Saturday, December 27, 2014

Book Review: The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman

We come to the third and final book in the Lev Grossman Magician's trilogy. I almost loved the first book, I didn't like the second book, and the third book leaves me disgruntled.


The Good:

There is no disparaging Grossman's descriptive ability and his world-building skills. Pretty much damn perfect, as far as I am concerned. There is a beauty and mastery of the pen here, superb descriptions that leave the reader smiling. The visuals are stunning and intricate. I could literally "see" the images he was creating with his writing. All marvelous stuff. Which is exactly how I felt about the last two books. You cannot fault this writer's ability to craft a world. He's a master at it.

I also felt the ending was acceptable, although there was more of a "this is the way it needs to be" as opposed to "this is why it's happening." That said, the "death" of Fillory seemed manufactured to me. I kept asking why is it dying? The "first" near-death in book 2 made so much more sense. There was a definite why Fillory was collapsing. This second round of death didn't have an organic cause--although I will say that the scenes of Fillory dying are beautifully written. I suppose we're just supposed to go with the flow.

The Bad:

Oh, wow, this is really key to why I didn't like this book. With the exception of Quentin, who seems to have finally grown up, the rest of the cast of characters remains immature and stuck in their 17-year-old selves. The dialogue is trite, smarmy, and sounds like teenagers trying to be cool. This worked when the characters were at Brakebills, but now they are thirty frigging years old! I became bored with it and wanted to shake them out of their sarcastic, arrogant selves. Janet is especially odious, and it's not because she's bitchy. It's because she's odious. Well, there's this little bit of Fillory that should be ours and it isn't and I'm just going to take it because it's there and I'm bored. And if you don't like it, fuck you, I'm High Queen of Fillory. Eliot's character is similarly arrogant with a similar, hey, I'm bored, so I'm going to beat the shit out of guy and show him who is boss. His arrogance blinds him to why this invasion is happening.

Key question: If Fillory is so amazing and beautiful and is the epitome of all that is wonderful and magical, why are the majority of these characters so bored there? WHY? Quentin's boredom was the catalyst for the entire plot in book two, and it's a major issue that moves forward both Janet and Eliot's character trajectory in book three.

This is my main problem with these characters. They do not deserve to be High King and Queen of anything. With the exception of Quentin (ironically enough) who has redeemed himself and yet finds himself in exile again, albeit, by his own will, Janet and Eliot (Josh and Poppy are negligible characters and clearly only exist as baby-making machines) are not worthy of their honor. There is a delicious symmetry here that should probably be up in the Good section. Alice saves Fillory from Martin Chatwin in book one, and Quentin saves Fillory from internal destruction in book three. If ANYONE should be high king and queen of Fillory, it's these two.

Grossman's can write teenagers like anyone else, but he seems to be incapable of writing adults. The majority of these characters are immature jerks who get off on their power. Not only that, the scenes with them almost seem pointless. They are filler until we get to the heart of the story: Quentin's quest to bring back Alice. THIS is the heart of the story and yet we dance around this with manufactured crises and detours that do nothing to move the plot forward (even as they are described in beautiful language).

And this is another flaw. So much of the truly beautiful world-building is pointless. That whole whale thing? Gorgeous writing. Did it matter? No. Was it a bonding moment between Plum and Quentin (ala Quentin and Alice as foxes)? No, it was purely a mechanical exercise to show us Grossman's magnificent world-building skills. But it didn't matter at all to the story. Five pages of being whales for no reason. I could see this working if Quentin and Plum didn't trust each other and turning into whales dissipated that distrust. Nope, just because we can be whales, we are going to be really cool whales.

I think that there are two key problem with this book: (1) much of the magic in this book has devolved into filler material, basically there to show off Grossman's writing skills, e.g., Eliot's mano-e-mano battle, Janet's standoff with the desert people, and Plum and Quentin's decision to be whales. J. K. Rowling also had a similar problem as her series progressed, where story and characterization sacrificed itself to the world-building; and (2) the other characters (with the exception of Alice) are stuck in their selfish teenage selves. Quentin now commands our attention as an adult. I was irritated and bored with the others. Would be that there was a bridge to maturity for them.

I was thrilled to see a mature Quentin, and if his self-exile was to point out that Janet and Eliot are in an emotional time warp, that they can't grow up while in Fillory, then it's a very subtle, miniscule point that was lost on me. And if this is Grossman's intention, then it only underscores my point that you have this magical kingdom being ruled by immature teenagers, who are chronically thirty years old but mentally are seventeen.

In short, this is an uneven book with much beautiful writing that doesn't have a whole lot of purpose. If world-building is the cream in your coffee, you will be thrilled. If pacing and characterization float your boat, it won't work as well for you.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Book Review: The Marriage Plot by J. Eugenides

There is a recent trend lately whereby in an attempt to boost sales, shameless publishing marketing gurus frame a book as a modern Jane Austen. These books hint that if Jane Austen were alive today, she'd be writing this sort of book. Having written an actual Jane Austen mash-up and having read all of her books about a bazillion times, I consider myself something of an amateur expert on this subject. And the only book that I can say without a single equivocation that could have been written by Jane Austen, a book that captures her humor, wit, and commentary on society, is Bridget Jones' Diary. This is a wonderful book and, if by chance you've been living under a rock for the last fifteen years, I suggest you read it.

Despite the barrage of marketing nonsense that states that The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides is a modern-day Jane Austen, it is not. This is, as Jane Austen would say, a gross falsehood. Sadly, it also isn't a very good novel.


Within the first ten pages I knew that the author had gone to Brown University (like his protagonists), and that this would be a payback novel. That all the slights and emotional traumas that he'd experienced as a student there would be relived in these pages. In that I wasn't disappointed. Yes, it's a payback novel, and it captures the pretension of snotty undergraduate education beautifully. I went to a similar school, and the inflated self-importance walking hand and hand with crippling insecurity that characterizes ninety percent of undergraduates (as well as insufferably pretentious academics) was beautifully written.

In fact, this is one of those books that is hard to critique because there are parts of this novel that are stunning in terms of language. And that's about the only positive thing I can say about it. I relished the language even as I pined for a really good editor to whack this novel into shape.

First of all, the first third of the book is backstory.  I tend not to mind backstory. Unfortunately, it always undermines the pacing of a book, but what well-written backstory offers in terms of fleshing out a story is well worth the lag in pacing. This didn't happen here. All three main characters are given pages and pages of backstory, and at a certain point the reader is aching to get back to the real story.

Second, the book suffers from the real modern affliction that almost none of the characters are particularly likable and one of them totally odious--something I suppose I will have to get used to. It seems to be de riguer these days. Except that because they are such jerks, we don't understand the sad little love triangle that holds the novel together. We are told that the main protagonist is beautiful (and yet has no one interested in her for the first two years of college, figure that one out), and her attraction for the second (likable) protagonist is inexplicable. She's selfish, manipulative, and thoughtless. We can't help but start to get irritated with the second protagonist because he loves this thoughtless selfish woman and we don't know why. And the third protagonist is a manipulative sexual predator whom everyone finds endlessly fascinating and brilliant, and they all want to sleep with him. He is, in short, an asshole of the first order, and yet the reader is supposed to be dragged along in the general adoration. This is the main problem with the book. We are told that this character loves this character. We are told this character is brilliant. We are told everything, and yet nothing that is written compels me to feel anything about these characters other than dislike or pity.

Third, the novel does not go anywhere. We go through mental breakdowns, searches for God, and a wildly ill-conceived marriage, and the characters end up at the same place they were at the beginning of the novel. There is little to no internal movement. It's what I have come to term "the nihilistic novel." They seem to be fashionable these days. I don't know if they are emblematic of the existential crisis of realism or some such bullshit, but I want my books to go somewhere. I want them to move. I don't need them to be happy. I don't need them to resolve everything. But I want something to happen. Nothing happens in this book. It's all filler.

Regarding Jane Austen: The only thing that this book has in common with a Jane Austen novel is that someone gets married. That's it. Marriage in Austen has a point. It's not merely a vehicle for financial salvation. It happens because the characters in the novel have some sort of personal epiphany. It is a physical manifestation of an internal self-reckoning. In The Marriage Plot, the marriage is, in fact, the nadir of the book, and does not signal any sort of personal epiphany. In fact, it's the opposite. It signals the desperation and wish fulfillment of a spoiled young woman taking advantage of desperately ill young man. In Austen's world, she would be the villain not the heroine of the novel. She can only move forward emotionally and even physically by divorcing this man.

I suppose that's the point. Hello, modern-day nihilism.  But Jane Austen was the opposite of this nihilistic view of the world, and the next time the back of a book announces that it's the modern Jane Austen, I will look on it with a jaundiced eye. And reach for a real Jane Austen novel.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Yes, an Actual Recipe: Italian Wedding Soup

It's kind of pathetic to realize that although I was a professional chef for many years, I have very few recipes on this blog. Okay, time to remedy this. Since I work full-time, I have very little time to cook. My recipes tend to be hodge-podginations of other recipes that I have cannibalized from other people's brilliace to fit my busy schedule.

This is a GREAT recipe for those of use who work. It goes together in a snap and is ready in less than 30 minutes. While it cooks, it gives you enough time to set the table, toss a salad, and open up a bottle of wine. The weather is starting to turn, even here in California. The days are still warm but the night falls quickly with that determination that signals that fall is nigh. I served this the other night and although the day had been warm, it didn't feel like I was serving soup two months too early.

I sort of stole this from Ina Garten, but I've made enough changes that I feel perfectly justified in making it my own. The first thing she does is have you make homemade meatballs. Is she kidding?
Bruce Aidells (who I actually worked with once upon a time) has these perfect chicken sausage meatballs with just the right amount of parmesan. Use them. They are in the deli section of my supermarket.
  • 2 Tbl good olive oil (a generous splash in a large pot will do you)
  • 1 cup minced yellow onion (this is about half of a large onion; I was out of yellow onions the other night and I used red onion. I didn't taste the difference. If you do use red onion, cut it down to 1/2 cup. That's what I had so I made do, and honestly, I couldn't tell the difference. But red onions are sweeter so be careful. Don't use a full cup.)
  • 1 cup diced carrots (I use the pre-prepped packaged baby carrots--the kind that come four to a bunch; one package worked perfectly.)
  • 3/4 cup diced celery (Ina says this takes two stalks; I think that the celery in California must be bigger because one stalk was more than plenty)
  • 2 boxes of Swanson's beef broth (THE BOXES! Use the reduced sodium kind if you can. I've also used chicken stock IN THE BOX and it's not as good)
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 2 cups small pasta (I think you could even use orzo but some tiny, itty-bitty pasta is best)
  • 1 package of Bruce Aidells mini meatballs, chicken and parmesan
  • 5 oz baby spinach, prepacked and washed (Ina suggested 12 oz of spinach and I think that MUST be a typo. I used one package and it was PLENTY)
  • Grated parmesan
1.  Really the only work here is to dice the onions, carrots, and celery. And I do mean dice. Then basically you're done. You're just adding things once you chop the vegs.

2.  Add olive oil to soup pot, heat, and then add onions, carrots, and celery. Saute until softened, about 5 minutes. Check to make sure onions don't burn. Stir it around occasionally.

3. Add beef stock and wine. Bring to a boil. Add pasta and meatballs. Cook on medium heat until pasta is cooked (check the box--I use De Cecco pasta because they know pasta and when they say it's cooked in 6 minutes it's not gooey and overcooked. It's nice and al dente).

4.  Taste for salt and pepper. I've never had to add salt OR pepper but to each her/his own. Be careful with the salt. We make this soup last two nights and by night no. 2, it's PLENTY salty enough. I'd hold off on the salt and add appropriate amounts to your soup bowl. I wouldn't add it into the big pot.

5.  Stir in spinach. Turn off heat. The spinach will cook all by itself in the hot soup.

6.  Ladle soup into bowls, sprinkle some grated parm on top, serve with a salad dressed with a tart balsamic vinaigrette and a nice glass of red wine.

Dinner is served!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Interview avec Moi!

I am interviewed today on the Austenesque Reviews site! I gas a little bit about Pen and Prejudice and why Austen's books are still revered two hundred years later and the chaos that now defines the publishing industry and talktalktalk. Check it out and leave a hello. FREE BOOK GIVEAWAY!!!!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Book Review: Identical by Scott Turow

Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow knocked my socks off when I first read it. And I wasn't the only one. I've read a couple of his other novels that while I thought they were good, they didn't even remotely compare to the truly great read of Presumed Innocent.

I just picked up his latest novel, Identical, and I can't really recommend it, even though parts of it are nicely done. The DNA stuff is great, as are the political power plays in what is obviously a Chicago-like setting, and, no surprise, he really shines when describing courtroom scenes. But the story itself has far too many twists and turns, so many that at some point the story loses its credibility. So much of the story hangs on an initially inept police investigation of a murder, but then we have the same investigator revisiting this crime, and while he seems to have made a number of pretty lame mistakes the first go around, twenty-five years later, he seems to the one guy who has the smarts to solve this crime. Huh?

Also, the characterizations are extreme and over the top. The murder victim isn't just a bitch, she is a bitch on steroids. The aunt isn't just earthy and matter of fact, she's a little bizarre. The detective is fantastic at what he does. Add a gratuitous lesbian relationship that had nothing to do with the story and seemed to be shoehorned in an attempt at being politically correct, and we have a mishmash of characters that all have a story but none of these stories move the novel forward. And, of course, then there are the twins and their dynamic.

I didn't buy much of the "reveal." It felt tacked on and was played out far too long as Turow tried to stuff this book with a bunch of personal stories. Part of the problem is that one of the most dynamic characters in the book is dead, and all we are left with is hearsay about him. Turow tries to address this issue (and that of the murder victim) with flashback scenes that only partially work. Another problem is that crime novels work best when we identify with both the killer and the victim. In this case, neither the victim or the murderer deserve any sympathy, so the reveal falls flat.

But I think the most glaring problem with this book is that it is written from an omniscient point-of-view. I've never been a big fan of omniscient POV for the very reason that undermines this book. You have all these different characters with different backstories and none of it works as a whole. I can't really say that there is a theme to this novel other than a seemingly strange fascination with twins. Initially it seems like a novel about family, then we have a brief foray into a novel about marriage, and then God knows where it goes because none of these individual stories lean against a core theme. It's like Turow found the dynamic between twins fascinating and then crafted a crime novel around them.

Read Presumed Innocent. It's a great book.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Thoughts as a Self-Published Author on Amazon's Latest Marketing Strategy

I am now part of that massive book give away known as kindle unlimited. Yes, if you are on Amazon's subscription model, you can read Pen and Prejudice for free. So if you've been panting to read this book but just couldn't cough up the $1.50, you're home free for $9.99 month.

This is what happens when you self-publish through Amazon. You acknowledge that you know have no rights over your book. Which isn't a whole lot of different when you sign a publishing contract with a legacy publisher, however, the difference is that they won't give away your book for free. They actually want to make a profit off of you.

I am the first person to admit that the Amazon system is efficient and highly professional with no glitches. I am as pleased as punch with the end product. I've had people tell me that it looks like a book from a mainstream publisher, and I agree. It looks damn good. Okay, Amazon knows what it's doing. They've proven that over and over again. They are smart, fast on their feet, and they aren't afraid of technology; in fact, they embrace it. I can't say the same of the traditional publishing hierarchy.

Having said that, I'm truly perplexed at this new marketing strategy. Will this be the ultimate match to the gas-soaked rags that currently constitutes the publishing industry or it will be a gigantic stumble (Patricia Holt? Thoughts?)? What I do know is that all the people like me, who have published ebooks with them, are now part of this new distribution model, and that I am now writing for free. I might get a small bump on my traditional mysteries through Poisoned Pen (which is what happened when I debuted Pen and Prejudice), but I imagine this bump will be short-lived.

So what am I not getting? First of all, the point of publishing with Amazon direct's publishing arm is that you actually have an opportunity to make some money, assuming that traditional publishing gave your novel a pass. Which is what happened to me. I have a modest (VERY) following, and I thought, hey, people might buy the book if I put it up. I'll price it dirt cheap (I make like 25 cents on the ebook and something like $1.00 on the paperback), and maybe I'll get some sales. I did get some sales. But now that I am part of the great unpaid masses, what is going to propel me to EVER publish with Amazon again, since it is obvious that they will be dumping all these self-published novels into the subscription queue? Assuming that none of the big publishers play ball with them, who is going to populate this subscription strategy if you can't make any money. They need content. Who is going to provide the content if it's free to the readers?

Not me.

I truly don't understand this. Why in the HELL would I publish with them again? I have a backlist so other sales are certainly possible, but what of those people who do not have a couple of books under their belts? And by that I mean books that publishers actually charge for. And that you as the author get a cut of.

Again, what part of this equation am I missing?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

That Time of Life: Weddings and Funerals

I have reached a point in my life when I'm attending the weddings of my friends' kids and the funerals of my friends' parents. I scan the obituaries every day, and once a month I either know a person or it's a six-degrees-of-separation thing. The Bay Area is actually a pretty small community.  

This last few years has seen the deaths of major parental units. My own father died some years ago. A very troubled man, it's hard to describe him without resorting to accolades or lambasts. Or vice versa. He was that kind of guy.

My mother and I were sitting at her kitchen table yesterday, and she was telling me that she'd never met his mother, my grandmother. Can you imagine in this day and age? Not meeting your husband's mother? But it was a different world then. A post-WWII life had people emigrating, fleeing to the U.S. where there weren't bombed out blocks and rationing. The family was in the process of a slow disintegration, either through war casualties or emigration of those who had survived.

My father never talked about his childhood to her. Or to me and my sister. My mother said that she thought it was "hard." He wasn't a strong, silent type--I wish he had been as his racist, anti-Semitic diatribes were the stuff of legend--but family wasn't talked about. Ever.

Why I'm blathering on like this is that after people die you are left holding scraps. You try to put together a vision of who that person was from your memories and the memories of others. It's the only way of holding on to them, keeping them near you even though they have physically vanished. Emotionally, of course, they haven't vanished. We all haul around the baggage of our childhood, and I'm beginning to think that we always will. The baggage doesn't get lighter exactly, maybe the handles get a little more comfortable to grasp, but all that crap is still as heavy. It's just easier to carry around.

Since my father wasn't a talker--except for his politically unacceptable ravings--I've had to construct the sort of person he was--before the bitterness owned him. What I'm left with is a love of Steve McQueen and Hemingway. One of my happiest memories of my father is him taking me to see Bullitt. WHICH HAS THE BEST CAR CHASE SCENE EVER MADE. Of course, part of its charm is to see how they spliced sections of San Francisco with shots of 280 and remember that McQueen did the driving himself. The strong silent man who rails against the stupidity of the system and keeps on doing what he has been doing and damn the consequences was pretty much my father's blueprint. Professionally he got kicked in the teeth for his uncompromising attitude, much like I think that Frank Bullitt would have been fired at some point in his career had the movie continued beyond its plot denouement.

And he loved Hemingway. Guns, war, and fear of death floated my father's boat. Hemingway was a man who sabotaged every relationship he had, especially with women. Hemingway had always longed for a daughter and only had sons. My father had sons and daughters, and couldn't relate to any of them. Nor his wives. He was the type of man who related to men. Who understood men. The rest of us were confusing and demanding, and as I aged I began to understand that he understood that he was failing of us, but he had no idea how to not fail us. This doesn't excuse his abysmal parenting skills, of course, but it does put it in some context.

We are left with these memories, which I think are largely subjective, and these partial constructs. I remember going to that movie with my father and thinking how wonderful it was. You know, it probably wasn't. He was a very fast driver and I hated his driving as a child. Ironically, I'm a too-fast driver now, and my ability to sail through life with only one speeding ticket to date is something of a miracle. But I imagine that trip to the theater was a hellish ride, me with my fear in my throat. And the movie was probably too old for me. I remember being pretty young, and at the time there was a fair amount of violence. But what's a divorced man supposed to do with his daughters on a Sunday afternoon. Dad?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014


I am linking to this article by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker (and I hope the link works), because Mr. Richard Martinez speaks for me, too.  Like Mr. Gopnik, I have a 20-year-old son who goes to college in Southern California. Do you know, I was driving when I heard the about YET ANOTHER gun massacre on the news. And I thought, oh, my, god, it could be my son. It wasn't. It was Mr. Martinez's son. Let's name him because he shouldn't be forgotten: Christopher Michael-Martinez.
No, it wasn't my son, but it could have been. And next it could be your daughter, your wife, your husband, your mother, your father. Enough. How absolutely horrifying that I have now to make a label that says "massacre." That this has become a staple in our lexicon.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Cherchez La Verb

There are lots of books out there giving you pointers on how to write. My most salient bit of advice is basically "cherchez la verb." The BEST place to learn how verb choice can elevate your writing from the mundane to the magnificent is the sports page. I read the sports page every day. I'm not into sports, but I am into the writing of sports. It's punchy and fun writing that is all about conveying action. Underline all of the verbs in one piece. It's truly inspirational. Sports writers can't get away with inserting dull verbs in their copy and neither should you.

So after you've perused the sports page, first identify all verbs in a chapter and eliminate all the "to feel" and "to be" verbs you can, and replace them with fun verbs, demanding verbs, verbs that give the reader a bigger sense of the drama in front of them. Also eliminate all "to look" verb constructions you can. The "she looked ______" is a cop-out. It's one of those fatal tell-not-show constructions. The writer obviously knows her character is tired but the reader doesn't, and the writer telling you that isn't going to convince you that the character is tired.  I call these verbs the tired verbs. They are so overused that they actually detract from a piece. You can't get rid of all of them, because if you do, your writing will sound insanely mannered, but eliminate every single one you can.

Once you've eliminated all the tired verbs, look for other dull verbs and replace them with verbs that have not only pizazz but also have a sound to them. When you switch out dull verbs for sassy verbs, it compels you to alter the sentence so that it can live up to the sassy verb's promise. At least it does for me.

Example: She hit him across the face.

This is an okay sentence. Its got action, which is always a good thing. But that sentence conveys none of the angst that I think should be contained in that sentence. Its language is so pedestrian and, well, common, that it really doesn't convey the true sense of how powerful this interaction is or could be. Thinking for a second I came up with:

She smacked him across the face.

Ooooh, "to smack" is a great verb. That "k" on the end has so much more oomph than that piddly "t" on the end of hit. Plus the harder sounding "sm"  of smack is a lot better than the soft "h" of hit. And that little shift in emphasis now takes me out of the mundane and has prompted me to sneak a third look at that sentence. What else could I do to punch this up? While it conveys increased motion--that little "k" is working overtime--it doesn't convey that much more motion. Although personally I think a smack might hurt more than a hit, how can we up the "ante" even more?

This is what I came up with:

She hauled back her arm and smacked him across the face.

Better, but still no cigar.

She hauled back her arm and then let loose, smacking him across the face. Hard. With intent. With malice even.

I like the sentence above a lot. I might keep that one. I like the occasional one-word sentence. In this case the word "hard" mimics the action of that punch: short and not so sweet. But let's keep on playing here, because below we also get a deeper sense of the person hitting and the person being hit.

As she hauled back her arm, she curled her hand into a tight fist and then let that fist fly, catching the hard bone just at the top of his cheek. How satisfying, she thought, as she watched him reel back in reaction to her punch.

Okay, I added a few things. Sadly I lost my "to smack" verb in the reconstruction, but I added the valuable visual of someone curling their fist. Let's add a few more items.

As she hauled back her arm, she curled her hand into a tight fist and then let that fist fly forward, catching the hard bone just at the top of his cheek. How satisfying, she thought, as she watched him reel back in reaction to her punch. Even more satisfying? The wide-eyed shock on his face. He didn't see that coming. Of course that wide-eyed grimace it could be pain. That would be okay too.

Now we've added a shadow dynamic of the hitter and the hittee. Changing that one little verb has not only improved the visual of the sentence, but it's got me thinking about the characters at the heart of the action. It's not just a hit anymore.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Open Letter to Barnes and Noble

Yes, I have a vested interest in keeping Barnes and Noble open. From everything I've read lately, it's on the verge of bankruptcy. I hope I'm wrong and that this is just media looking for a dramatic story. But I don't think I'm wrong. I'm in B&N a lot and it doesn't look like business is brisk.

I am a writer. I'm writing a new book that I want to sell to a publisher. Who, hopefully, will place it in bookstores. The indies are making a come back, thank heavens to Murgatroyd, but the reality is that we writers need as many venues as possible to market out books because the marketplace should NOT be limited to amazon's mathematical algorithms. If B&N closes shop, then we will all be relegated to self-publishing.


There is nothing you can do about amazon's predatory pricing. But what you can do is making your stores a destination. Borders used to be good at this, and, yes, I know it didn't save them, but the marketplace is smaller now. You have less competition. Below are a host of ideas to get people into your stores.

1.  Partner with local businesses. Hook up with travel agents and have them do show and tells once a month on places to go. In fact, sign with Rick Steves and have him do events in your stores. Can't get Rick Steves? Have local travel agents come in to market travel destinations. And, naturally, you'll have books available on discount for said destination! I would actually do this twice a month. Once for locations in the U.S. and one event for locations outside of the U.S.

2.  Partner with local schools. Essentially create a book fair on site. I noticed that in your efforts to reduce all other merchandising of books, the kids' sections remain robust. Clearly you have a market there. Target grades. Have a storyteller there EVERY SINGLE SATURDAY dressed up as a princess, a clown, whatever, and have them read to young kids. And just by chance, you'll have a table stocked with books right there! with age-appropriate materials.

3.  The cookbook section also seems robust. There seems to be a new rash of cookbooks published every month. Get authors in there for cooking demos.

4.  Start a mystery reader's club. Host this twice a month. Mystery readers love reading books in series. You get someone hooked on one book in a series, you have them hooked for all of them.

5.  Ditto for sci-fi club.

6.  Ditto for young adult club.


I'm sure other people have other ideas about this. But the salient fact is that you are not optimizing your floor space. Stop filling it with thingamybobs. Fill it with people. Amazon cannot compete with you on this score. The ONE thing you can provide and you are not providing is the personal interaction with the public. Readers want that. Make your store a destination. Yes, probably people will attend your events and then rush home to buy books off of amazon. But over time you will create brand loyalty (if you survive).

Case in point. I attend my writers' critique group twice a month at a B&N in Dublin. I don't buy something every single time, but I do buy something once a month. Why? Because I'm there and I was browsing through your stacks and I saw something.

Get off your tushes and start thinking about ways to get people in your stores.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

You Are What You Say

I follow a few blogs, and obviously there are some people who follow me. I only have time to read a few because, work, writing, gardening, cleaning up cat barfs (kittens, please can we stop now), and did I say working? So my blog consumption is limited to a few spots that I can squeeze into my day. And when you follow someone for a period of time, you get a feel for who they are as a person. It's a process that can't be stopped. Most blogs have a theme or the point, but even in blogs where the point is front and center, the most successful blogs, the ones I return to again and again, are the ones where I like the "point" and the person writing the blog.

Cooking blogs are great for this (the Smitten Kitchen blog is amazing and if you aren't following Deb, you should go there right now). Also, I find Joe Scalzi's blog a wealth of information about the publishing industry, even though I'm not a big sci-fi fan and I don't own a single one of his books. Part of the success of both blogs is that we like them as people. At least I do. It's what keeps me clicking again and again. There are a zillion cooking blogs out there so why follow Deb? Because I like her. It doesn't hurt that her recipes are also dynamite.

A blog becomes personal, even if we don't want it to. If you write on a consistent basis, you can't help but "reveal" yourself. I find myself culling out blogs over time because I'm just not sure about the person writing it anymore. I dropped a blog from my feed at one point because the blogger (who is extremely successful at pretty much everything she touches) defended her husband smacking her around. If you're at all into blog culture, you will know who I'm talking about. I found that attitude unacceptable, and I dropped the feed from my list. I doubt it mattered one iota to her because I'm one of a zillion followers, but I couldn't support her blog anymore because the message she was sending out (in addition to a whole bunch of otherwise very worthwhile messages) was that sometimes you deserve to be beaten up. Does not work for me. Delete.

You read someone every day or twice a week or every now and then, and they begin to inhabit a piece of you. You don't know them, but if you met them for coffee, you would have a wealth of things to discuss because they have shared with you a bunch of their personal stuff. I've used the metaphor of "baggage" a lot in writing about writing. How when the writer shares her/his baggage and the reader discovers that he/she has the same baggage or is interested in helping the writing carry that baggage through the "end," and voila, you have a successful novel. Well, it's the same with blogs. A blogger shares a certain amount of stuff and it's often personal, and then you can't help but make a personal judgment on who they are. Because it's become a two-way personal street.

This morning I read the blog of someone I've been following for a number of years. And I have issues with her post. Naturally, being the bossy pants that I am, I was tempted to write a personal email and say, hey, you're veering into the land of the vapid and this is why. But I didn't. No, I came over here to write a piece about how this has all become so personal. As bloggers our luggage is open for the viewing whether we like it or not. Over time certain compartments are unzipped, whether we like it or not. Oh my, look at all those socks with holes in them. Wow, that leopard print bra is sexy. Not much of a compliment to the white Hanes briefs next to them. Perhaps TMI?

I don't know if this inevitable personalization is good or bad. I just know that if you read a piece here in this blog that you find offensive or irritating and you just don't want to follow me anymore, I understand.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Home from Left Coast Crime

As always, I had a wonderful time at Left Coast Crime (LCC). It's an extremely well-run conference, hometown in a way because most crime fiction writers who live on the west coast try to make it. This is both a plus and a minus because you see all the people you haven't seen in a while, but you also tend to see the same people. But I hadn't been to a mystery con in a long time and it was nice to reconnect with folks.

On a general level, what did I glean from LCC?

1.  Independent bookstores are making a small comeback.

2.  Editors are acknowledging the death of the mid-list, although crime fiction, because so much of the genre is predicated on the series concept, seems to be weathering that demise as well as can be expected. Basically, it's only semi-dead or semi-alive.

3.  The advent of computers means that every book sold is counted, which means that every book that isn't sold is also counted. This means that it's harder and harder to justify keeping an author whose numbers are that great but has potential. Book reps are now regional as opposed to local, which means the most common denominator tends to  hold sway, which certainly is an excellent reason why I find most books so generic these days. And so disappointing.

4.  Thrillers are selling well. International thrillers are selling very well. Hail the rise of the Scandinavian mystery author!

5.  Publishers are still buying but put your absolutely best foot forward. Your voice needs to be unique and you need to know how to write. You won't get a second chance.

On a personal level, what did I glean from LCC?

Basically that my foray into self-publishing was a non-starter. I was on a panel with a bunch of self-published authors who were making it work for them and that is precisely why it works for them. They work like DOGS at it. Connect, connect, connect is their motto. It's certainly a part-time job, and easily could be a full-time job. Unfortunately, I have a full-time job that demands a tremendous amount of brain cells, plus whatever free time I have I want to use it to write. The fantasy of just putting a book out there and hoping that people other than your friends buy a copy is just that: pure fantasy. I did get a lot of ideas on how to market Pen and Prejudice if I had the time. Given that I've had so little buy-in from the mystery community on this book, I would have to start marketing it to a whole new group of readers: romance readers and Jane Austen fanatics. There is a market for this book. I just don't have the time to chase it. Sometimes you just have to be honest with yourself. I do not have the time for this.

Is self-publishing a last resort option? Sure. It was fun and I learned a lot about the process of putting together a professional looking book, but there my expertise ends. If it's a choice between devoting my precious free time to sales as opposed to writing, I'll choose writing any day. And since my output seems to be a book every five years, well, that pretty much says it all.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Left Coast Crime and New Endeavor

So I'm going to be on a panel for Left Coast Crime. It's on Thursday morning at 10:45 a.m. on self-publishing--one of several I've noted--which I think is a commentary on what is happening in publishing today, but I'm digressing. I will be with fellow writers, Charles Rosenberg, our mod, Barbara M. Hodges, Gigi Pandian, and Cindy Sample. I haven't been to a mystery writing con in a long time, and Left Coast was always my favorite. It's low key and always beautifully run, plus daughter and her boyfriend and son are coming in for the long weekend. Am so looking forward to it ALL. Looks like son will be spending his junior and senior years of college on the east coast, so I will have TWO children on the opposite end of the country. I need to make the most of the opportunities I have to see them. And spending a long weekend in Monterey with my kids and a bunch of writers and readers sounds pretty damn good.

I've started writing a new mystery. I've decided to write it under a pseud as I don't think that I will have any "cred" with this story if the readers knew I was a fifty-seven-year-old woman. Such is the nichefication of audience. I know nichefication isn't a word, but it seems to work here. Isn't that what language is? A series of sounds that makes sense.

As is typical for me, I've rewritten the beginning a minimum of fifteen times. I don't know why the beginning has to be so important but it does. Beginning a book is like the opening of a map for me. I need to find out where I am and who I'm with so that I can determine how to get there, as in "the end." In this case, I've switched back and forth on points of view four times, initially starting it in first person then switching to third, then adding yet another POV in third, and then switching back to first and third. And. Finally. I've settled on third and third POV. I've never switched POVs before in a novel. It's exciting to try something new, playing with voice and pacing, and making them sound different as I segue from chapter to chapter.

But the point I want to make is that I was so wedded to first person POV for one character that I fought like hell not to give it up. I hear this character in first person. But I've conceded that it works better in third, even as I grumble while writing it. As much as I would like to think that because it works for me it should work for you, writing isn't like that. It's a partnership between the writer and the reader. No fewer than eight people have told me that it's a better story in third person. I have to concede this point, even though it's a real struggle to keep that third person POV front and center. Interestingly, although I switch back and forth between POVs, I don't have a problem with the other POV character. His POV works for me in third. The other character? Not so much.

But so be it. The bigger object here is to write a good book. That will appeal to all, not just appeal to me. Isn't that what this is all about, bridging that gap between the writer and reader, constructing a little mental bridge with handrails and possibly snacks and sometimes a cookies or two. Do I hear a call for chocolate, too? Come, take a walk with me. Over the bridge we go!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Sherlock, What in the Hell Is Going on Here? SPOILERS!

Like a lot of mystery writers I know, it was the triple engines of Christie, Sayers, and Doyle that were my first true loves in this genre. I've read the Sherlock stories enumerable times and have embraced most of its spin offs. I was an immediate fan of the BBC Sherlock, with its cheeky camera angles and smart dialogue. The first two seasons were brilliant, although not with stumbles--I loathed A Scandal in Belgravia--but, by and large, Moffat, Gattis, and Thompson imbued Sherlock with a modernity that was coupled with a healthy nod to the original ACD stories. It didn't hurt that both Cumberbatch and Freeman are superb actors.

We come to the third season, and I can't imagine how writers who seemed to "get" Sherlock all of a sudden have "lost" him.

I had issues with the Episode 1 in Season 3 mainly because everyone, including Mary, were determined to minimize John's anger at Sherlock's deception. John's grief, despair, and rage at Sherlock's deception is treated as if John is being over-melodramatic. ALL of the other characters just embrace Sherlock's return (Lestrade literally embraces him), subtly mocking John's sense of deep betrayal. "Oh, just get over it, John. Stop being so emo" should have been the subtitle of this episode. Sherlock then purposely deceives John to force him to forgive him. This was grossly heavy-handed, but Freeman's acting was so marvelous that I was willing to give it a pass, albeit squinting a little in the process. And not a good squint.

The one salient quality that Sherlock possesses is his smarts. In an effort to establish a character arc (which the ACD books never did), they are making Sherlock more human. I didn't find Episode 2 as enraging as Episodes 1 and 3, precisely because at least Sherlock does what he does. He solves the mystery with his brains. It wasn't much of a mystery and, indeed, was at points utterly preposterous.  It doesn't take at  medical degree to know that if you are skewered with a sharp object, you will feel that skewer puncturing the wall of your stomach even while wearing a military belt! But aside from that and numerous other plot glitches, I came to the conclusion that this series has become less about plots and mysteries and is more about the humanizing of Sherlock Holmes. He is now sociopath-light, yes? The Best Man's speech in Episode 2 was the perfect marriage between the old obtuse, brilliant, and cruel Sherlock and the new Sherlock who has become, against all odds, Sherlock's friend. Not that Sherlock isn't John's friend, because we know that. But Sherlock's touching  acknowledgment that this friendship is a two-way street (bromance if you will) is brilliantly done.

Then we come to Episode 3. I'm curious if Moffat et al. are moving Sherlock's character arc toward a "kinder and gentler" Sherlock by making him stupid. No longer does Sherlock solve mysteries and nab the bad guys with his brains. How pedestrian. How retro. Nope, he just shoots his way out of the situation. Are we suppose to infer from this episode that the more human Sherlock becomes, the more compromised his brain becomes? I'm not sure where they are taking this. And being the staid Victorian that he was, ACD always had that morality play lurking in the background of all of his stories. This is what "humanized" Sherlock in the original. The act of assassinating a man has no moral implications in this new world. No, all issues are ignored.  What is clearly the most important issue we are faced with at the end of season is what to name the new baby. I type this and I realize how facetious I'm sounding, but I'm not making this up. Sherlock's assassination of Magnussen means nothing to the story. Even worse it was pointless.

Why this is so horrible is because the lack of any sort of documentation--Magnussen's mind palace--means that Magnusson is no longer a threat. If he can't provide evidence for his slanders, then what sort of force is he?  By his own admission he "castrates" himself. Initially I thought that Sherlock forcing him to acknowledge his own mind palace was yet another wonderful instance of Sherlock outsmarting the evil smart bad guy. THAT would have been brilliant, and I'm curious whether they shot it that way initially and then it wasn't violent or emotional enough, even though it made perfect sense. Ooooh, let's have Sherlock shoot him. Wow. Won't that be visually a kicker!

Clearly this is something of an assassination love fest because it's obvious that Mary can also be a trained assassin and it means nothing, literally nothing, to the overarching plot arc. Assassins are the new black.

The writers of this show have lost their way. In the beginning it had a foot in the original series with just enough PLAUSIBLE plot to carry us through an fascinating character arc. By the end of season three we have insanely improbably plots that don't make any sense, and character arcs that equally don't make sense. Plus they commit the worse possible gaffe of all. They make Sherlock stupid.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Entitlement on the Menu

Okay, I don't follow a ton of sites, but I have a feedly "feed," and in addition to those celebrity gossip sites that I'm too embarrassed to mention (but follow diligently, my bad), everything else is sort of a mishmash of interests. And in the past two days a couple of the sites that I follow (on very different subjects) have experienced what is increasingly common: a verbal scorching of earth toward the person writing the blog. One was a REALLY rude attack in the comments section of this blog, and the second was mentioned in the blog itself, as a "Wow, am I doing something wrong because someone just reamed me another one for what I'm doing lately?" She was looking for confirmation that her latest sets of posts were okay. Mob mentality, hello, you are vile.

As much as I love the Internet, I do not like that really fantastic sense of entitlement that has erupted. The smug assurance that being anonymous allows you to say hateful things. That the idea that anyone on the Internet is there to feed YOU. Amuse YOU. And if the YOU isn't fed exactly the way they want to be fed, then YOU are outraged. It's entitlement on steroids.

There are so many things that are wrong with this attitude, but the one that just twists my knickers into knots is the idea that no one else matters, not even the writer. That other people who are part of this experience as well (not even taking into account the validity of someone posting whatever in the damn hell they want to post) is thoroughly ignored. There is no idea that, hey, this didn't appeal, or this blogger is getting stale, or this really isn't my cup of tea any more, why don't we quietly just NOT FOLLOW THAT BLOGGER. No, it's all in service of the reader--the one reader. It's their playground, they want to pull the strings, the writer and followers do not have any agency in this dynamic. The writer must amuse ME. Cater to ME. FEEEEEEDDDD MMMMEEEEEEEE!

I ran across this on amazon when I posted Pen and Prejudice. Someone wrote a one-star review that chastised me for not writing an extension of the original. I had the nerve to set the novel in the present day. This is clearly spelled out in the description of the novel, and if this person had bothered to take 30 seconds to read the description, then they wouldn't find themselves in a world they didn't want to inhabit for three hours.

I have no problem with someone not liking my writing for legitimate reasons. That's fair. But to diss me because you didn't take the time to read the description and then complain that it didn't fill your jones (because, ahem, you didn't take time to read the description), then I have no sympathy for you. Even worse, I have no respect for you, because, really, that wasn't smart. And it's not fair that I get a one-star review because you were lazy. What IS fair is that I get a one-star review because you think the writing is crap. Another reviewer gave me a poor rating because she thought it was too wordy. That's harsh but legitimate in the sense that this is my voice, and if you don't like that particular style, then you won't like my writing. Plain and simple. That poor rating hurt, but at least I understood it.

But there seems to be this weird disconnect between a writer's words and a reader's words. That the free-for-all that has made the Internet such an exciting place has also turned it into a Christians versus the lions arena where we are all allowed to spew our anger and our discontent. We're entitled. We deserve it. We have earned our right to be assholes. Like we went to Asshole College and graduated summa cum laude!

This is a symbiotic relationship. I'll try to respect you if you try to respect me.

My son writes for a blog that deals with local sports. Sports fans can be, um, rather passionate about their teams, and he wrote an article that wasn't well received by a contingent of fans who disagreed with his opinion. He received hate email. He showed me some of the comments and was, naïve thing that he is, shocked at what people would write to a complete stranger.

I shrugged and said, "Get used to it. It's the Internet."

Monday, January 13, 2014

Thoughts on Marketing

This came up for discussion on DorothyL, the mystery list serv, but since any discussions regarding traditional publishing versus self-publishing is verboten, the discussion has been terminated. So I'm going to talk about it here, because I think it's really relevant to what all authors are facing these days.

In a nutshell, there were a lot of angry words regarding reviewing and how reviews are becoming less "review-ish" and (a) more of a platform for an anonymous person who sees reviewing as a power play; or (b) author using the review process as a form of stealth marketing; and (c) how much we are all being overloaded with marketing efforts by those pesky self-published authors.

I don't think that self-published authors are any more guilty than "real" authors. The bottom line is that we are all  now expected to be marketers. Publishers used to market books and now they don't. The blockbusters get the lion's share of the marketing dollars. The rest of us get nothing. And yet we're prodded to "market." This isn't something I'm particularly good at, and yet I have a blog and I have a website and it's damn impossible to keep feeding these beasts. And yet we're told that we have to throw words at them constantly. It's the new reality. Do Twitter. Do Facebook. Blog twice a week. Keep your website fresh. Do book reviews because they will get your name out there. Ask someone to review your book to get your name out there. But please make sure it's a positive review. Get your name out there. And did I say get your name out there?

You know what? I work full-time. I do not have time to do all that. I barely have time to read DorothyL! I think that the reality is that it is not an issue of whether or not you're published by a mainstream press or a small press or self-published. The problem is that we are inundated with all these people trying to market themselves because no one else is marketing them. (And as an aside, as newspapers have completely jettisoned their book sections, the dearth of decent reviewers is now being filled by people with opinions--which are not reviews, they are opinions).

So yes, self-publishing is part of the new reality, but it's only the new reality because the old reality has essentially collapsed. Plus you now have technology and an entire industry that has sprung up to publish your book, which is good on one level. Raise your hand if you were a mid-list author who got dropped by your publisher. And yet you have books you want to write, perhaps a series you want to finish. You have readers who want to read you, but you're not a blockbuster author. You are not Lee Child, which is not a slight on Mr. Child because you will not find a nicer man in the business. But basically you have lost the keys to the kingdom. You were "real" and now you are not. Plus, in addition to dropping you, publishers have dropped a whole bunch of good authors, so you're competing against your friends and colleagues for that elusive book contract. You've become someone who can't break into a market that is now minuscule.

What options do you have left? You self-publish. Basically you become "fake." And if you found marketing as a "real" author terrifying and hard, just try it as a "fake" author. EVERYONE is marketing like crazy. We are INUNDATED with information. It's overwhelming. It has become noise. And we are all making noise together.

I've decided that I'm just going to put my energies into writing. Because if I'm marketing, I'm not writing. I'm forced to adopt a "write it they will come" mentality because, literally, there aren't enough hours in the day. I'm at the point where I'm just going to write the best book I can and hope some publisher buys it. If they don't, I'll self-publish it and hope someone reads it. But the marketing end of it? I figure it's part of someone's spam folder. The blogs that I follow directly deal with the industry (John Scalzi's blog is marvelous, BTW). I don't have the time to read anyone else's blog. I apologize to my friends who are writers, but I just don't have time. But then I don't think you read my blog, because I suspect--no, I know--you don't have time either.