The Enduring Allure of the City of Light

People around the world were stunned and saddened as photographs of the partial destruction of the cathedral of Notre Dame, that icon of Paris, burned. (See how laser point clouds of gothic cathedrals, which may help in reconstruction, are created.) Paris, its landmarks, its street scenes, and its culture have inspired classic literature from the popular works of Dickens and Victor Hugo (for whom Notre Dame plays a starring role) to the American expats in the 1920s to Anthony Doerr.

Crime writers too have found it a congenial home, not because crime happens there as it does elsewhere, but because to set a crime novel in Paris is to establish a contrast, a friction between the sordidness of deeds and the beauty of the setting, even as it may live only in the reader’s imagination.

The Sûreté was quick to adopt some of the early criminal detection measures developed in France, too: Alphonse Bertillon’s system of identifying criminals through body measurements—a forerunner of today’s biometric identification—and the 1863 discovery by Paul-Jean Coulier of the means to reveal fingerprints on paper, roots from which sprang stories of very French detectives, most  notably Georges Simenon’s Jules Maigret.

The attraction continues. Here are four crime novels from the last year with significant Paris roots.

****The Long Road from Paris by Kirby Williams – In the late 1930s, a New Orleans octoroon jazz prodigy is making a success of his nightclub with the help of his Jewish girlfriend. Then the fascists appear. 

****A Long Night in Paris by Dov Alfon – an Israeli mistakenly murdered at Charles de Gaulle airport triggers a desperate investigation in Paris and Israel to find the real target.

*****Paris in the Present Tense by Mark Helprin – A gentlemanly aging cellist plunges well outside his comfort zone to help the people he loves.

****Number 7, Rue Jacob – by Wendy Hornsby – A Parisian couple is pursued around Europe in a deadly game, as shadowy persons ask cell phone users to “find them,” then “stop them.”

Painless Public Readings

microphone

If you write, you may receive invitations to read from your work to a book group, at a public reading, or for a bookstore event. It’s a chance to connect with an audience, to find places in your work that still need work, and to build fans. But writing doesn’t prepare you for reading.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Sympathizer, has written a spot-on essay for lithub on “how not to bore your audience at a reading.”

Before I give you Nguyen’s tips, here’s an important one from Walter Moseley. He told an audience at Princeton last year that “the longer I read, the fewer books I sell.” Author venues like Noir at the Bar, Mystery Writers of America, and my own Princeton-based writers group limit authors to 10 to 12 minutes. A taste and a tease. Nguyen’s tips and a couple of my own:

1. A reading is a performance. Writing is storytelling and good storytellers put some pizzazz into their reading. Your audience wants to be moved by your words and how you share them. He recommends listening to skilled readers, like author T.C.Boyle (here reading from his The Harder They Come, starting 7:50 in).

2. Create a script, rather than simply reading from your book. With a script, you can enlarge the type (I use really big type—18 to 20 points), so you don’t have to bury your head in the pages, and you can see the words easily even if the lectern is poorly lit, a lesson learned the hard way. Mark your script with underlinings and squiggly lines where you want to speed up, slow down, get louder, pause. Number the pages. Circle words you trip over in rehearsing. You may trip over them again. Authors with younger eyes tend to read from their tablet or cell phone, but paper never has a low battery.

3. “Practice, practice, practice,” Nguyen says. And time yourself. Cut out a paragraph here or there if, at the twelve-minute mark, you want to reach a particular point. A description that seems slow to you as a reader, probably is.

4. Make eye contact with your audience. Repeatedly. Those rehearsals you did will let you take your eyes off the page for longer too.

5. Be aware of how close to the mike you need to be and cement yourself  there. A little movement  is fine, especially with the arms, but avoid weaving back and forth, shifting your weight from one foot to the other in a seasickness-inducing way. Plant your feet and keep them planted.

6. How you look is important. “Dress up, whatever that means to you,” he says. It shows you are rising to the occasion. If certain colors or outfits perk you up and you feel good wearing them, choose one of those.

7. Bring energy into the room. “Your energy level will be the room’s energy level, which comedians understand,” Nguyen says.Here’s the bottom line: Once you’re on stage, you’re a performer. “You are putting on a show, whether it is for five people or fifty or five hundred. That’s what people have come for. If they just want to read your words, they can do it at home. Respect their time.” Don’t be boring. And if you’re really prepared, you won’t be.

And see advice from Jane Friedman‘s blog: “How to Plan a Book Reading that Wows Your Audience”!

Photo: Pete on Flickr, creative commons license.

What Did You Think of My Book?

key, Pezibear from Pixabay

Getting reviewers and readers to talk about your new book provides peer-to-peer validation of your work and is key to promoting sales,. These days, “no one will buy a book with zero social validation,” says Jordan Ring at Archangel Ink, who prepared the online guide, “How to Get Book Reviews: The Ultimate Manifesto.”

Reviews work to your advantage in several additional ways in the Amazon ecosystem. The more consumer reviews you have, the higher your conversion rate from Amazon page visits to sales. Having reviews (especially verified reviews) will boost your book in Amazon’s search algorithms. Yet, Ring says, “most books on Amazon struggle to get even fifty reviews.” Around the time of publication, unverified reviews—those coming from people who’ve obtained your book from somewhere other than Amazon, say, as advance review copies—help jump-start the process.

The Strategies

Although Ring provides a lot of detail on how to implement these strategies, and writes in that breezy and grating you-can-do-it style universal to self-help books, he warns up front that these strategies “aren’t easy and take a lot of work.” It’s up to each author to decide how far to go.

  • Providing a request for reviews in the back of your book is probably the easiest (see “overcoming reviewers’ barriers” below); I see more of these all the time. You’re a writer, you love your book, make that request engaging and clever.
  • Search for reader-reviewers who have commented on similar books and compile a list. There’s even an app that will find them for you. Bear in mind that most people don’t want yet another way to be spammed, and find a balance between warm and too chummy.
  • Contact those reviewers by email. As a reviewer for crimefictionlover.com, I receive review requests occasionally, and the overly personalized versions weirded me out at first, the kind that sound almost stalkery. (“I saw your review of x, and . . .”) But that’s me.
  • Follow up. Ring says most authors may be willing to make an initial query, but won’t follow up, which increases total response rate markedly. He provides lots of details on how to do and track this.
  • Follow up with people who sign up for any bonuses you offer, although the sample text he offers would put me off. (People need to know that, in signing up for bonuses, they will be on an email list for further contact, of course.)
  • Using other reader-centric platforms—such as GoodReads or LibraryThing—repeat your search for reader-reviewers, outreach, and follow-up.
  • Be sure to use any endorsements or back cover blurbs you’ve acquired to fill out the “editorial reviews” section of your book’s Amazon page.
  • And do not try to boost the number of reviews by relying solely on friends and family, review swaps with other authors, or paying for reviews. Amazon sees, Amazon frowns.

Overcoming Reviewers’ Barriers

My friend, book marketing guru Sandra Beckwith, has looked into why people do not review the books they read. What she learned may help you craft your approach in the back-of-book copy or any email messages you send requesting reviews. She says:

  1. Readers are intimidated by the review process. They don’t know how or where to start, or what they should even share in a review.
  2. Haunted by memories of school book reports, readers think reviewing a book will take too much time.

Sandy has developed a reader-tested template—a fill-in-the-blanks PDF file—with writing prompts to help readers prepare a review in just a few minutes. She charges a nominal fee for the form, and authors can make as many copies as they want. She suggests including the template with every review copy, handing them out a book signings, emailing them to readers, and giving them to everyone on your launch team. If they encourage your readers to overcome “reviewer reluctance,” that’s a big plus!

Did They Really Say That?

Making fictional dialog sounds like something people would actually say takes practice. Having spent so many years writing for think tanks, I have to be especially careful my characters don’t sound like they’re lecturing a roomful of dozing college students. As a result, a few lines of conversation can demand as much time and concentration as whole paragraphs of description.

Usually the key is subtraction, and you can get a master class on how few words dialog needs by reading Elmore Leonard. A guideline that should be emblazoned in neon, is “no tennis matches”! A conversational ball that goes back and forth, back and forth, each person responding to the other’s shot, is tedious. In real life, people change the subject, they answer a question with a question, they go off on a tangent, they reveal hidden agendas. In fiction, they can do this too, without real speech’s stumbling, imprecision, and grammatical tangles, like, you know?

But most of all, I try to make the conversation sound like anyone but me. Is the speaker male, female, old, young, ethnic, rich, poor, well educated or not, from the South, the Midwest, New England? Is the story set today or fifty years ago? What phrases, idioms, and slang does this character use?

Two New Tools

If you’re looking for insights into how people speak, the partnership between linguistics and Big Data provides some answers. Orin Hargraves at Visual Thesaurus has described Brigham Young University’s two new databases of conversation, based on dialog from English-language television and movies. TVCorpus has some 325 million words from 75,000 television comedies and dramas from 1950 to today. Movie Corpus compiles 200 million words from 25,000 movies from 1930 to 2019. These data sets let you compare British and American English, and the way speech patterns change over time.

I know, you’re thinking, screentalk isn’t how people really talk (though it’s better than it used to be). In fact, I sometimes wonder whether the influence goes in the other direction! Would people really be so reflexively snarky and would casual conversation be so laden with profanity if television sitcoms and the movies hadn’t paved the way? And Hargraves cites research showing that movie-talk better matches how native English speaker think we speak than actual speech does.

However that relationship works, these databases are a fascinating way to learn about “very informal language,” which is probably what most of your characters speak. At the very least, you can use them to check for clichés and archaicisms or to devise language to fit a particular era.

I did a quick scan of the phrase “perfect crime,” and found the TV database has recorded its use  203 times—a lot of times by Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Psych. Go figure.

(Meanwhile “go figure” appeared 427 times in the TV database, including a lot of “go figure it out,” while the movie database includes 224 examples, most of them like my standalone “Go figure.” Since the earliest use was from 1938, you could use it in a classic noir story without worrying you were introducing a 21st century expression.)

“Perfect crime” appeared 91 times in the film database, with the first usage recorded in a 1936 film titled The Case Against Mrs. Ames: “There is no perfect crime because there is no perfect lie.” Nice!

photo credit: Jon Seldman on Visual Hunt.com, creative commons license

Reading at the KGB Bar

Last night a writing friend and I participated in an even that puts us right at the fringes of the fringes of New York literary society—a reading sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America at KGB Bar in the East Village. KGB Bar is hidden away on the second story of an old tenement, up a vertiginous flight of stairs.

Although this description doesn’t do it justice in terms of its fine balance of joie de vivre teetering on the edge of seediness, here’s what the founder, Denis Woychuk, says about it:

In the years since it opened in 1993, KGB has become something of a New York literary institution. Writers hooked up in the publishing world read here with pleasure and without pay to an adoring public . . . The crowd loves it. Admission is free, drinks are cheap and strong, and the level of excellence is such that KGB has been named best literary venue in New York City by New York Magazine, the Village Voice, and everyone else who bestows these awards of recognition.

He’s right about the pleasure part. It was attentive crowd, even though I was the final reader of five, when the audience had already enjoyed several of those drinks! Wanting to appear convivial yet be one-the-ball for my reading, I’d nursed one glass of wine all evening. “What white wines do you have?” I asked the bartender. “Pinot grigio.” “Oh. What red wines do you have?” “Cabernet Sauvignon.” “I’ll have that.” The barrel savage. How appropriate.

The other readers—P.D. Halt, Mary Jo Robertiello, James D. Robertson, and A.J. Sidransky—each read a scene from one of their novels. I read the opening of a short story to be published by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. No idea when it will see the light of day, but if you’re a subscriber, watch for it! It’s called “New Energy.”

I’m so thankful to my writing group, Room at the Table, for organizing our twice-a-year public readings. (The next one is March 27! For details, see our Facebook page.) Great prep for my eight minutes at KGB–a former speakeasy and Lucky Luciano outpost, then h.q. for the Ukrainian Labor Home, a socialist hangout, which explains the Soviet memorabilia and the hammer-and-sickle matchbooks. It was fun!

Notes from the Dark Side

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Here’s news I like to hear from an anthology editor.

Wrote Lyn Worthen, “I am proud to announce that Quoth the Raven, which was recently named the Best Anthology of 2018 by the Critters Workshop/Preditors and Editors Annual Reader’s Poll, is now on the 2018 Bram Stoker Awards Preliminary Ballot.”

In Quoth the Raven, poets and short story authors tell a contemporary tale, riffing on the style and sensibility of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s “Berenice” inspired my story, “Tooth and Nail,” and now some of my family members hesitate to be in a room alone with me . . . Nevertheless.

Why Dark Fiction?

My fellow QtR author, Tiffany Michelle Brown interviewed several of the collection’s 32 authors on why they are attracted to dark fiction. “Why do you think we like to read about the things that terrify us?” she asked.

Emerian Rich, author of the story “My Annabel” says, “Horror addicts like to be scared in a safe, non-harmful way. Creep me out, test my limits, push me over the edge as long as in reality I am safe in my warm bed, able to switch on the light and see the monsters are just in my head.”

Can this predilection be traced to the fight or flight instincts developed over millennia? Susan McCAuley, author of “The Cask,” thinks so. Our world today is relatively safe, she says, and “going to scary movies, reading scary stories, and going on scary rides, helps fulfill a part of us that isn’t being used very often, at least in countries where all our major survival needs are met.”

Her theory may get some support from Donea Lee Weaver, author of “The Ca(t)sualty,” who admits that, for her, the attraction of dark fiction is “the adrenalin rush.” She says she may be covering her eyes, “but I’m still peeking through my fingers, because I just have to know what happens next.”

The stories that Sonora Taylor, author of “Hearts are Just ‘Likes’” says she’s most drawn to aren’t just about a dark force, but how someone’s responding to that darkness” and is possibly unhinged by it. Understandably, the Poe work that inspired her story was “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

My own answer to Tiffany’s question is that “sometimes reading about—exposing oneself to—supremely terrifying things makes it easier to deal with the fearful events encountered in everyday life. Some experts suggest this accounts for the popularity among women of a certain kind of thriller. Reading about sexual violence helps readers contemplate not just the terror of such an event, but also its survivability. Maybe.”

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Raven artwork by rebeccarawrr, creative commons license.

Resurrection on the Cutting-Room Floor

scissors, blood, editing
(photo: Guzmán Lozano, creative commons license)

The first draft of one of my novels was 135,000 words—1.5 times what was remotely saleable. Since I didn’t plan on writing solely for myself, I couldn’t risk being thrown in the circular file before my doorstop even reach an editor’s desk! So I began to cut. In the many subsequent drafts and rewrites, I’ve always had one eye on shrinkability.

When my editor—the stellar Barb Goffman—suggested I beef the novel up in some areas, I knew we weren’t just talking addition, we were talking subtraction too. A number of characters were easy to jettison altogether, but a few that had to be trimmed still spoke to me. The three most promising I’ve turned into published short stories, something J. Todd Scott may have done with a character from High White Sun (a short story in, I believe, Mystery Tribune).

One character I didn’t want to lose is a murdered Roman priest who thinks his classic migraines are communications from God. Although his death remains in the novel, his backstory is repurposed in “The Penitent,” published last year in Bouchercon’s Passport to Murder.

A mafia fence launched his career by masterminding the 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist in Boston, a resume-enhancing crime unrelated to events in the novel. That story became “Above Suspicion,” appearing in the current issue (#26) of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine.

Another priest, Anglican flavor this time, intervenes in an assault on my protagonist, no doubt saving her life. While this priest has only a minor role in the novel, his giddy nonstop talking charmed my beta- (or perhaps I should say gamma-) readers, and I worked him into a story—“What Saved Them”—published in the U.S. 1 Summer Fiction issue.

The transformation from novel excerpt to complete short story turned out not to be as easy as I expected, and each presented its own challenges. If you’re ever tempted to resurrect one of the darlings you’ve just killed, here’s what I learned.

Four Tips for Authors

1. If the characters involved in the short story remain in your novel (that is, if you haven’t gotten rid of them altogether), you need an eagle eye for continuity. You can’t have your character driving a Porsche in the story and relying on Uber in the story. More important, they cannot do anything in the story that would affect the action of the novel.

2. Originally, I’d engaged in vigorous head-hopping in the scene where the priest dies. I found I could park the novel’s point of view in the head of the assassin, yet write the short story from the priest’s perspective. Same events, two points of view. That was fun.

3. The story of the fence had a strong core from the get-go because of the extensive detail about the ISG theft. I wrote new backstory—waybackstory—about the character’s childhood in Fez. And of course more extensive setup and denouement.

4. OK, it’s fun, but is it a story? The Anglican priest was a character. His story had to be developed from scratch using the dialog I’d salvaged. But who was he? How would he behave? What changed for him? The rescue of the woman would plausibly have a long-term impact on him and it became a source of reflection, laying the groundwork for his subsequent actions.

Because you don’t have a blank page when you deal with bits excised from other works, there are many more than the customary limits on your degrees of authorial freedom. Whether the resurrected short stories prove useful in marketing or whether they are just good stories in their own right, you can feel good about creative recycling!

Be Very Scared . . .

raven

drawing, rebeccarawrr, creative commons license

Credited with inventing detective fiction and contributing to the popularity of the then-new genre of science fiction, Edgar Allan Poe was one of America’s earliest authors to devote energies to the short story—as he defined it, a composition that could be read in a single sitting. Yet, his heart’s desire was to be a poet. Had he not died so young—at age 40—he might have been a great one.

This year, around the 169th anniversary of Poe’s mysterious death in Baltimore, Camden Park Press published Quoth the Raven, an anthology of poems and stories inspired by Poe’s work and sensibility, reimagined for the twenty-first century. Lyn Worthen was the collection’s hard-working editor. One of the short story authors, Tiffany Michelle Brown, interviewed seven of the collection’s 32 authors about their inspiration.

Brown: Imagine you’re in an old-timey elevator, a rickety one that boasts a well-worn, rusty cage. There’s a man in all black in the elevator with you, and he asks what your poem or story is about. What do you tell him?

Poet Tony Kalouria said she was inspired by the notion that unsolicited, unwanted advice is “for the birds.” Menacing, nay-saying birds, the spawn of Poe’s Raven.

Story-writer Susan McCauley used “The Cask of Amontillado” to inspire her story of murder and revenge, whereas my story sprung from Poe’s “Berenice.” In it, a woman sees her twin brother as the other half of herself and will stop at nothing to keep him close. In “My Annabel,” Emerian Rice told the story of two surgeons caught in a pandemic and their fight to stay alive for one another, and Sonora Taylor propelled Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” into the maelstrom of social media with “Hearts are Just ‘Likes.’”

“Considering the rust on this rickety cage,” said Stephen R. Southard, “I’m not sure we’ll even make it to our floors.” His story sprang from Poe’s tale about a balloon trip to the moon, which, naturally, left many unanswered questions. Poe intended future installments, but never completed them. “Someone had to write the sequel, so I did.”

Brown: What’s a story or poem – by any author – that has truly creeped you out (in the best way possible, of course)?

  • The Exorcist — book and movie! “I was considering therapy for almost a week, I was so traumatized. And pea soup was definitely off-menu for a very long time” (Tony Kalouria). Frankenstein. “It’s terrifying and heart-breaking at the same time. And the way it plays with ideas of gods and monsters is really quite genius.” (Donea Lee Weaver)
  • Emerian Rich chose The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. “I read it after watching the movie because I just adored the film. The book has this underlying chill that scared me more.” He said the house (or the bog) seemed to mesmerize characters into doing strange things or paralyze their thought process in some insurmountable way.
  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, said Susan McCauley. “I first read it in my early twenties and had to sleep with the lights on for several nights.”
  • Sonora Taylor picked the short story “Shadder” by Neil Gaiman. “ I read it in bed (having learned nothing since reading Poe’s “Hop Frog” in bed years before). Even though it’s short, even though I knew it was fiction, even though I had all the lights on, and even though my bed is up against the wall, I still felt the urge to look behind me at the end.”
  • Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow, said Steven Southard. “It’s a re-telling, and update, of George Orwell’s 1984 and a chilling tale of how easy it may be to slip into totalitarianism.
  • My pick was The Silence of the Lambs, the first modern “thriller” I ever read. The scariest film would have to be Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. It was decades before I didn’t think of it when in the shower. Or the deeply disturbing ending of George Sluizer’s The Vanishing. Nightmares.

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Finding the Core of Your Story

figurine

px here, creative commons license

Now that Glimmer Train is winding down its publication schedule, I find myself returning to earlier issues to read the author interviews again. Sometimes I’m in the very wrestling match with a short story that these notable writers describe.

So it was with my recent return to the interview with Kirstin Valdez Quade (interviewed by Jeremiah Chamberlin, Issue #100, Fall 2017). Quade authored the prize-winning book of short stories, Night at the Fiestas and her work has been seen in “all the best places.”

Chamberlin commented on how Quade resists big epiphanies in her endings. “There are moments where the stories turn of shift,” he said, “but the characters don’t experience Joycean flashes of recognition.” Quade explained that she writes slowly, and it sometimes takes her “a long time to figure out what’s going to happen in a story.” She might write a long buildup, putting in lots of potential elements, in search of the one that will reveal what the story is truly about and therefore, how to end it. Ah. Like me, a pantser.

Once she takes hold of her ending, the core of the story, she trims away what isn’t necessary and can “write toward the ending.” She also eliminates any unnecessary rambling that comes after the ending. Perhaps she’d heeding Chekhov’s advice “to cross out the beginning and the end” of a story,” as unnecessary warm-up and (one hopes) unnecessary explaining. This is an exercise that would have improved Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, in my opinion, but Chekhov said to do it because “it is there that we authors do most of our lying.” Eliminating the temptation of those further thoughts also prevents an overly neat-and-tidy resolution. Trust your reader to get it, he might have said.

The heart of the story may lie in the backstory, in an unworked-out thought or subconscious association that needs to come forward into greater prominence. During Quade’s revision process, she might list all the characters, settings, and objects she’s put into the story so far and see whether she should be doing more with some of them. “That will often help me find my ending.” Or at least get her closer to it. Those people, places, things are in there because they hold meaning, even if she hasn’t clearly identified what it is yet. It isn’t, perhaps, their surface meaning, but some significance for the characters.

I just read a fine story by Simon Bestwick, “If I Should Fall From Grace With God” (Crimewave 13), in which a man’s lover is murdered, her flat trashed, and all the cheap souvenirs she bought from second-hand shops smashed. He exacts revenge on the men responsible for her death, dropping a few bits of broken china or glass on their bodies—not because these fragments held meaning for him, but because they meant something to her. Memorable.

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If You Met Poe, What Would You Say?

raven

drawing, rebeccarawrr, creative commons license

My fellow-authors in the anthology inspired by the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Quoth the Raven, have bonded via social media. Tiffany Michelle Brown, author of the story “My Love, In Pieces,” has interviewed a number of us regarding our experience looking at contemporary issues through a Poe-ish lens. Her interview with me is now posted on her website.

I loved Tiffany’s story because it grew from the seed of Poe’s gothic tale “Berenice,” as did my story, “Tooth and Nail.” Yet, they’re so different! She notes that when “Berenice” was first published by the Southern Literary Messenger, readers were so disturbed by its graphic content, they complained to the editor. When Poe published it subsequently, apparently he toned it down a bit. Hmph!

Dark like the days, and scary like the times.