Category Archives: Naomi Hirahara

Helping to Pull Each Other’s Bootstraps

By Naomi Hirahara

 

Eight years ago, when Pari Noskin Taichert assembled a group of mystery writers together for Murderati, Twitter had not yet launched as a public site. Facebook was still mainly for select corporations and college and high school students. I secured my domain name, but only had a single home page on my web site for quite a few years. I barely understood what a group blog (grog?) was, but agreed to participate in Pari’s brainstorm nonetheless.

My debut publishing year, 2004, was an auspicious one. Auspicious in that a faint – very faint – smell of change was in the air. Within a couple of years, my then publisher, Random House, would announce that ebook splits with authors would drop from 50 percent to 25 percent.

Also in my publishing Class of 2004 was JA Konrath, a writer who engenders either fanatical cheers or jeers. Whatever you may think of Konrath, there’s no doubt that he is a change agent or at least an evangelist. An early adopter of the self-publishing digital model, he has left traditional publishing for a very successful DIY career.

So what does this leave the rest of us today? Which path should we follow?

I feel that decision is very individualized. And personal. There have been new terms, like “hybrid author,” that actually describe a very old-school situation. From the times of Dickens (and perhaps dating back to the creation of the Gutenberg Press), the writer has had to be savvy and enterprising. From serials and short stories and novels and nonfiction, we’ve had to experiment and dip our toes in different genres and publishing outlets. No different today.

For me, I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to build the rest of my writing career on fiction and nonfiction. And although for a brief time common wisdom said that writers needed a breakout standalone to get out of the midlist, now series fiction is the desired choice for many mystery writers, both self- and traditionally published. So in other words, who knows what tomorrow will bring?

Walter Mosley has been my literary role model and as I’ve watched him write multiple series, dip into children’s lit, science fiction, political writing, etc., and support small presses as well as large, I’ve attempted to follow his example – but not as prolifically or successfully. But I will say diversification and openness to new options have allowed me to cobble together a so-called writing career.

Before I had become a published mystery novelist, Gary Phillips had inscribed in one of his first books, VIOLENT SPRING, to me with this message: “Writing ain’t for sissies.”

Ain’t that the truth. In the nine years since my first novel was published, I’ve been orphaned five times (lost an editor due to job change or downsizing) and my agent left agenting. We’ve lost our publishing contracts or received smaller advances. Nonetheless, we get back up, dust ourselves off, and figure out a new plan. We may go the DIY route, go with a smaller publisher, or change genres. But we keep writing. Some in fits and starts, and some, more than ever.

The life of a writers can be a lonely one, so I’ve coveted the relationships cultivated by groups like Murderati. Pari has slept on my living floor and we’ve shared heart-felt conversations over steaming bowls of Korean food in La Crescenta in Southern California. I’ve torn up the dance floor with Alexandra Sokoloff and high-fived (either in person or in spirit) JT Ellison’s success (remember that I knew you when!).

We’ve seen our comrades fall: Murderati’s own Elaine Flynn; Louise Ure’s husband; Sally Fellows, the indefatigable mystery reviewer and supporter; and many others.

One author shared with me his disappointment when the mystery community he had served so faithfully failed to attend or even acknowledge the funeral of his partner. He learned that these so-called relationships were actually more superficial than he realized. The news of that stung, but I knew that he was speaking the truth. We can be a narcissistic, self-centered bunch. And we all have our own personal stuff to take care of, leaving precious few moments to look beyond ourselves.

Through Murderati, we attempted to create some kind of community, in which we pulled at each other’s bootstraps as well as our own. Although I lasted only barely two years (or 46 posts – nothing compared to JT’s 223 and Pari’s 218), I did give it my all. I did start to lose steam; as I’m an introvert, it was extra effort to get the words in my head out on the Internet. (Posting photos on Facebook takes a lot less energy.)

In my first Murderati post on April 5, 2006, I pretty much stated that after producing my third novel, I, more than ever, have come to the conclusion that I don’t know much.

“Change is inevitable. Change before change gets you,” I wrote in a blog post. Although that is definitely true, I’d add “know yourself.” Deeply. Be informed, but don’t let anyone dictate which path you should take. Regarding your work, no one really knows or truly cares except yourself. (By the way, I would recommend that every writer read Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD.)

Walking on that path is a solo journey, but it certainly is nice when someone who understands joins you for certain empty stretches. Thanks, my Murderati mates and all who have followed!

(Naomi Hirahara is the Edgar Award-winning author of the Mas Arai mystery series. Her fifth, STRAWBERRY YELLOW, was released in March 2013. Her new series featuring a 22-year-old multiracial female bicycle cop with the LAPD will make its debut in spring 2014. Completing her second middle-grade novel, she will be working on a coffee table book on the history of Terminal Island for the Port of Los Angeles. For updates, subscribe to her newsletter on her web site, www.naomihirahara.com.)

From Black to Pink

NAOMI HIRAHARA

After crafting three noir short stories in between novels, I’ve now really wandered into the dark side. I’ve come out with a children’s book and not one of those edgy YA ones, but a heart-wrenching middle-grade one with a pink cover.

I’ve already discussed here a couple of years ago of why I’ve entered this territory. As often is with the case with me, the story—not the genre—pulls me like a magnetic attraction. As the story emerges then I usually try to push it into the form I THINK that it should take before I finally SURRENDER (hopefully sooner than later) and follow it towards its natural inclinations, voice, and rhythm.

Actually I thought I had embarked on a women’s novel until my agent and her agency intern at the time informed me that the voice of the tween was stronger than the thirtysomething-year-old looking back on her life. “You mean I have a YA novel,” I said weakly. I didn’t have anything against YA novels, but I just didn’t picture myself as writing one. So I returned to the desk and the computer and started deconstructing and reconstructing and yes, they were right—I had a book for younger readers on my hands, but I learned later that it wasn’t YA. It was an age category younger than that—middle grade, which in the case of my book means 10 years of age and up. (Here’s not a fast and firm rule, but a guideline—usually your core youth readership skews two years younger than the age of your protagonist.)

Since my published fiction up to this time has been geared towards adults, I’ve faced a steep learning curve. Writing is writing, but publishing is always another matter.

Myths About Getting a Children’s Book Published

1) It’s easier to sell a book for children than for adults.

We’ve all witnessed the Harry Potter and Twilight series phenomena. Young people are finally crazy about books. So that must mean that means publishers are on the hunt for children’s book writers and stories, right? While that may be true, it’s also true that many, many people—perhaps more than any other genre—want to write children’s books. Many editors (mine, in fact) even write themselves for this market. As a greater number of people are competing for limited slots, competition is pretty fierce. Once I got a literary agent, my first mystery sold in a manner of weeks. In contrast, the sale for my middle-grade book took a number of months.

2) It’s easier to write a book for children than for adults.

What can be so hard about writing a book for children? There are not many words, especially in picture books. If we are used to writing 1,000 words a day, than a book that totals 1,000 words shouldn’t be that difficult, right? I have never attempting to write a picture book because of one word—poetry. I’m convinced that you need to be a poet to write picture books, and I’m definitely not one.

In terms of middle-grade literature, the standard word count is 40,000, but I hit 50,000. It’s not difficult for us established mystery writers to reach our word quota. But with children’s book, it’s not about volume, but about each scenario and point of view on the page. My observation is children’s books are much more heavily edited than mystery books for adults. Anyone else have an opinion about this?

3) You need to have children to write a book for them.

I know that some of my girlfriends furrowed their brows when they heard that I was writing a book for middle-grade children. I don’t have kids, after all. So what would I know about being a kid in this day and age? But the thing is, we were all children at one time. We often talk about the good ole days, how we were different when we were young than “this generation,” but the truth of the matter is deep down inside there is not much which separates “them” from “us.”

Technology is, of course, the great divider, but it’s actually not that difficult to learn how tweens and teens communicate this days. If you’re reading this blog and you’re over forty, you’re more with it than most people of your generation. Being a mystery writer and engaging in blatant self-promotion through websites, blogging, Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, etc., is actually a training ground in learning new ways to communicate. And what are we communicating? Love, lust, anger, information, selling and buying—the same old stuff.

And ironically, as a children’s book writer, you need to always take the viewpoint of the child. That may mean the parents are not seen in a favorable light. The writer has to literally stop thinking like a parent or teacher, but literally like a child.

So, What’s the Payoff?

I’m still not clear how average advances for children’s books compare against ones for adult books (for picture books, the author and illustrator split royalties 50-50), but I’m told that children’s book deals tend to be lower. I’m sure that this differs from case to case, but in general don’t be chasing a children’s series because you expect the same riches bestowed on J.K. Rowling.

My children’s writer colleague said it best: “When you receive that letter, e-mail from a kid saying how much your book means to them, it’s all worth it.”

Juvenile Mystery Series Recommendations

I had the great opportunity to serve under Sujata Massey in judging the Edgars in the YA category last year. It was wonderful to get acquainted with the work of some great mystery writers for the children’s market. I’m also always on the lookout for good mystery books for my friends’ children. Encyclopedia Brown, Harriet the Spy, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys are all classics from my era, but there are some newer series for younger readers:

CLASSIC P.I. a la Raymond Chandler: My favorite current mystery series is NATE THE GREAT by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat. These are easy readers (meaning that children 4 to 8 can read them themselves). The child sleuth, Nate, of course, has a dry wit and cool detachment that makes his adventures a delight to read. The plots and puzzles are very well constructed. The CHET GECKO series by Bruce Hale for middle-grade children is also popular. Here a gecko plays Sam Spade with plenty of references to noir movies (titles include FAREWELL, MY LUNCHBAG, THE BIG NAP, MALTED FALCON, and THIS GUM FOR HIRE). Adults will get the references better than children themselves.

CALIFORNIA FEMALE a la Sue Grafton: Wendelin Van Draanen, the author of the SAMMY KEYES series, incorporates a literary device used by Sue Grafton and Jan Burke. She’s made up a California coastal city, but modeled it after a real town. Grafton has Santa Teresa (Santa Barbara) and Burke, Las Piernas (Long Beach and its environs). Well, Van Draanen offers Santa Martina, which is actually Santa Maria, a city which I have come to love. SAMMY, like Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, is full of pep and vinegar. Grafton even states in her blurb for SAMMY KEYES: “If Kinsey Millhone ever hires a junior partner, Sammy Keyes will be the first candidate on the list.”

SCI-FI MEETS THRILLER a la Dean Koontz: I heard Margaret Peterson Haddix speak at this year’s Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and I knew that I’d have to run out and read her books. Her popular SHADOW CHILDREN series deals with overpopulation of the earth and how “shadow children,” born after a family’s second child, are either executed or imprisoned. Her series centers predominantly on a shadow child, Luke. Her new series involving time travel, THE HIDDEN, deals with how a set of adopted children discover their true historic identities.

JAMES BOND or SPY THRILLER a la Robert Ludlum: “Foyle’s War” is hands-down my favorite current PBS Masterpiece series. Its writer, Anthony Horowitz, also behind a very popular spy series for children, I just learned from Barry Martin, the proprietor of Book’em Mysteries in South Pasadena. It’s the Alex Rider series and you can read more here.

SHERLOCK HOLMES PASTICHE a la Laurie King: Laurie King has Holmes’ wife, but Nancy Springer has Holmes’ younger teenage sister, Enola, as her star protagonist in her award-winning series.

JAPANESE HISTORICAL a la Laura Joh Rowland and I.J. Parker: There’s a samurai apprentice boy sleuth in Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler’s series set in Japan in the 1700s.

There are a number of standalones, especially for YA readers—dark stuff that would make some hardboiled mysteries for adults look light weight. Have you come across an interesting mystery for younger readers? Have you thought about writing a book for the middle-grade or YA market? If so, please comment. If you would never consider writing for children, we’d like to hear from you, too.

I also want to make note of my mystery colleagues who have recently published books for the youth market: Susan McBride (her DEBS series debuts this week and it’s listed on Kid’s Indie Next List [formerly Booksense Picks]—congrats, Susan!) and Lauren Henderson. Susan, Lauren and I all have the same editor at Delacorte. And Chris Grabenstein has his hands full with a launch of a children’s book, THE CROSSROADS (been getting great reviews) and his next installment in his John Ceepak mystery series for adults.

I’ve asked Susan to stop by here today so if you have any questions or comments for her, please leave her a note and she may reply. And thanks, Murderati, and specifically Pari Noskin Taichert for having me here. Happy last days of summer or back to school!
Craneslorescomp

JAPANESE WORDS OF THE WEEK: kurai and pinku.

Kurai means dark, not only visually but emotionally/spiritually. In terms of noir, it’s usually phoeneticized as “nowaru.” There’s even an anime series with two female assassins by that same name.

One guess what pinku means—the Japanese love their gairaigo, their transliterated words from foreign languages (most often English). For those who haven’t waken up yet, pinku is pink. Remember the Pink Ladies, a Japanese girl band from the 1980s? I guess pinku also refers to Japanese soft-porn movies from the Sixties to the Eighties. Learn something every day from Google.

May the Change Be with You

NAOMI HIRAHARA

As Murderati contributors Alexandra Sokoloff, Toni McGee Causey, and Robert Gregory Browne were dancing the night away with romance readers in San Francisco in the beginning of August, I was in Los Angeles’ Century City with 900 children’s storytellers at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators national conference.

I left one day with a wheelbarrow full of ideas, but probably the biggest epiphany I had was when Margaret Peterson Haddix, author of the Shadow Children and Missing series, explained why she gravitates towards writing about and for young people. “They’re always experiencing changes; they are always evolving,” she said. That’s true, I thought. That’s why they make such dynamic characters—they can be unpredictable, their emotions can suddenly lead them in harm’s way or perhaps a light-bulb moment.

I think we adults can sometimes benefit from being more childlike—in exposing ourselves to changes and risks that may not make sense to people around us. For most of my early career, I seemed to always have to make changes in increments of three.

For example, after working at a small community newspaper for three years, I quit and looked for work in public relations after hearing from other writer friends who felt that work less taxing and more financial rewarding than journalism. (I was working on my first novel at the time.) One of the jobs I interviewed for was to be a technical writer at a public relations agency. The job involved interviewing engineers about digital technology, high-definition television and computer graphic effects. What did I know about those areas—zilch. So I felt ill-prepared before speaking with the agency’s partner. It turned out, however, he was a former journalist as well.

“If you’re a good writer,” he told me, “you can write about anything.” He then offered me the job. His confidence in me was shocking at times—about three months into my new position I was sent solo to Auckland, New Zealand, to cover a turnkey operation of a new television station. (Yes, I learned what “turnkey” meant in the engineering world. As well as “beta test site” and how many lines were on a typical analog television screen.)

Change then came another three years later. I returned to the newspaper as its editor and after six years left for a writing fellowship in Wichita, Kansas. My native Angeleno friends were in a state of disbelief. Going to Wichita from Los Angeles was apparently the equivalent of voluntarily entering a Siberian jail. But those nine months were incredibly fruitful, both personally and professionally. And during my last month of the fellowship, I got a call from a museum in Los Angeles. They wanted to commission me to write a biography on a businessman. What did I know of this businessman, who at the time was in his eighties? Just surface information. Was this to be a hagiography, a “biography of saints”? Or a real representation of a man’s life?

At least I’d be hired to write, I told myself. That was better than other options, which included possibly teaching or returning to public relations. It turned out that was a splendid decision, eventually leading to the writing and publication of multiple of nonfiction books which has helped in my mystery writing career.

The point I’m making is as writers we need to keep our options open. We may think that we are either above or uncomfortable writing in a certain genre or subgenre, but what are your presuppositions based on? Stereotypes or ignorance? Open the door to change. You can always choose to close the door, but you need to at least see clearly what’s on the other side.

If you’ve ever said “yes” to a new professional or writing experience, let us know in the comment section.

Thanks to Pari’s hospitality, I’m going to be at Murderati next Monday as well to follow up on this theme of “change.” Please come back!

JAPANESE WORD OF THE WEEK: honki de (displayed during the “I Survived a Japanese Game Show”)

Seriously? Seriously! Just like the mantra of Meredith Grey on “Grey’s Anatomy” during its disastrous third season. Like you’ve got to be freakin’ kiddin’ me. Another similar word is maji de, a shortened version of majime de (you can’t be serious!).

Of Fairy Tales and Folk Tales

by Naomi Hirahara

My mother she butchered me,
My father he ate me,
My sister, little Ann Marie,
She gathered up the bones of me
And tied them in a silken cloth
To lay under the juniper,
Tweet twee, what a pretty bird am I!

–"The Juniper Tree" by the Grimm brothers

Gasagasa_cov_4koMy mother doesn’t like the cover of the Japanese version of my second mystery, GASA-GASA GIRL. The publisher doesn’t understand my book, she wrote in an e-mail. Looks like something for teenagers.

But when I first saw it, I loved it. Immediately. It’s in manga style, with cartoon characters. My amateur sleuth, a seventysomething Japanese American gardener, is grappling with some young man while his tomboyish daughter stands holding a smoking gun.

The cover alerts readers that the book inside may be a fairy tale. No, I silently respond to my mother’s electronic comment, this publisher totally got the book.

************************

Inevitably at some writers conference, book event, or blog, there will be an author who explains that it’s best to write what you know. I always cringe when I hear that remark and double cringe when another writer counters that writing what you know is the most boring thing ever.

You see, readers will look at me and firmly place me in the "writing what you know" camp. After all, my main character in my series is inspired by my father and all the men I wrote about while I was a reporter and then editor for a Japanese American newspaper for more than 10 years. It’s a very quaint and precious behind-the-scenes story but is nowhere close to evoking the oohs and aahs of let’s say, a white guy writing about a geisha in the mid-twentieth century. Because certainly he did the hard lifting, while I must have sat there and documented what was right in front of me, like a teenager with a Super 8 camera (I know, I’m dating myself.)

But writing any kind of fiction is just that — writing lies for entertainment and illumination. Doesn’t matter if the subject matter is close and all around you, or back in the distant past or future or in another country or world. When you sit down at that computer or desk, what you’re doing is creating a new universe — it can be one that is very similar to the one you live in, but it cannot be the exact same reproduction. Characters that are based or inspired by real people cannot be tied down to reality — there will come a time in your manuscript that they will loosen their rope ties or break their metal shackles and go on their own way. It just has to be.

Anyway, what do we really know? Do we totally understand our friends, parents, children, spouse/partner and even ourselves? (If we did, there would be a lot less substance abuse, divorce, child neglect, and family discord, I’d imagine.) Can we imagine what loved ones are feeling, thinking at all times? Have we shocked ourselves at how we’ve reacted during a time of crisis? Those of us who write about familiar characters, settings and locales may be recreating what we THINK we know. But it’s indeed just one interpretation.

For those in the mystery genre, plot also forces us to be universe creators. Whether we write traditional mysteries, thrillers, police procedurals, noir stories, or PI novels, we are actually treading in to the arena of folk tales and fairy tales. Because how in the world can our amateur sleuth — a common baker, p.r. professional, or gardener — keep tripping over those dead bodies? We know your average FBI agent doesn’t have that kind of non-stop exciting life (I’m sure there’s a lot of paperwork that needs to be filled out on antiquated computers). We’ve heard how most crime labs are destitute and to process one DNA test might take the length of a whole season of CSI. And private investigators — talk about mundane work!

Yet in our hands, these people become something else on the page. I’m convinced their stories are our society’s contemporary folk and fairy tales. Just check out Grimm’s fairy tales; they are definitely more noir than fanciful. Some impart lessons; others are just gruesome. Some are light and humorous. All present an alternate reality, where a common villager can transform into something quite extraordinary.

***********************************

As I’ve mentioned on blogs and speaking engagements, my father, up to this time, hasn’t read any of my books in the series — and now there are three of them. Even though he was born in California and has lived here for most of his life, he feels more comfortable reading Japanese.

I say "up to this time," because things have changed with the Japanese translation.

Instead of waiting for my author’s copies from the Japanese publisher, I run to the local Kinokuniya Bookstore in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo as soon as I hear that Shogakukan’s version of GASA-GASA GIRL has come in.

My first stop afterwards is to my parents’ house. My father grabs the book out of my hand before I’m barely inside. He rushes to the light and examines the front and back covers and goes straight to the end of the book, where there’s a five page essay on me and the series.

"The person writes that she’s hoping for more books on Mas Arai," he reports.

There will be, I say, as I’ve just forged a deal with a new publisher. (This time hardcover, yay!)

He then asks me what’s going to be the heart of the fourth book.

"Drugs," I say in Japanese.

"Drugs?" My father frowns and considers this topic. "This guy’s a gangster," he then proclaims.

I wonder if I’ve insulted my father — perhaps guilt through literary association — but when I look more closely at his bespectacled face, I believe that his eyes are glimmering.

The next time I see him, he has finished the book. "Kora," he says. Hey! "You wrote my story."

But you’ve never been in New York, the setting of the translated book, I tell him.

He doesn’t seem to hear my words. When I leave, he walks onto our cement porch. "Our friends are waiting for the next installment," he says. "They are wondering what will happen next."

_______________________________________________________________________

WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT CHARACTER AND UNIVERSE BUILDING?
S.J. Rozan and I will be leading a workshop, "Credible Characters, Credible Worlds," at MWA’s inaugural two-day Crime Fiction University during Edgar Week. Our session will be on Tuesday, April 29, at 2 p.m. at Lighthouse International in New York City. 

Madwomen

NAOMI HIRAHARA

I had a nice and proper post all ready for today, the day that many are dancing away at ThrillerFest. It was about my attempt to lengthen a short story into a novel, with all sorts of references and tips. But then something got in the way. Dorothy Hughes.

In20a20lonely20place_3I had heard about Hughes from Denise Hamilton, whose upcoming standalone is set in the post-World War II era. She told me how Hughes’ IN A LONELY PLACE, published in 1947, holds up so well over time. She was absolutely right. I picked up IN A LONELY PLACE earlier this week and I devoured it in huge delicious bites. (Who needs chocolate cake when you have good books!)

It has a pulp fiction plot with a subtle yet mesmerizing sociopathic voice. The lead character is Dix Steele, an educated drifter, a former serviceman who makes his way to Southern California. IN A LONELY PLACE, which was very loosely adapted into a movie starring Humphery Bogart and Gloria Grahame, was apparently one of the earlier works of psychological noir in the 20th century, predating Jim Thompson and others.

Pulpnovels_resized3b_2 Then I discovered that this reprint of IN A LONELY PLACE is part of a Femme Fatales series published by Feminist Press. I can’t wait to get my hands on GIRLS IN 3-B by Valerie Taylor, and BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING by Evelyn Piper. Take a look at the titles, covers and descriptions of the books in the series and you might get hooked as well.

I haven’t felt this excited about discovering voices from the past since I stumbled across TO LIVE AND TO WRITE: SELECTIONS BY JAPANESE WOMEN WRITERS 1913-1938, edited by Yukiko Tanaka. Although I knew that Japanese women, both past and present, could not be classified as exotic geisha, I was still surprised by the raw and political nature of these stories. Nothing seemed taboo—adultery, female sexual domination, Marxism. Many of the writers were either active anarchists or communists. They created a Bluestocking Journal (Seito-sha) way back in 1911 (!) to tackle various feminist issues. (As an interesting aside, I just learned that 11 Edgar Allan Poe stories were translated in the first and second volumes of the Bluestocking Journal. A scholar, Tamaki Horie, explains that these translations “show the enthusiasm of the women who got together for the journal to seek freedom.” Poe and women’s liberation—who would have thunk it?)

200pxitonoeCAPTION Noe Ito, who was the last editor of the Bluestocking Journal. She, her lover, and her lover’s 6-year-old nephew were arrested for anarchism, beaten to death and thrown in a well by military police in 1923. Called the Amakasu Incident, the killings sparked outrage in Japan and was the basis of a movie, “Eros Plus Massacre” [1969].

These works, both the Feminist Press series and the Bluestocking stories, have all caused me rethink of how we often depict “The Past” with “That 70’s Show” external gloss. Yes, the hairstyles and clothing are right, but how about the rest? For instance, were all the American women in the Fifties as passive, restrained and compliant as is popularly depicted in our present-day interpretation of that time period? Or was something a little more subversive going on?

The writings also highlight that creativity abounded among these women authors, but at a cost.  Sometimes the work could not be sustained because of domestic demands. (At the height of her career, Dorothy Hughes had to abandon novel writing to help care for her grandchildren and sick mother. She developed an impressive body of critical reviews and biographical books and was honored as an MWA Grand Master.)

This past week I got together with three other high school girlfriends for our annual get-together. As the night progressed, we became more honest about the struggles in our lives. As I walked home, I thought that while we’ve all had fruitful careers that our female predecessors could have only dreamed of, the balancing of the domestic life with the “outside” life still remains very tenuous.

Dorothy Hughes and the contributors to the Bluestockings Journal are reminders that women of different times and places managed to be vibrant, active and sometimes even wild despite the repressive confines of the society they lived in. They were all madwomen in specific ways, and I’m absolutely mad about them.

Murderati Word Jumble

ARAHARIH IMOAN

My throat starts to close and my hands get clammy whenever friends at a gathering start talking about board games. “Scramble! Boggle! I bet Naomi’s good at that,” someone usually says.

Well, quite the contrary. I stink at Scramble. I’m a little better at Boggle but not much. Crossword puzzles, not for me. It’s embarrassing to admit this, but I’m not much of a wordsmith. Nor do I produce words well under pressure. I could never be an advertising copywriter like my Murderati mate Louise Ure because 1) I’m not clever and 2) composing anything in public gives me heart palpitations.

The one word exercise I do find fun is word jumble. Maybe it’s because it’s more of a solitary activity. I also enjoy chaos, so attempting to make sense out of a mess is more my nature perhaps. (And like word search, it’s pretty darn easy.) So in subbing today (J.T.—not to mention Tony and Alex—are at Book Expo in NYC, those lucky dogs), I’m going to offer you a Murderati Word Jumble.

So this is how it works:

Each of these jumbled words needs to be rearranged into a word in a Murderati blogger’s title. You need to not only rearrange the word correctly but also note the title of the book which contains the word. (To be fair, there will be no proper nouns or foreign words—especially Japanese ones!) Every single current Murderati contributor, including guest bloggers, are represented once. The bonus jumble at the end contains a word in the title of one of Michael Maclean’s short stories (you can link to his website to do a search).

If you think that you have all the answers, including the book titles, e-mail them to me by Saturday, 9 a.m. PST at nhirahara@juno.com. The fourth person to provide the right answers will be the winner! (This will make some allowances for the time difference.) I will post the answers as well as the winner in the comment area later that day.

What does the winner get? A signed, first edition/first printing of the Edgar Award- winning SNAKEKSIN SHAMISEN! How about that?

And ’Ratis, feel free to join in as well. (If you win, though, no book for you—you get only my undying affection. The next non-‘Rati to answer correctly will get the prize.)

If this word jumble leaves you wanting more, feel free to create your own and post it in the comment section so we can continue to play.

After all, it’s Friday, right?

YRVE

TIGRH

GRIFCON

TEYRPT

THIHC

DYOBGEO

TIWIGNA

URASGRD

KKNNAISSE

WHIGROARN

BONUS: Maclean Madness

ATHGRTIS

Live From New York

A BRIEF MESSAGE FROM NAOMI HIRAHARA FROM THE GRAND HYATT HOTEL A DAY AFTER THE EDGARS:

SHOCKED…SURREAL…HUMBLED

See some of you at the L.A. Times Festival of Books!

UPDATE (4/30/07): Here are some photos from the Big Night–

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Nominees’ reception before the banquet.  The above photo courtesy of New York Japion.

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It takes a village to create an Edgar (not to mention a book).  Post-banquet with, from left to right, publicist Sharon Propson, publicist Katie Rudkin, editor Shannon Jamieson Vazquez, and editor Danielle Perez.

Live from New York

NEW YORK CITY.–Well, I didn’t win, but xxxxxx did. And I’ve been having xxxxx.

Here are my highlights:

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The winners here are in bold.

BEST NOVEL
THE PALE BLUE EYE by Louis Bayard (HarperCollins)
THE JANISSARY TREE by Jason Goodwin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
GENTLEMEN AND PLAYERS by Joanne Harris (William Morrow/HarperCollins)
THE DEAD HOUR by Denise Mina (Hachette Book Group)
THE VIRGIN OF THE SMALL PLAINS by Nancy Pickard (Ballantine/Random House)
THE LIBERATION MOVEMENTS by Olen Steinhauer (St. Martin’s Minotaur)

BEST FIRST NOVEL BY AN AMERICAN AUTHOR
THE FAITHFUL SPY by Alex Berenson (Random House)
SHARP OBJECTS by Gillian Flynn (Shaye Areheart/Crown)
KING OF LIES by John Hart (THomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Minotaur)
HOLMES ON THE RANGE by Steve Hockensmith (St. Martin’s Minotaur)
A FIELD OF DARKNESS by Cornelia Read (Mysterious Press/Warner Books)

BEST PAPERBACK ORIGINAL
THE GOODBYE KISS by Massimo Carlotto (Europa Editions)
THE OPEN CURTAIN by Brian Evenson (Coffee House Press)
SNAKESKIN SHAMISEN by Naomi Hirahara (Delta Books/Bantam Dell Publishing)
THE DEEP BLUE ALIBI by Paul Levine (Bantam Books/Bantam Dell Publishing)
CITY OF TINY LIGHTS by Patrick Neate (Riverhead Books/Penguin Group)

BEST CRITICAL/BIOGRAPHICAL
UNLESS THE THREAT OF DEATH IS BEHIND THEM: HARD-BOILED FICTION AND FILM NOIR by John T. Irwin (John Hopkins University Press)
THE SCIENCE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES: FROM BASKERVILLE HALL TO THE VALLEY OF FEAR by E. J. Wagner (John Wiley & Sons)

BEST FACT CRIME
STRANGE PLACE OF PARADISE by Terri Jentz (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
A DEATH IN BELMONT by Sebastian Junger (W. W. Norton and Co.)
FINDING AMY: A TRUE STORY OF MURDER IN MAINE by Capt. Joseph K. Loughlin and Kate Clark Flora (University Press of New England)
RIPPEROLOGY: A STUDY OF THE WORLD’S FIRST SERIAL KILLER by Robin Odell (The Kent State University Press)
THE BEAUTIFUL CIGAR GIRL: MARY ROGERS, EDGAR ALLAN POE AND THE INVENTION OF MURDER by Daniel Stashower (Dutton)
MANHUNT: THE 12-DAY CHASE FOR LINCOLN’S KILLER by James L. Swanson (William Morrow/HarperCollins)

BEST SHORT STORY
"The Home Front" from DEATH DO US PART by Charles Ardai (Hachette Book Group)
"Rain" from MANHATTAN NOIR by Thomas H. Cook (Akashhic Books)
"Cranked" from DAMN NEAR DEAD by Bill Brider (Busted Flush Press)
"White Trash Noir" from MURDER AT THE FOUL LINE by Michael Malone (Mysterious Press/Hachette Book Group)
"Building" from MANHATTAN NOIR by S. J. Rozam (Akashic Books)

BEST YOUNG ADULT
THE ROAD OF THE DEAD by Kevin Brooks (The Chicken House/Scholastic)
THE CHRISTOPHER KILLER by Alane Ferguson (Sleuth/Viking/Penguin Young Readers)
CRUNCH TIME by Mariah Fredericks (Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books/Simon & Schuster)
BURIED by Robin Merrow MacCready (Dutton Children’s Books/Penguin Young Readers)
THE NIGHT MY SISTER WENT MISSING by Carol Plum-Ucci (Harcourt Children’s Books)

BEST JUVENILE
GILDA JOYCE: THE LADIES OF THE LAKE by Jennifer Allison (Dutton Juvenile/Penguin Young Readers)
THE STOLEN SAPPHIRE: A SAMANTHA MYSTERY by Sarah Masters Buckey (American Girl Publishing )
ROOM ONE: A MYSTERY OR TWO by Andrew Clements (Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers)
THE BLOODWATER MYSTERIES: SNATCHED by Pete Hautman & Mary Logue (Putnam Juvenile/Penguin Young Readers)
THE CASE OF THE MISSING MARQUESS: AN ENOLA HOLMES MYSTERY by Nancy Springer (Philomel/Penguin Young Readers)

BEST PLAY
Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure by Steven Dietz (Arizona Theater Company)
Curtains by Rupert Holmes (Ahmanson Theatre)
Ghosts of Ocean House by Michael Kimball (The Players’ Ring)

BEST TELEVISION EPISODE TELEPLAY
The Closer – "Blue Blood", Teleplay by James Duff & Mike Berchem (Turner Network Television)
Dexter – "Crocodile", Teleplay by Clyde Phillips (Showtime)
House – "Clueless", Teleplay by Thomas L. Moran (Fox/NBC Universal)
Life on Mars – Episode 1, Teleplay by Matthew Graham (BBC America)
Monk – "Mr. Monk Gets A New Shrink", Teleplay by Hy Conrad (USA Network/NBC Universal)

BEST MOTION PICTURE SCREENPLAY
Casino Royale, Screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade & Paul Haggis, based on the novel by Ian Fleming (MGM)
Children of Men, Screenplay by Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby, based on a novel by P. D. James (Universal Pictures)
The Departed, Screenplay by William Monohan (Warner Bros. Pictures)
The Good Shepherd, Teleplay by Eric Roth, based on a novel by Joseph Kanon (Universal Pictures)
Notes on a Scandal, Screenplay by Patrick Marber (Scott Rudin Productions)

ROBERT L. FISH MEMORIAL AWARD
William Dylan Powell
"Evening Gold" – EQMM November 2006 (Dell Magazines)

GRAND MASTER
Stephen King

RAVEN AWARDS
Books & Books (Mutchell Kaplan, owner)
Mystery Loves Company Bookstore (Kathy & Tom Harig, owners)

THE SIMON & SCHUSTER – MARY HIGGINS CLARK AWARD
BLOODLINE by Fiona Mountain (St. Martin’s Minotaur)

Congratulations to all!  And see you bright and early tomorrow at UCLA!

Observing Los Angeles Noir

NAOMI HIRAHARA

From the Film Noir Festival in Hollywood to various Cover_3
signing events related to the launch of Akashic’s LOS ANGELES NOIR, I’ve been plunged into a new world (for me, at least). The dark, masculine world of noir, and it’s been both invigorating and simulating. It’s been pushing me to think more about mystery historicals set in the Forties and Fifties and how placing Japanese America in that context is a perfect and timely fit. (Yes, I’m thinking about a new project, a mystery standalone.)

As a nod to LOS ANGELES NOIR, which includes literary luminaries like Michael Connelly, Janet Fitch, and Susan Straight, I thought I’d pose a few questions to the editor of this special collection, Denise Hamilton, as well as the publisher of Akashic, Johnny Temple.

Why did it take so long for LOS ANGELES NOIR to come out?

DENISE: From my perspective once Johnny brought me on board, I took a very cautious and measured approach. I gave the concept a lot of thought to decide what kind mix of stories and authors I wanted and who was available. I didn’t want to rush pell-mell into things. The fact that Los Angeles is the birthplace, the ground zero of all things noir, also made the stakes higher for me, and I wanted time to let everything stew, steep. When you can only choose 17 stories, each one you don’t choose is excruciating. I also had my own Scribner annual deadlines to meet, so it was necessary for this project to fit into those parameters. We also decided that the perfect time to launch the book would be the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, so that meant late April and we had to back it out from there.

JOHNNY: It’s a lot more difficult to assemble an excellent literary anthology than most people think. For me, it was a matter of taking however much time I needed to find the right editor. Denise was the perfect choice, and we were honored that she opted to take it on. Fiction collections can be unwieldy beasts, and, as I suspected, Denise was able to harness this one.

DENISE: Why, thank you. I’ve been a big fan of Akashic since I discovered Nina Revoyr’s SOUTHLAND that you published, which is a fantastic literary novel with a huge mystery at its core. It was a finalist for an Edgar several years ago.

With so many books in the Akashic noir series and more to come, do you think that you’ve oversaturated the market? Or do think that there always will be room for noir?

JOHNNY: We definitely haven’t oversaturated the market, judging by the commercial success (on our humble level) of every title in the series so far. Many people feel a sense of loyalty to their cities, and as long as we can work with people like Denise, we’ll always be able to make great, suspenseful, unpredictable books.

What did you hope to achieve with LOS ANGELES NOIR? With the grand body of work out there, from noir films to works from Chandler and Ellroy, were you ever daunted by your task of collecting these stories? What was your strategy?

DENISE: It is an impossible task to collect 17 stories that “represent” L.A. I didn’t even try to tackle that one. I only tried to capture 17 facets of this bejeweled and begrimed and benighted city at one point in time, through 17 different perspectives. I asked each contributor to pick a neighborhood to write about, and one of my caveats was that the authors all had to have lived in Los Angeles. I wanted the book to have that gritty, authentic feel that comes from living here day in, year out, of piercing the veils that this place tries to shroud itself in, of getting the geography and idiosyncrasies right, because something that really pulls me out of a book is when I read a detail that’s askew. These things aren’t rocket science, but it’s hard to get everything right if you don’t live here, they are little insignificant details that Angelenos know.

As soon as I had lined up the contributors and their stories, I looked things over and realized I didn’t have a story set in the San Fernando Valley, which would have been nice, though I did have scenes in various stories set there. I would have also liked a story from East L.A. I think a story set in LA’s Persian community could have been fascinating. (Persians called L.A. “Teherangelis). I guess what I was aiming for in a general way was a broad diversity that balanced better known authors with newer talents, that took the traditional noir trope and examined it from an oblique angle, that gave voice to both the classic cops and robbers and betrayal scenarios that noir does so wonderfully as well as illuminate pockets and communities in L.A. that didn’t yet exist when Phillip Marlowe was prowling the mean streets.

I think there is a nice geographic and ethnic mix to the book that reflects the city itself, and seven of the 17 stories are by women. I didn’t plan that, or look to hit any marks in male vs. female, but I am glad that it shook out that way, as there has long been a debate about women writing noir, and I think, for instance, that Dorothy B. Hughes (who wrote the wonderful In a Lonely Place in 1949 from the first person perspective of a male serial killer) would have been right up there in the MacDonald/Cain/Chandler pantheon had she been a man.

I was also looking for stories that told me something about L.A. that I myself, as a native and a longtime reporter, didn’t know, stories that took me into another world, nested right inside the familiar one I knew so well. I was delighted when Michael Connelly didn’t write about a traditional neighborhood but picked Mullholland Drive, and when Jim Pascoe chose the L.A. River as his setting, and when Neal Pollack set his story in a gambling casino in the graceless town of Commerce, which is about as far from Hollywood as you can imagine, and yet also teeming with dreams and unrealistic hopes.

The other difficulty for me in putting together LOS ANGELES NOIR is that there are hundreds of talented writers living in Los Angeles, and I could only pick 17. I console myself with hoping that we will eventually publish LOS ANGELES NOIR II, III, IV just as Brooklyn Noir has done, and that we can eventually showcase many more of the wonderful creative writers here. One intriguing thing I learned is that even though our genre sometimes comes in for a bit of trashing from folks who consider mystery/noir/thrillers etc to be “beach reading,” the truth is that everyone seems to love a good noir tale and I found that literary authors such as Janet Fitch were delighted to have an opportunity to roll up their sleeves a bit and plunge into the swoony decadence of genre.

In what ways do you think Chandler’s Los Angeles is different from Denise Hamilton’s L.A.?

Raymond Chandler might not recognize this L.A., he’d think he was in El Salvador, or Armenia, or Vietnam. Most of the outer stretches of L.A. County were farms and fields and bare hillsides in his day. But he’d recognize the emotions — the desperation, the greed, the hunger for power and fame and the willingness to sell your soul to achieve it. Hollywood still exerts a pull that is as strong as ever, and as the divide between rich and poor grows, the opportunity for crime, mayhem and betrayal only rises.

I find the covers of the noir series very provocative and interesting. How do you go about choosing the images? In what ways do you try to find something that is representative yet not stereotypical?

DENISE: Johnny and I looked at a lot of photos, and it was like Thurgood Marshall, the U.S. Supreme Court Justice talking about pornography, at least for me. I pretty much knew the cover when I saw it. It is hard to summon up one defining image of Los Angeles. Jim Pascoe (a LOS ANGELES NOIR contributor and a very visually brilliant guy) and I had a long e-mail exchange about what the quintessential image of L.A. is.

For him, that image was a sepia-toned, perhaps almost yellow image of one skinny tall palm tree, towering over a small house. Which speaks to the alienation, the loneliness, that is L.A., the sense of fate and nature conspiring against mankind, of our fruitless struggles to evade it.

I liked that and looked at a lot of palm trees, and shots along Hollywood Boulevard, and gangbangers and iconic photos of the skyline, the Hollywood sign, the Santa Monica Pier. But ultimately, when I saw the Griffith Park Observatory shot taken by Helen K. Garber, I had a very visceral reaction and said, that’s it.

It’s nighttime, the Observatory is aglow, it’s monolithic, hulking over the skyline, and yet it’s gorgeous and sleek and Art Deco-y. It speaks both to man’s thirst for beauty and symmetry, our “Ozymandias” complex to create something stupendous and lasting.

But it also speaks to the essential loneliness of the human condition, as the cover shot is devoid of people. For me and perhaps many others, the Observatory, through decades of being used as a film set, has also developed a patina of movie glamor. One thinks of James Dean and Natalie Wood, “Rebel Without a Cause.” Romance, mystery, intrigue, death, youth, beauty. But you also think of high school field trips, the acid trippy “Laserium” shows of high school.

Yes, I totally remember the Laserium, these laser shows that hurt your neck because you had to sit back to watch the visuals projected on the dome of the ceiling! All to the music of Pink Floyd. That was indeed classic.

DENISE: You have to be careful with images of Los Angeles, because some are so overused they can now verge on parody. Venice Beach, the Hollywood sign. They are etched into our consciousness. For me the Bradbury Building downtown will forever be linked to that amazing scene in “Blade Runner,” where Harrison Ford tracks down the escaped androids. So while I adore that place, I didn’t want it for LOS ANGELES NOIR. The Observatory had glamour and mystery and intrigue. And it was both from that classic retro era that we love and yet it still exists today (it just re-opened, in fact, after several years of remodeling) and bodies are still found near it from time to time. So it encapsulated both the past and the present and the ethos I was looking for.

JOHNNY: The cover of every NOIR Series book is based around a photograph. For good reason–as you can see in Denise’s answer–the first place we usually check when looking for the right photo is with the editor, for her or his ideas (or, in some cases, like BROOKLYN NOIR with his own photo).

DENISE: I love that iconic BROOKLYN NOIR photo of the sexy female leg in the stiletto heel with the little tattoo on the grate. Dang, wish I’d thought of that.

Denise, I call you the Queen of Book PR and with feature articles in the Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Weekly, excerpt in the LA Weekly, and reviews in Publishers Weekly, etc., you’ve done an amazing job in promoting LOS ANGELES NOIR. Tell us about some upcoming events.

When you have 17 authors, you can tap into 17 fanbases and do wonderful promotion. We also plan to do a group signing at the Akashic Booth (our publisher is Akashic, see www.akashicbooks.com) during the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books April 28-29. Again, with 17 authors, we can feature different authors at different events and do different things. See my website, www.denisehamilton.com for specific events.

Johnny, tell us again how your started Akashic and what does the company look like today. How many employees? Do you run the company like any other traditional NYC publisher now? In what ways is Akashic different?

JOHNNY: We published our first book in 1997, back when it was more of a hobby and I was earning my living as a musician, and now we bring out close to 30 books per year. We have a full-time staff of four. We try to provide an alternative to the staid world of traditional book publishing. We try to be very author-driven and we’re also involved in community events and civic literary engagement.

DENISE: I want to add that Akashic’s motto is: Reverse Gentrification of the Literary World. I just love that.

Denise, your body of work so far is grounded in Los Angeles. Tell us about your upcoming standalone historical book. What new things did you learn about Los Angeles?

DENISE: I just finished my first standalone, which is set in 1949 Hollywood and is filled with special effects wizards, starlets, cops, news photographers (Harry Jack from my Eve Diamond series, shown here as a very young man trying to get his first photojournalist job), mobsters, rooming house matrons and other characters. To steep myself in the milieu, I read tons of memoirs, oral histories, biographies, autobiographies and histories about what Los Angeles and specifically Hollywood were like then. It was such a quaint small town. Girls used to go down to Capitol Records to watch Frank Sinatra record–he liked an audience and would invite people into the studio and buy everyone food, coffee and ice cream. One woman recalls going down to a coffee shop in Hollywood and helping Montgomery Clift learn his lines for Giant. Teenaged girls would go down to the Hollywood ranch market at 2 AM because that’s when Marlon Brando and other stars went grocery shopping. Can you imagine Tom Cruise doing his own shopping today? Or that kind of access? There is a great nostalgia among older people for the Hollywood that once existed.

I also learned that in the early 1930s a Midwest beauty queen and struggling actress named Lillian Entwhistle committed suicide by jumping off the Hollywood sign. But she aimed wrong, fell into a bed of cactus and lingered for three days, with cactus spines piercing her organs. She was depressed because she couldn’t get a role, and was about to be evicted. The day after her death a letter arrived in her mailbox, saying she’d gotten a role for which she’d auditioned. It was a play about a woman who commits suicide. Is that story stranger than fiction or what?

During my research I also had the privilege to meet Ray Harryhousen, one of the pioneers of stop motion animation. He studied under Willis O’Brien, who invented special effects (he did King Kong). These guys worked on B movies but they were magicians, revered, and it was a secret, no one knew how they made those creatures move. The special effects geek in my novel is inspired by Ray Harryhousen, and through his eyes I tell the history of that exciting time in animation, before CGI and Lucas and Spielberg revolutionized the industry with computers.

I wanted to recreate Los Angeles in 1949, to show the Red Cars, the Chavez Ravine settlements about to get bulldozed to make way for Dodger Stadium, the homophobia, the corruption, but also empty open spaces, the hope, the quality of the light,that was Los Angeles just after the war. McCarthyism was on the horizon, women were getting laid off of the work force, suburbia was spreading, we were about to enter a very conservative era. But in 1949 we were still on the cusp, the aftermath of World War II still very much in people’s minds. And I wanted to show my city at that moment in time. The tone is almost blanc, instead of noir, because while it’s filled with dubious, crooked, scheming, conniving characters, it’s also suffused with light and hope and small generosities and kindnesses. And of course….murder.

Thank you, Denise and Johnny. And we hope to see you all at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books! There will be an MWA-cosponsored reception at the Mystery Bookstore on Friday, April 27, and many LOS ANGELES NOIR contributors will be in attendance. And for LATFOB newbies, you can check out my past writeups of the festival to get initiated into this mind-blowing experience.

Good Tonic

NAOMI HIRAHARA

Carl Hiassen did it. Walter Mosley did it. Susan McBride is doing it, and so are Lauren Henderson, Sherman Alexie, and Nick Hornby.

Certain critics and publishing players disparage it, and haven’t been shy about expressing their views. What am I talking about? The world of juvenile and YA literature, a universe that I’m entering myself.

Yes, after expressing my fears about leaving my Mas Arai mystery series for an indefinite period of time, I was able to sell my novel for adolescents at the beginning of 2007. My novel was supposed to fall in the category of women’s literature, but as what often happens when I start a project with new characters, the story tugs and pulls me in the direction where it needs to go. The ease of the process depends on if I can surrender and extinguish my personal expectations. So, here, based on the recommendation of my agent after reading my initial three chapters, I’ve followed the voice of my 13-year-old protagonist.

I used to think that my work-in-progress fell in the category of YA (young adult) lit, but apparently it’s MG lit, or middle-grade literature. I’m writing for tweens, 10 to 14 year olds. This is a good age, I think. Teenagers any older may slowly be making their way into grownup literature. At least that’s what I was doing at that age.

I’m the first to tell you that I never expected to write for young people. First of all, I’m totally old school. Many of you know that I recently switched over from Windows 98 to Windows 2003. I don’t own an IPod. I don’t IM or text message. When I worked at my community newspaper, our then high-school intern presented me with her Dope Dictionary (circa 1996) because it was obvious that I was so out of it at the time that I thought dope meant Mary Jane. (In 1996, dope meant cool.)

I’m not whimsical or fantasy oriented. I don’t have children yet. I am playful, however. I’ll be the first to jump onto a swing at the beach, take a whack at the plastic moles at an arcade, go ice skating in the middle of downtown, and bounce around on a trampoline.

There are certainly some social, literary, and economic advantages in appealing to this MG and YA market. While many of us have noticed the graying of our core mystery audience, these readers are the future. They are adolescents and teenagers. Books for young people are powerful; the best have enormous staying power. Certainly all of us have that close connections to early books, whether it be ARE YOU THERE, GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET; FROM THE MIXED UP FILES OF BASIL E. FRANKWEILER; A WRINKLE IN TIME; THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH; the ALL-OF-A-KIND-OF-FAMILY series, etc. It’s no surprise that many of these formidable works are still being sold to young people today.

And aside from the Harry Potter novels and other fantasy books, MG books can be quite short.  Forty thousand words, to be exact. In fact, that’s the length that stipulated in my contract, which was received only recently. At the time, I was planning to write a 60,000-word book, but now certain chapters have been compressed and now the manuscript is looking to be 45,000 to 50,000 words.

But more than these factors, I’ve discovered another benefit in entering this genre. Carl Hiassen’s quote on his website captures my sentiments: “Writing for young readers is a tonic for me.”

For me, 2006 was a tough year. We were still recovering from a death in the family at the end of the previous year, and then, as it often happens, we were socked in the stomach with more loss. The pain was tremendous and almost crippling to me personally. Anyone who has met me knows that on the surface I’m a cheery, optimistic person. I like to laugh. I don’t have frown lines. But 2006 hit me hard. I cried frequently—not a few pretty tears, but gut-wrenching sobs. The messy kind that produces red-swollen eyes and plenty of sticky, runny snot.

Angela, my 13-year-old protagonist in my middle school novel, is also experiencing trauma. In the book, 1001 CRANES, her parents are breaking up. She must spend a summer away from her home in Northern California in a working-class suburb called Gardena. She must negotiate certain unfamiliar cultural practices, like the folding of origami cranes for weddings, in midst of the dissolution of her own family unit.

Beginning to explore Angela’s loss wasn’t necessarily cathartic—I don’t believe that writing for pay should come from that place—but I understood her despair in a new way. I respected it.

In 2006 I also wrote three noir stories, darker ones than I’ve ever attempted. My mood certainly helped to develop the tone of these tales. One in particular spilled out quickly; it was one of these stories that wrote itself. I’m considering taking one of those stories and expanding the time period and characters into a standalone novel. It won’t stay at quite the same level of darkness as the short story, however. It will be hard for me to be in that place for a year or longer.

My MG novel is not about silliness and light, but I must admit that it’s been nice to reenter Angela’s world after writing these string of noir stories. It has been good tonic. Despite whatever obstacles are in her way, time is on her side.

YA and MG Lit Resources

One of the wonderful things about writing in a different genre is learning new things, both creatively and business-wise.

The MWA equivalent to this world is the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). There are some fundamental differences in the setup of these organizations.While SCBWI is for-profit association devoted to the development of children’s book writers and illustrators, MWA is a nonprofit charitable organization devoted to promotion of mysteries.

The SCBWI holds conferences on the East and West coasts, featuring lectures by editors, agents, and experienced authors. I’m hoping to check out the one in August. They also have these monthly regional informal get-togethers in people’s homes.

MWA has its Edgars Award each year, and the American Library Association offers its slew of awards, most notably the Caldecott and Newbery. These are definitely the Oscars for writing for young readers.

You can imagine that there would be a wide range of offerings in terms of blogs and other Internet resources in this genre.

A writer who I will happily meet in person at the inaugural Asian Pacific American Book Festival, Pooja Makhijani, has compiled a great list of blogs, and I can personally attest to the usefulness of A Fuse #8.

A most helpful yahoo group is middle school lit. This is aimed for librarians and teachers, first, and writers, a distant second.

One thing I’ve observed with mystery listservs is many of them degenerate into BSP. Hey, BSP is a necessary evil, but there needs to be a sacred place where readers can post their honest opinions and observations. Here in this yahoo groups, librarians and educators are the primary posters and I appreciate reading their challenges while on the frontlines with our readers.

There are similar yahoo groups for YA writers, but in the interest of time, I haven’t joined them, so I’m unfamiliar with their postings.

And finally, I’m gradually letting go of my skepticism regarding book trailers. In fact, I love the Random House submissions for the inaugural Teen Book Video competition last year. I don’t know if the competition will continued this year, but check out last year’s three finalists.

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