Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Save the Indy 500

This posting is NOT in honor of those guys (and gal) making that three-hour left turn up in Indianapolis today. This post is about some folks who need far more than flame-retardant suits and crash helmuts to survive their race.

I'm talking about independent bookstore owners. Two more closings were announced this month: Cody's Books in Berkeley and Ruminator Books, the nationally-recognized indy in St. Paul. You have to ask the reason? Declining sales and competition from chain stores and the Internet.

This is not an isolated bad month for the indies. Battered by online discounts and chain superstores, the American Booksellers Association has crumbled from 5,200 bookstores in 1991 to 1,702 stores in 2005.

Why should you care?

If you are an author, you probably already know why. As much as we need the chains to make it, most authors' chances of getting big-bucks promotion and placement in the chains and big-box discount stores is pretty small. So the handselling culture of the indies is probably your best chance of making a dent these days. We need these people. Badly.

If you are a reader, you need the intelligence, experience and personal touch the indies can provide. Say you suddenly discovered Val McDermid and ran through her entire catalog in a month. Do you think anyone at your local chain is going to suggest you try Minette Walters? (please, no emails about the fabulous clerk at your local Borders; they are the rare exception, not the rule.)

You're neither reader nor writer, just a human being? Well, damn it, you still should care. Because we need things of charm, idiosyncracy, intelligence and human scale more than ever in our supersized, homogenized, a Gap-on-every-Corner lives.

Yesterday, I attended the second annual Booksellers Appreciation lunch put on by my local Mystery Writers of America chapter. Mitch Kaplan, owner of the splendid Books & Books in Miami, and prez of the American Booksellers Association, was one of our guests. Mitch got into the book biz from a sheer love of what a Carnegie report once pronounced dead: books as things-in-themselves. I'll%

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


Have you ever cried reading a novel?

No, I don't mean your first draft. I mean, has someone's work moved you to such a point that you shed real tears?

It doesn't happen often to me. Although I am a sucker for an emotional one-two punch. I remember reading Amy Tan's "Joy Luck Club" on a plane and getting to a scene where the mother explains why she abandoned her babies by the side of the road. Well, I had to get up and go into the bathroom to compose myself. What a wuss. What a good book.

I know this is hard to believe, given my reputation (see previous post) as a hard-hearted bitch. But I cry at books, movies, and commercials (that one where the Army guy comes home for Xmas and wakes the house up making coffee gets me every time.)

Maybe it is because movies are more inherently commercial, but they seem to evoke tears more readily than books. Why is that? Are novelists more leery of the "cheap" reaction of tears? I think that is certainly true in crime fiction today. It is rare to find a novel, in these days of neo-noir aping and dick-lit posturing, that we get crime books that appeal to the emotions. The last crime novel I can remember actually bringing a lump to my throat was T. Jefferson Parker's Silent Joe. Why is that? We are dealing with the themes of death and loss all the time. We describe blood and guts with clinical accuracy. Why do we pull our punches when it comes to showing the emotional outfall of death?

I was thinking about the place emotion had in fiction tonight because I happened to catch the last half-hour of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." Now I know that movie reeks quaint in today's world, but that scene where Spencer Tracy delivers his speech saying, "If what you feel for each other is half of what I felt for my wife, you'll be all right." With Katherine Hepburn all misty eyed in the background...great stuff.

Other movies I get the Kleenex out for:

Breakfast At Tiffany's: Holly searching for the metaphoric Cat in the rain.
Roman Holiday: Princess Audrey, pauper Gregory Peck. Hopeless love.
The Vikings: Dead Kirk Douglas getting his Viking funeral sendoff.
Field of Dreams: Kevin Costner playing catch with his father's ghost. Waaaa...
Sophie's Choice: Stingo reciting Emily Dickinson over the death bed.
Old Yeller: Well, you know what happened to the dog.

Why doesn't fiction evoke the same response? I don't believe it is because movies are more visual. What is more powerful than the blank screens of our own imaginations? I think it might be because today's crime writers are leery of being labeled as soft when we go into matters of the heart.

I had a conversation with a high-placed editor recently. She told me she has noticed two trends in crime fiction recently: the decline of hardboiled "guy books." And the rise of romantic suspense. Now, let's not kid ourselves. There is some terrific hardboiled stuff being written right now, books that don't turn up their noses at emotions. Likewise, there is some utterly putrid romance suspense on the shelves these days, stuff that gets everything about police procedure and forensics wrong and gets really messy treacly about the romance part. Eeeewwww.

Maybe I am wrong. Or just reading the wrong stuff. What has gotten to you? What has made you cry? Movies are easy. But give me some books as well.

Or am I wrong in my belief that there is still room for well-wrought (as opposed to over-wrought) emotion in today's crime fiction?

Saturday, May 13, 2006

No guts, no glory

My sister and I were talking about what it takes it get published these days. We talk about this alot, given the manuscripts we critique and the friends we try to advise.

Craft? Of course you need that. Although it's amazing how much folks think that isn't a given. (see previous post)

Perserverance? You betcha. (See Joe Konrath's blog for more on that)

Talent? Yes, I believe you need at least a dollup. Which is why some people, know matter how long or hard they try, will never get published. Sorry, but some of this is just in the genes, folks.

But Kelly and I also came to the conclusion that there is another ingredient -- courage. Which is not the same as perserverance. Some folks have great ideas but lack the courage to face the blank computer screen. Some start books but lack the guts to finish. And many -- oh, so many! -- lack the courage to then send their manuscript out into the world.

I try not to talk about rejection here too much. It can get depressing because no matter where you are on the publishing food chain, you face rejection. Looking for an agent brings you rejection. Then you get an agent and your book is rejected by editors. Then someone buys your book and the marketing department rejects it by deciding not to give it co-op support or a decent first printing. Then, Kirkus kicks you in the teeth. Then you sit at a card table at Borders surrounded by stacks of your book and no one stops. And finally, your book is in the stores but thousands of potential readers reject you and pick up the latest Patterson instead.

See what I mean? It never stops. Which is why you have to have courage. The courage to submit your book and get rejection letters. The courage to hand your book over to an editor and take criticism. The courage to soldier on in the face of astronomical odds, the courage to get back up when you've been knocked down by a bad review. The courage to be true to your style when you see the same old names on the bestseller lists. The courage to keep writing because it is what you do.

My sister loves to write song parodies. Here is her latest on Courage. Sing it to the tune of "If I Only Had a Heart." (From the Wizard of Oz). Maybe it can inspire you to keep going.

I could be a mystery writer,
If I only was a fighter
To get what I deserve.
I could write in any fashion
If I only had the passion
If I only had the nerve.

I could write a mystery story
It’ll be so good and gory
And better than Lehane.
It would be dark and scary
And very literary
If I only had a brain.

I'd write romance kind and gentle
And awful sentimental
With lots of sexy parts.
I could capture the devotion
And all the right emotion
If I only had a heart.

To write my send it out and get a look
That is my see my work...on the big screen.

See, I have this great idea
About a mob-run pizzeria
It has lots of blood and gore.
But I’d sit at home all winter
And send it through my printer
And stick it in the drawer.

Yeah, it's good, but believe me, missy,
I was born to be a sissy,
Without the vim and verve.
But I could show my talent easy
If I wasn’t quite so queasy
And I only had the nerve.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


Warning: crabby post follows.

I got hooked into reading a manuscript the other day. I did it as a favor to a friend who had a friend -- a lawyer, of course -- who had just finished writing his FIRST legal thriller. It was "a more literary John Grisham," he said. Would I read it, to, you know, give my opinion....?

So I started it last night. (I know, I never learn). I got maybe 20 pages in and I began hearing this voice in my head. Not my usual muse voices. This one was whispering: "Get out!"

Took me a while, but I realized it was the demon voice who had screamed at James Brolin in "The Amityville Horror." Only this voice was really me yelling at the writer of the misbegotten mess of a novel I was reading.

Get out, now, buddy. Get out of any notion that you could possibly ever succeed as a writer. Because you are tone-deaf to dialog, blind to characterization, and utterly and completely unable to tell a basic linear-plot story. Worse, you didn't bother to learn a damn thing about the craft that goes into fiction writing before you tried. You had the brass balls to think you could shortcut all that.

God, this just rots my socks, this whole idea that anyone can just write a novel these days. I have had it with professionals who write and think that just because their printer spat out 200 double-spaced pages of typing, they have made the leap to professional writer.

I am not alone in this frustration.

I have a new hero, a guy who is blogging on a site called Evil Editor.. He takes actual query letters and dissects them (I highly recommend his site for those of you struggling with the fine art of query writing). But this paragraph from Evil Editor to a writer who had queried him caught my eye the other day:

"Look, here's the thing. The competition to get published is fierce. If Evil Editor tried to write a symphony, he would expect someone with an MFA in music to mock his first attempt mercilessly. If Evil Editor tried to create a giraffe or a Dachshund out of a balloon, you would laugh at his comic ineptitude. So it shouldn't be shocking when Evil Editor suggests that while what you've learned about people, natural perceptions, and history may be impressive, what you've learned about English, particularly the craft of writing (so far), isn't going to get you to your goal. Take classes, join a critique group, read a lot, and maybe ten years from now you'll read this letter and laugh. When you're not groaning. Sorry, my friend."

Preach on, brother Evil.

Postscript: I awoke this morning to find out George Lutz, the owner of the real Amityville horror house, died May 8. Rest in peace. He finally got out.

Friday, May 05, 2006

March of the penguins

Okay, this has nothing to do with writing, or crime novels, but it is about men and that is close enough. I have been thinking about this since I got back from the Edgars, thinking about how lovely all the women looked -- Twist Phelan in her pale satin, Janet Evanovich in her emerald brocade, Tess Gerritsen in her silver sheath, SJ Rozan in serious black bangles...and so many other beauties.

But the men? Ah, the heart skips a beat. Because I am a sucker for a man in a tuxedo. And there were plenty of fellows in formal wear this year, which makes me think that the decline of western civilization as we know it not as imminent as I thought.

There is something so sweetly charming, nay, sexy, about a man in a tux. Maybe it is the pure effort it epitomizes. I mean, come on, we women know about effort. We truss ourselves up in stilettos and body stockings and who is it all for? You, dear fellows. So when I see a man in a tux, I think about the intent behind it all. It takes effort to button those studs, tie that tie (okay, to strap on that fake), and find the perfect spot between ribs and gut where the cumberbund can settle.

Too many men at the Edgars just gave up, appearing in drab suits or -- in one awful display -- chinos and sports shirt. But the men in tuxes were a chiaroschuro buffet. So Astaire, so Gregory Peck, so James Bond, so...negative to our positive femininity. Just a few I noticed: Don Bruns (shown above with my friend Sharon Potts and my agent Maria Carvainis), Reed Farrel Coleman, Mike Connelly and Jerry Healy (with a wine stain on his white shirt that looked like a bloody stab from a vindicative wife).

So a belated salute to our men in black and white. You give new meaning to neo-noir.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Going to the Edgar prom

Edgar week in New York. Lots of panel banter at the symposium, preening at the cocktail parties, barroom prognostications, and of course, boozy-weepy scenes in the bars after the awards are announced. I've been to four Edgar weeks now -- once as an utterly dazzled newbie nominee, twice as a panelist and once as a mere lurker. But this year, as I worked the room at the agent and editor cocktail party, it struck me like a lightning bolt: I was back in high school again.

All the old cliques were there. All the old insecurities were on display. All the old crushes, fantasies and pimply passions were hovering there below the surfaces. Big Name Authors surrounded by sycophants. Midlist Cassiuses with their lean and hungry looks. Wannabees wandering the periphery waiting to be asked to dance. (By the way, that's us in the picture above with Prom Queen Janet Evanovich.) It was ferocious in its poignancy, and at one point, I found myself sitting alone in the corner, with that old Janis Ian song, “At Seventeen,” rumbling through my head:

To those of us who knew the pain
Of six-figure deals that never came
And those whose names were never called
When announcing winners at the Edgar Ball
It was long ago and far away
And the world was younger than today
When dreams were all they gave for free
To small-press midlist geeks like me...

Okay, I changed the words a little. But the awful agony of high school is very much alive in our mystery community. We're a very welcoming group as a rule, and although there are a couple pricks and bitches in our school, we pretty much have each other's backs. But geez, when we put on our gowns and tuxes and get together at the Edgar prom, the tortured ghosts of our teenaged pasts come out...

The Jocks: Ah yes, the golden boys of the mystery world, they play hardboiled ball, throw the perfect PI spiral or get nothing but neo-noir net.

The Cheerleaders: The goodlooking girls who make the good grades and whose books get voted Most Likely To Succeed.

The National Honor Society: Brainy, brilliant, beloved by kingmaker critics, they labor only to transcend the genre and don't care if their books aren't carried in Costco.

The Greasers: Leathered and liquored, they lurk in the alleys of the thriller world, feared and despised. But they have the hottest sex and everyone secretly wants to hang with them.

The Home Ec Club: Baking muffin mysteries, chick-lit suspense and country-inn cozies, sniffing that no one takes them seriously. Except booksellers know they are quietly conquering the world one cat book at a time.

The AV Club nerds: No one sees them. No one cares. Until they suddenly publish a graphic novel and make a million bucks with an interactive website game, podcast tie-in and movie deal.

So what about you? Where do you fit in? Maybe, like me, you don't. In high school, I was one of those weird kids who clustered with a couple friends in the cafeteria, stuffing my face with Twinkies, watching the popular parade as it passed by.

I'm still weird. I'm still watching the parade. Neither me nor the books that I write fit in any one clique. But I see that as a good thing now. The thing about getting old is that you find your niche; the Cheerleaders start talking to you; you finally get asked to dance, maybe even by one of the Jocks. You figure out that sometimes the view from the outside is a lot more interesting than the view from the inside. You realize that beneath the pretty dresses and nice tuxes, everyone is just as insecure about all this as you are.

I will press this year's Edgar corsage between tissue and store it away.

Addendum: Skip on over to Tess Gerritson's blog for her sweet story about her Edgar dress. We women do get emotional about clothes sometimes.