Sunday, October 24, 2010

Reflections, or Why Things Have Been Thrown Out

I'm one of those people who actually throws things away. I don't like clutter around my house, although I'm afraid that those spaces behind closed doors tend to get a bit crowded with things. But I've been on a getting-rid-of-things streak the last month or so. I went through my closets and put tons of old clothes and shoes into a big garbage bag and brought it down to the Goodwill. This morning, I went through all my jewelry, weeding out horrifying 1980s earrings and cheap necklaces and earrings that have not worn well with the passage of time. My next project is the basement—a huge undertaking since we've got all my daughter's old toys and books and some of my grandparents' things that really do need to get tossed.

This is not to say that I get rid of everything. I do keep things for sentimental reasons: the box of dishes my grandmother gave me when I moved into my first apartment; books of all kinds that have touched me in one way or another; old dolls that I spent hours playing with.

I'm not sure why I'm on this big kick, except that I've been feeling a little bit like I'm going to be moving into a new phase of my life. I turned 50 in August and am dodging the AARP, my daughter will be going to high school next year, and my husband is facing a change in his career. I just finished the last of my tattoo shop mysteries, and it's the last in my book contract with no new contract in sight.

Rather than feel uncertain and anxious about all of this, though, as I would have when I was younger, I'm pretty okay with all of it. I've been very lucky—in love, since my husband is pretty amazing; in being a mom, since my daughter, despite being in her sullen teenage years, is turning into quite a remarkable young woman; with good friends; with my newspaper career, which spanned more than 20 years, and now my job editing a medical journal; and with my writing, having now seven published novels, with one more set to be published in June.

The closet purge is what the professionals would probably say is preparation for this next phase in a very literal sense. Like how women who are bringing a new baby into the house "nest" right beforehand.

Do you find yourself doing a purge when you need to sort other things out in your life, too?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

I didn't leave my heart there, but I love San Francisco

So I'm back.

I seem to be saying that a lot lately, but this time I was truly away. I was at the aforementioned Bouchercon in San Francisco, the premiere convention for all of us mystery folk. As usual, it was a blast. And as usual, I kept running into the same people and totally missed seeing some people I really wanted to see. This is the way it is when there are upwards of 1,500 people attending the same convention. It is also not as easy to see everyone when you're not staying in the convention hotel.

When I got home, I realized I'd taken a lot of touristy type pictures and only a few of actual people. I am not used to whipping out my camera and taking pictures in a bar or restaurant, unless I'm with my family. Although I do wish I'd taken pictures in Alfred's, the steakhouse I went to Saturday night with Clair Lamb, John Connolly, Declan Hughes, Mark Billingham, and Chris Mooney. The steaks were bigger than the plates and fantastic.

Here are a couple of pictures I did manage to get, however:

Keith Raffel, Lori Armstrong and I ended up having sandwiches for dinner in a pub near the convention hotel Friday night. Being in the financial district, many places closed early and it wasn't easy to find food. Lori and I were having visions of our White Hen experience in Chicago as we wandered around looking for dinner.

Lori and I took off Thursday and played hooky from the convention. We found a fabulous wine bar in Fisherman's Wharf and had a total non-Bouchercon moment when we had a champagne tasting.

Lori, Reed Farrel Coleman and I had a leisurely two hour breakfast on Saturday, discussing the YA book THE HUNGER GAMES. Among other things. Reed and Lori and I hung out a lot when we were in Denver in 2007 for Left Coast Crime.

Other friends I managed to snag some time with were Alison Gaylin, Judy Bobalik, Steve Hamilton, Dana Cameron, Hank Phillippi Ryan . . . in my current still jet lagged state I can't think of everyone. But like I said, Bouchercon is huge, mostly everyone tries to make it each year, and it's always a good time.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bouchercon, or Why Conventions Should Be In Places You Don't Want To Go

So tomorrow I leave for Bouchercon.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, Bouchercon is the largest mystery convention in the country. It's named after mystery writer Anthony Boucher and each year is in a different city. This year, it's in San Francisco.

I'm a firm believer that conventions and conferences should take place in places you don't want to go. Last year it was in Indianapolis, and at risk of pissing off people who live there and love their city, it really is one of those places that you don't want to go. So you spend the whole time at the convention hotel, hobnobbing with other writers and going to all the panels. That's what you're supposed to do.

But this year, well, I'm torn. I want to get out of the hotel and see the city. I was in San Francisco five years ago, right before my first Bouchercon in Chicago, and the city is pure magic. So much to do, so beautiful. We took a tour of Chinatown, went to Alcatraz, Coit Tower, Golden Gate Park, Sausilito, Japantown . . . I can't even remember everything we did. We spent five days there, soaking in the local scene.

I will have three full days in San Francisco this week. Already I'm planning to take Thursday off from the convention. I've got a breakfast to attend, but after that, I'm stealing away with my friend Lori and we're going to be tourists, not mystery writers, for the day. While perhaps I should feel guilty about this, I will be at the convention most of Friday and Saturday and will still be able to hit up a few panels and meet up with friends I never see except at Bouchercon. But you really can't go to San Francisco and not take some time to enjoy it.

Have you ever been to San Francisco? A convention? Do you think all conventions should be in places like Hartford or Harrisburg or Toledo?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Guest blogger: Reed Farrel Coleman on Titles

Today I have the pleasure of having my good friend Reed Farrel Coleman guest blogging. Reed, who's won the Shamus Award three times and the Anthony and Barry awards, writes the amazing Moe Prager series. The sixth, INNOCENT MONSTER, is just out now from Tyrus Books. Reed and I became good friends during Sleuthfest in Florida in 2006, and when I picked up my first Moe book, I was totally hooked. Moe is a complex character, and Reed takes him to the edge and back again in every book.

Reed is talking titles today, something I know he's really good at, since he came up with title for my third book, DEAD OF THE DAY. So here's Reed:

Innocent Monster: What’s With That?

Titles are important to me. They always have been. Even before I studied poetry at Brooklyn College, titles mattered. The first editorial conflict I ever had was over the title of my first published poem. I was a sophomore in high school and submitted a poem for publication in the school literary magazine. Of course the poem was what most high school poems are about—unrequited love. The original title of the poem was “Monopoly—Maybe Not To You, But To Me.” Man, I thought that was about the cleverest title ever. Problem was when I got my contributor’s copy later that year, the title had been changed to “Monopoly.” Talk about mixed feelings. There I was delighted to see my name in print for the first time and fuming because the cleverest title ever had been changed without my permission. Now that was an abject lesson about publishing that I should have paid attention to, but I never believed writing would be my career. I got my revenge, because by the time I was a senior I was named the editor of the school literary magazine.

When I got to Brooklyn College, I studied writing poetry with Professor David Lehman. He taught me two of the most important lessons I would ever learn. First lesson: If you want to be a writer, you have to think of yourself as a writer. It seems so obvious, but it isn’t. He actually made us raise our right hands and take a pledge to think of ourselves as writers from that day forward. You know what? Since that day I raised my hand, I have never stopped thinking of myself as a writer. That pledge got me through a lot of miserable, hateful jobs. Second lesson: If it’s worth writing, it’s worth a title. I drank the Kool-Aid on that one. The two poems I got published while in college were titled “Commentary, Sorry” and “They Don’t Play Stickball in Milwaukee.” Yes, I stole my own title for the title of my third novel. Something else Professor Lehman did was tell anecdotes. One of my favorites was about the poet WH Auden. Auden was approached by a woman who was sure her son could be a great writer. When she asked for the great man’s sage advice on behalf of her son, Auden said that if the son loved playing with words, he had a chance.

Okay, let’s fast forward a couple of decades. I still love titles. I have helped several authors with titling their novels. I consider that a great honor. They don’t always take my suggestions, but my methods usually un-stick them. Sometimes, they actually use the titles I suggest. For me, I couldn’t write a novel without having a title for it first. What I found in poetry was that a good title could help you eliminate a first stanza. For a novel, the title can perform several functions. As I don’t outline, the title helps set the tone and helps me focus on where I should be going. Rarely, the title suggests the plot of the book. Innocent Monster is a case in point. The phrase just popped into my head one day and it forced me to conceive a plot that would deliver what the title promised. So although the juxtapostion of the words innocent and monster might strike you like the oxymorons jumbo shrimp or elevated subway, they are so much more.

I hope you agree when you read the book.


It is not a comfortable feeling, being manipulated like a knight in a game of chess,

Everyone one close seeing the masterful movements with the exception of you

A late model vehicle; her new mode of transit.

Strange though, my need ran out before the guarantee.

There is an emotional cavity in my ego now—as though I’ve been cheated.

The pain or embarrassment does not plague me,

Rather the unoriginality of the bait and the ease of the capture and canning.

Sealed and vacuum packed, ready for female consumption.

The question is raised,

How can one allow himself to tread on such a web?

This once, love is neither answer nor excuse

For there was no truth in her and no real affection in me.

— Reed F. Coleman (at 15 years old)

Check out Reed's website at NPR’s Maureen Corrigan has called Reed a "hard-boiled poet," and the Huffington Post calls him "the noir poet laureate." In addition to the Moe Prager books, he's published two under his pen name Tony Spinosa and the stand-alone Tower co-written with award-winning Irish author Ken Bruen.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Happy birthday, John Lennon

So John Lennon would've been 70 years old today. It definitely makes me take pause. As one of the four Beatles, he was my second favorite, next to Paul McCartney. I remember listening to Beatles albums with my best friend Alison Prendergast when we were in elementary school, lipsincing to the words, pretending that they were our boyfriends. Alison somehow always managed to nab Paul, and I got stuck with John. When perhaps that should've been just fine.

Google is celebrating Lennon's birthday today with an incredibly clever logo. Click on it and you'll see this:

I remember where I was the day Lennon got shot. I was studying for a journalism final at Roanoke College when we got the news — the old-fashioned way: on TV. No Internets or Facebook or Twitter then. I felt as though someone I'd known had died.

And I had known him. Through his music, which will last forever. Just imagine...

Monday, October 4, 2010

They're only words

I made a concerted effort when I started this tattoo shop mystery series to keep anything that might be perceived as "offensive" to a minimum. I got, and still get, emails from people who've read my Annie Seymour series and have issues with Annie's language. Annie, if you're not familiar with her, uses incredibly salty language—none of it is gratuitous, however, since she's a police reporter and talks the way a real police reporter would talk. But because I was tired of being scolded, I decided that I wouldn't have my tattoo shop owner cuss. At all.

But because I've made such an effort to steer clear of all that in the tattoo shop series, a review of THE MISSING INK on the website of a small Tennessee paper left me scratching my head. Don't ask me what paper it was, I don't remember, and I'm too lazy to go back and look. But the two reviewers who reviewed my book, after saying how wonderful it was, put a disclaimer at the end, noting that "sexual language and profanity may offend readers."

I couldn't believe it. I quickly shot off an email, asking what they meant by that, since I knew I'd only used the word "ass" a couple of times (and to describe the body part) and there was no sex in the book. This was their reply:
With regards to your use — or lack thereof — of profanity, we warn readers of any and all profanity, no matter how mild; so 'ass' does qualify. Perhaps it would have been better if we had specified 'mild profanity'; we apologize for not doing so.

You also said you didn't use sexual language because the book 'has no sex whatsoever'; however, we describe 'sexual language' as not merely a description of the sexual act, but of sexual feelings. To wit, on page 204: 'He ran a hand through his hair and gave me another intense look, one that I felt between my legs.' This, along with his hand beneath her breast, bodies pressed close together, etc., is the sort of thing we meant by 'sexual language.'
Really? I think they're a tad sensitive. And perhaps a bit repressed.

But it's not just them. Over the weekend I got my editor's notes for INK FLAMINGOS. I've been going through the manuscript and making changes as she suggests. But I found two that baffle me.

I describe a very voluptuous woman getting out of the shower and wearing only a small towel, which shifts at one point, "flashing a little nipple." She took that phrase out. As if the word "nipple" is one of those words we just whisper in private company. And in the second instance, I have someone getting a tattoo on her lower back and tugging her jeans and underpants down to get it. My editor took out "underpants."

I think this is going a little too far.

Are you easily offended by language in a book? Or do you take it all in context?