Tag Archives: reading

Some Thoughts on Reading and Writing

A while ago, there was a discussion on Janet Reid’s blog around how much you should read in your chosen genre before you write that genre.* The received wisdom is 100 books. Yes, 100 books in your genre of choice, before you commit to writing that novel. Some of you can easily burn through a 300-page novel in an afternoon, so 100 books is a summer vacation assignment. For others who, due to time constraints, or other reasons, are not fast readers, that sounds like a six-month commitment. Maybe longer. I’m doing really well if I can get through 50 books in a year at the moment. What does that mean for the person chomping at the bit, eager to write their big crime novel, who has only read a handful of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie stories, and maybe one or two Michael Connelly and Lee Child books? Must they wait?

Here’s my take on this dilemma, for what it’s worth. I’m an as-yet unpublished writer, so I offer these thoughts for consideration, not as proven method. Indeed, I invite discussion in the comments.

What’s the Point of the Rule?

Whenever anyone spouts a so-called “rule” of writing, I’m immediately skeptical. For every rule, there’s a successful (and talented) author who has broken it. But these “rules” end up in how-to books and Writer’s Digest articles, so there must be a reason for them.

Before embracing or endorsing the rule, I ask a simple question: “What’s the point of the rule?” Because behind every writing rule, there are scores of literary agents and editors throwing paper, pencils, and laptops around in frustration at yet another dim-witted wannabe writer who doesn’t know his apostrophes from his asterisks, writing boring, been-there-done-that, prose, thinking they’re the next Hemingway.

Behind this particular rule is the idea that in order to write something original, you need to have a good feel for what’s been done. Also, if you want to get a good idea of how your novel fits into the general canon of the genre, you need to have a familiarity with that canon. All this helps the agent and publisher sell your book. If you’re writing another re-hash of a P.D. James plot, then no-one’s going to be interested.

That’s all well and good. BUT

You and I know there are plenty of books out there with settings and plots that all ring familiar. And yet millions buy them and enjoy them. Why? I think because each writer brings something unique to the telling of the story. Whether it’s their style, their “voice,” or their characters, or their peculiar perspective on the familiar, or something else, there’s a reason we keep turning the pages. It’s like a Columbo mystery, where we know who did it and how it’s going to end up within the first ten minutes of the show. And yet we keep watching because we love Columbo, and we love watching how he solves the murder.

If you ask me, I think writers should definitely be readers, and read as much and as often as possible. Writers should also write, and write as much as they can as often as they can. As a writer you should feel free to imitate styles, try out different genres, and find your voice and perspective. Then write whatever the heckovellia you want to write. Even if you’ve only read a couple of books in that genre. The worst that can happen is no-one will read it. But have fun. Enjoy what you write. If you’ve got any talent, you’ll know if what you’ve written is worthless dung,** or if you’re onto something. After that, all the usual “rules” about getting beta readers and so on apply.

What do you think? Disagree if you want. After all, what do I know? ūüôā

*¬†I’ve realized that I’ve probably written more in the comments on Janet’s blog articles than I’ve written articles on my own blog! Okay, perhaps an exaggeration, but that’s an imbalance I ought to redress.

** As opposed to priceless dung? I’m sure flies and beetles can tell the difference.

Book Review: THE EDUCATION OF DIXIE DUPREE by Donna Everhart

Eleven-year-old Dixie is the youngest child of Evie and Charles Dupree, who live in Perry County, Alabama. She and her brother AJ like to climb trees and do the normal things kids in rural towns during the late 1960s would do. But home is not sweet for Dixie. Her mother, a transplant from New Hampshire by marriage, is discontented with Southern living. She pines for her New England roots, and is not afraid to let her husband know. Charles responds to his brash, no-nonsense wife with swigs of¬†Sneaky Pete, never for one moment believing she would actually leave. From a young age, Dixie has learned to lie, mostly to cover for the bruises, evidence of Mama’s temper. And then a fight between Mama and Daddy gets out of control, leading to Daddy’s sudden departure, and the arrival of Uncle Ray, Mama’s brother-in-law.¬†Uncle Ray saves the family from the inevitable financial ruin that would come without a bread-winner in the house. He gladly drives Mama to the store and helps her buy groceries. Mama’s temper softens, and all seems well for the family. But things start to unravel for Dixie when Uncle Ray’s intentions come to light, and her history of lying comes back to haunt her…

I have to say upfront that Donna is a friend of mine, which may incline me to review her debut novel favorably no matter what I really think about it. I’m happy to say there are no mixed motives in this review because a) the book has already received high praise, including an Amazon Pick of the Month for November nod, and making the USA Today Bestsellers list, and b) it really is an excellent novel (which is a relief!–though knowing the quality of Donna’s flash fiction, I was sure she had it in her).

Another caveat to my review is that I’m not particularly well-read in Southern Literature. In fact, I think the only other book I’ve read that would be considered in the same category is TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, which I consider¬†to be the best novel ever written. But to pit DIXIE DUPREE against MOCKINGBIRD would be unfair. Aside from the 1960s Alabama settings, the two novels have little in common either in terms of theme or voice. So my thoughts are strictly concerning the book on its own merits, not compared to similar titles.

With all that said, DIXIE DUPREE is an incredible debut. The novel starts with Dixie handing over her diary as evidence against Uncle Ray, so at the outset we know her diary is important, and Uncle Ray is a character we need to keep an eye on. But that’s really all we know. In the following chapters, Dixie’s story unfolds. It’s the story of a child learning how to lie, covering up for the adults in her life because, regardless¬†how wrong their actions are, she is convinced life would be worse if they weren’t there. Only her diary knows the truth.

Dixie’s education is not pleasant, and it makes for tough reading at times. The saving grace, however, is Donna’s voice. Choosing to tell the story from Dixie’s point of view enables her to convey some very dark and graphic scenes with youthful innocence. This doesn’t at all detract from the seriousness of what’s happening, but it does soften some of the harsh edges that a more adult sensibility would add. Nevertheless, this isn’t a book for the overly sensitive.

Indeed, perhaps the greatest strength of the book is Dixie’s voice. It’s clear, distinct, and has the ring of authenticity–exactly how you might imagine a well-read eleven-year-old from Alabama would sound. The other characters are well-defined, with their own quirks and flaws. Brother AJ takes to Uncle Ray in a way only a boy could, oblivious to the things going on with his younger sister. Uncle Ray is charming and helpful, hiding well the dark side¬†that threatens to consume him. Evie, her mother, is a complex mix of anger and devotion. She wants the best for her children, but too easily vents her frustrations on them with devastating results. Charles, her father, is devoted to his family, and doesn’t understand why Evie can’t love his hometown like he does. This leads to much of the conflict between them, and his drinking.

I would recommend DIXIE DUPREE, but, as I said, it’s not for those of a sensitive disposition, though I maintain that Donna deals with the issues in about as sensitive a way as one can. The main character is eleven, but it’s¬†not a book for middle graders. I would rate it R for profanity, and the adult nature of some of the scenes. An easy five Goodreads stars.

Book Review: VITA BREVIS by Ruth Downie

Disclaimer: A publicist at Bloomsbury sent this book to me thinking I might enjoy it. She did not ask me to review it, and did not make receipt of the book conditional on any kind of review, good or bad.

VITA BREVIS (Latin for “life is short”) is the seventh book in Ruth Downie’s “Medicus” series, featuring doctor/sleuth Gaius Ruso. As you might have guessed, the series is set in the days of the Roman Empire. This particular story takes place in Rome, the year being 123 A.D. I have not read any of the previous books in the series,¬†so for the first few chapters, not only was I following the story, but I was acclimatizing to the setting, and getting acquainted with the characters. Some, if not most, seem to be regulars. Thankfully, Ruth made this fairly painless, providing sufficient background so a newbie like me could quickly assess how each character stood in relation to our hero, without getting bogged down in re-telling the previous six novels.

It seems our hero, Gaius Ruso, has been in Britannia and has moved his wife and newborn to Rome at the invitation of Accius. Accius is a former legionary tribune, and now head of the Department of Street Cleaning, a man of some stature. Ruso isn’t sure exactly why he is in Rome, until it comes to light that one of the city’s doctors has gone missing. The doctor’s patron, Horatius Balbus, a prominent property owner and developer, employs Ruso to take his place until he should return. Ruso and his family move into the doctor’s house, which has recently acquired a barrel outside the door. To his wife’s consternation, the barrel contains a dead body. Having dead bodies outside your door¬†is not the best way to establish a reputation¬†as a trusted¬†medical practitioner, so Ruso, encouraged by Accius and Balbus, starts to look into where the body came from, and what happened to the previous doctor. In doing so, he opens a can of worms that puts himself and his family in danger from some powerful people.

Regulars to the blog will know that I am a big fan of Gary Corby’s “Athenian Mysteries” series set in Ancient Greece. Like Gary, Ruth manages to drop you into the ancient world without making you feel like you’re reading a textbook. All the details are there, food, smells, customs, and dress, but they are woven seamlessly into the fabric of the narrative. Some of these details were quite fascinating, including the medical remedies Ruso uses, as well as the whole issue of medical ethics, which plays a strong part in this particular story. Ruso and his wife, Tilla, pick up a couple of British slaves, and it’s interesting to see the way they are treated. One of the slaves, Esico, comes across at first as a disgruntled young man who could be a bit of a handful, yet I grew to like him as a character. The fact that Ruso’s wife is also originally from Britannia, and, it seems, a former slave, adds to the family dynamics. She can relate to their new slaves, and, in fact, they provide her with a comforting reminder of home so far away from her homeland. And yet, as the mistress of the house, she needs to remember her station and theirs.

But¬†the story comes first, and I like the way Downie keeps the various plot strands moving, whether it’s the hunt for the missing doctor, or trying to resolve Accius’s love life, or dealing with the neighbors and their wagging tongues, and¬†the followers of Christus and their illegal meetings upstairs. I have to say, I was impressed at the portrayal of Christians in the story. It’s hard to avoid imputing the modern church into a second century context, but Downie handles it well. She doesn’t get into doctrine, but doesn’t avoid the fact that Christians would have argued with each other, just as they do today, while still caring for one another.

I give VITA BREVIS an easy five Goodreads stars. There’s some mild profanity, but nothing that would put it beyond a PG-15, maybe even as low as a PG-13. If you like historical fiction, I’d recommend this book, and possibly the series, though I need to go back read the previous six novels before I can say that with certainty. And given as much as I enjoyed this novel, I will be doing just that.

A to Z Catch Up #3

April is just flying by with less than a week to go on the 2016 April A-to-Z Challenge. If you don’t know what that’s about, click the link to find out. Those of you who have been visiting over the past few weeks know I’ve been posting 100-word flash fiction stories inspired by Paul McCartney song titles. Yes, there are enough Macca tunes to cover the alphabet… well, almost. Were you surprised by Q? There are some tricky letters coming up, so stay tuned!

Here’s where we’ve been:

This Week Last Week Previously
One of These Days
Pretty Little Head
Queenie Eye
Rainclouds
Stranglehold
That Day Is Done
I’m Carrying
Junk
Keep Undercover
Live and Let Die
My Brave Face
No Words
Another Day
Backwards Traveller
Coming Up
Distractions
Every Night
Fine Line
Girlfriend
Hope of Deliverance

There won’t be another “catch up” next week, but there will be a “Reflections” post sometime in May. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these stories. They’ve been fun to write. This blog will return to normal programming in a week.

Here are¬†some other A-to-Z blogs I’ve enjoyed:

  • Word Wacker: Celia Reeves has been posting haiku puzzles.
  • TheArtOfNotGettingPublished: Susan Brody has been providing examples of 16th century (and older) predecessors to modern inventions. Her purpose is to show that we moderns are not as clever as we might think.
  • Jen Seriously: Jen’s posts have been inspired by the International Spelling Alphabet (you know, Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta…)
  • Maybe it’s just me…: Andrea has been blogging about movie soundracks that matter to her.

Tomorrow’s A-to-Z post will be… a 100-word story based on a Paul McCartney song that starts with U. And that’s all I’m saying for now. If you want to know what song I chose, come back tomorrow! ūüôā

Links and Stuff

This week, I play with mirrors, pick up birds, and get lost in translation. But first, it’s March already, my birthday month (search the blog to find out exactly when–I’m sure I mentioned it somewhere)! It’s the month spring begins and the clocks change (at least for those who participate in such things). Time has flown, and speaking of flying, let’s dive straight into this week’s…

Legend of Zelda Update

Medli-tww-hdI continued my journey through “Wind Waker,” guided by¬†SecondBorn, by tackling the third of the four temples/dungeons: The Earth Temple. This was the first time in the game I’d¬†had¬†to solicit help from another character, namely Medli. She’s a Rito, and hence has a beak and is able to sprout wings and fly. With Medli on my shoulders, she can fly me places, which came in very handy in the Earth Temple. The item I acquired that I needed to complete the temple was a mirror shield. Many of the puzzles in the temple depend on finding light sources and reflecting light. Medli has a mirror, so on occasion I needed to position her in such a way that light bounced from her to me, then from me to wherever the light needed to go.

There were some nasty bad guys in this temple, but the final Boss battle caught me a bit off guard. It involved fighting a giant spirit, or “Poe,” called Jalhalla, whose translucent form would make me giddy if it landed on me, causing me to run into giant spikes that circled the walls of his lair. The only way to fight him was to make him tangible, which I could only do by… yes, shining light on him. I could then pick him up and throw him against the spikes, which caused him to break apart. The trick then was¬†to try to destroy the parts before he pulled himself together again. I watched FourthBorn do this battle a few days before, and she sailed through it in minutes. “Can’t be too bad,” I thought. Ha! It took me a lot longer, and cost me a lot of life energy before I finally defeated him. It didn’t help that after the first few rounds, the light source kept moving, so I was having to dodge out of Jalhalla’s way while looking for the light.

After my performance in that skirmish, SecondBorn doesn’t hold out much hope for me surviving the last temple and the final battle with Ganon. We shall see…

Other Stuff

BarnesNoble-logoIt seems Barnes and Noble is¬†planning to open hybrid stores that incorporate elements of both the brick and mortar and the online experience. The Publishers Weekly article didn’t go into a lot of detail, so I’m not exactly sure how they intend to blend physical and digital. They already offer free wi-fi throughout their stores, so I’m not sure what other “digital” things they could provide. I read that Amazon are opening¬†some brick-and-mortars that will offer things like the ability to have your purchases shipped for free to a store for pickup. I don’t recall if B&N already do something like that. I guess we’ll have to wait and see for the details.

I’ve also been reading positive news about paper book sales that indicate people are far from going totally digital. Publishers are reporting good sales figures, which is great¬†news for regular bookstores. Sure, Amazon can ship books to you, but as long as people want the physical product, brick-and-mortars can couple that with an atmosphere: coffee, chairs, book signings, readings, and events.

Someone posted this link on Twitter to an article about book translation. I’m sure my lack of fluency in a modern language puts me at a disadvantage when it comes to non-English authors, so I was very interested in this article. Whenever I read Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, I wonder if I’m getting the original author’s voice, or the translator’s. I trust the translator is accurately communicating the author’s intent, but is it possible to convey the nuance and texture of the original language in a foreign translation? I’m not sure the article answers that question, but it’s a fascinating read,¬†anyway.

This week I finished reading COP TOWN by Karin Slaughter. Those of you who read my Bouchercon articles last October will know I saw Karin¬†on one of the panels, and got to meet her¬†briefly afterwards. She was one of the best panelists of the event, I think, which does dispose me to want to read her books. COP TOWN is essentially the story of two female police officers in Atlanta in 1974. One of the cops is a rookie, the other has been on the force for a few years, and both her uncle and brother are police officers. Together¬†these ladies have to deal with the sexism, racism, and inefficiencies that surrounded police work in the mid-1970s, while helping to hunt down a cop killer. It’s not a comfortable read. Karin doesn’t glory in sex and blood, but she tells it like it is (or was, in this case). There’s profanity, adult themes, and violence, but if you can handle that, it’s a good read. I particularly appreciated the way Karin managed to conjure the atmosphere of 1970s Atlanta. That must have taken some research. Four out of five Goodreads stars.

And finally for this week, a quick A-to-Z 2016 Blogging Challenge update: I have written all 26 of my articles! Now I’m itching to share them with you… but that’ll¬†have to wait until April. Look out for my theme reveal later in the month.

How has your week been? Anything interesting to share? Any thoughts on the above? Zelda tips?

Links and Stuff: The 1,000th Blog Post Edition

Yes, ladies and gentlemen–this is it. My 1,000th blog article! That’s a lot of blogging. I know¬†there are people out there who have been blogging longer and no doubt clocked up thousands of pages. But this is a milestone for me. Think about it. If each post is, on average, 500 words long (there are plenty of posts much longer and much shorter than 500 words, so I think this number works), that’s 500,000 words. About 6 average-size novels. Or about two Stephen King (or George R. R. Martin) novels. Wow.

Before we get to the actual Links and Stuff for today, I’d like to take a moment to say THANK YOU to everyone who stops by to read, and maybe even comment. I hope you’ve found something here to entertain and/or inform over the past four-and-a-half years, and you will continue to drop by. Here’s to the next 1,000 articles!

Legend of Zelda Update

This was a busy weekend, so I didn’t get much Zelda time. Saturday evening, SecondBorn did some “map marking” for me. Much of the travel in Wind Waker is by¬†boat, so part of the challenge is finding out where all the different islands are, and charting them on your map so you can visit them. ThirdBorn, my son, thinks I should have done this because, for him, part of the fun of the game is exploring the world and discovering these things for oneself. SecondBorn¬†thinks¬†the sailing around is boring, and¬†she would sooner do the map-marking for me so we can use our time together for¬†the actual quest. Since SecondBorn is guiding my game-play, I’m happy to do it her way. However, I plan, at some point, to play the HD version of Wind Waker (did I mention I’m playing the GameCube version?) unaided. That’ll be my time to explore.

It was, therefore, with a fully marked-up map that I set sail on Sunday. Given our limited time, SecondBorn had me do some “housekeeping.” This involved a game of hide-and-seek on Outset Island, and sailing to some “fairy islands” to upgrade my quiver and my money bag so they hold more, and to get some heart pieces and money. I’m sure all of these will become important later (I definitely welcome the extra life that comes from the heart pieces–I’ll need that!). So no dungeons, temples, or Bosses this time. But hopefully, I’m a little more prepared for what’s to come…

Other Stuff

Harper Lee, author of the modern classic TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD passed away this week, aged 89. I’m sure I’ve said on this blog (there are, after all,¬†1,000 articles here now!), and certainly elsewhere, that I consider TKaM to be the closest thing to the perfect novel. It’s thought-provoking, full of deep and interesting characters, and told with¬†a distinctive voice. Although a “sequel” was published last summer (GO SET A WATCHMAN, which I reviewed HERE), in all honesty, TKaM was Lee’s only book. GSaW was her first draft from which TKaM was born, and I think that needs to be remembered in all discussions about it. There’s still doubt over whether she really ever wanted GSaW to be published. But I think, given the fifty-year gap between the two books, and the way GSaW is written, it’s clear that the story in TKaM was the one she intended¬†us to know. That’s why, for me, Harper Lee will always be¬†the writer of one, and only one novel. A novel many writers would give¬†their entire catalog to have written.

This past weekend, Janet Reid hosted¬†another writing contest. To my astonishment,¬†my entry was selected as one of the nine finalists. I didn’t win, but if you¬†check them out, you’ll understand why I feel particularly honored and humbled to be counted among these entries.¬†There’s usually a high caliber of writing talent on display in these contests, but this one was particularly spectacular. The winning entry got my vote–such a clever use of rhythm and word-play.

Finally, March is only a week away, and before you know it, Easter will be past, and the A-to-Z Blogging Challenge will be upon us! If you have a blog, and want it to get more attention, you should consider signing up for this¬†(about 840 people have signed up so far). I’ve written all but 7 of my posts, and I hope to finish them by the end of the month. If you want to know what I’ll be writing about for the month of April, March 21 is “Theme Reveal” day, so you can find out then. The sign-up for that posted yesterday on the A-to-Z Challenge site.

That’s all I have!

Bouchercon 2015 Debrief: Day Three

In which the air turns blue, the heavens open, and our hero says goodbye to his friends.

Bouchercon2015LogoSaturday was my last day of Bouchercon. The convention actually continued through Sunday afternoon, but I wanted to get back home for church, and give my wife some relief from single parenting. Since it was a Saturday, the roads were almost deserted, as was the parking lot. I made it to the Marriott before 8 am, in time to catch some of the Meet the New Authors (& Publisher) breakfast, hosted by Les and Leslie Blatt. I was surprised how well attended this was considering the early hour, especially for a Saturday. Perhaps the bars closed early Friday night.

There were a lot of new authors there, so the moderator called up a group of four or five at a time, and then gave each person one minute to tell us about their novel. That doesn’t¬†seems like much time, but it’s a great opportunity if you have a memorable¬†premise and a catchy pitch. I spoke to one author later, and she told me her book was about a murder, and someone with Alzheimer’s. I stopped her and said, “Is that the one where the lady with Alzheimer’s witnesses the crime, but no-one can be sure of the accuracy of her testimony–whether she’s remembering what she saw, or whether it’s a memory from long ago?” To which she replied, “Yes, that’s it.” The author then¬†gave me a bookmark to help me remember her novel. Until that week, in fact, until that day, I underestimated how useful those bookmarks are for advertising.

01 0700 Meet the New Authors

Meet the New Authors

I was doing pretty well with my list of people to meet, so I decided to cross another off the list by popping back over to the Sheraton for¬†Visceral Entertainment: Where Do You Draw the Line? featuring Karin Slaughter, along with J. D. Rhoades, Lee Goldberg, Lisa Unger, and Twist Phelan (the moderator). Not only did this panel contain two people with the most career-appropriate names (Slaughter and Twist), but it was also one most likely to stir controversy. After all, the issue of sex and violence in entertainment is a hot topic in our culture. And the authors represented at the table are among those most known for¬†not always holding back. Karin said she has never been asked by her editor to dial back the violence, though she always tries to be realistic, to show the violence¬†for what it is, and not glorify it. Indeed, she’s often accused of writing more than she actually writes. She gets letters saying, “Why did you have to put this, that, and the other in that novel?” when in fact she didn’t. All she did was suggest this, that, and the other; the reader’s imagination did the rest.

Lee said he feared some writers go over the top just for the sake of trying to outdo other writers. Karin Slaughter had¬†this in her last novel, so I’m going to have¬†this and this! Lisa defended depictions of violence in fiction as a way to get those things out of the system, put them on paper, and have justice served. Generally, in fiction the bad guys get their comeuppance. Not always in real life. Fiction-violence helps us deal with it. As a trial lawyer, J.D. has seen and heard a lot of very disturbing stuff. For him, it’s a form of purging to get all that stuff out of his head and onto the page.

Weak writers write “murder porn” according to Lee, and it becomes a crutch to try to make their work competitive. They can’t go toe-to-toe with talented writers, so they draw their audience with outlandishly graphic content, instead of trying to be innovative and clever.

Karin advocated talking about violent crime because those who commit such crimes in real life depend on our silence. “It’s great George Clooney is concerned about rape in Darfur,” she said. “But what about rape in L.A.?”

In the end, J.D. said, most true crime is about people being stupid and screwing up, making one bad decision after another. It’s not so much about evil people working out their evil schemes on the innocent.

Then came the question about swearing, and how much is appropriate. No-one on the panel had a problem with using cuss words, and, for a good five or ten minutes they regaled the audience with their favorite profanities. F*s, s*s, and m-f*s filled the room as the panelists talked about their favorite scenes from TV shows where such language was used creatively. However, they acknowledged that, as with sex and violence, such things should be used appropriately and for the right reason, not just to push an envelope or shock the reader.

03 0830 Visceral Entertainment-Where Do You Draw the Line (Panel) 2

Visceral Entertainment: Where Do You Draw the Line? L-R: Karin Slaughter, Lee Goldberg, Twist Phelan, Lisa Unger, and J.D. Rhoades.

At the beginning of the panel, Twist read author bios, starting with Karin. She got half-way through the description of her latest novel when it became clear to us, and Karin, that the bio was giving away all the major plot points of the novel. Karin stopped her and said to the audience, “Just pre-order the next one.”

Since the panelists were on a stage, it was a little awkward getting to them afterward, so I waited until they adjourned to the book room/signing room. Karin didn’t have a line, so I took the opportunity to shake her hand, thank her for her comments (she was, by far, the wittiest of the panelists, at least IMO), and tell her I enjoyed CRIMINAL and hope to read more of her work. I didn’t have anything to sign, but as a writer I know how much feedback like that is appreciated.

04 David Morrell, writer of FIRST BLOOD

David Morrell

While gazing along the row of authors waiting to sign books (some with longer lines than others), I noticed David Morrell. For those who don’t know, he wrote FIRST BLOOD, the book that inspired the first “Rambo” movie. Janet mentioned to me on Thursday¬†that she had met him and told him she once wrote a paper comparing Rambo with Beowulf. His line was long, and I had nothing for him to sign, so I settled for taking his picture.

My next panel choice served two purposes. The first was to meet Sophie Littlefield. I really enjoyed her novel, THE MISSING PLACE, which I won in a Janet Reid writing contest. The second purpose was to get some YA mystery novel ideas for my 15-year-old daughter who has started writing stories, and needs to do more reading. This led me to Criminally Young at Heart, a panel that Sophie renamed The YA Panel, with Alan Gratz, Cara Brookins, Megan Miranda, Penny Pike Warner, and Sophie Littlefield (the moderator).

The first question spoke to the diverse nature of¬†the panelists books: why don’t they stick to one genre within YA? Some of¬†the authors said they like diving into an area of research, then leaving it for another. Others talked about writing what they are passionate about at that time, and how that passion will change from book to book. They all like having the flexibility to write the book that speaks to them at that moment. Next they talked about where their books fit within¬†the Education-Entertainment-Inspiration spectrum. Most seem to put an emphasis on entertainment. As Alan said, kids don’t have the patience to give books a chance. A novel has to grab them from the get-go. On the other hand, kids like learning about things. They like picking up details on a subject from a¬†novel and then sharing them¬†with their friends. Penny’s novels include codes for the reader to crack, which sneakily helps them with their cognitive skills. Cara said she primarily writes for herself, but also feels a responsibility to her readers that her stories have a satisfactory conclusion. She thinks this is partly because she has a 10-year-old, and that’s the kind of world her child wants.¬†This might change in a few years.

The panelists also addressed the issue of gender in middle grade and young adult, something that is often a bone of contention. Penny talked about how her stories have two male and two female protagonists, so she hopes that helps to draw both to her work. Alan’s main character is a boy, but he didn’t set out to write “boys’ books.” He would like to see boys reading books about girls as much as girls read books about boys. Megan also has both genders represented in her main characters, but, like Alan, doesn’t really consider her work as geared toward one over the other. She’s more concerned with making her books exciting to read from page one, to entice the reluctant reader. Cara’s day job is in I.T., so she feels a part of the geek world. Perhaps that’s why her main characters are boys. The panelists all want to see more acceptance of female protagonists by both boys and girls in YA, and perhaps the success of THE HUNGER GAMES is a sign things are changing for the better.

05 1000 Criminally Young at Heart (The YA Panel)

The YA Panel. L-R: Sophie Littlefield, Cara Brookins, Alan Gratz, Penny Pike Warner, and Megan Miranda.

06 Megan Miranda signing A's bookI asked the panel for some book recommendations for my daughter. Megan suggested NEARLY GONE by Elle Cosimano, Alan thought she should try THE NATURALS by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, and Cara offered THE PEOPLE by Zenna Henderson, an older book, but one she thought my daughter would enjoy. For asking the second question of the Q&A, I was given a copy of Megan Miranda’s SOULPRINT, which I had her sign for my daughter.

I had lunch in the Marriott. This was the second time I had lunched on my own, but I hasten to add that on neither occasion did I actually end up eating alone. Both times I sharing a place at the bar with someone. On Thursday, I talked with a former school teacher who had written a novel about a teacher sent to Poland, who ends up arrested (I won’t give away the whole premise). She was in the query trenches and practicing her pitch, so I was glad to be a sounding board. Saturday, I ate with someone who had gone the self-publishing route, and had also set up a business to publish others. We had a good conversation about the relative virtues and drawbacks of traditional publishing and self-publishing.

What turned out to be my final panel of this Bouchercon was in the Sheraton. I made my way over, past the Mystery Writers of America table…

07 The MWA Desk

… to¬†Maintaining Pace in Mystery Narrative. The original moderator for this panel, Monette Michaels, had been taken sick and was unable to be there, so Janet was asked to fill in for her. The lineup for this panel was¬†Annette Dashofy, Hilary Davidson, Laura Benedict, Rebecca Drake, and Janet Reid (the moderator). Janet launched the discussion with a softball: What is pacing? Laura described it as the way the story unravels. “I know it when I don’t see it,” she said, to the collective nod of the room. Hilary likened pacing to a roller-coaster that pulls you along into and through the story. Rebecca pointed to the rhythm and word choice of the author that helps dictate the speed of the narrative. Janet then asked if the authors dealt with pacing in their first draft, or during revisions. Rebecca said she is aware of pacing during the first draft, but definitely pays more attention to it during revisions. Hilary said her pacing tends to slide in the first draft, so it’s something she picks up with later edits. If she finds herself wanting to skip over a section, then she knows the pacing’s off. Laura received hard stares from her fellow panelists when she¬†confessed to¬†only writing a first draft. Yes, she’s one of those writers that edits as she goes.

Picking up on Hilary’s answer, how do the panelists know when the pacing is off? Some read aloud to hear the rhythm. If the characters are doing something boring, then the story begins to drag. This can be especially true when the novel deals with technical details. Usually critique partners will point out when there’s too much information.

Have the panelists ever had to¬†add¬†things for pacing? A few of the panelists said they can be guilty of ending the novel too quickly. Also, if there’s a particularly painful scene, the writer can be tempted to move past it too quickly–especially if she doesn’t enjoy seeing her characters suffer. But that pain is important, and readers need to go through it with the character. Writers need to remember to let good things happen to their characters too.

Toward the end, the panelists discussed how a writer hooks a reader. The main hook seems to be asking questions, either¬†directly, or¬†indirectly planting questions in the reader’s mind. There should be at least one direct or indirect question per chapter, and when the question is answered, there should be more waiting in the wings. But the questions need to be answered, otherwise you frustrate the reader. “If you answer all the questions,” Janet pondered, “how do you build a series?” Hilary tackled this, explaining that there is an arc to each book in the series, and each arc has questions that need answering. However, there are “quiet” questions within each book that are left for other books to answer. It’s not that every question needs to be answered, but certainly¬†all the main questions pertaining to each book’s arc.

I managed to snap a picture of the panel, so you’ll get to see Janet at last…

08 1300 Maintaining Pace in Mystery Narrative (Panel)3

Maintaining Pace in Mystery Narratives. L-R: Janet Reid, Annette Dashofy, Rebecca Drake, Hilary Davidson, Laura Benedict

HUH? What happened?? Are those… shark teeth…? Oh well…

Janet managed to avoid the kind of spoiler fiasco I witnessed earlier by asking each of the panelists to talk briefly about their latest book, and to tell us how we can get on an email list, or visit their social media platform. By this time I had already packed away my pad and pencil so I couldn’t write anything down. Of all the panelists, Hilary Davidson was the only one with bookmarks to hand, so I was able to get the information I needed for her. Again, those bookmarks may seem trivial, but they were very helpful to me. Future conference panelists, take note!

It was close to 2pm by the time we left, and if attending panels was thirsty work for Janet, you can only imagine how parched she was after moderating one! [I should note, at the risk of ruining her reputation, for all the time spent at the bar, and for all the drinks she consumed, Janet¬†at least appeared to stay within the bounds of sobriety. Mostly.] Some days before, literary agent Jessica Faust had offered her blog readers the opportunity to book time with her at Bouchercon to pitch their novels. My current work in progress is nowhere near ready for pitching, but I did ask for time to chat, just to say hi. Jessica¬†graciously slotted¬†me into her schedule at 2:15 in the Marriott bar. As we sat down at our table in Jimmy V’s, I told Janet of my appointment. “That’s fine,” she said. “We’ll be here when you get back.” As I recall, the “we” included Patrick Lee (nytba), and¬†Loretta Sue Ross.

Jessica Faust, Literary Agent and all-around nice person.

The first¬†two Bouchercon days had been¬†dry and sunny, so Raleigh decided it was time to give her visitors a taste of Carolina showers. Thankfully, it didn’t rain the whole time, but as we made our way between hotels, many of us felt the wet to some extent. It was only a little drizzly as I entered the Marriott, and I soon found Jessica. It seems my facial recognition isn’t too bad since I managed to pick out both Loretta and Jessica ¬†solely on the basis of publicity pictures. Jessica and I didn’t chat for long, but within that time we talked about BookEnds (Jessica’s agency), what Jessica’s currently looking for (I told her I was a little surprised she was there–I didn’t peg her as a mystery/thriller agent), and she gave me opportunity to tell her about my WiP, which I didn’t expect. I thought I “pitched” it rather well, considering I wasn’t prepared to pitch anything. If I can remember what I said, I can use that to start crafting my¬†query letter (it’s not a bad idea to write a query letter even before your novel’s finished–it helps keep you on track). Jessica said I could¬†query her when the novel’s ready, and gave me her card. All in all, a good meeting, I think.

When I returned to Jimmy V’s, Janet, Patrick, and Loretta were still there. Janet asked how it went. “She’s definitely on my query list,” I said after my brief review. “You have a¬†list?” Janet retorted. “You’re on it, too, ” I assured her with a nervous smile. Better men have lost limbs with the look she gave me. ūüôā

Over the course of the next few hours, I said my goodbyes to Patrick and Loretta who had to leave.¬†As I¬†recall, Terri Lynn Coop joined us for a while, and¬†told us stories of her misadventures the night before with her friends. I seem to remember¬†her talking about a chocolate party, a “room of requirements,” and a couple of embarrassed hotel employees.¬†Unfortunately,¬†Terri had to go, so¬†I said goodbye to her,¬†and we then welcomed authors Ray Daniel and Rosemary Harris to the table (I swear, this is beginning to sound like The Tonight Show, or Graham Norton!). I felt privileged to sit and listen while Ray, Rosemary, and Janet talked not only about their families,¬†and other non-writing things, but also talked “shop”. As someone on the pre-published side of the industry, this was a rare opportunity to get a taste of life on the other side from people who have been a part of that world for a while. Ray and Rosemary¬†came up with some great opening lines for books based on their own life experiences (I won’t share in case they plan to use them; suffice to say, one had to do with a strip club, the other had to do with teaching how to make mixed drinks).¬†I was also pleasantly surprised when newly-engaged Juliet Grames dropped by for a few minutes (we met her fianc√© on Thursday). Juliet works for Soho Press and is Gary Corby’s editor. “He’s mine!” she said, with justifiable glee. Ray also surprised me by alluding to the time I started an informal flash fiction contest one day in the comments on Janet’s blog. You never know who’s reading, folks! ūüôā

Time flew. Janet wanted to go to the Anthony Awards (one of¬†her clients was up for an Anthony), and she also needed to pack. I needed to get on the road. “So,” she said, once Ray and Rosemary had left. “Any questions?” At which point my mind went blank. To be fair, I was at the end of three days where I felt as if I had been thrown into the deep end of the publishing world. If I had gone to Bouchercon simply as a reader, hanging out with book-lovers and meeting writers, I might have simply been star-struck. As it was, I had been spending a goodly amount of time in the company of one of New York’s finest literary agents, being introduced as a friend to other agents, publicists, editors, and authors. I had been sitting in conversations about contracts and publishers, often as the only non-agented writer at the table. In short, the whole three days had left me gloriously overwhelmed. Which is why the best question I could come up with was:

“Can I query you when I’ve finished my novel?”

To which Janet (bless her cotton socks) replied, “Of course.” Since I’m now writing a genre she represents, and she has made it abundantly clear she will accept queries from all-comers, it seems a strange, even redundant, question to ask.¬†But that’s not really what I was asking. Behind that question was all my woodland creature insecurities as an unpublished writer. “Do I have what it takes? Am I really good enough? Have I been making¬†a fool of myself over the last three days, kidding myself I can enter the same league as Patrick, Jeff, Loretta, Alafair, Ray, and Rosemary?” Whether or not Janet saw all that in my question, I don’t know. But I’ll take her “Of course” as a vote of confidence.

And with that, we shook hands, and went our separate ways.

And that was my first Bouchercon. Hopefully, not my last.

10 Bouchercon Swag

My Bouchercon 2015 swag.

Were you at Bouchercon 2015? Feel free to share your thoughts. If you’ve blogged your experience, share the link!

Bouchercon 2015 Debrief: Day Two

In which our hero encounters lone wolves and cadaver dogs, writers with secrets, and a dream come true… almost.

Bouchercon2015LogoThere were no downed power lines Friday morning, so my journey into Raleigh took about as long as it should have the day before. Having¬†learned my lesson with the parking, I paid for the day and double-checked the¬†parking space number. Feeling a lot less frazzled, I made my way to the Sheraton, where I began¬†the day with what looked to be an interesting panel, featuring one of Janet’s clients, Andrew Grant.

Lone Wolves & Loose Cannons in Thrillers, featured Andrew, Ben McPherson, Bruce DeSilva (the moderator), Jerry Ackerman, and Mick Herron. Andrew, Ben, and Mick are all Brits, which gave an interesting slant to the discussion–especially when they got into talking about James Bond. There was some confusion when Bruce introduced Jerry Ackerman. He started reading¬†the bio for writer Jerry Ackerman when Jerry stopped him. “I’m Gerard Ackerman, FBI Special Agent. I go by Jerry, but I also write as Alistair Kimble.” Oh. Well. Nevermind. This Jerry still had some useful things to say on the topic, so no-one was bothered (at least that I could tell). Before the discussion started, Bruce got out his shot glass for every time the name “Jack Reacher” was mentioned.

As you might have guessed, the “lone wolf” or “loose cannon” under discussion is that hero figure who seems to operate on his own, even if he is part of an organization. He lives by his own rules, free of ties and responsibilities. Jack Reacher (*slurp*) is a good example of this: someone who travels around with nothing more than the clothes on his back, saving the day wherever he goes. How old is¬†this literary figure? It goes back to the days of the knight errant, maybe even Beowulf, or even Odysseus. The panel discussed the appeal of such a figure–why does he seem to be so popular, especially since many of them have some quite unlikable traits (e.g. Sherlock Holmes). Perhaps that’s part of it: they say and do things that would have terrible consequences if done in real life. They give us, the reader as well as the writer, an outlet for that because they can ride off into the sunset without a care.

In a sense, the “lone wolf” thriller is like most children’s books where the parents or guardians are absent, so there are no authority figures around. The kids have to figure out for themselves what to do, and push the boundaries to find out how far they can go.

It seems these figures also appeal to that sense of “rugged individualism” that speaks to the American spirit, that distrust of authority. Although in the UK, it’s not so much a distrust of authority, but a willingness to stand up to wrongdoing. Brits have a strange notion of¬†noblesse oblige, where if someone is in need of help, they feel obliged to help them.

Conversation turned to James Bond, especially in light of Daniel Craig’s recent comment that he would rather slit his wrists than play Bond again. (He later softened that and said he would do another Bond movie, but it would only be for the money–not for love of playing the character.) A number of panelists expressed frustration at the way the Bond franchise is¬†being handled. James Bond was a product of his time, a time when the UK was in post-war decline having lost an Empire, and slowly becoming irrelevant on the world stage. The country was also struggling financially. People were still using ration cards in the 1950s. James Bond spoke to that, presenting a powerful British figure in expensive suits, leading a flashy lifestyle. When the Russians threaten the world, who does the CIA call? James Bond. The current attempt to “update” Bond, and make him more “realistic” is, the panel felt, misguided. In doing that, you lose that whole sense of what James Bond is about, what he represents.

The panel observed how the lone wolf tends to be male, and wondered if perhaps this kind of hero is, for the most part, a male fantasy. It also seems this larger-than-life hero needs a larger-than-life villain, which is why you tend to find such pairings in these kind of thrillers.

Finally, they addressed the question whether it’s responsible to be writing these kinds of books given the violence of our society. The panelists were all quick to point out that no book, movie, or video game has ever put violence into the mind of someone who was not already disposed to act violently. You can’t conflate fiction and reality, and most readers don’t. The vast majority of people who enjoy these books understand they are fiction and appreciate them for what they are. Those that use them as the basis for violence would find some other expression for their violence if such books didn’t exist. The problem is with the person, not the literature.

01 0830 Lone Wolves and Loose Cannons in Thrillers (Panel)

Lone Wolves & Loose Cannons in Thrillers. L-R: Bruce DeSilva, Gerard Ackerman, Andrew Grant, Mick Herron, and Ben McPherson

I’ve read some of Andrew’s books, so once the panel was over, I took the opportunity to shake his hand and thank him for his comments (he¬†was an excellent panelist, fielding the questions with full¬†and informed answers). I asked him whether he writes as a British or an American author, since he splits his time between London and Chicago. He told me that at first he didn’t feel qualified to write as an American, but now, with four books under his belt, he’s getting more comfortable with writing in an American context. His protagonist, David Trevellyan, is British, so it’s natural for him to think and speak as a Brit. I noted that there were some Britishisms, and even references to British TV shows in his second novel, DIE TWICE, that Americans probably wouldn’t get–how did these slide by his US editor? He said they discussed them and decided that American audiences could either figure out their meaning from the context, or look them up.

DeathAndTheRedHeadedWomanI took a moment to get my bearings after looking up at Andrew Grant (that man is tall), then went down to the lobby to see if there was anyone there I knew.¬†The lobby areas of both hotels appeared to be¬†the place for meetings. Not just authors catching up, but agent/editor/client business meetings, too. It was in the lobby of the Sheraton that Janet called for my assistance. She was in the middle of a meeting, and needed someone to help¬†one of her clients, Loretta Sue Ross, who had just checked in. This was Loretta’s first Bouchercon, and since I had been here a day, I was already a veteran compared to her. I hadn’t decided on my next panel, and Loretta was on my list of people to meet, so I gladly responded to the call.

I found Loretta near the registration desks, and spent the rest of the morning showing her around and chatting about books (she’s a Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams fan–woohoo!) and the fact she drove 1,300 miles all the way from Missouri to be there. And she wasn’t even on any panels, or doing any signings. That’s how worthwhile Bouchercon is!

Loretta then left to get her phone from her hotel, and I decided to drop in on the¬†Bouchercon General Members Meeting. This is where Bouchercon attendees get to hear reports from the various committees responsible for conducting Bouchercon business, and also vote on board member nominations and future Bouchercon hosting bids. This year, Dallas bid for Bouchercon 2019, and Sacramento bid for Bouchercon 2020. Representatives of those regional Bouchercon groups presented their plans, telling us how large the convention area will be, what transportation will be available, and the proximity of¬†food and alcohol (of course). Both bids received unanimous approval. For those interested, here’s where the next five¬†Bouchercons will be:

2016: New Orleans, LA (September 15-18)

2017: Toronto, Canada (October 12-15)

2018: St. Petersburg, FL (September 13-16)

2019: Dallas, TX (October 31-November 4) 50th Anniversary!

2020: Sacramento, CA (TBD)

03 1130 Bouchercon General Members Meeting

Bouchercon 2015 General Members Meeting

As I wandered through the Marriott on my way to the next panel, I noticed bright lights and camera. “Bookwatch,” a show on North Carolina Public Television, was filming an interview. Of course “Bookwatch” would be here!

04 Bookwatch at the Marriott

The next panel I went to was called¬†What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of the Working Cadaver Dog, hosted by Cat Warren, Kate Flora, and Corporal Brad Kirby of the Durham Sheriff Department, along with his dog, Dreyfus. Dreyfus is cross-trained in both cadaver and explosives/firearms detection, and Cpl. Kirby gave us a demonstration of Dreyfus’s skill. To simulate a cadaver, I believe he used an object with a couple of drops of human blood on it (the dogs know the difference between human and non-human blood). He then let Dreyfus loose to do his thing, which he did successfully.

06 1300 Dreyfus in Action 1

Cat Warren, who trains cadaver dogs, then talked about the kinds of things we, as writers, ought to know about the training and work of the cadaver dog. Such as:

  • Dogs can be cross-trained¬†to¬†detect, for example, explosives or human remains. The dog is usually trained to know which to look for. If Dreyfus is wearing his harness and is told to lie down, he knows he is about to look¬†for human remains. If he’s not wearing his harness, and is told to sit, he knows he is about to look for explosives. While looking for explosives, he will pass over human remains, and vice versa.
  • The scent from a body can take a few weeks to rise, so cadaver dogs will often be taken back to the scene after a couple of weeks to double-check.
  • Cadaver dogs can detect scent in water down to about 240-260 feet. “Volatiles” rise in water, which makes detection a little easier.
  • Frozen bodies don’t give off a scent, which you should know from taking meat out of the freezer.
  • People think cadaver dogs get depressed since all they ever do is look for dead bodies. This idea circulated¬†particularly after 9-11, but it’s complete nonsense. To the dogs, they’re doing their job. Indeed, it’s a game to them. Cadaver dogs aren’t trained to look for live bodies.
10 1300 Cpl Brad Kirby, Durham Sheriff Department

What the Dog Knows. L-R: Cat Warren, Kate Flora, and Corporal Brad Kirby

My¬†last panel for the¬†day was called¬†Political Espionage Thrillers: Pre- and Post-Edward Snowden, with Gayle Lynds, Marc Cameron, Mark Greaney (the moderator), Susan Ella MacNeal, and Terry Shames. As well as being writers, each of the panelists either does, or has, worked in some capacity for a US government agency, and has been granted some level of Top Secret security clearance. So they all know more about this topic than they are at liberty to say…!

First, the panelists were surprised by how many people were surprised about what Snowden revealed. Terry said she is¬†not only surprised¬†at how naive Americans are about what’s going on, but she is surprised and disturbed with how little the government does with what it knows. One thing all the panelists agreed on was that the conversation on surveillance spawned by the information Snowden revealed is good, but this is overshadowed by¬†the fact that Snowden’s lack of discrimination¬†led to many agents being burned, and many losing their lives. For that, he is rightly condemned as a traitor. He could have taken a moral stand with regard to eavesdropping without also revealing the names and locations of US agents. But he chose not to do that.

As I noted earlier, each of the panelists, with the exception of Susan who writes historical fiction, has privileged knowledge about top secret US programs. It seems that even if the information they know becomes declassified and public knowledge, they are still prohibited from speaking about it. And even when that prohibition is lifted, many get into the habit of secrecy. There are World War II veterans who still won’t talk about things that used to be classified but are now public knowledge, even though they are no longer obliged to keep silent.

Has Snowden affected how they write? For the most part, no. Maybe the window dressing’s a little different, and there are things that have come to light that could affect plots, but fundamentally, they are still writing stories about good versus evil.

11 1430 Political Espionage Thrillers--Pre and Post-Edward Snowden (Panel)

Political Espionage Thrillers: Pre- and Post-Edward Snowden. L-R: Gayle Lynds, Marc Cameron, Susan Ella MacNeal, Terry Shames, Mark Greaney

Janet had planned for us to meet up after this panel, along with fellow blog commenter, Donna Everhart. Loretta and I found Donna, but no Janet. After waiting a little while, wandering the halls of the Marriott, we decided to head over to the Sheraton, and Janet’s adopted watering hole (Jimmy V’s). And that’s where we found her, not in the bar I hasten to add, but in the lobby having a meeting. We talked and wandered around until¬†Janet was finished doing her agent-y thing.

As soon as we entered Jimmy V’s, Janet asked if her table was available (the one in front of the main desk), and if Grace could serve us again. The manager politely informed Janet that, in fact, Grace was not wait staff; she was a bus person (someone who clears and cleans tables, for those not familiar with the term). “Nevertheless,” insisted Janet, “can’t we give her a promotion for the evening?” Somehow, Janet got her way. I don’t know how. Maybe¬†it was her smile and winning personality…

SharkSmile

So, Grace became our server, and I asked her for food recommendations. “I haven’t eaten a lot of the food here,” Grace said, “but I have had the mac and cheese–it’s very good.”¬†And she was right.

As the afternoon wore on, we were joined at our table by Patrick Lee (nytba), and Jim Ringel, also one of Janet’s clients. To my delight we were also joined by literary agent extraordinaire Barbara Poelle! Barbara represents a lot of notable writers including Lauren DeStefano (nytba), Sophie Littlefield, and C.J. Lyons (nytba). She also writes an agony aunt-type column for Writers’ Digest called “Funny You Should Ask…” which is hilarious and worth the cover price of the magazine alone. It has been one of my ambitions to share a table with Barbara Poelle and Janet Reid, so this was almost a dream-come-true. Barbara couldn’t engage with us long because she had to meet with someone. That someone turned up, so Barbara sat with her at the table next to ours and had her meeting, while we carried on our conversation. On reflection it was a bit surreal, but I suppose the whole idea of drinking and chatting¬†with bestselling authors and publishing professionals was already kind of mind-blowing for an aspiring author like me.

12 Barbara Poelle and NYT Bestselling Author Patrick Lee

Barbara Poelle and Patrick Lee (nytba). Sorry for the shaky picture. I was clearly overwhelmed. ūüôā

Before too long, the afternoon wore out, and the manager approached Janet to inform her that they needed Grace to return to her real job for the evening rush. Janet relented, but not before giving Grace a hug and thanking her for her service.

Earlier, I had purchased a copy of Donna Andrews’ latest, LORD OF THE WINGS, for my wife, a big Donna Andrews fan. Janet, who is a friend of Ms. Andrews, told me she could persuade Donna to sign it. And lo and behold, who should turn up at our table!

13 Donna Andrews Signing April's Book

Unfortunately, Donna couldn’t stay, but that was okay. We carried on for a few more hours until we decided to call it a night. One of the moderators for a panel tomorrow had fallen ill and wasn’t able to attend, and the organizers had asked Janet to take her place. Janet wanted to spend some time preparing for that, and we were all tired anyway.

So that ended day two of Bouchercon.

Come back tomorrow for my third and final day…

Bouchercon 2015 Debrief: Day One

In which our hero comes to the end of the road, goes shark hunting, finds bones, and doesn’t eat barbecue.

Bouchercon2015LogoWhen I first told my wife about Bouchercon back in February, her pretty brow furrowed and she said, “Badgercon? Why would you want to go to a badger convention?” With an arm around her shoulder, I gently explained that Bouchercon is¬†the premier Mystery/Suspense/Thriller convention in the country, nay, the world. Named after mystery writer William Anthony Parker White, AKA Anthony Boucher, this 46-year-old convention draws¬†lovers of the genre from all over the world to a long weekend of panels, book signings, events, and the opportunity to rub shoulders with readers, writers, and publishers of mysteries and thrillers. She then popped me over the head with a pan and told me not to be so patronizing. However, since this year’s convention was in Raleigh, NC–a mere hour-and-a-half away from us–she said she would solo parent for a few days so I could attend. Isn’t she a keeper? ūüôā

Days before leaving, I pored over the conference schedule. Twenty-six pages of panels to choose from. In the end, I decided not to worry about it too much, and maybe favor panels on writing, and panels with writers I know. I then looked through the list of attendees and picked off names of people I wanted to meet. Literary Agent, Query Shark, Queen of the Known Universe, and She-of-the-Writing-Contests Janet Reid was top of the list. Then Donna Everhart, a fellow Janet Reid stalker blog commenter, and Terri Lynn Coop, who is not only a published writer, but someone¬†I also got to know through Janet’s blog. Then other writers: Andrew Grant, Karin Slaughter, Donna Andrews, Kathy Reichs, Terry Shames, Loretta Sue Ross, and Stephanie Jaye Evans, and literary agents Barbara Poelle and Jessica Faust. If I ran into anyone else, that would be a plus.

My plan was to stay with my sister-in-law in Holly Springs, which is south-west of Raleigh and, on a good day, about 30 minutes away from downtown, where the convention was being held. We lived in Raleigh for ten years when I first moved to the States, so I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with the area, but I didn’t spend a lot of time downtown, and really didn’t know Holly Springs. Sister-in-law suggested that instead of taking I-40 into downtown, which was bound to be very busy, let alone all the road works going on, I should take US-401, which comes in from the south. It would still be busy between 7 and 8 in the morning, but not too bad–certainly not as bad as I-40.RaleighMap

The Road Not Taken

I set off Thursday morning, map and directions in hand (I have a terrible sense of direction–a fact that will become important in a moment), leaving early enough that I should at least be in time for the Bouchercon 101 panel at 10, if not the “Author Speed Dating” panel beforehand, which sounded like fun. Apart from driving past two of my turns and having to turn around, I made it to US-401 in good time. I was merrily making my way up the highway, Mix 101.5 playing the best mix of 80s, 90s, and today on the radio, thinking about the authors I would meet, when traffic slowed. Rush hour traffic, I thought. Okay. I expected this, but no worries, I was still making good time. After about fifteen minutes, I began to get concerned. We were crawling along, and the line of cars ahead formed a large, endless metallic snake into the distance. Then cars started peeling off the left lane and U-turning onto the south-bound road. I considered doing the same, but worried that I would never find my way back and probably end up in Charlotte, or Miami¬†(remember–bad sense of direction). Then the traffic news came on the radio:

“… and a downed power line on the intersection of Mechanical Boulevard¬†and 401 means that all lanes of¬†401 are¬†closed at that point…”

Oh poo.

I then remembered something that truly saved my bacon (aside from prayer–actually, my thinking about this was probably an answer to prayer): I have a smartphone. With Google Maps. I quickly entered my destination (South Salisbury Street, Raleigh) and waited to see where it would send me. Google directed me to take the next right, and then guided me down some back roads (cool, I thought, it knows about the road closure), and then back around to… 401. No, I said to my phone. Try again. So it did. And lo, it brought me back to 401. Eventually, I reached the road block, and followed the cars turning left off the highway. After a few minutes, I tried Google Maps once more. It calculated a route that took me down some roads and… back onto 401. NO! I told my phone. No! No! No! By this time it was after 10, and I resolved to get to the Sheraton Hotel (where I was to check in) whenever I got there. Better to get there safely than panic, rush, and end up as road kill. Or in Miami. The next bright idea I had was to return to the road block¬†and follow one of the cars that turned off to see which way it went. This was a much more successful venture. Once I was far enough away from 401, I tried Google again. This time, she (the computer voice is female) led me to Wilmington Street, and into downtown. Hurray! Except that it had taken me longer to drive from Holly Springs to Raleigh than it had to drive from home to Holly Springs.

I found a space in a nearby public parking lot, and paid a pound of flesh because I was too frazzled to argue ($17 for the day–really?!). I gave the park-and-pay machine my space number and put in $7. This was my first Bouchercon. Maybe I’ll be driving somewhere for lunch, or maybe the organizers arranged free parking somewhere for¬†attendees. If I had to, I could come back later and put in more money.

Face to Face with Sharks

I hurried along to the Sheraton Hotel where I was supposed to register, and picked up my name pouch and book bag. The name pouch has¬†your name in the front, and a booklet version of the convention schedule in a pocket behind. It’s supposed to¬†hang around your neck so people¬†can see who you are, and¬†to give you¬†easy access to your schedule. A cool idea. I made much use of that booklet (as you can see):

NamePouch

While Raleigh is North Carolina’s capital city, it’s not the largest city. That honor goes to Charlotte (I suppose it’s the same in other states–Albany vs. New York City, perhaps?). Consequently, there wasn’t a single hotel in downtown Raleigh that could host the entire Bouchercon event, so the organizers split it between the Sheraton and the Marriott hotels, which are literally within a minute or two’s walk of each other. There was some grumbling about this from conference-goers, but since it was my first time, I didn’t know any better.

Bouchercon 101 was in the Marriott. This was where Janet, Donna, and I had arranged to meet. Janet said she would be handing out books, so it seemed the ideal place. Except I was very late, and by the time I arrived, I couldn’t find either of them. I ducked into the room and caught about ten minutes of the presentation, listening intently for mention of free parking. When it became clear the speaker wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know, and I was stuck with paying $17 a day to park, I slipped out and decided to wander around, see if I could run into Janet and Donna, and figure out what¬†panel I wanted to go to at 11:30.

01 1015 Bouchercon 101

Bouchercon 101

One of the problems with only knowing people by name (as happens when your Bouchercon friends are all commenters on a blog) is that you are depending on name recognition to find them. Which in turn means you spend a lot of time looking at people’s name pouches, not their faces. I just hoped the ladies didn’t think¬†me some kind of pervert as I glanced at their chests hoping to find my friends.

Janet and Donna were nowhere to be found, so I gave up the search for now and went to…

50 Editing Mistakes Authors Make, a panel hosted by Chantelle Aimee Osman. Chantelle is a professional editor with a lot of Hollywood experience, so not only does she know about words and grammar, but she understands pacing, plot, and arcs. There are things she said that I had heard before, but she also made a number of very good points. I took a couple of pages of notes, so here are some of the things I found helpful:

  • Don’t put your work “out there” and let the public tell you what’s wrong with it. You have ONE chance to capture your audience. Most of them won’t be forgiving if it sucks the first time.
  • Know your genre. Understand the tropes and where your work will go on the bookstore shelf.
  • Never give the reader¬†a neon sign telling them¬†where the plot’s heading and what’s going to happen.
  • There shouldn’t be anything that the reader needs to know before they read the novel.
  • With dialog, don’t write a voice you’ve never heard. Don’t even guess at it. If you’re writing teens, go to a mall and listen to teens talk.
  • Avoid awkward phrasing. Use the “as opposed to” rule. If you can say “as opposed to” then there’s a problem. For example, “He put his hat on his head”¬†as opposed to where?
  • Readers never skip dialog, but they will skip paragraphs of prose. Try to include¬†important information (clues, plot points, etc) in dialog.
  • Don’t info-dump backstory. Rather, scatter backstory like breadcrumbs throughout the novel.
  • You learn more about people from what they say, and this helps form your first impressions of them. People don’t usually hand you a resume and their vital statistics when you meet them, so don’t go there when describing people. There’s plenty of other “human shorthand” you can use. For example, a name. Frank and Francesca are two very different people–you can tell just from the name.
  • When a reader buys a novel, it’s like the author is giving the reader a blank coloring book. The author sketches the world and leaves it to the reader to color it in with his/her imagination. The more detail the author gives, the more crayons he’s taking from the reader. Don’t do this!
  • Conflict keeps the readers attention and keeps the story moving. Have as much conflict as you can, whether it’s a fist fight, or a misspelled name on the Starbucks cup, or a burned tongue.
  • Make sure your characters act consistently with their type and the genre. If you’ve got a sweet Sandra Dee character, don’t have her suddenly drop f-bombs because she’s late for her nail appointment. The reader won’t buy it.
  • Do your research! Gun manufacturers stopped using cordite in guns from 1945 onward, so you shouldn’t¬†be smelling cordite in a contemporary thriller.
  • You have to nail the beginning and the end. Readers will remember endings. The end should satisfy, tie up all the major plot ends. The end is not the climax; it’s what happens after that final denouement. It’s the return to everyday life, or the attempt to live in the new reality–whatever the consequence is of the climax.

That’s just a sampling of my notes. Chantelle did an excellent job, and there were good questions at the end.

02 1130 50 Editing Mistakes (Chantelle Aimee Osman)

Chantelle Aimee Osman: 50 Editing Mistakes Authors Make

After topping up the park-and-pay, and having lunch in the Marriott, I decided to resume my hunt for Janet and Donna. I recalled Janet saying that she always tries to attend her clients’ panels. It so happened that Terry Shames, one of her clients, was on a panel at 2:30 in the Sheraton…

Mysteries: Small towns/Big secrets was moderated by Mysti Berry, and included Christine Goff, Gayle Trent (who also writes as Amanda Lee), Lisa Carter, and Terry Shames. The panelists got into an interesting discussion around the nature of secrets, and the differences between small town secrets and big city secrets, and what people find appealing about that small town environment. From my notes:

Keeping a secret is often a strong motive for murder. Doug Lyle says most people kill ultimately to save face.¬†People are attracted by that small town, “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “Maybury” kind of atmosphere. There’s something appealing about being known and cared for by the whole town. But it has its down sides. In a small town, you only ever know what you know; you rarely get to know other sides. And people never change in a small town. You might grow up there, leave and become a success elsewhere, but whenever you return, you’re still the kid who tore his jeans stealing apples in Mr. Brown’s orchard.

03 1430 Mysteries--Small Town-Big Secrets (Panel)

Mysteries: Small towns/Big secrets. L-R: Christine Goff, Terry Shames, Lisa Carter, Gayle Trent, Mysti Berry

07 Patrick Lee

Patrick Lee (nytba)

When the panel was over, sure enough, I found Janet Reid sitting in the back row. Unfortunately, Donna had to return home for the day. To my¬†surprise, however, New York Times Bestselling Author Patrick Lee was with Janet! Patrick is one of Janet’s clients, and the author of the amazing¬†novel RUNNER (among other books). Also with Janet was Terri Lynn Coop, author of DEVIL’S DEAL (another book I enjoyed), and fellow Janet Reid Blog Commenter. Bouchercon may have had a shaky start for me, but now the event was beginning to hit its stride.

Janet wanted to check out the book room, so that’s where we headed. Every Bouchercon has a large room set aside in which local booksellers are invited to set up tables and sell their wares. As you might expect, the price of books there is not the cheapest, but the point is to support local independent booksellers. One of the vendors sold rare, first edition, and signed books which made for interesting perusing.

05 The Book Room

The Book Room

06 Alafair Burke

Alafair Burke (nytba)

Evidently, attending conferences and conventions and looking at books is thirsty work, because Janet insisted we all then head to the bar. On the way we ran across New York Times Bestselling Author Alafair Burke. Perhaps I should start saying nytba instead of New York Times Bestselling Author. Anyway, Janet introduced me as her friend (and I’m not just saying that to be sentimental–pay attention).

Janet found us a table at Jimmy V’s Osteria + Bar in the Sheraton, and a girl named Grace waited on us. (Again, that’s not throwaway info, folks. It will become important later.) The four of us whiled away a good hour or two talking and sipping beverages, after which we went our separate ways.

The next big event was the Bouchercon 2015 Opening Ceremonies. It was here I caught a glimpse of Kathy Reichs (nytba), writer of the “Bones” books, and also consultant/producer of the TV series. Awards were presented (namely the Macavity Awards and the Barry Awards), speeches were given, and special guests were recognized.

Bouchercon 2015 Opening Ceremony

Bouchercon 2015 Opening Ceremonies

Then we were all dismissed to visit the HarperCollins signing event, where some HarperCollins authors were signing free books, first-come-first-serve. The lines were long, so I targeted¬†Alafair Burke’s table. Janet has been recommending her books for a while now, so I took this opportunity to snag an Adance Reader’s Copy of her forthcoming novel, THE EX, and have her sign it. She remembered me from earlier:

11 Alafair signed my ARC

After that, we were invited to partake of some North Carolina barbecue. HarperCollins had¬†set up a huge tent between the two hotels with seating for a few hundred, and four lines to get¬†barbecue, fried chicken, hush puppies, potato salad, coleslaw. and rolls. I’m vegetarian, so I skipped the meat, but still had plenty to eat. It was a warm evening with a slight breeze, perfect for eating outdoors. And that’s how I rounded off day one of Bouchercon.

10 1900 BBQ Sponsored by HarperCollins

But that’s not quite the end. When I returned to my car, there was a citation under the wiper. It seems I put the wrong space number into the machine. I had paid for space number 40 while I was parked in space 49.

*sigh*

Come back tomorrow for DAY TWO!

Book Review: A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS by Khaled Hosseini

This is a re-post of my Goodreads review for my non-Goodreads readers.

A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS is the story of two Muslim girls living in Afghanistan: Mariam and Laila. Mariam is the older of the two, and while they come from very different family backgrounds, their lives intersect in a dramatic way. Brought together by virtue of circumstances, this accidental bond becomes a deep friendship as they are forced to deal with a common enemy.

The backdrop, and, at many times, a key player in the story, is the troubled history of Afghanistan, from the war with the Soviet Union, the post-Soviet struggle between warlords, the rise to power of the Taliban, famine, and 9-11. Mariam and Laila live through this, and Hosseini shows us this turbulent time through their eyes, walking the streets of Kabul and the surrounding villages in their sandals.

I don’t want to give to much of the story away, because I think you feel the impact of all that happens best if you aren’t expecting it. I will say that this book is very well written. It’s a third-person account, mostly from a limited perspective, though we do occasionally see things our main characters don’t see. For most of the time, however, we are following either Mariam or Laila. Hosseini does a great job of taking you to war-torn Afghanistan, giving you a sense of the atmosphere, the culture, and, perhaps even more difficult for the Westerner, giving an insight into the mindset of a Muslim woman.

This book is an excellent example of how literature can help teach history and culture. There is nothing here you couldn’t read in textbooks, but in the story of Mariam and Laila, history and culture come alive. I honestly think I have a deeper appreciation for the Afghani people, and their history, than I did before.

A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS is definitely for older teens through adult. There’s not a lot of profanity, and sexual situations are handled fairly tastefully. However, there are some scenes of quite intense violence, and the overall sensibility of the book would appeal more to an older reader. With that in mind, I highly recommend it. Five stars.