Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Future of Journalism, and Other Bagatelles ...

by Sean Chercover

On March 13, technology writer and NYU professor Clay Shirky posted an amazing think piece titled Newspapers and Thinking The Unthinkable, which set the blogosphere buzzing - and the buzzing hasn't stopped.

Many of Shirky's points are not new, but I have never seen the entire issue addressed so cogently in one piece. It's a long post, over 2,700 words, and it would be unfair of me to try and do a Cliff Notes version here, but I urge you - if you have any interest in the future of journalism - to read his post.

The response has been huge. Not only the 700+ comments on Shirky's blog, but all around the blogosphere. Newspapers too, both here and in the UK, have chimed in, and the response has been passionate, both pro and con.

Interestingly, many of those who've commented do not seem to have read his post. At the Tucson Citizen, Billie Stanton writes, "Tech-happy gurus Clay Shirky and Dave Winer already are dancing on a nonexistent grave, giddy that hordes of Internetters will take our place." I see no grave-dancing in Shirky's piece - in fact I see a great deal of concern. Dan Tynan at Computerworld gets it, and is likewise concerned for the survival of "professional journalism", appropriately skeptical that "citizen journalists" (i.e. amateurs) on the Internet can or will do the job.

Talking to a room full of journalism students in New York, ABC newsman Charlie Gibson seemed to blame the newspaper crisis on young people who selfishly insist on getting their news for free on the Internet. When asked for his thoughts on Clay Shirky's piece, he said Shirky is "full of crap", which I fear says more about Gibson than Shirky.

While there's nothing to be giddy about here, this revolution is happening and we need to be talking about it. Shaking your finger at young people for not subscribing to print newspapers is not going to ensure the survival of journalism.

Anyway, if you're a news junkie/journalism geek like I am, read the piece and let me know your thoughts.

In other earth-shaking news, I have both Michigan State and Villanova in the March Madness pool, so I am a happy boy.

And finally, do NOT play the Afraid Game at Joe Konrath's Jack Kilborn website. Or do. But don't blame me. Blame Joe. He is a sick man.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Night They Took You From Me I Saw the Broken Window and I Cried

By Kevin Guilfoile

The story is sort of the anti-Hoop Dreams.

That documentary box-office hit, which premiered in 1994, was about a pair of black high school students in Chicago who were counting on basketball success to lift their families out of the projects. And while neither William Gates nor Arthur Agee ever made it to the NBA, they both managed to find better lives for themselves, even if those lives were punctuated with too familiar urban tragedies. Gates became a pastor. Agee committed himself to promoting education for inner city youth.

The same year that film premiered, Chicago learned about two other kids from the projects, although we didn't know their names right away. In October of 1994, ten-year-old Jessie Rankins and 11-year-old Tykeece Johnson dropped five-year-old Eric Morse out a 14th-floor window of a CHA high rise, allegedly because Morse refused to steal candy for them. The murder shocked Chicago, dominating the headlines for months. Rankins and Johnson entered a youth prison in 1996 and we haven't heard much about them since.

This week the Chicago Tribune published a chilling update. In 1996 Rankins sexually assaulted another inmate, earning another nine-year sentence. In 2000, Johnson was released from juvenile prison only to return to jail two years later, this time as an adult, for drug possession and robbery. In 2004 Rankins was released, but returned twice in the next year for parole violations. In 2005 Johnson was convicted for attempted armed robbery but was paroled six months later. In 2006 Rankins was sentenced to four years for stealing a dog. He's just been released this month.

Gary Marx's reporting is all the more amazing for the fact that he got Johnson to talk to him at all. Because he had been sentenced as a juvenile, Johnson had never been identified as one of Eric Morse's killers before this profile. "I want the readers to know I'm not a horrible person," he told Marx. "The people who know me know that I ain't no dangerous person."

"What we did, it was like an unhuman beast that had no feeling whatsoever and I live with that every day and every night," Rankins said.

Rankins has a prison tattoo over his heart. In a photo taken by the Trib's John Smierciak, you can see a crude sketch of a gravestone inscribed, "Eric Mores, 1984-1994." Both the spelling of Eric's name and the year of his birth are wrong.

Eric Morse's brother, Derrick Lemon, was an eight-year-old witness to the crime, so small he had to sit on a phone book during the trial. He received a $1 million settlement from the CHA for Eric's death. Derrick has served time for weapons and burglary convictions, and is currently awaiting trial for allegedly killing his aunt's boyfriend at a 2006 barbecue.

And then there's LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman. They were 14 and 15 when their neighbor Eric Morse was murdered. They spent a year reporting on the case for National Public Radio, interviewing Eric's mother, former Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros, and the father of one of the assailants, who was serving his own prison sentence at the time for aggravated battery.

Jones and Newman's documentary went on to win nearly every major award in broadcasting.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Be Very Afraid

Our guest blogger today is author JA Konrath, who writes a mystery series about a Chicago cop named Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels. He's currently on a blog tour for the month of March to promote AFRAID, a horror novel he penned under the name Jack Kilborn, which will be released on the 31st. More at his great blog: A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing.

Now, here's Joe.

Let's talk about reviews.

I've had my share of good reviews, and a few bad reviews, and I know different people have different tastes so I take it all in stride.

But today's blog isn't about professional reviews. Because, frankly, newspapers and magazines are going under faster than we can count them.

Today I want to talk about a type of reviews that are gaining popularity. The ones people are actually listening to.

Reader reviews.

It's no secret that word-of-mouth is the strongest form of book promotion. When was the last time you bought a book because you saw an ad for it? Compare that to a friend who says, "Oh my god, you have to read this!"

Chances are, the friend is more persuasive than the ad.

Which brings us to this wonderful form of communicaiton known as the Internet.

For the first time, in the history of reviewing, anyone with a computer and a modem can share their opinions with the entire world. And people are doing just that, in record numbers, on dozens of different websites and thousands of different blogs, newsgroups, listservs, and message boards.

And I'll be 100% honest here: your words do count.

We've all been on, wondering if we should or shouldn't buy a certain book. What sways us one way or the other?

The reviews do. An average of three or more stars usually means I'll take a chance and buy the book. Less then two stars means I'll get my copy from the library, if at all.

In the past, high-profile critics told us what we should and shouldn't like. But now, majority rules, and the masses are a pretty good judge of if a book is good or not.

Which brings me to a question I'd like to ask: Do you post reviews?

I have a vested interest in reviews and being reviewed, because I'm a writer.

But I'm also a reader. A reader who enjoys sharing his opinion. A reader who thinks it's important to play cheerleader for my peers. A reader who recognizes how important a few sentences can be to someone considering buying a book.

So I've posted my fair share of reviews, and I've posted a few on some other sites as well.

Could I do more? Sure.

Now how about you?

If you believe reader reviews are helpful, if you love books as much as I do, if you want to help authors that you enjoy, why aren't you posting more reviews?

You really don't have any excuses. If you're a writer, it's a
no-brainer: you're helping to propagate the species, and what goes around comes around. If you're a reader, it's a no-brainer: your review will help a writer sell more books, and we all know what happens to writers who don't sell enough.

So where should you post reviews? is an obvious choice. But very few people also post those same reviews on its sister sites, and

Other bookstore sites that allow for reviews are, and
You could write a five sentence review, then post it on all of these sites in less than ten minutes.

You can also post your reviews, and meet like-minded fellow readers and writers, at,, and

If you're a mystery fan, you can post reviews on, or join the Listserv, or visit the newsgroup news:rec.arts.mystery on Usenet.

Other places to post include,,,, and

And don't forget your social networking sites,,, and

If you're really hardcore, and have an eye for detail, you can edit and add your favorite authors, along with synopses of their best books.

Your opinion really does matter. And authors really do care.

In fact, I care so much, that I'm giving away free copies of my new horror novel, AFRAID, to people who post links to new reviews (reviews they've just posted today) about any book from any author on the Outfit blog.

Go to one of the sites I listed above, and write a review about a book by Sean Chercover, Barbara D'Amato, Michael Allen Dymmoch, Kevin Guilfoile, Libby Hellmann, Sara Paretsky, or Marcus Sakey.

You've read their stuff. Now post your thoughts online. If you've already reviewed them, you can cut and paste that review onto another webite.

Post your new links in the comments section. I'll randomly pick three people to get free books. And by "random" I mean that the more reviews you post, the better chance you have of winning.

Now go share your opinion with the world.

Monday, March 23, 2009

and now what?

A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal ran an article on the dangers of clinging to past ways of doing business. Contrary to what aging boomers like me believe, older experienced managers don't always offer the best ways of solving problems, because we're wedded to what worked for us thirty years ago, when we were starting out.

It's the book business that interests me most, and I realize that I've been only looking backward: I want small neighborhood bookstores, and book reviews and independent publishers so that a myriad voices can be found. Instead, we have megastores, online marketing, fewer juried review outlets, and a handful of conglomerates publishing blockbusters.

We're not likely to return to the recent past, but we need some of the key elements of the old model if we are going to preserve multiple voices, and if people are going to make a living writing, publishing and selling. We need a way to browse, as you can at a bookstore, and we need a way to get good reviews of many books. We also need a way for new writers to find an audience, which used to happen when the independent bookstores hand sold books like mine (I didn't become a national bestseller until my sixth book, and nor did Sue Grafton. Publishers today won't wait on slow bloomers like us--we get two books to break through, and then it's on to the new new thing.)

When I look at the blogosphere, I find it hard to cull out the voices I want to listen to. It's true there are some great book blogs out there, like BookSlut, but the big questions for all Internet media are: how can you make it pay, and how can you make it visible?

Similarly, if we move more and more to an e-book universe, how do you browse for books? The Amazon model, where they suggest "you might like Bloodsucking vampires of Outer Space" based on a previous purchase simply cuts out all other choices. The Amazon model also demands that you pony up a big cash outlay to get your book featured on their home page, just as Barnes & Noble demands a big cash outlay to have a title put in the front of the store.

So, my creative friends and readers, what are some ways to think differently about how to get books and readers together in the age of the Net?

Friday, March 20, 2009

In the Courts of the Sun

by Barbara D'Amato

Sean Chercover’s wonderful and tough-minded post, Your Ideas Suck [March 13], and the fascinating responses to it made me think again about the ever-alive question, “Where do you get your ideas?” My son will come out with a book this week that has been fifteen years in the writing, is seven hundred pages, and is the first volume of a projected trilogy – all of which suggests an element of obsession. He has responded to some queries about where he gets his ideas, and his view seems to be ideas get him.

So over to a guest blogger:

By Brian D’Amato

A few weeks ago I found a magic-marker drawing I’d done when I was about eight, of a kind of a monster, in a style imitating the ancient Maya reliefs I’d seen in Time-Life books. It reminded me that I’ve been thinking about the Maya for a long time. Great cultures are like great artists. Some of them intrigue you more than others. You want to get at what’s so singular about that culture. You want to know what makes it so powerful. There’s a personality in the stylization, a certain poetry or madness in the turns of their metaphors or in the way they draw the curls of their snakes’ tongues, that hooks and captivates. Of course, an outsider can’t understand something like Maya culture the way a person who grows up inside it can. And even a person who, for instance, grows up speaking a Mayan language today -- even that person with that level of insight still won’t know what the Ancient Maya were thinking hundreds of years ago when they created their great monuments.

In college I took classes with Mary Miller, who is the author of The Blood of Kings and one of the top Maya scholars today. I remember one dream I had, in school, in particular. I’d fallen asleep thirsty, with the lights on, while I was reading a book called Urban Planning in Pre-Columbian America, and I thought for a while that I thought that I was the city of Teotihuacan, spread out over three square miles of altiplano, baking in the heat under drifts of dust.

Still, I felt I wasn’t quite uncovering what I needed to know about the Maya. I started writing In the Courts of the Sun, thinking I’d have it done in a year or two. I spent some more time in the Maya area, hanging around the ruins, and I spent a lot more time just sitting and reading, immersing myself in Maya art, anthropology and language. I lived in New York, but eventually left the city and holed up in Michigan, alone in a house on the lake. By now I thought I’d get the book finished within three or four years. Instead the book turned into three books, and took fifteen years.

Most of the time went into research. I completed my addiction to the on-line life. It was fascinating how I could be by myself, with blizzards howling by outside and Lake Michigan freezing and thawing, and still correspond instantly with anyone anywhere, how I could order books from all over the world and get them in two days, how I could grab articles out of obscure professional journals that would have taken half a day each to dig out of a library, and all the other perks of the time. I’d decided that I wanted the book’s ancient sections to be the most authentic historical fiction ever written, and not just authentic in the sense of accuracy, but in the sense of getting at what made these people tick. I did collect a lot of facts, of course, but I didn’t want it to be a term paper. The best thing to do, I found out, was to try and learn everything and then, later, see what rises to the top in your head. I spent a lot of time interviewing specialists. I was especially lucky to find Prudence Rice, from the University of Illinois, who, in addition to being a great scholar, is also a fan of thrillers and science fiction, and who has gone over Book I more than a few times. Although I haven’t followed all of her directives, you could say that in general, the Maya material in the book is “according to Rice” and sometimes even inspired by her -- for instance, by her work on the ritual rotation of Maya political “capitals” every twenty years.

Prudence inspired me to learn to draw glyphs. I wanted the glyphs in the book to be accurate but not copies of any specific Maya text. I also decided the book should have illustrations -- after all, I’d originally tried to get at “that mysterious thing” about the Maya visually, not verbally -- and after trying many different styles, some of which I’ve given examples of on my website, I decided to restrict the Maya-world illustrations, stylistically, to something that could credibly have been done by Maya themselves.

I also spent quite a bit of time playing games, researching games in general, and, in particular, playing Go. My Go teacher, Janice Kim, is an American woman who grew up in the Korean Professional Go Training Program, which like a cross between an Olympics camp and a Shaolin monastery. Many of the Game terms and Game-training details in the book, and some of Lady Koh’s character and mannerisms, are based on her.

But the biggest effort was trying to get the “what-it-is-ness” of Mayan languages. One thing I eventually decided to do was to follow the way Maya narrative or formal speech tends to use a lot of short couplets. After a lot of false starts I settled on trying to convey something of the sound of Mayan through English dactylic dimeter -- although we have yet to see whether this really works for most readers.

I tried writing some sections as pure historical fiction -- that is, using language in a way that could credibly come from a Maya narrator of that time. But the problem with those experiments -- and I think it’s a problem with most historical fiction -- is that not only aren’t you really narrating in Mayan or whatever, but you’re not even really narrating in English. That is, English is a language that depends for its effect on ever-changing idioms and current references, and when you’re blocked from using any of these, the language sounds stilted. On the other hand, it sounds even more stilted if you have up-to-date slang or whatever coming out of the mouth of an ancient character. The only solution, as I saw it, was to keep the past historically consistent, but to have it narrated by a speaker of contemporary English. Hence the (not-quite) time travel.

Fiction was just the best medium I could find for investigating certain things that I needed to investigate. Some aspects of what I was think about, say, the Maya, were too involved for film, too elegiac for computer games, too speculative for nonfiction, and too abstract for painting. I needed fiction to get at them.

People ask what “drew me” to the Maya. Sometimes I just say what I said at the beginning, about the sheer mystery of it all, and that if I knew the reason it wouldn’t be a mystery. But lately I’ve been trying to offer something more specific. I’ll say that Pre-Columbian cultures in general are interesting partly because they have the most “otherness” -- that is, of all the cultures in the world they were the least in contact with any of the Old World civilizations that shaped what we call the Western outlook. I’ll say that I was I was originally drawn to the way they had different interpretations of basic things, or different metaphors from the ones that shape “our” minds. For instance, when I was in school I was fascinated by how things like snakes or the counterclockwise direction or the number thirteen, which have mainly negative associations for us, had mainly positive ones for Classical Mesoamericans. I was interested in how the pillars and columns of many Mesoamerican buildings were sculpted to appear to come down from the roof into the earth, instead of going up the way Western ones do, and how that might have something to do with how Mesoamericans tended to visualize lightning as going up from the earth into the sky and not the other way around. But then I’ll say that one tends to come for the differences and stay for the similarities. That is, the more time I spend thinking about the Maya, the more I understand how people are everywhere alike.

And of course, people still ask and re-ask the age-old question: “Where do you get your ideas?” Usually I just remind them of what Rimbaud said, that ideas get us. Sometimes I go on and elaborate, and I say that ideas are like vampires, and the most dangerous vampire, the that keeps you in thrall the longest, is... well, to find out what it is you’ll have to read the book

IN THE COURTS OF THE SUN, Dutton, March 26, 2009.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Why is a Comedian Our Only Journalist?

by Marcus Sakey

I imagine many of you are Daily Show watchers. For those that aren’t, there’s recently been a scuffle between Jon Stewart, the host, and CNBC, the financial network. Stewart has been hammering them for turning financial news into entertainment, for shoddy reporting, and for essentially acting as a mouthpiece for CEOs.

Jim Cramer, the hyperactive host of Mad Money, is a perfect example. His recommendations are treated like gospel by many investors, and yet his picks—like recommending Bear Stearns repeatedly, including five days before its collapse—are, umm, not 100%. The problem, however, is less that he made some wrong calls, and more that he simply took the word of corporate CEOs, including those at Bear, and broadcast it as journalism.

Anyway, last week Cramer agreed to come on the Daily Show for what I imagine he expected would be a comic interview. Instead he found himself in the kind of interview I’ve been dying for our most prominent journalists to do. Informed, respectful, not personal, but actively attacking deception and obfuscation.

It was a thing of beauty. I actually found myself applauding on the couch.

I won't post all of the segments (you can find them here if you like) but here is one that sets the stage:

And here is the interview itself:

All I can say is, A) God bless Jon Stewart, and B) Why aren't our "actual" journalists doing this?

What do you think, folks? Am I off base in thinking that it might be nice if other reporters followed his lead?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Say Aloha to Murder

by Michael Dymmoch

Left Coast Crime was held in Hawaii this year, at the Waikoloa Beach Marriott. It wasn’t Adventures in Paradise—no drama. No trauma. Hawaii is pretty laid back. And beautiful (duh!). And expensive. But the conference was organized by Bill and Toby Gottfried, who’ve hosted a number of terrific cons. It almost couldn’t disappoint. People came from all over—the States, Europe, Scandinavia, even Australia to attend. The hotel restaurant/bar was open-air and visited by an assortment of local birds and one feral cat the staff called Morris. LCC had the usual mixed bag of free books (and a book exchange for those you didn’t want), panels, book sellers, shipping arrangements. It also provided snorkeling, fishing, swimming (pool or ocean), boat excursions, volcano tours, and the world’s greatest astronomical observatory (from which 93% of the stars visible from anywhere on the planet’s surface may be seen).

The conference opened with a series of lectures to acquaint attendees with the island. The first was about dead white guys (haole missionaries, who established churches in the area), followed by lectures on the natural history of the islands, and water safety (how to avoid being drowned or eaten); the opening ceremonies, including a Hawaiian prayer; and a luau. As usual, most of the panels I attended were panels I was on. But Thomas Holland, PhD, the head of the DOD Central Identification Lab gave a terrific talk on the perils and difficulties of finding and identifying US war casualties. And John Madinger, a 34-year veteran of the US Treasury Department, dished the dirt on money laundering. I bought books from both of them.

I ducked out on the last day to take the Circle Island Tour, a day-long bus trip that zips past lava fields and ranches, and makes brief stops at a macadamia nut candy factory (free samples—yum!); a waterfall; Mt. Kilauea, the world’s most active volcano; a nature trail that snakes through a lava tube; a black sand beach; and the visitor’s center of a coffee factory (more free samples and a mini museum). The tour was almost worth the trip to Hawaii, because our guide Harvey was a living encyclopedia of Hawaii, expounding on plants, animals, history, volcanoes and mythology. And he told a number of amusing personal stories about his own adventures hunting and fishing on the Big Island

Everything that went right while I was in Hawaii, which was almost everything, suggested something that could go wrong—from the shuttle drivers who took us efficiently and safely where we were going, to the hotel staff who greeted us with “Aloha.” Local writers stressed that they love Hawaii for its ideal weather, incredible scenery and serene appearance. And for its seamy underbelly. I’m looking forward to returning, perhaps in the pages of my own book.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Your Ideas Suck...

by Sean Chercover

When you do a speaking event, there are questions you know you’re going to be asked. Three of the most popular asked by aspiring writers (and people who think they might like to give it a go) include:
  1. Where do you get your ideas?
  2. I want to query agents and publishers, but how do I protect myself so they don’t steal my ideas?
  3. What do I do if I get a publisher, but they want me to make changes? After all, they’re my ideas.
Okay, let’s take them in reverse order…

3. What do I do if I get a publisher, but they want me to make changes? After all, they’re my ideas.

Here’s what you do: Make changes.

I suspect that aspiring writers think the process of getting “notes” from an agent or editor goes something like this:

Not so. Not in the publishing world. If you want that kind of helpful feedback, you have to work in film or television. In my experience, the notes you get from an agent and/or editor are not an attempt to make you write a different book, but simply to make the book you’ve written better. These people are expert readers, and they’ve been doing this a lot longer than you. So listen to them. You don’t have to make changes in response to all of their suggestions, but you should probably do so for most of them. Get your ego out of the game.

2. I want to query agents and publishers, but how do I protect myself so they don’t steal my ideas?

I’ve got some very bad news for you: Your ideas suck, and nobody wants to steal them. Not just your ideas - mine too. Everybody’s ideas suck. Agents and editors are not looking for ideas; they’re looking for execution. And nobody can steal your execution, your distinctive voice.

Here’s a little film about Pepe. Poor Pepe didn’t have any big ideas of his own, so he decided to steal some. But they don’t work on his head.

So stop worrying and send out your damn queries.

1. Where do you get your ideas?

I honestly haven't got a clue. I always resort to the standard glib answer that writers give ("I get my ideas in the Ideas isle at K-Mart.") but I really don't know how to articulate where my ideas come from. Yeah, it's easy enough to talk about reading good fiction voraciously and reading newspapers and asking "what if..." questions all the time. But all of this seems inadequate to explain the strange process by which ideas form.

So my question to you is, Where do you get your ideas?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Dilys for Trigger City!

Just saw that Sean won the Dilys at Left Coast Crime! The Dilys is voted on by independent booksellers and is given to the book they most enjoyed selling over the past year. This year it was TRIGGER CITY!

And they just keep on coming... Congratulations, Sean!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Follow Me

by Libby Hellmann

Ok. I did it. I’m on Twitter. And I’m enjoying it.

I realize some of you are deathly tired of hearing about Twitter. I can’t blame you. If I weren’t already doing it, I’d be a curmudgeon too. But before you automatically dismiss it out of hand, give it a try. For a week or so. It took me a while to get used to it, but I happen to like the possibilities.

Frankly, aside from playing Wordscraper, I don’t really see the point of Facebook. Do I really want to connect with people back in high school? And I’m getting a little tired of being invited to “events” where I don’t know any of the people involved. I’m not on My Space, but I hear it’s mostly advertising. And while I’m on GoodFriends, I’m not that active.

I’m not saying Twitter doesn’t sink into banality at times. I’m not interested in what someone’s cooking for dinner, or how they overslept or didn’t. Happily, though, every post, because it’s limited to 140 characters, is manageable. 140 characters is about two sentences. Or a sound bite. So whether the comments are clever or dumb, they pass quickly.

Speaking of sound bites, that’s probably the main reason I joined. I’m a recovering news junkie – although I’m not exactly recovering any more. (I worked in TV news in another life). My jones kicked in during the election and it’s still with me. I need to hear breaking news, as well as updates, round-ups, and comments about the news. Twitter is terrific for that. There are a lot of “journos” as well as news organizations on the site, and most provide links to the stories, blogs, or comments they’re "tweeting" about. I’ve never been so well informed.

But I like Twitter for professional reasons as well. There are a lot of Chicago people and organizations on Twitter, which helps me feel more connected to the city I write about. There are also a lot of book people (booksellers, publishers, agents, bloggers, and authors), and they dispense solid information. There’s even a book discussion hosted by LitChat a few times a week. You’d be surprised by the depth of the conversation.

In fact, Twitter forces me to be more concise. Which isn’t a bad thing. It also helps me appreciate the wit and brevity of others.

So what’s the downside? There are spammers on Twitter – although they exist on other sites too. There are also folks who collect “followers” for reasons I don’t completely understand, although I’m sure it has something to do building mailing lists. And the sheer volume of tweets can be overwhelming – I use an application, Tweetdeck, that helps organize the flow. And, as I said, there are silly, time-wasting tweets. But for every one of those, there are also announcements from politicians, humorists, and celebrities (Jane Fonda is on Twitter). There’s even someone who tweets amusing comments about “24” and Jack Bauer. And yes, it can be a time suck, if you’re not careful.

But enough from me. What do you think? Is Twitter just another narcissistic time-waster? A fad? Crack cocaine for someone with ADD? Or do you see possibilities in the service?

Btw, you can follow me here.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

A Thousand Stitches and Broken Bones

(Program Note: The Tournament of Books starts today!)

Last summer my neighbor was getting ready for the Race to Mackinac, a tradition rich, century-old, yacht race from Chicago to Mackinac Island. The day before he left, Greg asked me if I had a good book to recommend for the down time on the 300-plus mile trek to Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

In fact I did have a good book. A really good book.

That same day I had finished an advance copy of Bryan Gruley's terrific debut
Starvation Lake, a mystery that takes place in a weird and dark and wonderful version of Northern Michigan. One week later Greg returned it, slightly water-logged and highly praised.

Now that the book is out, the acclaim is coming from all quarters. There have been starred reviews. The Chicago Tribune dedicated the entire front page of the Books section to the estimable Dick Adler's rave. USA Today has also weighed in, and Borders has made
Starvation Lake a Mystery Pick for the month of March. As should you.

Every novelist will tell you there is nothing like your first few days as a published author, so I asked Bryan, who is the Chicago Bureau Chief of the Wall Street Journal, to jot down some thoughts on publication week while they are still fresh in his mind:

The best part might have been seeing Joe Maceri.

He was standing along a wall of bookshelves when I arrived at Aunt Agatha’s Mystery Books in Ann Arbor last Tuesday for the launch of my debut novel, “Starvation Lake.” Joe and I had gone to high school together, played hockey together, chased girls and sneaked beers together in his sweet ’55 Chevy, white with red leather interior.

But we hadn’t seen each other in years until Tuesday night. We embraced. We laughed. Joe already had read my book, which of course entitled him to rib me. “You jerk,” he said. “You put a gynecologist in the book and you call him ‘Dr. Johnson?’”

I swore up and down that I had intended no such pun (honest). “Bullshit,” Joe said. We laughed some more.

I gathered memories funny and sublime as I criss-crossed my home state of Michigan last week, speaking at Schuler Books in Okemos and Borders in Novi, signing stock at Horizon in Traverse City, McLean & Eakin and Horizon in Petoskey, and Saturn Books in Gaylord, seeing old friends and making new. It was fun and exhausting and inspiring and, now and then, a little frightening.

All along, I tried to remember something my Wall Street Journal colleague Jeff Trachtenberg told me many months ago. I had asked Jeff, who covers the publishing industry, what kind of sales I should expect. “Bryan,” he reprimanded me. “Just go out and have a great fucking time.”

I logged more than 1,200 miles in my muddy gray Chevy Malibu, a box of books in the back seat and my iPod cranking Bob Seger between Kalkaska and Kalamazoo. (I’m talking ancient, rocking Seger, like 1966’s “Two Plus Two,” which plays a role in my novel.)

Once a day, I’d stop at some small town dive, order a longneck Bud and empty my laptop of emails. Scores came from friends congratulating me—or yanking my chain—about a nice piece on the book in USA Today, a big spread in the Chicago Tribune, a thumbs-up from Canada hockey personality Don Cherry.

Jamie Agnew at Aunt Agatha’s gave me an old tan-covered copy of The Crisscross Shadow, the Hardy Boys mystery that got me interested in reading fiction as a boy. The next day, I knelt at my mother’s grave and thanked her for getting me that book more than forty years ago.

Bob Brill at the Petoskey Horizon store stripped back a sleeve to show me the dozen Detroit Red Wing autographs tattooed on his left shoulder. I posed for a photograph with my Sheila Brice, the seventh-grade teacher who encouraged me to write. I drank beers with John Gallesero, who lived across the street from me when I was a kid. I hadn’t seen him in thirty-five years.

My younger brother Mike zinged me during my talk at Aunt Agatha’s. “So,” he said, “if you only write what you know, I assume you won’t be writing a book about golf?” When the laughter subsided, I said, “No, and neither will you.”

I savored a succulent patty melt at the Hide-A-Way Tavern on the real Starvation Lake beneath a photograph of a guy riding a snowmobile wearing nothing but a cowboy hat. And I enjoyed the landscapes of northern lower Michigan that inspired my novel, from the snow-covered hills along U.S. 131 south of Ellsworth to the glistening silver of frozen Big Twin Lake stretching out from the bluff at my parents’ cottage.

The frightening moment came near the end of my speak-and-sign at Schuler in Okemos. The turnout was decent—about thirty-five people, most of them strangers, a few who have cottages on the real Starvation Lake. I was enjoying myself. Then my old friend and fellow journalist Mark Hornbeck asked, “Do you ever have the sneaking suspicion that you only have one book in you?”

“Of course,” I said. The audience chuckled. I hope they didn’t notice that my own smile was a nervous one.

I submitted my second manuscript recently. I think it’s a great story but I know it’s not in the right order yet. And there are a couple of holes. Etc. You guys get it. With the help of my terrific editor, Trish Grader of Touchstone Books, I’ll make it work.

Still, Mark’s question hit a soft spot. It reminded me of something my friend Marcus Sakey told an interviewer about trying to enjoy plaudits for a freshly published novel when you’re finishing up the next one and you know it ain’t quite right yet.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that people are reading my first book, not the one I just sent to my editor.

Anyway, I got past the question. We headed to a nearby saloon. I reminded myself that I’d be seeing other old friends like Joe Maceri later in the week—yeah, the best part of it all, at least in Michigan--and proceeded to have a great fucking time.

Catch Bryan Gruley in person this month:

Tuesday, March 10, 7 p.m., Borders, 2817 Clark Street (at Diversey).

Thursday, March 12, 7 p.m., Mystery One Bookstore, 2109 N. Prospect Avenue, Milwaukee.

Monday, March 16, 7 p.m., Book Stall at Chestnut Court, 811 Elm Street, Winnetka.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Get Back to Work, Now!!

Cruising the Web instead of working...every now and then leads to some interesting places.  In the middle of the foreclosure crisis which is destroying so many people's lives, someone has come up with a strategy called, "Produce the Note."  It turns out that in their haste to make a bundle in the subprime world, lenders bundled together thousands of mortgages, sliced and diced them in ways too complex for me to understand, and resold them in many different packages--without ever entering a copy of the original note.  Borrowers who try to negotiate a payment program that lets them stay in their homes are discovering that NO ONE knows who actually owns the paper.  And finally, some mortgagees are using a strategy called, Produce the Note.  A number of bankruptcy judges are finding in their favor.  This has a lot of implications, including further implosion in the banking industry--but it's hard to cry for them and easy to cheer for a few people able to hang onto their homes.

Another place I stumbled on is an Aljazeera website that explores serious issues that affect women's lives in Africa and the Middle East.  I was looking for coverage of the affect of the so-called Global Gag Rule, and came on this site, which looks at topics like Maternal Mortality, abuse of Jordanian maids, and the effect of abstinence only education, among many others.  These were bold and feminist reports; I was much impressed.

Finally, thanks to everyone who e-mailed me, asking for answers to  the quiz I ran the last time I posted.  You can find answers in my personal blog.  Enjoy!

Thursday, March 05, 2009

A Writing Tip

by Barbara D'Amato

I was reading a novel, maybe the fifth or so in a series I really like, when I began to feel manipulated. After flipping back and forth in the book, I decided the problem was the structure. The chapters alternated like this:

Main character confronted by puzzle
Secondary character in danger
MC still puzzled
SC getting farther into danger
MC finds clue which produces more puzzles
SC – worse danger
MC -- puzzled

And so forth. It’s not that going back and forth between characters is a bad technique. It keeps things moving. The problem in this book was the metronomic regularity of the switch. The story needed a third element to appear a couple of times to keep the process from being predictable.

In another mystery novel, three chapters began with a dream. The kind of thing where you read into it thinking it’s real and then the dreamer wakes up, usually all stressed. These chapters were widely spaced in the book and not, I think, intended to be stylistically important. Nor were they an important characteristic of the man who was dreaming. They seemed to be a solution the author had found to the problem of getting into a new chapter. But it was overused.

We all get into habits. Something worked before? Use it again. That’s learning. But it’s also dangerous. We need to check out our habits and to do that we need to be aware of them.

The same with chapter endings. A lot of books I’ve read lately end every chapter on a note of high suspense.

“What’s that at the end of the corridor?”

“Do I smell—gasoline?”

“That can’t be John! John’s dead!”

Which is all very well. We are often told to make the end of each chapter a cliffhanger so that the reader is compelled to read on. Unfortunately, this technique becomes predictable, candy after every meal. There are a lot of ways to end a chapter. You can end a chapter in the middle of action, the middle of a conversation, the middle of a fight, the end of a fight, even on a temporary resolution, or a final resolution for a minor character. It doesn’t have to be a bated-breath suspense point. In fact, it probably shouldn’t be every time. If the book’s premise is strong, a breathing space at the end of a chapter can be refreshing.

There is a way to catch some of your habits. Lay out the first page of each of your chapters in order. Yes, you can scan through your manuscript on your word processor, but it really does make a difference when you see them lined up together physically. Look for unintentional similarities.

Do the same with the last pages of your chapters.

I’m betting any one of us will find habits we didn’t know we had.

You don’t want to be predictable.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

In Which Marcus Explores His Feminine Side

by Marcus Sakey

I have a like-hate relationship with the show Sex & the City.

On the one hand, the four main characters are fractional, broken caricatures. Mash 'em all together and you've got an actual person, but as individuals, they're a joke. I also dislike the blatant product placement, the consumerism as religion, and the preposterous vision of sexuality. Are we really supposed to believe the average New York woman of 40 has had 75 lovers? Really?

On the flip side, the writing is usually pretty good, and it's easy to enjoy the sororital bond the four women feel.

Last week, a friend, who shall remain nameless, came into the bar with a DVD of the movie as a ball-busting gift for me. (I paid him back by bribing the bartendress to make him "the frilliest, girliest drink imaginable." When it arrived, it had so much foliage monkeys could have swung through it.) Anyway, I brought the DVD home, told my wife about it, and next thing you know, we're watching it.

Now I know a lot of women, a lot of people, loved it. It made good money, and they announced a sequel. And as I said, while I enjoy the show okay, I'm not a rabid fan.

But I thought the movie was a fucking abomination. The last time I'd seen such a mistranslation was the movie version of Jarhead which took an astonishing memoir and turned it into a steaming pile of dog shit.

The Sex & the City movie destroyed, almost systematically, the things that made the show interesting. Instead of being about a friendship of equals, it made the three other women into Carrie's bitches. They may have been caricatures before, but at least each brought some real human component. In the movie, they were reduced to the shallowest of plot motivators.

Then there was the offensive consumerism. Before I fell asleep--it was that or claw out my eyes--I counted three separate fashion shows, each treated with the lasciviousness of pornography. At one point Carrie orgasmically whispers the names of fashion designers.

Really? Really?

And of course there's the vapid Cinderella angle. These four smart, successful women are valueless without their men and their marriage. And when marriage comes about, despite all the purple blatherings about love, the focus isn't the couple--it's the society pages, the dress, the limo. I was happily snoring by this point, but my wife, who also hated it, God love her, tells me at the end Carrie says she is finally happy--married, and "dressed head to toe in a label that never goes out of style: love."

I'm amazed I didn't vomit in my sleep and choke to death.

I realize I'm probably talking to the wrong demo, but did anybody out there like this abortion?

And if so, for heaven's sake, why?