Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Fishy Business

TODAY'S PRIZE: a signed first edition of Harlan Coben's LIVE WIRE! The winner selected at random from the comments.

HANK: So you send your wonderful story or novel to an editor or to a contest--you hit "send" and cross your fingers. The person on the other end is about to click the "open" button, start to read your words, and make a decision.

Is there nothing scarier? But today we get an up close and personal glimpse behind the scenes at that process. The Guppies--yay, Guppies!--(Are you a member? See below for why it's exactly the right spot for anyone interested in writing a mystery!) have put together the second in their "fishy" short story anthologies.

The Guppies worked together on Fish Tales--writing, selecting, editing, organizing and finding a publisher. And then sharing the fun of seeing the sales go up!

KB Inglee is one of the earliest Guppies--and I wondered if she'd share her experiences. Like all good Guppies, she said yes.

(She's not as "early" as she looks in this photo...she works as an historical interpreter at two living history museums in the Mid-Atlantic. She uses this hands-on experience to improve her historical short stories. She has milled corn using water power, cooked in a wood fired oven, driven oxen, and she tends a flock of heritage sheep. But at home, she uses a computer. I think...)

KB INGLEE: Writers don’t usually get a peek behind the curtain to see what editors are thinking, why they chose the manuscripts they do, why they reject the ones they do, or even why certain authors drive them crazy.

The two publications Fish Tales and Fish Nets, both short story anthologies, came about precisely to give writers that glimpse. The Sisters in Crime chapter, The Guppies decided to use the process of putting together an anthology as an education for members. The call went out for short story manuscripts with a fishy theme.

Since short stories are my love, I offered to field the manuscripts and act as liaison between the authors and the professional editor we hired.

HANK: So how'd you do it? It'd be difficult to choose stories from friends and people you know and love.

KB: We hired a professional editor, Ramona Long. Each author was to score three other stories and the top scorers would make it into the anthology. My job was to field the stories and send them out to be scored. When the scores came back, I pulled out the high scorers and sent them to Ramona. She read them and sent them back to me with comments which I forwarded to the authors. After two rounds of this, Ramona and I compiled the whole manuscript added the table of contents and the introduction by Chris Roerden. At that point I handed it off to others who found the publisher.

HANK: How did reality compare to what you'd imagined?

KB: When I took on the job I made two resolutions, I would not take anything anyone did personally and I would finish what I had contracted to do.

Every step of the way, authors were kept posted as to the progress and problems. Each author received a copy of their scores and comments by the readers. Each time I hit a snag, I alerted the whole group.

The biggest problem I had was the impatience of the authors. When I opened my email at 5 AM, there would be a story waiting. If I had not downloaded the story and responded to the author by noon, I could expect a “did you get my story?” email. I contacted all the authors to let them know they had to be patient, and not keep emailing, that if they did that they would get the reputation of being hard to work with.

HANK: SO funny! Was it a learning process for you? Did people do what they were told?

KB: Most everyone met the deadlines; two authors submitted their stories with the name attached for a blind read. This didn’t seem like much of a stumbling block since the readers didn’t know the authors. They got points off for not following orders, but the manuscripts were not rejected.

Those involved learned how subjective the process was. Both as readers and writers we were of all different skill levels. Had I sent any story to a different reader the score could have been different. One story that didn’t make the cut, showed up later in one of the prominent mystery magazines.

As an author, this was a mind expanding exercise. I now write the best story I can, have someone else read it to fix any errors, follow the submission guidelines like my life depended on it, send it out and then go on to write something else. I do not email magazines to ask if they have received it or when they are going to do this or that. The chances are good it will be rejected, or that I will never hear anything, but every now and then I have a story accepted somewhere.

Fish Tales came out in March and is a volume to be proud of, with 22 excellent short stories of murder and fish. Well worth the read. We hope it will be followed soon by Fish Nets.

HANK: Can we get a sneak peek?

KB: Sure! Here's a sampler of first lines:

***From Thicker than Blood by Leslie Budewitz:

From the shore, the setting sun looked like it had been pierced by two burnt lodge pole pines still standing on a distant ridge. Not even last summer, when the fires raged for months, had she ever seen the sun so red.

And her hands. Nothing more red than fresh blood.

***From Feeding Frenzy by Patricia Winton:

One rarely thinks of fish as a murder weapon, and Caroline Woodlock certainly didn’t have murder on her mind as she surveyed the vast piscine assortment spread out at the market near Piazza Vittorio in Rome.

*** From The Turkey Hill Affair by Warren Bull:

Turkey Hill, Iowa, was a big disappointment until I bumped into Bennie as he was robbing the Farm and Business Bank.

***From Amazing Grace by Betsy Bitner:

I have been planning my husband’s funeral for twelve years. No, he doesn’t have a slow-acting terminal illness. And he’s not some bigwig requiring a send-off befitting his stature in the community. It’s just that, like the Scouts say, you’ve got to be prepared. Everyone has to go sooner or later and, with any luck, my husband’s time will come sooner. Call me an optimist.

HANK: Sounds great! And congratulations to all. ****We at the Guppies are always looking for good fishy titles--any ideas? Let's see--Calling All Cods? No. To Tell the Trout? Come on, you guys can do better than that.****

Fish Tales is available at this address! And make sure you put #guppies on your tweets!

The GUPPIES--for Great Unpublished--is an incredibly active, friendly, educational and always-inspirational on-line chapter of Sisters in Crime. For more info, click here!

And don't forget to comment--you'll be entered to win a signed first editon of LIVE WIRE by Harlan Coben!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Seven Pieces Of Advice To A Young Writer

HANK: To introduce Sara Gran, I have to name drop.

(I was once at an event with Paul Simon--no , that isn't the name drop. He was talking about name dropping. And he said the best name drop he ever heard was from John Lennon. Who said to Paul Simon--"When I was talking to the Dalai Lama the other day....")

Anyway, this is just about that good. I was at the Agatha's this year, sitting next to Sue Grafton. (Told ya.) On the other side of Sue was this very very cool woman, funny, hip, clever, and obviously a favorite of Sue's. I found out later, after a dinner full of dish and hilarity, that Sue, being asked for a blurb by Sara's editor, had almost tossed Sara's new book--without reading it-- in the "no" pile. Then, for some cosmic reason, decided to give it a go, and then--was totally hooked.

Sue's blurb: "I love this book."

Can't do better than that, right?

Anyway, everyone else is loving the book, too--amazing reviews--and now, Reds, Sara has some Sara-type insight to the wonderful world of publishing.

Seven Pieces Of Advice To A Young Writer

Ten years ago this fall I published my first book. God, am I old! But being old is fun, and I've learned a little along the way. I've just returned from a teary, emotional tour for my new book, CLAIRE DeWITT & THE CITY OF THE DEAD, and lately I've been thinking a lot about what I wish I'd known when I started in this business. Ultimately, that's a topic too big for a blog post (maybe a five-volume bound set would do the trick), but here's a few tips for all the kids out there with stars in their eyes and a contract waiting for them to sign it. Ladies, what are your best pieces of advice for "baby" writers? Which mistakes did you make starting out?

1. Trust no one. Horrible, isn't it? Of course, your agents, editors, publishers, and publicists aren't bad people (probably). But things change fast in publishing, which makes it hard for folks to keep their word. Every business has a bullshit factor, of course, but in publishing it's shockingly high. I'm not saying to close your heart or give up your compassion, but take everything, especially promises, with a grain of salt. Or an ocean.

2. Keep records. Lord, I know all you old hags like me out there agree with this one. Start some kind of a simple bookkeeping method to keep track of payments you should get and payments you do get (which may but probably will not correlate). Believe me kid, you don't want to be rereading your contract and scrutinizing royalty statements in ten years to see if you got that on-pub check for that second novel in Germany (and the answer is no, you didn't—because you weren't keeping records!). Text Color

3. Find your allies. In the crime and mystery world, most of the other writers play pretty nice. Trust your gut and find good friends. You might live across the country and you might not talk every day, but you'll need each other and enjoy each other as the years go on. I was just emailing with a pal I've never met, but have known for ten years, when both of our first books came out. Your friendships with other writers will keep you sane, healthy and happy, and serve as your reality check when an editor tells you a check that's twelve months late is perfectly normal. But keep one eye open for the drama queens/kings, sociopaths, users, and social climbers, and avoid them at all costs. Stay with the nice folks. It might take them a little longer to succeed, but they get there eventually, and when they hit the big time it tends to last.

4. Understand that you're in vaudeville now. Sure, you can be the kind of writer who stays home and turns down interviews. Or you can be that brutally honest person who says what everyone's thinking on Twitter. Sounds good to me. But you know what doesn't sound good? A day job! I want my books to sell and for better or worse, a part of that today is showmanship. Learn to give a great presentation. Buy some decent clothes for events. Tweak your natural inclinations to develop a wittier, less offensive, public version of you. Create a character you can play when you have to go out in public. Not only can this sell books, it makes it hurt less when things go wrong. And it makes it all so much more fun.

5. Write what you want to write. Seems like the more books a writer sells the more people want to tell her (and maybe also him) what to do. "Sure, kid, that mystery was great, but if you really want to reach audiences you need to write a paranormal vampire thriller with the characters from Mad Men…" Well, that might be a great idea, and I'm not saying you should ever turn down a good job offer; if someone wants to give you fifty grand to write the Mad Men vampire saga, cash the check, write the book, and use a pen name. It could be something wonderful. That's the short-term game. But never stop doing what you want to do, first because you absolutely

have to or you will go crazy, and second because eventually, it'll sell.

The books that last aren't usually the books that people ask us to write. They're usually the books that sold two hundred copies on release and then went out of print for ten years. When Fitzgerald died his book were not, as commonly reported, out of print. They were sitting in the warehouse with no customers. On his deathbed, Jim Thompson told his kids: never sell my rights. That's the long-term game. Feed your soul first and the money will follow, even though it might take a while to catch up. In the meantime, enjoy the short-time game, too—it has its own charms.

6. Learn to love reading contracts. There's just no way around it. Find a way to make it interesting.

7. Have fun, and never forget how lucky you are. Old bitter folks like me like to complain, but you know what? I love this job. I have an editor I like and respect, a team I trust working on my books, I've made extraordinary friends and met fascinating people, and I just got a free trip across the country, during which my only obligation was to talk about myself incessantly. Sure, I've also been screwed every way possible, but that happens in other jobs, too—and besides, it was worth it. This job keeps you on your toes and never lets you forget that you're alive. And I get to play with imaginary friends all day—what other job can top that? Some people literally work in coal mines all day. Wow. I'll try to remember that the next time I complain about a late royalty check…

Ladies of Jungle Red? What advice do you have for the kids out there—or for me?

HANK: See what I mean? And we're giving away a copy of CLAIRE DEWITT AND THE CITY OF THE DEAD to a lucky commenter!


Sara Gran is the author of the novels Dope, Come Closer, Saturn’s Return to New York, and the Claire DeWitt series (HMH 2011). Her work has been published in over a dozen countries in nearly fifteen languages. Born in Brooklyn in 1971, Ms. Gran lived in Brooklyn until 2004. Since then she has traveled widely and lived throughout the US including Miami and New Orleans. She now resides in the state of California. Before making a living as a writer, Ms. Gran had many jobs, primarily with books, working at Manhattan bookstores like Shakespeare & Co, The Strand, and Housing Works, and selling used & rare books on her own. Visit Sara at

Sara Gran also blogs with the fabulous Megan Abbott here.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

True Crime Tuesday--Vanishing Treasures

HANK: Anthony Amore is a character right out of a suspense thiller. And yet, he's real. He's a world class expert of art security and art theft. He's a lead investigator on the Isabella Stewart Gardner thefts--that's the missing Rembrandt "Storm on the Sea of Galilee" to the left--and more scoop on that below.

(You have to admit, now that they've caught the notorious Whitey Bulger, the Gardner heist is the biggest unsolved mystery in Boston. And there's a reward of five miliion dolalrs for info that leads to the return of the thirteen stolen works of art!)

Anthony Amore will be at Crime Bake--and the inside stuff he knows is quite amazing. For instance--ask him how the bad guys carry a huge paintings out of a museum. His answer will suprise you.

But today...True Crime Tuesday...he takes us inside the world of art theft.

ANTHONY AMORE: Less than a month ago, two valuable paintings—one a portrait of two smiling boys by Frans Hal and the other a landscape by Jacob van Ruysdael—were stolen from a museum in Leerdam in The Netherlands. Amazingly, this crime, in which the thieves made off with a haul valued in the millions of US dollars, received barely a mention in North America. In fact, I had to use an online translation program in order to read about the theft in English. It’s safe to assume that this is at least partly due to the fact that the public is unaware of the enormity of the problem of crimes against art.

Tell us more! So this goes on all the time? What are some of the most famous cases?

Anthony Amore:
Art theft happens much more than one may think. The trafficking of illicit art is a multi-billion dollar “industry” and includes everything from stolen paintings to Egyptian artifacts to rare items from our nation’s history. It ranges from thefts of antique family heirlooms taken from private homes to thefts from internationally known museums, such as the infamous 1990 theft of 13 priceless items from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. That art crime, still unsolved, ranks as the largest property theft in recorded history.

HANK: You investigated that Isabella Stewart Gardner theft. Below is a stolen Degas. Do you think you'll ever discover who did it?

Anthony Amore: Unfortunately, crimes against important cultural property still happen every day. Despite the best efforts of law enforcement and INTERPOL, Europe is a hotbed for stolen art and antiquities. This is true in around the world, and the United States is no different. Art theft is so prevalent in America that in 2004 the Federal Bureau of Investigation formed an Art Crime Team to investigate such losses. However, here in the United States, little emphasis is put on the recovery of lost art at the state and local levels of law enforcement.

The good news is that, at least when it comes to stolen masterpieces, the recovery rate is fairly good. That’s because highly recognizable art is very difficult to move. Thieves who see enormous dollar values often commit crimes of opportunity. But as retired FBI agent Robert Wittman has noted, the true art of art theft is in the moving of the goods, not the heist itself. So, while the bad guys usually prevail when it comes to lesser known works, there is hope for better known items. This is just one of the reasons that I am hopeful for a recovery of the stolen Gardner art.

HANK: How do they get away with it? And do the bad guys usually prevail?

Anthony Amore: Over the past year, investigative reporter Tom Mashberg and I teamed up to examine the problem of art theft by researching all of the thefts of paintings by the great master Rembrandt van Rijn throughout the last century. The result of this research is the basis for our book Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists .

Stealing Rembrandts
makes three things abundantly clear: 1) art is not stolen by swashbuckling, debonair thieves on behalf of nefarious billionaires. It is stolen by common crooks, often as a crime of opportunity; 2) stealing high-value art by well-known artists is a fool’s errand because such works are nearly impossible to sell; and 3) prevention against the theft of our priceless cultural treasures, not just the recovery of stolen art, is vitally important. Despite these truths, art remains an attractive target for criminals who are romanced by astronomical values attributed to master works.

: Why did you pick Rembrandt thefts? Is he the most-stolen artist ever?

Anthony Amore: We chose Rembrandt for several reasons. Chief among them was the fact that in my work pursuing the stolen Gardner Rembrandts, I spent considerable time examining how other theft of the great master took place. In seeking out as much information on art crime as I could, I was surprised to see just how often works by Rembrandt have been stolen. Thus, the topic of our book was born. Tom Mashberg, himself no stranger to the pursuit of stolen art, brought his talents for investigative journalism to the project, and we created what we feel is a book that will help the cause of art security for decades to come.

History has proven that, once stolen, thieves have very little success monetizing their booty. Like many of us, they believe the version of life they see on the Hollywood screen, which is based entirely on fantasy, not reality. So, despite the folly of it all, criminals will likely always target art. And that means we have to remain vigilant in our efforts to protect it. An essential part of that is knowing who the culprits are, and who they are not.

One of the more entertaining parts of the book Tom and I wrote deals with the genesis of the myth of “Dr. No.” We examine the origins of the public’s fallacious yet widespread belief that stolen masterpieces now hang on the walls of some master crime figure’s underground lair, there for him to enjoy alone with his brandy snifter. In fact, an investigator is far more likely to find a stolen masterpiece wrapped in a blanket in a storage facility, attic, or basement than he is to find it in a mansion hanging by a fireplace. This is the reality of art theft, and it’s nothing like it is on the big screen.

Hopefully, in some measure, Stealing Rembrandts will smash that myth, helping law enforcement to better identify art thieves and fences, while also showing art collectors (including museums and galleries) who it is they must defend themselves against.

Until art is better protected, and the enemy more clearly understood, our cultural treasures will continue to fall victim to thieves with little regard for history, beauty, or the best achievements of their fellow man.

HANK: SO interesting, huh? Questions for Anthony? Or--what's your favorite painting? A signed copy of Stealing Rembrandts to one lucky commenter!

Anthony Amore is an art security expert and the co-author, with Tom Mashberg, of Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists, published by Palgrave MacMillan. He can be reached at

Monday, June 27, 2011

Shut Eye, Forty Winks, Dreamland, Slumber Party

HANK: I sit here, staring at the computer screen, my brain fuzzy and essentially sludge. What do I need to get back in the, um, well,I'm trying to think of a word that means: quick-witted, thoughtful, flexible, interested, capable, imaginative. But only one word comes to mind right now.


I could really use some sleep.

When I give speeches to organizations and book groups, and they say--wow, how do you have a full-time job as a reporter and a full-time job as an author and then all these appearances and you have a husband, if course--how do you do that?

And I laugh, and I say, oh, sleep was the first to go! Who needs sleep?

I do. I do. I do.

There's not a moment of the day I'm not working. (Writing this counts, right?) And I go home at night, and work more and write more and then fix dinner and then have dinner and then work or read-for-work and then go to sleep about--12:30? And get up at 7, if I'm lucky, and then start over.

That's six and a half hours (isn't it? bad at math, too sleepy..), and most experts say, that's not enough. Duh. Although I do know some people can go on less. Supposedly Leonardo Da Vinci would sleep just 15 minutes of every four hours. Whoa. Sleeping AND math. Very Leonardo.

Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister, was famous for getting by on
only four hours a night. Thomas Edison slept 3-4 hours at night, regarding sleep as a waste of time.

And, surprise surprise, Martha Stewart says: “There’s not enough time in the day.” As a result, she alleges she needs no more than four hours’ sleep a night. (It must be the high thread count Egyptian cotton color-coordinated sheets.)

My waking dream? To have the prescribed-as-normal textbook eight hours sleep a night. Oh, I wonder how the bags under my eyes would fare if I did. I'd love to find out. I'd love to find out in a cool breezy room, with fluttering crisp white curtains and the fragrance of salt water and, yes, beautiful sheets and fluffy pillows.

Sigh. Oh, sorry, I yawned. How much sleep do you need?

ROSEMARY: More than I'm getting! On a regular basis I seem to get six hours, out by midnight and up by 6am, although when it's crunchtime I easily stay up until 3 or 4 until all or most of the things on my list are accomplished. (Then I drag my sorry butt around the next day.)

But the work is never finished. I was busy before I started writing - I did a lot more volunteering than I do now and for a time I was going to Africa once a year to check on the library. And my garden was in its early stages so I did a lot more planting. Some days I just take the day off - my husband laughs because all that means is that I'm working at something other than writing or promoting.

JAN: Those four-hour-a-night-sleep people have different DNA than the rest of us. Or maybe they are aliens sent to spy on us because that's just not human. Last week, I did a story for the Globe and talked to the pre-eminent sleep researcher in the country. He said you need one hour of sleep to process, sort, file and "deal with" every two hours you are awake. Sleep is the body's filtering and filing system and when you don't get it (unless you are an alien), you can't properly deal with your emotions and the weird little traumas of every day life.

This is just a long-winded defense where I call in a Harvard researcher to validate my absolute need for eight hours every single night. If I somehow get shorted one night, its NINE hours the next. I am a complete and total sleep WIMP.

HALLIE: I'm with you, Jan. Eight hours a night. MINIMUM. I'm so glad Harvard says that's a good thing.

I consider myself a champion sleeper. Usually I'm out within a minute or two of my head hitting the pillow. I sleep especially well with the baseball game on the TV. Or during that last fifteen minutes of Masterpiece Mystery. On the rare occasion when I can't sleep I get my husband to talk to me and that does the trick.

HANK: Oh, that's hilarious! We won't tell him...

HALLIE: And confession: I like to take a short nap mid-afternoon, too. Just twenty minutes out and I'm good to go. Yes, that's on top of my 8 hours.

Such a wimp.

ROBERTA: Hallie, I'm so envious of you falling to sleep like that. My hub is the same way--he's off to dreamland and I lie there thinking about a thousand things that should be done. Not good at sleeping through the night either...oh for those younger days when I was a champion sleeper too! And Deb, I'm not at all a night person. Not a 6 am girl either. John teases that my peak hours are 9 to 11 am. Could be:).

Hank, I've never noticed any bags--you always look better than the rest of us.

HANK: May I find your glasses for you? :-)

RHYS: I'm just getting over two years of real sleep problems--some nights with no sleep at all. It's bliss to be able to fall asleep right away, but I can only do it if I grab the window of opportunity which is between 9:30-10:30. If I stay up past that, or I'm watching a stimulating show on TV, I can be staring at the ceiling at three. And I do need my eight hours too. The problem is that I wake by seven however late I fall asleep.
And something else that's strange--I sleep really well away from home in hotels. If I wake at home I'm lying there writing the next chapter or remembering something I should have mailed. Away from home I sleep. Maybe I should be on the road all year.
Oh, and I love naps too, but they have to be less than ten minutes or I feel like a zombie.

DEBS: Oh, I'm so glad someone else confesses to naps! And that you are not all aliens who only need four hours sleep. I need eight, although I usually don't get quite that much. And then I need a nap mid-to-late afternoon, after which I write like a maniac and could keep going post midnight if I didn't have to do things like fix dinner and clean up . . .

I can't write when I'm tired. My brain just doesn't fire. But even after so many years of practical experience with this, I'm still amazed at the difference enough rest makes. I am also a night person, and the more I can accommodate my body clock, the better I do.

As for those bags under the eyes, Hank, I am SHOCKED, just SHOCKED by how much difference rest makes in the way I look as I get, um, more "mature." At least I don't have to be on TV when I've had a bad night :-)

ROSEMARY: I do think naps are wonderful - such a treat. And then you've got a whole new day!

HANK: Oh, gosh, I can't nap. When I do, I wake up and want scrambled eggs. No matter what time it is. It scrambles my brain, I guess.

So Reds, how much sleep do you need? Or, just as interesting, how much sleep do you get? Naps? Or no naps?

Are you a Martha Stewart or a, um, Hank? And--just thought of this--did you ever have slumber parties?

And hey, because it's Monday and why not--I have a signed copy of Lisa Scottoline's brand new SAVE ME to give away to one lucky commenter!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Costumes we covet...

HALLIE: This week, the incredible collection of iconic movie costumes that Debbie Reynolds had collected over a lifetime went on the auction block. Marilyn Monroe's white dress--the one from Seven Year Itch with the pleated skirt, billowing in a gust of air from a subway grating--went for a record $5.6 million.

"Oh do you feel the breeze from the subway? Isn't it delicious," MM said in the movie. Supposedly her then husband (Joe DiMaggio?) looked on, seething in stony silence.

I love this photo of Debbie (I still think of her as Tammy) with a poster and two costumes from her collection. So sad that the collection had to be liquidated to pay creditors.
Reading abut the auction got me thinking about my favorite costumes from stage and screen. Here are some I'd love to have collected.

Do you know them ? Did I pick ones you remember? What other costumes you covet??

(Could you identify them all? I posted a Who's Who in the first comment!)

Friday, June 24, 2011

Smoked out...

Spade's thick fingers made a cigarette with deliberate care, sifting a measured quantity of tan flakes down into curved paper, spreading the flakes so that they lay equal at the ends with a slight depression in the middle, thumbs rolling the paper's inner edge down and up under the outer edge as forefingers pressed it over, thumbs and fingers sliding to the paper cylinder's end to hold it even while tongue licked the flap, left forefinger and thumb twisting their end and lifting the other to Spade's mouth. -- The Maltese Falcon
HALLIE: Any author can tell you why so many characters smoke in books - because a cigarette is a great prop. Your character can lean back leisurely and shoot a stream of smoke to the ceiling, or mash that butt into his girlfriend's grapefruit. In The Maltese Falcon we never once get inside Sam Spade's head, but Hammett shows us his mood by how he rolls a cigarette.

Most of us have smoked at one time or another. When I was in my 20s, everyone did. We might not have been so foolish if we'd seen the new warning labels the FDA announced this week, graphic pictures (a cadaver; a tracheostomy hole...) that drive the message home. Quite a change from early cigarette ads. Can you believe, they knew cigarettes were lethal and still the ads featured Santa Claus and babies.
I smoked, sort of, until I was in my twenties and got asthma so bad I had to stop or quit breathing. Fortunately I was a social smoker. Meet a friend "for coffee" and bum a cigarette. Then another. So it wasn't all that hard to quit and I truly don't miss it.
It's hard to remember when EVERYONE smoked. The other day I was in someone's house who still smokes, and even though they weren't smoking when we were there, the smell was overpowering and I could smell it on my clothes when I got home. My father and especially my mother were chain smokers. It never bothered me then. Did we all just, for decades lose our senses of smell?
ROBERTA: My mother smoked Kents all my life too Hallie, I believe even through 4 pregnancies. Times were different. Now we would be horrified if someone lit up in a restaurant, or even a bar, but back in my twenties, we all smoked everywhere. We thought we were too cool. Unfortunately, I did get hooked for a while--Salem lights. ick! then I moved to Nicorette, which you had to get by prescription, which made you feel like an addict. (which you were!)
RHYS: I grew up with two parents who smoked. In fact when my mother was pregnant with me the doctor urged her to keep smoking to calm her nerves. How far we have come! I tried a few experimental puffs in college but since it was polite to hand around the pack every time one smoked, I could see it would be an expensive habit, so I never got hooked.
John smoked then quit when one of our daughters proved to have bad allergies. When our kids were teenagers we promised them $500 if they were not smoking at 21. All four collected the money and nobody we know still smokes. The smell literally makes me sick. Can you remember those college parties when the fug was so thick you could hardly see across the room? I have to remember in my 1930s books that all the characters would be smoking.
I hate to see young people smoke these days (any people really.) It's so clearly awful for the human body, hard to see how someone overlooks that. Except nicotine is terribly addicting. THAT I do get!
HALLIE: I hate to see young people smoking too - and I wonder why is it that so many nurses smoke?

JAN: Luckily, I never smoked much, and my father was always bribing me to stop smoking so it was very much on again and off again. Into my thirties I would have an occasional cigarette if I was out at a bar with my cousins (who still smoke), but for the most part I gave it up in my mid twenties. I could never smoke again - but I love the smell of it outside on a summer day. It reminds me of my wild youth.
ROSEMARY: Guilty. I smoked when I was a teen - Marlboro, box. Parents and sister did and all my aunts and uncles. My dad smoked Camels, which I snuck as a kid. Non-filtered, of course. I loved the package and loved the mechanics of it. We were so cool.
Like Jan, quit in my twenties. Inspired by a foreign boyfriend I picked it up again briefly in my thirties, I think they were Gauloises/Rothman...something foreign... and haven't smoked for years.
Just got back from the movies (Midnight in Paris.) Marion Cotillard looked great with a cigarette holder but I'm not rushing out to buy cigarettes.
I think I just stopped doing it and never really missed it.

HANK: You know what? Never. (My stepfather smoked Kents. Died of mesothelioma. Story was--that micronite filter? Asbestos. But that's another blog.)
Anyway, in college? I tried one day. My pal Hallie (yes! Another Hallie. Marjorie Hallahan was her name) and I went out to buy the coolest package of cigarettes we could find so we could start to smoke like everyone else did.
We chose Montclair, very sleek, navy blue with a gold crest.
Marjorie took right to it. I gacked, gasped, gagged, coughed, eyes watered--and that was without inhaling. I started choking, put the cigarette down to get water. I somehow missed the ashtray and burned a huge hole in my dorm room bedspread.
And that was the end of that. Never again.
DEBS: My mom smoked cigarettes, my dad pipes and cigars--until he got throat cancer. Fortunately it was operable, and they both quit after that. Funny, but my strongest memory of climbing into bed with my parents when I'd had a nightmare as a small child--the smell of smoke.
As for me, I starting sneaking my mom's cigarettes when I was about fourteen. I loved hanging out my upstairs bedroom window on summer nights. I smoked off and on through high school and the beginning of college--everyone did, it seemed--but I always hated the smell on my hair, in my clothes, on my hands, and I could not STAND dirty ashtrays.
I guess there are some benefits to being a BIT obsessive compulsive, because I quit when I was twenty-one and have never been remotely tempted to pick up a cigarette since. I always have a hard time in books remembering to have characters smoke, even though my husband smoked until just last year. He was terribly, terribly addicted, and did a lot of research on the biochemistry of nicotine addiction. Very scary stuff.
JULIA: I'm the other never-did-it, Hank. My mother smoked throughout my childhood (didn't everyone's mother?) but developed serious pleurosy/emphasema when I was about 13. I would help pound on her back while she coughed and coughed, trying to clear her lungs. I remember hiding her cigarettes, running packs under water, doing everything I, an obnoxious kid, could do to get her to quit. (Happy ending - after her doctor told her she had to choose between smoking and leaving her children orphans, she stopped cold turkey. That was over 30 years ago, and now she's an incredibly healthy woman who walks miles every day to keep fit.) That experience, at an impressionalbe age, innoculated me against cigarettes allure for life.
My dad quit at the same time, although in his case, he transitioned to a pipe for a while to make it more palatable. I confess to loving the smell of pipe tobacco and pipe smoke (even though I know it's not any safer than anything else.)
My favorite tobacco-related memory: tucked into bed upstairs in my grandmother's house while the grownups talked and smoked and played cards in the dining room below. The smoke would curl up in wisps through the old-fashioned floor vents, and I could hear quiet bursts of laughter. It made me feel all was right with the world.
HALLIE: Fess up... did you smoke? Inhale? And how did you give it up (please, tell us you have!)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Robin Stratton: On Air and advice for aspiring writers

HALLIE: I met Robin Stratton when we were judging a contest for Minuteman High School. She's a writing coach (author of The Revision Process) who teaches writing workshops and publishes Boston Literary Magazine.

Robin recently published her first novel, ON AIR. It's about an aging, once hot Boston radio personality, whose mother's illness and deathbed revelation throws him headlong into midlife crisis.

Welcome to Jungle Red! And congratulations on your new novel. Tell us about the unheroic hero of your book, Eric Storm.

ROBIN: On Air is a coming of age story about a fifty-year old pop-culture baby boomer on a downward spiral: divorced, jobless, obsessed with a woman who's 30 years younger, and ill equipped for his new role as caretaker for his dying mother. Like so many people at this mid point, he can't believe that his life is so different from what he planned. The characters in that new show Men of a Certain Age always remind me of my character, Eric Storm... and what an odd phrase to describe a time when so many of us are anything but "certain!"

HALLIE: Ha! Good point. Maybe it should be Men of an Uncertain Age.

Why a radio disc jockey?

ROBIN: I wanted Eric's fall to be from a high, glamorous place, and I remember as a teenager admiring DJs - they got paid to play music! So I wanted him to love his job as a hot shot DJ, then become a casualty of changing times and find himself left behind.. suddenly part of the older generation having trouble adjusting to the new ways. I felt that rock and roll was the best way to exemplify the clash of then and now because it's sort of the eternal definition of the division of "us" and "them" and I've always been fascinated by the way so many of us migrate from one side to the other as we age. I don't think any other profession would have shown that so clearly.

HALLIE: As a writing coach, do you find you have to turn your inner critic on or off in order to write your own work?

ROBIN: When I'm critiquing my own work I turn the volume up to 11 !!

HALLIE: That's so interesting. I agree with you -- when I'm critiquing my work, I turn the volume WAY up. My problem is turning it down low enough to get that always-lousy first draft written. What's some unique advice you give writers in your book, "The Revision Process?"

ROBIN: One thing I tell clients to do that I've never heard anywhere is to read every word out loud. It's tedious, but forces you to be mindful... hearing your writing is so different from seeing your writing, and you can pick up on a lot of weaknesses and typos. No one ever wants to do it, but it's really so helpful!

HALLIE: Tell us abut the Boston Literary Magazine - what kinds of work do you publish?

ROBIN: Boston Literary Magazine comes out four times a year, and we try to keep material seasonal; in other words don't send us a poem about a snow storm in May when we're collecting for our summer issue.

I love character-driven material; I love watching people engage in ordinary dynamics and activities that we can all relate to - going back to the boyfriend who abused you, or getting revenge on a boss who fired you, or sharing final loving moments with a dying friend - and seeing something powerful (and therefore extraordinary) come out of it. I'm not interested in descriptive pieces, even if they're beautifully crafted. I'm not saying they're not good, I'm just saying that's not what I like.

We accept poetry, very short fiction (we have a strict 250-word limit), dribbles (exactly 50 words), drabbles (exactly 100 words) and haiku. The best way to have a piece accepted by BLM is to review our Submission Guidelines page on the website,

HALLIE: Robin will be checking back in all day, so chime in with comments or questions about the revision process, about characters who are tragically aged out, and any memories you might have of an aging disc jockey.