longer benefit from the bounty of our parents, but we should swap out and have them benefit from our bounty. That's slowly happening as the reality of the parental units providing big holiday dinners for lots of people is no longer an option. Pot lucks are becoming the order of the day, which is fine, except I suspect that even hosting these pot lucks is starting to be something of a burden.

I certainly have no objection to hosting large dinners, ahem, former chef you know, but I can't and it's purely down to just not having the space. I live in what I lovingly refer to as "The Box." We did remodel "The Box" a few years ago but that didn't result in any more square footage. It's now a nicer box, but still a box. I don't have a real dining room; it's merely the extension of the living room or a large hall into the kitchen.  The longer I live out here, the more I realize that these homes were built in an era where food wasn't important. Where you didn't eat. I'm guessing there was this assumption that you barbecued for twelve months of the year. A tract home built in the 1950s, these houses were put up fast and cheap. And they look it.  Or at least ours did. Now we added some nice touches but I still have no real dining room. That's the thing about these cheap tract houses.

And I'm sick of it. I desperately want a dining room. I want to throw dinners where I can add all the leaves of my dining table and not have the table hit my couch. I want the space to dine with many. I want a dedicated room solely dedicated to eating!

There's hope. My husband and I are seriously considering moving from our tract when the last kid is done with school. There are several reasons for this. First of all, we are not suburban people. More than fifteen years have past since we moved here and neither of us feels like we've planted any roots. Second, tiny house, see above. When I mention that we're thinking of moving people assume we're down-sizing. "Oh, moving into something smaller now that the kids are gone." Are they crazy? No bigger, we want much, much bigger.

Aside from my magnificent yard and the margaritas at El Charro, I don't think I will miss anything. Oh, the trees turning. That I will miss. We get fall colors out here and that I will mourn. I love the fall out here, but it doesn't make up for the spring and winter and the truly hated hothothot summer.

In anticipation of moving I've been looking at houses online. Of course, none of the houses I want we can afford, but the one thing I will not budge on is a dining room. I am sick of this wide hallway with a table and chairs in the middle of it. I want a place to put a dining table, where I can extend the leaves, where I can host Thanksgiving and Christmas if need be.

I'm ready to receive that passed baton, but no place to put it.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Salute to a Vet

This is my yearly salute to my step-father. He turned 89 this summer. My own father was sort of made of fail, and this guy stepped up to the plate and basically did every thing right that my father did wrong. He's made my mother exceptionally happy for the last forty years and he deserves kudos for so many things, but today we focus on him being a vet.

Although a pacifist, he found himself joining the RAF in Britain in 1939 as a radio operator. He's still building radios to this day. He was captured in Java in 1940 and managed to survive five years in a Japanese prison camp. He was 75 pounds when the war ended. If you've read King Rat by James Clavell, you know my step-father's story. Although he never met Clavell, they were in Changee prison about the same time. His stories of those years are bone-chilling.

Anyway, Ken, hat's off.

State of Whatever

So, I think that it's time to face some facts. Book publishing is dying. Publishers are hanging on by their nails, and what dollars they do have are being invested mightily in those authors with a proven track record of sales. No one is taking chances in this market. No one is buying in this market. Authors continue to get dropped by their publishers. Plus, we are in a gray zone as we transition from paper books to e-books. FYI: according to amazon, sales of e-books has now surpassed sales of ALL paper books, including hard covers and soft covers combined. The future is here. How this shakes out is still a mystery to all involved. What I do know is that the big authors will continue to see their books published in paper, and authors like me will find themselves as e-authors.

I might actually do better as an e-author because the investment in an e-book is minimal. You might take a chance on me if you only have to pay $4.99 for the privilege. That's the cost of a large coffee with a double shot of espresso. But that's still an "if." If the big publishers demand that the sale price of e-books remain somewhat on par with the sale price of paper books that will kill authors like me. I doubt that my publisher will take that sort of hardstand because a great deal of their sales are to libraries and library patrons tend to like books. But even that's changing as even libraries are now looking at e-books. If your goal is to get people to read, then having e-books for "rent" could mean endless inventory, albeit in bytes and not shelf space.

What's the new author to do? That author who is trying to break into the biz? I don't know. I've thought about this a lot. I think that author collectives are going to be the name of the game. I did a review here recently on Stephen Elliott's The Adderall Diaries, and he's basically done just that: banded a bunch of authors together that's part literary e-salon and part social salon. He's doing a nice job, and I commend him for it. He seems to always think a little outside the box. I recommend getting his daily letter. It's always got some interesting insight into life in the city or publishing. Anyway, the site it called "The Daily Rumpus" and it's URL is here: In the top right-hand corner you'll see a link in how to subscribe to the google group for his daily (mostly) email.

Even as I see this as the wave of the future, what is scary is that Elliott already has a fair amount of cred. He's not some newbie author banding together with other newbie authors trying to get people other than their friends and relatives to buy their books. That they basically have to self-publish because no publisher will pick them up. I don't know how you make a presence if you don't already have some presence. The only way I can see doing it is to pick a niche and then cater to that niche (interestingly, Elliott's niche is the SandM scene in S.F., which he uses mercilessly in his writing). But it could be something as simple as writing mysteries that feature dogs. So you go to vets and ask if you can display your book for sale. You contact other authors who write about dogs and as a collective unit you buy space at dog shows and try to sell your books. You work it.

This system involves investment and time (I work pretty much full time and I don't have any money--kid in college), so it probably wouldn't work for me, but that's where I see it going. You have to band together and work your six-degrees-of-separation like crazy. You Facebook. You Twitter. You take cute pictures of dogs and post them. You become a marketing machine with other writers.

Essentially, I think that we will all have to become our own publishers and publicists.

Maybe I'm wrong. I hope so. The e-book revolution will mean that I can be published forever, but it doesn't mean that I will have any readers. And that's the rub.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Election Results

You may argue about various policies and whether we should cut spending or increasing spending or whatever. What I would like to say about the current election results is that this is not my America. Granted, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is a melting pot. The U.S. Senate is now largely composed of wealthy white people. My America isn't white and it isn't wealthy. Election result after election result was followed by the amount of dollars funneled into these campaigns by the GOP. THIS HAS TO STOP. The only bright spot in this entire election is that fact that it appears that Meg Whitman did not buy the state of California. Sadly, we can't say that about the rest of America. Your vote is for sale. Apparently.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


My panel at Bouchercon panel was composed of Poisoned Pen writers, moderated by our editor, Barbara Peters. Fortunately she changed the topic of the Bouchercon panel from the generic "where do you get your ideas" to the topic of voice in writing. Seriously, when someone asks me that question I feel like saying I rough up homeless people and make them spit out mystery plots. Because that old adage that there are no new plots is actually true. It's been thought up before and will be thought up again and what distinguishes your rehash from someone else's rehash is your voice.

Voice is the most critical aspect of a writer's bag of tricks and the most elusive to develop. It's what makes your books written by you. As Barbara said in the panel,  you can always fix a train wreck of a plot, but you can't fix a boring voice. Someone can present the most fascinating, relatively novel sets of ideas and it will still never get published if there is the absence of voice or the voice is dull and plodding.

So what is voice? To me there are two critical components to voice. First of all, it's how you, as the author, puts together words. Which sounds simple, except, this is where you put together words so that their style, pitch, rhythm, and jazz has a whole to it in your head. Sadly, this takes a whole lot of time to nail down. Like, um, years. Voice is your unique relationship (as an author) with words. The word "unique" is key here. You shouldn't sound like someone else. I find that when I write in first person my voice tends to be conversational (which is why I like first person narratives), but in third person it's a lot less snarky and more contemplative. Which, I suppose, reflects the salient differences in how different points of view work, but it's more than that. It's my brain working with two separate tools and how MY brain relates to the strengths and weaknesses inherent in those tools. Basically, it's where I finally get to the point where the disconnect between my brain and the page has been minimized to a decent degree.

Now the hard part., You've been writing for a bit, your sense of who you are as a writer is beginning to gel in your head and seemingly on the page, and then you reach the true wild card here: the readers. I liken it to us with our passports in hand. The reading train is in the station, you've bought your ticket, but you're just not sure you want to go on this journey. The first paragraphs are about wooing you to get on the train. This is my world, sit back, relax, we're going on a journey. Voice is when my writing and your internal editor are rattling along on the same train, and oh my, did you see that lion? Wow. That waterfall was something. Ha ha ha ha! Did you see those clowns? We are both seeing the same thing, laughing at the same thing, and in the case of mystery getting curious and terrified at the same thing. And there are no unscheduled stops. That is when my voice works. When we are BOTH on the same journey--orchestrated by yours truly. And that is also key. I'm the conductor, the person shoveling the coal into the engine, the flag person, and the person driving the train. Me.

What happens when my voice as an author fails? You think you're going to Africa and you find this train is bound for Hoboken. You don't finish the book. You're disappointed in the story. The characterization falls apart. The plot is mickey mouse. And yes, these are all structural things, but they do play a major part in voice, because someone with a kick-ass voice will make structural failures somewhat immaterial. Obviously, there is a point where you can only pull the wool over the readers eyes for so long, and then it becomes a case of Oz standing behind that curtain, yelling at you to ignore that man behind the green curtain, but really? Voice is the magic of a book.

Unfortunately, not everyone is going to like your voice. That's a hard thing to accept. The trick is to get most people on board that reading train. There are a few who have seen their fair share of lions, hate clowns, and are allergic to waterfalls, or (and yes, there is this), hate first-person point of view. There are a lot of readers who despise it and it's a book killer for them. I don't get that, but I have to deal with that every time I sit down and type "I."

In essence, voice is what makes the author a Pied Piper, but instead of a haunting melody on a flute, our lure is words. And the cool part about this is that every writer's song is different.