Category Archives: Alafair Burke

Where Ideas Come From (or Things That Make You Go Hmmm….)

by Alafair Burke

Of all the questions writers get on tour and online, the one many of us hear most is, “Where do you get your ideas?”  In truth, the question is raised so frequently that some writers barely suppress an eye roll at its utterance, but I’m always glad when I get this one because I think I actually have a decent answer: Ideas come from everywhere if you only use your imagination.  (Hey, I said it was decent, not groundmaking!)

I’ve heard many writers talk about the “What if” process. You read a newspaper article or stumble on a little nugget of a thought and start to think, What if X had happened instead of A?  And then what if because of X, Y happened?  And then what if the reason Y happened was because of Z?  Before you know it, you have a plot that’s quite unrecognizable from its inspiration.

Ideas also come from characters, and, for me at least, characters come from watching the world with empathy.  I try not to wonder “What would I do in situation X, Y, or Z?”  Instead, I watch people in the world and wonder how they’d react, how they’d speak, and how they became the people they are today.

But not every story, and not every person, sends my imagination running.  There are stories, and people, who, in the once great words of C&C Music Factory, “make you go hmmm.

A couple weeks ago, I stumbled upon a little gem of a news story online about an Orange County woman who drove for months with the body of a dead homeless woman in her car.  According to media coverage, a 57-year-old former real estate agent “befriended” the homeless woman at a neighborhood park in December and allowed her to sleep in the car overnight.  When the car’s owner found the woman dead, she was too scared to call the police, so simply continued to use the car while the body sat covered in clothes in the passenger seat.

Police broke a window to enter the car after first noticing a foul odor and then observing the dead woman’s exposed (and now mummified) leg beneath the pile of clothing.  They found a box of baking soda that the driver had placed inside to reduce the smell, although she told them that she had “gotten used to it.”

Comments posted online about the story tended to focus on the yuck factor. 

Or to make jokes about the driver’s desperation to use California carpool lanes.  (Warning: Those of you who don’t like the course language or humor probably won’t enjoy this clip from Curb Your Enthusiasm…but the rest of you might.)

But yucks and yuks aside, this is the kind of story that made me go hmmm.  News reports indicate that police believe the driver, but that doesn’t mean a crime writer can’t go makin’ stuff up if she wants.  So what if the driver were lying?  What if she and the other woman weren’t just casual acquaintances from the neighborhood park but co-conspirators?  What were they planning?  And what went wrong? 

But perhaps even more interestingly, let’s assume that the driver is telling the truth as all reports indicate.  Why did she offer her car to the other woman for sleep?  Might it be related to the fact that she is a “former” real estate agent who “once” lived in Corona del Mar, an affluent Newport Beach neighborhood, but is now experiencing “difficult financial times” and “staying with a friend” while she drives a 1997 Mercury Grand Marquis registered to her sick father? 

And why was she so afraid to call the police when she found the body?  Did she do something she’s trying to hide, or is there something about her personality or experiences that makes her fear police generally? 

And who was the poor dead homeless woman?  How did she come to be homeless in a park?  And how did the two women become friendly?  And how did she die?  Did she know it was happening?

I never know where these kinds of ruminations will take me.  I published a book earlier this year, 212, that involves women living dangerous double lives in New York City.  Many readers thought it was inspired by the so-called Craig’s List Killer case, where the victim was a New York woman who, unbeknownst to her friends and family, was using Craig’s List to book private massage sessions.

But I turned in the manuscript for 212 two weeks before that case occurred.  If I had to guess where the idea came from, I’d trace it back to a winter morning more than five years earlier.  I had just moved to the city and was staring out my little window in the east village, marveling that my Wichita-raised self was living in great big important Manhattan. 

I noticed an attractive younger woman walking on Mercer.  She was tall, thin, well-dressed, gorgeous.  I wondered what it was like to be her.  She probably shopped at Barney’s, I figured.  Dated investment bankers.  Whizzed past the red velvet ropes outside the hot clubs she frequented long after the likes of me had fallen asleep.

And then she stopped at the corner trash can and looked in all four directions before pulling out a discarded pastry and eating it.

My fictional image of her life suddenly changed. The “character” I had momentarily created in my head was no longer cliche.

So if your friends and family ever find you daydreaming — paying too much attention to people you don’t know, staring into space wondering “What if?” and “What must it be like?” — tell them you are busy writing.

Now time for comments: Why in the world would someone drive her car for months with a dead body in the passenger seat?!  (And/or feel free to talk about where your ideas come from!)

 

The Anxieties of Final Edits

Remember that manuscript I was so happy to complete in early August?  It has already reached the copy-editing phase.  I honestly don’t know whether this editing cycle moved more quickly than years past or whether this is simply another indication that time moves faster as one ages.  Regardless, my little baby (named LONG GONE)  grew from barely hatched to escaping the nest in what felt like record time.

My husband would like me to view the briskness of the editing as evidence that this manuscript was my strongest draft yet.  Because I never turn down the opportunity to embrace a compliment, I’m choosing that version of the story.

I’m reading LONG GONE aloud to myself right now, word by word, with caution and scrutiny, trying to reach the highest level of polish.

So NOT how I look when I read aloud to myself. Who comes up with this stuff?

So far, my changes have been pretty minor.  Some random pages, for example: On page 32, I’ve changed “watching him” to “monitoring him,” and changed “watching his back” to “checking his back.”  (I apparently had the word “watch” bouncing around my synapses a bit too much the day I wrote that one.)  I also changed “wine” to “Chardonnay,” because I now know a very minor character well enough to say she’d drink Chardonnay. On page 229, I’ve changed “house” to “home.”  On 243, I changed “out to the country” to “up to the country.”

I’m pretty sure these aren’t the changes that will make the difference between a starred review and not, or a bestselling book or not, but they are changes I value even if no one else notices.  I also find comfort in their insignificance.  If I can read an entire novel aloud and find myself wanting only these tiny little amendments, then I can be proud knowing this is the very best book I’m capable of writing.

But… Oh, c’mon, you knew there’d be a but.

Some of the changes I’ve made aren’t that small.  Well, let me qualify that.  They are in fact small in that they aren’t big.  I haven’t suddenly decided that a character’s motives need to change or that a plot twist doesn’t actually work.  That kind of discovery would send me leaping from the nearest window.

But some of the changes I’ve made really NEEDED to be made.  I’m slightly halfway through the manuscript and have caught two — count ’em, TWO — typos. 

That’s right… typos, the literary version of bedbugs. 

Some might say that two typos in 250 manuscript pages ain’t bad.  But those two little errors have placed a lump solidly in the base of my stomach, because they really shouldn’t be there.  I try to write every page as well as I can the first time around.  Then at the beginning of each new writing day, I read what I wrote the previous day to make sure I’m happy with it.  When I reach the final chapter, I read the entire book on my own and make further changes.  Then my editor reads it.  Then I read it again, with her comments in mind.  Then I do another edit, which necessarily requires more reading.  And then the copy-editor gets a hold of it.

And so why are there still two typos (so far) in this fucking manuscript?

At a cold, cognitive level, I know the answer.  The human mind fills in gaps.  Read this sentence and count the number of F’s: “FINISHED FILES ARE THE RESULT OF YEARS OF SCIENTIFIC STUDY COMBINED WITH THE EXPERIENCE OF YEARS.”

How many did you count?  Three?  Four?  Nope.  Believe it or not, there are six letter F’s in that sentence. 

If you counted them all on the first try, you’re a genius.  And you should be my copy-editor.  But if you counted fewer, you, like most people, glossed over the f’s in the word “of,” which is used three times in that sentence.  We read for content.  We skip over those pesky articles and prepositions.  And so we make mistakes. 

At least I know it’s not me.  I find typos in books all the time.  A few years ago, a #1 bestselling thriller had a typo in the very first sentence.  (Gold star if anyone can name the book.  I won’t.) 

But despite the fact that typos are understandable and common, I won’t stop trying to stomp out every last one.  Finding one typo now will save me the scores of emails I’ll surely receive down the road, informing me I’m an idiot. (See this post for my thoughts about these kinds of emails.) 

And so here I sit in my office, reading each and every word aloud, with caution and scrutiny, because that — combined with the the layers of check within my writing process — is all I know how to do.  The fact that I’ve found two makes me terribly nervous.  If the layers of review missed two in the last version, how many did I miss this time? 

I love to learn from others, so if you have any tried and true tips for finding those pesky typos, please share them in the comments.  Bonus points if you’re willing to share any typo gems.  Here’s a doozie.  Earlier this  month a reporter for website tbd.com published the following correction based on a typo: “This blog post originally stated that one in three black men who have sex with me is HIV positive. In fact, the statistic applies to black men who have sex with men.”

(And if you find any typos in this post, which you surely will, feel free not to tell me.)

 

I Was Cyber-bullied by a Naked Woman

by Alafair Burke

We’ve all seen the tragic stories of teenagers driven into depression, out of schools, or even to suicide by the online taunts of peers.  The media have dubbed the phenomenon cyber-bullying and almost always describe it as harm committed by and against children.

But I’m starting to wonder whether horrible stories like this, this, and this are tragic extensions of the everyday nastiness to be found on the internet, among both children and adults who feel emboldened online to hurl criticism, taunts, and veiled threats they would never speak aloud to a person’s face.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not going Unabomber or anything.  I still the <3 the World Wide Webs.  Although I understand why Tess is thinking about pulling the plug, I get energy from the supportive relationships I’ve formed with readers online.  And yet there’s something about the Internet that encourages people to let their guard down and say impulsive things.  Is it really surprising that some people’s inner thoughts are better left unsaid?

A couple of weeks ago on my Facebook page, I finally got around to posting some photos from book tour, including one from my joint event with Harlan Coben at Barbara Peters’ Poisoned Pen. 

 

 

Within a few minutes, the reader comments numbered into the double digits.  Love him!  Two of my favorite writers!  Waiting for you to come back to Scottsdale! 

Pretty loving stuff, right?  Well, almost all of it.  Whoa.  Who gained all that weight?  Too much touring.  Needless to say, I wasn’t feeling the love from that one.  I tried to convince myself the woman was talking about Harlan (yeah right).  My response: Harsh.  Guess I won’t be wearing that outfit anymore.

I sort of expected the woman to delete her post, or perhaps back pedal, or at least say nothing.  But a minute later: Alafair, maybe you should start riding your bicycle when you go to East Hampton.  But you’re still my favorite chubb* writer.  Love you.  LOL.

Love you?  LOL.  No, I don’t think so.  Block User.

But blocking her wasn’t enough.  A few minutes later, I had this nagging loose thread tickling my brain.  Something about the woman’s name had sounded familiar.  She’d come to my attention before.  I googled her name with mine.  I got some hits on Facebook.  She had posted other comments to my page, and they were also odd: One asked whether I employed some of the cyber-sleuthing technology referenced in one of my books; another made strange mention of the race of a character.

And here’s what’s even stranger: Googling her name with mine pulled up that old My Space profile I’d forgotten about, and hers as well, because she had friended me there.  Her profile was very…public.  And personal.  And naked. 

My inner mean-girl was seconds away from unblocking her on Facebook, slapping up a link to her naked pictures, and saying, “If I looked like this, I wouldn’t be calling anyone chubb.” 

And, you see, that’s how it starts.  With the press of a button, I could have sent thousands of people to gawk at the naked photographs this woman had posted, but only her handful of friends had actually seen.  At least some of them would have taken a cue from me and piled on their own insults.  They would have forwarded the link to their friends.  And who knows how this obviously unhealthy woman might have responded.

Needless to say, I suppressed my inner mean-girl.  At forty years of age, it’s no longer hard to do.  At least, not for me. 

But obviously some adults are still hitting that send key.  Although a naked lady’s comments about my weight fall into a category of their own, I am amazed at the number of people who contact writers online to tell them how hard they suck.  Granted, the positive, supportive comments outweigh the meanies by 999 to 1, but, man, that .1 percent can irritate.  Just a few of my favorites:

Why did the book have to be so long?

Why do you set your books in New York and Oregon?  I prefer reading about New Iberia.

The sun does not rise in Portland that time of year until seven a.m.

I’m enjoying your books but feel they are too similar to each other.  Not sure I’ll stick with them.

This week I received a nasty-gram based on a blurb I had written.  Apparently I wouldn’t know “credible writing if it hit me in the face.”  I’m not sure I want writing to hit me in the face. 

At least I know I’m not alone.  One writer swears to me that someone used his book as toilet paper and mailed the soiled pages to his publisher.  (Okay, that one’s got nothing to do with the Internet, but it’s frickin’ creepy.)

A certain two-time Edgar winner and Grandmaster I know receives emails all the time telling him his words are too big, his sentences too long, and his characters too old.  A recent gem: “I just finished [name of novel].  It was a tedious reading, I do not know why it was written. I have read all your previous books with relish.” 

What a fan!  Give that man some relish.

And it’s not just in my writing life that I open myself up to online criticism.  Thanks to RateMyProfessors.com, students can post anonymous, unmoderated comments online about their professors.  Professor Burke generally fares well in the forum, and I even have a chili pepper (signifying my “hotness”) despite the obvious chubb factor, but it’s not fun when someone calls you “boring as hell.”  (Is hell …boring?) 

Some of my colleagues have been less fortunate.  Comments about weight, body odor, flatulence, attire, supposed senility, and their marriages and other personal details abound.  And these are comments by adults, about adults. 

To be clear, the jibes I’m complaining about aren’t nearly as bad as the psychological torment that has made headlines, or the growing phenomenon of nasty online comments about obituaries. Obviously most healthy adults (and I’ll include myself in that group) can handle this stuff.  You ignore it.  Or, if you’re me, you let it hurt your feelings for half a minute, then laugh about it, then ignore it.  This stuff’s minor, and it’s rare.

But this morning I felt like exposing the bullies to sunlight.  No retalitation.  No mean-girl revenge.  Just an acknowledgement that as much as I love comments from readers, I could do without the rare nasty aside.

So, are you willing to share your cyber-bully stories?  What’s the nastiest thing anyone has ever said to you online?

(*Chubb?  I have no idea if this is slang for fat, because lord knows we don’t have enough words for obese, or if she just omitted the y, but for reasons I can’t explain, being someone’s favorite chubb writer seems much worse than being someone’s favorite chubby writer.  Either way, I am not aware of an award in either category.  If there is one, please do not send it to me.)

If you enjoyed this post, please follow me on Facebook and/or Twitter, but please don’t talk smack about me, all right?

 

The Generosity of Friends

Yesterday I attended a memorial celebrating the life of a wonderful friend, David Thompson, manager of Houston’s Murder by the Book and Publisher of Busted Flush Press.  Since his death two weeks ago, plenty of his friends (including me) have posted tearful tributes, so this won’t be another one of those.

But the last two weeks have had me thinking about generosity.  David was as generous a soul as this world has to offer.  As a bookseller, he welcomed his customers with an infectious smile as if greeting them in his living room.  He’d knock himself out to build to-be-read piles filled with books his customers would never find on their own.  By handselling books that would be sold no other way, he helped energize the careers of young and independently published writers otherwise forgotten in a world of Wal-Marts and CostCos. 

As a Publisher, he not only published but tirelessly promoted the works of his authors.  Here he is with our own Zoe Sharp, whose entire Charlie Fox backlist was republished by Busted Flush Press.

The last time I saw David in person was at this year’s Edgar Awards, where David continued his tradition of making sure his nominated authors were there, supported by their publisher – something even major New York publishers don’t always do anymore. 

David Thompson and wife, McKenna Jordan, at Edgars 2010And as a friend?  As a friend, David was so generous in every way — with his his time, money, humor, and love — that I can’t even begin to offer specifics without risking another one of those tearful tributes. 

But David wasn’t the only generous person in this little crime fiction world of ours.  Instead, he seemed to exemplify a supportive spirit that permeates our writing community.

Take a look at any of your favorite crime writers’ websites, and you’ll most likely find evidence of generosity.  Blurbs.  Photographs from joint events.  Blog posts describing the emotional support and sounding boards that other writers provide for us when our thoughts go dark or blank.

Who are some of the people who have been generous to me in this writing world?  I’ve been blessed to have almost all of my favorite writers read and endorse my work: Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman, Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Sue Grafton, Linda Fairstein, Jan Burke, Tess Gerritsen, Tami Hoag, Sandra Brown, Faye Kellerman, Kathy Reichs, and Lisa Gardner.  I know these recommendation don’t come solely from generosity.  They have to be earned.  But these writers are all busy people who could sit back and worry only about themselves, but they’re the types who send the ladder back down for others to climb up, waiting at the top to offer a hand.

And it’s not just the blurbs.  Harlan Coben agreed to do a joint event with me when he was booked for The Poisoned Pen in Phoenix on the only day I could fit in a stop over spring break. 

Michael Connelly gave me a shout-out in the Wall Street Journal when asked about his summer reading list.  Laura Lippman traveled up to New York City on her own dime to address the local chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and all I had to do was ask. 

Lee Child’s support could fill its own blog post: giving me a ride from JFK to my parked car at LGA when he knew nothing about me other than the fact that I stupidly managed to fly home from Bouchercon into the wrong airport; helping me fill a Manhattan Barnes & Noble by agreeing to play a much hotter James Lipton by interviewing me for the launch of Angel’s Tip; and let’s not forget about that two-night-stand Jack Reacher had with my Samantha Kincaid at the beginning of Bad Luck and Trouble

The gang at Murderati has been generous, welcoming me into the fold even though they really didn’t need another blogger, especially one who sometimes goes missing from her computer for a few days at a time when the day-job transforms her into a 24/7 law professor.

Independent booksellers and librarians have been generous, helping introduce my work every day to new readers. 

My readers are ridiculously generous, talking up my books to friends and neighbors, sometimes driving hundreds of miles to greet me on tour, and serving as my virtual kitchen cabinet on Facebook.  (This week, I think more of my readers voted on my new author photo than in last week’s primaries!)

And where would I be without my people who see me through the dark times?  I’ve never been a writing-group kind of writer.  No critique exchanges for me, please.  As far as actual content goes, I sit in the sandbox by myself until the castle is done. 

But having friends who face the same unique struggles of this enterprise — self-doubt, fighting to find writing time and energy, the frustrating publishing industry quirks — saves me a hell of a lot of money on therapy.  Some of these people probably don’t even know how much they’ve shouldered me, either day to day or in a singular moment forever etched in memory: Lisa Unger, Maggie Griffin (Partners and Crime books), Teresa Schwegel, Jonathan Hayes, Dan Judson, Karin Slaughter, Reed Farrel Coleman, James Born, Michael Koryta, Ben Rehder, David Corbett, Val McDermid, Chris Grabenstein, Jane Cleland, Margery Flax (Mystery Writers of America), and, once again, Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman, and Lee Child.

In the last two weeks, I’ve seen this little crime-fiction world of ours turn on its generosity full force to support Murder by the Book, Busted Flush Press, and David’s widow, McKenna, but it’s a generosity that is always there, benefitting all of us.  I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that many of us, like David, have found a second family in this world.  I wanted to spend today writing about the gratitude that I always feel but am usually too snarky to express.

Who are the people in your lives who have been generous?  Give ’em a holla’ in the comments!

Where the Books Get Made

by Alafair Burke

I’ve really enjoyed seeing where my fellow Murderati bloggers work, so now it’s my turn to welcome you into  the physical space of my work world.  We have a two-bedroom apartment in New York City, one of the few American cities where designated square footage for a home office is considered a luxury.  When I walk in, I am greeted by a photograph that my agent commissioned of a pretty cool full-page New York Times ad that Harper ran for my fifth novel, Angel’s Tip.  Photographs don’t yellow like newspaper.  Smart agent.

 

 

 One wall of the office is lined with storage.   

 

Turning to the next photo, my Eames chair makes me very happy.  I used to have a crappy one I bought at Costco until Lee Child persuaded me that I needed to buy myself better stuff.   (He’s a pretty good Persuader.  Ba-dump-bump.)

I also really like my desk.  In theory, all that junk on top should be on the pull-out surface, so it gets hidden away when closed, but, well, that’s just not what happens.  Sadly, that is actually pretty clean for me.  If you can see exposed wood, it’s clean.  The state of my office usually reflects how busy I am.  Five weeks ago, there was not a single inch of clear surface to be found.  Four weeks ago, after I finished my new book, it was incredibly tidy.  Now I’m working on edits, and once again, some mess is accumulating.

Beneath those photos of my husband juggling, you’ll see a bulletin board I bought last summer with grand ideas of storyboarding.  Note that it contains only three note cards and a newspaper clipping.  On the note cards I listed character and place names.  The newspaper clipping’s about a Minnesota court decision ruling that dirty bong water constituted an illegal drug.  A storyboarder I am not.

 

Remember how I said I cleaned my office a few weeks ago?  Well, cleaning for me usually means getting rid of stuff.  Or at least building a huge pile of things that I need to get rid of.  Still.  All these weeks later.  Can someone please call the Goodwill truck for me?

 

 

 This is probably my favorite thing one might find in my office, Duffer enjoying the one and only sunbeam.

 

 

Here’s a couch I had in my home office back when I had a house.  I rarely sit on it but see no reason to get rid of it either.  That’s my little laptop on its stand, but it rarely gets used anymore at home since I got an iPad.

 

From my desk, I look south over Greenwich Village.  I hate the people who live across the street for ruining my simple view with that ridiculous geo-dome-y thingey mcbopper.  They also have colored Christmas lights around the terrace year-round.  Classy.

 

 

Now that you’ve seen my home office, I should say that lately I seem to be most productive away from home.  At the end of summer, I nestled myself away in Portland’s West Hills and wrote a TON in ten short days.  Sans husband, sans dog, sans all responsibility, I found incredible energy and focus.  Try it sometime.

In the city, as I’ve previously mentioned, I often walk down to Otto (a Mario Batali pizzeria and wine bar) with my laptop.  Good wine.  Tasty food.  No internet signal. 

 

 

You can see from the guest name on this check that I’m a regular.  My bartender friend, Dennis, even made a cameo appearance in the last Ellie Hatcher novel, 212.

 

The wonderful thing about writing is that we can work anywhere.  We can set our hours.  We can travel.  We can scribble sentences on airplanes and in coffee shops if we need to.  We do what works for us.  The only thing that matters is the writing.

Which of Your Books Should I Read First?

by Alafair Burke

I am a better writer today than I was in 1999 when I started my first book, Judgment Calls

I make that observation neither to apologize for my debut novel nor to boast about my current abilities.  In my humble and biased opinion, Judgment Calls is a good book.  I’d say PW and Booklist were probably about right in describing it “a solid first effort” and a “promising debut,” respectively.  (Proving that reviews can be scattered, The Rocky Mountain News may have been overly generous in comparing it to the “best of the genre,” while The UK’s Guardian was undoubtedly harsh in dubbing it their “Turkey of the Year.”)  And though I say I’m a better writer now than I was when I wrote that book, I know I can still develop further in my craft. 

But the objective fact remains that I am better today than I was then.  So, therefore, are my books.  In fact, after just finishing my seventh novel, I can say (and I think my readers would agree) that each novel — without exception — has improved upon its predecessors.  I chalk the advancements up to hard work and confidence.  I try to write every single day, challenging myself to be better with each session.  And with each book, I have been more willing to trust my instincts, experiment with form, and follow my characters on their journey.

It turns out I am not the only writer who believes she has improved with age.

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending a Q&A with Lisa Unger at The Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan about her new book, Fragile.  I asked her whether she viewed her earlier books, published before she was married under her maiden name Lisa Miscione, as part of the same body of work, or whether she preferred the later Lisa Unger novels to be treated as works by a different author. 

I found her response to be such a wonderful description of how many of us might feel about our development as artists.  She expressed a sincere pride in her early books and made clear that she was not one of those writers who seek to distance themselves from certain books through the use of another name.  But she also noted that she started her first book, Angel Fire, when she was nineteen years old.  She tries to become a better writer everyday (I obviously liked that part).  And, interestingly, she said that readers who picked up Angel Fire and Fragile would not recognize them as having been written by the same person because she was not the same as she was as a nineteen-year-old.

 

Harlan Coben recently found a different way of expressing a similar observation about his own work.  When his first novel, Play Dead, was re-released, he wrote the following note for the front of the book:

If you ever doubted Harlan’s ability to be humble and funny, you probably don’t anymore. 

The writers I most admire aren’t the ones who shoot out of the gate with a shattering debut that subsequent books just never quite measure up to.  They’re the ones — like Lisa and Harlan and Laura Lippman and Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane and Lee Child and Karin Slaughter– who keep rolling out bigger and better books, delving deeping into their own souls to find fresh material year after year after year.

But there’s one question that I’m asked multiple times a week that must give pause to any writer who believes she’s improved with every book:  Which of your books should I read first?

In some ways, there’s really no better question to find waiting in your e-mail or on your Facebook page.  It means a new reader has found you.  Someone has heard about you from a friend or has finally seen your name enough times to be interested in your work.  Woot! 

The downside to the question is you’ve got to answer it.  And what’s the right answer, particularly if you write a series?  No matter how hard you’ve tried (as I do) to make each book work as a standalone, most genre readers like to proceed in order.  On the other hand, if you’ve become a better writer with each book, you might know (as I do) that, as proud as you are of that first novel, it’s not as good as the last.  So, for me at least, there is no short answer.

What I want to tell people is to read in order, but to expect each book to get better and better, and to stick with me through the end.  But that sounds simultaneously boastful and apologetic.  It also assumes a new reader is going to devote herself to your entire oeuvre.  So instead I say each book can be read alone, referring readers to the chronological list on my website.

I have to admit that when asked that impossible question, I wonder whether it would be better to be one of those people who torpedoed out of the gate only to come to a slow limp in later books.  And when I say “better,” obviously I don’t mean better.  I guess I mean something like luckier.  No, I mean easier. 

To explain what I mean, let me invoke some television shows as examples, since I love me some TV.  I absolutely loved Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty at the get-go.  Great characters.  Great hook.  Pulled me right in.  And then, you know, stuff happened.  Silly stuff.  Lame stuff.  But I was already invested, so I didn’t stop watching.  Other shows — shows like Friday Night Lights and, as I’ve been told at least, True Blood and Mad Men — had impressive enough starts but then blossomed into some of the best series on the tube. 

Creatively, of course you’d rather be the creator of the higher quality material.  But commercially?  An early peak can be pretty sticky as far as an audience is concerned.  If my first book had been my best, it would be so easy to tell new readers to start there.  Start with that first, awesome book, fall in love with the characters, and then stick with me even as I phone it in.  See how easy that would be?

But I don’t want writing to be easy.  I don’t want to phone it in.  I’m incredibly proud of the fact — yes, fact — that I’ve written seven books in about a decade, each being better than the previous.  I hope to write twenty more in the next two decades and be able to say I’m still a better writer every day.

But, my God, that trajectory sure does make it difficult to answer that damn question:  Which of your books should I read first?

So what do y’all think?  If I writer’s early books are good but not as great as the later ones, how do you hook a new reader in?  How do you talk about your body of work without apologizing for or distancing yourself from those early books?

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I’d Know Laura Lippman Anywhere

I’m sure other crime writers out there would agree that one of the finest perks of this writing gig is being part of a community of tremendously talented and suprisingly humble writers.  To form friendships with writers whose words you’ve known and loved for years, and to hear them discuss their craft, is pretty darn cool. 

Even among our nifty community, some authors have a special ability to articulate their commitment to and relationship with storytelling.  I think Laura Lippman is one of our best, both as an author on the page and as a spokesperson for the genre. 

Laura is the President of Mystery Writers of America

If you’re reading Murderati, you probably already know a little about Laura.  A former journalist, she has won the Agatha, Anthony, Edgar, Nero, Gumshoe, and Shamus awards.  She is routinely mentioned as one of this generation’s finest crime writers.    

Laura’s new book, I’d Know You Anywhere, hits stores tomorrow.  It has already earned starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist.  It is is one of Amazon’s Top 10 Picks for August and also an Indie Next pick.  “Stoked by stinging dialogue and arresting evocations of the fog of fear, doubt, and guilt versus the laser-lock pursuit of survival, Lippman’s taut, mesmerizing, and exceptionally smart drama of predator and prey is at once unusually sensitive and utterly compelling.” – Booklist

On the eve of her launch, Laura, with her trademark generosity, agreed to answer a few of my burning questions.

1.  Tell us a little bit about your new novel, I’d Know You Anywhere.

To me, it’s a fairly simple story: A woman who has managed to create a happy, contented life for herself despite being the victim of a horrible crime is forced to confront that crime years after the fact when a man writes her from Death Row. She is his only living victim and he wishes to speak to her before he dies. She’s terrified of speaking to him, but also terrified of not speaking to him. And she has no idea how to tell her children about what happened to her.

2.  You’ve written with such detail and heart about your hometown of Baltimore.  For this book, you’ve taken Eliza to the suburbs of Washington, D.C.  How does an author’s choice about location affect the novel as a whole, and why did you decide on this location for I’d Know You Anywhere? 

I am a homebody and I’ve always gravitated to fiction with a strong sense of place. But part of Eliza’s dilemma is that she doesn’t feel at home anywhere in the world. Her family moved in order to grant her greater anonymity, but that well-intentioned change has led to a general feeling of dislocation. She has lived in London and Houston and now D.C., but she’s not really at home in any of those places.

3.  You often find inspiration for your plots in real-life crime stories.  Where did Eliza’s story originate?

There was a serial killer who let one of his victims live. Because that person is still alive and has a somewhat unusual name, I’ve decided to say no more. I got to thinking about the case one day and suddenly thought: Oh my god, what’s it like to be that person?

4.  You and I share a fascination with the frailty of human memory.  How did you get interested in memory?  How has your study of our fallibility as historians and narrators affected your writing, both as a journalist and in fiction?

I used to think I had a great memory. Maybe I did. I got good grades, I was on a quiz team. But a few years ago, my husband told a story he had told many times, and a friend of his shot it down. I think that started my fascination, the idea that someone could have a story that was right, emotionally, but wrong on almost every detail.

Now I’m trying to come to terms with the fact that my memory is bad. But you know what? I think most people my age have bad memories. Perhaps imperfect is a better word. You and I saw each other a week ago. I don’t remember what you were wearing. I can’t even remember your shoes! I can, however, remember what we had for lunch at Coquette in New Orleans back in January. (I had that divine grilled cheese sandwich and you had P&J oysters, which are on my mind because P&J had to close down because of the BP spill.) I have a friend who says she can remember every restaurant meal and WHERE SHE SAT in the restaurant. And it’s not like she goes out to eat only once or twice a year. She’s a foodie.

I will say that I would find it hard to be a journalist again because so much of journalism relies on people’s memories. Bill Bryson has a nice line in THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE THUNDERBOLT KID, about how the memoir is true to his memory. But my memory seems full of blank spaces. I think fiction takes up too much real estate in my head. If you think about it, novelists are living multiple lives. It gets confusing.

5.  You move so successfully between standalones and your Tess Monaghan series (when you’re not writing killer short stories).  When you have an idea for a book, how do you decide whether it’s a Tess novel or a standalone?

A Tess novel is about Tess. That sounds simplistic to the point of being moronic, but while all the Tess books center on a mystery/murder, the real story is what’s happening to Tess. If she can’t be at the center of the book, it can’t be a Tess novel. The idea for Every Secret Thing forced me to confront that notion. I am Tess’s Boswell, for better or worse.

The stand-alones, by contrast, are more idea driven. What are the responsibilities inherent in survival? Does everyone deserve a second chance, a fresh start? Is there a right way to grieve, do we promote closure for the grieving or for ourselves, so we might feel better? Why do girls break each other’s hearts? At what point does a parent’s advocacy for his child cross the line and harm someone else’s child.

6.   You were gracious enough to headline a dinner for the New York Chapter of Mystery Writers of America last fall.  One of the guests asked you which writers’ careers you would most like to have.  I know you mentioned the uber-talented Megan Abbott among others.  I think many of us would also mention you.  Your writing just gets better and better.  What advice do you have for writers who are just getting started at a time when the publishing industry seems increasingly impatient for early commercial success?

I’m going to be honest: I worry a lot that I am not confronting these issues because the current system is treating me well. There’s a part of me that’s sort of la-la-la, fingers in my ears, I can’t hear you! So maybe I’m not the best person to give advice. That said — how can you go wrong, putting the lion’s share of your writing time, whatever it is, into being a better writer? What do you have to lose by writing the best book you can? Writing a novel is a better gig than digging ditches, but it takes a lot of time. What do you want to have to show for that time? Money? Good luck, and I mean that in the best sense: Good luck, you’ll need it, because luck is a big part of making money in fiction writing. Great reviews? I’ve had great reviews. I’ve had lousy reviews. Neither changed me. The bad reviews hurt more than they should have, the good reviews failed to make me younger and thinner, so what good were they? Awards? For everyone out there salivating to win awards, let me ask you this: Who won the Edgar for Best Novel in 2009? I was there and I can’t remember. (Then again, see bad memory, above. I do remember your Grandmaster tribute. Oh, wait, I just remembered: C.J. Box won. But it took me a while.)

Look, if you don’t HAVE TO write, don’t. Be happy. Go live in the world. But if you want to be a writer, then want to be a writer. Not a millionaire, not someone who’s beloved by strangers, not a guy, like Dan Brown, who can arrive at the airport without his license or passport and grab a copy of his novel to use as ID. Those are all fun things, but they have zilch to do with writing. Write. Write your way. Don’t tell anyone else how to do it and don’t let anyone tell you how to do it.

As for the publishing industry: Whatever shape it takes, professionalism is always valued. Meet deadlines, be nice. It’s amazing how far those two things will take you.

 

See why this fawning fan girl finds such inspiration?

7.  We share a love for good food.  What’s the most ludicrous thing you’ve ever done to partake in a good meal?

A week ago, Mr. Lippman and I finished a meeting in New York City and had to head for home. But, of course, we were going to eat lunch first. I threw out Di Fara, the Brooklyn pizza place that I think might have the best slice in the world. I used the I Want ap on my iPhone, checked the hours, got directions. We drove through hideous traffic only to find it was closed for vacation! And one of Mr. Lippman’s cousins had driven in from Long Island to have lunch with us. So we drove to Totonno’s on Coney Island. It was worth it. To be candid, I was a little bummed we let our cousin have the leftovers. Totonno’s pizza travels really well. A few hours later, we were at the Walt Whitman rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike and I was yearning for that leftover pizza.


Great, now I’m hungry for pizza.  And for yet another Laura Lippman novel.  Learn more about I’D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE and Laura at her website.  She’s also fun to follow on Facebook.

Please feel free to leave comments for Laura below.

I’m curious: Have you read Laura’s novels?  Which are your favorites?  And what are you reading right now?

I Want What I Can’t Have

I want what I can’t have.

When I say that, I don’t refer to the desires most of us have for actual things or states of being that exist in reality but which we will likely never enjoy: a mansion in Maui, a loft in Tribeca, waking up in bed with James Franco. 

In other words, when I say I want what I can’t have, I don’t mean it the same way Morrisey meant when he sang “I Want the One I Can’t Have.”  (Yes, that was just an excuse to include a Smiths video in this post.)

With all due respect, Morrisey, the more precise language to describe that state of desire would be, “I want what I am highly unlikely to have in the foreseeable future.”  No.  When I say that I want what I can’t have, what I mean is that I want what I literally cannot have.  And by literally, I mean literally, not figuratively, the way people nowadays inexplicably (and literally) say things such as, “My head literally exploded.” 

Here’s what I mean: Yes, I want that beach house in Maui, and I want that loft in Tribeca.  I’m not likely to have either one in the foreseeable future, but my real problem is that I want them at the same time.  I want to wake up to the sounds of waves crashing on the beach outside my window, then step outside onto cobblestone streets to eat pasta cooked by some employee of Robert DeNiro.  I want to take a surfing lesson in my backyard then walk down the street for dinner at Nobu.

 

And, yep, I got a mad crush on James Franco.  I sort of like the idea of being Mrs. James Franco.  (Oh, who are we kidding?  He’d be Mr. Alafair Burke, but whatevs.)  Now, am I likely ever to meet James Franco?  No.  Would he love me if he met me?  Well, yeah, of course, but he might not want to marry me.  All of those considerations are irrelevant, however, because I want to be married to my husband.  Forever.  Exclusively.  Indubutably.  For reals.  But, ahem, as bride to James Franco. I want what I can’t have.

As I write this, I find myself extremely sad because I am packing a suitcase.  Tomorrow morning, I will board an airplane, and I won’t come home for 14 days, 2 hours, and 11 minutes.  The husband will be joining me for the first five days on Burke-a-pa-looza, an all-Burke vacation up in Canada.  There will be golf, parental units, and nieces and nephews who think I’m the coolest aunt in the world.  I have every confidence that said vacation shall rock.

From there, I will head solo to a hotel room on the west coast, away from the humidity that ruins my summers and my hair, closer to dear friends whom I still miss everyday, and shielded from the many distractions at home that keep me from writing with the intensity I need right now.  I asked for ten days, by myself, in a hotel room, so I could finish my next book before classes start.

I got what I asked for. 

But now I’m sad.

Why?  Because fourteen days away from home means fourteen mornings when I won’t wake up to find this face licking mine:

It means fourteen days when I won’t have lunch at my office away from home:

Notice the name of the guest on the check. I’m a regular!
It means fourteen days without my gym, my park, my croissant place, or that amazing collection of health and beauty aids crammed into my medicine cabinet. 

It means ten days without my husband.

The thing I want that I can’t have is all the comforts of home, all the familiar rhythms of family, the constant companionship of my closest friends, and all the time and solitude I need to write the best possible book I can.

In this case, I really can’t get what I want.

I just might, however, find I get what I need: a few days with my family, a few dinners with my west coast friends, a hell of a lot of writing time, and a very happy husband and Duffer waiting to greet me and my completed manuscript at home.  Wish me luck!  (I may be a bit quiet while I’m bunkered down.)

So what are the things you want that you CAN’T have?

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What’s in a Name (and a Jacket)?

by Alafair Burke

I have a confession: I long for a world where the content of a book speaks for itself — where the reading experience is entirely subjective and organic, where a reader actually has to read Book C by Author Number 62925 before deciding what “kind” of book it is. 

I know: I’m in la-la land.  Readers want to know who wrote the book.  But would I have a different audience if I published under, say, Ally Simpson instead of Alafair Burke?  And readers want to know a genre.  But am I mystery or thriller?  Women’s suspense (whatever the frack that means) or procedural?  And readers want to know some basic information about the plot.  But should the jacket description of 212 emphasize the stalking of a college student, the murder of a celebrity bodyguard, or the death of a real estate agent who was leading a double life? These choices we (or our publishers) make about what to put on the book jacket send signals to readers about the contents of the book before they’ve even broken the spine.

Arguably that signal begins with a book’s title.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I struggle with character names, but when it comes to titles, the struggle reaches epic, paralyzing proportions. Why?  Because I withdraw from every decision that purports to typecast the book I have written.

I’m in title hell right now with my next book, my first stand-alone.  I ran a couple of contenders past my kitchen cabinet advisors (i.e., Facebook friends).   The comments cemented my gut instincts: one sounded thrillerish, one sounded chick-ish, and both sounded vaguely familiar.  “[Suggested title] sounds like a cheesy book I wouldn’t read under threat of bodily harm,” said one.  Another reader said one title sounded like a Harlan Coben novel, the other like Nora Roberts.  Same book, two pretty different impressions.

See?  This is why I hate the pressure of a title.  Pick a couple wrong words, and you just might lose the readers who would have loved that book.

But here’s what I’m learning about titles: They don’t exist in isolation.  They are backed by an image on the jacket, and, as the cliche goes, a picture says a thousand words.

Consider some recent examples:

Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell.  I’m not sure what the title on its own would say to me, but the quirkiness of the jacket “matches” the tone of the book.

Then there’s One Day by David Nicholls.  Kind of bland.  Kind of makes me want to sing “One day, one where, we’ll find a new way of living,” but I do have an annoying tendency to break out in song, regardless of lyrics.  But check out the jacket:

Gets your attention, right?  Flip it over and learn that the novel depicts two people on one single day across twenty years?  Suddenly it’s a perfect title.

Or how about “Caught” by Harlan Coben?  Pretty good title.  I always like those one-word things.  But take that single word, and drop it against this background:

Then read this first sentence: “I knew opening that red door would destroy my life.”  Awesome!

I recently finished a little book called The Glass Rainbow by some guy called James Lee Burke.  I confess to talking some serious smack about that title when I first heard it.  The Glass Rainbow?  The only book I could imagine was a memoir of Kurt Hummel’s early years:

But add the jacket art, and The Glass Rainbow suddenly looks like a JLB novel.  Read the book, and the title truly works.  (Blatantly nepotistic plug here: The book’s fabulous and just came out last week!)

So folks, I’d love to hear your thoughts about some of your favorite book jackets and titles.  Send links to images if it’s not too much work.  And, oh, if you happen to have a good standalone title for someone who writes sort of like me, let me know!    

(I’ll be on a plane today on my way home from a wedding in Santa Fe, so I may be slow to post replies, but I can’t wait to read your comments!)

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How Worser Can You Write?

by Alafair Burke

We’ve all heard about the magic of a book’s first sentence.  Melville’s “Call me Ishmael” or Orwell’s “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”  Some sentences stay with you forever.  At the very least, we writers want our first sentences to set the tone for the novel and persuade the reader to give the book another few pages. 

There’s no shortage of commentary about good first sentences: examples, why they’re important, how to make them good. I won’t try to add to those lessons since I’m not a great writing teacher unlike, say, for example, Murderati’s very own Alex.

Instead, I want to talk about the bad first sentences.  No, not sad, pathetic bad.  Funny bad.  Intentionally bad.  Hilariously bad. 

“I have had it with these m-f’n’ snakes on this m-f’n plane! Everybody strap in! I’m about to open some f’in’ windows. “

Turns out there’s an award for worst imaginary first sentences.  Named for the author of Paul Clifford (as in “It was a dark and stormy night”), the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest promises that its www stands for “Wretched Writers Welcome.”  And wretched are the submissions indeed.

In the genre of detective fiction, the winner, from Steve Lynch (San Marcos, CA): “She walked into my office wearing a body that would make a man write bad checks, but in this paperless age you would first have to obtain her ABA Routing Transit Number and Account Number and then disable your own Overdraft Protection in order to do so.”

I somehow picture this guy as the lead in the film adaptation

I also enjoyed this “dishonorable mention” for purple prose: “Elaine was a big woman, and in her tiny Smart car, stakeouts were always hard for her, especially in the August sun where the humidity made her massive thighs, under her lightweight cotton dress, stick together like two walruses in heat.” -Derek Renfro (Ringgold, GA).

Like these guysOr maybe these (what can I say, they popped up in a search for “two walruses”)And the overall winner, from writer Molly Ringle: “For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity’s affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss — a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity’s mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world’s thirstiest gerbil.”

Pretty good (meaning bad) stuff, right?  But as atrocious as those first sentences are, I suspect we here at Murderati can reach even higher (lower?) levels of literary abomination.**  

I’ll get this party started.

The first sentence of my next novel (NOT!):  Harlow felt oddly detached from the sight of her own fat, rumbling inside the lipo hose like tapioca and cherry slurpee, as she wondered if her newly flat abdomen might bring Trevor back home.

Can’t wait to see what y’all come up with.  Go for it!

*Shout out here to fellow law prof Stanley Fish for his excellent NY Times Op-Ed on first sentences of crime fiction novels.

**Hat tip to my bible, www.ew.com, for playing this game first.

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