« July 2005 | Main | September 2005 »

26 posts from August 2005

August 31, 2005

What's In A Name? A Freakin' Lot

WHAT’S IN A NAME?  A FREAKIN' LOT

I’m finishing up revisions on the third Maggie Ryan book (which I’d hoped to get done before I leave for Chicago today, but won’t), and next up I’ve got to start on the fourth Debutante Dropout Mystery, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEB, due January 1.  I know, I know, cutting it close, but I boxed myself into the same corner with the last two books and it turned out fine.  So I’m hoping my luck will hold this time around, too.

My brain’s already mulling over my story idea, what kind of things I’ll want to have happen in the plot, what types of characters I’ll need.  Which got me to thinking about names.  Every character’s gotta have one, just like a baby or a new puppy.  And it’s got to be just the right one, so suited to each particular person that I can’t imagine calling him or her anything else. 

I know writers who buy the latest baby name books to thumb through and settle on the perfect monikers for their characters.  Maybe I’m loony, but the names for the people in my books come from somewhere deep inside my brain, a place too frightening to actually visit.  Somehow, these folks just emerge, and I know who they are and what to call them.  It’s not anything I can explain, but it’s always worked for me.

So far in my life, I haven’t had the opportunity to name real children, just made-up ones.  But, like every other woman on the planet, I have favorite names stuck in my brain, and I hope I have the chance to use them in the future.  I know my friends who are parents put a lot of thought into coming up with the perfect names for their babies.  Sometimes, they come up with the same name (my buddies Laura Durham and Emily McCaskill both dubbed their now-infant daughters “Emma,” which is very pretty).  Other times, a slightly more, er, unique name pops up.  My cousin Chris and his wife Colleen named their first son “Finn,” which I thought was funny because Chris’s mom (my aunt Linda) has a beloved cat named Huckleberry.  I figured it was an ode to Mark Twain.

The woman who painted the front door of my condo yesterday introduced herself as “Mo,” telling me her full name was Mona Lisa Leonard.  Interesting that she would choose to make her living with a paintbrush, eh?

Though, when it comes to names, no one can top celebrities at conjuring up the most unusual choices.  Let’s start with the most recent Hollywood baby-naming insanity. 

Kid Jerry Seinfeld and his wife Jessica have smacked the name “Shepherd” on their kid.  I heard someone on The Today Show say that, in Hebrew, “Shepherd” meant “Yes, please, I’d love a wedgie.”  I believe it.

Michelle Branch and her husband named their daughter “Owen,” which I assume is a tribute to Owen Wilson, seeing as how “The Party Crashers” was such a big summer hit.

Liv Tyler and hubby have a son named Milo.  I’ve been trying to figure out how many words rhyme with that, because the poor kid’s gonna have to deal with it on the playground.

How about Rob Morrow’s child:  Tu Morrow.  I’m already envisioning her playing the lead in a Broadway production of Annie.  (For the record, if I never hear anyone sing "Tomorrow" again, I will be immensely grateful.)

The Naked Chef Jamie Oliver and his wife must’ve been heavily into the cooking sherry when they stuck a daughter with “Daisy Boo.”  Their other child, “Poppy Honey,” was likely inspired by a salad dressing.

Does anyone know who Shannyn Sossaman is?  She’s supposedly an actress, but I have a feeling she’s gotten more press from the announcement that she’d named her baby “Audio Science.”  My bet was on “Compact Disc,” so I lost about fifty bucks on that one.

Of course, there’s always Apple Martin, daughter of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin.  I heard they really wanted to call her “Apple Martini,” but they were just one letter shy.  Dang it.  I hate when that happens.  A good alternative would’ve been “Doc Martin,” but did they listen to me?  Nooooo.

Going back a bit, we have a lovely trio of names chosen by Demi Moore and Bruce Willis:  Rumer Glenn, Scout Larue and Tallulah Belle.  It would be practical if bars put up a sign that said, “Please, don’t drink and name babies.”  It might stop this kind of thing.

Bob Geldof of “Live Eight” and “Live Aid” fame surely couldn’t have been in his right mind when he and wife Paula Yates came up with these doozies:  Fifi Trixibelle, Peaches Honeyblossom and Little Pixie.  Why am I picturing these children on “America's Most Wanted" in a few years, when the cops are trying to hunt them down for pulling a Menendez?  I do hope they're already in therapy.

Still, the prize for oddest names has to go to the Zappas…or the Phoenix family.  Can't make up my mind.  You decide:

Moon Unit, Dweezil and Diva Muffin Zappa

River, Rainbow, Leaf, Liberty and Summer Phoenix.

I know.  It’s a tough choice.  Maybe they'll have to split the trophy.

Honestly, I think George Foreman had it right.  Just name every kid “George,” and you’ll never forget who you’re talking to.  Though I’d sure like to be at Thanksgiving dinner sometime and hear that table-talk.  Do they all answer at once when Mrs. Foreman says, "Yo, George!"

I just can’t wait to see what Tom Cruise and paid-to-order-bride Katie Holmes decide to name their adopted child.  My money’s on “Christian Science,” although Shannyn Sossaman might already have that copyrighted, since I'll bet little Audio Science is asking for a brother.

Cheers,

Susan

P.S.  For more on celebrity baby names, check out these web sites:  Celebrity Baby Blog and Perfect Baby Names

August 30, 2005

The aMazing Publishing World

***Before I jump into the maze, I think I can safely speak for the rest of the Book Tarts when I extend our sympathy and support to all of those who have suffered in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. A natural disaster like this is almost impossible to prepare for completely and there are bound to be those who take the brunt of its force. We are thinking of you and hope that you are soon dry and safe and that you recover from this as quickly as possible.***

If I were more organized I would have a convenient little "writing tips" section on my website like all the together chicklit authors who also have adorable photos and bios that desperately make you want to BE them. Actually, I do have a "writing tips" section on my website only there's nothing there. Much like my brain.

      Anyway, if I had such a section I would be able to direct to it a Mr. Feder from Fort Lee, NJ (not his real name - old Roseanne Rosannadanna joke) who wrote me last week noting that he was "open to learning more about the craft of writing fiction" and that he was getting so much "CONFLICTING advice" from agents who wanted to represent him and those who didn't. The punchline was this question:

     "What is your best advice to a writer trying to trust his own instincts; and, when it is crucial to listen to feedback, what are the areas of writing and publishing that really require a serious writer to take into account the experience and insight of others in the publishing industry?" He signed the letter by noting he is an adjunct professor at a small Southern college.

     You know, normally I answer questions from unpublished writers and gladly so. But normally those questions are slightly more specific. They often center on how to get an agent or how much of the book does one have to write before submission. Rarely am I asked to embark on a philosophical discussion about the nuance, if you will, the deconstruction of constructive criticism. And I say, thank God for that!

    And, okay, so it was day 83 of my hostage crisis (otherwise known as summer vacation) and I was late for the corn maze, perhaps my favorite outdoor activity, and I may have been a bit testy due to some stress in dealing with a sick neighbor and concern over book sales and though I don't believe in PMS per se, that could have explained why I wrote back to Mr. Feder of Fort Lee, NJ - "I don't mean to be snippy but there is no possible way I can answer that unwieldy question."

   I suggested he find the best possible agent he could and then listen to all he or she had to say because that's why they got 15 percent. Then I hopped in the car with four kids and my sister in law (who is also my best friend) and drove 50 miles to the maze of mental cruelty.
      Somewhere in Fort Lee, NJ, however, the Southern college Adjunct Professor Mr. Feder was at his computer, seething at my response.
       The Great Vermont Corn Maze is in Danville, Vermont, a place of rolling hills and mountain views, a place where the rich in Massachusetts are buying up $1 million homes like towels at a Target sale. The maze is not easy to find and it is easy to get lost trying. That's because it requires plenty of space - specifically 45 acres. This is, hands down, the hardest, the best corn maze there is. Usually I take two hours, find I've only gone through a quarter of it and then cheat. I'd like to steal a photo of a maze and put it here but the site won't let me. Anyway, here's the site - take a look: http://www.vermontcornmaze.com/
      So there I was running through the maze, blue sky above, my kids nicely lost acres away and what was I thinking about? George Clooney. Okay, I'm always thinking about George Clooney. No, really, I was thinking about Costco and Mr. Feder. Thanks Mr. Feder. The Costco part came from Carla Neggers interview earlier (see below) and how she said if you don't sell at a big box store off the bat they won't take you back. This bothered me because one time in King of Prussia I signed 64 (why 64?) copies of Bubbles Ablaze in hardcover as people strolled by, curling their lips and asking me which way to the bathroom. I don't know, but I don't think I sold through those 64 books. Maybe I should have shelved them in the bathroom.
    Then I thought about Mr. Feder and how if I were a nicer person I might have sat down and entered a discussion about how conflicting EVERYTHING is the name of the game in publishing. To come out in hardcover first or paperback? To start small and build or (if you're lucky) start big and make a splash? To get a well-known agent with connections or a small, hardworking agent who believes in you?I wanted to say, "Hey, Mr. Feder, I don't know any better than you which advice to consider and which advice to toss. If you get an answer to this question, write me. 'Cause man, I'm lost."
      And then I really was lost. Truly lost. Corn higher than my head and I had no idea where I was. Meanwhile, every five minutes the bell was ringing signaling that someone had made it to the end. Someone had achieved success while I, I was still going around and around the same circle of corn. Thinking that one wrong left or right meant all the difference in becoming successful. This is publishing, I thought. Scratch that. This is life. My life.
      Like most life lessons, Bugs Bunny said it best: "Maybe I should have taken that left at Albuquerque." Looking back, there were so many lefts or rights I should have taken. But hey, it's not like any of us has a map.
     I forgot about Mr. Feder until yesterday when he kindly wrote to tell me that I sucked as a human being. I thought this was a bit harsh coming from someone I didn't know who had asked me for a favor. To add to my guilt and self loathing, he enclosed a personalized response (form letter) from a BIG TIME AUTHOR who answered him to his satisfaction. Then he added a double P.S. (always a sign of mental health) to note that he would not be buying my next book and that he supposed the reason this BIG TIME AUTHOR was successful and I wasn't was because I wrote snippy emails like the above.
     I replied with the best Christian response I could summon - that he surely was fortunate to receive such a nice note from the Big Time Author whose response I definitely agreed with. And that I would look for his name on the bestseller list in the future. Good luck.
     Guess that was another left I could have taken. Or was it a right? Either way, I can cancel one Costco order in Fort Lee, N.J. Thanks Mr. Feder.
Stay safe!
Sarah

August 29, 2005

The Nigerian Internet Scam

Recently I was at a dinner party in my neighborhood, along with a producer, an actress, a director, a lawyer, and a couple of shrinks. Talk turned to favorite hiking trails, because the neighborhood is Topanga Canyon, and Topanga State Park (11,000 acres of wildland) is our back yard.

I said, “You know how, when you’re on the fire road and you’re about an hour from the trailhead, and you realize you haven’t seen another human being, you start thinking about how desolate it is and how, if you throw a body down the hillside into the brush it would never be spotted, let alone recovered?”

Silence. Blank stares.

Okay, this is why God created mystery conventions. You ask that question sitting around the bar at Bouchercon or Left Coast Crime, and everyone nods. I’m positive that Susan McBride plans murders on her treadmill.

But I digress. My brilliant neighbors whose minds don’t run to dead bodies notwithstanding, this past week I was vindicated.

On Thursday, I wanted to go for a run, but between the heat wave and the power going out, I didn’t hit the trail until 6:45 pm. And among the things in life I don’t keep track of is the time of sunset. Why bother? It keeps changing. So it wasn’t until I reached the Overlook and a glorious view of the ocean that I noticed it was . . . dark. I mean, I could still see the trail, sort of, but the canyons and mountains were black and the sky was suddenly full of stars. And I was 2.7 miles from home.

The good news is, I’ve been running this road for six years, so I know it really well. Which was fortunate, because there’s no way I could have found the exact tree that leads off the fire road down the canyon to my house by sight alone.

The bad news is, I’m a little afraid of the dark. I never was in the years I lived in New York City, even in the dicier neighborhoods, because there were all those people around. I was nearly always afraid, however, growing up on a farm in Nebraska, because there was nobody around, and I always felt like if someone was around, he’d be Charlie Starkweather (Nebraska spree killer in 1958) or, more accurately, the ghost of Charlie Starkweather (Charlie was executed in 1959) and so now here I am living in Topanga, where the Manson family hung out for awhile, along with other questionable types attracted by desolate terrain, old nudist colonies, and a tiny post office manned by a woman named Cinderella.

The other bad news was, at that hour there was no moonlight. The other good news, though, is that while we have mountain lions, those mountain lions you hear about in the news who kill joggers are always from San Diego County, several hours south of us. The other bad news, though, was that I had no cell phone (defeats the purpose of running) and no dogs (they’re illegal in the state park and it’s very stressful to play hide-and-seek with the rangers, who like to issue seventy-five dollar tickets. Per dog. Plus, it’s deer season, and last year Jinn and Fez caught a deer. Not pretty).

The weather was nice, though.

But the worst was, I was not the only person trying to make it home by starlight on Thursday night in Topanga.

Christian Julian Irwin, a man exactly my age, a record producer, disappeared last Sunday. At 4 a.m., Christian was running down a ravine near his house, not far from my house, using his cell phone to call his friend and former partner, Fortunato Procopio, to say that he was being chased by pursuers connected to the Nigerian Internet Scam. That’s the last anyone had heard of him. Now, Thursday, friends and relatives were out searching for him, along with the Sheriff’s Department and law enforcement dogs, who followed his scent to Topanga Creek, then lost it.

Christian is my age, described as likable, compassionate, closely bound to friends and family, in good physical shape, favoring organic food and tennis. He could be me, except for the tennis part (and I really don’t bother with organic.) Also, he’s been nominated for three Grammys and I once attended the Grammys. And, as anyone could tell you, I’m exactly the sort of person who’d get caught up in a Nigerian Internet Scam.

So, along with Charlie Starkweather, and Charlie Manson, I now had the Nigerian Internet Scam artists to worry about.

But I had something Christian Julian Irwin did not have. I had Julie Andrews on my i-pod. For daylight running, it might be Guns-N-Roses or Radiohead or White Stripes that gets you through mile #7 in extreme heat, but in darkness, go for the old musicals. It’s hard to be scared while listening to Julie Andrews just as it’s tough to be depressed while singing along to Oklahoma! In fact, the whole experience was useful because now I know how I’d pass the time if trapped for days in the trunk of a car or thrown into solitary confinement in a jail in a small South American country. I have 900 songs on my i-pod, but thousands of random lyrics stored in my head.

As for Christian, he was found Friday, after five days, naked in Topanga Creek, washing out his pants. Hungry. Still ranting about the Nigerian Internet Scam artists. He’s currently undergoing psychiatric evaluation, but then, who isn’t? It was not reported whether he was singing Rogers & Hammerstein when he was found.

In any case, Christian, glad you’re okay. And for what it’s worth, I buy your story hook, line and sinker.

Have a good week.

Harley

August 28, 2005

What's Up In Lipstick Land

Pengirl_1 What's Up in Lipstick Land

Just a quickie update on this Sunday before Bouchercon, where two of the Book Tarts will be making an appearance on the "Homicide in High Heels" panel at 1 p.m. on Thursday, September 1.  Harley and Susan are also up for Anthony Awards for Best First Mystery and Best Paperback Original, respectively, so we hope the Tart mojo is goin' in Chicago.  Needless to say, both are happy just to be nominated.  (Really, they are.)

Other developments in Lipstick Land:

  • Harley's second book, DATING IS MURDER, has been nominated for Best Mystery by the Southern California Booksellers Association.  You go, girl!
  • An interesting follow-up to Susan's "Looking for Mr. Maybe" column...she's been selected as one of the "top 20 singles in St. Louis" by glossy St. Louis Magazine!  She promises to tell all when the parties start up this November and the special issue hits the racks.
  • Sarah's gearing up for a tour for her juicy stand-alone, THE SECRET LIVES OF FORTUNATE WIVES, hitting stores after Labor Day.  Never too early to reserve a copy, we say!
  • Nancy's working on an outline for Book Six in her Blackbird Sisters series while battling a bad back.  She just recovered from a broken toe and finally got back on the treadmill, and now this.  Yeesh.  Can someone get a shaman to do a "get well" dance directed at Pittsburgh?

Hope all our readers in New Orleans are headed toward higher ground.  To our friends in Florida, are y'all okay out there?  Like Rosanne Rosannadanna used to say, "It's always something."

August 27, 2005

Interview with the Vampire Buyer,

An Interview with Sue Grimshaw               Go to fullsize image

Fans of the erotic vampire murder mystery—and many other permutations of genre fiction--owe a big thank-you to Sue Grimshaw for their success.  As the Waldenbooks expert on all things romantic—she’s been their national romance genre buyer for a number of years and has put millions of copies of books into stores nationwide--Sue knows a thing or two about the book-buying public. Plus she’s a really nice person and a terrific panelist at a conference, so even though the Book Tarts write in another genre, we hope a few of her customers will stroll over to the Mystery aisle once in a while to check us out.  So we asked Sue a few questions about her job and the readers she works so hard to please.

TLC:  We can’t help noticing that romance authors get a lot of grief for writing entertaining fluff. You've been a top romance buyer for years and very in-tune with what's going on in that genre.  What do you feel are the most significant changes in the romance industry the past few years?   

Sue: The best thing about romance is that it is always changing.  Our readers keep us on our toes always wanting something new & different to read.   I think the most significant change is acceptance of the stronger, more aggressive heroine.  Heroines today are not going to let anyone control them…at least, not unless they want to be controlled. 

TLC:  Well, now!  We’re not going to touch that line.  Where do you see the romance genre going in the near future?

Sue: Paranormal continues to be the most popular sub-genre within Romance today.  Authors are delivering exactly what the reader is looking for and seem to be making a conscious effort to keep their stories fresh & different from everyone else's.  Paranormal enables the heroine to be even stronger than that of other sub-genres within romance, and the men they love are sexier.  Some authors are combining paranormal elements in their historicals or contemporaries which also appeals to our readers. 

Erotic romances continue to build their reader base as well.  Ellora's Cave  http://www.ellorascave.com/ and New Concept books are examples of what is selling in this sub-genre.

TLC: Yes, we’ve noticed things have gotten pretty steamy over there in the Romance aisle.  Is there a limit to how erotic a traditionally published novel can be and still be sold in Waldenbooks and Borders?   

Sue: Erotic Romance & Erotic novels are two different categories in our stores.  Erotic Romance, or Romantica, is primarily geared to the Romance reader, just spiced up a bit, merchandised in the Romance section.  Erotic novels are sold in our General Fiction area and bought by another buyer, so I am not knowledgeable of any restrictions they may have.

TLC: No restrictions, huh?  We may have to check this out.  Promotion is a big issue among mystery authors. In your view, what do booksellers really want from authors in the terms of PR? 

Sue: For the most part, anyone who becomes a bookseller does so because they love books.  Booksellers love to read them, talk about them & sell them. The feedback we get from stores is very positive regarding author visits.  If an author has the time to sign stock, drop off a bookmark reminding booksellers of their new releases, etc, it is always well received.

TLC:  What do readers respond to in the way of promotion?

Sue: Based on our readers click thru response on BGI's electronic newsletters (www.waldenbooksstores.com and www.borderstores.com) we see tremendous interest in our author letters that are written exclusively for BGI. Not only are readers looking for a terrific story but they want to know more about who writes them as well! Romance readers seem to frequent author websites, so if you don't have one you may want to get one.

TLC:  "Chick lit mystery" writers like the Book Tarts are interested in reaching romance readers, but we find that difficult when our books are strictly relegated to the mystery aisles of bookstores. Any thoughts?

Sue:  Books are shelved based on the primary theme of the book, and there are always gray areas or books that could be shelved in a couple of different places.  There are various ways to get those 'cross over' books highlighted to the romance readers, so make sure you are working with your publishers to pursue those programs.  For example, I mentioned our electronic newsletters earlier which could easily include your title to be highlighted to our romance reader.  Your publishers are familiar with each promotional option available at every retailer so they would be able to give you suggestions of how to cross promote your books.

TLC:  You seem like a sensible adult with a busy career, Sue. What do you read in your spare time? 

Sue:  I read Romance!  Really -- I love it! I prefer historical romances, however, I have been reading more of the paranormal of which I am enjoying as well.

Thanks, Sue.  We’ve noticed that romance readers are among the most open-minded consumers around.  They seem willing to try anything.  In books, that is. We’re thinking it’s about time fans of other genres take a look around the romance aisle again.  Things are definitely changing!

August 26, 2005

Bothered By the Big Box?

New York Times bestselling author Carla Neggers is lightly grilled about her career, her readers and her surprising opinion of the “big box” stores.

Nancy:  Hey, hotcakes, thanks for joining us here on The Lipstick Chronicles. There’s a lot of talk going on right now about writers trying to cross the genre lines. But you’ve been doing it for a long time.  Can you describe how you blend genre elements to write books like DARK SKY, your July release from Mira? 

Carla: On the one hand, a book that crosses genre lines risks being neither "fish nor fowl" -- the story doesn't quite work because it's not anchored in a genre, or publishers don't know what to do with it because it's a hybrid, or readers don't respond because they want "more" of one genre or another. More romance, more suspense, more mystery. Whatever.

On the other hand -- when it works, it's often a book that's exciting, fresh and "breaks free of the pack," as Donald Maass (WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL) might say. These days I don't think so much in terms of crossing genre lines but simply of writing the story that's in my head as best I can. I've always been drawn to stories with strong relationships and a lot of action and suspense. So...that's what I write. Then I let my agent and publisher figure out how to package it so that readers who might like the story can find it.


Nancy: What’s the reader reaction to your books?

Carla: Readers tell me they like strong relationships and characterization *and* action and suspense. They also like having recurring characters. My books are "stand alone" stories -- you don't have to read them in order to know what's going on -- but characters from previous books will often turn up. DARK SKY is a bit different for me because Juliet Longstreet and Ethan Brooker are secondary characters in two previous books, NIGHT'S LANDING and THE RAPIDS. In DARK SKY, they get their own story. In my next book, BREAKWATER (February '06), the two major characters are brand-new...but characters from previous books turn up as secondary characters.

The book I'm working on now, THE WIDOW, will be my first hardcover -- it's scheduled for next fall. The story's not related to any of my previous connected books. But, once again, it's got that mix of romance and suspense. I haven't abandoned my other characters...I'm hoping to continue with them in mass market paperback originals. I love to hear from readers -- they're a diverse group, from teenagers studying for their SATs to retired teachers.


Nancy:  This summer, there’s been a lot of name-calling among reviewers and touchy writers. You’re just back from a long book tour where you met lots of readers.  What’s the mood out there among book consumers?

Carla: Very few readers I met on my adventures this summer paid any attention to reviews or bestseller lists. The readers who didn't know me first responded to the cover --- did it look like a book they'd want to read? Then they'd read the back cover copy. Very seldom did they read the first page or anything like that, maybe because I was sitting there! When I asked people what they like to read, the overwhelming answer was, "Everything." People aren't as tied to genre as they are just looking for a good story that keeps their attention.


Nancy: You’ve never limited yourself to selling books in traditional, chain bookstores, and your sales in the Big Box stores like  Wal-Mart and Costco are incredibly good.  Most writers think those Big Boxes are the devil.  What’s your take?

Carla: I just finished a weekend bus tour with 14 other authors of seven Wal-Marts in and around Columbus, Ohio. We spent 90 minutes at each store meeting readers, signing books, talking books. Yes, it's a different atmosphere from a bookstore. People were running their weekend errands. We saw lots of carts loaded with groceries and sundries! In that kind of environment, not everyone is a reader, and even readers aren't necessarily there primarily to buy books. It was a great opportunity not only to introduce ourselves and our books but to promote reading. We were a diverse group -- romantic suspense, thriller, vampire/fantasy, paranormal, historical romance, chick-lit, inspirational, non-fiction health. I think that diversity showed shoppers, especially the non-readers, that there just might be a book out there for them.

To me, the "big box" stores are all important outlets for books, reaching busy readers and reminding non-readers that books are worth a corner of these stores. They aren't bookstores, obviously. Space is limited. Some stores have bigger book departments than other stores, and so book-buyers have to be efficient and smart about what books they order. If they don't make books available that shoppers will buy -- then that space will go for something else. I see no benefit to writers if that happens, only a tremendous loss.

One thing I learned on this recent bus tour is just how much effort goes into deciding the right mix of books for each store. It's not as "cookie-cutter" a process as a lot of authors assume. Sure, there are bestsellers that appear in just about every store, and the books tend to be front-list oriented...but it's just not that simple. Not every store will do well with every genre --- book-buyers have to figure out what will sell best in which stores, especially given the limited space. Plus, they've got to keep that space fresh, a daunting task when you think about it. I'm no expert in any of this, by any means, but I came away from my Wal-Mart tour with a new respect for the role the "big box" stores play in keeping books a vital part of American life. Then there's the hard work so many people out there do to get books -- whether mine or someone else's -- in front of consumers...every writer should go down to their local "big box" stores and see what goes into keeping even a four-foot book section stocked and fresh.

When my local gas station discontinued its little spin-rack of books, I mourned. I love bookstores, but I want to see books being sold *everywhere*!

Nancy:  We can’t help noticing you’re developing a reputation for hands-on research. What’s up with that, girl?

Carla: For my DARK SKY tour, my publicist used my penchant for hands-on research as an angle for media pitches. I hadn't really noticed, but I've been letting my characters inspire me to try new things. When I was researching COLD RIDGE, I ended up deciding to become a "4000-footer" by climbing all 48 peaks in the New Hampshire White Mountains over 4000 feet,  Image Preview   a more daunting task than it might sound to people out west because here in New England, the treeline is usually at about 4500 feet. I'll be at it for years. Then I decided I needed to learn to shoot. I took lessons from an instructor who teaches New York State police recruits -- I learned so much from him! (It didn't hurt that he wore a brown leather jacket and a little gold earring.) For DARK SKY, I took up karate. I was checking out a local dojo to get a better feel for martial arts, and I signed up. I might be a white belt forever at the rate I'm going, but I'm having a great time. It's so easy to get into a rut with work, kids...life. Trying new things takes time and effort, but it's been worth it, not just in terms of my writing but my life in general. One thing I won't do, though -- jump out of a perfectly good plane. ;-)

Nancy:  Y’know, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear you say something entirely different in five years.  When the time comes, just double-check your parachute, promise?  Go to fullsize image

Check out Carla’s website (and her blog!) at www.carlaneggers.com 

Tomorrow, the Book Tarts welcome Sue Grimshaw, the national buyer for romance for Waldenbooks who talks about just how far readers wish writers would stretch their boundaries.  Click back!

August 25, 2005

Fairy Wings & Combat Boots

The Book Tarts bonded like survivors of a natural disaster at The Book Convention That Will Remain Nameless last spring. The events of that particular convention seemed so—okay, I must tell the truth—downright bizarre to us, that we huddled together in the hotel lobby one afternoon, stunned by the mayhem, yet nervously intrigued by what we saw around us. For writers who are more accustomed to the gentility of mystery conventions like Malice Domestic, this was like landing in the middle of a bloodless coup in an emerging nation where the pursuit of happiness came first, no doubt about it.

Let me set the scene for you:  Half the women who passed through that lobby were wearing fairy wings, combat boots and décolletage that would put Anna Nicole to shame.  Go to fullsize image  Studded dog collars and vampire bites were visible on many a milky neck. A few costumes leaned toward harems duds, and I’m not talking I Dream of Jeannie Let’s Cover Up Your Belly Button, Dear, but actually included chains. Eek! The rest of the attendees were suspiciously normal-looking citizens who pulled rolling suitcases stuffed with … books. 

Turned out, the costumed ones were dressing up as their favorite fictional characters. 

The men on site were mainly male models (very, uh, affectionate with each other) who were paid to shave and moisturize their entire bodies (oh, what bodies!) and dress (so to speak) as bold men from science fiction, fantasy, romance and erotic novels.

Besides the ongoing costume party, the weekend was much, much more than a standard writers conference/book convention. For example: Seasoned professionals sat on panels to seriously discuss everything from the sexual dynamics of the man-woman-man ménage to the ancient beginnings of vampire myth and anything—trust me, anything!--in between. A bus decorated on the outside with the giant, naked torso of an amazing man sat parked in front of the hotel for four days.  Women lined up to get inside where a brisk business was done in something I was too faint of heart to investigate.  For my like-minded friends, however, there were plenty of chocolate desserts to keep us satisfied while we talked about—yep, books.

A bizarre weekend, yes indeed, especially for those of us who write murder mysteries and are much more accustomed to afternoon teas featuring garden hats, not cocktails with men in loincloths. Once we got past the wild & crazy visuals, the biggest thing we couldn’t help noticing was that everyone was having fun.  A hell of a lot of fun.    People traveled from Australia to get in on the good times.  Carloads of women drove two days to reach the party—er, convention. And nobody, but nobody complained about a blessed thing, which is astonishing if you’ve ever attended so much as a Mary Kay meeting at the local Holiday Inn. These folks were having way too much fun to fuss.

Have I mentioned yet that this event was attended by over a thousand people?

Or that a gazillion books were sold that weekend? To readers who buy tons of books every year.

For better or for worse, those particular readers did not seem to be rushing to the hotel lobby on Sunday morning to buy the New York Times Book Review for advice on what they ought to purchase for their reading pleasure. 

They were relying on each other.  Word of mouth.  Maybe the occasional review in a magazine to which they all subscribed, but mostly each other. And what did they want?  More, more more!  More books! All kinds of books!  They didn’t care if the word “mystery” or “suspense” or “romance” or “erotica” or “thriller” was printed on the spine of a paperback.  If somebody else mentioned it was a good read, they grabbed it.  I’ve never known readers to be so open to trying other genres than this crowd.

These are the readers who buy books by the thousands in grocery stores, drug stores and especially those dreaded big box stores all over the country.  They don’t care what Marilyn Stasio thinks—probably never heard of her—because they’re too busy reading, thank you very much.

Writers like the Book Tarts who have finished books lately and ventured away from our desks to tour a bit, have met a lot of these open-minded readers.  Sometimes we talk to them in bookstores.  Or at libraries. Sometimes at book clubs to which we’ve been invited. In online chatrooms. Via email they send to us.  And we meet them at conventions where they pull those suitcases full of books—our books.

What a treat to meet these readers. It’s no wonder writers spend weeks on the road, trusting Mapquest to get us to the next Barnes & Noble on time, eating the never-ending room service club sandwiches, relying on pals to supply contact lens cases when we leave our half our luggage behind (thanks, Sarah!) and sleeping on mattresses that truly belong in dumpsters, not under mildewed bedspreads in extremely pricey hotels that ought to scrub their upholstery once in a while.  We want to get to know these women. Sometimes after bookstore events, we go out with them to TGI Friday’s for screaming orgasms Go to fullsize image  (hey, Janine, aren’t you the designated driver??) just to get to hear about their lives and the books they’re reading these days.  That kind of evening is one of the big rewards of being a writer.

These are the women I write for. I’m one of those writers who doesn’t really write for myself, I write for my readers. I think about them all the time. They’re women all over America (and now Iraq) who love all kinds of books.  They’re the ones I’m honored to entertain—maybe even more so because they’ve got the guts to climb into the minivan with a bunch of girlfriends and drive 600 miles for the fun of wearing torn fishnets and combat boots at a convention.

They are a tough audience, believe me, because they can spot a phony or recognize a cliché coming a mile away. They have encyclopedic knowledge of plot points, character names and historical detail. They want to be surprised, entertained, grossed-out, turned-on, or emotionally wrung out like dishrags—sometimes all at once. These are the girls who can damage the drywall when they throw a stupid book across the room. Sure, they enjoy stories that are perceived as “slim,” to use Marilyn’s word so full of smug, implied disapproval, but they recognize and savor every new idea, layer and nuance that makes good women’s fiction so appealing because they get it.  They know the stories are about them, deep down, and they want more.

To celebrate those readers, we Book Tarts are taking a couple of days to interview some people we think are reader-friendly as well as influential in the industry.  On Saturday, we’ll hear from Sue Grimshaw, the national romance buyer for Waldenbooks, who will tell us what she knows about the cross-genre taste of readers she’s determined to keep happy. 

But first up is New York Times bestselling romantic suspense novelist Carla Neggers.

I met Carla back in the early 1980s when we got started selling books.  Since then, we've watched each other's children grow up, hung out at conferences, spent hours on the phone together and cheered each other's successes from afar.  Carla has driven me all over the most scenic parts of New England where she lives, and she spent a few lazy summer afternoons floating in my swimming pool here in Pennsylvania.  She writes fast-paced romantic suspense novels, has hit quite a few bestseller lists and is one of the best workshop speakers I've ever heard.  Her most recent title, DARK SKY, published in July by Mira, was #22, #25, #25 and #25 on the New York Times Extended list for the last 4 weeks running, and has so far hit #35 on the USA Today Top 150.  It’s also spent 4 weeks on both the Waldenbooks mass market and romance bestseller lists. If those stats don’t impress you, you’re a jaded SOB. Tomorrow, Carla will tell us about crossing the genre lines, touring big box stores with a busload of authors and maybe share a few secrets of her success.

If you want to read up about Carla before tomorrow’s interview, check out her website: http://www.carlaneggers.com/

Interested in attending the next booklovers convention? Hey, the Book Tarts wouldn’t miss it for all the combat boots in the world! http://www.rtconvention.com/

Nancy

August 24, 2005

The Unbearable Lightness of Femme Fic

THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF FEMME FIC

Or, The Definitive Interview on the Theoretical and Certainly Global Impact of Candy-Coated Books on the Future of Mankind and Possibly World Peace

© The Hoity-Toity Annual of Highbrow Literature, "Beating A Dead Horse" Edition

by Fiona Uber-Crock Kelly, PhD, Professor of Truly Important Belle Lettres, and Notary Public

Interview Subjects:

Delfina Dogood, nom de plume for a Pulitzer Prize winning economist and author of THE ARCHBISHOP WEARS FENDI

Brad Weston Trellis, former literary phenom and author of ARMANIAN PSYCHO

Lisa Marie Prescott, newly-published author of The Memphis Deb Detective Series, BLUE SUEDE CHOOS

Fiona: Thank you all for agreeing to speak to me about this incredibly controversial subject. Forget all the heavy stuff going on in the world today, we need to get to the nitty gritty of what truly matters, at least in our narrow-minded literary spectrum. And that’s the highly confrontational issue of chick lit books and how many ways we can dissect them. Rather like getting to the center of a Tootsie Pop. What’s really in there? Is it chocolate? Is it candy?

Delfina: I couldn’t agree with you more, Fiona. It’s a heady matter that demands microscopic attention, particularly when critics think that anything with a pink cover is pure trash. We must change that ill-advised way of thinking. It’s beyond anti-feminist. It’s anti-pastel. I’ll bet you didn’t know that WAR AND PEACE was first issued with a lavender binding. I believe it was even scented.

Brad: You’re making that up, Delfina. Don’t try to hide behind this "Jane Austen wrote chick lit" defense, because it’s just effing rubbish. Reviewers don’t like chick lit because it sinks to such plebian levels, dealing in humor, women’s lives and relationships, the most seminal elements of existence, rather than exalting in sadistic and gratuitous violence. You must shock people, or your words mean nothing!

Fiona: Very Important Literature does always seem to contain scenes of violence. There’s something about a man wielding a gun or sword that screams "phallic symbol" to me, and I always take it very seriously.

Brad: The best thing is that it doesn’t even matter what the story is, you know. So long as it speaks to the barbarians in us, it’s a book worth promoting as a serious title. The bleaker the covers the better, and even a lack of punctuation adds cachet. Look at Rushdie and his SATANIC VERSES. Does anyone even know what it said? Did anyone ever read that thing? Doesn’t matter. Putting "satan" in the title totally commands respect, and, besides, the cover was red.

Lisa Marie: My husband bought a copy of SATANIC VERSES because his book club pressured him, and we ended up using it to prop open the window in our study. Doesn't anyone here think books should be fun? And what's wrong with pink? Is it a backlash against Barbara Cartland? She seemed really nice.

Fiona: My problem with these so-called chick lit novels is that they're so fixated on fashion, and not merely as commentary on the rigid social strata that prevails in our money-motivated Western culture. Instead, their characters wear couture or quasi-couture as clothing, which renders everything else in the books meaningless.

Brad: I have to agree with you there, Fee. When I dress my suave urban psychotic in Armani, it’s not because he’s preoccupied with his image. It’s because it’s what he perceives the women he intends to pick up and torture in his subterranean S&M chamber would prefer to see him wearing. It’s a statement, not a dress code.

Delfina: I take offense at the accusation that a character wearing couture obliterates any meaning in my novels. For God’s sake, I have the Archbishop wearing specially designed garments by Fendi, while his niece runs a struggling orchid farm in Costa Rica. It wouldn’t have the same impact if the Archbishop shopped at, say, Wal-Mart and wore something from the Jaclyn Smith collection. He brings a renewed faith into Trinabelle’s life, not simply because he’s a religious man, but because he knows and understands fine fabrics and the effects of exquisite tailoring on a portly form.

Lisa Marie: I must say, I never thought about clothes on so many levels. I always figured that appearance spoke about a particular character. I didn’t realize the role it had in determining whether something was literature or not.

Fiona: What a charmingly naive concept, Lisa Marie. I suppose you think Harlequin romances define romantic truths, too?

Lisa Marie: Maybe the same way that Brad’s books define macho truths.

Brad: Are you comparing my books to Harlequins? Fee, she's insulting me.

Fiona: Let’s get back on track, shall we? We’re talking about the obsession in our reading culture with novels that purely provide entertainment, like these chick lit books do. It doesn’t seem right, does it? Truly Important Literature has context and subcontext and sub-subcontext that we must struggle to interpret, and this so-called women’s fiction laced with wit and clever lines seems mostly meant to encourage readers to devour the pages, rather than savoring them. What does it mean, reading a book in several hours? Not being able to put it down? I doubt anyone ever told James Joyce, "I stayed up all night because I simply had to find out how ULYSSES ended."

Brad: Precisely, Fiona! Truly Important Books are ones that can be put down and often go unfinished because readers are so dazed by the confusing maze of meaning that they just can’t digest it all in one sitting. Writing a novel that can’t be read is far superior to writing drivel that consumers gorge on like potato chips. It’s the intent to impress that matters, not the story.

Delfina: Hold on a minute, cowboy. I won a Pulitzer Prize for my study of economic theory, and I only sold twelve copies, mostly to family members...okay, and one to Alan Greenspan. THE ARCHBISHOP WEARS FENDI has sold half a million copies, and Ron Howard is making it into a movie with Reese Witherspoon. How many copies of your PSYCHO book would be on the remainder rack at Borders, Brad, if your publisher hadn’t made a stink about wanting their money back because your editor couldn’t get through the manuscript without vomiting and taking incessant showers?

Brad: Make her stop, Fee. Aggressive women scare me.

Lisa Marie: My husband bought a copy of Brad’s book, and he used it to prop up the dining room table. Neither of us could get past the first bloody page. But I loved your novel, Delfina. Read it on the plane to Disneyworld, and I laughed all the way to Orlando.

Delfina: Thanks, hon. Disney’s producing the movie, and they’re doing the merchandising, too. Little Archbishops in Fendi-inspired robes. Every kid’s gonna want one.

Fiona: Crass commercialism, don’t you think? No one makes dolls out of characters in Very Important Literature.

Brad: I like to pull the heads off Barbies.

Fiona: Well, let’s wrap this up, shall we? I think we all learned something from this roundtable discussion. Chick lit fiction has so many detrimental qualities that Very Important Literature thankfully does not: the pastel covers, the quirky titles, the relatable stories about women and their lives, the frightening ability to get consumers to pick up the books and buy them in mass quantities. Frankly, it all scares me as much as Delfina scares you, Brad. Give me the incomprehensible any day, and I will review it with passion, even if I don’t understand a word. So long as the cover is not pink. Magenta, perhaps. But only if I’ve had my Prozac.

[Disclaimer: This bit o' Wednesday morning satire is solely the responsibility of Susan McB, lately the crabbiest Book Tart, due to technical difficulties with her effing computer, now thankfully resolved.]

August 23, 2005

My Four Little Magic Words

  Turkey Last week my husband Charlie got the bright idea to invite half the East Coast and large areas of the Midwest to Thanksgiving this year. Granted, we love throwing big Thanksgivings. Small ones depress us, especially if part of the day can't be spent in the garage. That's where Charlie smoked a turkey last year while polishing the silver and entertaining the miscreants in my family who smoked other stuff. The rain was non stop so the door had to be closed, partially. That they did not all die of carbon monoxide poisoning, that our marriage lasted after my prudent oven roasted turkey beat his in the race toward disease-free core temperature, are minor miracles that lead me to believe there is, indeed, a higher power.

But this year we - meaning Charlie - may have gone over the top. It's easy to do when families are New_cletus involved. If you are inviting Aunt Edna and Uncle Edwin, there is a safe bet that Edwin will invite his cousin Earl and sixteen illegitimate children because Uncle Edwin has always celebrated Thanksgiving with Earl and his sixteen illegitimate children. Not that we have any of those in our extended family. At least none who have come forward demanding money.

I could have panicked, sure. I could have pitched a hissy fit or stomped around the house, but I'm on a new program these days. It's called Why the Hell Not? and though not scientifically established, preliminary results suggest that this approach holds potential for keeping me sane.

I picked up Why the Hell Not? from my mother who got it from the Other Side. I don't know if you've ever hung around people who are dying, but as they slip from this world to the next they kind of check in and out. And one day, after a period of lying in her hospital bed and not "being with us," she woke up and had this new attitude. Why the Hell Not? Followed by a shrug. Left shoulder since the right was paralyzed.

Want some more morphine? Why the Hell Not? Want another pillow? Why the Hell Not? Want to blow this Earthly plane and see what's going on in the next one? Well, you get my point.

You have to understand this was quite a change as my mother grew up in a German household that Nazi_germany_1 cherished order, cleanliness, abstinence and, most of all, the word NO. I relate since I grew up in a German town where, if I'm not mistaken, the local motto was No You Can't So Don't Bother And Who Do You Think You Are To Try, Anyway? Even today, after living seventeen years with Mr. Yes!, "No" is my automatic reply to anything requested of me. Can I have a popsicle? No. Can I go brush my teeth? No. It's freaky. Convenient. But freaky.

It's taken me a long time to get to Why the Hell Not? And I'm not sure my timing is ideal, seeing as how I have a teenage daughter, but that's not stopping me. Why the Hell Not? It's a no fail policy if not used recklessly. For example, Why the Hell Not? is not what you want to be murmuring when looking down the barrel of a loaded .306 at the boyfriend who just cheated on you. Or getting behind the wheel after attending a martini party. I don't have to tell you. You're grownups. We can talk frankly, no?

What I'm here to tell you is that Why the Hell Not? is the ultimate response to the demons inside your head who taunt that you can't write worth beans (oh, such clean language) or that you don't deserve success. Why the Hell Not? Yeah. That's right. Why the Hell Not? I can do it just as well as anyone else.

The thing about being published or trying to get published or just submitting your words and having someone read them is that unless you are a total egomaniac or Nicholas Sparks - a random example, I'm not judging - it is so easy to be defeated. The words you've written from the heart can on paper look silly or stupid or, worse, flat. You start thinking that no rational stranger would pay to read them and then you worry that there'll be no follow up contract or, perhaps, no contract to begin with, which is when the panic sets in soon to be followed by depression and failure and a bunch of icky stuff.

And all along, all you had to say was, can I be a great writer? Why the Hell Not?

Also Imagine applying this to the rest of your life. Do your kids want to have a friend over for dinner? Why the Hell Not? Does your neighbor want to borrow a power tool? Does your husband want to have sex even though you're totally exhausted? Why the Hell Not? (Just make sure you're not so exhausted that you have sex with the neighbor instead - as this could lead to the request for more power tools.)

Why the Hell Not? works because words are magic. Without getting sappy here, let me remind you that words can conjure whole worlds, make people cry or laugh or dance or pound the table in rage. They can spark revolutions, destroy kingdoms and uplift peasants. Words are more effective than a love potion and deadlier than poison. Ask Shakespeare.

So, tell me, what makes Why the Hell Not? any less cosmic?

I know I'm not alone in my belief of magical mental mantras and I'm open to more suggestions. We want to hear yours, no matter how silly or stupid or private. And, while you're at it, how about a few Thanksgiving recipes, too. I got 38 coming for dinner - and that doesn't include the vegans.

Sarah

August 22, 2005

Just When You Thought it Was Safe to Go Back in the Water

I just got back from vacation, so bear with me. My brains are still packed in the other suitcase, the one with the floaties and water shoes and swim diapers.

It was a lovely vacation and I just have a few things to say. First of all, am I the very last person on the planet to discover what happens when you put regular dishwashing liquid, like Palmolive, into a dishwasher? Where was I the day they announced you must NEVER DO THIS? Anyhow, there’s a cottage somewhere in the Pacific Northwest with a very clean kitchen floor.

Secondly, speaking of water everywhere, and this will be of no interest to anyone who doesn’t have small children, but what’s with so-called “permanent swim diapers”? In Sunriver, Oregon, an otherwise pleasant little corner of the earth, I was told my children wouldn’t be allowed in the baby pool with normal disposable swim diapers, but had to have special permanent swim diapers (conveniently sold onsite) because regular swim diapers cannot coexist with the chlorine in their pool. Okay, maybe Oregon chlorine is different from California chlorine. Whatever. Fine. God knows, it’s plenty scary when a regular Huggies diaper gets waterlogged. So I forked over eight bucks, undressed my children, traded their snug -fitting Disney princess swim diapers (there was no male equivalent in the country store, but my son is okay with cross-dressing) for these puffy, starched, bloomer-type affairs, put their swimsuits back on, then watched as water (well, bodily fluid) veritably flowed out of my youngest daughter onto the sidewalk next to the pool some 90 seconds later.

“Mommy, what happened?” she asked, confused.

“Mommy just wasted eight dollars on a Bad Product,” I told her.

But rules are rules, so off they went, in their defective diapers, into a baby pool inhabited by two dozen other tiny swimmers wearing the same defective diapers that do not absorb or contain that which they are supposed to absorb and contain. Gosh, I’m sure glad they have that rule about everybody showering before they enter the pool, because Lord knows we wouldn’t want unwashed people getting into that pristine water. . . okay, never mind. Given my husband’s taste in exotic vacations, next summer, when we’re all toilet trained, we’ll be swimming in the Ganges River.

By the way, I’d like to take this opportunity to announce that I never shower before entering a pool. No matter how many signs are posted. There. I said it. Issue a warrant for my arrest.

One other thing, off topic—wait, there’s no topic. Okay. A few months back, I was in the St. Louis airport for the first time, and I saw this guy walking along and I thought, “that looks like my brother-in-law, Andy Goodman” and he kept walking and as he got closer, he kept looking more and more like my brother-in-law, Andy Goodman, until finally he WAS my brother-in-law, Andy Goodman, who lives in Des Moines, not St. Louis. (Nancy Martin and Susan McBride witnessed this meaningful coincidence.)

So anyway, it happened again in The Middle of Nowhere, Oregon, at a rest stop. A guy jumped out of a car as I was emptying some garbage, and he looked exactly like my brother-in-law, Andy Goodman.  And once again, it turned out to be my brother-in-law Andy Goodman. Who had no business being at that rest stop, except that he was, of course, headed for the same family reunion I was, but coming from Iowa, not California, and that rest stop was still fifty or sixty miles from our final destination.

Perhaps you’re waiting for me to tie this all together. It’s not going to happen. That, unfortunately, is the part of my brain that’s in the suitcase with the floaties. The Thematic Unity section of the cerebrum.

But one other thing that relates to my brother-in-law Andy Goodman, that I’ve been wondering about.  I was talking to him on my cell phone one day while pumping gas on Pacific Coast Highway and he said, “What are you doing?” and I said, “pumping gas” and he yelled, “Hang up! You can cause an explosion!”

Naturally, I hung up. Andy Goodman’s been my brother-in-law since I was fourteen, which gives him a certain credibility. But it’s been two years since I’ve talked on a cell phone while filling up and in that time, how many CNN reports have I seen on people blowing themselves up at the gas pump?
Zero. Which means that either I keep missing the news when it happens, or that I was the last person to get the word on cell phones, just like I was the last person to hear about no regular dishwashing soap in dishwashers, and that the whole problem has been eradicated.

It’s also possible that my other brother-in-law, Andy Coen, is right, and that Iowa is an acronym for Idiots Out Walking Around. If that’s the case, if Andy Goodman and I are the victims of a cruel hoax, can someone please enlighten us?

Meanwhile, it’s good to be home. Excuse me while I go launder some swimsuits.

Happy Monday . . .
Harley