Friday, April 12, 2024

Never look back: Writing a serial novel, by Thomas Pluck

 

Thank you, Josh, for the opportunity to write this. The only thing more surprising to me than Josh liking a contemporary YA fantasy is that I wrote one. And here's the story of how that happened.


My latest book almost didn't happen because of the pandemic, and then only happened because of the pandemic. One of my friends and literary heroes is Lawrence Block, who has written books while on cruise ships, so I decided that my next book would be written while I embarked upon a grand circuit of the United States by rail. (You see where this is going, don't you?) I even asked ol' LB for advice on which Amtrak services to take. The book was at heart a road story, and the places I visited would inspire the tale. It would practically write itself!


Thankfully I hadn't booked the tickets by March, when everything shut down. A lot of things happened. I won't bore you with it, you went through it too, but one of the lesser indignities was having to witness a million writers decide to post daily word counts on social media, to let everyone know they were still typing away while the world changed around them. Because somewhere, someone said that to be a writer, you should write every day.


Now, you can write however the hell you want. I shouldn't even have to say that, but due to the enormousness and the enormity of writing "advice" on the internet, a lot of people don't feel like they are "real writers," whatever that means. (Have you written something? You're a writer.) Now, there's something to say about momentum. The first law of motion applies to writing, sometimes, somehow.

 

It's worked for me. I finished my first novel during National Novel Writing Month. It was even a coherent narrative with a three act structure! Five novels later—three of which were published—daily word counts became less of a challenge, and more of a dread. It kept me from writing. And working for a children's hospital during the pandemic—even remotely—made for long, stressful days that left me little time or desire to write, especially in "sprints" or with a pedometer strapped to my brain.


What had kept me writing was a newsletter, delivered via Patreon, that a few dozen people followed me on. I promised them a few short stories, so I had to pay up. One of those stories was "Good People," published in Vautrin, and chosen as a distinguished mystery story in Best American Mysteries and Suspense 2021. Another was "88 Lines About .44 Magnums," still one of my favorite titles. "Good People" was written in four parts, over successive weekends, so I couldn't go back and edit. I had to make it work.

It sounds like madness, but it worked. I didn't know how it would end when I started, but I had to find a way there. It recharged my urge to write. So I decided to write the road trip book one chapter at a time, publishing them on Sundays, with no ability to go back and edit them, because they were delivered to readers serially.


It worked for Dickens, didn't it? (No pressure.) Somehow, it made me more eager to write than ever, even if it didn't make any sense. If a thousand words a day is too daunting, how the heck is writing a chapter a day any better? Because my method was to sit down at the keyboard with my morning coffee, and sit there until the chapter was done. I didn't write a little each day. I didn't start on Saturday. I could think about what I wanted to write all week, and I did, on long morning hikes at Eagle Rock preserve, where some of the story is set, on long commutes to the hospital to work in the data center, and from my recliner while everyone else binged TV.


I had a vague idea of a story: a young kid's parents are taken by ICE, and they have to make their way across the country to safety. I had purchased a set of postcards based on old WPA art of the National Parks, and I used them as my guide. The kid wanted to visit all the National Parks, and would use the postcards, bought by their dad, as a sort of road map. 


Some of them didn't make sense; Vyx starts the story in Jersey City, and wants to get to California, near Sequoia National Park. so Acadia in Maine wasn't in the cards (pun intended!). 


But 30 chapters later, and Devil's Tower, Bryce Canyon, Glacier, Shenandoah, and somehow, Mount Denali, all managed to make it into the story, and let me tell you, traveling that way by imagination was a lot cheaper than by train. (I have looked at the Talkeetna rail trip from Seward Alaska, since I visited Denali while crammed in a wobbly old pickup truck with my cousin and his family, and the clouds hid the mountain peaks the whole time we were there.) 


As always with writing, whatever works, works. Cliffhanger endings inspired imaginative escapes. Surprises could be explained chapters later. "When in doubt, have someone come through the door with a gun in his hand," much like "Chekhov's gun," doesn't need to be taken literally. Something exciting has to happen. In Vyx's case, it was never a man with a gun: it was a talking fox and magpie, a dragon on a hoard of blinged-out cell phones, and a government agent who could freeze people solid with his breath.


And while Chandler could never explain who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep, who you write about magic, it has to have some rules and make sense. I kept it somewhat simple, but sometimes it felt like I was building boxcars on a moving train. But I finished the book, and even pulled the old "everything changes" at precisely chapter 15, even though I didn't know what the change was going to be. Vyx just got thrown through a faerie-house door, and even I didn't know where it went when it happened. 


It was a lot of fun. Before it was published as Vyx Starts the Mythpocalypse, I did edit it again, and I had the chance to go back and seed it with foreshadowing, create callbacks, and strengthen the structure, but the readers loved the story the first time because they didn't know what would happen next. How could they, when I didn't? "Pantsers" say this all the time, but I'd never considered myself one. I always had "mile markers" thought out ahead, even in this case, so I considered myself a Plotter. But like Vyx, I've found that I'm never just one thing.


Would I do it again? I'm planning to, right now. Writing the sequel, one chapter at a time. Oddly enough, it's the only time I've written a book under a hundred thousand words, so I think the boundaries suit me. Can lightning strike twice? I'll let you know, once I finish Vyx Stops Weathergeddon.




You can order the paperback of Vyx Starts the Mythpocalypse from Amazon! The e-book is available on Kindle and all other e-book formats, and if you would like a signed paperback, you can buy one directly from me.


Wednesday, April 10, 2024

That's just, like, your opinion, man.... by Eric Beetner

Business: I just found out that Publishers Weekly has let go of some its reviewers and is reviewing fewer mysteries. PW is one of the top reviewers. Which reviewers will take their place? Kirkus? Booklist? Library Journal? Or maybe some of the private reviewers. Do reviews matter to you? Do you think they influence readers? Who do you count on for reviews and why? 

Reviews are great if you trust the reviewer. These days it seems everyone is a critic. Some outlets have more caché, like Publisher’s Weekly and the news that they are cutting back on staff and reviewing fewer mysteries is not good news, but their audience is also industry-focused. Sure, a great review will likely end up on the cover of a book as endorsement to potential readers who have never seen a copy of PW, but I know I’ve bought far more books from recommendations of a select group of people I know and trust than I ever have off a PW review.

Any large publication – the NY Times, Kirkus (also industry-centric) Wall St Journal – adds a certain weight behind their reviews, just as a big-name author blurb adds the weight of their own work to a new book or author. But I think most people take that extra step of buying a book based off a tip from someone they know personally. The old word-of-mouth.

The more a book is being talked about in circles where I know I trust the opinions of the people talking, the more likely I am to pick up a book. I often find myself at odds with many mainstream reviewers or other endorsements, for example the Edgar Awards. I haven’t enjoyed very many Edgar nominees. They usually aren’t to my personal taste. So while that gold star on a book will move many people to check it out, it doesn’t influence me.

The rise of social media influencers has made a huge impact on book sales, though it seems like much of the biggest numbers come from fantasy, YA, romance or romantic suspense over traditional crime/mystery/thrillers. Certain groups just tend to use social media differently. 

The magic bullet for coverage on a book is that tipping point of when the conversation is less about the book and becomes about the fact that everyone is talking about the book. Because if everyone is talking about it, there must be something there, right? Phenomena like Gone Girl, Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Twilight all had that moment when the discussion about the book was about how popular it had become, not whether or not it was a good book. I can’t tell you how many people said to me that “the first 100 pages was really dull, but then it picked up” when discussing the Stieg Larsson books. That wasn’t an endorsement for me and I never bothered to read them. I knew it wasn’t for me. But it didn’t stop millions from checking out the book on everyone’s lips.

Reviews are important, but who you trust with your reviews makes all the difference. With a scale-back of PW it means fewer mystery titles will get in front of librarians and booksellers, which can be an issue. If your book isn’t on a shelf then no amount of social media chatter about it can help you. But in this world of global influence coming from someone’s bedroom, the bigger review outlets are less relevant than before. The same thing has happened to movies where once a thumbs up or down from only two guys in Chicago could make or break a film’s release, now the internet is overflowing with armchair Siskels and Eberts more than willing to shove their unsolicited two cents about a film into your ear. 

Like anything online, you have to find your trusted sources. But I think anything that gets people talking about books more is a good thing. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

When It's Personal and Business: Reviews

 


I just found out that Publishers Weekly has let go of some its reviewers and is reviewing fewer mysteries. PW is one of the top reviewers. Which reviewers will take their place? Kirkus? Booklist? Library Journal? Or maybe some of the private reviewers. Do reviews matter to you? Do you think they influence readers? Who do you count on for reviews and why?

 

Reviews matter, and then they don’t.

 

The question is whether the reason you’re reading reviews is personal or business.

 

As writers, we all crave some form of validation that our efforts are not for naught. We hope that a reader has enjoyed the world we have created between the two covers. Such a reviewer is likely your everyday reader who has come to your work because they like the genre you write in. How they found me is the real question to me. Their reviews could be in-depth because they are fans of the genre or superficial because they are on to the next shiny thing, or they don’t feel confident writing reviews (a very common complaint).

 

Industry reviewers are subject matter experts, and their opinions carry weight (theoretically). These are the critics the publishers and agents stop and listen to, as if EF Hutton said something in a crowded restaurant.

 

Now that I have dated myself with an allusion to the EF Hutton commercials in the Seventies and Eighties, I have to speak now to my own experiences as a reader and then as a writer. Once upon a time, when there was no Internet and people read physical newspapers (gasp), I would grab the Sunday editions of the Boston Globe or the book section of the New York Times. It was a ritual, along with a nice toasted cinnamon raisin bagel slathered with butter. Back in those halcyon days (or daze) when I knew nothing about cholesterol, I would munch and crunch my way through what the critics had to say about this or that author.  When it came to reviews of genre fiction, I read for the gist of the plot and determined whether I would go down to the local bookstore and read the first chapter or not. In a word, I read but didn’t give credence to what was said about the quality of the work. Who made this person judge, jury, and executioner? I would decide for myself. Where I did defer to the ‘experts’ was with technical books, on matters that were academic because I lacked the formal education or exposure to the topic.

 

As a writer, reviews tell me more about what is trending, and that gives me insight to what publishers think is “hot and happening.” Writers face a dilemma: write to market or write what they want, or figure out some kind of compromise for the sake of their creativity and integrity. Writing to market is what you saw satirized in the movie American Fiction.

 

If you do the research, you will discern fads in publishing, from topics, themes, and authors producing it. I’ve always harbored the suspicion that these trends were fermented in the basements of publishing houses because, let’s be honest, what has reigned supreme since the printing press went viral has been Jerry Maguire’s mantra of “SHOW ME THE MONEY.” Do the research. If it is crap but sells, then it will be on the shelf and humped until it is bowlegged. When it doesn’t sell, it’s time to move on. I’ve seen it happen more times than I care to admit.

 

Where does this leave us with reviews, especially in the trades that publishers buy ad space in? Let’s gather the usual suspects.

 

I don’t think PW affects readers at all. In my opinion, PW influences bookstores and libraries. Librarians do help us find the books we enjoy.

 

Kirkus seems to have two doors: one that reviews, and one that sells reviews.

 

Fast forward to my own experience. The mechanism for discovering authors has changed and it hasn’t. What has changed is the existence of Amazon and Goodreads, though I think both are becoming homogeneous, in part because Amazon now owns Goodreads. If a Rupert Murdoch controls all the news, what do you expect to see and hear? If there are Big Five publishers and they have more imprints than a white-collar criminal has shell companies, then what you have is a game of knowing and not knowing who the publisher is. There is no transparency, and that also applies to blurbs, a sophisticated combination of stub-review and celebrity endorsement. You wonder how this writer managed to score words of praise from an established writer. To follow the money trail of most publishers would require a crack team of forensic accountants, though readers don’t care because all they want is a good story. They want their fix and they don’t care how they get it.

 

Authors care, however, because, allegedly, there is this urban legend that once you hit a certain number of reviews and stars on Amazon, then the god in the Bezos machinery promotes you, in ways a monster budget couldn’t. Is this a form of consumer democracy or another way of playing the lottery? If 100 thousand reviewers say X is the Next Great Thing, is it? What happens to authors if the megalodon that is Amazon were to be made into sushi as a result of the Sherman Act? And what does that Amazonian algorithm of promotion from reviews say about the critics in the trades? I can point to books that have thousands of reviews that were never on the NY Times Bestseller List. Likewise, I can point to books that the critics reviewed and fawned over that I’ve read and scratched my head, only to say, “WTF am I missing here because I don’t see it.”

 

I haven’t even touched on the explosion of reviewers, such as Facebook groups and social influencers who are bookstagrammers, which sounds to me like book stabbers. Then there are booktokers, where performance art takes precedence over the review. Influencers make money having subscribers, likes, etc., and it plays as if it were an absurd game of The Emperor With No Clothes but nobody can say that.

 

I find new books the old way: recommendations from friends who know what I like.

 

It’s nice to read somewhere that someone enjoyed your work. I find it especially interesting if readers tell me who is their favorite character in my Shane Cleary mystery series and why. I’m often surprised because they find something in the character I had never seen. As for reviews correlated to commercial success, I’ve not seen any proof of it.

 

Monday, April 8, 2024

Where Have All the Reviewers Gone?

 Q: Publishers Weekly has let go of some its reviewers and is reviewing fewer mysteries. PW is one of the top reviewers. Which reviewers will take their place? Kirkus? Booklist? Library Journal? Or maybe some of the private reviewers. Do reviews matter to you? Do you think they influence readers? Who do you count on for reviews and why?

 

- from Susan

 

So many professional book review options have disappeared over the past 20 years that this is just another cut into the fabric of traditional book publishing. Whole sections or pages of newspapers dedicated to helping readers find the books that might interest them have vanished. Heck, so have the newspapers. Volunteer online reviewers have tried to provide something similar. Some are better at the job than others, but they do love books and that matters. I hear that they’re now overwhelmed by authors begging for their attention.

 

There are only a few big-time, celebrity-blessed “book clubs,” but the rush to purchase those fortunate books chosen demonstrates that readers really do want some help sorting through the thousands and thousands of books available every year, from romance to military history, most self-published.

 

Libraries still count on the few professional review organizations aimed at them, but I think – do not know – that those reviewers only look at traditionally published, hard cover editions that libraries demand.

 

Some legacy magazines will promote a book via a review. Call me cynical, but I notice that frequently the author has some connection to that part of the publishing world or is perhaps a cosmetics or design professional trying her hand at this other thing.

 

Meanwhile, a relatively new phenomenon is at work: “influencers.” For some reason, hundreds of thousands of people make all kinds of decisions based on TicToc personalities who may or may not have a modicum of expertise about whatever they’re plugging (often for money), be it clothing, vitamins, or books. I saw a demonstration of their power outside a Books Inc. store in San Francisco where I and other Sisters in Crime authors have read. There was a line stretching down the block, around the corner and up the next block one day. I asked someone in line (they were all young women) who they were waiting for: An influencer who had taken some of her posts and turned them into a book about dating. 

 

I tip my hat to the New York Times for maintaining a whole Sunday section dedicated to book (and now audio of books) reviews, some by staff, some by other writers. That’s the place where at least a handful of crime writers get some serious attention. For the record, one of my books was reviewed nicely in the Crime round-up once. Did it spur sales? Not that I could tell, although my traditional publisher was reluctant to share even a dollop of information about sales the following couple of weeks. So, brag point, but not a career-maker.

 

Don’t forget bookstores. They may not be reviewers per se but these are our people. They love books, they treasure authors, they are eager to tell readers about the books they’ve discovered. Bless them!

 

What I’ve noticed and benefitted from is the generosity of other authors and significant book world people who have blog sites like this one. As readers will see soon, we have guest posts coming up, two of many that Minds authors make space for to help other authors get some visibility for great new books. Jungle Red Writers’ seven popular crime writers share space all the time. Terry and I were both invited to talk about our new releases to JRW’s big readership just last week. Everyone’s best friend, Dru Ann Love, a passionate reader but not writer, has a whole system set up to serve as an ongoing platform to which she invites a steady stream of crime fiction authors every week. Online venues like these seem to be replacing the missing reviewers even though they’re not actually critical reviews but friendly promotions. 

 

I’m not a great fan of Amazon as a review site for several reasons. One, because I’m not good at soliciting reviews from individual readers. Second, because the people who elect to review anyone’s book can be so off base as to be weird, but their one-stars are still counted. Ex: “I hated the book because the delivery person left it outside in the rain, so it was wet and I couldn’t read it.”  Third, there have been so many documented cases of authors manipulating the review system to get themselves phony five-star reviews. 

 

So, I’m left with the dilemma: Write anyway, knowing that unless lightening strikes, I will continue to scrabble around the edges for some attention for any new book, or give it up and concentrate on the garden and mastering the best recipe for carrot cake?


In the meantime, feel free to buy, borrow and review any of these wherever you like!





 

Friday, April 5, 2024

The odds are stacked against Achilles - by Harini Nagendra

I’m seeing more diversity offered in reading these days and am reading a lot more diverse protagonists and subjects. I feel as if it’s opening up my world. What trends have you noticed in the last year, for better or worse?

The world of fiction publishing is a relatively new one for me. I can speak to two other worlds of writing and reading - academia, specifically publishing research papers in academic peer-reviewed journals; and the world of non-fiction writing, of popular science books. While publishing has gone a long long way forward in terms of diversity in both these fields, I can tell you we still have much farther to go - we've moved inches, but need to traverse miles. I'm now on the editorial board of many journals where there are other editors like me, based in institutions outside north America and Europe. We hold active conversations about diversity and inclusion in publishing, hold training workshops for young scholars, ensure our boards have a reasonable representation of young and senior scholars, add women into the mix, and systematically encourage submissions from underrepresented countries. And yet, most of the papers we publish come from the same countries, universities and people that they used to.

That's because of structural biases, baked into the system. We've nudged the needle, and that is hugely important. But we can't achieve systemic transformation on our own. Scholars from what they now call 'global South' countries (used to be 'developing countries' but I freely confess, I hate that term - what are they, worms trying to 'develop' into butterflies?)  lack access to books, software, training, research money, money to fly to conferences. In many countries, even the lack of access to the right language (usually English) can be a barrier to publication. I can't tell you how many journals have insisted that my PhD students pay from their own pocket for language editing, because they didn't have a 'native language speaker' in the author list. Their language was fine - the assumptions the editors made were getting in the way of their reading. This is not an isolated example - academics have pointed this out for decades. And yet, we've really only nudged the needle.

As one scathing paper in Nature puts it, "While the Global North is perceived as pushing the boundaries of scientific knowledge through general theories, the Global South is often perceived as fulfilling the role of empirically testing theories, providing data, or offering fieldwork expertise." 

Another paper in the same journal, talking about the bias against African research on public health, says "Many journal editors in the global north still carry the bias that although African labs might know about ‘African’ disease, they have less to offer when it comes to ‘developed-world’ disease." In other words, the writers go on to say - African researchers should stick to working on problems like malaria and HIV, and stay away from studying 'global' issues like diabetes. So you see, the bias is so deep that it also dictates what you choose to write on. 

It's the same challenge when we look at the world of non-fiction book publishing, especially books on climate change, ecology, sustainability. A very recent experience - I was thrilled when my latest book on cities and water, Shades of Blue: Connecting the Drops in India's Cities, was featured on Bloomberg Cities' 2023 roundup, 'Here Are 15 Books About Cities We Read in 2023'. The books in that list are truly excellent - and diverse, featuring issues of race, gentrification and other important topics - but they're all focused on the US. Except for one book, ours. 


And so we come to the world of fiction writing, specifically crime fiction writing. I love the people I've met from this world so much. They are generous, supportive, and absolutely aware of the problems that writers with a 'difference' face in the publishing industry. Indeed this year has been a very welcome one, and so have the years before, in introducing a very diverse set of authors into the mix. As a card-carrying member of Crime Writers of Color, it's been an absolute joy to see fellow South Asian authors like Sujata Massey, Gigi PandianAbir Mukherjee and Vaseem Khan grow from strength to strength. In the last year, I devoured Sujata's latest, The Mistress of Bhatia House, and am eagerly waiting for Gigi's latest, A Midnight Puzzle, to get to Bangalore's bookstores.

But the structural problems that plague much of academic publishing do exist, and can't be wished away. As the philosopher Zeno said, Achilles will always be slightly behind the tortoise, despite running faster - because the tortoise got a head start. 

Yet, as my fellow writers Jim Ziskin, Dietrich Kalteis, Terry Shames and Brenda Chapman write about in this week's series, things have gotten much better - and they will continue to do so, with all of us pushing for change. The odds are stacked against hard-working Achilles - yet dare we hope that the winds of change are blowing?  

   

Thursday, April 4, 2024

Sports Got It Right Long Before Publishing from James W. Ziskin

I’m seeing more diversity offered in reading these days and am reading a lot more diverse protagonists and subjects. I feel as if it’s opening up my world. What trends have you noticed in the last year, for better or worse? 

The 1927 World Champion New York Yankees. (I’ve circled all the Black, Latinx, and Asian players in bright red below.)

















And here are the 1981 World Champion Los Angeles Dodgers.














Things had started to look a lot better by the 1980s. The Dodgers, in fact, had thirteen players who were POC on that roster, and five of the nine starters were either Black or Latinx, including their best pitcher, Fernando Valenzuela. Just thirty-five years earlier, none of those players would have been allowed to play in the Major Leagues. No wonder the Dodgers couldn’t beat the damn Yankees back then…

In 2024, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and the National Basketball Association sign the best players, including traditionally underrepresented groups, because sports is—pretty much—only about winning. Today, the consensus best baseball player in the world is Japanese, and—a glance at the NFL shows that 53.5% of the players are Black, 24.4 white, and 10.9% mixed race (https://www.statista.com/statistics/1167935/racial-diversity-nfl-players/#:~:text=Players%20in%20the%20NFL%20in%202023%2C%20by%20ethnicity&text=In%202023%2C%20the%20greatest%20share,of%20players%20within%20the%20NFL.).

How does publishing compare? It’s not as easy to pin down the exact numbers of published authors by ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity, but one study by Richard Jean So and Gus Wezerek looked at 8,000 books published between 1950 and 2018. They found that 95% were written by white authors (https://pen.org/report/race-equity-and-book-publishing/). In 2022, Hachette disclosed that 34% of their 2021 contributors identified as BIPOC writers and illustrators. That’s an improvement, but it still trails the achievements of professional sports in North America by a long shot and several decades.

To be sure, we’re seeing more and more books by underrepresented groups, especially since the protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder in 2020. This week, my fellow Criminal Minds have cited many writers, and I echo their choices. Indeed, over the past several years, we readers have had the great fortune to meet so many talented authors, enjoy their stories, and learn and grow from their perspectives. In recent years, I’ve read writers whose experiences were vastly different from my own, and I am the better for it. Everyone should try it. The more we know about us—all of us—the richer we are. 

I now notice and am aware of the jarringly segregated photos from the past. Like the 1927 Yankees. Not that I judge the men in those photos. It’s just that I am aware as never before that they are all white. I ask myself, “Where are the others? The ones who don’t look like those men.” I reflect on the exclusion of “the others” and marvel at their patience in the face of centuries of injustice. Of not even having the opportunity to try out for the team, let alone get into the game. I can’t imagine how enraged, depressed, and frustrated that would make me feel.

And, of course, I realize how lucky (privileged) I am not to have had to feel that way. My face would have looked right at home on the 1927 Yankees.

In our industry, no one is guaranteed a book deal based on their origins or identity, not even white writers. But traditionally, you had to be white—or some kind of unicorn—to be considered at all. It’s important to remember that in life, publishing, homeownership, careers, and love, too many people have been left on the wrong side of the velvet rope, hoping just to get inside the club to dance. But the bouncers have refused them admittance. I’m glad the gatekeepers of publishing are starting to include more (some) diversity in publishing. I want to see the trend continue until the books on shelves look less like the 1927 New York Yankees and more like our society today.

Sports got it right before the publishing world.

Play ball!

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Opening up new worlds

I’m seeing more diversity offered in reading these days and am reading a lot more diverse protagonists and subjects. I feel as if it’s opening up my world. What trends have you noticed in the last year, for better or worse?

by Dietrich


Diverse characters in mysteries and crime fiction are nothing new, but the ones who are complicated and dynamic often feel like fresh air to me when lined against the stereotypical types of the past decades. Don’t get me wrong, I love Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, true originals in their day, and there are many other characters who I like to revisit now and then. But, it is a treat to find a protagonist who’s more than hardboiled, hard drinking and smoking, not just another badass PI in a trench coat, or the rogue, hard-fisted cop with alcohol and marital troubles.


A fine recent example is Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle, released in 2021. Set in the late 50s/early 60’s Harlem, Colson gives us a perfect picture of African American life from a bygone era, and a great character in Ray Carney, a protagonist who is part furniture salesman — somewhere between a go-getter and a crook, but a very believable character indeed.


As for diverse subject matters there’s The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride. Set in Pottstown, Pennsylvania in ’72, it tells what happens after workers dug up a body while excavating a foundation for a new development in Chicken Hill. Enter a host of wonderful ethnic characters whose stories all overlap in the most wonderful of ways. This is a fine example of diverse characters springing to life, thanks to McBride’s incredible sense of dialogue — truly a masterpiece. 


Another fine example is Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. A fast-paced tale of great sacrifice, betrayal, and redemption. It wisks readers to Kabul and introduces them to its well-drawn characters while offering a detailed picture of Afghan life.


Back to mysteries, Sue Grafton gave us a different kind of investigator back when she started her Kinsey Milhorne novels back in the early 80s, and in doing so she inspired a whole generation of female mystery authors. Sara Paretsky, Janet Evanovich and many others have also created strong female characters who do far more than land in a novel as victim or vixen.


I suppose love, money, and conflict will always find a place as themes in the many forms of popular fiction. And while I don’t try to follow trends in what I read or in what I write, it’s always about a good story well told, any genre really. I’m always on the hunt for the next great novel that feels fresh, the ones that continue to inspire my own work.



Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Where Have You Been?

 

Hi! Terry here, with our question of the week: 

We're seeing more diversity offered in reading these days and am reading a lot more diverse protagonists and subjects.  What trends have you noticed in the last year, for better or worse? 

 Back in my college years I took a literature course where we read several books by gay authors. You might think that I, a straight, white, middle-class, woman would feel a little timid about taking a peek into a part of life I knew nothing about. But I wasn’t. Having been a reader since the age of four when I begged my dad to teach me how to read, I was used to entering worlds I knew nothing about. In small-town Texas I was unfamiliar with the drawing rooms and cultural norms of the type describe in Jane Austen novels. I never had a horse, so the “horse” books so popular with young girls, including me, opened a world I knew nothing about. I didn’t know any teenagers like Nancy Drew who drove a “roadster.” Her world seemed as exotic as Zane Grey’s wild west. To me, it was all “diverse,” in that it did not reflect the everyday world I lived in. 

 So in that way, as an avid reader, I was ready for even great diversity in literature. I could be drawn into the world of Toni Morrison, Zora Neal Hurston, James Baldwin, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Naguib Mahfouz. I could appreciate the way they opened my mind to what other people were up to, for good or ill. I read Paul and Jane Bowles, Truman Capote, and Gore Vidal. Every one fascinating and outside my every day experience.

 Meanwhile, I had always read a lot of crime fiction. And to my ever-lasting annoyance at myself, it never occurred to me that in the huge body of crime fiction there were few diverse voices. Oh sure, I read all of Joseph Hansen’s books. What an interesting curiosity Dave Brandstetter was in the crime world. Imagine, a gay detective! I read Walter Moseley. Wow. Who knew the world of Black people included detectives? And so it went. Every now and then there’d be a diverse character in a crime novel—a gay friend, a Black or Brown friend, or maybe someone with a serious disability. But by and large, it was all about white people. Straight, white people. 

 But, just as forty years ago women crime writers started poking at the publishing establishment that favored men, insisting on being heard, so writers of color and writers of different sexual orientation began to clamor that their voices were under-represented and that they deserved better. And there were many crime writers who heard their lament and supported them.

 We all know that the publishing industry consists of a lot of dinosaurs. People who are adverse to change. People who hate to take a chance on something new. People afraid of failure. But just like chicks emerging from their shells, little cracks started appearing in the world of published books, and slowly new beings emerged. New voices. Voices demanding to be heard. Voices deserving of a platform. Which has brought the world of crime fiction amazing new novels. 

 I shudder to think that thirty years ago manuscripts by authors like S. A. Cosby, Wanda Morris, Kwei Quartey, Colson Whitehead, Kellye Garrett, Gigi Pandian, Naomi Hirahara, Angie Kim, David Heska Wanbli Weiden, and Abir Mukherjee would have been tossed in the slush pile. That gay authors like John Copenhaver, Cheryl Head, J.M. Redmann, and Greg Herren might have been squelched. 

 So I celebrate these voices that have been there all along, but are just now being recognized. If you haven't read them, I urge you to do it now!

AND…DRUM ROLL:

there’s another celebration today. The debut novel of my new Jessie Madison thriller series is out today! It’s an exciting step for me, leaving the safe place of my small Texas town and going into the wider world. Welcome….Perilous Waters.



Sunday, March 31, 2024

Freedom in Diversity

I’m seeing more diversity offered in reading these days and am reading a lot more diverse protagonists and subjects. I feel as if it’s opening up my world. What trends have you noticed in the last year, for better or worse?

Brenda here.

I remember my good friend creating a gay character some twenty years ago and being told by the publisher that this would greatly limit her book's appeal. She was advised to remove the gender diversity. Happily, this narrow-minded lens has opened, and books, television, movies, even commercials, are more honestly portraying the true make-up of society.

Sometimes, I believe readers have been way ahead of publishers, agents and other movers and shakers in the book industry when it comes to reading choices and what 'sells'. For instance, Canadian authors are often told that they need to set our books in the U.S. if we want to have a bestseller. However, readers I've spoken with about this, both Canadian and American, are perplexed -- they enjoy books set in Canada and don't consider this an issue. I believe time is bearing this out as more and more books with Canadian settings are finding an international audience.

But this week's question asks about diverse protagonists and subjects. I've also noticed a greater choice in this regard and have enjoyed reading some fabulously diverse stories, particularly by Indigenous authors. Books take us into other people's lives and give us a greater understanding of the human condition and enhance empathy across cultures.

I recently sat in on a virtual webinar given by a black, female author who spoke about creating diverse characters in our stories. I was pleased when she encouraged all writers to create characters from diverse cultures and backgrounds, but to go beyond the stereotypes to have them be fully rounded and realistic. After all, our books should be a true reflection of society with very real, diverse people populating the pages. This seems like good advice and matches how I view my characters.

In this same webinar, the presenter offered statistics to show that diverse writers still have fewer opportunities to break into the industry. So, readers appear to be ahead again on their openness to embrace books from all cultures, genders and locales. In fact, I believe we have a thirst for these stories. Everyone needs to see themselves reflected in books in leading roles. How many times have we heard successful people of colour say that growing up they never saw themselves on television, or read about people of their culture or gender identity in books and stories. Sometimes, it was one break-through role model that made them feel seen and sparked them to spread their own wings.

Readers can continue to support diversity through the authors we champion and by the books we chose to read. My wish is that diversity will continue to be celebrated -- because honestly differences are what make this life interesting -- while diverse characters and stories become so accepted in literature that we don't even need to have this discussion.

Website: www.brendachapman.ca

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Friday, March 29, 2024

Welcome to Writer’s Jail or Some Rules Need Breaking, by Josh Stallings

 Q: Crime fiction has tried and true conventions, such as a murder/crime in the first chapter (or soon thereafter), an investigation, believable motive, hidden clues etc. Add to this, the conventions for each subgenre, such as cozy or police procedural. Have you ever ignored or deviated from these established conventions? Do you find them restrictive or do you like working within them?



A: As a life long contrarian I have never been a fan of rules of any kind. But if you read a lot of genre fiction those pesky rules slip into your operating system unbidden. I don’t consciously think about these rules while writing. Writing feels like riding a wild horse down a skinny canyon trail. Hold on and pray that either me or the horse knows what we’re doing. 


That sounds oh so very punk. And likely not true. Over the years I’ve come to see that what some call rules, are actually tools for the writing tool box. When writing Young Americans I tried not to use any profanity. The book was a heist novel based loosely on my dangerously wild teen years in the 70’s. It does have some “bad language” as my son Dylan would say. But by setting that rule I found it made me more intentional about where and what expletives I used.


My first three books took place in the world of sex as commerce, and it was important that I wrote bluntly about the subject, even if it made some readers uncomfortable. After the Moses Trilogy, I wanted to dial back on being so sexually explicit. I had become desensitized and needed to reacquaint myself with the subtler side of writing. Modern cozies are a great place to find quieter ways of writing about adult subjects. 


I read for pleasure. I read to be reminded why I write. I read to adjust what I think is possible. I read to reset myself between books.  


Lately I have been filling my literary tank reading South/Central American writers.

 


Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo is mind bendingly dreamy or maybe nightmarish depending on your personal taste. It has all the elements of a crime story, or an adventure novel. There are multiple mysteries. But none of it follows a “normal” structure and it clearly makes up the rules as it goes along. 

 


Death in the Andes: A novel by Mario Vargas Llosa is a classic mystery. Three men have disappeared in a small Peruvian mining town leaving two Civil Guards to discover the who, how, and why of the case. It also has pishtacos (fat sucking cannibal vampires), a bar owner named Dionisio who behaves much like his Greek namesake Dionysus, murdered drug dealers, and more. It flows smoothly back and forth in time. It is unlike any crime book I’ve read and again it follows its own rules.    


   


The Old Man Who Read Love Stories: A Novel by Luis Sepúlveda is an adventure novel set in Ecuador’s Amazon basin. It breaks no rules, it is simply a brilliantly told tale and reminded me how good writing can be.


“The woman, Dolores Encarnación del Santísimo Sacramento Estupiñán Otavalo, was dressed in finery that had existed and continued to exist in those stubborn corners of the memory where the weeds of solitude take root.” — Luis Sepúlveda


My father called the frame of a painting a cage without which his artistic intentions would never be possible. We need constraints for our visions to take form inside. The work I’m most proud of often came from rebelling against english rules. In All The Wild Children I played with tense, moments from my past that grabbed me were in present tense, they live in my memory as real and right now. Other sections were told in past tense because old Josh was retelling them.


I broke tense rules in the 2nd Moses book. In hard boiled crime fiction books the rule is 1st person past tense. But in Out There Bad an assassin showed up who needed to be there. Their chapters were present tense, they had no past or future, they were a deadly force of nature, so this made sense to me. I don’t remember making a choice to do this, it came naturally when writing these chapters.


Rules in any book are set up in the very beginning. The author signs a contract with the reader about what kind of book it will be. 


On page two of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, he wrote;


“Somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I don’t want to confront him. I know he’s real. I have seen his work.”


Even if you were unfamiliar with McCarthy’s work, you would now know what kind of book you were in for.


The opening of my book Tricky finds a intellectually disabled man in a stand off with two LAPD officers. How that scene is written tells the reader of the book’s respect for humanity. If you pick up a book called Beautiful Naked & Dead and are offended by sex and violence, you didn’t read my contract with the reader. It was blatantly in the title.


Now go out and break as many rules as you can. If you serve any time in writer’s jail, I guarantee you will discover some great writers hanging out in the yard.