Friday, April 27, 2007

Girls Just Wanna have Fun....

I confess I was back and forth on whether to even go to Sleuthfest. My first book is 10 months
from publication, I didn't know anyone else who was going, and I'd heard that it was a much smaller event than Malice Domestic. Besides...Florida...all those blondes, all that conditioned air...
Well, imagine my surprise. There were a few ups and downs - one or two panels that weren't what I expected, and I couldn't get the Mets/Marlins games in the hotel, go figure, but that aside, Sleuthfest was terrific. One of the advantages of its being a somewhat smaller show is that you can actually have some face time with panelists, ask a lot of questions, and feel like you get to know some of your fellow attendees. I hung with Catherine and Joanne a lot but had a chance to chat up Shannon, Demetra, Karen, Rhonda, Chris, and lots of other writers.
Especially generous with information was Nancy J. Cohen, author of The Bad Hair Day Mysteries who handled all of her panel duties professionally (and with handouts!) as opposed to just bloviating about "her craft."
Two highlights for me - needless to say the picture above is one. The incredibly generous Kate White and Linda Fairstein who cheerfully submitted to the photo op, and proved they really were that cool at their interview, and book signings the next day. The other highlight was the Sleuthfest auction, where I'm thrilled to say I scored a critique by Stuart Kaminsky Needless to say, I will be rewriting that baby a few dozen times before submitting it to the master. Another highlight? JAKonrath's Workshop. The patron saint of new writers, Konrath writes the Newbie's Guide to Publishing...chockfull of good advice ...check it out at


Tuesday, April 24, 2007


"Has this fellow no feeling of his business, that he sings at gravemaking?"
*** Shakespeare

RO: I guess violence, specifically gun violence, is on a lot of people's minds in light of recent events. Fortunately for me, I write cozies - yes there is murder and mayhem, but also heavy doses of humor to lighten up the action.

My victims are more likely to get struck by lightning on the golf course while sabotaging a rival's sprinkler system (haven't used that but you get the idea..) than to be blown away by a 9mm. How do you deal with writing about violence and murder...especially at a time like this?

JAN: I was thinking about this all week, but I wasn't so much thinking about gun violence as much as the glorification of all violence. No question that's what our culture does. It's easy to blame it on video games, television and movies, but I think all storytellers play a role. My stuff isn't cozy, it's gritty and realistic. There isn't any gun play in Yesterday's Fatal, but life is still pretty cheap. I don't deal with serial killers, mental illness or even crimes of passion. My bad guys are all pretty logical. Yes, I can come up with a hundred rationalizations why its okay, but I'm not sure it is. And

I'm really tired of hearing everyone pass the blame off to someone else - gun laws, mental health inadequacies, media, campus security, instead of people agreeing that it all has to be addressed. I've got kids on college campuses....this one is going to haunt me for a while.

HANK: I read a draft manscript from a writer who is going to be great sometime soon. The person is new to the mystery-writing world, and although is still "finding her pins," as Hallie always says, the writer is going to be really good.

But in the first page of the ms., something blows up and 700 people are killed. Then the main character goes home and has dinner. I said, you know, you don't have to kill 700 people. That would be tragic and devastating, and the main character would be scarred and harmed forever.
She wouldn't go home and have dinner, unless she were in shock.

The writer said--it doesn't matter, we don't know those people. I said yeah, but if it were real, someone would know them. Why isn't it just as suspenseful to have the bomb almost go off? And almost kill 700 people?That's even scarier and more suspenseful.

Now trust me, this person is a really good writer. But I'm haunted by killing hundreds of people. Even fictional people. Without a wince. (Am I a wimp here?)

Did you see Stranger Than Fiction? When (and I won't give anything away, but it's a fascinating movie)a mystery novelist played by Emma Thompson is haunted by the characters she's killed, because she suddenly thinks they might be real? more thought...the remarkable A. O. Scott (in a very thoughtful NY Times article) says most adults easily know the difference between real and make-believe.

HALLIE: An interesting idea that it's okay to kill people/characters that you/readers don't know. Scary.

I remember my very very first radio interview back in 2000 I was asked if I thought that people who committed all the terrible crimes in today's world were getting their ideas from murder mysteries. I said that world of most mystery novels is one in which you can tell evil from innocence, and for the most part justice is served. If only the real world were that way.

Having said that, I sometimes wonder if we don't numb our audiences to murder and mayhem.

There's violence in my books. And plenty of shades of gray in terms of good and evil. But I hope I never kill off a character without a twinge.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

And Now for Something Completely Different

"Stop in the name of love, before you break my heart, think it oh-oh-ver...."

******Holland/Dozier/Holland for the Supremes

In the best traditon of mystery and suspense, I should keep you hangin' on for the big finish, but I can't resist going the "picture is worth a thousand etc." route and showing you this first:

Do you recognize who this is? Of course that's me on the right--singing, which is unbelievable enough. But, hilarously and amazingly, that's Mary Wilson on the left. A music icon, a true idol, princess of Motown and the original authentic dreamgirl--a member of the original Supremes.

Here's how it happened. I got a call from the organizers of the Women's Congress. They were putting together a convention in Boston, a series of seminars and workshops for entrepreneurs, women in business, finance--all the hot shot movers and shakers. Women with big ideas and their eyes on success. Anyway, the organizers asked me if I would emcee one of their lunch meetings--they said hearing from a veteran investigative reporter would be interesting to the attendees. (And probably be comforting for them to see someone like me who's been doing my job, happily, for thirty years.)

By the way, they said, the luncheon speaker would be Mary Wilson, one of the original Supremes.

(Luckily this was all on the phone so I could stay casual and nonchalant. But, I thought, Are You Kidding Me? I know every word of every one of their songs. Back in the 60's my sister Nancy and I used to force our sister Nina to stand on the coffee table with us and do 'Stop in the Name of Love,' complete with choreography. Mom put up with our perfomances as long as we had our shoes off. We were Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard. We wanted their voices, their songs, those dresses!)

Anyway, I said sure, all casual, figuring I could scoot out of Channel 7, no problem, unless there was some huge breaking news.

Which there wasn't.

So the day of the lunch, all goes as planned. We're all waiting in the green room, and in walks Mary Wilson. She's gorgeous. She's what? In her sixties? No way. She's smiling and gracious, chic in a black knit suit trimmed in bugle beads, a full length fur coat (mink, maybe?) and slinky shoes. Glamorous. And charming.

I'm googly but trying to be cool. I tell her I know she's heard it many times but I'm a huge fan, have always been, and I may have even told her about me and Nancy and the coffee table. But maybe not. She's friendly and casual, and asks where I got my suit and who made my shoes.

Chit chat chit chat..and then in walks one of her dear friends...and it's Ruth Pointer of the Pointer Sisters! I'm still attemptng to be cool, but here we are:

So the lunch starts, and I'm introduced to the room of about 1000 women, then I do my little speech to introduce Mary Wilson. She walks on stage, and sort of puts her arm around me. She whispers in my ear: "Are you ready for this?" I thought: ready for what?

And before I could decide "what, " She throws her left arm out in the gesture we all know so well --and starts singing: "Stop! in the...

So what could I do? I knew the moves from coffee table days, so I put my arm out too, and someone took a photo at "bee-fore you break my heart"

And then they took another at "think it oh-oh-ver..."

Hilarious, huh? My little dreamgirl moment. Afterwards, she smiled at me, and said "You know it, girl!" And I thought--well, sure, who doesn't?

She then gave her speech, and then I moderated the audience q and a. When people were shy to ask questions, I asked how she felt when she first heard some of those amazing songs. "You were the first to hear Stop, and You Keep Me Hangin On, and Baby Love, and all those...did you know at that moment they were destined to be hits?"

And she said their first number one hit was "Where Did Our Love Go," and that she and Flo hated the song because Diana sang all the good parts, and she and Flo only got to sing "Baby, baby" about a million times. (Which was so funny. I never thought about music from the standpoint of the backup singer.)

So then she burst into "Bay-bee Bay-bee, where did our love go?" And of course I know that song, too--and (can't resist) here we are--again--singing it.

So. Just another day in the life for Mary Wilson. But I still can't believe I was dreamgirl--if only for a moment.

We now return you to our original programming.

Ro: Oddly enough I just wrote a short story about a backup singer. Coincidence? I think not. Can we all get gowns and big hair and recreate Hank's experience somewhere? I'm game.

Monday, April 16, 2007


"Most people in America want an easy read. I call it McFiction - books which pass right through you without you even digesting them. I don't mean a book that has two-syllable words. I mean chapters you can read in a toilet break. Happy endings. We are more of a TV culture, and that is a hard thing to go up against for any writer."
Jodi Picoult


I'm torn on this quote. A part of me thinks it's just a tad snippy and possibly aimed at the mystery genre. Is that what we are, McFiction? Easy reads digested on the toilet? But a part of me remembers what my very first agent told me when he took on Final Copy. He warned that it would take longer to sell because it was "intelligent." (and yes, it took more than three years to sell)
I do think many readers want easy reads, but I don't think that's always a bad thing. Let's just say that when I was sitting ten to twelve hours a day in a hospice at my mother's side, Janet Evanovich provided real relief where David McCullough's John Adams did not. True, I can't remember which Evanovich I was reading or what the plot was, and I still reflect on the new perspective I have on Thomas Jefferson and the early down-and-dirty American politics revealed in John Adams. But the point is that sometimes you read to learn and sometimes you just need the distraction of raw entertainment.

And if "most people in America want an easy read," why are Jody's books, which involve intense themes and are not easily digestible, such best sellers? I don't think the problem is that readers are morons. I think the problem is that there are fewer readers overall, more reselling of book copies, and a lot less room for sales in all categories of fiction and non fiction. So, as Hank says, what think? Is McFiction a problem for us? Or are we the McFiction Jody is talking about?

I confess, I like a book that has something to chew on, something to say as well as being diverting. If I get to page 20 and I feel like there's no 'there' there, I generally stop reading. And yes there's lots of mysteries that seem pretty ephemeral, but we haven't got the lock on light by any means.
And let's pause for a moment to praise great bathroom books. In my bathroom right now is Bill Bryson's THE MOTHER TONGUE: ENGLISH AND HOW IT GOT THAT WAY. It's been there for 4 months and I'm 3/4 of the way through it. Perfectly fascinating and perfect in 3-minute sittings. Mc-nonfiction? Hardly.
Her comment on short chapters -- I'd say that's definitely a trend for an ADD-TV-Addicted audience.

Okay, time to hear from the TV person. I've been a TV reporter for 30 years. And each year that goes by, the length of my stories (and everyone else's) has been cut cut cut. In 1991, I did a story that was 11 minutes long. To be sure, we had an exclusive interview with a person confessing to murder, so okay, how are you going to cut that down. But now, our stories are about four minutes--and that's amazingly long. (Most news stores are 75 seconds.)

"They" say: viewers just won't listen to anything longer than that, and they'll just click away. And "They" say: if the viewers click away, it won't matter how long your story is, because no one will be watching it.

In fact, there's a TV saying that if Moses brought down the Ten Commandments these days, we'd have to do a story saying: "In other news, Moses brought down the Ten Commandments today, the three most important of which were...etc."

So, we try to learn to write shorter better. (Insert the Cicero quote you all know so well here.) "Select" don't "compress" is the mantra.

But "select" translates to "leave out." And in writing/reading a book, if you get all plot and no substance, then--I think--that's a waste. You don't have to be a philosopher king to allow the readers to have some insight into the "Why." You don't have to leave out the "why" or the "what it means." And it doesn't have to be long. It just has to be good.

Where do I begin? This quote opens up a lot of issues - long versus short, light versus heavy, and some would say, meaningful versus meaningless. First of all, I'm just glad that anyone is reading anything, they could be watching some moronic tv show (apologies to HPR, but we know she doesn't do moronic.) And I lost any snobbishness I might have had about what people read long ago when I was a bookseller and kept trying to steer people toward the Marquez when all they wanted was Sweet Savage Love. (Anyone remember that bodice-ripper?)

I agree with Jan. It does sound a tad snippy. I would respectfully suggest that long does not equal good, any more than short equals bad. I am currently reading my first Ian Rankin - a short, but terrific (and not stupid) read. I am also slogging through the biography of Captain Richard Burton, a long, long, book that I have been working on for two years. As Jan said, different books, different reasons for reading, different reasons for writing. Which is better seems like the wrong question.

On the subject of three page chapters...The first time I read one was in a James Patterson and I remember thinking, "that's it? He's got to be kidding." Then I got it. When the scene's over, the scene's over. There are even a few short chapters in my book. Is it marketing? Something designed to make a book feel like more of a pageturner? Perhaps. Or maybe JP just knows that many of his readers are juggling kids and car keys, or waiting for a flight, or taking the train or bus to work, and they have snippets of time to read a book.

At my reading group a few weeks ago, we talked about when we read. One lucky woman said she sat down and read for 6 hours straight. I looked at her in disbelief. Who had 6 hours in a row to read? I took her cue and allowed/forced myself to finish The Birthday Party in one sitting.(Amazing story, btw) It was great, but I'm not counting on it happening again any time soon. Maybe short chapters are popular because, just like us, readers are juggling a zillion things every day. I'm glad they fit us in at all.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Second time around for First Efforts

The Jungle Red gang recently got a comment on our inaugural blog that was worth a second look...

Jack Bludis said...
When I saw the title, "On First Efforts," I thought it was about our VERY first efforts. At the age of 18, I sent my first story to the New Yorker ... they didn't think I was a genius. It took ten or fifteen more stories and about a hundred rejections before it got through to me that I was just an ordinary person who wanted to write.I suspect there are many others who have had a similar experience, but others who published their first and never looked back.Rosemary? Hallie? Hank? Jan? Or it just us guys who dive into it with ego and come out humble?

Ro: Maybe I shouldn't spread this around but Pushing Up Daisies is the very first thing I've ever written. Granted, I did rewrite it about 10 times - 5 or 6 times on my own and after every rejection by an agent. FYI, I didn't make changes based on any comments the agents had (only one even had anything constructive to say) I just reread and saw how I could make it better. What about the rest of you, JRs and readers? What was your first time like?

I just looked back on that first blog--which, of course, was my first blog. Ro had practiced on her personal one, and loved it, but the rest of us were new. Now I look forward to reading it every day, checking the comments, see who's visiting and what everyone is thinking.

Anyway--to answer the actual question. The first thing I ever really wrote that got published was an essay for Rolling Stone magazine. I was the Washington editorial type at Rolling Stone for a column called "Capital Chatter" which was a compendium of cool stuff and insider stories. So I edited and collected items, fact-checked, and also wrote from time to time. (I was--23?)

And the very first was a story/essay about Susan Ford's Prom.I went to the White House, and was in the press pool that got to go to the Prom, interview guests, including Susan, if I can remember correctly, although it was more than 30 years ago. Argh.

And I remember I loved it. Writing it. Seeing it. I don't even remember who said okay, print it--Jann Wenner supposedly read everything, but we never really knew for sure.My first book is Prime Time (June 2007!!) Even though I started a different mystery in 1991 (more about the unlamented Greeskeeper in earlier posts...) Prime Time is the first I finished. But wow, I'm hunble. It was a much tougher ride than I'd ever imagined.

Well Jack, I can safely say I was delusional at any even earlier age than you. In first grade, I wrote my first book, The Cat On the Moon, and dropped it on the street, knowing for certain a publisher would pick it up and make it a bestseller. In second grade, when I found a book on the reading shelf entitled The Cat on the Moon, I was certain I'd been plagiarized. I was too mad to actually read it, but it's a good thing I didn't have a budget for legal or I probably would have sued! Scary, huh?

Monday, April 9, 2007


"Omit the use of a magpie, raven or parrot as an instrument for stealing jewels."
…Carolyn Wells, "The Technique of the Mystery Story" (1913)

HALLIE: Every era has its clichés. In "Murder for Pleasure" (1941) Howard Haycraft inveighed against "secret passages, sinister orientals, and twin brothers from Australia."

Today, we crime fiction writers manage to steer clear of sinister orientals but we have our own raft of clichéd plot devices. Atop my list is the "I-can’t-talk-to-you-now call" – the book opens, the sleuth gets a frantic phone call (or email or text message or…) from a friend (or relative or co-worker or acquaintance or…) who is desperate to talk. No, the person can’t just come out and say what it's all about (because that would make it a very short book). They have to meet.

The sleuth goes to said appointment, waits, and, Zut alors! the friend fails to show up. Sacre bleu! It turns out that the friend has been murdered, or kidnapped, or otherwise mysteriously dispatched.

The only person who’s surprised is the sleuth. Unfortunately, this is a plot device I used in at least one book…before I realized it was a cliché.

Got a cliché to share??

HANK: Merde. Back to the drawing board to erase the twin jewel-stealing parrots from Australia.

Cliches, huh? Don't have to search much farther than a draft of the very first attempt at a mystery I ever wrote, circa 1991, and whoa. It was terrible. (Someday we should talk about point of view. I had, let's say, maybe six in this partial manuscript.) Anyway, the turning point of the whole thing was that someone didn't fall into the trap (I won't even go into it) because they were: LEFT HANDED. And of course, the murderer didn't realize that.

Okay, laugh. But in defense of others, I think a cliche can still work if it's well written. (Mine wasn't, trust me.) A trusty old plot with a touch of writer magic can seem new again. Can't it?
Ah, maybe not. Twins, the secret baby, an anagram name, an opened and critical letter that's left behind, something spelled backwards or mirror writing, the old "I took the wrong beeper because they looked alike and now I'm getting the messages for the murderer..." I guess you'd have to be pretty Agatha to pull those off.

JAN: I think a cliche is only a cliche when it's used as shorthand. The truth is, there are only so many reasons to be murdered, so many ways to murder, and so many ways to find out about a murder. I think when you make anything, from an image to plot point, unique to your story, rich in detail and attitude, you can, for the most part, avoid cliche.

For example, you could definitely say that a popular modern cliche in mysteries is the use of pets, most often cats, to show both the lonliness of the protaganist and his or her ability to love and nurture. And yet, Spencer's devotion to Pearl is witty and specific enough that it generally isn't irritating.

But being known officially as the dialogue police, or the DP, I can tell you that all this supposed tolerence goes out the window when authors let their characters speak in cliches ---even when prefaced by the "I know this is cliche, but...."

RO: I don't know... I love Irish cops, sleazy lawyers, and strippers with hearts of gold, as long as they show up in fast-paced, well-written books. There's a guy in Florida -my idol- who sprinkles characters like these in all of his books, and no one would ever consider his writing cliched. I may resurrect the sinister Asian (more pc) in my next book....

HANK: Hmm. I just asked my husband about the switched-beeper cliche, and he said he's never heard of that. So, I'm taking it back, and using it.

HALLIE: I LOVE the switched-beeper (scratch cliche) scenario...I wanted to claim it.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007


“Love is the hardest thing in the world to write about. So simple. You’ve got to catch it through details, like the early morning sunlight hitting the gray tin of the rain spout in front of her house. The ringing of a telephone that sounds like Beethoven’s Pastoral. A letter scribbled on her office stationery that you carry around in your pocket because it smells of all the lilacs in Ohio.” * Billy Wilder

JAN : As writers we strive for the "telling detail," the one thing that sets a scene or epitomizes a character. And as a reader, I love it when I can't get one of these story details out of my head. When one of these details alters or enhances my perception of the world. Scarlett O'Hara's sixteen inch waist comes to mind. In one vivid image, it reveals the requirements and constraints on women in the Civil War era in the South.
In Gone Baby Gone by Dennis Lehane, it was the nonstop television in Helene McCready's apartment. Helene McCready is the mother of a four-year-old who was kidnapped. When the detectives go to the home weeks later to question Helene, she is watching herself on TV as she is interviewed by a reporter. When she and her friend are introduced to a detective, they are immediately distracted by their own debate about whether or not he looks like "that guy on that show." Even when the TV is turned off, Helene's eyes keep drifting back to the blank screen. The television tells us everything we need to know about Helene's intelligence level and parenting skills. It also shows her anesthetizing herself from the horrors of losing a child. You believe she suffered from the loss, but at the same time, suspect that she might be somehow responsible. So I want to know, what are the details in books that you have read that you can't shake? That linger in your head and make you never forget a book or a story?

HALLIE: Details the reader can't shake... A severed horse's head is surefire. Of course, in “The Godfather.” Also in the Gunther Grass novel The Tin Drum -- Oskar watches a man at the beach, fishing with a clothes line. The man reels the line that turns out to be baited with a severed horse's head. Oskar (and the reader) realize the man has been fishing for green eels, and the description that follows is one I have never been able to get out of my head.It's always hard to know how close to the "edge of ick" you can write your details without turning off your reader. We want to take risks, go for the jugular when it's appropriate, to be real and authentic. But we don't want the reader to feel manipulated or sideswiped. On another level, pick the right detail and you can save a lot of trees, like in Jan's example from Gone Baby Gone. It's all about trusting the reader to 'get it' without having to hit him over the head. And in crime fiction, the details often turn out to be the clues... the red patent-leather, spike-heeled sandal that shows up in Act I turns out to belong to the murderer who's unmasked at the end of Act III.

RO: Most telling detail for me was from a movie, not a book, but it goes right to Jan’s point. Rosebud. (I don’t even have to say what that’s from, do I?)

HANK: Remember in Rosemary’s Baby? When she sniffs the fragrance of—rats, I can’t remember what it was called—and that’s how she realizes everyone is in a conspiracy in the make-the-devil’s-baby plot? I know it’s not Tolstoy, okay, but that really worked. Tannis, that’s what it was.
Edith Wharton. Breathtaking details, without any of the easy-way-out listings that some do. And I will never pass up a chance to offer you one of my favorite favorites: Winter’s Tale, by Mark Helprin. Part of it takes place in 1899. “He was seldom out of sight of the new bridges, which had married beautiful womanly Brooklyn to her rich uncle Manhattan…” Mysteries? Sherlock Holmes—Arthur Conan Doyle--was the master of details, right? The 26 kinds of Turkish tobacco he could recognize. Fibers and fragrances, way before CSI. And Agatha Christie would always just drop a tiny detail-clue in her novels, you’d read it and love it. But you wouldn’t know til much later how important it was. One of her details that’s always bugged me though—and of course I bow to her place in the pantheon of mystery geniuses—but remember in Murder on the Orient Express? ( I think it was called Murder on the Calais Coach when I read it. And if you haven’t read it yet, don’t worry, this won’t matter) There’s a woman in it, Mary Debenham. Poirot realizes she’s using a fake name, because her real last name is the other half of a London department store called Debenham and Something. (Anyone out there? What is it?) And since I relentlessly try to solve the mystery before the author lets us in on the secret, I was so frustrated. I remember thinking –and I was a teenager, I think, when I read it-- how am I supposed to know that? But I guess the divine Miss C. wasn’t writing for 15 year olds from Indianapolis.

JAN: Something to keep in mind when we write our own region-based mysteries??? You never know when you are going to pick up a fan in, say, India or Indiana. Anyway, I must have chosen this topic because I’m especially susceptible to the imagery in novels. Now it’s going to be while before I get the picture of the severed horse head and the smell of dead rats out of my head.