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Trial And Error

Have you ever noticed how jury selection is pitched to the proletariat the same way timeshares are sold? "Hey Bob, you’ve just won the county lottery and you may have won the chance to be on a jury. To claim your prize, just pop along to the county court house."

Julie was lucky enough to get her jury duty notification letter a few month back. She’s always been pretty lucky with these things. She gets her call up papers once a year. Me, on the other hand, I don’t have to worry. As a non-citizen, I can’t serve on a jury. I think this should extend to not appearing in court as a defendant either, but I could be on my own with that one.

Well, just like with the timeshare pitch, Julie’s response to the notification was one of annoyance and irritation, which seems to be pretty much the common reaction with everyone. I can’t say I’m any different. I can think of many other painful ways to spend my time than serving on a jury. Not only that, there’s a lot of pressure on you as a juror. You have to pay attention for a start. The hardest thing is that you have to decide the fate of another person. That’s some scary responsibility and power.

Considering all that lawyers have to learn, are we (the general public) the best people to preside over a court case? What do we know and understand of the law? And saying you watch Law & Order on a regular basis isn’t good enough. In what other venue do we allow unskilled personnel to take control of such a serious undertaking? I don’t see nurses yanking people off the street to do brain surgery or airlines picking a passenger at random to fly a 747, so why have the decision of guilt or innocence placed in the hands of laypeople?

Combine that with the fact that most people consider jury duty to be such a hardship, I don’t fancy anyone’s chances of a fair and well-reasoned trial. Any of us could end up in court fighting for our livelihood and the last thing any of us want is twelve pissed off people who couldn’t come up with a decent enough excuse to get out of jury duty. It’s not exactly the justice system our forefathers imagined.  Remember, the judge won’t save us. All he’s going to do is slap a number on the proceedings. To me, a jury is a bigger deterrent not to commit crime than the various crime prevention programs the police currently have.

This is my script for a TV commercial to be broadcast nationally to scare us straight. Here it is:

"Trial by jury is a right of everyone in this country.  You’ll be tried by your peers–objective people who have nothing to gain or lose from your case. Meet your jurors:"

"Juror #1 was meant to be in Maui this week."

"Juror #2 didn’t get beyond 5th grade and needs help tying his laces."

"Juror #3 thinks J-walking should be a capital offense."

"Juror #4 will go with the flow and agree with the majority."

"Juror #5’s car was stolen last month and no one was caught. This is payback."

"Juror #6 knows you did it just by looking at you."

"Juror #7 will base your guilt on a coin flip. Heads or tails?"

"Juror #8 thinks evidence is overrated. It’s all about gut feel."

"Juror #9 has fifteen cats and doesn’t think you look like a cat person."

"Juror #10 hopes to hook up with Juror #9."

"Juror #11 hasn’t been listening."

"Juror #12 and foreman is the actual perpetrator of the crime you stand accused of and isn’t in the mood to confess."

"Now, you’ve met your jury. How confident are you they’ll do the right thing?"

If this ad went out, crime would cease in a week.

I know the court system is a symbol of our democracy, but can’t we palm the responsibility onto someone who likes this sort of stuff? Justice, she may be blind, but the rest of us, we’re just blinkered.  🙂

Yours tried and tested,
Simon Wood

“Regional” — Oblivion or Jumping Point?

by Pari Noskin Taichert

It’s a sad fact. Readers have chided me for it.

I gripe about being considered a "regional writer."

It might not bother me as much if I lived in a region with a large population — and that population supported its authors. But the Southwest just doesn’t come close to "The South" or "California" or "The East Coast."

So, I sulk.

I’ve been convinced that my series — even with its national nods — hasn’t "hit the big time" because those darn New York editors (and reviewers and bookstore owners) don’t understand that a book written with New Mexico as its focus can still have a broad appeal. Hell, I know it can. My readers come from all over the country, and beyond.

I know for a fact that THE BELEN HITCH was passed over at one NYC house because the publisher already had another Southwestern female protag and the marketing department didn’t believe it could "support" two.

Now, some Southwestern authors have done quite well: Tony Hillerman (Navajo Indians), Michael McGarrity (Western lawman), James Doss (Indians/shamans), Rudolfo Anaya (Hispanic culture). But has it  been overdone?

Or, are editors bound by their own stereotypes about the region?

Who else but me writes about a moderately urban, whipped-cream guzzling, reform Jewish gal with a wicked wit and an unending supply of ambitious clients gung-ho about putting their towns and projects on every travel agent’s and tourist’s map?  Who else ever wrote a mystery set in Clovis, Belen, or Socorro County?

I’m unique, gosh darn it. I’m fresh! I’m, um, regional?

It’s enough to make me scream.

Well, sort of.

Lately I’ve been rethinking my stance. I’ve taken to wearing elegant native New Mexican jewelry. At some conventions or signings, you might even find me sporting a classy red-and-green chile (yes, it’s spelled with an "e" in NM) tie.

You see, it occurred to me that all my grumbling was wasting energy and time. Frankly, if every reader in New Mexico bought my books, I’d be close to that big time success I so crave.

So, writing about New Mexico — being called regional — isn’t bad in itself. It gives me an initial identity.

The question I have is: Will being "regional" doom me to be considered a quaint, "little" writer?

It’s the same kind of question I ask about being published by a smaller house. The University of New Mexico Press has been very good to me; it gave THE CLOVIS INCIDENT a voice when no bigger publisher would even consider it. But, will starting with a small publisher — having limited distribution and endorsement from national book chains, limited attention from national news media — doom me to oblivion as well?

(Lest you think I’m being melodramatic, note that I spoke with a well-known, national reviewer who told me that until my books were published by a big house, she wouldn’t consider looking at them.)

Oh, I don’t know.

My hope is, eventually, that when I’ve written enough Sasha books, a broader audience will actually turn to my work to find out about this region — in the same way people turn to Tony HIllerman to find out about Navajo country.

Until then, I’ll keep writing. I’ll keep getting better at my craft, at storytelling.

Each of my books has brought growth. THE CLOVIS INCIDENT is a great first ride. THE BELEN HITCH is a better written and plotted mystery. THE SOCORRO BLAST, my newly finished manuscript, tackles ethnic profiling and how our paranoia — born of the events of 9/11 — have changed the way we treat each other. (Believe me, it still has humor.)

Book # 4 will take a hard, hot look at the chile pepper industry in southern New Mexico.

Book #5 will explore the culture surrounding alternative energy in my state.

After that, I’ll focus on the role New Mexico plays in the space industry; we’re getting a space port (or the sciences at Los Alamos and Sandia Labs).

Obviously, I have many more Sasha stories to tell.

Will they find a bigger audience? A major publishing house? The big time?

Only time will tell.

No Shit, Sherlock

Jeffrey Cohen

First, you have to understand: writers spend most of their time not writing. That’s why my mind is wandering this way.

I’m not discussing Robert B. Parker, who has 106 series running at once and probably writes in the check out line at Foodtown, or any of those other maniacs who are prolific enough to drive the rest of us to the liquor cabinet. I mean the average, garden-variety author like myself, who spends more time thinking about writing than writing. We’re nice, too.

Don’t worry, this is going somewhere. I’m pretty sure.

So, given that writers spend a good deal of time not writing, and given that we are, by nature, a slovenly, slug-like people (this is a gross generality–there are few grosser), it follows that we spend a good deal of time looking around the walls of the room in which we are, at that moment, not writing. In my case, it would be in my "office," which is supposed to be the dining room of our house, but instead has an imposing dark-wood veneer piece of furniture that doubles as a desk, bookshelf and file cabinet (perhaps that should be "triples as a desk…").

It is the sort of room that would send Martha Stewart into a screaming fit that might result in more jail time, but in which someone like Sherlock Holmes would feel quite at home, assuming that Mrs. Hudson hadn’t been in to clean recently.

It would also serve as a terrific source of information for Holmes, who was fond of looking at the stuff a guy has in his room and making enormous leaps of logic (which were invariably proven correct) based on what he saw.

So: what would Sherlock Holmes make of this room?

Let’s start with a few ground rules. Sherlock has to be a modern-day sleuth in this case, so he’d be familiar with the iMac, the fax machine and the all-in-one copier/printer/scanner/waffle iron that takes up a good deal of shelf space in the room. He’d have to be familiar with the telephone. He wouldn’t be surprised that I have a shredder (recently purchased to make me feel more like an employee of the Nixon Administration) nor would he ask me where my quill pen was kept.

Also, let’s assume for the sake of argument (and my own sanity) that no major crime has been committed in my house. Sherlock’s coming by for late afternoon tea (boy, is he in for a disappointment!) or to attend a seder, so he can see how the Semites celebrate Easter.

What would Sherlock Holmes be able to find out about me by looking around my office?

"Well, to begin, you are clearly a professional musician," he might begin. "Note the case full of music books and the vintage 12-string guitar left out of its case, no doubt for quick access during periods of practice or composition. You have an interest in neurological disorders and historical figures, as is evidenced by the few books on the bookshelves. You are enamored of a particular writer on business topics; you own hardcover editions of many of his books. You have been presented with some sort of entertainment award, are a graduate of Grinnell College in Iowa, have a large number of children aged 11 to 17 who love to read, you exercise regularly, do your own sewing, drink beer in the afternoons while watching baseball games and are planning a trip to Italy."

"Amazing, Holmes! How did you guess?"

"I never guess, Watson." (Apparently, Sherlock has brought his "friend" along with him today, without feeling the need to ask in advance. The matzo ball soup will have to stretch a little.) "It is an appalling habit. I observe, and make deductions based on the observations. For example, the entertainment award, patterened after the ‘Oscar’ (as I believe it is called), is visible on the bookshelf. The Grinnell College connection can be deduced from the t-shirt Mr. Cohen is wearing, emblazoned with the words ‘Grinnell College Alumni Assocation.’ The inordinate number of bibliophile children–at least seven or eight–in the teenage years is evident from the huge piles of Young Adult mystery books on the floor. Exercise is indicated by the large ball used for that purpose that has not been put away because it will be used again soon, and the computer print-out sheets of exercise routines on the sideboard. There is a sewing kit on the same piece of furniture, which indicates Mr. Cohen has done some tailoring recently. He has a New York Yankees bottle opener on his filing cabinet, which indicates the need for a beer–most soft drinks have recloseable tops–and the fact that it has the imprint of the team would indicate a desire to observe their contests. The trip to Italy is indicated by the number of books on Rome and its environs on the shelves."

"Is there more, Holmes?" Watson loves to ask such questions, lap dog that he is.

"Of course, Watson. Those were only the most obvious observations. I can also tell you that Mr. Cohen owns a dog, is an observant Hebrew, prefers books on cassette to printed volumes, is devoted to the latest in technology, and has a considerable ego, as is evidenced by the large crate with a dog bed inside, the local newspaper issued by a Jewish organization, to which he must subscribe, the number of books on cassette versus the smaller number of hardcover books, the many cables and wires for technological devices, and the many likenesses of himself in the room. A man’s study, Watson, is the best place to determine his true character."

All of which would be true, except for the fact that Sherlock just got it all wrong. Except for the dog. I do have a dog.

I keep a guitar and many music books in my office, because I’ll often grab it and start to play something as a way to put off writing. I am anything but a professional musician. I have works about history and neurological disorders in my office because I have had to look up details about history for an article recently, and because my son was born with a neurological disorder, a subject on which I write quite a bit. It ain’t pleasure reading, believe me.

My shelves are, indeed, lined with a good number of books on business affairs by one author. They’re in hardcover, too. That’s because I wrote them. I do some ghostwriting to pay the bills, and the author (you wouldn’t recognize the name) is a frequent client. Best to keep those handy.

The "entertainment award" was given to me in college, when I directed (if you want to call it that) a student film. It was a joke (as was the film). The Grinnell College t-shirt? I wear it because it was too big on my wife, who is a graduate. I went to Rutgers, and although I have a shirt with the logo on it, I never wear it. It’s too clingy.

Young adult mysteries are, in fact, taking over my office. I have at least 50 of them there. I have to read them all, because a friend asked me to. It’s a long story (and an exceedingly dull one, which is why I’m not telling it here). My kids are, indeed, between the ages of 13 and 17, but there are only two of them. They’re 13 and 17. And while they love to read, YA mysteries are their 15th preference after many, many other choices. Some genes aren’t passed along.

The exercise equipment? A promise to myself that I’ve been ignoring for quite some time. If Holmes were looking closely at me, and not my t-shirt (the man is a bit perverse), he’d quickly see that I’m clearly not a frequent exerciser. More’s the pity.

An exercise ball does sit in my office; it’s presence, and many of his other observations, can be attributed to one personality trait that Holmes didn’t mention: I’m a slob. I can’t sew; my wife left the sewing kit out weeks ago and I never put it away where it belongs. The bottle opener? My brother gave it to me last December. (When you use it to open a bottle, it actually plays a recording of John Sterling, the radio voice of the Yankees, just to remind fans what an embarrassment John Sterling is.) Ought to get to putting that away any time now. The books on Rome? We went to Italy (and came back) in June. Yeah, need to find a place for those, okay.

Jewish newspaper? They keep sending it. I don’t remember asking. I never read it. (One can only assume Holmes was kidding with that "observant Hebrew" crack.) Really should put that on the recycling pile, now, shouldn’t I? Books on cassette? Those belong to my wife. We have some subscription; it’s like Netflix, but for books on tape. Cables and wires? I often look at those, wondering what they’re supposed to be attached to, and why.

There are photographs in the room, and I’m in some of them. Mostly by accident. They’re of my wife and children, for the most part. There is one pen-and-ink drawing of me, done by a friend a few lifetimes ago when I worked in a real office. I keep it because, well, I think if someone goes to the trouble to do a drawing of you, the least you can do is keep it. It used to sit next to a framed certificate declaring me a member of the crew of the Starship Enterprise, signed by Gene Roddenberry (whom I had interviewed for a video trade magazine) and James T. Kirk. I meant to keep that forever, too–you should always hang onto a certificate signed by a fictional character–but dropped the frame it was in, and it broke. I’m sure the certificate is around here somewhere. Got to wonder what Holmes would have made of that.

So, it’s possible to observe, and immediately deduce inaccurate information. This is to be kept in mind while writing mysteries–proof has to be more than a guess–sorry, Holmes–based on an observation. Indeed, looking around a person’s home/office and making judgments about them is best left as a playful exercise meant not to come to meaningful conclusions, but merely to kill some time.

Like I just did. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes.

Night Courting

While we were in New York last year, Julie told me about night court. I remembered the sitcom from the 80’s, but that was about it. Well, NYC has a night court. Under state law, anyone arrested has to be arraigned within 24 hours of an arrest and that has to be open to the public. Because the courts are so busy, they have to run a night court. So Julie and I went.

We took a trip down to 100 Center St and told the cops on duty we were there for night court. They looked at us the way you would expect, but waved us through. We found the little courtroom and took a seat. Not surprisingly, there weren’t many people in the public gallery, just a handful of loved ones and the accused having been released on their own recognizance waiting for their “Notice to appear" paperwork.

I was a little uncomfortable being there. I felt like a voyeur to somebody’s downfall. It made me wonder who the hell attends trials for fun, anyway.

The operation was very slick. A bevy of public defenders sat on one side of the courtroom, while the assistant DAs sat on the other. The accused sat in an L-shaped holding area in one corner. A glass-sided confession-style box was provided where the accused could meet with a public defender for a little privacy—and not so private when the public defender failed to close the door and everyone listened to a hooker revealing her arrest.

Things moved relatively quickly. Names were called. The accused stood with their lawyer while the people explained the case and the defense tried to explain it away. The judge considered the two sides of the story and decided on a course of action. The judge was a lot of fun. She liked to give both the defense and prosecution a slap now and again when they stepped out of line. Great sound bites included:

"Thank you for telling me how to do my job." This was said to a particularly annoying public defender.

"And next time bring me a case with an actual crime involved," which was said to an assistant DA.

The majority of arraignments weren’t much to write home about. Most fell into the realms of drug possession or DUI. But there were a couple of things to tickle the fancy. A very sorry looking white guy was brought in—definitely not the pothead type. He was doubly unusual as he was the only one with a hired lawyer. I was eager to know his crime. It turned out that he’d attacked his girlfriend with a couch.  Yes, a couch. Only in New York, right? His lawyer waxed lyrical about his family of good standing and the yacht club where he worked, etc. The prosecution wanted him held over, but the judge let him go without bail. On the way out, his father, a rather well to do guy, told his son to sort his shit out and there were other ways of solving his problems. The other interesting case involved a huge, scary-looking guy brought in on a warrant. Though handcuffed, he was very nice to the two officers who’d brought him in—apparently he’d forgotten to pay the second of two fines for letting his dogs off without a leash. This disappointed Julie and me, as we’d had a pool going as to what this guy had done. Was he a drug dealer? A killer? Reckless pet owner failed to make the top 50.

Sadly, respect for the law wasn’t always too forthcoming. On several occasions we listened to people leaving the courtroom saying something like, "Fuck this shit" or "Let’s get the fuck out of here." This came from both cops and the accused and they weren’t quiet about it either. You don’t even get that on Judge Judy!

After a while, night court got a little stale. Regardless of your point of view, it was depressing to see the people charged with the same thing and even more depressing that they were almost all minorities. The situation certainly screamed out for attention. Also, I didn’t see law or justice in action—just bartering. The prosecution would ask for bail to be set at a zillion dollars and the death penalty and the public defender would churn out a bunch of unrelated crap and ask for the charges to be dropped and a Happy Meal for everyone. The judge would wave the death penalty/Happy Meal scenario and pick something in the middle. Right and wrong seemed to have little to do with the proceedings.

The more I look at the law and order machine in motion, I know it’s not for me. Having had the opportunity to tour the inside of a prison, see a courtroom, and even testify in court, I never want to get myself on the wrong side of the law. It’s too depressing for words.

Yours unarraigned,
Simon Wood

The Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Reviews

Deni Dietz

Disclaimer: Some of my best friends are reviewers…


To read a review, or not to read a review: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous reviews,
Or to take arms against a sea of reviewers,
And by ignoring end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To read a review, to ignore a review: perchance to skim a review [and look for a line to quote, even if you have to use three dots]: aye, there’s the rub; For in that review of death what dreams may crush…

Responding to critics of Carnal Knowledge, Mike Nichols said, "A critic at a movie is a eunuch at a gangbang."

Which made me think…

How many times have we banged our heads against our keyboards because the person who reviewed our books didn’t "get it"?

Or even worse, didn’t read it?

Or was just plain nasty?

When my history-mystery-romance Dream Dancer came out, a reviewer whom I’ll call Ms. Axtogrind attacked me personally, then said that halfway through the book my hero burned to death in a circus fire. I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I say my hero didn’t die, though my heroine thought he did. Ms. Axtogrind was fired shortly thereafter (apparently, I wasn’t the only author to experience her misguided slings and arrows), but her vitriolic rhetoric impacted my sales. After all, would you buy a romance where the hero burns to death?

Unless, of course, the hero is Joan of Arc.

Long before the advent of blogs, I began collecting "weird review data." My thought was to – someday – write an article. Here are a few of my favorites:

Jack Williamson, a science fiction author, got a review which said he wrote like a comic strip writer. Someone saw the review and hired Williamson to write a SF comic strip called "Beyond Mars."

Writing about John Wassermann’s novel, Exit Wounds, a reviewer said, "Clearly the author has never been inside a police station. His policemen are vulgar and crass." Westermann, who spent 21 years as a cop, said, "Crass and vulgar? Some of my people consider it an art form."

When Greg Herron’s Murder in the Rue Dauphine was reviewed, the one thing the reviewer harped on was that "outside of the main character, Herron doesn’t get inside the heads of his characters. It would have been nice to know what was going on inside their heads as well." Considering the fact that the novel was written in first-person and the main character wasn’t a psychic, Herron kind of scratched his head over that one.

In a review of an anthology of Civil War stories, the reviewer assumed Patti (P.G.) Nagle’s story was a romance because of its title, The Courtship of Captain Swenk. "He obviously hadn’t read the story," Patti said, "because it wasn’t romantic at all. The Captain is courting an old battleaxe widow as an excuse for spying activities."

Janet Dawson’s PW review for Where the Bodies are Buried sniped at her because her heroine/sleuth didn’t figure out who the killer was until the end of the book. [‘Nuff said, although Janet says, "That was the most idiotic hatchet job I’ve ever seen."]

The same week the New York Times called Robert Rosenberg’s first book, Crimes of the City, the most notable thriller of 1991, the reviewer in Ha’arentz said it was a cartoon. "But I think the reviewer issue should be put in perspective," Robert said. "While my agent was trying to sell my first book, I kept asking for the rejections and she kept saying no. Finally, after she found a publisher (Simon & Shuster), she sent me a sampling of the rejections. One editor wrote: ‘The plotting is elegant, the writing pedestrian, and the characters are flat.’ Another editor wrote: ‘The writing is elegant, the plotting pedestrian and the characters are lively.’ And a third wrote that the writing was flat, the characters interesting and the plotting terrific. In other words, one can only wonder if they read the same book!"

And finally, Joe Scarpato says his favorite pan was a one-word summation of A.A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery. Joe simply wrote "Pooh!"

Have you ever thanked a reviewer for a review? Recently a Sisters in Crime sib posted (on the SinC loop) that she’d be attending Bouchercon for the very first time and that she was the author of a horror novel. I responded privately. I told her that I was a sucker for horror novels and I’d be happy to meet her for a cup of coffee or to hoist a mug. I said that I’ve been attending Bouchercons since before Noah learned to count and, although Bouchercon seems a wee bit overwhelming, it’s really not. She wrote back: "I’d love to get together. But in a way we’ve already met. I recognized your name and went to my files and sure enough I’d reviewed Beat Up A Cookie in ’94.  You sent me a letter thanking me and at the bottom you said, ‘I hope we meet some day, so that I can reiterate–in person–just how much your COOKIE review meant to me.’ Wow.  What are the odds?  So I’m really looking forward to meeting you now."

And that’s my quote of the week! 🙂

Household Hint from Eye of Newt‘s Aunt Lillian:

To keep potatoes from budding, place an apple in the bag with the potatoes.

Authors reading this blog: Please email your favorite [outrageous] review stories to me at  and I’ll include them — with links to your blog and/or website — in a future Quibbles & Bits

…or in that article I plan to write someday.

Over and Out,

Save A Writer, Buy a New Book!

Note from Pari Noskin Taichert
I first saw this thought-provoking article on the Novelists Inc. listserv. The author, Susan Gable, gave everyone on that list permission to reprint the piece as needed. I believe the issue of used bookstores — their merit and economic impact — is something that authors and readers will increasingly debate. I look forward to the discussion we’ll have here.

by Susan Gable

The recent demise of yet another Harlequin line, this time the kick-butt heroine line Bombshell, got me to thinking, which, as anyone who knows me will tell you is always a dangerous thing. I heard from a number of readers who were surprised by the closing, because they had friends who just "loved that line!"

I’ve also heard things like this: "I can’t believe they closed that line. I loved that line. I read those books every month at my library."

Before I go any farther with this discussion, I have to offer up a disclaimer. I love libraries. Especially as a child with a voracious appetite for story, I borrowed armloads of books from my local library. I love bargains, too. I shop like men hunt or play sports. It’s a victory when I score a bargain. (New black cocktail dress, originally $79, marked down to only $16. SCORE!) Used books are great bargains. Swapping books, another great bargain. The new websites on-line, where you can "rent" a book, in a system similar to NetFlix, are also an interesting bargain. Good grief, even the airports these days have a program where you can buy a book, read it, then sell it back to them. What a bargain!

But did you realize that those bargains could be putting your favorite line or your favorite author out of business?

It’s a difficult, touchy subject for authors to discuss. We don’t want to appear anti-used books (’cause we’re not — not entirely, anyway), or make readers think we’re money-grubbers, always harping on them to buy our books. We all know (believe me, we KNOW — most writers don’t make anywhere close to as much money as people think we do) how tight money can be sometimes, especially with the rising costs of gas and heating fuel, and food, and taxes, and, well, you know. Everything.

We’ve been known ourselves to sometimes borrow and trade books, or buy used. Or go to the library.

But publishing these days is a strictly-by-the-numbers business, which means if the numbers don’t live up to the publisher’s expectations, a writer can kiss her slot/line/future contracts good-bye.

"Where’s SoAndSo’s latest book? How come she hasn’t published another story in that series that I love so much?" If you find yourself asking that question, it could be that your favorite, SoAndSo, got cut loose because the numbers of that last book in the series didn’t do as well as the one before that. How did you get your hands on that last book? Did you buy it new, contributing to the continuation of the series, or did you bargain read it? Bargain reads don’t count towards our numbers.

Writers, especially those of us at the "lower echelons" of the publishing world, need our readers more than ever. Without you, there would be no point in what we do. (Well, okay, there’s a certain satisfaction in telling yourself a story, but it’s the audience that makes it truly special. It’s a shared dream.) But now, because of numbers, we need your support even more.

Our careers, our lines, even our publishers, live and die by the numbers.

So please, where and when you can, save a writer. Buy a new book. We’ll all thank you for it. And that way, you’ll have more choices of books in the future.

Susan Gable thanks her fans for buying her books. Her latest book, THE PREGNANCY TEST, sold well, thanks to them. It was also awarded the National Readers’ Choice Award for Best Long Contemporary.

Time Is On My Side. Yes, It Is.

Jeffrey Cohen

The editor working on my next book (I don’t like saying, “my editor,” as I believe owning another person was outlawed in this country a while back; on the other hand, I don’t say, “the woman who chose to marry me,” so maybe I’m a hypocrite about that–I’m sorry, what were we talking about?) made an interesting request this week. In an email right before she left for another continent, she asked if I would mind if the deadlines–and therefore the publication dates–of the second and third books in the series that hasn’t started yet were moved up, a month in one case, two months in another. I’d been working pretty rapidly at the revisions on the first book; she assumed I’d be able to work with the same type of speed on the others.

The reasons for doing so were all good–it’s easier for a publisher to generate excitement about a series if the books are coming at a (slightly) faster clip; it helps build momentum and keeps people from forgetting that I write book they might have enjoyed in the past. But it was an unexpected request.

I had to think about it, hard. After all, I’ve never written fiction on a deadline before.

Let me repeat that: I’ve never written fiction on a deadline before.

It’s a daunting proposition. Even the years I was busying myself with setting the Guiness World Record (and since when does a beer company get to determine what’s a world record?) for Most Unproduced Screenplays, I never had to worry about when the work would be finished. I’m a pretty fast writer, once I’m ready to write, but I’ve never had to consider the idea of a deadline before.

Later, when the Unproduced Screenplays became Published Mystery Novels, I was still operating pretty much on my own schedule. The first book was written “on spec,” as we Hollywood wannabees like to say, so it could take as long as it wanted (which turned out to be less than two months of actual writing time), and the second and third in the Aaron Tucker series were written with the understanding that the publisher would accept them whenever they were ready, which was usually pretty soon–again, no deadline, so no pressure.

The book currently being edited in preparation for publication in (get ready) October, 2007 was also written without a publisher attached; that is, I wrote it as a way to find a new publisher, assuming that the search would be futile. When I was recommended to a wonderful agent, who found a home for the Comedy Tonight series in less than a month, boy, was there egg on my face! Well, no. There really wasn’t egg on my face. I don’t eat eggs much. Cholesterol, you know. Not to mention, eggs aren’t really anything special, in my view. But I was sure surprised, I’ll tell ya.

My writing pattern is usually something like this: I get the idea for the basic plot, and after letting it cook in my head for a while (which can be anywhere from 10 minutes to five years), decide it’s time to write. I start off like a house afire (although I refuse to believe that a house on fire has ever written a decent novel), strong in my belief that this book will be done in roughly a week and a half.

Then, for reasons I’ve never fully understood, I stop writing. I never know when it’s going to happen. I finish writing for a particular day, knowing full well what’s going to be written tomorrow, and then the next day, I don’t write anything. In some cases, I don’t write another word for months on end. In others, it’s been weeks. But there’s always this huge break in the middle. So when I say that my first novel took less than two months to write, that’s accurate: the time I was actually sitting and writing was no doubt two months or less. But it was probably closer to six calendar months before I got to type “The End” at the bottom of a screen.

In other cases, the break has been shorter, and sometimes, about the same. I don’t believe in writer’s block–I always know what the next sentence will be, but somehow, I put off typing it–but it’s undeniable, and now it’s gotten to be A Thing.

So given the question, I have to wonder: can I write fiction on time? Or will the very fact that there is a deadline intimidate me to distraction? Is it possible for me to have a draft done when my contract says I must? To be fair, even if The Break were to last as long as it’s ever lasted, there would still be plenty of time before my deadline hit. Assuming I was starting today.

And I do have about two pages of material written. I expect I’ll write more next week.


New MexicFacts

by Pari Noskin Taichert

Sometimes, it’s fun to take a vacation from the heady world of publishing and marketing. I thought you might like to test your knowledge about New Mexico.

I hope you enjoy this test. I’ve based the questions on information in NEW MEXICO TRIVIA by Robert Ellis, Mary Clark & Jim Clark (Rutledge Hill Press, 1996, Nashville, Tennessee.)

I’ll post the answers at the end of the day.


My Inner Circle

I can’t send anything out unless someone has read it.  I don’t have the confidence or the objectivity that what I’ve written is good enough to send out.  On one hand, I’m bound to have made some daft error that will condemn me in the eyes of an editor.  Many years ago, I submitted a manuscript with all my notes written in the margins and my crossings out.  I’d picked up the wrong draft and sent it by mistake.  On the other hand, I might think the story is ready, when it’s still over-wordy or something.  So I need a second set of eyes to look my stuff over.

Like I’ve mentioned before, Julie is my primary reader and editor.  She works very closely with me on everything.  She doesn’t even like me leaving the house by myself.  I get into trouble very easily.  Julie, Julie, these men said I couldn’t swallow all these balloons full of white powder, but I proved them wrong.  I’ll be home late tonight.  I’m off to Columbia.  For this reason and many others, she goes through my work, correcting grammar and logic issues.  Julie’s great for this, because she’s a technical person.  Her talents lie in correcting structure.

But this is only one part of the review. Julie gets too close to the material after a while, so I need a number of readers for other aspects.  If I’m having trouble with certain scenes, chapters, what have you, I have a number of experienced authors who’ll give it the once over.  They know what works and what doesn’t. 

Until recently, I had a grammartologist on staff.  Me and grammar, well, we shook hands once at a party, but I’m not sure I’d recognize grammar if it said hi, so I need help.  Julie’s late father stepped in there.  He’d tear through the manuscript and make all the final adjustments that wouldn’t get me laughed out of an editor’s office.

I have a couple of people who are just fans of the genre.  They’re veracious readers and that’s good for me.  The more I write, the less I get to read.  There isn’t the time, so I need a couple of buddies that read everything to help keep me current.  I send my manuscripts their way for a reader’s gut reaction. All I want to know from them is whether they liked it.  Was it fun, different, a page-turner?  The problem of staying within the circle of editors and other professionals is that you get a one-sided view.  My reader readers give me a feel for what likely readers are to think.

I need all these people for their various skills, but I just can’t pick anyone.  Their input is vital.  I need people who are brutally honest.  I can’t afford to have people be kind.  My special readers have no qualms about telling me how much I suck.  Sometimes, I think they enjoy their jobs a little too much.

The reason I go through this is that first impressions count–especially in publishing.  I want everything I turn in to an editor to be better than the last thing I turned in, even if I have a contract for it, or they’re going to change or tweak something anyway (and they will).  It doesn’t matter.  I don’t want him thinking I’m sloppy.  I want to make the editor’s job easier.  The less time he has to correct the obvious, the more time can be spent on correcting the not so obvious.  I want all these people to make me a better writer.

So please join me in giving all my readers a round of applause, because none of them are getting a cut of the royalties…

Read on,
Simon Wood


Today I have my first-ever guest blogger, one of my favorite authors: Lillian Stewart Carl. The Murder Hole is Lillian’s (lucky) thirteenth published novel. It’s the second in the Jean Fairbairn/Alasdair Cameron series. The first, The Secret Portrait, is now in paperback. Of her twenty-six published short stories, ranging from science fiction to historical mystery, three have been reprinted in World’s Finest Crime and Mystery Stories III and IV and VI.
On the left is a photo of Urquhart Castle above Loch Ness. The woman wearing the blue jacket in the center of the photo is me. I could not, alas, get Nessie [the Loch Ness monster] to make an appearance performing water ballet in the background.
My Jean Fairbairn/Alasdair Cameron mystery series explores the tension between legend and reality. Not that there’s anything wrong with legends, Jean would say. We use them to make sense of ourselves and our world.

Jean’s an American academic who fled a scandal back home and is now writing for a mild-mannered (she keeps insisting) Scottish history and travel magazine. Alasdair’s a burned-out Scottish police detective who says that legends go wrong when true believers refuse to recognize that they are legends—and even use them to justify crimes.

Murder_holeIn The Murder Hole, Jean travels to Loch Ness to write about a stone carved by the mysterious ancient Picts, as well as to interview an American businessman intent on proving the existence of the Loch Ness monster. "Nessie," an enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in the Scottish tourist industry, is choice fodder for Jean’s magazine. Until one of Dempsey’s assistants is killed. Alasdair Cameron is on the case. And on Jean’s nerves, not altogether unpleasantly.
"Do you believe Nessie exists?" Jean asks him.
"I’m after keeping my fantasy compartmented," he replies.
But is Nessie a fantasy?
To begin, there’s the sixth-century tale of St. Columba saving one of his followers from a loch monster. Taken in context, though, as Jean’s academic training has taught her to do, the tale is no more than a typical saintly miracle story.

A carved Pictish stone supposedly from the area-it’s been taken out of context as well-depicts a serpent-like creature. Is this Nessie? Or is it a snake? Who knows? And yet the Picts, while not the best known of Scotland’s ancient inhabitants, did exist.

Yetis might live in the isolated valleys of the Himalayas-the jury’s still out. The verdict is in on the coelacanth, a living fossil which has been found in the depths of the ocean. But Loch Ness is not a similar remote area. Most of the population of Scotland is a short drive away. Even before roads were carved through the Highlands, the loch itself was a highway. Victorians cruised to and fro and wrote poems about the landscape.

The sad truth is that no creature was reported in the loch until 1933, when a local man sent letters about cryptic sightings to the Inverness newspaper. Was he mistaken, was he mad, or was he deliberately committing fraud? No one can say for sure. I certainly can’t—in The Murder Hole I’ve created a new character with complex motivations to send those letters.

Of the millions of people who have visited Loch Ness since then, not one has taken a photo that is undisputedly of the monster. Expeditions have pulled every technological rabbit out of every technological hat, and not one has found definitive proof. Still, Nessie has been seen, over and over again.

Loch Ness is narrow, cold, and deep, and given to illusions of light and shadow, wind and mist. If seeing is believing, then when it comes to Nessie, believing is seeing. But as a good cop like Alasdair could tell you, eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable.

None of this makes any difference to the lure of Nessie, just as the facts about any other popular Scottish legend—William Wallace comes to mind—leave the booming Scottish heritage industry largely unaffected. This is something that Jean finds amusing, even inspirational. Alasdair, on the other hand, is given to fits of "Bah, humbug" and mutters about Theme Park Scotland.

The Nessie industry is focused on Drumnadrochit. The town is just a couple of miles from where Urquhart Castle stands in picturesque ruins beside the loch. I remember when the Castle visitor center was a small portable building. Now Historic Scotland runs a huge visitor center that was carved out of the hillside, taking who knows what archaeological evidence with it. Yes, its construction was controversial. I myself heard a local boatman refer to Hysterical Scotland, even as he showed his passengers the many-times-copied sonar readings and underwater photos of blotches and blobs that are supposedly traces of Nessie.

The presentation at the Visitor Center emphasizes the real history of the area. As Jean notes, Historic Scotland has resisted the impulse to disney the place up with audio-animatronic clansmen and a Nessie running back and forth on an underwater track. Not so the village of Drumnadrochit. It is awash in fluorescent green Nessie souvenirs (why green?), most of which were made in China. There are gift shops, restaurants, tours, exhibitions, and a fiberglass Nessie floating in a small pond.

Nessie is not the only mysterious figure associated with the area. Aleister Crowley, the self-styled black magician, lived above the loch around 1900. If he had seen a mystifying creature  from his front porch, he’d surely have mentioned it, or even taken credit for its appearance. But in spite of his self-serving logorrhea, he said not a word about Nessie.

If Nessie is regarded fondly by the locals, Crowley is not. I found his biography in a gift shop in Drumnadrochit. When I presented it to the gentleman behind the cash register, he recoiled as though I’d offered him a grenade. There’s a lot of residual feeling in the area about Crowley, he said, both bad and good—and clearly his was bad. The real (as in real weird) character of Crowley provides a sub-plot in The Murder Hole, and my conversation with the shop owner led to another.

Do I personally believe in Nessie? No. But I certainly believe in mystery, and not just the ones in pages of books.