Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Candles vs. Electric Lights

In his March 19th post, Joe Konrath interviews Barry Eisler who tells why he turned down a $500,000 2-book deal to self-pub. I loved this:

Joe: We’ve discussed this before. Paper won’t disappear, but that’s not the point. The point is, paper will become a niche while digital will become the norm.

Barry: Agreed. Lots of people, and I’m one of them, love the way a book feels. I used to like the way books smelled, too, before publishers started using cheap paper. And you can see books on your shelf, etc... those are real advantages, but they’re only niche advantages. Think candles vs electric lights. There are still people making a living today selling candles, and that’s because there’s nothing like candlelight--but what matters is that the advent of the electric light changed the candle business into a niche. Originally, candlemakers were in the lighting business; today, they’re in the candlelight business. The latter is tiny by comparison to the former. Similarly, today publishers are in the book business; tomorrow, they’ll be in the paper book business. The difference is the difference between a mass market and a niche.

CR: Absinthe of Malice, by Pat Browning, the 'electric light' way—on my Kindle. However, I have a candle lit on my desk right now.

It's all better with friends.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Writing Another Gender AND Another Culture — John Desjarlais

John Desjarlais is my guest today at Suspense Novelist. I found his desk photo very intriguing. He did, however, acknowledge that it isn't always this clean.

Enjoy his column.

A former producer with Wisconsin Public Radio, John Desjarlais teaches journalism and English at Kishwaukee College in northern Illinois. His first novel, The Throne of Tara (Crossway 1990, re-released 2000), was a Christianity Today Readers Choice Award nominee, and his medieval thriller, Relics (Thomas Nelson 1993, re-released 2009) was a Doubleday Book Club Selection. Bleeder and Viper (Sophia Institute Press, 2009 and 2011 respectively) are the first two entries in a contemporary mystery series. A member of The Academy of American Poets and Mystery Writers of America, he is listed in Who's Who in Entertainment and Who's Who Among America's Teachers.

Viper is coming March 25

When insurance agent Selena De La Cruz walked onto the stage of my first mystery Bleeder in those cherry high heels, with that feisty attitude and driving that fast car, I knew she had a story of her own. For the moment, however, I only needed her to handle the insurance problems of my protagonist, Reed Stubblefield. And I wanted a positive portrayal of an educated Latin character, since the story had a background involving the flood of illegal Mexican immigrants in rural areas. That’s all I wanted from this minor character. But Selena insisted on having a larger role than I’d anticipated.

The sequel, Viper, began with the idea that a Catholic church’s “Book of the Deceased,” the ledger of the parish’s dearly departed put on display on All Souls’ Day, would have names of people still alive – but getting killed in the order in which they were listed. I learned early that Mexicans celebrate a holiday nearly concurrent with this, called “The Day of the Dead,” a fiesta with flower garlands, sweet breads and home altars to honor deceased relatives, candy skulls for the kids, and family picnics in cemeteries. It was obvious that Selena’s name would be on that list (the last name, I decided), and that she would be the protagonist.

This frightened me half to death. How could I, an Anglo guy in his 50s, presume to present a 30-something second-generation Mexican-American woman?

It wasn’t that I hadn’t written from a woman’s point-of-view before. I had done so a few times in earlier novels, but in shorter scenes. This called for a sustained, novel-length treatment of a major character that was credible and compelling. I wanted to be sure I got all the cultural material right and I was respectful with it. So much could go wrong.

So for nearly two years I became a second-generation Mexican-American woman.

Well, not literally. Vicariously, I guess you’d say. I immersed myself in many books written by Latinas about coming to terms with Old-World expectations placed upon women while trying to fit into New-World American society (there are quite a few books out there on this subject, reflecting the growth of this population). I took careful notes, as with any other research I had to do for VIPER -- DEA undercover operations, police interrogation techniques, snake handling, Aztec religion and so on. I subscribed to Latina magazine for fashion, beauty, relationship and lifestyle issues. I paid attention to any news related to this community, especially immigration issues. I browsed Latinas’ blogs and web sites to see what everyone talked about, especially with regard to living with a bi-cultural identity. Just like the Dad says in the movie Selena, “We've gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans both at the same time. It's exhausting!"

I interviewed Latinas and I noticed things that were common to them all that I could easily adapt and make my own – well, Selena’s own. I built a very thorough backstory – life story – for her based on all this research. I had pages of notes and stacks of cards that I browsed through obsessively to remind myself of small details that were of possible use as ‘bits’ in the story or for possible flashback scenes, as in this childhood memory:

In high school Selena brought home an Anglo boy, Jerry, to meet the family. She feared Papá would interrogate him like a cop drilling a suspect and the family, one by one, would corner him with stories of Mexico even if they couldn’t speak English and Mamí would serve tripe soup with chiles colorados to test his mettle – but she brought home the Anglo boy anyway. A crowd of Mamí, Papá, her three brothers, all her cousins, uncles and aunts, including Comadre María with all the curious, chattering neighbors greeted him. Jerry shook hands with Papá and her three brothers and smiled at everyone else – not knowing he was expected to meet everyone personally with a handshake and a warm verbal greeting. She should have told him. Later, Mamí called him muy frío, very cold, mal educado, ill mannered. Is this how we raised you – to find a gringo for a boyfriend who is so bent on dishonoring us, who has no respeto for our familia?

He doesn’t know our ways, Selena cried. He is Americano.

And what are you? Mamí asked.

And Selena realized fully for the first time she was in two worlds at once.

Or this memory from her Chicago neighborhood:

When Selena wheeled the Charger onto 18th Street in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, the throaty rumble of the big engine turned the heads of young men in tilted White Sox caps. In the air, Norteño bands playing plaintive corridos on button accordions competed with the thump-thump of quebradita, a blend of North Mexican banda and Aztec punk rockers singing in Spanglish. Selena felt her Spanish blood beating.

She crossed herself and kissed her thumb and forefinger held together when she passed Saint Adalbert’s Elementary in the shadow of the church’s skyline-dominating steeple. In the sixth grade, Sister Mary Beatrice -- who every kid called Sister Mary BattleAxe -- caught Selena speaking Spanish in the back row. She was asking Gloria García for an eraser. Sister pulled Selena by the ear into the corner.

“You’re in America now,” the Polish nun had reprimanded, her milky finger in Selena’s mocha face. “We speak English here. If you want to be an American, speak American. If you want to speak Spanish, then go back to Mexico.”

Selena asked if there was a difference between speaking English and speaking American.

Sister Beatrice kept her after school for talking back.

Ay, you don’t talk back,” her mother chided her when she got home. Mamí’s high Zapotec cheekbones colored like the red hot lava of Mount Popocatépetl and the obsidian-black bun on top of her head, Selena could have sworn, was spinning.

Muchachitas bien criadas, girls brought up well, don’t mouth off,” her mother said, wringing the dishtowel. “Do you want to called habladora? A big mouth that talks too much? Is that what you want?”

Mamí, all I did was ask a question.”

En boca cerrada no entran moscas,” her mother said, tapping her lips with a finger. Flies cannot enter a closed mouth. “You must be quiet, and keep your eyes low in respeto, like La Virgen de Guadalupe.”

Or this (edited) scene where Selena is at a DEA/FBI Christmas office dinner-party, mistaken for a server and then "dissed" by one of the servers:

Selena sat at a round table with other women from the Money Laundering Unit, checking her silver Seiko wrist watch way too often. Andy Pratt from Accounting sat next to her, trying to pick her up. His deodorant had given up hours ago. There were damp circles under his arms.

He bit into a tortilla chip and grinned, chipotle mashed between his caps. “Hey, Selena, have you tried this dip? It’s spicy, like you.”

Selena sipped from her glass of ice water and thought about splashing him in the face with it. “Sorry, I haven’t,” she said.

A cinnamon-skinned waitress dropped a plate of chopped iceburg lettuce and tomatoes in front of her.

“Salads?” Andy spat. “That’s girly food. Where’s the meat?”

“Excuse me,” Selena said, bunching her napkin and throwing it on the table.

“Hey, aren’tcha hungry?”

She didn’t answer. She grasped her clutch purse and weaved around tables toward the cash bar. On the way, a seated silver-haired woman in ruffles grabbed her arm.

“Pardon me, miss,” she said, wiggling a mug, “but when you get the time, could you bring me more coffee?”

Selena pulled away without a word.

“Maybe she doesn’t speak English…” a voice behind her trailed.

She stood in a short line at the bar, arms crossed, tapping her black patent leather Sergio Rossis. She made a face. Could you bring me more coffee? she mouthed. The nerve.

“What was that, miss?” asked the Latino barkeep.

“A screwdriver, por favor, y va fácil en el hielo porque duele los dientes.”

“Ho-kay, not much ice,” he said. The pinched lips and the glint in his eye said you’re not really one of us. He reached down for a glass and muttered pocha.

“What was that?” she fired back.

“Six dollar, please.”

Míreme, look at me in the eye. That’s not what you said.” It was an insult, as bad as agringada, so Americanized no longer truly Mexicana, a sell-out.

“Six dollar,” he repeated.

A Latina translator who helped me with the Spanish and reviewed the work-in-progress said at one point, “I am SO into Selena!” That was such a relief to hear.

John Desjarlais

Viper (Sophia Institute Press, ISBN 978-1-933184-80-7, 256 pp., $14.95) isn’t out yet, but it will be available through and can be ordered through bookstores sometime later this Spring. Bleeder and Relics and The Throne of Tara are at Amazon, too. Bleeder is also available in the UK.

CR: Absinthe of Malice by Pat Browning.

It's all better with friends.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


As good as I think the story I'm writing is, there are moments of murkiness. Uncertainty. Sometimes the horrible knowledge I'm going to take a great idea and make it mediocre.

So, when I'm feeling that way how do I get back to the place where I've got all of my crayons spread out on the desk and can create with abandon? Where I believe I can color outside of the lines and it will be beautiful?

Where I can simply get started?

I have a candle on my desk. That helps.

I listen to The Writers Mind CD. That helps. Or I listen to another CD of my choice. That also helps.

I start typing away until something good happens. That sort of helps.

Now, I have a fire going. That helps.

I also play Free Cell. Yep. There. I said it.

When I begin a game of Free Cell, with the intent of moving on, I tell myself what the plan is when I bring the game up on my computer screen. And at the end? It's like flipping a switch. Peg is on. Focused. Ready.

What do you do? C'mon. You can be honest here.

CR: Absinthe of Malice by Pat Browning.

It's all better with friends.

OT: Happy St. Patrick's Day

Relax for a moment and look at these photos. Even if you're not part Irish, you'll feel like you are.

Danny Boy - Best Choral Arrangement

CR: Absinthe of Malice by Pat Browning.

It's all better with friends.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Dana Stabenow Interview

There are some terrific things in this brief interview.

Here are a couple:

"Surprises are always the best stuff."

"Wrtie every day. Move forward."


CR: Absinthe of Malice by Pat Browning.

It's all better with friends.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Get Your Hands Dirty

Some days, when I feel like my story is muddled, the best thing I can do is take a break and hop on the treadmill where I can think without looking at a computer screen.

Some days, when I feel like my story is muddled, the best thing I can do is dive right in, put some words down and hope they lead to something productive. I need to stick my hands into the mud and clay and see what shape emerges.

Today, I think I'll tread first then stick my hands into the clay. It's a seriously muddled kind of day.

What about you? Do you ever feel like you're flailing about?

CR: Absinthe of Malice by Pat Browning.

It's all better with friends.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Write What You WANT to Know

I was talking to someone the other day (a small press publisher) about my mss. She wanted to know what the complete was about, and what the one I'm working on is about. It was just a general getting-to-know-you talk, not business related at all (at least on the surface). The conversation went something like this:

Me: The first one's tagline is 'Money may not be able to buy love, but enough of it can buy a new heart.' It's about the black market for organ and tissue needs.

Pub: Interesting. And the other one?

Me: This one's tagline is 'Sometimes the dead shouldn't stay buried.' I'm writing about Human Remains Detection dogs (PC for Cadaver Dogs), and how a dead serial killer unwittingly helped to expose a current maniac.

Pub: Do you have to do much research?

Me: (I took a quick moment, but should have taken two). . . . No. I rely on personal experience.

I'm sorry, but I thought that was funny at the time. Still do.

At some point in all of our lives, we're told to write what we know. Can I just say . . . BORING? I say, write what you want to know more about. Yes, you can write what you have a passion for, but usually, that involves a soapbox, and soapboxes don't translate to fiction very well. Write what you're curious about, and do the research to make it work.

That's my story and I'm stickin' to it.

What's yours?

CR: The Pure in Heart by Susan Hill.

It's all better with friends.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Leave Rabbits and Top Hats to Magicians

Don't you want to scream when you're reading a terrific, suspenseful, well-written and well-edited book, and the characters get into an impossible situation, and you can't wait to see what the author came up with, and (take a breath) . . . voila! . . . magic! Suddenly, out of nowhere, they are saved. By something utterly unbelievable.

(Castle fans will know what I'm talking about, if they watched the other night.)

This contrived plot device is known as deus ex machina. And it's something to be avoided, unless you're a fantasy writer and then I think you can pretty much get away with anything.

Research in to autopsies and toxicology screens tore a hole in an important part of my plot, requiring re-thinking (and I'm not always good at thinking in the first place) and re-twisting (ditto). While Stephen King may be able to do all of his research after he's written the book, I find I need to get the big stuff taken care of early.

So I've spent the last few days working on a scene where two of my characters come to a conclusion based on events and information that occur in previous chapters. Although nothing was contrived, it was important to me that their conclusion be logical and not merely a plot device. My thanks to my trusted writing friends who pushed and punched me into giving the scene the meat it needed, hopefully without creating a boring information dump. I'm pretty sure it's a lot closer now than when I first asked them to take a look.

What about you? Have you ever been tempted to employ a deus ex machina? Do you remember the last one you read?

CR: The Pure in Heart by Susan Hill.

It's all better with friends.