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The Circle: How Our Writing Changes Us

by Pari Noskin Taichert

We all know that reading can change us. A fine book can illuminate a dark corner of the heart, spur us to action, or open us to ideas hitherto ignored.

Does writing change the writer?

Nonfiction has always been easy and enjoyable for me. I love to interview and do the research. Stirring up the assimilated material until a perfect lede bubbles to the top is a delight.

Plus, I get paid to learn.

Earlier this week, I tromped around a scruffy acre of organic farmland. It stood as an oasis of wildlife in the middle of a semi-rural neighborhood. With pen in hand, I scribbled notes and followed a young man who has spent the last three years trying to make a living with the crops he grows in this small space.

The interview was for a column called, "Food for thought," a regular feature in a monthly publication distributed in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. This is the second time I’ve written the column. Last month’s topic was New Mexico’s apple industry and its relationship to the rest of the world.

In accepting these assignments, I didn’t anticipate the effect they would have on my world view. Suddenly, I’m beginning to think about where and how people get their food, about the cost of that "organic" tomato from Chile, or how many of our tax dollars (and dubious labor practices) subsidize a cheap potato.

If my nonfiction writing affected me this way, was it possible that my fiction did too?

Sure, on a professional level, I’ve changed. I’m more adept at editing myself, more disciplined about writing. I think about story arcs, plotting, finding just the right words.

I’ve abandoned the romance of inspiration. Faced with zero ideas, I’ll now force myself through hours of slogging to get a good sentence or two.

But this is probably true of any nonfiction author with more than one book under her belt.

Is there anything special about fiction that can change a writer — in a different way?

I think, for me, the answer is "yes."

I’ve been forced to stick with characters and people I don’t like far longer than in a short story. I’ve had to commit. Writing book-length fiction has taught me to fantasize with purpose, to push through dilettantism.

Above my computer now hangs a quotation from Shunryu Suzuki: "You try and you try and you fail, and then you go deeper."

Yep, that’s me.

The biggest change I’ve noticed is, somehow, I’ve developed a philosophy. This wasn’t intentional. It simply happened.

Years ago, an acquaintance of mine who writes literary fiction told me she writes to change the world. Frankly, I thought that was audacious.

Then, I felt guilty because all I really wanted to do was entertain. Where was the nobility in that?

Now, after finishing my third saleable manuscript (it’s my fifth completed one), I still want to entertain. But, I also want to do more.

To use the word mission sounds a bit too heavy-handed, off-putting, bang-the-reader-over-the head. However, I’ve realized lately that I do have underlying goals that have evolved specifically because of my fiction.

Here’s what I’ve added to that initial objective.

I want to
1. introduce my New Mexico to readers.
2. dispel stereotypes about NM.
3. explore important themes in such a way that those that want to find them, can. And those who don’t want to see them, don’t have to. (CLOVIS = family dysfunction/bad communication    BELEN = religiosity vs. spirituality     SOCORRO = the reality of how we relate to each other since 9/11).
4. um . . . to change the world.

I didn’t know I wanted to do any of these things when I originally started writing novels. All I knew then was that I liked Sasha and wanted to see where she’d go. I prayed that readers would enjoy her and want to take the journey, too.

It amazes me that in the process of telling her stories I’ve begun to realize there’s so much more to mine.

Killer Cereal

Jeffrey Cohen

In my first novel, Aaron Tucker–my doppleganger of a hero, who has my job, my height (or lack thereof), my geographical location and an approximation of my family–sits down for a late-night snack with his wife one night, and he has a bowl of cereal.

For some reason, people seem to think that’s strange. I’ve gotten comments from readers who think cereal is something that is only meant to be eaten in the morning (“they call it breakfast cereal, don’t they?”), and at no other time. I find that odd, personally. There is nothing better to eat at night than a good bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios. If you read the numbers the right way, it can even lower your cholesterol. They tell me.

The trick, really, is to choose the proper cereal to eat at night. Anything with tons of fiber–that is, anything with the word “bran” in the name–is a risky choice. Go ahead if you must, but don’t blame me if you don’t sleep through the night.

On the other hand, a snack is meant to be frivolous. The inventor of the late-night snack, whom some people assume to be Dagwood Bumstead, but they’re wrong, had a few simple rules in mind:

1. This must not be something that can be classified as “real food.” Having a T-bone steak is a meal, and I don’t care if you’ve already eaten eight times today. Sure, things with meat in them are snacks, as long as you happen to be a German Shepherd. And by that, I do not mean a man from Munich who herds sheep. So watch yourself.

2. A late-night snack has to be something that can be eaten while watching television. It doesn’t matter if you’re planning on watching television or not on any given night, the snack has to be adaptable to that possibility. Just in case you suddenly decide to clean out your TiVo “Now Playing” list, or check out Turner Classic Movies’ revival of the Dick Cavett interview with… well, what does it matter who he’s interviewing, it’s all going to be about Dick anyway. So you have to have a snack that’s portable. This lets out those who might decide to eat an entire lobster after midnight, or anyone whose idea of a nightcap is a belgian waffle. Stick with small stuff.

3. Your snack should definitely feel like a guilty pleasure. There’s no point in sitting down after dinner and having yourself a salad. Sure, you’ll feel virtuous after you’re finished, but what the heck was the point of that? If you want to feel virtuous while having a snack, eat cereal while reading the Bible. The effect is the same, and you get a satisfying crunch.

4. Anything even vying to be called a late-night snack must include sugar. Yes, too much might keep you awake–if you’re a hyperactive three-year-old–but if you’re going to sit down at night and have something savory or smoky, what the heck did you have for dinner tonight? A package of Yodels?

What possible food group could suit all these criteria? Let’s think: what’s the guiltiest pleasure in the supermarket? Where can you find boxes painted in bright primary colors that remind you of the toy store when you were a child? What, in short, makes you feel like a little kid again?

It ain’t flounder, I’ll tell you that.

Now, you know some contrary wiseguys are going to say, “wait, what about ice cream?” And they’ll do that because they’re contrary wiseguys. They already know that ice cream is going to make your stomach growl the moment you lie down, and that you’ll be up an hour later with a case of acid reflux that would light up the city of Indianapolis. They know, too, that ice cream–in particular the slow-churned Edy’s light kind–is what you should eat (in moderation, health police) immediately after dinner, to make sure your palate is anything but cleansed, and to provide the daily adult allowance of slow-churned-edness recommended by the United States Government, a body that clearly knows what’s good for you better than you do. Just ask them.

No, in order to truly regress to your inner seven-year-old, you have to take a nice leisurely walk down the cereal aisle. It is truly a place of wonder. For some reason, the only brands aimed at adults are the ones you’d never want to eat in your life, and the good stuff is marketed directly at children. Don’t let that bother you. Walk up with your head held high and grab that box of Cap’n Crunch (I prefer without Crunch Berries, but to each his own), then walk away before the principal of your child’s school comes by (but then… what’s she doing by the Cap’n Crunch, anyway? Hmmm?).

If you haven’t actually allowed yourself a trip down the aisle of childhood dreams lately, let me give you a few tips:

First, all the cereals you loved as a child are still there. Some of them are called different things because cereal companies have decided that parents (again, cereals are mistakenly assumed to be purchased strictly for the under-12 set) are going to avoid feeding their children anything enjoyable. So “Sugar Pops” have become “Corn Pops” (they taste exactly the same) and “Sugar Crisp” has become “Golden Crisp,” which makes even less sense. What kind of food is a “golden?”

Try to avoid anything that didn’t used to have marshmallows and now does. Personally, I’ve never understood the appeal of marshmallows in cereal if the cereal is any good at all. Marshmallows do add a rather interesting foam rubber-like texture, if that’s your idea of a good time. On the other hand, if you grew up a Count Chocula fan, don’t let me stop you. Everyone’s favorite marshmallow cocoa vampire is still there, waiting for some help. Frankenberry, on the other hand, seems to have gone the route of Quake, who used to hang out with Quisp. You can still occasionally find Quisp (the space alien cereal that was simply made out of sugar, as far as I can tell) on the more nostalgia-minded shelves, but he seems lonely, somehow, without his pal by his side. It’s a little sad.

Side note: they’ve taken all the sugar out of Alpha Bits. This gives the cereal the distinction of tasting like nothing. Who thought that was a good idea? Did the company really think we were buying that stuff because it looked like letters?

Long-standing favorites like Cocoa Puffs (try to find the ones without marshmallows; they’re still around) and Cocoa Krispies have been joined by cereals that have no business including chocolate, but do anyway. For a while, there were cereals that looked like glazed donuts, chocolate chip cookies, and for all I know, ice cream cones. I say, stick with the classics.

Which brings me to the easiest bet in the cereal aisle: Cheerios. There are now about six hundred varieties of Cheerios (including new “Fruity Cheerios,” a name on which I will not comment, but I guarantee you they taste exactly like Froot Loops), and you can’t go wrong with a one of them. Even the sickening sounding “Yogurt Cheerios” are good.

I’ve been told, although I can’t confirm it, that a box of Cheerios (the original variety) contains more salt than a bag of potato chips. I say, bring it on. With or without milk, in a bowl or out of the box (something you can’t do with, say, Honey Bunches of Oats, a good cereal with a really terrible name), Cheerios provide all you want from a cereal: a crunch, a strong flavor, the ability to float nicely in milk without requiring a magnetic spoon to get the last few, and the immediate desire to eat more. A perfect cereal experience.

I’m mostly a Honey Nut Cheerios fan, but any variety will do. Regular, apple cinnamon, frosted, fruity, you name it, if it’s a little tiny bagel made of oats, I’m all over it.

If you’re reading this late at night, and doing so has at all given you a craving for a certain type of food product, my work here is done. Grab a bowl, get the milk out of the fridge, select your spoon and have at it, I say.

And don’t worry what people will say about you. If they were honest with themselves, they’d be one bowl over.

Hit and Runners

This piece concludes my little mini-series on crime and punishment.  It deals with a real life experience that ended up becoming a story.

For every seventeen-year-old male in the UK, the number one purchase is a car.  It’s a rite of passage–the first step towards adulthood and independence.

I was in engineering college when I turned seventeen.  My birthday occurred late in the school year and several of my friends had already turned seventeen, passed their test and gotten cars–albeit jalopies for a couple of hundred quid.

Richard was the first of us to get his wheels, a ’72 Ford Cortina.  Instead of running for the train to get to and from college, we rode with Richard.  The convenience of car ownership was all too apparent to me, even by proxy.  The responsibility of this convenience came a few weeks later.  We’d returned back from lunch to the college parking lot.  Richard found a stall behind the science block and went to park.  He backed the car up, doing all the right things, but his skill deserted him and he reversed into the side of the Vauxhall Cavalier.  There was no mistaking the buckling of sheet steel.

We all froze and waited for Richard’s reaction.  Panic spread across his face.  He had just kissed goodbye any possibility of a no claims insurance bonus.

“Do you think anyone saw?” he asked us.

The parking stalls were pretty secluded from the main parking lot. We looked around and saw no one.

“We’re going.  Cool?”

We didn’t reply, just nodded.  Richard burnt rubber and parked on the street a couple of blocks from the college.  We walked back to our afternoon classes.  Richard told us we weren’t to talk about this.  He was stern, but I noticed his hands were shaking.  He knew the crime he’d committed and the one we were accomplices to.

I was beginning to think we’d gotten away with it by mid-afternoon, until the cops interrupted second period.  Two officers walked in with one of the college lecturers and some kid I didn’t know.  One of the cops asked for Richard by name, but not the rest of us. 

My heart was pounding, so I couldn’t imagine what Richard’s was doing.  Unlike most college kids, we had more to lose than the rest.  We were employed by an array of big name companies underwriting our college education and paying us a salary.

Richard came back thirty minutes later, looking sheepish.  We were forced to wait until break to find out what had gone down with the police.  We’d thought our crime had gone undetected but we were wrong.  One of the other lecturers had witnessed the fender bender from the classroom.  The lecturer not only knew us, but he knew the name of the second year student who owned the Cavalier.  Giving the cops their due, they were pretty cool about it all, all things considered.  They weren’t pressing any charges as long as Richard paid for the damage.  They would be checking in with all parties to make sure amends were made.   

Richard made good on his error and the event never made it back to our respective employers or parents.  We all learnt our lesson.  It was a stupid thing to do and we were damn lucky to have gotten away with it.

About a year later, a form of retribution came knocking.  Kevin (who’d been in the car with us) came back from lunch to find a broken headlight and a note under his windshield wiper.  The note said: People think I’m leaving you my name and address.  I’m not.

No one had witnessed the incident and Kevin was left to carry the expenses.

These two incidents have always stuck with me.  It’s one of those situations where I’d been on both sides of the equation, even if it was by proxy.  So when it came to writing my crime story collection, Working Stiffs, and the publisher asked for a signature story that would set the tone for the collection, my thoughts fell upon these two incidents and The Fall Guy was born.  In the short novel, the down on his luck protagonist, Todd Collins, backs into a Porsche and leaves a note not dissimilar to the one Kevin found under his windshield.  This sets in motion a series of calamities, which winds up with Todd being indebted to organized crime and spending the rest of the story trying to get the monkey off his back.

I don’t know if I wrote the story as a penance or a warning to others, but it may have something to do with a theme that occurs in many of my stories.  A crime, even a little one, can’t remain covered up for long.  I learned that when I was seventeen.

Simon Wood
PS: A big hello to everyone I met at Bouchercon last weekend.  I hope you had fun.

Keep in Touch

by Pari Noskin Taichert

The other day, I decided to clean out my inbox. There were hundreds of emails from friends and fans. I’d let some of them stack up since late January.

This does not make me proud.

As I plowed through each one — writing a response, filing it in a folder for future reference, or deleting it — I began to think about this new communications world in which we live.

Suddenly, just about everyone I want to reach is accessible, instantaneously. So am I.

When I was in grad school, I fell in love with Madeleine L’Engle’s storytelling. One long weekend, I read every single book of hers I could find at the University of Michigan Library. At three in the morning, I closed the final page of the last book and wrote her a thank-you note. It took a few days to find her publisher’s address, to buy the stamp, address the envelope (yes, I procrastinated then, too) and to mail my fan gushing. She replied nine months later. Her letter was a treasured possession for years until it finally disintegrated from so many enraptured readings.

Flash forward to today. We have blogs, emails, voicemails, instant text messaging, websites — so many ways to communicate. I wonder about the effect of all this extraordinary access.

Has easy communication cheapened our interactions? Does it affect sales? Does it affect attendance at booksignings? Has it raised expectations while lowering value?

Somehow, I think the speed with which we can communicate now does, indeed, lessen the value of our interactions.

I’m saying this as a person who adores, and is grateful, for all the people she’s met via the Internet. I relish the fan mail I receive and know it would be much less if it were only snailmailed on paper.

But there’s something important about expending effort, too. Fans take the time to write and I’m honored that they’ve done so. But, how valuable is my response back? What if I take nine months to send the note? Will a reader fold and unfold a letter from me she’s printed herself and that is topped with all the gobbledeegook from my ISP?

I don’t have answers here, only observations and a sneaking feeling that we’re losing an element of true, personal interaction with this split-second, electronic back-and-forth.

Oh, hell, I don’t know. I feel so torn, so oddly ungrateful, even thinking about it.

Without the Internet, far fewer readers would have ever heard of me. Without my responses to readers, albeit tardy, I wouldn’t have half the number of incredible and dedicated "fans." I wouldn’t  stay in touch with out-of-state family either.

Today, hundreds of Bouchercon attendees are home or are winding their way in that direction. How will they keep up with old friends and new contacts?

I’ll admit that now my communication is almost entirely through email, this blog and the phone. A handwritten letter is precious because it takes so much more time and effort (heck, I don’t write with pen and ink nearly as quickly as I can type).

Each communication outward brings another bevy of communications back. Each of those requires a response. Again, I’m not complaining — just marveling and trying to gain perspective.

Part of my problem is that I can’t send a canned note. So, I get backed up in my responses. For me, without the personal touch, the letter or email or blog or website isn’t worth the tap-tapping on keyboard or cell phone.

I think that’s why I hate spam, computer-recorded phone calls and printed marketing materials so much. They require my time to analyze relevance and to strip of personal info before trashing. They clog my inbox, phone machine and mailbox without having a spot to do with me.

I suspect most of you feel the same way.

And, so, today, I’m going through the last 156 emails in my inbox. The people who wrote them deserve a sincere response.

There will be more tomorrow.

I feel guilty that I can’t stay "on top" of my communications, but — here’s the kicker — still yearn for more.

Odd that.

If no one responds to this post, I’ll feel sad, neglected . . .

And I think that’s awfully odd, too.

Dispatch From the Rear

Jeffrey Cohen

(MADISON, WISCONSIN)–I’m not in Madison, Wisconsin.

In my most recent book, AS DOG IS MY WITNESS, Aaron Tucker goes on at length about how it feels to be a non-Christian in America during the Christmas season. And he says (I’m paraphrasing, because I don’t know enough about myself to quote me) something on the order of, “it’s like the rest of the world is throwing the best party ever, and you’re not invited.”

That’s more or less the way it can feel for a mystery author who doesn’t attend Bouchercon.

For weeks before, listservs and blogs alike are abuzz with the anticipation of the event: “are you going to B’con?” “When are the Anthony awards given out?” “Where will we meet at B’con?” “Does anyone want to share a room at B’con?”

You get the idea.

For an author who has occasionally attended conferences (I have, in fact, been to four or five, including one Bouchercon), there are the emails from friends, fans (there are still a couple out there) and other attendees who assume you’ll be there. After all, the whole WORLD of mystery books will converge on (in this case) Madison, WI.

Just not me. Not this time, anyway. Circumstances–financial, practical and scheduling–make it impossible. And while it is something of a downer not to see one’s pals, not to be treated like an author for a few days (as opposed to the way one is normally treated at home, which is another blog all by itself), not to meet new people and discuss the craft, the business and the mental illness that is mystery publishing, it’s not really all that bad.

Going to a large convention of mystery readers, authors, agents, publicists, editors, publishers and reporters on the field is a remarkable adventure, which is evidenced by the fact that I’m remarking on it even now. For an author, it can be a heady experience. People want to talk to you about your books–imagine! Many of them have already read them, too. You get to see other authors, who also are having a few days off from the “day-job,” or acting as the chauffeur for the minors in the family.

It is an experience determined to remind you that there is something just a little bit different about this job. It’s not like a convention of computer programmers, ice cream retailers (although that one would be worth attending, don’t you think?) or attorneys, which my wife occasionally attends. In this case, people are there because they share an appreciation for the form and the work that goes into it. We get together at the panels (and if we’re lucky, participate in one or two), possibly at the banquet and without question at the bar later on. We talk about mystery books, who’s doing what, what the rumors might be, and we get the occasional pat on the back. In this business, that’s huge.

Not going is more like getting a letter from a distant relative about a family reunion. “Sorry you couldn’t make it,” it might go. “Aunt Frances asked for you, but we didn’t give you to her. Cousin Bob threw up on Uncle Harry, the twins were running around asking if anyone could tell them which was which–no one could–and Mom got irritated because I was wearing open-toed sandals. Nobody told me it was going to be black-tie.”

See what I mean? It’s still fun, but not the same as being there.

But it’s not like I’ve been sitting at the computer all weekend, waiting for dispatches from the front. I’m not pining away, wishing I could be elsewhere. Here is pretty good, especially since I had a birthday this week, so my family still occasionally remembers to treat me well. Remind me to tell you about the extraordinary gift they conspired to present to me this year. It’s really something.

So, don’t cry for me, Madison, Wisconsin. But keep in mind that I’ll have a brand-spanking-new book (and a new series) all set at just about this time next year. So I’ll have a much stronger motivation to see you in…

Anchorage, Alaska?

Oy.

Publicist as Psychotherapist: Recognizing and Treating Author Personality Disorders

(When I asked the wonderful publicist at the University of New Mexico Press to write a piece for Murderati.com, I thought it would be a standard — and fairly boring — how-to piece. Instead, she came up with this satirical marvel. Any author — and any reader — will enjoy it. My only request is that you be honest when you take the survey.

Cheers, Pari)

by Amanda Sutton

An author has an intimate rapport with his publicist. From newlywed-like love, to the committed relationship doldrums, to the inevitable dissatisfaction of a long marriage, the relationship between author and publicist transforms through fluctuating levels of emotional attachment.

The author, though he does not always verbally recognize the situation, witnesses the publicist in any number of roles as she performs a variety of tasks for his benefit. The publicist takes on many archetypes under the general condition of multitasking.

Publicist as Spokeswoman promotes the author’s book to everyone, from the mullet-headed stranger in the long concert line to the muckracker on the phone inquiring whether your outlandish book is indeed a memoir. Then there’s Publicist as Coach: choosing outfits for author photos, consulting on hairstyles, planning strategies for media saturation. Another typology is Publicist as Biggest Fan, where the publicist, after a ten-hour workday, is the only person who shows up for the author’s reading. You might also see Publicist as Secretary, Publicist as Minion, Publicist as Fall-Guy, and, in a lesser manifestation, Publicist as Chauffeur.

But have you considered Publicist as Psychotherapist? Publicist as Psychotherapist listens to grievances, reassures the insecure author that snarky reviewers don’t hate him, and soothingly calms a nervous novice. When in the quiet corners of her home study the Publicist as Psychotherapist considers the common emotional and behavioral tendencies of her authors (also know as "patients"), a diagnosis becomes apparent:

Authors have issues. Acute mental disorders.

Not all of them do, but the prevalence is high.

The first step for an author experiencing an unstable mental state is to overcome denial. In developing your diagnosis, the Publicist as Psychotherapist will ask for more information about your, ahem, tendencies.

A survey like the one below might be used for clinical diagnostics. Each scenario asks for the author’s most likely response, and the sum of the responses determine the degree of his respective lunacy (or, hopefully, well-adjustedness) and steer the course of treatment. Treatment methods must also consider the preservation of the publicist’s own mental health.

Take the Author Personality Disorder Test below by writing your answers on a seperate sheet . . . or the one you’re wearing as a straight jacket.

Author Personality Disorder Test*
* Results are from a longitudinal study of 300 authors, from 2001-2006.

1. Your publicist is building a media list to send review copies of your new mystery. She asks you for your suggestions, and you

    A.  list a few media people you know, then scrap it because you know most people hate you now that you’re published. You decide on one recipient: Oprah.
    B.  send a list of contacts and a sweet thank you. Then two days later you leave a voicemail demanding to know why she hasn’t consulted you.
    C. tell her you don’t want just any commoner reviewing your book. The mainstream doesn’t deserve, nor will it understand, your creative genius.
    D.  reply, "Oh, my God!! You’re sending out my book to reviewers?!? What will they say? Will my mother see the reviews?!?! My heart is a-flutter!!!"
    E.  don’t bother sending her a list because you have more important things to do. You don’t need reviews to feel good about yourself anyway.
    F.  flounder because you have no idea what to do and think your publicist can come up with a list much better than yours could ever be.
    G.  mail her a list of two hundred reporters, sixteen mystery bookstores you’d like to visit, every writer’s conference from the web, and the names of all of your mother’s friends from church. Then you send the same information as both an attachment and in the body of the email. Finally, you call to make sure she received your email and ask her to confirm arrival of your package when it comes in the mail.
    H.  email her a list of mainstream mystery magazines, some web-bloggers who review books, and the name of your local newspaper’s book review editor.

2.  Murder Most Cozy, the largest bookstore in L.A., has invited you to speak on a panel during their annual mystery writers’ fair. On their website, you see that the biggest names of mystery are attending. You

    A.  figure they’ve invited you so they can pick on you.
    B.  tell your publicist to book it, then call her back to decline.
    C.  wouldn’t be caught dead on a panel with anyone.
    D.  are elated! You call your hairdresser to schedule an appointment for a new ‘do and then rush to buy yourself a sequined evening gown.
    E.  accept the invitation, thinking, "Of course they want me. No panel would be complete without my words of wisdom."
    F.  ask your publicist if she’ll fly to L.A. to sit next to you on the panel.
    G. respond affirmatively to your publicist, call the bookstore to accept, post your event to every mystery blog on the internet, let all your friends and family know, then create and post fliers all over town.
    H.  say, "yes," and begin working on a witty presentation for your part of the panel.

3. You receive a letter from your publicist. It’s the first review of your book, in Publishers Weekly. The review is, at best, milquetoast, offering a plot synopsis and concluding with "A solid debut." You

    A.  prepare for ensuing reviews paning your book.
    B.  are first pleasantly surprised by the initial response of the book trade, then become angry at their snubbing you.
    C.  don’t read any reviews of your book. Reviewers are a bunch of dilettantes.
    D.  scream so loudly your neighbors come over to see if you’ve been stabbed.
    E.  say to yourself, "They love me. They really love me."
    F.  call your publicist to see what this means for your career. It was such a short, inconsequential review.
    G. trim the ripped edges of the envelope. It has to be perfect to go into the acid-free pages of your scrapbook.
    H.  are pleased your book has been reviewed in Publishers Weekly. This "hit" will contribute to the cumulative effect of your entire publicity campaign.

4. You leave your publicist a voicemail on Monday, wondering if she’s followed-up with the New York Times Book Review about your new crime novel. By Friday when you haven’t heard from her, you assume your publicist

    A.  hates your guts.
    B.  loves you but has been busy. No, she despises you and wants you to die.
    C.  is a bitch. Why would you want to talk to her anyway?
    D.  is angry at you, so you leave several more voicemails begging her to call.
    E.  is not as organized and professional as you are.
    F.  thinks she’s better than you.
    G. didn’t understand the importance of your message. You email her the history of the NYTBR you wrote this morning while you were thinking about her not calling you back.
    H.  will check in with them soon and let you know if a review is planned.

5. It’s time to submit your book for awards. You

    A.  know you’re an Agatha contender but assume no one will vote for you.
    B.  ask your publicist to submit your book for the Edgar, since it might get your book into important hands. At 11PM that night, you write to tell her that book awards are frivolous and not to bother.
    C.  don’t want to give away a copy of your book to any committee member for any award. They’re just popularity contests.   
    D.  are so excited about the possibility of winning an award you begin to imagine yourself at a spot-lit podium with a gold medal around your neck.
    E.  only want her to submit for the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the Nobel Prize. Why bother with the little guys?
    F.  let her decide. You’re not sure your book’s good enough for consideration.
    G. send your publicist a long list of awards: the Best First Novel from a Southwestern Writer Under Sixty Who Worked for the Government During the Gulf War Years Award and the First Evangelical Church’s Most Noteworthy Congregationalist Honor are among your eclectic entries.
    H.  know which awards your work is eligible for and send a courteous note to your publicist asking her to submit your book.

That wasn’t so bad, was it? Now let’s analyze your results, dear patient.

If you answered mostly As, you are Paranoid Author. You assume the worst and flip every response to your book toward a negative end. You refuse autographs because you imagine fans are psycho celebrity murderers. You think your publicist is your worst critic. Successful treatment for Paranoid Author Disorder includes positive visualization of publicity tours in sunny places. Further recommendations: Don’t share every delusion with your publicist.

If you chose mostly Bs, you should investigate your family history of schizophrenia. Your Polly personality is your publicist’s favorite client; your Damien alter ego is her most dreaded. There is no pattern to your demonic possessions, which makes treatment complicated. Your Publicist as Psychotherapist recommends consulting an experienced mental health professional or a priest trained in exorcism. Do not consider publication of a book until you’re on major medication.

Mostly Cs indicates Antisocial tendencies, which are manifest in mumbling into mics and generally hating every aspect of publicity that involves people and talking to them. The outcome is bleak for Antisocial Author unless the name is Brown, Steinbeck, or Dickinson. Writing is the way Antisocial Author communicates effectively, but due to his habitual disregard for the Publicist as Psychotherapist’s suggestions, he will only show positive growth if Michiko Kakutani reviews his book. The Publicist as Psychotherapist discourages interviews and prescribes long hermitages to faraway places for salvage of patient’s public image.

D is for "Drama Queen." You are Histrionic Author. Your pageantry makes you eligible for a Tony: utter despair, sheer elation, public displays of affection for your publicist. If your writing is more ingestible than your theatrical personality, you will likely become popular. You’re an adept entertainer, a shameless promoter, and your publicist’s hardest-working author. Histrionic Authors also frequently exhibit narcissistic tendencies. Your Publicist as Psychotherapist takes notes on your charisma and powers of persuasion, but you make her very, very tired. Treatment recommendations: take up performing your writing onstage.

Egoism is the verdict for mostly Es. You are Narcissistic Author — an unswerving egomaniac and the highest-maintenance patient. Narcissistic Author might already be famous but can also be a beginning success. Regardless, he is fabulous. Treatment is difficult due to long bragging sessions that simultaneously make the patient feel better and make the Publicist as Psychotherapist physically ill. Caregiver secretly hopes you become rich enough to pay for a personal publicist and psychotherapist who will have time to devote solely to your treatment.

If you answered mostly Fs, you need to get a backbone. You have just published a book; there’s no reason to be a Dependent Author. People who meet you like your humble demeanor; they just wonder who the anonymous woman standing next to you is. Treatment is easy: Lose the Publicist Security Blanket and venture out. Initial treatment calls for regular visits where patient discusses ways to contribute to the PR plan, followed by short phone calls to track progress. Conquering of Dependent Author Personality Disorder is most effective in the care of an encouraging but firm Publicist as Psychotherapist.

The tendencies exhibited in G answers are among the most prevalent in authors. The high number of Obsessive-Compulsive Authors seems directly related to the act of writing itself, which requires complete consumption in an irrational act. Treatment is best in short durations. The Publicist as Psychotherapist must filter the patient’s excessive explanations to recognize information pertinent to the case. Publicist should perform yoga to maintain a sense of calm and objectivity before seeing this type of patient. Author is instructed to take deep breaths. In severe cases, prescribe Valium.

If you chose mostly Hs, you are Dream Author. As a Dream Author, you are a joy to your publicist and reminder to her why she loves the work that she does. Helpful but not pushy, ambitious but realistic, and, most importantly, psychologically well-adjusted, you are excited about your book, and it is contagious! You have your publicist behind you, and also your friends, family and fans — new and old. You extend your gratitude to reviewers and event venues that host you with hand-written thank-you notes. You call your publicist to check-in and update her on your travel schedule and promotions so that she can coordinate additional opportunities. Your publicist’s efforts on your behalf show her affinity for you.

It is possible that not just one Author Personality Disorder fits each patient. Truly, some authors suffer symptoms of a combination of tendencies that make their treatment not only frustrating but nearly impossible. The Publicist as Psychotherapist, though not always trained in pure psychology, is a caring professional who does her best to alleviate patients’ general anxieties, co-dependence, excessive egoism, histrionic outbursts, sociopathic inclinations, split personality interactions, and delusional paranoia. However, great care should be taken that the projection of these problematic tendencies does not affect the publicist, or she herself might require counseling, shock therapy, or, in the worst cases, a memory erasing and change of vocation. Indications for curing sufferers of one of more of the Author Personality Disorders are promising with early recognition, appropriate treatments, and regular visits to reality.

For further information on these findings, please email the reporting publicist at amandaasutton@hotmail.com.  For more information on mental illness, write to

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
6001 Executive Boulevard
Bethesda, MD  20892-9663

Thanks to Murderati.com for publishing this survey.

No, no, Amanda. Thank you!

Inside Out

Like most people, I’ve only seen San Quentin from afar, so I jumped at the chance to see the inside. Before going in, I had preconceptions—I’ve seen OZ and Cool Hand Luke—these didn’t last long, though. The prison is located at 1 Main Street, San Quentin, CA—I found it amusing that the prison had an address, but taking the freeway exit, I discovered its part of the village of San Quentin—next to the Post Office, if you’re wondering. There are about sixty homes or so, overlooking the bay. Homes go for around $600k.

I was further knocked off balance by the prisoners’ hobby shop at the main gates with a prisoner (on the outside) running the store. I suggest you don’t haggle over prices. The hobby store was very nice, selling various leather products (no, don’t go there) and woodcrafts and paintings. I was disturbed by the nick-knacks featuring the guard’s main tower, a small pile of rocks, sledgehammer, and a ball and chain. This seemed very cruel and unusual punishment to me.

I’ll admit I was nervous about going inside the prison.  The place is full of people who don’t want to be there and surely don’t want a bunch of tourists taking a look like it’s a carnival sideshow. So my nerves weren’t settled when the guard on the gate asked us to stand back because the paramedics were coming.

Before we could enter the prison itself, there were a number of check-in procedures. There is a strict dress code, anything remotely inmate-looking is a no go. So everyone gets to look like they are from a photo shoot for the GAP. We presented ID and signed in at the main gate, before a short walk to an airport-style metal detector.  There we signed in again, presented ID again and our hands were ink stamped with an UV dye at the entrance to the prison itself. We entered a cage, which worked like an airlock where one door had to be shut before the other could be opened, before we were on the side of the inmates.

The entrance reminded me that San Quentin is quite old, only few years younger that the state itself. Over its one hundred and fifty year history, it’s grown and developed during different periods, making it an eclectic place to say the least. There’s plenty of stuff to make you go hmm. The entrance to the prison itself is quite medieval courtesy of a castle façade and its original portcullis-style iron gate. A satellite dish is overshadowed by the 19th century hospital. Death row overlooks a touching memorial to guards who died in the line of duty. Painted by one prisoner, a beautiful mural stretching hundreds of feet adorns the dining room, charting California’s history.

Unlike Alcatraz, San Quentin is a fully operational prison, so wherever we went, we were mixing with the inmates. I was very self-conscious of this fact. I felt very guilty about being a tourist to someone’s downfall, regardless of whether that downfall was deserved or not.

About a third of the prison guards were women, which surprised me. I wondered whether the introduction of women guards helped with inmate stability, knowing they would get to see a female every day. I know it saw the end of nudey pinups. The best an inmate can get away with on his cell wall is Maxim.

San Quentin is home to 6,000 souls, but it’s not all maximum-security prisoners–that’s what Pelican Bay is for. No, San Q. runs the whole gambit. Most inmates are serving sentences up to ten years, but there are some lifers there from San Quentin’s old days and of course it does conduct executions, so it has a death row, but it’s also a Reception Center (RC) for incoming prisoners. This basically means it’s a processing center. The prison has 60 days to log you into the system, acclimatize you and send you to your designated prison, which may be San Q. or somewhere else. The new guys, or RCs as they’re called, wear orange jumpsuits and everyone is very weary of these people, because they could be drunk drivers or mass murderers. You wouldn’t know.

The cells are incredibly small—around 5’x8′. To make matter even more claustrophobic, each cell is home to two guys and their toilet. Suddenly a five-year sentence seemed a lot longer. I can see why the inmates take advantage of the various education programs and jobs available to them—I know I would.

There are calls for the prison to be removed, which is understandable when you consider San Quentin is built into the Marin headlands. For those who don’t know Marin, it is the San Francisco Bay Area’s equivalent of Beverly Hills (George Lucas lives there) and the land the prison occupies is worth hundreds of millions. However, the substantial foundations the prison is built on make it infeasible to demolish, so don’t expect the prison to go any time soon.

I found the guards pretty upbeat—quite jovial in fact.  None of them seemed ground down by their job. This extended to the inmates too. I won’t say they were happy to be there, but the inmates who spoke to us were polite.  Inmates and guards exhibited respect for each other. The atmosphere was quite relaxed, although both sides seemed prepared for that to change. I could well imagine that when it gets rough, it isn’t a pretty sight—I only had to glance at the prison officer’s memorial for that.

Watching how the inmates and guards interacted with each other, I did feel a sense of society and I suppose one has to exist if anyone is to survive their time there.  Everybody seemed to be aware of the rules and their place in the prison.

I found my visit quite sobering. Even though the people there were seeing out their time in livable conditions, it’s about the last place on earth I ever hope to stay.

Yours on the outside,
Simon Wood

PS: If you don’t hear from me, it’s because I’m at Bouchercon.  I’ll be back next week.

PPS: My story, Traffic School, received an honorable mention in Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, 19th Edition. I’ve yet to have a story selected to appear in the showcase anthology, but there is always next year. But I said that last year.  🙁

GET REAL

Deni Dietz

QUIBBLES & BITS

I like reality shows. One of the reasons I like them is because watching them gives me a chance to catch up on my reading. If I’m watching a convoluted drama, I have to focus, pay attention.

Another reason I like reality shows is because 15 years ago I wrote a story called THE LAST GREAT AMERICAN BEAUTY PAGEANT and it was about a TV reality show [cue Twilight Zone music].

There are many (many) reality shows. I can’t watch them all, nor would I want to. And to be honest, "reality show" is a misnomer since most are taped. You could say Jeopardy is a reality show.

I watch than one.

I watch American Idol, too. I’m not sure why. American Idol isn’t about singing. It’s about the cheesy, guilty pleasure one gets from watching bad singing. The show starts out every year encouraging viewers to laugh at all of the really bad singers who audition.

A website called VotefortheWorst.com encourages viewers to have fun with — and embrace — American Idol’s suckiness by voting for the less talented contestants. Who did they choose last year? A grey-haired guy named…what was his name again? Oh, yeah. Taylor Hicks.

I like to watch So You Think You Can Dance, which I find mesmerizing. But I don’t watch Dancing With The Stars, which I find boring (and sometimes kind of embarrassing a’la Jerry Springer).

This summer I watched "Rock Star with the band formerly known as Super Nova."

Last year it was "Rock Star: INXS." Last year it was innovative, fun, and they invoked a real sense of suspense.

This year’s winner was a Marlon Brando look-alike (albeit shorter) kid with skunk hair — a Canadian named Lucas Rossi. No suspense. He was destined to win from Week One. Still, the show was worth watching because of the House Band and because of the "losers," Magni and Storm. [And, to be honest, I enjoyed watching Lucas’s eyebrows form twin peaks above his sunglasses.]

They’ve announced that there will be a Rock Star III, but I don’t think they’ve picked a group yet [rumours say it’s Van Halen], so here’s my Fifty Cents:

Rock Star: The Mamas and the Papas

Rock Star: The Supremes [it would be fun watching a guy try to win that one]

And, based on this season, ROCK STAR: Willy Vanilly

If you watch reality shows, which ones do you like? Jeopardy counts. Recently, Lou Byard, author of the mystery novel Pale Blue Eyes, appeared on Jeopardy. As Meredith Vieira would say, "He did great."

Speaking of reality… here’s my Quote of the Week:

President Bush said: "Freedom, by its nature, cannot be imposed. It must be chosen."

Is that what the president honestly thinks?  What, then, was the purpose of a war that has cost the US nearly a half-trillion dollars and 2,700 American lives? It wasn’t weapons of mass destruction. It wasn’t the link with 9/11. The gift of liberty to the people of Iraq was the last justification. I wonder if the president know the meaning of the word irony.

Next week I’ll be going walkabout, visiting the midwest (is Wisconsin, Chicago and Indiana still considered the midwest?) and my guest blogger will be the always-fun Gordon Aalborg — and boy, does he have a lot to say 🙂

Over and Out,
Deni

What’s the Point?

by Pari Noskin Taichert

Any public forum — be it in print, on the internet, on the air, or in person — is an opportunity to convey the message you want to convey.

Why waste it?

And, yet, I see my professional cohorts ramble.

Perhaps they equate speaking off-the-cuff with charming spontaneity or beguiling creativity. Hell, I don’t know.

To me, it looks and sounds like blathering.

So, a big part of media training and coaching on public speaking consists of a little thing called a talking point.

What’s a talking point?
It’s a concept. Simple as that.

If you can focus on a few main ideas when you speak, ideas that further your goals, you’re on the road to being effective and memorable . . . for the right reasons.

Talking points can be a word or two that cue you. They can be sound bites. You can write full sentences if you want. The trick is to single out three to five concepts that you really want listeners (and readers) to understand.

How do you develop talking points?
First, figure out what messages you feel are the most important for you.

A person who does this quite effectively is Jan Burke. One of her main points when she talks to the media, posts on listservs, and speaks in public is that crime labs are dreadfully under-funded and under-equipped. She’s determined to inform people about the realities of this situation through the Crime Lab Project.

Jan’s on point all the time, yet never sounds rehearsed, and her passionate concern elevates public awareness. She also is raising her own visibility while doing something tremendously admirable.

We have other excellent examples in our literary community. Whether you agree with them or not, notice how well they’ve honed their points.

Carl Hiaasen is angry about land mismanagement and environmental abuse in Florida.
Tony Hillerman believes that the Navajo culture is important for all of us to know.
Janet Evanovich wants people to laugh.
Otto Penzler never misses a chance to dis cozies.

These people know what they want to say about a cause, their writing, or a pet peeve . . . and they say it with remarkable consistency. Do you think this is simply by chance?

Why Wait?
Right now, think of three points that mean something to you, that you’d like people to know if you’re interviewed or if you speak publicly. Focus on ideas that you want an audience to remember. These points can be profound or light, serious or humorous. It doesn’t matter to me. They should matter to you.

Go on. Write them down.

See? That wasn’t too difficult, was it?

But, I can’t just come up with three.
Yeah, I know. It’s not easy to limit yourself. But the beauty of talking points is that you can tailor them for any situation.

What I recommend to clients is to identify ten or more major concepts, then focus on three to five points in any talk or interview depending on context and time.

The reason to restrict the number you actively use is that most audiences have Teflon (r) minds. If you mention more than a few concepts, they won’t remember any of them.

Do I have to stick to my talking points?
It depends. Politicians cling to their talking points so closely that they can sound like automatons. So, learn from their mistaken rigidity.

Talking points enable you to
     1.  Keep focused so that you don’t run too far astray of what you want to say. (They’ll prevent you from getting too distracted, going off on irrelevant tangents, and wasting your public communications opportunities.)
     2.  Spring into other related topics, when appropriate.
     3.  Control the interview so that you answer the questions you want to answer rather than submitting to someone else’s agenda. (This is especially helpful when you’re being interviewed by someone who hasn’t read your work or who dislikes it.)
     4.  Sound like you’re prepared without appearing stilted or nervous.

Believe me, the majority of public relations is common sense. Talking points, a.k.a. preparation, are the bedrock of successful public communication.

You’d be a fool not to take the time to develop and use them.

****************
Next Saturday, Sept. 30, Evil Elaine won’t be able to post her normal ON THE BUBBLE. In her place, I’ve asked Amanda Sutton, the superb publicist at the University of New Mexico Press, to write about what she wishes authors knew. It should be fascinating.

cheers,

Pari

WHAT Kind of Burger?

Jeffrey Cohen

I got to be Mr. Asperger again this week when I was interviewed by a radio station in Kentucky. The interviewer, who had actually taken the time to read the book (of all things), was very good, and asked intelligent questions, but it always worries me when I am asked to be the Spokesman for the Autism Spectrum. I’m just a parent who has to deal with something, that’s all. Doesn’t every parent have to deal with stuff?

My son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, which is now considered a high-functioning form of autism, when he was about six years old (he’s now 17). It was the Ice Age of Asperger’s, when almost nobody had heard of it, when we were still being told by psychologists that our son was “eccentric,” and when school administrators, teachers, social workers and specialists were just finding out that there was something out there with a strange German name that might make an impact on the children they saw in class, and maybe they should find out more.

We were lucky to live in a school district (well okay, we had moved here with the schools in mind) that was not averse to differences among students. They were smart enough to explore what Asperger’s was, and early on, to note that this certainly explained students they’d had trouble with in the past, when they were frustrated and didn’t know how to respond.

Now, all school districts should take note: where diagnoses of autism once numbered about one in every 10,000 children, the number has now become one in every 166.

What causes autism and autism-spectrum disorders like AS? Nobody knows for sure, and I certainly can’t say with any authority. There is much debate, and I’m not a doctor. I don’t even play one on television, although I hear that’s a very sexy thing to do these days.

I can’t even say what it’s like to live with Asperger’s. I don’t have it; my son does. I can tell you what it’s like to live with someone who has Asperger’s, and tried to do so in my non-fiction books.

It gets a little uncomfortable when interviewers, readers, or anybody expects me to know all there is to know about all forms of autism. As an author, I don’t want to appear like I haven’t adequately researched my topic, but as a responsible human (which I aspire to be someday) I don’t want to make up information. I’ll often point out my almost criminal lack of credibility on a subject I’ve written about extensively for eight years, but there’s something just a little strange about having to do that.

Here’s what I know: people with autism, from the very high-functioning (boy, do I wish they’d come up with a better term than that–it makes my son sound like he should be spitting out pistons, or something) to the not-so-much, are different. They’re not sick, they’re not damaged, and I don’t believe they’re disabled; they’re different. They approach life in a way that the rest of us do not. I haven’t checked today, but I’m relatively sure that’s still not a crime in this country (although it seems pretty much everything is up for grabs these days).

What is needed is education. For the people with spectrum disorders? Certainly. If they want to fit in with the majority (some do, some don’t), they need to know what the majority expects, and at the very least, how to fake that. So education, from the earliest possible age, is desperately important. That means there need to be more people learning how to teach people who don’t see the world in the way most do, and we need to start doing that roughly 10 years ago, so it’s a priority.

But there also needs to be education for those of us who consider ourselves–and this is a word I shouldn’t be using–“normal.” (In the autism community, “neuro-typical” is the accepted term, and even that is pretty bad.) We need to be able to deal with a population that is growing geometrically by the day. And that means we need to understand where they’re coming from, how they view life, why they act the way they do. Police officers need to know it, teachers need to know it, grocery clerks, principals, deans, firefighters, writers, cable TV installers and virtually everyone else needs to understand.

People with autism and related disorders are not going away, and they’re not going to merely “fit in” because we decide they should. They’re going to be who they are, and if there’s one thing that living with my son for the past 17 years has taught me, it’s that they are very much worth knowing.

That’s why I write about Asperger’s, and autism, and everything in-between. Because if someone who’s reading a silly mystery book and isn’t expecting information about a neurological disorder to be included finds it anyway, maybe they’ll learn something. Maybe they’ll understand better. Maybe, when they meet my son, they’ll cut him just a little bit more slack.

It’s selfish, but it’s worthwhile.

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