Monday, May 28, 2007


“When I write I aim in my mind not toward New York but a little east of Kansas.”
John Updike
“I don’t write for my friends or myself…I write for it for the pleasure of it.”

Eudora Welty
“I’ve always tried out material on my dogs first.”

John Steinbeck

When I first started writing, I had no idea if what I was writing was any good at all. My sister Delia, whom I trust completely because she never sacrifices honesty for nice-ness, was the first person who asked me that awful question when I gave her an early essay: “And what exactly is the point you’re trying to make?” To which I said, uh, ah, well… because I didn’t really know. She was also the first person to say, “You’ve got talent.” Her saying it made me believe in myself. Is that pathetic or what?

So, who do you write for? Whom do you trust to read your work in progress?

Good questions. This is probably a little scary (especially if you're my editor) but I wrote Pushing Up Daisies for myself. The only platforms I thought about were in a shoebox in my closet. I thought I had a pretty good story to tell and wanted to see if I could tell it. And I did. And eventually two other people thought it was pretty good. So now I guess I'm writing for the three of us. Nobody reads my work in progress. After a third or fourth draft, I'll let my pal Kathy read it, and trust her to tell me if I've lost my mind. Are you volunteering?

I'll read it! I'll read it! I can't believe you haven't let me read it yet, as a matter of fact.

When I was writing Prime Time, I would bring in my daily pages and make my husband (a lawyer) read them. He would dutifully read, dutifully laugh. Then then, after a few weeks, about chapter 5 or five, he said, Honey, is something going to happen soon? Yeah, I knew that was a problem. So he still reads, but I fear it's as much for reassurance that I'm not terrible or making some embarrassing legal mistake.

Still, now working on the revisions of book 2 and the proposal synopsis for book 3--at every page, at every word, I picture someone else reading what I wrote. Over my shoulder. Shrugging. Commenting the whole way. Huh, so what's original about that, one hovering 'reader' will say. Oh, that's kind of funny. Yeah, okay I like it. Whoa, unlikely, says another. Predictable. Hilarious. Tangential. The voices are constant. It's like writing with an imaginary but pushy critique group.

If I please the ghost readers, I'll try it on real people. But only when I'm completely finished. No one else reads it along the way.

I think in the first draft, for the most part, I'm writing just to make it all work, to make it surprising, and to reveal the characters -- especially the brand new ones -- to myself. I have to figure out who everybody is, what they are after, and how they are going to collide.

On the second draft, I'm thinking a lot more about the reader and I'm looking for ways to make the writing sharper and richer, and the characters deeper. I've got a picture in my mind of the tired, fatigued eyes, reading my book in bed at the end of a long day, and I'm trying like hell to make them jump on to the next chapter -- despite the late hour.

As for who I trust to read my in progress? That's you Hallie. Barbara and Floyd, too. My writers group helps keep me from taking too many wrong turns, along the way. At the very end, I give it to a few trusted volunteers with fresh eyes, usually my cousin Laurie and my friend and fellow writer, Naomi Rand to read the novel as a whole. If I have time, I give it to Robin Kall, a Rhode Island buddy, to catch the Rhode Island mistakes.

Yes, thank goodness for the writing group. But sometimes I wish I was the kind of writer who was so sure of herself that I could just write without showing it to anyone. That thing about writing being a solitary endeavour isn't really what it's like for many of us. I suppose if I didn't have them there would be little voices in my head, and then you never know where that takes you.

Monday, May 21, 2007


BLUME: Is writing easy for you?
ANGIER: No. Mostly it's a question of trying to quiet the dybbuks--all the voices that tell you you're no good, you can't do it, every kind of criticism you can come up with. You're just trying to shut them up and let yourself go.
*******Natalie Angier interviewed by Harvey Blume in The Boston Globe about her newest book "The Canon"

(Forgive me for this before I start, okay? It's somewhat sappy and about my own book.)

I had a once in a lifetime experience this week. Really. A box, actually, two boxes, were on my front porch as I arrived home. They were too big to be my new shoes. And they were too small to be my stuff from Saks.

I know they had to be the advance author copies of PRIME TIME. I ripped the tape of the cartons, and with my (Jungle Red) manicure in jeopardy and putting myself at grave risk for papercuts, I ripped open the flaps. One. Two. And there they were, in all their sleek glory. Forty-eight gorgeous books.

(Stay with me here, I promise this has a point.)

I checked the front, great. I checked the back, great. I checked all the little extra stuff that goes in: bio, thank you page, letter to the reader. All great.
But that's not the end of the once in a lifetime.

I could not go to sleep, I was so thrilled to see the results of my two years of writing and revision, years of worry and delight and of stepping out of the TV world of facts and into the writing world of fiction. And I wondered, would anyone like it?

(Point approaching.)

So I stayed up, almost all night, reading the whole book. Pretending to be someone else, someone else who hadn't done the revisions and changes and who didn't know what I took out and someone who didn't know whether the characters turned out to be good or nefarious and who didn't know whodunnit. Someone who had never met my heroine, Charlie McNally. (I also had to be someone who presumably doesn't need any sleep, which turned out to be a mistake.)

Anyway, I loved it. I laughed. I was interested. I forgot I wrote it, sometimes. And I found things, clues, that I hadn't realized were there. I mean, "were there"--things were only "there" because I put them there, right? So how did they get there without me knowing about it?

So as Natalie (above, you've probably forgotten the quote by now) says, "it's a question of trying to quiet the dybbuks."

Thinking back. There were days, writing PT, where I admit I thought things were going along nicely. But there were certainly days I thought, you know, this ain't gonna work. Now, I see you just have to quiet the dybbuks and if they hush and you just go on, you may power through and wind up with the feeling I just did. My first book. It's real.

Well, that sent me to the dictionary--dubbuk: In Jewish folklore, the wandering soul of a dead person that enters the body of a living person and controls his or her behavior.

Who knew?

Yes, Hank, it is REAL! And it is wondrous to behold and to be holding that brand new baby book. There's nothing like the first one. Not that it gets old; it just gets, well, tarnished. I'm not going there. But anyone who's interested in why no one has figured how to make money in the book business should have a look at the article in the May 13 NY Times, cover of the Sunday Business Section: "The Greatest Mystery: Making a Best Seller." Apparently book marketing is more about voo-doo than research. ("Most in the industry seem to see consumer taste as a mystery that is inevitable and even appealing, akin to the uncontrollable highs and lows of falling in love or gambling.")

I'm predicting Hank's Prime Time is going to break out because it's got such great heart, it's hilarious, and its smart-smart-smart. And because I have sprinkled good juju upon it.good juju: good energy

(HANK: Oh, Hallie. Thank you. Good ju ju is the sort of thing that comes right back to you.)

So a dubbuk is sort of a Jewish vampire, eh? I guess every ethnic group needs its evil spirits.

I've known it as the POS syndrome. (piece of shxx - you get the picture). It's when you've been writing, agonizing, rewriting, mispelling, correcting and getting blurry eyes, and you read whatever you've just written and you say to yourself. Ye GODS! whatever made me think I could be a writer?

This is the WORST drivel I've ever read.

But later, the magic starts to happen. And especially when your book is bound, with a smart, flashy cover and looks like... well hey... this is actually a real book. Then all that drivel disappears and you can see that you weren't kidding yourself. You can write. Tell stories, and even transport readers to a suspenseful, climactic even, scene.

It's wonderful stuff! And Hank, I can't wait to read Prime Time! Enjoy the magic!

Well, the earth hasn't moved for me just yet. Somehow the uncorrected bound manuscripts I'm squinting at (is that really 5pt type??) haven't had that same effect on me, but I'll take your word for it.Is it easy? Nope. The hardest part for me is getting all the other crap out of my head and sticking with my story. I have been known to be distracted by a good looking bird outside my window. But once it's down on paper I enjoy rewriting...again...and again...and again..

Oh, Ro. It's going to be so much fun when Pushing Up Daisies comes out and you're all glowy and bubbly (yes, even you) and we can tease you about how cynical you used to be in your uncorrected maunscript days. (Jan--your Yesterday's Fatal is just new to the it pushy to point readers to check it out? That's what friends are for, right? And it doesn't happen that often..)

I guess my point--yay! she got there!--is that sometimes we surprise ourselves.

(RO: Hank, you are just like human sunshine.)

Monday, May 14, 2007


"While I'm all for the literary bloggers, and I think the more people that write about books the better, they're not necessarily as regionally focused as knowledgeable, experienced long-term editors in the South or Midwest or anywhere where the most important writers come from."

*****New York Times writer Sam Tanenhaus.

As the the New York Times recently noted, the number of newspapers who take the time to review books keeps declining as the number of online book reviews multiplies. The question is not whether this is a tragedy. I think we can all agree that it is both sad and chilling to see more and more newspapers give short shift to the book world.

The question is whether newspaper book reviews are inherently more knowledegable or in any way superior to online book reviews.

I'd have to say from my own experience that I've had at least two book reviews, one online and one in a newspaper, where I suspected that the reviewer hadn't actually read the book. The former because it picked up a factual error made in Kirkus and repeated it verbatim, and the second because it was very vague and could have applied to almost any mystery. And this is not sour grapes, because both those reviews were very positive.

In general, though, I have to agree that for the most part the newspaper or magazine reviews I've received have been detailed, intelligent and insightful. But while I've probably seen a few more "hurried" reviews online, there have been some that have knocked me out with their depth and acuity. And don't forget that many online reviews are written by bookstore owners and librarians.

Okay, let's get our own crime reviewer, Hallie Ephron to weigh in:

It's like reading a murder mystery -- with newspaper book review sections falling prey to a serial killer. Recent victims:Atlanta Journal-Constitution eliminated job of book review editor; the LA Times merged a standalone book review section with opinion pages, cutting the number of pages devoted to books; last year the San Francisco Chronicle's book review section went from 6 pages to 4. Similar stories from the Raleigh News & Observer, the Dallas Morning News, Orlando Sentinel, Cleveland Plain Dealer. The usual suspects: lack of advertising revenue, competition from online. Let's face it, news pages are shrinking, too.

The National Book Critics Circle has launched a "Campaign to Save Book Reviews." See

For authors, if the publisher isn't behind you with a 6+ figure advance, breaking out seems impossible. There's nothing more daunting than that moment, right after your first book comes out, you walk into a big box book store and look around...seeing it as you've never seen it before. SO MANY books chasing so few customers and $$.

Newspapers may be endangered species but the circulation of most regionals swamps most blogs. So in terms of bang for the buck, newspaper reviewers win, hands down. Having said that, blogs and online reviews can generate buzz...if anyone reads them.

I know I'm supposed to feel distraught about this - and I do in a general, "into what cultural abyss is America descending?" way - but I'm not sure that the decline of newspaper book reviews is going to affect me professionally. Of course it's a drag to think that more ink was spent on Paris Hilton's recent travails than on the thousand or so books published this week - many funny, smart, entertaining, or educational - that writers like us sweated over, maybe for years. But how many of them were going to get reviewed in mainstream newspapers anyway? Maybe newspaper book review pages are shrinking because they'e too busy reliving The Civil War, World War II and the Kennedy administration. And reviewing the umpteenth bio of the same dead white guys.

I confess I do read Marilyn Stasio of The NY Times, and if I had a prayer of getting a review from her I'd walk a hundred miles on broken glass to get it, but seriously, how many books can she review in a week? In a year?

So, I love the online reviewers. They're filling a need. I don't care what their day jobs are, or where they went to school. (Isn't it a little ridiculous to think that someone has to have gone to Yale to review a mystery?) Like anyone else, some reviewers are good and some are less good, but if they know their stuff -mysteries, romances, kids books, whatever - then I'm glad they're doing what they're doing.

So how do newspapers decide what to publish? When I was learning about journalism, back in my radio days, we were taught that you gave the public what it "should" want to know about. That somehow, the people who were making the editorial decisions were the ones who were trained to decide what was best and necessary for people to read about. Remember when Michael Dukakis ran for president?(okay, you don't, but trust me on this one) There was discussion about how "eat your peas" he was. In other words, that he would say things you needed to hear, but didnt necesssarily want to. That's what newspapers used to do--decide what was important, and print that.

Now, that in mind. Things have changed. There are 300 cable channels. Newspapers are drying up and dying as people turn to the internet. So, to stay alive, newspapers are printing what they think people WILL read. Want to read. And "they" have decided, apparently, that people don't want to read book reviews. Simple as that. They're selling, we're buying, they've decided we ain't buying book reviews. (Plus, why pay a book reviewer?)

So it's so sad, because a review is so often more than just about the book. It can be writen by someone who offers context, breadth, connections. I'm not saying there's anything less--reliable? educated? insightful?--about on line reviews. It's just another medium, after all.

I don't think that problem is the advent of on-line reviews--you gotta love them. They can be wonderfully smart, they're honest, they're from the heart as well as the brain, and they're free of "the man." It's just too bad that curling up with coffee and the newspaper book review section on Sunday morning could be a thing of the past. Or maybe--it'll just be I'll get cozy with my laptop. (Though that's hard to share with my husband.)

I think the bottom line with the continued decimation of the book review page, we all need to be grateful for the online reviewers -- many of whom don't even get paid but review as a labor of book love. Thanks guys!

Monday, May 7, 2007


Maycomb was ...a tired old town. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow it was hotter's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.

****To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Maybe I'm obsessing about the weather because its May and I'm still freezing, but I can't help but notice how seamlessly some writers weave weather details into their stories. Since my amateur sleuth is a gardener, a certain amount of weather info is integral to the story, but I'm very self-conscious when I do it. As if it's something I learned in Writing 101, "always put the weather in." Without a legitimate narrative reason for it (i.e., story revolves around a storm, flood, etc.)do you generally use weather to help create a mood in your books? And how do you do it, so that it doesn't sound like an interruption, or latebreaking news from The Weather Channel?

And do people just skip the weather parts? Reporters--like my main character, and (cough) like me--always have to know what the weather is. So she checks to see if it's going to rain during her live shot, making her mascara run and blowing her hair around so it sticks to her lipstick, or if she needs snow boots, or whether the sun is going to be a lighting asset or detriment. Hallie says to plague your characters with discomfort (See Hallie? I use your book every day...)and the weather can be a cold wet stormy windy obstacle. ((And let me just say: if you had the idea for an all-weather channel, say, ten years ago, would you have thought it could possibly work? Do people really sit and watch the weather?))

That's right..I remember her saying that at her workshop at Crimebake. I did buy the book Hallie...btw I loved that workshop. Really got a lot out of it.

I think weather is great when it's part of the plot, or when you use it show something about your character (Hank's example) -- in other words, it's there for a reason...also useful for showing the passage of time in an artful way ("the rain had stopped and stars twinkled...") But woe to those who forget Elmore Leonard's writing rule #1: "Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people." (see On the other hand (there's always one in writing)...for a great weather opening, see Tony Hillerman's "Listening Woman."
It is hard, as Ro points out, to write it so it's not a cliche or a news bulletin.

I agree with Hallie. Unless the weather is a part of the plot or critical to character, it's incidental. IE. boring. I struggle to put it in sometimes, too, because I'm trying to make the environment real. But most likely, if it's a struggle, it doesn't belong there.

But when it's real, people love weather. What it's going to be like tomorrow? What's the weather where Mom is? I read somewhere they have a computer program that will flawlessly predict the weather. Problem is, its so complicated that by the time it makes the prediction, the weather has already happened. (Off the topic, I know.) But you know, I've edited several books for fellow authors. And I'm always writing in the margin-is it hot? Cold? Raining? Remember, it's July. Or something like that. So we miss it when it's missing.

RO: I'm still cold...maybe I should set my next book in the Virgin Islands instead of Connecticut.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007


"Who better to pick the best mystery books of the month than the people who run mystery bookstores?"
And this just in: today, they picked our Jan! Yesterday's Fatal was named a "Killer Book" for May by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. (We've thought YF was a killer book all along, but it's fantastic to have such huge recognition. Check the website above for the whole scoop.)
But first, Jan--take the floor, er, blog.
I definitely have too much anxiety when a new book comes out. Sometimes it seems like even childbirth was easier, but that good news today (the day after the book offically came out)that sure helps alleviate the stress.
This means a lot to me since we all know that the only way a mystery author makes it is with the backing of the independent bookstore owners who take the time to read and recommend our books.
I have Robin Agnew, owner of Aunt Agatha's Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan to thank for the nomination.
HANK, RO and HALLIE, interrupting:
Here's a photo of Robin (left) and Jan! Thank you, Robin, for choosing Jan.

Ok, back to you, Jan.

My heroine, Hallie Ahern, is terribly flawed, which some people like and some people don't. Lucky for me, Robin liked it. She also pointed out something that was eluding me: Hallie was bumping up against a gender bias in mysteries.

Male protaganists were allowed to have all sorts of weaknesses, but female sleuths were supposed to be perfect superheroes. Yuck, I hate flawless superheroes, male or female. Anyway, if feels good to be appreciated. And I also have to thank my agent, Dan Mandel, for pushing me to travel to bookstores in different parts of the country.

HANK, RO and HALLIE, interrupting: Here's a photo of Dan! Yay, Dan.

OK, back to you, Jan.

Mystery bookstore owners can't possibly read all the mysteries that are out there. They sometimes discover your work because you've taken the time to visit.

HANK, RO AND HALLIE, interrupting:
Here's a photo of another great independent book store with a wonderful proprietor Kate Mattes' "Kate's Mystery Bookstore" in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Hank's upper left getting ready to talk (as usual), and Hallie is in the front. That's also Roberta Isleib, Ruth McCarty and Cathy Cairns, all moguls in Sisters in Crime, and all happy for Jan!

Anyway, I'm very grateful. And thrilled. And about to go on the road. Check my website for the latest events--and hope to see all of you.

HANK, RO and HALLIE, interrupting:
Congratulations! ( And to find out more, click on Jan's cover--right over there>>>

We now return you to our regular blog.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007


Booksellers usually view the dinners as a grand gesture by the publisher, said Paul Yamazaki, the chief book buyer at City Lights.
“What they’re trying to do is make a statement about the book,” he said. “They want you to go read it, and it gives them another five minutes. But you can’t manufacture these things. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, and the book has to deliver,” he said. “Ultimately it’s about the book.”

*** The New York Times "Pushing A New Writer"

Would you buy my book if I bought you dinner? Lunch? A drink? A recent article in the New York Times reveals the latest trend in publishing publicity methods, called "pre-publication tours," where a new author is carted around the country by the publisher and shown off to book buyers at fancy dinners and events. The theory is once the buyers meet the author, they will be so smitten and overcome by the attention that they'll purchase many more books than usual and then promote them to their eager-to-buy customers.

Now let's be clear. As my mother always says: "This is not a criticism. It's an observation." If the wonderful people at Harlequin want to escort me--anytime!-- on a cross-country tour to promote my new book, I'm definitely on board. Maybe after a few glasses of wine and some cherries jubilee, I'm a bestseller. Sounds nice.

But I've got to say--all the book buyers I've talked to ain't gonna be convinced by a couple glasses of Chateau Lafitte or some gingered sea bass.

On the other hand, what if the pre-pub tour really starts the buzz? (Maybe it could work. And there's no question if you meet an author, you feel some connection to them. Can't hurt. And certainly PR works. And ads. And going to bookstores. And I'll be doing all that. And I hope to meet all of you!)

Or do you think it's as the book buyer above says--it's ultimately about "the book"?
Can a flashy promo campaign make a mediocre into a moneymaker?

I once heard that in order to become a bestseller, a book has to be "best selling" in its initial few weeks. If that's true, then it's actually impossible for word-of-mouth to do the job and the only WAY a book can get there, unless you are Ross Perot, is if the publisher puts its money, right up front, into making it a bestseller. Whether the publisher does this by buying premium display space at B&N and Borders, or by pre-publicity dinners, it doesn't change the bottom line: The publisher makes it happen. I'm not sure if that view makes me cynical or a realist, but I think that's the book biz.

As my husband (a 40 yr veteran of the book business) is fond of saying - and I hate it when he does - it's both. There are plenty of mediocre books that are moneymakers, and plenty of great books that not enough people know about (will someone please make the wonderful Robert Hellenga a household name?)

No one is going to buy my book simply on the strength of a party, a drink, or a tcotchke. But, let's face it, with all due respect to those that claim they do, very few retail buyers actually have the time to read all the books they are sent. They couldn't possibly, with hundreds of books being published every day. Given that reality, I'm up for almost anything that helps someone remember me or the name of my book. And I don't expect the publisher to do it all. They're already rolling the dice on me. I'll supplement their efforts anyway I can in the runup to publication. Maybe it'll work and maybe it won't, but I'm a newcomer. For me, it's about surpassing expectations - not necessarily making The New York Times bestseller list. (It should only happen...)

Anyone read JA Konrath's Newbie's Guide to Publishing? Or Jackie Deval's paperback, Publicize Your Book? Great ideas, and they don't all cost a fortune.

Ro says: "It's about surpassing expectations." Here, here!
So, the question is, as an author, are you selling yourself or are you selling your book, and is there a difference? Most bookstores that have author events want us to chat, tell amusing stories, share the inside scoop on how we wrote our book, not read from it for 40 minutes straight. Snore. The assumption is if the customer likes YOU, they'll buy your book. Obviously the publishers are taking the same tack with booksellers.

And Hank, in answer to your question, if you buy me lunch or dinner YES I'll buy your book. Do I get to pick the place??

RO: Can I come too?

Okay, sounds like fun. Dinner for everyone. Hallie, sure, you can pick. Then everyone buys books. And I promise not to read out loud. (Unless there's a huge clamor to hear the really good parts.) What a great evening that'll be!

PS FROM HANK: Oh, one more thing. Boston's own Grub Street is having a fantastic seminar called "Muse and the Marketplace" May 5-6 with luminaries like Margot Livesey, Gregory Maguire and Sue Miller. Turns out, I'm on a panel about publicizing your book! So hey--we'd love to see you all there. Otherwise, I'm gonna find out all the secrets...